THIS EVENING AS I WATCH SPARKS AND MURPHY I think not only about how to make progress with Kelso tomorrow and in the days following, but wonder once again at my situation. I understand why Sparks is here; why I would be haunted in this way. His end was a tragic one and I cannot say that I did not have my part in it. Even now I do not know what I might have done differently, but I am not – have never been – comfortable with my own role in his fate. Sparks was a very good player and not much else, really. Smarter than average, all around, but with no support from home and not enough mental juice to get an academic scholarship. His one chance was basketball. He needed me. He needed something I had and he did not get it. His fault, finally. I don’t see any way around that, but I am connected to his story, that is undeniable.
But Danny Kelso? Yes, there may have been some unfairness in his case, but there is some measure of unfairness always for the last few kids who get cut. The last two or three always have an argument. My decisions are not perfect and I have made lots of mistakes. But these, unlike Sparks’ case, are almost always inconsequential. The kids take it hard for a day or two, but find their way into other things pretty quickly. The last two boys cut from my team were always substantially better players than the rest of the kids around town. In a couple of weeks, they would be starting for one of the better church or municipal-league teams in town and having a great time with their buddies who would tell them over and over how crazy I was to have cut them from the team. I don’t have any distinct memory of what happened to Kelso, but I am sure that he never got into trouble at school. No fights, no car wrecks, no public intoxication, no pregnant girlfriends. Went to college, I’m sure. He may well have fared better in life than anyone I kept on the team that year. Why does this matter, then? Why is he the one – out of scores of kids who had close calls with me – who must have a second chance?
There is no answer for it, but there is still no doubt in my mind that my job now is to make sure that he makes the team. At least one injustice, however minor, might be corrected. I have to believe that. I am otherwise powerless. I can’t imagine what this is all for if that isn’t it.
Tonight Sparks takes and misses 157 jump shots. Nothing changes. I have watched poor Mark Sparks fail at the very thing he was most gifted at for so long that I had inured myself to the pain of it. But this evening it is all renewed and amplified. I am now, in some sense, re-engaged. Empowered. Even though I cannot imagine any connection between Sparks and Kelso I must believe now that there may be some way out of this unavailing sorrow for all of us. And I think and hope that I may even have some power or effect in changing things. Because of this, I can no longer distance myself at all. I watch each one of Sparks’ 157 misses with my best technician’s eye. I know,finally, that the problem here is not one of form. Not one that can be solved by physical adjustments. But with this new hope I cannot help myself. I look at every motion. Every muscle. What is he doing wrong?
As my pity for poor Sparks grows, so grows my anger, even hatred, for Murphy. It was him, really. Without Murphy’s influence, Sparks would not be in this vain struggle. And yet, Murphy is tireless, feeding Sparks the ball perfectly, miss after miss, with pure joy and, as it appears, at least, sincere encouragement. There is certainly no justice here. This scene shows me the same kind of capricious fate that I witnessed and suffered all my life. People reaping where they have not sown. People sowing the wind and reaping not the whirlwind, but a life on easy street.
How, then, can justice be demanded of me in a case as insignificant as Kelso’s?
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, again bright and warm, Kelso dribbles back onto the court. Of course, I don’t know what time it is, but it feels to me like he is arriving a bit later. It may be my impatience or excitement at work. I know what is at stake here. We say our hellos and I ask him if he is sore and he says that he was a little when he got out of bed this morning, but that he is feeling fine now. Remember youth?
“Were you held up today?” I ask him.
He says that he had a little more homework this afternoon, but I can read his face. He’s not telling the truth or not telling me everything. He looks a little embarrassed, a little bothered by the question.
“How much do you want this?” These, of course, are the words of the old me, but I consider them relevant here and think their effect may overbalance any risk of driving Kelso away.
“I want it more than anything. It’s the only thing I do want, really.”
I believe this, in a way. Guys like Kelso don’t really understand the kind of desire I am talking about. The kind of want-to that can actually transform you. What I am really talking about is an emotion that has two sides to it. You’ve got to have the positive goal – the dream. But there has to be something on the other side,, too. Something you want to get away from. Desperately. Kelso is comfortable. Never missed a meal. Mom and dad get along fine. He doesn’t hurt enough.
“We don’t have much time, you know.”
