When tryouts began, I contemplated a season of development. Sparks was a junior, and no matter how fast he might develop, he would never be the high school player he had the potential to be in just one season.
The regulations of the county school board did not permit me to lock the doors of the gymnasium. But in those days the most important rules were unwritten. There were unseen fences and boundaries that people somehow knew of and did not question. Then it was tacitly understood, like so many things were understood, that my practices – like those of any high-school varsity – were closed; private. Nowadays nothing goes unquestioned. Everything is a matter to be debated in meeting after meeting. Everything subject to parental councils with elected officers. Some say that this is good; that it is more democratic; that it indicates parental concern. Maybe so. But there are things lost when the unwritten rules are thrown aside, no matter how democratically determined the new rules may be.
What is varsity basketball? Is it something almost beyond reach? A kind of hallowed ground that only the few can inhabit in that fleeting moment when all of it matters? Is it the peak of peaks? That complete and uninhibited expression of all that is good and fleeting about young manhood? The perfect spending of that coveted currency of strength and speed given only to the few and only for a moment? There are those who want to make sure that it is not those things. These folks talk about bullying and equality and fairness, but I have known them and they are motivated, at last, by envy. These people – it is not simply that they have not reached the exalted ground themselves; it is that they have given up trying. They have no hope of ever reaching it. So, it is only a dream. If I cannot get there, it must be nothing but an illusion. If my children cannot reach the goal, then it must be that the goal is not there. It must be only a deception and the right thing to do, obviously, is to expose it as such – to disabuse people of it, to make sure that it is not given any consideration above things that are real. Thus, in my later years I had to tolerate the Anchor Club girls decorating the gym walls for the dance while I ran my boys until they dropped.
Let me tell you something. If varsity basketball is not the exalted ground that it was traditionally imagined to be, it is simply not worth the effort. If I am ever going to be able to get what I need from a player, the privilege of playing with his school’s name on his jersey has to mean something more than just a way to have some fun and improve his physical skill-set. He has to want it very, very badly. He has to envy the guy in front of him. He has to obsess about what he can do to get there; about what he might be doing that is keeping him from getting there. You will never see the kind of improvement that must occur unless those motives are present. Here is something else: if varsity basketball is not what it is traditionally imagined to be, lots of other things will fall by the wayside, too. Lots of them have. If varsity sports do not provide a sort of controlled and civil war between communities, if they are not allowed to provide a great stage for the display of local ambition, skill and courage, then the young men are justified in their hatred of school. The place conscripts the days and confines the hours of a young man’s greatest strength and then makes no place for its exercise. It is unnatural. Such a school has no more character than a gray bureaucracy.
In the years that Mark Sparks played for me, there was enough of the old culture left to assure that my practices would remain private. In those days there were still a few players who did not have their own cars. In those days, fathers, not mothers, picked their sons up from practice. In those days no one – not the fathers who had themselves played and had therefore some claim of right to enter the gym, who would have had more than a superficial or selfish interest in what was going on there; and not the fathers who never played and would not have understood the justifications of the unwritten rule – no one breached the sanctity of the gymnasium.
I never had to explain the rule then, or offer any justifications for it. But the rule is easily justified.
If practice is not conducted at a fever pitch; if you do not have the players’ full attention, if you are not demanding, moment by moment, the very best that every player can give; if you are not mercilessly and immediately exposing their mistakes, mental and physical, the moment they occur, if you are not pulling each player in, inch by inch, to a territory of speed and strength that they would never otherwise inhabit, the result is sure and predictable: you will lose.
Achieving this level of concentration for a two or three-hour session requires many things. It requires a great deal of planning. I have to know exactly what I want to do, how I am going to do it, how much time I have to get it done and how I will know that I have succeeded. But it also requires complete seclusion.
There was at least one more reason. One of the things that came with making the team and having to pay the price in time and pain was a new status. The relationship I had with my players was not like the relationship between students and teachers. It was far more intense and it was far more confidential. I yelled, I screamed and I cursed at them. I was in their faces and I said things to them, time and again, that were calculated to upset them and that would have been grounds for a fight in any other circumstance. It was just assumed that none of this would go outside of the gymnasium. I knew that nobody would tell their mothers and fathers what I had called them in practice or how I had described their efforts and abilities. This was a part of the code of the elite fraternity to which they belonged. Here they were independent and responsible in themselves. If there were parents – or anybody else for that matter – walking in and out of the place at will my style would have been cramped. I’d have never gotten my message across in the short time I had to do it.
