Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 13)

13.

After I made the final cuts, we began our season with an away game against Duval High School. Even though my team did not have a standout player and even though none of my first seven players had ever started a high-school game before, I had expected to win this one. Duvall was a small, rural school fed by only one junior high. Both of the junior high schools that fed into my school had beaten Duvall Junior High soundly every time they had played in the last three years, as had almost everybody else. I believed my guys would retain a mental edge over this bunch and would continue in their domination of them. They would beat them because they always had, I thought.

I remember that evening. It was a thirty-mile bus ride on winding, two-lane roads through steep hills. It was still daylight when we left Walhonde, but in a few miles we entered the hill country and stayed in the shadows of the ridges for almost all the rest of the way. From time to time the road would drop out of a wooded hollow and spill us out onto an open dale and the sun, low and red in the west, would pour through the bus windows.

I think now of simple things in a way I never did before.   I remember the long angles of the evening light flashing into the bus, marked here and there by bright golden lines emanating from the rough prism of some bend or edge in the window glass, the lightlines silently and moving across the seats, the floor, the faces, chests and shoulders of the players as evenly and steadily as the bus along the narrow road and along the corridor of time. I would never have contemplated such a thing that evening. I’ll tell you, when you are responsible for fourteen rambunctious teenaged boys, you cannot let your mind drift much. To the extent I could have thought about anything, I would, no doubt, have been plotting strategies for the upcoming game. But some part of me noted it all. I can recall every detail of that golden scene as if I was still there. I remember stepping out of the bus. The air felt cooler there in the country and the strange and sweet scent of tobacco drying in the barn behind the school swept over and pierced me, pulling me away from time like strains of some ancient melody lifting from distant violins.

It is true that, fixed as I am in one place, I have learned a new way of looking at the world.   If you look long and patiently, there is beauty and mystery in every detail and square foot of nature and, with the kind of relaxed concentration that my present state has taught me, it continues to unfold. But the memory of watching a landscape pass before me, now closing into a shady, forested ravine and then opening up to a dazzling wide sky and showing new outlines of the land and new angles of light with every turn in the road, well, that is an idea that is positively dizzying to me now. How did I ever take all of it in?

It is all but impossible for anyone who has not been deprived of it to fully appreciate, but our ability to apprehend and sense and order the phenomena of this world is a marvel far beyond our ability to understand or fully contemplate. And every tiny glimpse of this earth is, when properly appreciated, enough to inspire a thousand poems.

There was little excitement or anticipation on the bus that evening. None of the kids liked to travel the road to Duvall – leaving civilization, they called it -and there were no friendships or rivalries in the mix. We would have no one in the stands. Our cheerleaders didn’t even make the trip.

I had expected my team to play in a disciplined and measured manner; there was no shot clock in our league then.   In every practice leading up to this first game I had emphasized taking care of the ball, making sharp passes, and being patient in selecting shots. I had taught them to play toes-to-toes defense on every possession. We were not ready for a running game and I wanted to spread the shooting around a bit as I did not yet have a confident sense of where our scoring would come from.

And my team was disciplined and careful, but so was Duvall. It was one of the slowest high-school games I had ever seen. We took care of the ball; they took care of the ball. We waited for good shots; they waited for good shots. Both teams played hustling defense. The difference was that Duvall shot pretty well that night and we didn’t. I kept hoping that our old dominance of this bunch of guys would surface and turn the tide, but it did not happen.   The stands were almost empty – just one or two sets of parents here and there on the bleachers. No cheering or yelling and no emotion. In a way, it did not seem like a real game. We lost, and nobody seemed to be very bothered about that.

I was bothered more by the fact that no one else was bothered than I was about the loss itself.   In fact, I saw some good things that evening. The boys were listening to me. They stuck to the plan. No one tried to take over. The defense was pretty good for this early in the year. I got better play out of my sixth and seventh guys than I had expected. Shot selection was pretty good – they just wouldn’t fall. There are nights like that. The Boston Celtics have nights like that.