We get to work. I have him start with tip drills – one hundred with the left hand, one hundred with the right. He is weak in his upper body as all the incoming sophomores were in that day, but his legs are strong. Better than average for a sophomore, better, even, than the average sophomore player. With his arms extended aloft for that long he tires a bit in his shoulders, but his legs are live to the end of the drill. I am counting the jumps and he does not short-change me. A full one hundred with each hand. He’s weaker with his left. Again, typical, but not great. I don’t know why junior- high-school coaches let that go. The earlier, the better with that kind of thing.
He goes through the ball-handling drills I have shown him. The leg and body wraps, slapping the ball hard with every change of hand. He does the spider drill, dibbling through and around one leg, then the other. He’s okay here, no better or worse than the rest of that crop will be, but as he dribbles it strikes me that this is not going to get it done. In two weeks – two weeks minus two days now – any progress we may have made here on fine skills will be negligible. It won’t show up. It won’t make a difference – not enough of a difference, anyway.
Of course, I give him no indication of this, but continue to run him through the exercises as we put them in order yesterday. He is compliant, even enthusiastic. His t-shirt is soaked and sweat is dripping from his brow when we are done and, with hands on knees, he looks at me for some further instruction, asking, without words, whether we are finished for the day.
“We need to talk about your strategy.” I tell him.
He nods as if he understands and agrees with me, but I know that he simply does not want to make his ignorance obvious. He has no idea what I’m talking about, but wants me to believe that he is right on the same page with me.
“I want you to tell me again who your competition is.”
Again, he is practiced, even polished, on this subject. There are some names in the bunch that he will never be able to beat. He knows that as well as I do. But I make mental notes of five names and tonight I will strain to remember anything I can about these few who he might be able to surpass in tryouts if I can give him the right advice.
I LOOK EVER CLOSER at Sparks as he shoots this evening, running the five names through my head, time after time. I have no evidence or experience that suggests that this will be effective at jogging my memory, but I have nothing else available. I am hoping that some part of what I see – some tic in Sparks’ shots, something about Murphy’s passing – will jibe with some subconscious memory about one of the players Kelso named to me and awaken some recollection of any of their vulnerabilities. The better I can remember them, the better advice I can give Kelso tomorrow afternoon. I know now that all the drilling and practice we can possibly do between now and then will not be enough to make any substantial difference – not enough to make the younger me change my mind. What Kelso will have to show in the tryouts is that he is strong enough and tough enough mentally to overcome whatever brand or level of ostracism he is up against. He will have to beat these guys – at least a couple of them – one-on-one right in front of me or he has no chance.
THE NEXT MORNING I AM NO CLOSER to having any clue or answer to Kelso’s problem. I had hoped for some memory about one of the boys he had named to me. Could this kid go to his left? Would the other one fold under pressure? Was either one of them a sucker for the pick-and-roll? Could either one of them hit a jumpshot? Like so many of my prayers during my life, my chanting and hoping last evening brought me a window into my own soul – a reminder of one of my own failings – but not what I had hoped for. I don’t know what to do. How much time is left to us now? He won’t get stronger or faster or develop a shot in two weeks. I might as well hope that he’ll get taller. The odds are about the same. I am almost ready to give it up; to think that my striving here is nothing more than the work I did during life; it will never be enough, I am doomed again to come up short. Perhaps that is just the plan. That is my punishment. What do I have to look forward to? More of the same.
Yet I cannot let go of what I am convinced is my last hope for some relief or escape from this torment. I labor to fend away the idea that it is all a meaningless cycle without hope of change or remedy. If that were true – and I can’t rule it out – it would mean insanity for me. I recognize that it is only hope that keeps me sane; and so I hope. If I stay with this, even though it appears hopeless, maybe something will occur along the way. Maybe I will see a crack in the wall. Maybe the right door will open. Maybe that kind of patience and faith is what I lacked in life. Maybe that is what I am being taught.
When Kelso comes dribbling onto the court that afternoon I am not prepared. I have given up on the idea that my careful planning can make any measurable difference in his performance in tryouts and I resolve to be attentive to him instead; to listen carefully. Kids his age are loathe to give up information about themselves; they want to believe that they can handle everything themselves. Especially boys. They are in charge of their own lives, thank you – get out of the way. But I did develop some expertise in my day in reading the clues they might inadvertently or even unconsciously drop.
I merely say hello and tell Kelso to get started and he does, following closely the routine we’ve established in our few sessions. I encourage some, just to keep him interested, and offer some criticism here and there. But I stay farther back than before. I don’t know the right questions to ask and I fear that anything that looks like pressure from me will only shut him up tighter. How weird to him that some old man wants to know about his friends. I wait and hope that he will say something. Volunteer something.
