Here is chapter 8. If you’ve missed any of the other seven chapters, just back up a post or two on this blog. (Ed.)
Of course, I am anxious as the afternoon progresses and I sit alone, but Kelso shows, right on time and when I see him I speak just to make sure that he is still aware of me and he acknowledges happily and dribbles onto the court. I am relieved and excited.
He starts his twenty-foot shots, but without the narration, and he looks at me each time the ball goes through the hoop.
“What are you practicing for?” I ask him. “Do you have some kind of a goal?”
“Yeah. I have tryouts coming up.”
“High school team?”
“Yeah. My first year. I’m a sophomore.”
“I think I can help you with that.”
“You’ve played some, haven’t you?”
“Um-hum. Played a lot. A long time ago. You ready to get started?”
He is, he tells me, and I immediately sense that this will be easier, my end of it anyway, than I had anticipated. I adopt a friendlier tone than I would otherwise have used, but my demands are just as great as they would otherwise be. As they will be when he faces the younger version of me in tryouts in a couple of weeks. My gift works, even here. He does not question me when I tell him to run, to push the ball up and down the court. To crossover and change direction every third dribble. He is sweating in no time and panting after the drills and ready for more. He does everything I ask. I could push him harder. He is giving it everything he has, he thinks, but I know his type. He has another gear that he hasn’t found yet and it is the kind of thing that you have to push a kid into. He thinks he’ll break if he goes any faster, but he won’t. He has more than he thinks he has – a lot more. I can see reasons for hope in this situation – he has a better set of legs than I remembered – and think that it just might be possible to bring him along enough to where he’ll make the team. And somehow I know that that is exactly my task. By rights, he should have made it in the first place, but if I can sharpen his edge just a little more in these few days it will be impossible for the coach – for me – to let him go. This is a fair challenge for me. This is the kind of thing I was born to do and this, I know, is my way out.
If he knew who I was and that it was me who controlled his destiny, I would work him harder this afternoon. I’ll only have him for a couple of weeks and I have to make every moment count. But I am more careful now. I don’t want him so sore tomorrow that he’ll not return. He doesn’t owe me anything, and things have gone pretty well. I look for just the right moment. We have gained something today, already. Not enough. The pace will have to pick up, day by day, if I’m going to get him ready. But I don’t want to break this pony. Not now.
“Alright,” I say. “You had enough for the day?”
He is bent over, hands on knees, getting his breath, but he looks up at me between gasps and says “I can go more. I can go a little more.” I am encouraged.
“That’s alright. We’ve made a start today. A good start. You be back here tomorrow.”
With that assurance, my mind leaves the business at hand and reverts to those questions that override all of this effort. Who is this kid in the greater scheme of things, and how does this puzzle fit together?
“Hey,” I call to him as he is dribbling away, “you know a kid named Mark Sparks?”
He turns to face me and ponders the question and then says “No. Doesn’t ring a bell. Is he a player? He from around here?”
Of course not. Sparks would have graduated in 1979. This is 1966. Sparks may be somewhere in town right now, but he is around five years old.
“No. I don’t know where he lives, really. I just thought you might have heard of him.” If this response isn’t enough to make Kelso think I’m crazy, I don’t know what is. But he appears unfazed by it and unsuspecting.
“You ever get into the gym at the high school?” I know that there is some risk in asking this. I don’t want to lose him. But I have to know more.
“Yeah. There’s a bunch that plays down there every day after school. I tried that.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I never get the ball down there.”
“I don’t know. They don’t like me.”
“Why is that?”
“Don’t know, really. I have some ideas, but none of them really make sense.”
I can hear my answer before I speak it. It is an automatic and fully-formed response and the same thing I would have said to him when I was 25 years old and the same thing I would have said to any other kid in my last season. You want to get the ball more? Get a rebound. Set a screen, a pick, for somebody. Steal a pass. Dish off an assist. You’ll be surprised at what that will do for you. If you want on this team, you’ve got to be able to play with the rest of these guys. Nobody can fix it for you. You’ve got to work through those hitches yourself. You play hard and play unselfishly and if you’re really supposed to be there those things will work themselves out.