I had expected to take some losses that year, and it was not as if our tournament hopes were hanging in the balance. I, frankly, did not have any tournament hopes. And so I did not make too much of it in the next practice. We drilled more on jump shooting and I watched closely for any indicators that I might have that rarest of all high school players – a consistent shooter – somewhere in this young mix.

Our next game was at Gauley, another rural school, this one Double A, one class lower than us.   Although Gauley High was actually a little smaller than Duvall, it had produced a couple of guys who had gone on to play Division One college ball in the last ten years, and there was a tradition there and a stable and competent coaching staff. It was an old, closed and organized community when it came to basketball. They found their players early out there, and by the time a Gauley kid with any promise was in junior high, he knew the fundamentals of the game.

Still, though, they were a Double A school and could not put the kind of size and depth of talent on the floor that we would have to compete with in our own conference. And this was a home game for us. It was one of our better opportunities for a win that season.

I paid more attention to the gathering crowd that evening than usual. Throughout my career I consciously carried the reputation as a no-nonsense, blue-collar coach. Show up, do the work, and things will go your way over time. True enough, and the discipline end of things has to be emphasized to teenaged players. But no one can deny that basketball, maybe more than any of the other major sports, is a game of emotion. Any game that is a fair and well-matched contest is almost always won in the last two minutes of play and then the difference is almost always an emotional edge.   They don’t do it consciously, but if your crowd is behind you in crunch time, officials will almost always call the close ones your way down the stretch. That is the primary factor in home-court advantage. But the crowd works on the players, too. In the last two minutes of any real game, fatigue is always an issue. A tired player’s shots are apt to fall short and he may give away half a step on defense. Part of the answer to that problem is conditioning and that is my job, but part of it is inspiration. It’s the crowd – the friends from classes, the girls – that gets the players to push through the pain and exhaustion to make the last shot. It has to matter.

So, hoping for something to spur the kind of emotion we were missing in our opener, I watched the kids filtering in to the student section of the bleachers. It was a slow business. With ten minutes to tip-off, the student section – not a very big section to begin with – was more than half empty. I tried to be inconspicuous in my watching. I wanted the kids to come and to be loud and I preached just that in pep rallies, but I did not want anybody thinking that I was the least bit anxious about it or that I was in any way dependent on them. The image had to be one of complete confidence and self-reliance.

I was finally disappointed in the size of the crowd, but anything was an improvement over the library-like atmosphere at Duvall. I remained optimistic that my boys would deliver a little more that night. We’d worked on shooting all week and I had tried to instill in them as much emotion as I thought they could handle without overloading. I wanted them to expect to win.

But Gauley took us out of our game.   Although they were no bigger than us, they were more experienced – both starting guards and the center were seniors – and they were confident in their game plan. They pressed us from the start and took advantage of every mistake in the transition game. Their coach had obviously done his homework on us. In the halfcourt game they played a tight, polished, 2-3 zone that took away any chance of inside scoring and forced us to rely on jump shooting for our points. They knew who their scorers were, too. One of the guards had sixteen and the center, who knew how to draw a foul and who had a pretty good version of a hook shot, had twenty-four. I would have liked to have had that one guard, myself. I could have made a real player out of him.

We lost by double digits.

Our next game was our conference opener. Against Bellview, a big Charleston school. This team had finished second in our conference last year and they had almost everybody back. They had size, speed and depth the likes of which we had not yet seen. In practice that week we worked on defense and on breaking the press. I saw progress, but I knew it was too little, too late to give us the kind of game we would need to stay in the gym with Bellview. I was right. We lost by thirty.

