Hey, faithful readers! Here is chapter 20. Hope you’re enjoying the read. If you want to get the book, click here.
It was one of the benefits of being a single basketball coach in a small town that you could insulate yourself against many of the currents and customs that consumed the time of normal townspeople. As mediocre as my paycheck was, in some way I still occupied a kind of rarified strata in the town. No one asked me to join the Rotary or Lions Club or to buy or sell brownies for any reason. I was that much of a celebrity, that much beyond the reach of the ordinary. The same sort of dynamic seemed to generally protect me from the little waves of local evangelism that crested now and then in the town. At that time in my life, I considered that a blessing, not only because I thought all of that business a waste of time, but because I wanted some distance between myself and those from whom I had to choose. If I was to achieve the kind of record and reputation I wanted, I had to make my decisions on pure merit. Pure ability. I did not want influences like membership or friendships affecting me – or even being brought to bear on my decision making. The people in town discerned this in me and gave me wide berth.
This happy segregation was at last violated by a student-manager named Lanny Stephens. He took care of our equipment and other housekeeping during the years that Sparks and Murphy played and was, hands down, the best manager I ever had. Most of the kids who became managers were there to be seen. To come as close as they possibly could to being a part of the team. To matter. To be caught up in the thrill of combat. To have some fellowship, however diminished or second-class, with the elite young men of the school. Of course, that was to be expected. Why else would anybody – particularly a 17 year old kid – want the job? But in many cases, the idea of actually taking care of the several tasks the job entailed was nearly forgotten. Lanny was different. He took the position to do the job and I came to depend on him in ways that I had never dared with other kids. If I could have convinced all of my players to focus on the task before them in the way that Lanny thought about his, we’d have won State. He thought like a forty-year-old man and saved me untold time and worry. I did not have to think about whether the balls would be ready, properly inflated, before each practice. I no longer spent time thinking about where towels and uniforms were in the laundry cycle or whether balm and ace bandages and scorebooks and pencils would be in place an hour before game-times. I came to completely trust that whatever equipment we had left the school with on any road trip would be exactly what we would return with. Lanny never asked me for the first favor or indulgence – not even a note to escape early from a class – and never presumed to influence me in any decision. I was a better coach because of him and when he graduated I missed his influence and contribution more than that of ninety percent of the players I ever coached.
I remember one evening, leaving practice late. I had been in a squabble with someone in the school’s administration. I don’t remember what it was about. But I was angry because of that and angry because we had lost the night before and angry at my players for not caring that we had lost and angry about my paycheck and, generally, about my lot in life. I was heading out of my office door; I had probably slammed it, when I decided, for whatever reason, to duck into the equipment room.
It is funny how memory works. On my last motorcycle ride – the day of my accident – I passed by the site of a house that had just been razed. I had driven by that same house twice a day for thirty years, going to and from the school. And yet, when I rode by the site on that last day, I tried to picture what the house that had been there until the day before looked like and I could not remember it. But the image of what I saw when I opened the door to the equipment room that evening decades ago is fixed in my mind as if burned there.
It is like one of those paintings that cover an entire museum wall. At first it is only what it seems – a man walking through a field; a woman standing before a window; boys fishing in a creek; children ice-skating under a yellow sky – but you are caught by it and as you stare you are drawn in to some meaning beyond what is superficial. Every shade and shape speaks. It is not just what it at first glance seemed, but a deliberate composition conveying a message that would have been unspeakable in any language but that of the artist. You understand some of it, but you know that there is more and that the greatness of the work is not only in what it immediately communicates, but the mysteries it in part withholds or points toward.
Inside the little room was Lanny, putting all of our property in the right places. I see every part of it: the swept concrete floor; the circles of light from the old, dangling fixtures; the balls in cinched duffels and on racks, the uniforms and towels stacked neatly on a bench. Lanny right there amid it all, quiet and unaffected, absorbed, bringing order out of chaos. There and then I saw something about the dignity of labor and the beauty of the mundane that I had never before imagined. In some way I saw, I don’t quite know how to say this, what time it was. The time of evening, the time of year, the time of my life, the time of the life of my town. And it was all good. Better than I had ever before understood. I had never breathed it in before, not like that. I cannot say that this worked a permanent, benign change in my perspective, but for the moment the effect was profound. And it deepened my feeling for this kid; this different sort of lad who seemed to understand the moment and hour and day we inhabited better than any of the rest of us.
His father, who worked evenings as an operator at the Monsanto plant, was also a lay pastor at a small, independent church in the old part of town and when Lanny asked me to come to a service I choked on my stock excuses – that I was going to see my mother, that I was out of town for some other reason, or even that I had already committed to attend a service elsewhere – and told him that I would come.
Because I knew his character, I was not all that apprehensive about my visit. Knowing his even temper and thoroughgoing rationality, I could not imagine any sort of holy rolling or wildness or coercion in his father’s church. I was right about that. I entered the quiet little sanctuary without being accosted or leaned on in any way. The air inside was comforting, not strange, and I did not feel like I was being watched. In fact, until I spotted Brandon Murphy seated a few rows ahead of me, I felt at rest and like I might have found a place that would afford me the anonymity I felt I needed. I felt that I might have found myself a home.
But Murphy spoiled the picture. I am not unfamiliar with the concept of grace and I knew enough of Christian doctrine to understand that the place for sinners is in the church and that all have sinned. But Murphy? That was too much. Way too much. It was not impossible that a man of Murphy’s age and situation might have been dragged to church by his family, but I knew that could not be the case here. There were churches in town that catered to people with advanced degrees and bigger incomes – people like Murphy’s parents – but this was not one of them. I doubted that any member of Murphy’s family knew this little building even existed. And it was unthinkable that Murphy himself would have made it here on his own. He was a selfish and self-centered young man – neither serious nor repentant. I made it my business to secretly overhear a good bit of the talk in the locker room and Murphy’s constant boasting about his conquests of women was too detailed to be false. And these people in this congregation – sincere but unsophisticated – were not his people. He was seated around just the kind of folks he considered beneath him – who were the butt of his jokes. I knew in a moment that I must know him better than any of the people in the church and I was in no way comfortable about pretending that his presence there was something that anyone should accept – that it was anything other than some kind of a ruse.
I was certainly in no position to expose Murphy. I was an outsider and, of course, known by all around to have picked him and kept him on my team. My reasons for that were complicated, you know, and all beyond any attempt to explain without causing all kinds of damage and disruption to several lives and to my own plans.
And so I slipped out during the benediction and simply never returned. Lanny never asked again.
For weeks on end, I hoped that I was wrong in my assumption. I wanted to believe that somehow some part of my putting it together was wrong. Maybe there was something to Murphy that I had not yet fathomed. But when I learned that the little church, enamored of the smart and good-looking young man, had put Murphy in charge of counting and depositing its offering week by week, my conclusions were only reinforced. When, as spring broke that year, Murphy bought himself a new Honda 150, my conviction was settled. My worst assumptions about him were confirmed and despite the success Sparks had brought me and despite the fact that I was now on the cusp of taking my first high-school team to the state tournament, I regretted keeping Murphy. I regretted allowing this reprobate being to carry the honor of being my player. I regretted my association with him. There was nothing I could do or say, but I began looking for a way out.