Here we are — in the throngs of March Madness. I was never much of a basketball player in high school, being too slow and prone to fouling. I only “played” my freshman year and made the third string. I recall we wore different colored jerseys than the top 10 guys. It didn’t matter; we rarely got whistled in.

Mike Rankin

Little did I know back then that my freshman experience wouldn’t be the end of my pathetic basketball career. A call for my hardwood services came again many years later.

“Do you want to be on the celebrity donkey basketball team?” asked the young caller on the other end of the phone. I didn’t think a county extension agent fell into the celebrity category, but I was flattered nonetheless. I couldn’t say “no” to this brave FFA member who got hung with making such phone calls. Besides, how hard could it be to ride an unmovable object?

When I showed up for the event, my first but not only inclination that this might have been a mistake was when the owner of the donkeys gathered us “players” to sign an injury waiver. This was a document that exceeded the length of a nearby world history textbook and encompassed every malady known to the medical community. I skimmed through the document, noticing words such as nonliable, bone breakage, and brain trauma, which was particularly concerning.

Next came the rule explanations. “You must be on the donkey or have hold of its lead rope to touch the basketball,” asserted the owner, who also served as the referee. “If you fall off, get back on immediately. Don’t try to lead the donkey; that will be an exercise in futility.”

We were set to play the much younger FFA-member team. Other than the possibility of death, I tried to remain focused. My celebrity teammates included such well-known community leaders as the police chief, an area A.I. technician, the feed store manager, and a local rendering truck driver, who thankfully had showered. I figured the latter was invited in case it was the last rodeo for one of the donkeys . . . or perhaps one of their riders.

Before the tipoff, the donkey owner introduced his herd. They had names such as Crash Gordon, Bucky, Petunia, and Widow Maker. I volunteered to be one of the starting five and would soon learn that this was a critical mistake. Showcasing my best Michael Jordan gait, I took to the floor. The owner pointed me to my donkey, a rather timid looking beast named Eeyore, but I would soon learn that looks and names can be deceiving.

At the sound of the whistle, my burro just stood in place. This was as I had hoped. What I didn’t anticipate was the referee running around with a little whip, which he used to hit the floor behind a donkey when it didn’t move. At the sound of his weapon striking the hardwood, my mount took off like it was the Kentucky Derby. Holding on for dear life and with no interest in finding the basketball, we raced to about half court. It was at this point that my steed went from 60 to zero in one second while simultaneously dropping its nose to the floor.

In a flash, the laws of physics were put on full display as I launched over the animal’s front end, going airborne for what seemed like a commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles. The words “injury waiver” came to mind as I hurled through the air, all to the delight of the open-mouthed audience. Even Orville and Wilbur would have been satisfied with the distance.

As I hit the hard maple and skidded to a halt, my hope was for at least a foul call. None came, so I brushed myself off, grabbed the lead rope, and reluctantly jumped back on for another round in what had now been transformed from a basketball court to a gladiator pit. Once again, my donkey stood motionless, and once again the referee and his whip ensured such docility would not be tolerated.

It was only by God’s good graces that I wasn’t carried out from that gym on a stretcher. Fortunately, I had nothing more than multiple contusions and a sore everything. Hobbling to the parking lot, I heard one sadistic local farmer tell his wife that he would have paid $100 for the event instead of the requisite $10 fare.

Several years later, I got another call from a young FFA member. “Would you be interested in playing donkey basketball?” he asked. “It would really help boost ticket sales.”

“Sure I will,” was my response. “Just make sure I get Petunia.” •

Happy foraging,

This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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