In high-school- varsity competition, you can never take a win for granted. Whether there are skilled basketball players on the other side or not, there are always strong and motivated athletes on any team you play. Even the so-called cupcakes at this level will make you play your game to win. Nobody lays down. Nobody is without some resource for scoring and defense.   You can never assume a win. I knew that, but our next game was against Charleston High and I assumed a loss. Charleston had finished runner-up in last year’s state tournament and they were big and talented and very well coached. If my bunch of underclassmen could stay in the gym with them, that would get us to the next game, against Riverside, a winnable game. I was guilty of looking past Charleston not because I took them lightly, but because I knew it was unrealistic to hope to win that game and what we really were needing right now was a win. I began thinking about how we might win against Riverside before we played Charleston.

We did lose to Charleston and that was not so bad. Everybody lost to Charleston.   The bad thing was that left us 0 and 4 for the season.

I was mature enough, even then, to take a loss – or two. Everybody loses. You don’t plan on it and you hope the other way, but if you have very many seasons under your belt as a player or coach, you learn to live with losses. You don’t allow a loss or two to crush you.

What you cannot and should never learn to live with is losing every game. Now that is humiliation. That is the kind of thing that can ruin the hope for a coaching career and destroy a program for years to come. The kids get desperate. Their friends start to talk. It’s easy for anybody to figure out what the coach did wrong. If only he had not cut those seniors. Anybody knows that so and so can’t handle the ball. If only he had gone with a zone. When you lose every game, these things, false as they might really be, are plain for everyone to see. Your players start to believe the critics and disbelieve in you. They get depressed and then they subconsciously play to lose. They expect to lose; they can’t remember why they chose to play; they have no confidence in anything the coach tells them; they doubt their own ability. Nobody wants to come back after a year like that.

At 0 and 4, I was starting to fear just that. We were progressing in some ways. We had learned the offensive and defensive systems I wanted to use. I was more and more confident in a few of my kids as scorers. But we had missed our two best opportunities for wins and the kind of momentum and encouragement a win will bring a team. A win tells you that you are not out of your league.   A win tells you that you have the right to go toe-to-toe with the guys in the other uniform. One win under your belt and suddenly nothing that lies before you seems insurmountable. And we had none, and I was getting more and more worried about when and if the first one would come. I did not want to slide into the oblivion of a winless season. A building year is one thing; a year without a win is ignominy. There is no explaining it except to acknowledge that you were where you did not belong; that you did not know what you were doing. Every day we were closer to that slow death and a few more losses would have completely destroyed morale and undermined our confidence.

That is why I began to think about the Riverside game even before we lost to Charleston. We had a real chance to beat Riverside and it might have been our last chance, at least for a long time.

We were down eight points early in the third quarter against Riverside when I decided to put Fouch into the game. I had been hesitant to use him throughout because, even though I could not have proven anything at the time, I even then suspected that he was behind some locker-room scuffles. Though he had never shown any sign of defiance in practice, I thought he might be insubordinate. I thought he might have been playing me. But we were down eight points in the third quarter of a game that I desperately hoped to win. A game that might have marked a turnaround in confidence and morale or might have been just one more step along the road to basketball perdition.

There were other things I had discovered about Fouch that I did not like. He rocked back and forth on the bench during the games. It was pronounced and obvious, but not something, in and of itself, that you can call a kid out for. It might mean nothing. It might just be excitement. But, as the losses continued to mount up for us, his rocking looked less like uncontrolled nervous energy and more like a deliberate expression of frustration with a know-nothing coach and a bunch of inept team-mates. I knew that my perception here was very likely skewed by my own disappointment and frustration at the losses, so I held my tongue on the point. But I remained suspicious.

When I looked down the bench that moment, he was rocking and chanting something to himself. Again, not so obviously or intrusively that you could really call him out for it, but as he rocked he repeated the Spanish phrase tengo mi gusto, tengo mi gusto.

I was not at all at ease about it, but at that point there was nothing else left to try. I was desperate to break this spell we were under, so I sent him in. Riverside was not ready for what would happen next. Neither was I.

