Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 21)

21.

To tell the truth, there was another reason I hated Brandon Murphy.

I looked toward the 1979-80 season with the kind of hope and optimism and even confidence that I had not dared for seven or eight years. After a complete season and an off-season of workouts, Mark Sparks was now a bona-fide, triple A- high-school player. He was conditioned, game ready, and had learned the offensive and defensive schemes I planned to use. And he still had that shot. If anything, his shooting percentage had gotten better over the past year and I knew that on the right night – hopefully nights – he could hit for twenty, maybe thirty points. Having a weapon like that opens up other things for you, and I found a couple of football players who were big and strong enough to move people out of the way under the basket, rebound and lay the ball back in. Those two guys would have been chosen last in a pickup game at the school, but they could do very well those few things that I needed them to do. That part of our game wasn’t pretty, but it was real enough, and if the other teams were going to be able to keep my inside scoring down, they would not be able to double-team Sparks.

I had a good-enough ball-handler who could get us through most pressure defenses, and Murphy, of course, was around to under-achieve for his ability, but still give us eight points, a handful of rebounds and better-than-average defense. I felt the stars aligning.

That year I was given a classroom. Until then I had moved about during the school day, teaching driver’s education in one corner of the cafeteria and, of course, the streets of the town; one section of Social Studies in a curtained-off part of the school’s auditorium; and supervising study halls here and there. Having one’s own classroom was a mark of distinction among the faculty members, but I had my own office adjacent to the gym and that was more privacy and dominion than anyone else on the faculty had and it was enough for me. I never lobbied for my own classroom and in a way enjoyed the fact that my nomadic status at the school emphasized that the classroom was not my home and was another way I was distinguished from the other faculty – those who never fought and never won.

But as the years passed and the town and, accordingly, the student body and the faculty, continued to shrink, rooms emptied out and this year I was assigned one, like it or not. I was stationed across the hall from the long-time domain of Miss Esther Gomulka. I could not have cared less about that at the time. She was famous in the school for being ancient and strict and, since none of the kids who played basketball would have been caught dead in her classroom, none of that was of any concern to me. The joke was that no one really knew her age, since they did not have calendars at the time she was born. She taught Music and German and attracted those students who had a mind to attend college somewhere out of state. Otherwise, she kept to herself.

She had nothing to say to me, the new arrival, and I only saw her in passing moments through the window in her door as she stood and lectured or engaged in dialogue with her intellectually-bent students. She was tall and arrow-straight and kept her white hair swept back into a tight bun that made her look all the more severe.

She continued to teach – she was long past retirement age – because she lived alone and had no other life but the school and, since there was no way the county would have ever found another individual who could handle both subjects as she did, there was never any pressure on her to leave.   It was common knowledge at the school that she was Jewish, although there was absolutely nowhere in town for her to communicate or express her faith. It was said that, as a young woman, she had been spirited out of Poland in 1939, just before Hitler’s troops invaded. Her parents had not made it out and she had lived in the U.S. these four decades supporting herself. I would find out, in a way I would never have predicted, that there was more to her story.

There were other indications that my number was finally about to be called. Just as the season started, the cheerleaders came to me and asked me what they could do to help the team succeed. Because I now had a classroom of my own, I was accessible to them in a way I had never been before. Had I been able to politely escape them, I probably would have. Although I am a profound believer in the effect a crowd can have on a game, I had till then never seen the slightest bit of evidence that any cheerleader understood that they were there for the game and not the other way around. But, since I now had a stationary post at the school, I could be found and cornered. In any other year, I might have blown them off. Placated them with generalities and polite encouragement and tried to limit the time I had, in all good manners, to afford them.

But this was the year. And maybe this interest was real and maybe it could all be a part of one great success. So I took the girls seriously and, to some degree at least, into my confidence.   I had overplayed the crowd-card before, but that was with Fouch, a crazy man. These girls seemed more mature; sane. They asked the right questions. They didn’t giggle. And I knew that, even with the personnel advantages we had, we would need our home crowd as much as any team did.

