Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 17)

Faithful readers (and not so faithful readers), here is Chapter 17 of my new novel, Overtime: A Basketball Parable.  If you’ve been following this blog, you may be up to date on the story; if not, you might want to back up on this blog and starting reading with . . . well, the start.  It’s all on here, chapters 1 through 16.

I’d really appreciate any feedback from readers.

Thanks!

17.

Ron McClure had played for Walhonde High ten years before I got there. It was a different world in his day, a different school and basketball a different game. While some adults in town did show an interest in the basketball program, it was far easier to get support from those who wished that they had played than from those who actually did. The program had not had many winning seasons and most of the players from Ron’s day simply wanted nothing to do with the game anymore, hoping to forget their failures and disappointments on the court. Some others wanted to make it appear that they had advanced to such a station in life that they had no time for anything as juvenile and unprofitable as high-school basketball.

Ron was one of a very few who had enough humility to keep a space open in his life for the game of basketball, remembering, I guess, the unmatchable thrill of it and, maybe, appreciating something more lasting that the experience had given him. He had worked to become a certified basketball official and was, far and away, the best referee available in our conference.   He sold insurance in town and I would see him often in local restaurants, laying out the details of one policy or another to a husband and wife. In those days I often ate alone and sometimes, after his meeting was over, he’d sit down in my booth and we’d talk basketball. He was never a Monday-morning quarterback, but he was knowledgeable of the game and often had good insights into things that affected my coaching – how he would distinguish between a charge and a block; which of the other referees in the conference would be quick on to call a technical foul; prejudices particular officials had against other coaches, players and me.

Although I would know better than to do it now, in those days I was young and naïve about many things and I am sure that I complained now and then about the measly paycheck I got from the county for my unending hours of labor in the office and in the gyms and playgrounds around the town. I once started to figure out what I was actually being paid by the hour and, after a few preliminary calculations, I stopped the process, surprised at what it portended and not wanting to know, really, how cheaply the school was getting my services and how near I was to servitude of the kind that can never be escaped.

Ron was the sort of man – and there are very few of this sort – who could actually talk to you about money without being superior or condescending about it. He was building a fortune. The trick to his game was that every sale kept paying him for as long as the client kept paying the premiums on the policy, which was usually till they died. What that meant was that every year he made more money and did less work. His company also had opportunities for investing available to agents that were not available to the general public. He was thirty-one years old when he told me that he was working fewer than thirty hours a week and that he would have his mortgage paid off in three years.

There would be no thrill in such a career, but there would be very little disappointment in it, either, and in the last few years of coaching I had been short on thrills and long on disappointment. I talked to Ron about the possibility of selling part-time while I continued coaching, but I knew very well that I could not continue to coach if I had a divided work life. As much as I had come to resent the paltry pay my job afforded me, it would have been impossible for me to coach and give it anything less than my all. It was the nature of the beast. To win, you have to be ahead of the other guy and that means more thought, more effort, more concentration, more imagination. I could never have given less and continued to coach. I knew that selling part time, if I had anything like the success Ron McClure had had, would lead to my leaving coaching entirely and quickly.

Ron provided me with literature about the company that detailed the kind of training I would have to complete to become an agent. I had read it over and had more or less decided that it was the way I had to go. Coaching had not worked out for me and there was no realistic prospect that it would ever work out to anything approaching what I had once dreamed and believed that it would. I had to be sensible, to grow up, build some security and accept the loss of my dream.

I kept the information about the company, along with the application that I had completed but left unsigned, in a mailing flat laying on the passenger seat of my car. For days, even weeks, maybe, I continued to glance at and contemplate the life-changing documents in the seat beside me and to put off the inevitable, still resisting the surrender of the whistle, the clipboard, the gymnasium and the fever of the game. Still resisting the abandonment of my dream and the admission of existential defeat.

It was laying in that seat on an early evening in August of 1979 when I drove to the riverside courts on the far end of town for what I believed would be my last survey of the basketball talent of my little town – talent that had been often interesting, at times promising, but always and ever, insufficient. This was actually a part of the job that I still enjoyed. There was no pressure on me to win in the moment and I still trusted my instincts about talent and potential.

The humid air magnified the familiar smells from the chemical plants up and down the river that were then still supplying the world with polyethylene and insecticides. And the cicadas that infested the trees lining the riverbank were loud, telling the world that it was almost time for school to begin again.   It was that time in late August when the early evening of the day was also the early evening of the summer. The long daylight hours had begun to ebb noticeably and as the shadows reached their longest a cool breeze would arise and surprise, turning the still green leaves silver side up.