There was another side to that coin. Inasmuch as these boys took me at my loudest and most profane into their complete and sacred confidence, I did the same for them. I might have serious issues with a player and it might cost him in playing time or in sprints up and down the court after practice, but a player’s dispute with me never went anywhere else. I never sought the assistance of a father or mother in any issue I had with a player. I have had fathers in my office who knew that something was wrong in their son’s situation. Begging me to fill them in. They wanted to help. I would never divulge it. If you think your son has a problem in the program, I would say, that is something you will have to have him explain. My practices and my relationships with my players are private. They are our business, as far as I am concerned. They have to deal directly with me and I have to deal directly with them.
My practices were private; secret. For good reason. Like I said, in Mark Sparks’ day, no one seemed to doubt that. No one, that is, but Sparks’ old man.
In the first week of varsity practice, he walked into my gym, climbed the bleachers and sat himself down, feet on the row below, shoulders on the row above, for the last hour of practice. I could have dealt with this situation diplomatically with any other father. You don’t make a scene. You presume the intrusion is not meant as a statement but is born of ignorance and good will. What you do is approach the father right after practice is over, shake his hand, find out which boy belongs to him, say a word about his kid’s potential and then explain to him the need to keep the practice time absolutely private. You pull them in; make them understand that they are contributing to the effort by helping to keep things the way they ought to be. They are eating out of your hand from then on. It never takes any more than that.
But Sparks’ dad was another matter.
Delmar Sparks was no more than forty years old then, but he carried the personae and bore the characteristics of townsmen of a much earlier day. I can still see him in a photograph of a work-crew in front of a newly-completed elementary school building. The other workers are standing, dressed in work-clothes, but Delmar is wearing an undershirt and dress pants and is squatting like Geronimo, his arms wrapped around his knees. The veins in his forearms bulging and his blue eyes squinting at the camera, asking every onlooker if they could possibly have any doubt about who really was responsible for the tall and straight brick walls behind him. All of the forces of life ran open-throttle through Delmar, unabated by social convention. Although he was licensed to drive and used a truck to haul material, he made his way around town walking. He never wore a coat. You could see him in the middle of January, nineteen degrees out, and he would be walking along the road in a flannel shirt and white canvas pants, spattered with paint and plaster, cupping a hand-rolled cigarette against the wind. He was not a man to hold a job; he answered to no mortal master, but he could, and often did work harder than most men could have imagined. There were stories about him contracting to finish foundations for houses going up in the city and laying five hundred cinderblocks by himself overnight. He was a master carpenter and plasterer. There was still a good bit of residential construction in the town at that time and Delmar could and did make money quicker than most men. But he could spend it faster than any woman. After a hard day’s work, nothing consoled him like kicking the cap of a fifth of whiskey and kicking the ass of any man who was ignorant enough to get in his way. Living, as a he did, in that shack on the riverside, his expenses were modest. Money, for Delmar, was just a means of having a good time.
Or so it then seemed. Delmar dropped dead in May of 2010, on the same day that he had framed and wired the first floor of a law office in town and punched out a newly-hired police officer who had found Delmar’s truck double-parked and not known what he was getting into. That evening they found over $141,000 in small bills stashed in wads throughout the drawers and containers on shelves in his bedroom.
Delmar had not played sports in his day. Not because he lacked either the strength or speed or determination necessary. It was rather that rules and officiating made the business to tame for his taste. If someone wanted to challenge him, he would fight, but he saw no reason to brook the intrusions of anyone with a clipboard or whistle. And why on earth would any man spend that much time and effort without getting a dollar for it?
It was not that Delmar Sparks did not know of the unwritten rules. He knew all of the old ways and generally would have agreed with the idea that the unwritten codes were the most important. What Delmar meant to communicate when he unceremoniously pushed open the gym door and traipsed halfway up the bleachers and sprawled out there, feet on the row below, shoulders on the row above, was that the rules, unwritten or not, did not apply to him.
Delmar Sparks’ entry into the gym did not produce the kind of disruption or distraction that I had to guard against. But the mood in the gym did change. The kids were more serious, more focused, pushing harder. I should not have been surprised. Delmar’s reputation as a fighter and strongman was deep and wide in that town and it was the kind of legend that boys like mine thrived on. They understood that he was not a man who trifled with his time and so his presence here meant something. They also wanted to show him that they had their own strength and toughness. They were also scared of him and more than happy to have him associated with their effort
All of that was fine, for that day, but it was, nonetheless, not something that I could ignore or let go. He could not simply be given free rein into and out of my practice sessions. At some point, probably very soon, the awe he inspired would give way and what would remain would be the notion that my practices were not inviolate. If my doors were open to him, then how could I stop anyone else?
