Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 12)

Hey, faithful readers!  Here is chapter twelve in its glorious entirety.

Thanks for reading and liking so far.

 

I’ve got a request, though.  This afternoon between 3:24 and 3:31, I got five “likes.”  This is very unusual, since I had not posted anything for over twelve hours and most of my “likes” come within and hour or so of posting.

What I now wonder is whether some web service has included these chapters.  I’m not worried about that, I am doing my best to give this story away so that more people will read it.  I’d just like to know what is happening to it out there so maybe I could take advantage of it somehow.

Will you folks who picked up this story today at mid afternoon send me a note, however brief, to let me know how you happened on to this?

Alchemist?  Glitchy Artist?  Jessica Torres?

 

Please?

 

Thanks?

12.

I REMEMBER THE ONLY game Danny Kelso ever played in.  Although it was a pre-season game and meant nothing in terms of the record, it was my first game as a head high-school coach. When my last class of the day was over, I went straight to my office in the gym to study my notes one more time, feeling like the gods had already granted me immortality.  I was still a very young man then and I could have dressed myself for that game and led all scorers and rebounders and held my man scoreless for every one of the 32 minutes of regulation. I loved the nods and encouragement I got from other teachers in the hallways on my way into the gym, and my little office, my private domain, was perfect in its organization.  Gone for the day were those nominal academic responsibilities that my job required me to carry – the study halls, the health classes, and driver’s education.  Gone were the noisy, overcrowded hallways, the supervising gaze of administrators – and before me was the opportunity to contemplate without distraction the love of my life – this ever-moving, still-young game that immediately rewarded every physical talent I was given; that demanded and engaged the very kind of mental effort and concentration that came naturally to me; that satisfied my every existential hunger and squared every mental account I kept for myself. As I thought then, it was an occupation that imposed no penalties for the disregard of those things that others preached about, but that looked to me like flags of surrender.

By now I am willing to admit that I ignored those things to my own great loss and to the detriment of almost everyone who depended on me. But one part of the mindset that I carried with me down that school hallway the day of my first game is still with me and has only been confirmed by long experience. The locked door to my basketball office was the line between the world that men allowed themselves to be trapped in, a world of half-measures, easy testing and meager rewards, where there were no highs or lows and no winners, and the world of wholehearted striving and hope for victory and distinction. It is not the only such door, but it was one of them.

Even then I vaguely understood my office as a symbol and in that first season I had the time, will and energy to impose and maintain a careful order there.  There was no clutter – no schedule or roster from last year, no old programs, no unanswered correspondence.  More importantly, there were no unresolved issues, no broken promises, no unmet commitments, no enemies, no ghosts. That office was a picture of the simple order I thought was necessary to the success of the program and it delighted me to be in the middle of it. Here were the notes on each of my players.  There the notes on the Hedgesville players; the Hedgesville coach.  And here were the diagrams of the offenses and defenses we had practiced and would run that night. Everything was new and untarnished.  I had a clean slate and the confidence that there was nowhere to go but up.

Since this game was exhibition and would be the last phase of varsity tryouts, my notes on my own players were more important that night than the notes on the opponent.  I had decisions to make.  I had the roster down to eighteen players and would only keep fourteen.  I had shooting charts on all of them, and notes on each player’s strengths and weaknesses.  It was very clear by now who the first eleven players were and almost as clear who seventeen and eighteen would be.  My work had to be done on those five players hovering between slots twelve and sixteen.  Three of them would be issued varsity equipment – blue and gold jerseys bearing the school’s name and colors, shorts, warm-ups, shoes and socks.  They would be assigned lockers in the team dressing room. Their names would be added to the roster published in the game programs.   They would appear in the yearbook photograph.  They would more than likely continue in the basketball program throughout their time at the school.  They would almost certainly never play in a game this season, but they would belong.
This meant everything to them, of course, but almost nothing to me. Even though I might have to rely on some of those players the next year, it did not really matter that much which three of the five they were. There was little difference in them to begin with and whoever got to stay would receive the best training and coaching available anywhere in the State and get tougher, smarter, stronger and more confident with every workout.  Those three would be invited to summer leagues, improving even more, and have the promise of the next season before them.   I wanted to focus on more immediate matters – like winning the game and bringing my first six or seven guys along as far as I could in one evening. When the game began, I was almost certain that I would not play Kelso at all. I had real business to attend to with my first seven or eight guys – the players who I would depend on to get us through a rough season. I wasn’t certain yet who my last two starters would be and I wanted to see how all of my first eight – that was already a pretty well-defined group- would hold up when given heavy minutes at real game speed and pressure. But it became clear early enough that the Hedgesville coach was not primarily interested in winning the game. He was giving his whole bench substantial playing time to ferret out his last cuts.