These were signs that most of the kids dreaded and wanted to ignore, signaling, as they did, the end to the long days without assignments, the aquatic, musical nights with friends, the sense of timelessness. For them these signs pointed to the return of something near incarceration, of being confined in rooms too small and too hot and being lorded over by men and women whom they believed, sometimes justly, had nothing to impart to them and who had simply chosen the easy way for themselves.

But I remembered the cool breezes as the sound of trumpets, calling me back to battle; back to the world of endeavor and effort and the chance of victory and distinction.

I walked slowly to the shelter, not wanting to communicate my presence to the boys playing on the court on the terraced lawn below, a good football-field distant from me. They would notice me soon enough, but the few minutes of completely candid observation that such stealth would afford had always served me well in evaluating not so much pure talent, but attitude.

The kids were already playing and I took a seat on a picnic table above the court, far enough away so as not to be in any danger of being accused of coaching or managing out of season. I left my clipboard in the car, partly because I did not expect anything noteworthy from this bunch and partly because I knew, or felt, that I was on my way out of coaching.

This group of kids was in many ways a good one. They stayed out of trouble and were earnest in practice and more or less got along with each other. There was better than average size in this group and decent speed and defensive skill. The problem was scoring. We had no outside threat at all. Teams learned that quickly enough and invariably played us with a 2-3 zone, smothering us on the inside and daring us to shoot from the perimeter. We had worked on shooting last season – a lot – with some results, but none of these kids was a born shooter.   With that kind of limitation so well known by our competitors we would be lucky to break .500 this coming season.

I knew almost all of the kids out there on the court, but there were a few incoming sophomores I had not seen before. I had not been to a junior-high game in years and formed first impressions of new players only on what I heard from the coaches and gleaned from the box-scores in the newspaper. I did not expect much this year.

But there was a kid in the first game – I had never seen him before and did not know his name – who was throwing them in from left field. I figured he lived in one of the little hovels below the park on the riverside and that this was where he played all the time and that he just had the place wired. I was right about where he lived, but wrong in thinking that his shooting skill would be limited to this court.

Apparently, sides had been picked by boys who had then been unaware of this kid’s dead-eye shooting, because he had a couple of my best varsity guys on his team. They stayed up all evening. It took a couple of games for his teammates to see that this kid was money from twenty feet, but once they did, it was lights out. The older kids would work the ball into the lane, let the defense collapse, then whip a pass out to this kid, who would be quietly set up in one of the corners or above the key and he would catch and shoot without a dribble and, with incredible frequency, rip the net.

Body language told me a lot. This kid might have been confident of his shot, but he was unsure of himself. Between games he returned to the slump-shouldered posture that was common to the kids who lived on the outskirts of the district and a level or two below the modest comfort that most of the in-town kids enjoyed. He did not engage with the other kids between games, staying out if the knots that formed around coolers and, later on, a car-load of girls just arrived from one of the town’s swim clubs, all tan and glowing.

I knew how he felt. The game was the only thing he had; the only way he belonged.

There was another person who figured this out and made an effort to bring the kid into the flow of things. Brandon Murphy had made last year’s team – talent was thin that year, and Murphy did have some of the things that you can’t coach. He was tall by our standards – about 6’3” – and extremely smart. In many ways the smartest kid I ever coached. One time through a new offense and he understood it. Not only where he and the others were supposed to be at any given point, but why they were supposed to be there. The theory of it. How it was supposed to work. He was emotionally intelligent, too. He knew how to work the kids better than I did.

Murphy read this shooter like a book.

The kid sunk a twenty-footer from the corner to end the game and stood in his spot for a moment while the other kids were high-fiving and back-slapping and razzing each other. The kid did not join in this, but ambled off of the court, away from the other players and onto the grass toward the riverbank. He looked away at the wide river, as silent and distant as the barge that floated downstream in the bend below.

Brandon Murphy left a knot of players around a water fountain and went out onto the grass and nodded to the shooter and stood with him and pointed out toward the river with an open hand and spoke to the kid and the kid nodded and spoke and waived his hand in the same direction. Their long evening shadows stretching away on the grass.   Murphy nodded again and spoke again and poked his finger into his chest and then into the kid’s chest and then his own again and the nodded toward the court. Murphy then patted the shooter on the back and the two of them walked back onto the court for the next game.