The girls – there were usually five or six of them – would drift to assembly in the alcove of the doorway of my classroom before the first morning bell. Mindful of the eye of Esther Gomulka, I would never ask them into the room, but I stood in my doorway as this privileged group of the school’s most popular and best-looking girls attended to my conversation. We talked about the dynamics of a basketball game and the points where crowd support could be most meaningful. The importance of the last two minutes of regulation. The importance of playing every play, but still having something extra left for down the stretch. We planned how their efforts might help the team at those critical spots

At first I was cautious, thinking it might be only vanity to believe that these girls were actually interested in what I had to say. It was quite possible that they were doing nothing other than inflating their own status through the social distinction they would gain as they divided themselves from the sleepy crowd in the hallways and attended to my inside information. Even now I think that this little cult would have collapsed quickly had our season been like any other. But we started winning.

Victory is one of the most motivating forces in the universe. And the cheerleaders and I talked about winning as if it were something that could be achieved through our plotting. And as the team continued to win, that potent illusion grew on us all. The notion that these girls had a power to affect something outside of a classroom was completely new to them and as addictive as an opiate. For the role they were playing here, where men had real interests at stake and went whole-heartedly into battle, was consistent enough with the role of beautiful women in every romance and tragedy ever written to keep them ever more enraptured as the year went on and as the wins kept mounting up.

One of the girls was different. She was interested enough in the emotion and bustle of the battle-alliance that was on the surface of our discussions, but she was more subdued and intent than the others and she listened to me more closely. These were high-school juniors and seniors; all of them were blooming and beautiful in their way, but Sherry Johnson was tall and angular and had that kind of beauty that would weather time. She was also a year older than the others, having been out of school last year to care for her ailing father. Now and then she would return to my doorway after the group had dispersed and tell me – always correctly – that the group had misunderstood this or that, but that she knew what I meant and agreed with me. She assured me that all would work out. She seemed to care about the stake that I had in the matter and to anticipate and understand my struggle that was beneath it all.

But she was nineteen years old and I was thirty-nine.

In January of 1980, with my team eight and three on the season, Esther Gomulka walked into my classroom. It was between classes. The hallway was filled with hurrying students and my room empty but for me. I heard the quick clopping of her bulky shoes in the hallway; no mistaking that sound. She gave no indication that she appreciated the strangeness of what she was doing or how out-of-character her visit might seem to me – or anyone else. Although I was genuinely surprised, I did have some inkling of to what I owed this honor. More than likely Miss Gomulka had taken note of my morning sessions with the cheerleaders. Admittedly, they were more and more extensive as the season progressed. I guessed that she might have doubted the propriety of this and might have been contemplating some report of it. She was here, I was sure, to threaten me away from them.

After coming into my classroom and realizing that she had gotten my undivided attention, she took one step back into the doorway and gestured for me, swinging her arm east and west with the flow of the traffic in the hallway

“Do you see this building, these people around you? All with their classrooms and offices?”

I nodded.

“It looks permanent, doesn’t it?”

At this point I was looking for a way to flee the room. But I nodded again.

“It isn’t. It will all fall away and sooner than you think. They think I have been here forever, that I am permanent, but in ten years you will not know a single name on any doorplate on this hallway. More than that. Someday soon there will be nothing here but a field. Nothing about what this place thinks about you will last. Its judgments are false. Those judgments are very clear and pronounced. You do not have to wonder what they are, but they are false. They do not matter.”

I still did not understand the point of this sermon.   I was sure that I was about to get the benefit of her judgment, but I nodded as if in agreement with whatever she was saying and I began to sidle slowly, in a quiet effort to make my way out the door.

“You know that girl who talks with you every morning?”

I was ready to defend myself here. They were never inside my room. My door was never closed. I was never alone with any of them.

“The cheerleaders? They all talk to me – about the team. The upcoming games and all.”