On the court Fouch took it upon himself to guard the player who had been the hot shooter for Riverside that night. He stayed in the guy’s face, even when we were on offense. He stayed on the guy when he walked up the floor without the ball on change of possessions. He was in the guy’s face on every in-bounds play that Riverside tried and he stared at the kid, face to face, as if to dare him to do something about it. This was long before trash talking became a part of basketball, but Fouch was talking to the guy and he pointed to the student section of the crowd and then to the poor guy he was guarding and the crowd got his message and started razzing the Riverside shooter.

The shooter finally broke away from Fouch on a Riverside rebound and took a long pass downcourt and was headed for a breakaway layup. But Fouch, bolting like a madman, caught him from behind and, just before the shooter started his leap to the basket, dove from behind the kid’s right side and, with a war whoop and a belly-slide onto the floor, knocked his dribble away and out of bounds under their basket. It was a phenomenal play and a demonstration of those two things Fouch had – raw athleticism and a determination not to let the other guy get the best of things.

Fouch bounced back to his feet and, before the ref gave the ball to the in-bounder, took a step toward the student section, looked up at the kids, clenched his fists, and, red-faced and quivering with excitement like a predator smelling blood, roared at the top of his lungs.

High school kids do not pay to get into basketball games because of their dispassionate appreciation for the sport. Their urges are much more primal. They want to participate in a fight. Fouch understood this and his direct communication with the students brought them into the game in just the way that they craved. I had never heard such volume in our gym before. Our guys tipped, then stole the inbounds pass and hit a breaking guard for a layup and the whole student section rose and erupted.   The students never sat for the remaining ten minutes of the game. My team fed off of the emotion, transforming from a steady, boring group of underclassmen to a wave of pure energy. We shot the lights out. We beat them on the boards. We stole more passes. We won the game.

I have never felt such relief in my coaching career, before or since that night.

After the game I got bad news. A reporter from the Charleston paper, there to cover the game, had gotten photographs of some of my players smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk outside of the locker-room fire escape at halftime. I was in my office till midnight talking to supervisors at the paper in an effort to keep those pictures out of the next day’s Gazette and finally prevailed on a senior editor whose nephew I had played baseball with in high school. I represented things about my players that I did not know to be true, about unfortunate domestic circumstances and other hard luck. And I had to promise that I would nonetheless deal with the matter promptly and severely. But the next day I got the photographs – all of them. They had been hurriedly and unexpectedly snapped just outside the bright circles of the fire escape floodlights. The uniform jerseys and the red-tipped cigarettes were clear enough, but the faces were not discernible. Nonetheless, in one of the three photographs, Richard Fouch’s silhouette was unmistakable.

I will admit that if the photographs had preceded the win over Riverside, I would have acted immediately. Even in that first year, I was a believer in drawing the line and in the idea that a clear definition of authority, a message that no nonsense would be tolerated, was, hands down, the best for all concerned – for the team, for the boys individually, for the program, for me. If that meant the sacrifice of a player –even one of the better players – tough. I could not allow it to be understood that performance on the court permitted variance from the rules, from my authority.   If I had been faced with the problem before the win, the balance would have been easy. I had kept Fouch on that team for a reason, but I had never thought of him as indispensable, and this business with the cigarettes was just the kind of thing that I had half expected and fully feared from him.   I would probably simply have asked him for a confession and, almost certainly getting a dodge, confronted him with the pictures and sent him packing.

But, we were now 1-4. No one would describe that as comfortable, but, nonetheless, an early-season record not terribly inconsistent with the notion of rebuilding and of promise and heading in the right direction. The night before were only a whisker away from being 0-5 and in serious danger of becoming a kind of laughingstock. I owed that difference to Fouch, there was no denying it. That made the question a bit harder, but, still, I was resolved. I would confront him and if I got the truth immediately – which I really doubted – then I would have allowed some arduous road for him to get back into good standing on the team. But if he prevaricated, or even equivocated, then he was gone. I had given it a lot of thought. Like a lawyer preparing for a cross-examination, I thought through every question and imagined every possible answer and settled on my response to each one. Ninety percent of coaching is psychology. I was not going to let him get the upper hand and I knew of all the 18-year-olds I had ever coached, this one would be a real challenge on that point.