But the session passes quickly and nothing of any substance comes from him. I start to suspect that he knows what I am looking for and is consciously holding back on me. If his intent is to frustrate me, it is working. I had an answer for this kind of treatment when I was in charge. If a kid was not forthcoming about what I wanted to know – if he did not read my mind – his playing time was cut. That might sound cruel, but let me tell you, it works, often better than I even imagined that it would. And it was the only thing that did. Those kids will play you if they think they can get away with it. Then they will joke about it among themselves. Right after they get out of the locker room. Did you see what I did to Campbell?
But that advantage is, of course, denied me here. The tables are turned. The only thing that will save me now is him making my team. I resent it, but I have no choice but to keep going along with him. When our time is almost over and I am resigned to the idea that nothing useful is coming my way, I dive back in. He is on the last drill, running from basket to basket, doing layups at each end and crossing over his dribble on every third step. With two fingers in my mouth I whistle loudly and tell him we’re done for the day and he drops to his back on the surface of the court and I can see his gut rising and falling as he tries to catch his breath.
“Tell me again,” I say. “When do tryouts start?”
He sits up and faces me. He is still breathing hard and his grey t-shirt is dark with sweat. “Week from Monday,” he says.
I guess I knew that, and even though there is no real point to these sessions – or none that I can presently see – I still feel some urgency about the approaching deadline. I look for any way to extend my time with him.
“Are you going to be around this weekend?”
“No. Out of town. My family is taking my sister back to school. I’ve got to go. Got no choice.”
This goes right through me. He does have a choice and it is the very choice he has to make. If he is going to play high-school ball, it has to be a priority. The priority. He has to take some initiative. He has to want this bad enough to tell his old man that he is staying for the weekend. That should have been his first impulse here and his first response to me. Kelso is fifteen. There have been fifteen-year-olds who have traveled wilderness alone and who have marched into gunfire. He doesn’t get it. He has to grow up some now. Assert himself. In my day, the answer he just gave me would have ended things between us.
But it isn’t my day anymore. If he loses, I lose; and I lose far more than he does. I am out of any plan or strategy now. My brain is racing, looking for anything to grab, as if the bedroom wall had caught fire and I needed something, anything, to help put it out. I would have picked up whatever was in reach and thrown it. The idea I have next comes from I don’t know where and if you would ask me what I expected to gain from it I could not give you an answer. It is simply all that I had.
“What about this evening?” I ask him. I allow my voice to ratchet up a notch or two. I’m not yelling, but he should know that I want and expect him to agree.
He hesitates. He gets it. He knows I mean business; that this is a demand. As he ponders I reconsider my petition. I think of the contrast between these warm, sunny afternoons, the real smells, sounds and feel of the Earth, Kelso’s beating heart, his sweat, shots that rip through the net once in a while and that other, twilight world of the dead. The grey, soundless world that lasts for only moments and carries with it the cold emptiness of hell. The place where the ball never hits the net. I know that I have done wrong in asking Kelso to go there, but I do not relent. Maybe this is the only answer. Maybe Kelso’s presence here at twilight will upset this maddening cycle. Something would have to give.
“Can’t do it.” He says.
I am furious and I cannot strangle my impulse to speak. “You don’t want this very badly, do you?”
He looks at me as if puzzled and then looks away, ginning up the nerve to respond. “Yes, I do.” His voice is strong and sure. “I want it more than I want anything.”
“Well. I don’t know about that,” I tell him. “But I do know you’ve got to want it more than you do.”
He is stunned by the change in my tone and does not know how to respond. He looks down at the court for a moment and then shakes his head in refusal, gathering his resources, as if to rid himself of me and my demand. He looks away and not at me when he speaks. He is resolved, but not without disappointment and regret. “I’ve got to get home,” he says. And he faces me once more with an expression I remember. In fact, this look of his opens a floodgate of memory.
He turns away and for the moment I am without regret. I think that I have gone way too far to try and help this kid and that if he has no more loyalty than this – no more ambition or desire or gumption – if he thinks he will reach his goal without having to venture – to sacrifice something, some childish loyalty, some fear – then he is a hopeless case. Impossible for me to change; impossible to bring around. He does not deserve me. I know that my alternative is continued, hopeless exile here on this bench, but for the moment I am satisfied that this is the better choice. I can only go so far. My players would have run through walls for me. Would have gone to hell for me. Kelso, bewildered, trots away, toward the corner of the school building, carrying, not dribbling the ball. And I let him go.