“You don’t believe that. They are not there to talk about the team. They may talk about the team, but that isn’t why they come to you. And you know which girl I am speaking of. She is a woman, even now. You do not fool me. You are neither too young nor too blind to see this.”

“See what?”

“That she is exactly what you need. You are a poor man. You don’t think of yourself as such, but you are poor. Very poor. Poor, wretched, pitiful and blind. This girl is what you need. She has all that you need. Everything. This world around you will tell you no. It will tell you not to pursue this. But she is exactly what you need. There is no one else like her. Maybe another, here and there, but very few. You are very fortunate in this.”

“In what?”

“That she is in love with you.”

“It would be impossible.”

“You think I don’t know you and that I don’t understand the world you live in. But I know and understand you very well. And I know that if you are honest with yourself, you will agree with me about this one thing: anything worthwhile is impossible. You know what is possible, Mr. Campbell? You want to know what is possible?”

I had no response, but stayed put then, allowing her to continue.

“This right here, right now. This is what is possible. More of the same. The same losing seasons, the same loneliness and frustration. The same disappointment. You meet someone for whom this world tells you you are right. She may fit every category – education, money, good sense, good looks. But she won’t be what you want. What you want is impossible. It always is.”

“I see what you mean. I know what you mean. Do you have advice for me? You know that . . .”

“All you have to do is wait. That is the impossible thing.”

“Does anyone else know this? I mean, imagine that I . . .”

“No. They only see what they want to see; what they expect to see. They see their own world. The world they have always known. It is what they expect it to be. It cannot be otherwise in their eyes. But I have seen the world crumble. I see everything. I was once that girl. Stood in her very shoes. But I did not receive grace. This grace that is before you is more precious than even you imagine. It is worth more than all of the basketball games ever played. All of the money ever amassed. Such grace may not come to a man in his lifetime. Maybe not for a hundred years.   Don’t give this up. You have nothing else. There is nothing else. Only this world.”

And then she walked back across the hallway and into her room and I never spoke with her again.

In my own way I resented her preaching to me. The presumption of it and the outrageous implications and the invasion of my privacy. But I never forgot a word that she said. It gave me hope. I had entertained the idea of somehow ending up with Sherry Johnson, but I had repressed it at every turn, for all of those reasons that Esther Gomulka had violently dismissed in her speech to me. But the fact that she had seen what I had done my best to ignore gave me some confidence in the reality of it. And that, in turn, ignited in me the faintest hope that this forbidden love might someday be a reality. The challenge of gaining such a rare and forbidden thing – the impossibility of it – might be just what I needed. I might be moved to extend myself; to commit. I might, finally, escape myself.

So I began the pursuit of the impossible. I couldn’t be direct. Any open declaration or admission of my intentions would have exposed me to ridicule and her to scandal. I thought of her parents and my administrators. I thought of a direct rejection by her. Of her saying, when all ambiguity had been done away with, that the very idea was, well, impossible, and that if she had encouraged me that had not been her intent; she had never dreamed that someone like me would have considered her in that way.

But still I pursued in my own oblique way, careful and quiet and looking always for signs that on some level she understood my intentions and understood why my way with her – or our way together – would have to be hidden.

One of the things that most attracted me to her was her sincerity and simplicity. Young as she was, she was uncomplicated. She did not have the injuries and histories that older women carried into relationships. The hidden traps and unanticipated feelings that plagued my peers with their wives and girlfriends. But as soon as I decided to pursue this idea and to pursue it discreetly, that charm was lost. Even though she was an uncomplicated girl, she was still a girl and, I still believe, took some delight in peculiarity of the situation she had created and the consternation that my predicament caused me – that she caused me. Again, given the landscape, this was not something that I could bring up with her and try to clear the air of. To suggest that there were problems in our relationship would suggest that there was a relationship and that, as we all knew, was taboo; impossible. I could imagine her repeating to her mother any such speech I might make.