I was ready, right down the detail of where each of us would be seated for the talk in my office. I was going to call him in after practice. I was resolved. Until we had our practice.

It is true that practice is essential to success in basketball or any team sport. But, it is equally true that you can thoughtfully organize and expertly carry out practices, day after day, and never take a step in the direction of improvement. The kids have to focus. They have to want to get better and they have to desperately want to win and to reach the point where they can be proud of what they’ve done. They have to put away childish things.   They have to visualize success and think about what it means and what it would taste like and then the desire for that imagined thing has to outweigh every obstacle that is between them and that desire.   The desire for success has to outweigh the fatigue, the injuries, the sacrifice of almost every other noncompulsory thing in their lives, the rivalries and jealousies, the fears, frustrations and disappointments of all-out physical competition. Fostering this elusive attitude is more than half of any coach’s job and so far in that season, I had had little success in that effort. I had seen little in the way of desire.

We began practice that afternoon, as usual, by running Michigan States. There are lots of different names for this drill – running lines, yo-yos – but anyone who has played scholastic basketball at any level knows what they are. Starting from one baseline and racing to a line crossing at about quarter court, touching that one and then back, touch the baseline and then back to the next line, back and forth, back and forth, touching every line that crosses the court. They are grueling when done properly; everyone who has played can remember their burning lungs, the sharp stitch in their side and their legs aching during and after this drill. Michigan States are commonly ordered by coaches as punishment, but that is not the only thing they are good for, and it is not the purpose for which they were originally designed.

Rightly used, they develop not only the kind of stamina you need to get up and down the court at game pace, they also can encourage a kind of competitive fire and give the player a mental and physical connection to the court itself. But, like anything else, they have to be done right if they are going to have any good effect and right, in this case, means at full throttle, and that is what makes it hurt.

There are things a coach can do to try to insure that the kids are going all-out in the drill – punishing the last finisher with more reps or trying to keep time on a stopwatch. But these things are far less effective than having an enthusiastic leader among the troops. Somebody that will go at top end, burning lungs or not. Somebody who will show the next guy up. Somebody who will push it.

By the time the kids get to high school, though, they are usually so familiar with each other and the agony of the drill that they have an unspoken understanding that nobody will take it full tilt and if anybody is going to show anybody else up in practice, it is not going to be in this drill.

But on that day, the next practice after the win over Riverside, Richard Fouch led the drill like a man possessed. He’d been a middle-of-the-pack-guy before and I had been pretty certain that he was kind of a union leader in the effort to keep things at a lower intensity. But not that day.   This time he was through with the whole drill while others were still working on the last few trips up and down. And he yelled. He yelled other player’s names as he passed them on the court and he yelled at the team we were facing next. Every line he touched, he screamed “Beat Milbey.” The practice was absolutely transformed. I had myself a team leader and, apparently, it was just what I needed. When they circled to hear me explain something, to tell them something about how Milbey would play us, there was no more listless looking at the ceiling or through the glass doors, no more goosing one another. Fouch was intent on me, looking right at me, nodding as I spoke, and the others followed his lead.   This was business. They soaked up in that one afternoon everything I had planned to teach that whole week. They were serious in the shooting drills, too – even free-throws. Percentages were up, it was easy to see.

We closed practice that evening with another round of Michigan States, as was our usual way, but this the boys ran in unison; very hard, but all together; and with every line they touched, the beautiful, hearty chorus “Beat Milbey” rang forth from every mouth of my transformed players.

I was more pleased than a coach who is 1 and 4 for the season should ever allow himself to be and I tried to rein myself in, but my speech at the end of practice was upbeat and the kids were eating it up. It felt like it ought to have felt.

