THIS EVENING, WITH THE MEMORY OF DELMAR SPARKS FRESH IN MY MIND, I await again the appearance of his fated son and the man who, in my opinion, was his undoing. I am unusually relaxed in the moment. Kelso departed an hour ago, after another compliant and unremarkable session, and since then my scene has been complete tranquility. This early October day has been near perfect. As happy as I usually am to be immune to all of the forces of nature – I don’t get cold or hot or wet – this afternoon’s sunlight has made me long again for sensation – to sit toasting in the last few yellow hours of the day, one of the last few beautiful days of autumn. Although the leaves on the oaks and maples have started to turn, the day seems to suggest that they have surrendered too early and would have weeks longer – another short season – to thrive in all of this warmth and light. I hear now and then the happy shrieks of children playing in yards on the hill above and then a drone of a mower far away. If I still had my olfactory sense I know I could pick up the aroma of the new-cut grass and I do what I can to bring that sweet scent to memory. For the moment all grief and anxiety are gone. If I was still capable of sleep I would be out in a moment.
But I can’t sleep and so I reflect on this rare mood I now enjoy. It may have its purpose; that maybe so calmed I can see this evening’s repeating drama with new eyes. As if for the first time.
When they appear I concentrate on the best parts of my time with Sparks – the best parts of his experience of the game.
Of course, I kept both Sparks and Murphy. Their first year playing together – their junior year – I knew would be a year of development. Despite his profound talent, Sparks had a lot to learn. For one thing, he had to get used to the speed of the high-school game. Even though the pace of high-school ball is nothing compared to that of the major college or professional game, it is still played at a speed that is overwhelming to the untrained body and the normal nervous system. A player not only needs to be stronger and faster and more able to endure; his senses, his perceptions, his reactions, need to be accelerated. In the new environment of the game, things will be happening around the player at a rate that he is not used to. And these things – all of them – have consequences. You can see it happening. You put a new kid into a high-school game for the first time and it is obvious that, although they might be running as fast as everyone else, they are not thinking as fast. This is what happens wholesale when a game gets out of control. One team scores a couple of quick, maybe lucky, baskets and the other team lets down its guard and their mental speed decreases and you might as well line them up and shoot them for all the good they’re worth. That is why coaches call a time out when the other team is on a run, to speed their team’s mind back up and to slow down that adrenaline-induced mental speed of the other team.
Some kids can never make the transition and those who do can only learn it by being introduced, a step at a time, into that fast-forward world.
Sparks made the transition.
In fact, when I relax I can see the evidence of my good work even now; even as he misses shot after shot. There are marks in his bearing that I put there. He stands like a warrior, his legs and chest far sturdier than they would have been had he not undergone my regimen. I finally decided to quit trying to influence that high, back-of-the-head release of his that resulted in the wild altitude of his shot, but everything else about him shows my deliberate work. He wastes nothing. Every time he lets it go he is perfectly squared to the basket – shoulders and hips. He remains squared even as he jumps and his eyes stay fixed on the front of the rim. He’s what they call a “pure shooter” – except for the parts that have to move in the shooting motion, his body is completely quiet. He releases quickly and the rotation of the ball, off his fingers, is backward and true all the way to the rim. His eyes stay trained on the basket until the ball hits. He has learned to practice like every shot matters. These are all things that Kelso needs to learn, but I can never begin to teach him here; not on these rims.
One more thing – and this I taught him, too – he won’t stop, even when there is no reward and no reinforcement for his effort, he doesn’t give up. He keeps shooting. And though the monotony of it – the unceasing failure – eats at me like an acid, I still know that I don’t want him to quit.
Although all of it was completely eclipsed by his last action, I let myself see that there is much to be proud of in my work with this kid. I remember that as Sparks found his place in the flow of the game there were several aspects of his character that showed up that had not been obvious to me. I’ve seen that happen with other kids before. One of the greatest rewards in coaching. Kids have resources hidden away that they have never been called upon to use, or that they have deliberately repressed for one reason or another. But you put them on the right stage and give them the right music and they can sing. Man, can they sing. This fact alone might be an argument for preserving and sponsoring varsity sports in high schools. You could think of it as a means to develop the whole person, to find all of one’s personal strengths, to hone life skills. Maybe so. But the downside of it is, at least with the players I have known, that so often nothing of this is ever transferred. What I mean is that these boys have skills, or tools, or strengths, or resources, whatever you want to call it, that basketball draws out of them in a way that nothing else has. You find that this kid is stronger or tougher or smarter in one way or another than he has ever shown before. But what happens to most of them is that when they graduate from the game, the skills and the assets that have appeared on the court don’t go with them. Those strengths are born or uncovered by the demands of the game and – for most of the kids – life is never as demanding – at least not as immediately demanding – as before and if they would follow the energies, impulses and aggression that has made them successful on the court, they will often end up in some kind of trouble. Other kids fall off of the other side of the horse. After basketball, life seems slower, easier, and they relax and the things they ought to be seizing and working to seize pass them right by.
But Sparks’ tragedy was of neither of these common varieties. Sparks fell under the influence of a talented and charming young man who looked out for no one but himself. Murphy’s own possibilities were manifold and nearly limitless and he could not imagine how fine a balance Sparks needed to maintain if he were to thread the one needle of success that would be before him. I do give Murphy the credit of believing that he had no idea of the extent of the damage his carelessness would work in Sparks’ life. But that is the only credit I give him.
As the two figures go on at the far end of the court I decide to temporarily reassess Murphy. I know I have only a moment before the school lights kick on and the scene vanishes and I know that whatever charity I try to imagine for Murphy will be just as fleeting. No innocent interpretation can survive the hard facts of memory. Nonetheless, or maybe in the security of that very conviction, I look again at Murphy as he rebounds for Sparks. Murphy is under the far basket, fifteen feet farther away from me than Sparks. Murphy almost always has his back to me. I get very little impression of Murphy’s face. And yet, I have to admit – I have to be impressed with the fact, seemingly undeniable, that Murphy does seem to care about Sparks’ plight here. It seems that his encouragement is sincere and his willingness to endure Sparks’ never-ending failure is heroic. In fact, there is nothing in what I see here and now that is the least bit suggestive of Murphy’s corruption, but that was Murphy’s way – he specialized in appearances.
But, for the moment, another consideration of Sparks in his day. It was a thing of beauty to see the kid grow into his talents; grow into himself. And Sparks’ unusual talent made strategizing interesting. Most teams learn the art of “boxing out.” That is, when a shot goes into the air, it’s your job to get between the player you are guarding and the basket and seal the other guy away from the rim to keep him from rebounding. It’s a fundamental part of the game. But when Sparks shot the ball, we “boxed in.” That is, we held our men away from the basket for a moment, like we normally would, then let him slip us and then turned on him and sealed him inside, closer to the basket than we were. This is completely opposite of all conventional wisdom, since you normally want the inside position to increase your chance of getting the rebound. But Sparks’ shots were not conventional and on those rare occasions when he did miss, the ball came off the rim with a force that propelled it beyond the normal rebounding range and into the hands of those on the outside of the circle. This tactic alone meant four or five more rebounds a game and translated into lots of second shots and increased time of possession.
But more dominant was his love of being a team member – of making a contribution – of being a part of something. His baptism into the order of things at the school was complete with a new name, “Bomber,” derived from the near-comic altitude of his shot. He wore that name like a royal title.