They played on – winner staying up – all that evening. No combination of the other kids could match them.   I stayed under the shelter. They all knew I was watching them. The rules did not allow me any hands-on coaching until mid-October, and I was gathering all I needed from my distant vantage point. More than I had expected, really.   In fact, in watching those three hours of pick-up basketball, the course of my life changed.

What struck me then – I should say stabbed me – was not only my spiritual kinship to this gifted shooter. That was obvious enough: he was poor and an outsider just as I had been.   His talent or gift – and the thing that could bring him out of a life of limitation and stagnation and dead endings into another of competition and respect and acceptance and education and growth – was basketball. Same as me. I knew this kid. I had been just where he was now. I was much younger than him when my transformation began, but I knew what he was feeling. And the memory of that painful emotion churned up old aspirations in me that I and the world around me had been conspiring to choke for years. At the time I did not understand the relationship between this revelation and what I had been watching on the court, although that relationship is clear to me now. What struck me so clearly then, as clearly as if a voice had spoken it – a voice did not speak it – was this: what I needed more than anything else in the moment and in the next year and in the course of my whole life and the thing that nothing could ever replace and that I would forever be unfulfilled without was victory.

This kid could provide me with one more chance. Even so, I might have continued on the course I thought I had chosen. I could have hedged my bet and opted for the kind of life that so many are happy with – or at least content with or at least seemingly content with – but I did not hedge. Instead I decided push every last chip I had into the pot and vowed to give it one more try.

I now realized that I did not want financial security as an end in itself. I had no domestic obligations; no mouths to feed but my own, and I had enough will about me to keep it that way. I did not want money for what it could do, but for what it would mean. I did not want security; I wanted triumph. I wanted my lifelong investment to pay off.   In that moment I learned or admitted to myself that any advantage I would gain through selling insurance – more money every year, shorter hours every year, investment opportunities, even a wife and family – would be hollow and empty without the satisfaction of knowing that I had done what I set out to do; that I had climbed the mountain that had been in front of me from the time I was twelve years old.

While my new strategy was now clear, not all of the tactics were. I had intended to cut Murphy from the team this year. It was usually very easy to get rid of kids like him. For Murphy, basketball was not a passion; not the main thing. He was not willing to put himself through the work and punishment that excellence in the sport demanded. The kids I wanted for my teams were those who were ready – even eager – to make real sacrifices for the game.   Kids at this level had to be willing to put everything else aside – their pride, their bodies, their other interests – and endure the exhaustion and the physical punishment of my practice sessions. None of them would improve otherwise; we would not become a team otherwise; we would lose otherwise. Time and again I cut from my teams kids who had the physical skills to play but who were not almost pathologically dedicated to the sport. I wanted kids who had been deprived elsewhere, who needed basketball enough to hurt for it; who would stand for the mental beatings I would dish out, day after day.

In the prior year, Murphy had lasted through the practices and, in fact, was never the last to finish anything. But he did not give it everything he had.   It was vexing to me to admit it, but Murphy had enough in reserve – enough size and strength and skill – to, despite his less than full effort – put himself comfortably in the middle of the seven or eight best players from his class. Even so, I might have cut him, had it not been for his smarts. He was an outstanding student, although more than one of his teachers told me that his profile was the same in the classroom. He coasted.   With only moderate effort, he sailed through the advanced courses offered at the school, again, placing comfortably among the very top few students. His teachers told me what I knew of him from basketball – that he could have been the best. Maybe the best they had ever seen. But being near the top was good enough for him.

Of course, it was not the book smarts that impressed me about Murphy. What he brought to the basketball court was a particular kind of intelligence that apprehends instantly and intuitively the strategies and weaknesses of an opponent. This is the intelligence of the gifted general and the champion boxer. Brandon Murphy was certain of his own mental superiority and could psychoanalyze his opponent almost instantly. He could look at a player’s face and watch him in pregame layup drills and know the weaknesses of his heart. Murphy, who had spent his life being smarter than anyone around him, had absolute trust in his own judgments and, thus, enough confidence and determination to offset any minor misinterpretations. Moreover, because Murphy was so certain of his own superiority and the inferiority of those around him, he had not the slightest compunction about exploiting to the very earth every weakness he sensed or discerned.   Murphy would soon have his man convinced that he had figured him out, even if he hadn’t.   His Maravich-like looks helped him in this manipulation. Because he favored the great white basketball hope of the day, people wanted to like him and they wanted him to like them. Murphy knew how to leverage that capital, too.