I don’t know how far I would have let myself go in this fantasy if the team had not been winning; if it did not look more and more like this was really my year. But we did keep winning, and I kept nursing the idea that this was all of a piece. I would have success and I would have love. I would conquer.

The next afternoon is again sunny and clear and Danny Kelso makes his appearance right on time, enthusiastic and unassuming. It takes mental effort to loose myself from the memory of Sherry Johnson and the 79-80 season and to focus, once again, on basketball fundamentals.   I have to remind myself of my hope that this business with Kelso is leading somewhere and that through these mundane efforts all that went wrong may somehow be set right. I have to remember that Kelso deserves this, and that I have unfairly denied him before.

He comes onto the court differently now. His dribble is stronger, his control of the ball more sure, his expression more serious. He is mentally present and ready to go. He even looks taller. For the moment I regain confidence that it all may work and that we can accomplish enough in time we have left to insure that I, in my younger day, simply will not be able to ignore him.

We say our greetings and I purposely refrain from giving him the first instruction. He should know the order of the session by now and he shows me that he does. He starts with the ball-handling drills, wrapping the ball around and through his legs, then around his waist, his head. He goes faster and faster; slapping the ball loudly as he takes it from hand to hand. Stronger. Faster. More confident. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

At my cue he goes from the ball drills into full-court drives, crossing over his dribble and changing angles with every two or three strides, then a layup and then the same thing back down the court toward me.   His jump to the rim is a little higher, I let myself think. I will let him go until I see him tire and then I will tell him to keep it up and push harder. If he doesn’t gain in repetition here, he doesn’t gain strength, and he won’t gain skill.

I disengage for a moment and think of the difference between Kelso’s year and the years of Sparks and Murphy. The differences in the kids; the differences in the game; the differences in me. I was not yet tired in Kelso’s day, and not yet disappointed. I was a good coach in many ways. I knew the game better than anyone else in the state and I was unstinting in every effort then. But as I watch Kelso run the court full-out, without so much as a word from me, and as I consider how dogged he has been in these few sessions, I wonder how I could have missed this kid; how I could have overlooked what has become so obvious to me now. More than that, I wonder how I could have cheated him. His skills are not outstanding and they never will be. But few – very few – players at this level actually have outstanding skills. Kelso has those things that were necessary to building a player who could contribute for me. He believes. He desires. He is willing to sacrifice. He deserves.

I let Kelso go because I knew his presence would be an impediment to team solidarity; that he would be a distraction – an unnecessary distraction – to the project I had I in mind. All of that is true and all of it shameful to me now.   But that is still too easy – still an escape from the truth. There is more, and worse. It wasn’t simply that the kids disliked Kelso. I hated him.

For six weeks at Walhonde High School in the winter of 1979-80, I walked the Earth as a king. I had built my hopes on the notion of advancement in the ranks of coaching. My dreams were always those of the conquering hero – the man of quiet strength and superior understanding who knew the game and who knew players and who had the confidence and stamina to resist opposition and the strength of will to make others believe. So, of course I had ideas about what a winning streak would feel like. It would mean confirmation – of my judgments; of my abilities; of my decisions.

And when, in the winter of 1979-80, the victories finally started to come, one after another, I was ready for that aspect of winning that would set me apart. What I was not ready for – what I had no inkling of – was that part of winning that would make me belong. I had not aimed for it. In fact, my every effort was aimed quite intentionally at making my way out of my situation – out of Walhonde High School, out of the high-school ranks entirely and out of the little town that had disappointed me and held me back for so long. I had been in one place too long, I thought, and I had almost given up the notion of ever getting away.   My way of looking at things then was normal for anyone with career aspirations. It was certainly the order of the day among successful coaches. While it was true that some at the very top of the profession opted to stay in one place, the name of the game for coaches generally was to win somewhere small to get somewhere bigger. The idea of being a part of a place, of an institution, of having one’s identity defined by a school name forever, that was foreign to me, and unless I had started to win as I did and when and where I did, it would have stayed that way.