We went up twenty points in the third quarter and I had played everybody else on my bench. At a time-out whistle I pointed to Kelso and motioned for him to report to the scorer’s table.

I remember being surprised and puzzled at the time. The very thing Kelso had been missing throughout tryouts – a killer instinct – he showed in spades in this game.   He was in his man’s face, kept him sealed off of the basket on rebounds and ran the court like his pants were on fire. He took a charge from the Hedgesville center, a senior who probably outweighed Kelso by sixty pounds.

Kelso was the first man down the court on two fast-break opportunities, three strides ahead of the defense and, appropriately, yelling for the ball. But the ball never came. On both of these plays, the ball handler crossed half-court, turned out and then set the offense. It was obvious what was going on.

I do not remember giving the matter much thought then, but it all makes sense to me now. Kelso had avoided anything that might have showed another guy up in the intra-squad competitions that made up our tryout sessions. He avoided the hard foul when it ought to have been given. When driving to the basket he turned away in the face of a block even where the defender had not established position and the foul would have been the other way. I read this at the time as cowardice or timidity and dropped him on the list accordingly. But it should have been obvious to me even then and particularly given the contrast with Kelso’s performance in the scrimmage game with Hedgesville. In our tryout sessions, Kelso was not simply playing against the guy who he was guarding or the guy guarding him. He was playing against the house and he calculated, probably correctly, that anything he might have done to beat one of the group would have issued in reprisals. If he had had even one other person on his side, he might have stood up. I might even have rightly expected him to stand up. But he was fighting a lonely battle. An impossible battle.

 

I did not want to take sides in the matter. These feuds and prejudices are primal, fundamental things that will not dissolve easily. Trying to extinguish them is a fight you can lose. In the next time-out, with the five circled around me, I did tell them that we can’t ignore an open man on the break. When I said this, four of the five looked away from me – at the floor, at the crowd. I had to decide whether fighting this battle was worth it or not. And if Kelso did not make the cut, the battle would not have to be fought and there would be one less thing to worry about as I prepared for the real season.   Kelso really brought nothing special to the team. Based on his performance in the exhibition and on a fair field, he’d have been my twelfth pick.

But he was, through no fault of his own, more trouble than he was worth.

 

I had long forgotten the game itself – Kelso’s surprising performance and his besetting problem, but I never forgot another decision I made that night.

For whatever reason, the image of that scrimmage game is more vivid to me now than it has been in years. I can see the late October sunlight pouring through the pebbled-glass windows high on the west wall of the old gym and defining a bright rectangle on the opposite wall. I can see and hear the muffled hum of the meager crowd, unfocused on this scrimmage, kids milling about here and there, traffic in and out of the gym. It surely was my thought at the time that all of that would change soon. My teams, when they became my teams, would pack them in. I remember the old Hedgesville coach, with his white shirt and tie, quietly watching and evaluating his new players; a pair of janitors by the fire door, wheeling mop buckets to their closets for the end of the day.

And I remember a young woman who sat at the end of one of the bleachers about half way up and opposite of where I stood to command my troops. Victoria Rockwell.

She was an English teacher and she had been at the school only a year before I arrived, but her reputation was already well established. That was no wonder. With looks like hers, there was no missing or ignoring her. She was a hard grader, they said, but parents lobbied the school late and early to get their kids into her classes. She was loved and feared, both among the students and the rest of the faculty.

The first time I saw her was in what our principle called the convocation, a meeting of the faculty in the school’s theater the day before classes began. Such an event is absolutely unimaginable at a public school now, but in 1966, the principal of Walhonde High School was Hobart Bailey, who had served as a tail-gunner in a B-17 for twenty-one missions over Germany. He was shot down in December of 1944 and spent the last six months of the War in Lamsdorf in Stalag VIII-B.   He was not a large or overbearing man, but he carried within himself a quiet humility and reverence that were born of his first-hand knowledge of costs paid and evils contained that you simply no longer see on this earth. If he was having convocation, you would attend, whether you were a churchgoer or not – I wasn’t – and you would sit and you would listen – reverently.

