If You Build It, He Will Come

Jerry West with Evan Spradling in Artie, West Virginia

Jerry West with Evan Spradling in Artie, West Virginia

If you build it, he will come.

I had never been to Artie, West Virginia before, and neither had anyone else I knew.  Except Coach Tex Williams; he was born there.  But we, being long-time Saint Albans residents with tangential connections to basketball, decided to attend the grand opening of Coach Williams’ basketball museum there on July 28, 2014.  We trusted our GPS lady to get us to Artie and she directed us to take the West Virginia Turnpike to Pax and then head west, up Tony’s Fork.  We were not prepared for what we encountered.  We ran out of pavement about halfway up that hollow and then climbed over a mountain on a steep dirt road that switched back again and again.  Almost all the way up, only a few feet from our right tires, the drop-off was sheer and who knows how deep.  Before we reached the top, we were looking for Gandalf, hoping he could guide us to some safer passage.  And we might not have passed at all had it been raining or had we met another car coming the other way.

Artie is a tiny village – a few houses and a couple of churches nestled between steep mountains – but the place was dressed up for the big day and as hospitable as you could imagine.  The local firefighters were out, in uniform, to help visitors find parking, and the churches had opened their facilities for our comfort.  The stream that runs right through the middle of town is absolutely beautiful.  Clear Fork; the very headwaters of Coal River.  A rock-bottomed creek, its banks lined by old hemlock and poplar and pine that, indeed, ran fast and clear on the day.

The museum itself is, from the outside, at least, unimpressive.  The building – once the U.S. Post Office where Coach Williams’ late mother supervised as Postmaster for some forty years  – is old, unremarkable and in need of a face lift.

But everything else was, well, pretty remarkable.

For one thing, the size of the crowd.  Maybe 500 people had made their way to this “you can’t get there from here” place.  And, speaking of size, this crowd was a lot taller than your average crowd.  It seemed like every third man there was 6’4” or taller.

Inside the building, the memories and ghosts are, as Terrence Mann once commented, “So thick that you have to brush them away from your face.”   I could not discern any principle of organization in the place, but it vibrates with past glory.  Here are pictures of Rod Hundley, Chris Smith, Archie Talley, Bill Herscher, Brett Nelson.  And there are posters of Elvis, some Sherman High School football memorabilia, and, over there, heartfelt homages to Coach Williams’ family members.

I met my good friend Andy Spradling there – himself a Saint Albans basketball Hall of Famer  – who mentioned in passing that his son, Evan, had just gotten his picture taken with Jerry West.  Remarkable.  I had heard that West would be in attendance, but the reality of it hadn’t really sunk in on me till then.  I scanned the crowd and did not see him, but in only moments, there he was, seemingly out of nowhere, coat and tie and all, striding unassumingly through the crowd, still square-shouldered and trim, looking like The Logo that he still is.   This guy could be anywhere he wanted to be.   This is the guy – the one guy – who has won everything there was to win; who has excelled and distinguished himself not only at every level of the game but at every level of the business of the game:   MVP of the Final Four; Olympic Gold Medalist; NBA Champion and All-Star; General Manager; Executive Board Member; Friend of Kobe and LeBron. Respect for him is universal.

And here he is, standing in the gravel and dust in Artie, West Virginia. Remarkable.

As a writer, I have a perhaps too strong of an impulse to try to make sense out of things – to interpret, to find the story, to expose the meaning, to see and express the metaphor.  It’s an aspect of my personality that I have to squelch from time to time, just to keep from being insufferable in normal conversations.  But there was something about this experience that would not let me go.  There was a story, somewhere, beneath all of the stories.

The question, of course, is “why?”  Why in the world would anybody build a museum in such an out-of-the-way place?  Grand openings are one thing, but tomorrow and every day thereafter are another story.  Who will be here?  Who will see the work?  Why all this effort and money invested in the middle of nowhere?

Does this museum make any more sense than a baseball diamond built in the middle of an Iowa cornfield?

The answer is no, but remember the movie.  That baseball diamond in the cornfield did, finally, make more sense than any old field of corn.

This museum, like Ray Kinsella’s baseball field, is not a practical, calculated undertaking.  It is an expression of one man’s fire-filled heart.  A day is ending and a glory is passing and should not go unremembered.  West himself said it that day: “Coach Williams was determined that no one would forget the past.”  So on the walls of this old post office, floor to ceiling, is a vivid, crazy-quilt of love.  Love for the game, of course, but more than that – a love of the brotherhood and, finally, a love of life.

Artie, West Virginia may seem like the most unlikely of places, but the spiritual magnets of this world are never where you’d think they would be.  The Lord does not look on outward appearances.  It is here in Artie where basketball’s field of dreams will be.  Here where the waters issue from the rock will be a place of pilgrimage.  A place where the present may go to meet with the past.  To celebrate the game and the experience of playing, of course. But as anyone who has played the game or anyone who has read Jerry West’s gripping autobiography knows, not every basketball memory is a happy one.

Basketball makes great promises to young men and it may become an idol. And like every other idol, its demands quickly escalate. Its physical toll on the body is often substantial and sometimes permanent. But the game is emotionally and morally demanding, too. And we are young when we play it, and often too ready to sacrifice anything else for one more win and one more chance. Even the best players, even those with more success than the average guy could ever imagine, have their sorrows and their regrets. There are not only damaged knees; there are personal failures, missed opportunities and injustices suffered or perpetrated that stay with men, often for a lifetime.

Pat Conroy, one of America’s most celebrated novelists, was a point guard for the Citadel in 1967. Some thirty years later, at a book signing in Dayton, Ohio, he met up again with an old college teammate who he had not seen since his playing days. This man had also achieved success in every avenue of life. He was a wealthy businessman, happily married, with a healthy family. But he had sought Conroy out for a reason. The man wanted to assure Conroy that he had not purposely missed that layup that had cost the team a place in the tournament so many years ago. He wasn’t joking. He knew that there were some who believed that he had sabotaged the team’s chances and the shame of that suspicion had haunted him all of his life.

RAY KINSELLA BUILT THE FIELD because he heard The Voice. But the voice spoke to him to finally heal an old wound: to reconcile the son to the father and the father to the son. If the Artie museum is to be basketball’s field of dreams, it, too, must be a place of forgiveness and healing, reconciliation and restoration. I think it will be. I think that was happening, moment by moment, as those men, some old and some still young, looked at the pictures of their time in the game and talked and laughed with old teammates and rivals. No one spoke of it, these are the thoughts that lie too deep for tears, but it had to be happening.

Coach Williams has always preached the primacy of desire and, true to his own principles, he built the museum in Artie because he heard the voice in his heart.  Just like Ray Kinsella, and against all visible, practical consideration, he plowed under the corn and put up the baseball field.  And, sure enough, a sports figure bigger than Shoeless Joe Jackson ever thought about being did show up. That would be a nice enough climax, but this story is just beginning.  There will be many, like brother Mark in the movie, who won’t be able to see the magic, at least not for a while.

But there are some who will.

People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

Copyright 2014

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