Here’s chapter four. If you have not read the other three, just back up a few posts on this blog and start with chapter 1 and work forward.
The next afternoon the same youngster is back again at about the same time. He must be just home from school and he must be thinking of these sessions as practice. That is an illusion. He comes onto the court in the same way, tossing the ball into the air before him with backspin and then running to catch it and then a few hard dribbles and then tossing and running again. I can see the scene in his imagination – the crowd that rises and explodes with ten-thousand voices all at the max as he leads the team out onto the court. Cheerleaders flipping, standing on shoulders, thrown into the air. The visiting team at the far basket in some bright foreign color, the flag of the enemy. One girl in the stands somewhere. And his own body filled to bursting with that same tide of emotion. Nervous, but certain of victory. We can do this. I can do this. If we get it right, nothing can stop us tonight. Life. Life at the full.
When he reaches the spot, he counts down the last three seconds again and lets it fly and it splits the net and he stands there, bouncing up and down on his toes, savoring the moment. He retrieves the ball and acts his big scene out again and then again and I know that everything he is doing here – everything he thinks he is doing right, everything he thinks is getting him nearer to his goal – is just the opposite of what he needs to be doing if he ever expects to even sit on a high-school bench, much less win big games with a last-second shot. For one thing, every shot he takes on this crooked and shrunken basket will only serve to distort his shooting stroke and make it harder for him to hit on a regulation goal. I did not notice this before, but the surface of the court is slanted and he shoots from the high side. No wonder he needs no arch. When he shoots from the top of his jump – and his jump is a pretty fair leap for a kid his size – he’s practically shooting the ball down into the basket. This will ruin him. He should not be using these baskets if he’s serious about it at all. It seems like a kid that age would be smart enough to figure that out. But they don’t think. These kids don’t think for themselves. They have to have guidance. Even the best of them.
As I watch these silly, ruinous shots go into the air and into the net, one after another, I look for something positive. Something that might be built on. That was my job. I would never have taken this long with this kind of player in my day, but, to say the least, nothing else is pressing now. I have nothing else to look at, nothing else to analyze.
His form is not terrible. It’s far more natural looking than Sparks’. But that isn’t really saying much. The more I study his shot, the more obvious to me what his model is. His shoulders are absolutely square to the basket; his right elbow – the shooting elbow –at a ninety-degree angle directly under the ball. All fine form and not that distinctive. But he rocks back slightly at the top of his jump and bends his knees, bringing his feet up behind him, as if to give himself a split second longer in the air. Man, oh, man; I do recognize that. Nobody shoots that way anymore. Not since Ray Allen; not since Jordan; not even since Maravich.
This kid’s shot is patterned after Jerry West.
The sight of this, the recognition, it hits me with a pang I do not anticipate and the likes of which I have not felt – have not gotten near – in all my time here on this bench. Maybe the effect is so great because I have actually felt no encouragement for so long. These emotions now are completely unlike those stirred by the sad twilight drama I must witness every evening. In every way, the memories aroused – at least the immediate ones – are positive, but I am almost overcome, almost sickened, by the force of it.
It is like meeting your old high-school girlfriend once again, after forty years, and seeing her the way she was at seventeen. You know, all the details you’d forgotten – the light step, the welcoming smile, the girl’s perfume, the long hair, the blue dress. All of the bad endings forgotten. And, with every part of that magic spell surrounding you, the threads of age and disappointment are for the moment torn away and you remember not only her, but the person you were then: what you hoped for and what you believed and what you were certain that you would become. And, finally, it does not matter how much you cared about her and what you think you would give for another moment, another chance. At the very bottom of it all, what tears into your gut is the awareness of the loss of your better self; the young man who once loved and trusted and believed and who walked this earth with confidence. That is the real loss.
I remember now. In 1966 I was a man who assumed victory. Oh, I had lost my share of games. Anyone who has played has lost. But defeat was for me then a temporary thing and always nothing more than a step to the next victory. I had seen it all, I thought, and I had seen nothing that could stop me, nothing that could keep me from my goal. One part of my secret was physical strength. There were more talented players than me, but I had not yet seen the man who I could not keep up with. I could stay with the best of the best and throw a scorer off his game. I was never out of place in any competition. I belonged. Another part was my certain conviction that most men were fearful and lazy. Most men were content with comfort and mediocrity and would not take the extra time and effort and discipline to be better today than they were yesterday. They were not willing to face themselves, to change, to learn from their mistakes. They would be easy to beat.
Other men might be content with walking, but I would soar.
I was on my way, I believed, to a head-coaching position at a prestigious college, where I would establish a dynasty. My name would become a household word.
In that time, I never imagined, could not have imagined, a life with so many losses and disappointments. I could not have imagined the frustration, day by day and season by season. I could not have imagined what happened to me. But my own indolence and cowardice were in places other than the gymnasium.
Let me tell you a few things about my beginnings; what Walhonde High School was like when the boys shot like Jerry West. I was young then and, as they say, full of life, and may tend to romanticize, but I know there is no golden age. And so I begin by admitting that today there are things that run much better in the school than they did back then. There is a new building that is big enough to alleviate the terrible crowding problems we had at the start and the buses are safer. The poorer kids all get a free breakfast now. There are lots more opportunities for the girls, too, and advanced placement class offerings for the kids who are aiming at admission to the better colleges. All of that is real, substantial progress. I don’t discount it at all.
But anyone who says that greater things have not been lost has forgotten the old days. There were greater mysteries among us then and greater aspirations and greater loyalties and greater loves.
It is late afternoon now, dinnertime on this kid’s schedule, I am sure, and he shoots a swish from his single spot and grabs the ball and dribbles away the way he came. I watch him more closely on his way out and see another detail that takes me back, that convinces me that this is not just happenstance. On the ankle of his sneaker I see the signature logo, the blue star within the white circle. The kid is wearing black, high-topped Converse All-Star basketball shoes. Chuck Taylor signature. Canvas shoes. No serious player has worn them for forty years, not since the advent of leather basketball shoes – Adidas and Nikes – but they were the ticket back then. In the 1960’s Converse All-Star shoes were the gold standard for high-school and college players. Although far cheaper than any pair of shoes any high-schooler would wear today, back then they were a step above the gym shoes the young kids wore and were thus a kind of badge of arrival as a player. They meant something – varsity.
And now I know what time it is.
As twilight approaches, I find that my dread of the daily dose of Sparks and Murphy is diminished. I guess I must think, at bottom, that the sight of this kid in the afternoons is some kind of new intersection, that things are somehow evolving, finally, and that I might expect some change in the routine. And at dusk, as the players fade in once again, I study them with renewed focus and attention, looking for the slightest shadow of turning.
At times, and for moments, I think I catch some little difference in the play. Sparks never makes a shot, but maybe his arch is not so exaggerated tonight, and maybe the passes from Murphy are more like the Murphy I remember. But when it is over I am unconvinced. I cannot describe or quantify anything that was different this evening than last.