There were prayers for the Nation, the school, the faculty and the students and the year to come and then Major Bailey, in his quiet voice, delivered something like a sermon, marking the great grace we had all received in having the freedom to speak and the resources to educate the new nation that would enter our halls the following morning.

Victoria Rockwell was on the stage with the speakers, but away from them and off of the dais, at the near end of the stage. I could look nowhere else. She sat tall in her chair and was dressed in a black, full-length skirt and an extravagance of glossy black hair fell around her shoulders, shimmering in the stage lights like the wings of a raven. I had no idea who she was and it did not occur to me that she might be a faculty member, like the rest of us in the crowd.

The service ended with the singing of Oh, God Our Help In Ages Past. I bent to find the page in the songbook as Esther Gomulka, the school’s ancient music teacher, pounded out the first chords on the piano. When I looked back onto the stage, Victoria Rockwell was holding a cello in a resting position, like she had been born with it. With her head slightly tilted she held the bow upright, as if at attention. Our little crowd sang the first verse tentatively and quietly.

With the second verse, Victoria Rockwell began to play. I don’t know that I had ever heard a cello live before and I was not prepared for what it did to me. The slow strains were deep and sweet and overlaid Miss Gomulka’s uncertain, staccato chording like a blanket of roses. I was not the only one affected. The voice of the little crowd was immediately strengthened and echoed, for the moment, like the sound of many waters. I saw teachers look up from their songbooks and around at each other and bow their heads and sing with their whole hearts.

In the last verse Miss Rockwell left the melody and accompaniment to Miss Gomulka’s two ancient hands and began a counterpoint to the hymn. These were no longer sonorous strains, but vigorous, pulsing flights of tone that showed me that there was far more to this hymn than I could ever have imagined. It was as if something alive, breathing and incandescent had been released among us. Although Victoria’s playing had actually inspired me to sing – an activity to which I was constitutionally opposed – the surprising and piercing counter melodies so affected me that I could sing no longer. I don’t think I could have even spoken. I looked at my book and then away from my book then to the stage and wondered if what was happening to me was obvious to others in the little crowd. When the hymn ended Victoria Rockwell looked at me.

It was a time when men like me – men who had kept their edge – were skeptical of religion. We were supposed to be. Religion was a crutch of sorts, for those who could not fight their own fights. It was a place for women and for glad-handing men. I was – had been – suspicious of every ritual, believing them all to be escapist at best and comical at worst, but I could not deny the effect of this moment. This must have been what all of it was aimed at. Something within me was stirred and I did all I could to hide it.

 

Victoria Rockwell’s classroom was next door to the study hall that I monitored twice a day. The four teachers on our end of the hall had to meet to go over procedures for a fire emergency. There was a metal door at one end of our hall that was there for that purpose. It had been damaged from the outside by a heavy windstorm the year before and, since then, had been difficult to open. The four of us went to the door to assess the problem. I looked at the old door and I rammed both heels of my hands against the push bar and it swung open. The one older lady teacher raised her eyebrows and said that she guessed that that problem was solved. But Victoria Rockwell smiled at me. People today would laugh at the innocence of this, but it was an unmistakable message. Victoria did not pretend to be ignorant of her own considerable charms and could not have been oblivious to their probable effect on me. I knew that she knew that I knew.

I kept my distance for a few weeks. I was still getting the feel for the world I was living in there at the school. What would be thought about an intra-faculty romance? What if things ended badly? And I wondered about approaching this cello-playing beauty who drove a brand new, powder-blue GTO. Somebody had money somewhere. In those first few weeks, Victoria was patient, but encouraging, and I knew I would get my chance.

On one Friday in late October classes were released to the gymnasium for a football pep rally. We were to play our rival from across the river that evening and the school was buzzing with preparation for the game. Although I was not one to join in cheering myself, I understood the importance of the rallies. If the kids didn’t get excited, then playing the games was less of a big deal, less of an honor. I knew that I would be asking for my own rallies once my season started and turn about was fair play. If I did not attend the football rallies, then the football staff – and maybe even the football players – would not attend mine.

And I would have gone, but the rally was in the same hour when I was in the room next to Miss Rockwell. I knew her well enough by then to be sure that pep rallies would be important to her. Not to her, exactly, but she would see her attendance there as important to the life of the school. And she would have enjoyed the atmosphere. But I knew very well that she would not attend this pep rally, either.

When the halls were emptied and the second floor, where we were, fell strangely silent, I walked from my room into hers where she sat at her desk at a stack of papers. She looked up and nodded.