When I sent the kids to the showers, Delmar stayed where he was. I laid my whistle and clipboard on the scorer’s table and ambled around the court, rolling a loose ball to my manager here and there, and then toward Mr. Sparks. When he saw that I was approaching him he stood like a ramrod and walked down the bleachers to meet me on the court. I was not afraid. Not exactly. I was ten years younger than him and still in the strength of my days and not unacquainted with struggles with strong, athletic men. But I was apprehensive. I knew that my approach had to be just right. The smallest misstatement – anything that might be interpreted as a slight or a confrontation – would be met with an immediate challenge, a dare, a throwing down of the gauntlet. Trying to be inconspicuous about it, I looked right and left for the place where I might take any fight to the ground.
I walked deliberately, slowly, reminding myself of his attachment to the old ways. It was all about respect with his kind. I knew that my best bet was the kind of stiff formality that men of his ilk practiced when among strangers. I nodded to him and was encouraged to see him return the gesture.
“Mister Sparks, how are you this evening?”
“I am very well, Mister Crawford. Very well, thank you. And how are you, sir?”
“I am very well.”
“What are you doing with that boy of mine?”
“Well, sir, I think I can make a player out of him. I think he’s got some possibilities.”
“But why? Why all of this carrying on? Hours on end. Cooped up in here. What does he get for it?”
“Well, sir, I think he can help us out.”
“I think it’s good for him in a lot of ways.”
“That boy of mine ain’t like me.” And for the first time in the conversation, Delmar looks away from me and into the distance. “I don’t know what it is. Never will be. Won’t stick with nothin. He could starve. Them teachers. My God. Ever one of them. You know what I mean?”
“I do, sir.”
“You give me one night with any of them. Card table, pool table; I don’t care. I would have their money. All of it. You know that?”
“Yes, sir. I believe it.”
“I mean, legal.”
“I know. He’s still got to be here. Has to come to school, I mean.”
“I know. But this business of yours. What’s in it for him?”
“He gets the experience, the memory, the thrill.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, sir. Anybody who has played will tell you that. Best years of a man’s life.”
“You see this floor? He nodded, looking across the court.”
“You know who laid it?”
“No, sir. You?”
“Me and three other men.”
“It’s a beautiful floor.”
“It is. This is hard maple. Plantz and Thompson cut it out of Trowbridge hollow. Almost all of it.”
“It’s a nice job.”
“Done it fourteen years ago. Before you came here.”
“It’s a fine floor.”
“You know, when we took the job they told us we wouldn’t have to take the old floor up.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. They said that they was sending letters to all of the men who had played ball here. They were to come and rip the old court up. They was going to get a piece of the old court. Where they’d played. Made them memories you’re talking about.”
“You know who took the old floor up?”
“Me and them same three other men. We had to double our price.”
“You know how many of the old players showed up to get a piece of the old court? Where they had made them memories?”
“I want to know what my boy is getting out of this.”
“Sir, I can’t guarantee him anything, other than just the experience.”
“That ain’t nothin.”
“I can’t guarantee anything else. Nobody knows for sure what will happen.”
“I know for sure that you’re getting something out of the deal.”
“Maybe. I might, sir. Maybe not.”
“You’re getting’ his labor. Bossin’ him around. Havin’ him do what you want. Keepin’ him in this room here all hours. The workman is worthy of his hire. What does my boy get?”
“He needs to be here if he’s going to keep from starving. I think playing ball might make it all more bearable for him. Could even lead to better opportunities. College.”
“Can you guarantee that?”
“Sir, I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Well, you’re in a bad business, then. You ought to be able to guarantee a man something if you’re asking something of him.”
I knew then and there that this was the game. And as badly as I wanted to keep that kid on my team, I knew not to oversell. Delmar Sparks was a man who had made a living making deals. He knew the prices of things – the real prices – the value of things. He would not be cheated. I if promised more than I could deliver, he would know it and the day would be over.
“I can guarantee you I will teach that boy of yours to take a beating and then get back up. I think I can do more. Maybe a lot more. But that’s all I can guarantee.”
For the first time in this conversation, Delmar hesitated. These were not exactly the words he wanted to hear, but he could not bring himself to deny their universal value and their particular worth in his son’s situation. I felt myself lucky.
“He’s going to need that. It’s more than he’s gettin’ anywhere else in this place.”
“I’m going to need privacy in my gym, Mister Sparks. You understand that I’m going to have to have these boys’ attention. I’m going to have to be yelling at them.”
“You give me a honest answer. I’ll leave you to it, sir.”