I sent them to the showers and headed for my office and once in my chair I remembered the unpleasant duty that awaited regarding Fouch and the cigarettes. I still intended to confront him. It just had to be done. There was no way around that. But the equation had changed. I had to resolve this matter, but the prospect of him leaving the team now meant far more than it ever had before. I did not want to lose him now. I knew that all of the strategies I had planned out before were now obsolete. I needed a new plan, new tactics and new ideas and so I put it off. I did not confront Fouch that evening.

That evening and all the next day, up until practice, I seriously pondered what my new strategy with Fouch should be. I really did not know where my conversation with him would lead. Fouch was an unpredictable young man, older than the other boys in some ways, and I knew I did not have the absolute control over him that I had over almost every other player.   What sixteen-year-old boys want more than anything else is distinction – something that makes them different from the guy on the right and the guy on the left. I, of course, held the key to that distinction – membership on the varsity team and playing time. In almost every conversation with almost every kid, the unspoken question that loomed over every demand I made was this: Do you want to play?

At sixteen, a young man’s perspective is completely wrong about almost everything. They don’t think their classes are important. They don’t think they have anything worthwhile to learn from history or literature. They do not even contemplate the prospect of failure in whatever it is they will do as an adult. They think that the girl they fall for in the spring of the year will be the only girl that could ever satisfy them and they view their loss of her – as inevitably happens – as a fate worse than death. They are wrong about all of these things. But, they have an incredibly strong and accurate intuition about the evanescent and rare opportunity to play varsity sports. They know with a wordless sense as strong and true as that of migrating birds or spawning salmon that the moment of opportunity is fleeting and that this experience, no matter what comes later, is absolutely irreplaceable. That is, there is nothing like it. Being the envy of your peers at the very height of your strength. What other season does life give us that is so vivid, so heroic and so fraternal?

But here, as in almost every other way, Fouch was an exception. He had never disrespected me yet, and I am sure that he knew the implied threat that I and every other coach he had played for kept as a down-card in every conversation. Yet I imagined that Fouch could do without basketball more easily than the others, or, perhaps more accurately, that his own independence and swagger was more important to him than the precious opportunity to play and that, if confronted with his misbehavior and cornered, the outcome was not so easily predicted.

It was not out of the question that Fouch would simply deny any wrongdoing. This would have left us in the uncomfortable tension of me being almost certain that he had perpetrated the underlying wrong and that he had lied to me about it. I did not want to head down that road because I had not made up my mind about how much of his prevarication I would put up with. I did not really want to be put to that test. Another possibility was that Fouch would fess up immediately and walk out rather than accept any chastisement or limitation. That prospect was very real to me and after his surprising contribution to the win over Riverside, it looked more and more like something I wanted to avoid.

Like I said, I did agonize over this, but on that following day I had still come up with no answer. No sure-fire or even satisfactory plan of attack. I still knew that I could not just let it go, but I did not confront Fouch before practice that next day.

When I walked out of my office and onto the court that afternoon, I saw what I always saw – gaggles of players around the baskets, shooting and loosening up. But this time I did not have to blow my whistle. When the kids saw me come onto the floor, they rolled the balls to the managers and trotted to the far baseline and lined up for Michigan States. And practice, again, ran like a clock. The kids were focused and serious. They were learning. They were starting to get it.

I’ll tell you, there is real beauty in the high school game. The players at this level are unformed and don’t have the strength or mental maturity to compete like college players, but basketball is a young man’s game and, in some real sense, more the game of a 17-year-old than a 21-year-old. At this level, if things are working, you see a real player grow into himself almost game by game.   Watching that happen and knowing you’ve had a hand in giving a kid new power and confidence, well, there’s not much else like it. And the kids are never more thrilled by the game than at the high-school level. High-schoolers are the last real amateurs, and their love for the game is nothing short of romantic. Jerry West, a collegiate All-American who played for the NCAA Championship at WVU and won a NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers and an NBA MVP award, makes no bones about it. He would tell you – he told me – that his greatest thrill in his storied career was winning the state championship for East Bank High School in 1956.