His refusal would have been enough, but there was that look on his face. He knows. He knows that I have crossed the line. That look. It makes me so angry that I am, even now, tempted to violence. He looks superior; like he understands the world better than I do. Like he pities me. The arrogance of this kid. I remember that look from before.
It was the week before tryouts. I saw Kelso in the hallway and asked him to come into my office. I called him by his name and anyone in his shoes would have recognized that as a positive sign. I might have even used his first name.
I opened my office door as if it was the gates of the Promised Land and nodded toward the chair opposite my desk.
“Sit down there. Go on.”
He sits, but not comfortably. He is anxious, not expecting this to be good news for him. A good sign for me. I busy myself with papers on my desk, moving sheets from one folder to another to give the impression that I am distracted and concerned with matters far weightier than this little conversation. He is in the presence of power and destiny and I want him to be in awe. This is far more than I usually extend myself to so marginal a prospect and I want him to believe that this is just a passing notion of mine.
“You’re a sophomore, right?”
“Played for Coach Smith over at Taft last year?”
“I saw you play.”
He does not respond. He is afraid of my opinion. Just as I had hoped.
“That wasn’t my best game.”
“Well. It was the only one I could get to. I saw some things I liked. Some possibilities.”
“Good. I’m glad.” He relaxes a bit in the chair.
“I’ve got a real tough job ahead of me, you know.”
He does not speak, but I look him in the face and nod, inviting, demanding, some return gesture, and he nods tentatively back at me.
“I’m going to keep fourteen guys this year. Any more than that and it’s hard to keep track of things.”
He nods again.
“There’s bunch of guys out there this year that have some talent, and I’m going to have to make some tough calls.”
“People are going to be disappointed. There’s no way around it.”
“But I wanted to talk to you for a minute about something that is important to me in making those decisions.”
He is stock-still, not even sure that he should nod.
“I want guys who understand the concept of team. What it means to be a team. You know?”
“You know Richard Fouch, don’t you?”
“Yes sir. Everybody knows Fouch.”
“We’re going to need him this year.” I pretend that I have just found the document I am pretending to look for and I tap my finger on the page and make a show of placing this sheet at the top of a pile. I look back at Kelso and, with a single pronoun, bring him within the holy of holies. “I’m building for the next few years. Your years. But I’m going to need . . . we’re going to need . . . some of Fouch’s toughness. You know what I mean?” I can see the desired effect. Kelso’s eyes have widened.
“I understand. I figured he’d be on the team.”
“Well, you see, that’s the thing. He’s got to be eligible. Academically eligible.”
I stand up and lift a random folder from my desk and turn to my file cabinet and place it into the drawer. “You’ve got Stadler for Algebra don’t you?”
“Yours is the morning class, right?”
“The smart class.”
He smiles and nods. I finger the files in the drawer as if I am looking for something.
“Fouch has Stadler in the afternoon. The not-so-smart class.”
I raise my eyebrows and smile at my own joke, but Kelso won’t smile. Won’t acknowledge the joke.
“Here’s the thing. I got word from Stadler that Fouch is flunking the class. He flunks in there and he’s ineligible for basketball.”
Kelso still has nothing to say. I don’t know what I would have expected. I pull a random folder from the drawer, sit back down, and slap the folder onto to the desk top.
“I think Fouch might be alright in there, enough to get by, anyway, if he just knew what to study.”
“You all have a test in there today, don’t you?” I open the folder and pull sheets from it and lay them in a stack. I do not look at Kelso. I want to convey that this conversation is not the most important thing to me, even as I am having it.
“Can you get together with Fouch at lunch? Help him with what to study? Help out a teammate?”
And here is where I get the look. He tries, but cannot finally disguise it. He knows exactly what I am asking. The idea that Fouch would actually study is ridiculous. Kelso knows that and he knows that I know it. And he knows what I am offering or threatening. He is doing all he can not to show it, but he knows. I can see it. And he won’t buy it. He glances through the office window, jealous of his friends out in the crowded hall who have not been extorted by an adult this morning and then sideways to my office door, like a cornered animal.
“Well. I might be able to help him some.” He is looking straight at the door now and not at me. I have said all I can say.
“Well. I appreciate that.”