I may have actually believed all of that at one time, but I catch myself before I speak. It may be because some memory of Kelso’s story is rising to consciousness and it may be because I have seen and heard enough from him here already to know that while this kid has some profound limitations as a player, the last thing he is is selfish. And I can already tell that he would not be afraid to mix it up and take some lumps in a pick-up game with the big guys.
“Well,” I say, “it probably doesn’t make sense. Things like that often don’t.”
I had to fight myself to get these words out. They sound like the kind of mealy-mouthed speech I hated in my day. The very opposite of good coaching. The words do not explain, they do not challenge and they do not instruct. They do not imply my own command of the situation and instead betray that I am somewhat at a loss. I was afraid they would be bitter in my mouth. But they were not. As I speak them, I remember more and understand more. The thing that Kelso is fighting against was, in a very individualized form, the great battle of my generation: prejudice. If I had said to my first African-American player that everything would be fine for him if he would just set a few picks, he would have known I was naïve or crazy and it would be just as naïve to say the same to Kelso in this situation. Danny is not up against racial prejudice. All my players were white – almost all of them Appalachian Scots-Irish, in fact – until long after Kelso was gone. This particular prejudice is not sweeping or historically established and it does not affect millions. It affects one man – one boy – in one place in one time. But it is prejudice just the same. It is just as irrational, just as obdurate and just as spiteful as any other kind. And it is just as dependent on the solidarity of the exclusive group. It is less of an evil because it is only for now and will not follow Kelso for life. But it is worse in a way in that, in the case of racial prejudice, there were always those around who saw it for what it was and gave support to those who suffered. There was solidarity and a brotherhood and finally moral clarity and a vindication of the righteous. No one will know about Danny Kelso. He will bear it alone. Almost alone.
This singular prejudice, like any other, is motivated by arrogance, mistaken assumptions and fear. I remember now at least one of those mistaken assumptions.
And so, these words I have just spoken, even though they give Kelso no concrete direction, are perhaps the wisest of my coaching career.
It is enough now of these meditations. I turn back to Kelso and ask, “Who all plays?”
And he recites the names. I could have listed six or seven of them myself, but he names twenty, at least. A few of them prompt memories that I had long forgotten and a couple of the names, I am surprised to discover, mean nothing to me at all. It has been a long time, and there have been so many boys. But one name opens a floodgate of memory.
“How is it that you think you’ll make this team when those guys won’t give you a chance?”
“Coach Carl Campbell.” My conscience burns. “He’s a new guy. Never coached here before. But I’ve met him. He had a meeting with us all. Laid down the law. And I know his reputation. He played at Glenville State. He’s a man. He’ll run the show. He won’t put up with that stuff. I’ll get a fair shot.”
“How many will this coach keep on the team?”
“I’m not sure. He hasn’t said. Some coaches keep fifteen, some twelve.”
“Where do you fall in the mix?”
Now his expression changes. He looks into the distance, searching. And he pounds the ball loudly onto the blacktop with both hands, then again, and looks back at me and begins an analysis of his chances. However undisciplined and random his “practices” were before I got hold of him, his thinking here is clear, thorough and rigorous. He knows every player and where he falls in the pecking order. Or where he ought to fall. He is not optimistic if the coach – if I – keep only 12 players, but he thinks his chances are good if I keep fifteen. He tells me who the last guy is ahead of him and who the next guy is behind him and gives me details. Their heights, their strengths and weaknesses and their playing histories. He is pretty close to being on the money. I remember now.
“Well,” I say, “I guess we’ve got our work cut out for us, then.”
“Yeah,” He pauses and scans the court and playground, “I appreciate this, you know.”
“It’s alright. You be back here tomorrow. You might be a little sore in the morning, but that will work itself out. Better now than in two weeks.”
“Right.” He nods enthusiastically. “See you tomorrow.”