In that practice, I saw kids getting to take advantage of that elusive thing that so few ever get to taste. I saw a real possibility of growth and success. More than I had imagined before. And it was then that I began to reconsider the whole matter of the cigarettes and the photographs. Smoking, after all, was not against the law – not even for the kids, at that time.   In fact, over half of the population did it. And this business of having a cigarette at halftime was probably just a one-time prank, born of the frustration that we were certainly, as a team, on the brink of escaping. If the matter had been brought to a head right then it was very likely that we’d never escape that frustration. If I had confronted Fouch, I could not have let the other two players in the pictures, whoever they were, go free. The upshot of it all might have been – in fact, very likely would have been – the loss of three players, Fouch and two others, and the complete devastation of the season that was right now looking more and more promising with every practice. It would have had implications for the next two years, at least. I decided to put the matter on hold; to wait and see.

I did not have to wait long. Our next game was against Dunbar, another better than average team from our conference. We were at home again, and I had anticipated coming onto the floor that evening with the same new sense of confidence and optimism that had marked our recent practice sessions. But that did not happen. I don’t know why it had not crossed my mind before then, but on the afternoon of the Dunbar game it hit me like a ton of bricks that it was more than likely that the kids were aware that they had been photographed and aware that I knew it. And so my compromise was less comfortable to me. It was one thing to overlook something that might have been relatively harmless, in view of the greater good. It was another to ignore wrongdoing when the culprit knew that you knew about it. What seemed to be too good to be true these last few days was in fact too good to be true. I was being played and I knew in my bones that there would be reckoning and that the matter would not end happily.

So convinced, I resolved to leave Fouch on the bench for the entire game. The honeymoon was over. But the drama of the game unfolded just as the laughing gods might have willed it. After leading for almost the entire first half, we fell apart in the third quarter. We were down eight points at the break and the crowd, which was almost a sellout, was screaming for Fouch.   I knew that the game was in reach for us. Dunbar’s run was the result of some bad shooting and lazy defense on our part. We could take them, I knew it, and we could have left the gym that evening 2 and 4 and well on the way to a .500 record or we could have left 1 and 5 and the single win against Riverside would have looked more and more like a fluke.

I put Fouch into the game, even though I knew it was wrong.

Fouch immediately attached himself to Dunbar’s center. He was a good five inches taller than Fouch, but slow. A kind of gangly, acne-ridden, hairy goon of a kid. This guy was not a talented basketball player, but he was very strong and knew how to establish position. He had kept my guys off the boards all night. Just before I put Fouch into the game, this kid had three offensive rebounds in one possession.

As I said before, Fouch’s continual exposure to his parent’s bickering had made him an expert on psychological vulnerability. He had an immediate and sure sense of what would hurt a person and absolutely no hesitation about exploiting any human sensitivity or weakness. On his first trip down the court, Fouch bumped the Dunbar center and then flopped onto the floor as if the kid had hit him. Our local referees were susceptible to that kind of fakery back then and called the guy for a foul. Before getting to the line for his shots (he missed the front end of a one-and-one here) Fouch walked by the center and, eyeing the student section, pointed to the guy’s feet (the center did have some big feet). This, of course, was immediately understood by the crowd and from that time on, they chanted “bigfoot” every time he got the ball.

I have been told, since then, some of the things that Fouch taunted that guy with that night. I don’t recall them word for word, but they had to do with just what you’d think – the kid’s complexion problems, his hairy back.

It happened so quickly that I could not tell what had happened. Fouch was in a tussle with the big guy for the ball and then Fouch was slung against the cinderblock wall under the basket and then Fouch was in a pile on the floor in his own blood. His jaw was broken in two places and he never played another minute of high-school basketball.

copyright 2015

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