But there was more to Murphy than just this psychological edge. He comprehended the court like a choreographer comprehends the stage. He knew intuitively where players were supposed to be and when they were supposed to be there. He knew instantly when an opposing player was out of place on defense and he reacted accordingly, getting the ball where it needed to go. When I introduced new offenses or defenses, he understood them immediately. He grasped the underlying philosophies – what the schemes were designed to do.   I did not teach him this. It was all gift.

Gifts may win ballgames at the junior high level, but at the high-school level the games are almost all decided by will and grit, and these were the things that Murphy lacked.   He was interested in the mental and personal challenge that the game provided him and relished the mental dominance he repeatedly achieved. He knew that basketball, even without his complete investment, was the thing that kept him from being bored with life as a high-school student. He loved the social advantage that being a varsity player inevitably brought. But winning was not important to him. Not important enough. Losing bothered him for the moment, but it did not hurt. It did not stay with him and move him to greater commitment, to greater effort. He was, in the worst sense of the term, an “amateur.”

I continued to follow the unsupervised play of this same bunch of boys aiming to make my team for the coming season.   After school began, the unofficial practices moved from the riverside park to inside the school’s gym. The rules still prohibited me from doing any coaching, but I could watch, and through the window of my office, I did.   I quickly learned that this kid’s dead-eye shooting was not limited to his home court by the river. He could fill it up in the gym, too.   I also listened. The long-shooter’s name was Mark Sparks. He lived, as I had imagined, in one of the tiny shacks beside the river just below the chemical plant. His dad, Delmar Sparks, was, as we put it back then, bad to drink. To say the least, this kid, who could shoot the bottom out of the basket, was fragile. I knew his type only too well. A mute and tough exterior – nothing matters to me; you can’t hurt me – that kind of attitude.   That gets them through most of the challenges they face as kids, but high-school basketball, if it is to be played well, presents another kind of trial. It, in the final analysis, requires the surrender of fronts and facades. It takes a humble and audacious effort from the heart of hearts. The kid must admit that he does care about something; that he in fact can be defeated and hurt; and then he must channel all of his will and strength toward reaching the goal. Sparks was too brittle for this, I knew. If he was going to play, there had to be some way to mediate – some intercessor.

I don’t think Sparks would have continued to play with the group, even given his success on the evening I watched him, without the encouragement of Brandon Murphy.

Murphy always schemed to get Sparks on his pickup teams. After the other boys saw what was happening, they resisted in order to forestall this unbeatable combination, but that ended after it was seen that without Murphy on his team Sparks was just another guy.   I had comments from teachers, too. Murphy had taken to assisting Sparks with his classes and the improvement was immediate and substantial. Murphy, with looks, smarts, athleticism and money, was, of course, the favorite of the best-looking girls, and Sparks, who Murphy repeatedly introduced as the next basketball star of the school, was granted entry into this coveted and intoxicating society, as well.

I had never seen anything like this from him before. Murphy had never been particularly encouraging to anyone else on the team. Although his peers valued his opinion above all others, he never offered sympathy to anyone who had failed or disappointed. He never congratulated or even openly recognized individual successes and had no particular friends on the team. But he treated Sparks like a brother.

It should not have been surprising that Murphy was so good at this. He sized people up so accurately, so quickly. He plumbed the depth of Sparks’ heart in a moment and knew how to assuage his every insecurity and fear.

I was baffled not by Murphy’s ability, but by this inconsistent application of his talents. I spent a good deal of time and energy trying to fathom it. Although I was never finally satisfied with the idea, I let myself believe then that Murphy’s newfound charity was based on his superior insight into the terrible disability that Sparks labored under. Nobody else had what Murphy had, and that did not seem to affect Murphy, but Sparks did not even have what everyone else on the team more or less had. Maybe beneath all of the seeming selfishness and superiority, Murphy at last had something of the good aristocrat about him. Maybe this was noblesse oblige.

I was wrong.

Because Murphy was essential to the support of Mark Sparks, I abandoned the notion of cutting Murphy from the team. I now believe – and I am finally satisfied with this – that Murphy was ahead of me. That he had seen my disappointment in him and knew that he was vulnerable to being left off of the list when tryouts were finished. That would have been the kind of insult that would have done real damage to Murphy’s image and I am certain now that all of his efforts on Sparks’ behalf were calculated and completely selfish. He saw Sparks’ talent, he knew what I would think of the kid, and without the first hesitation or regret he used Sparks – his talents, his vulnerabilities, his personality – to insure himself a place on my team. Murphy was ruthless, and smarter than any of us.

copyright 2015

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