“Hello, coach.”

“Hey, Victoria. Not interested in the rally?”

“No. Actually I am interested. I was a cheerleader in my day. You probably wouldn’t have guessed that.”

“I might of.”

“I’ve just gotten a bit behind here. I try to take advantage of any break in the action. Not enough hours in the day.”

“I know the feeling.”

“What about you?”

“Little tired, I guess. Not up to all that noise right now.”

“Yes. This silence is a nice change. You almost forget what it was like.”

I walked to the window and rested my arms on the sill and looked out across the parking lot and toward the baseball field, perfect and green in the early autumn afternoon.

“You care if I open this out?”

“No. By all means. Let’s have some air.” She leaned back in her chair, away from the papers and spoke again. “Coach, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why coaching?”

There were several true answers I could have given her that would have kept me in the game. I could have told her that I went the route of becoming a coach because I had excelled in athletics and had been little above mediocre in academics. It was my strength. I could have told her that I went this way because I loved the game. Not just in the way that everyone loves the game, but in the same way that some men love horses or cars or even mathematics. I loved the heat of it and the challenge and the speed and the prospect of victory. The idea of doing something better than the other guy. I intuitively understood the game in a way that most men did not. I could have said that my experiences with basketball throughout life had been so fulfilling that I could not imagine living without it – without basketball being a major part of my life. That would have had a lot of truth in it and probably would not have been a deal-breaker.   I could have cited unctuously to instances in my young life where coaches had helped me in ways that no one else could have. I might have even said that I believed that my best chance of greatness lay here – that I had aspirations of building a legacy, of advancing to the top of the profession.

What I could not say was that I had gone the way I did as a means of escape. That I was impatient with the mundane aspects of life and lacked the humility necessary to live quietly in community as other men did and needed the assurance of some measure of celebrity and deference, even if on the smallest of scales, to make life tolerable. I could not say that I had no confidence in myself in any area other than basketball and could not imagine paying the price it would take to develop enough mastery to make a living doing anything else.

But I said none of these things. Instead of giving a true answer, I gave the answer that I knew to be the right answer.

“I want to help boys turn into men. It’s a hard transition and they need help making it. All of them do. If they can do it, everybody wins – the school, the girls, the town – everybody. And if they can’t make the transition, everybody loses. It’s an important social institution, really. Most people don’t think of it that way.”

It was an answer that if not strictly true, could have been true. It was in my power, there and then, to make it true. All I had to do was decide.

She laid her pen aside and looked up at me. “I think of it that way. I have brothers. They all played. Not basketball, all of them, but sports. Kept them out of trouble. Gave them an identity.”

“Of course,” I said to the classically-trained cellist with the new GTO, “it’s not much money.”

“I know that. Some people have to work for a living. I work for the same reasons you do. This place is my mission. I depend on dead relatives for money.” She smiled.

Even then I took it no further. There were ostensible reasons for that. There was more than one other faculty member interested in her and I let her believe that I hesitated because of them. I knew better of course. One of the flies constantly buzzing around her classroom was married and the other never would be. Even though I had never felt so strongly about anyone before and even though she had made it clear that she welcomed my attention, I was uncomfortable. If I went ahead with it, our relationship would be the talk of the school. Taking the chance with Victoria Rockwell could have been the greatest thing in the world, but it was no place for a false move. She was the most popular woman on the faculty – flashy, rich and talented. And I was, well, I was the new coach who was going to take the school’s program on to glory. Every male teacher over forty in that school looked at her as a daughter and Major Bailey looked at her as a grand-daughter.

 

There were men in my generation who made fortunes writing books to teach men and women how to communicate with each other. Their ideas were generally that men and women think differently, have different goals in any relationship, attach different meanings to words and gestures and give and expect to receive quite different things in any conversation. All of it true, I suppose, and God knows there were places and times in my life when I would have saved myself untold grief by heeding their advice.

But I did not need any such advice on the day of that pre-season game with Hedgesville when Victoria Rockwell walked into that gym alone and sat down on a bleacher halfway up and directly across from our bench. There was no ambiguity about what she meant. It had never been a priority of mine to study or contemplate the feminine mind, but even I knew that this was a serious and definite message. In the first place, it would have taken some effort, and maybe even planning, for Victoria to travel anywhere by herself in the halls of that school. There were her two other pretending suitors, of course, but there was also a coterie of senior girls who idolized her and flocked to her wherever she appeared.   It was very likely that to keep herself free of company on the way to the gym she had had to do or say things she would otherwise not have said or done and that might have carried the risk of hurting someone else, however slightly. I knew that this solo arrival of Miss Rockwell was deliberate and designed to give me an opportunity that I had hinted that I wanted or to call my bluff. I knew that she would do whatever she had to do to keep herself unattached through the game and I knew that when I came out of the locker room afterwards, she would be lingering in the gym. Available, but not conspicuously so.

And I knew that I would have to make a decision. It could have been the easiest in the world. We had everything to talk about. I could walk up to her and smile and ask what she had seen, what she thought, whether she knew anything about any of the boys on my roster – she would have – and then say something about being hungry or “famished” or “starving” and smiling again and suggesting a place right outside of town where we would not be interrupted by anyone from the school. She would understand my wanting to be discreet, and maybe even have her own suggestion for dinner. That door was wide open.

But it was a door that led somewhere. Victoria Rockwell was not a woman who could be trifled with. Though she had not calculated to cultivate this, that school’s faculty was full of both men and women who saw themselves as her protectors and would have sensed and resented any mistreatment or thoughtlessness, or, perish the thought, exploitation, from anyone paying her court. Above that, she was educated. Not only in the best formal schooling, but she had obviously come from a family that by local standards would have to be called aristocratic, learning from birth what is legitimate and sincere and what is not.   She would be patient, even tolerant, but she would never be fooled. She may not have needed money from me, but she would expect and not be deprived of anything else rightly hers.   I knew I had a chance, and I knew it could have worked, but I also knew that once I was in the game she would read me like a book and know my every intention. Once I was on board, the train would be moving.

Then there were the students.   Victoria herself was the soul of discretion, but no one could have believed that anything we started could have been kept quiet in that little town and in the hotbed of immature emotion and curiosity that any high school is.   To say that any sparks between the new coach and the angelic and revered English teacher would have been big news in the hallways would be gross understatement. It would have been the talk of the town. The girls would be anxious for any news, any developments, any words spoken between us. They would take sides in any arguments they might hear about or imagine and be cold or warm to me, day by day, according to the latest gossip. And, like it or not, all of this would have defined my as yet unestablished image there, even among my players. Did I want the boys joking about their new coach, the Romeo? Did I want them to think that there was some other side to me?   A softer side? One that they might take advantage of? Did I want to see rhymes anonymously written on the locker-room chalkboard? Or, worse yet, pictures? Imagine sex jokes between the players about the coach and his rich girlfriend?

Victoria would have expected time from me. Time and attention. She would expect me to be present, mentally and emotionally, when we were together talking. I knew the kind of mental and emotional investment I would have to make this first season to get things off the ground in the program and I knew how it would absorb me. Or, rather, I knew how much I wanted to be totally absorbed in the kind of heat and desire that it took to win.

When I came out of the locker room after the game I was allowing myself to believe that I had not yet made the decision. I was surprised, at first, when I entered the gym and did not see her. The notion that I had already blown my chance, maybe by staying too long with my players, stung me. I realized how crazy I had been and I resolved that if I got the chance – this chance for a surprising, challenging, meaningful and fulfilling life – a life far better than I deserved and that no one else, no one else I could ever even imagine, could give me – that I would take it. I began to think again of what I would say and how I would say it and where we might go for that first dinner together.

She was standing alone at a vending machine in the little room just outside the main gym doors, a look of frustration on her face, as if the machine had just cheated her of a quarter. She looked at me, as if for help with the machine as I passed. She looked like a million dollars. She looked to me like my own best dream of a finer world. But I only nodded to acknowledge her and then, without a word, shook my head and pointed to my clipboard and frowned as if to say that I was very busy with tough decisions, decisions that no one would envy, and I walked away.

 

 

I lived for 36 years after that day.  I continued to speak to Victoria Rockwell in the hallways as we passed.  She allowed no hint of awkwardness between us.  She left the school three years later to pursue her masters I never saw her or spoke to her again. When she graduated, she took a position at a college in North Carolina. I heard that she married a couple of years later. My interaction Victoria Rockwell was fleeting, undefined, unproclaimed and included not the first physical touch.  Yet since that day I have never had a single morning or a single afternoon where she did not cross my mind.

There is one more image I recall from that game against Hedgesville. I can see in my mind, as plain as day, the line in the scorebook beside Danny Kelso’s name: one rebound; one steal; one assist; no points.

copyright 2015

 

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