In other words, I did not know that I could fall in love. Anyone hearing my story would say that the love affair was with Sherry Johnson. And I will admit to falling in love with her, knowing full well the judgment that that admission will bring. But, even now, with my whole life spread before me like a canvas, even now, when my mistakes and wrongs are presented to me daily in such a way that they cannot be denied or minimized, even now I will not accept the judgment that my feelings for Sherry Johnson were wrong, misplaced, selfish or exploitative. I did make mistakes. I see now – in fact I knew before – that I did, finally, wrong her. But in the beginning there was nothing wrong with my intentions. It might have worked between us. Esther Gomulka could have been right. It might have been the best thing that could have happened to either one of us.

I fell in love with Sherry Johnson, but that was not all I fell in love with. I fell in love with a place and time. When you are winning, you are shot up with the confidence that, hour by hour, you are exactly where you are supposed to be and that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing.   With that kind of assurance, everything around you seems to work as it should.   You are happy to hear the alarm in the morning. You look forward to your day. You anticipate it like a wonderful mystery.   What new gift it might hold; what truth it might reveal; what new confirmation it might bring.   You no longer suspect that your peers doubt you. You are kinder to everyone. Why would anyone ever be less than courteous, less than patient, less than generous, less than understanding? Why, when you have everything you want? Why, when the great wager you have made of your life turns into a jackpot? Why, when you are completely secure in your own person?

 

 

The Walhondian

The Student Newspaper of Walhonde High School

October 22, 1979

 

A Second Chance at First Things

By Sherry Johnson

You don’t know how lucky you are. I don’t know how many times I heard that while I was growing up. They were right, of course. I was healthy and happy and surrounded by a family that loved me. I had friends and a good school and things to do. I lived in the greatest country in the world. I had a promising future. The whole world smiled on me, it seemed.   I really didn’t know how lucky I was.

But my luck changed, if you want to call it luck. As most of you know, my dad fell ill last fall and passed away in the spring. That was devastating to me and my family. In a matter of weeks, my dad was changed from a strong and productive man – a man who looked out for us and provided for us – to a bed-ridden patient. And when my mom had both of her legs broken in a car accident, Dad became my patient.   As most of you know, I dropped out of school last year to stay home and take care of my mom and dad. I missed my senior year. I didn’t get to experience cheering for the Panther football and basketball games, going to the dances and the prom, graduation day with the friends I had grown up with and shared everything with since I had been in first grade.

I loved and will treasure every moment I got to spend with my dad during his sickness. He was weak, but until the very end he was still the man who loved me more than anyone else ever will and who knew me better than I knew myself. I gained so much from that experience and I take great pride and consolation in the idea that I cared for him in a way that no one else could have during that time.

But I knew that I had lost something. I knew I had given something away, but I didn’t understand what a big thing it was until I was without it. I didn’t completely understand it until I went from the sickroom – a lonely house and daily duty with walkers and crutches – until I was allowed – thanks to so many people here at this school and, finally, the County School board – to come back to these bright halls where dozens of trained and caring people wait to teach me the skills and give me the understanding I will need to live a full and successful life. Here I am safe and loved and have a special role to play – a role that you’ve entrusted to me. It means so much more to me now than it ever could have before I had to do without it. This year I’ll cheer for the Panthers and give everything I’ve got to make sure that you do, too. It’s my job to make sure that everybody at Walhonde High comes to appreciate these few special months that we have to share together when we are the Panthers.

I have been given a second chance at first things and I am overwhelmed with the opportunity that is before me – before all of us – in the next few months.

What a life you and I have together here at Walhonde High. Can you imagine any other time or any other place where we will be constantly surrounded by such close friends? People who share our fondest hopes and dreams – people in whom we can completely confide. Will we ever again have so much leisure? Time to spend with those same friends just playing and sharing and dreaming together.

I know now that these days are special days. They ought to be cherished. Thank you all for accepting me back here and into the class of 1980. Thank you for giving me back the job I loved so much and that I love even more now. Let’s make our year a great year, a memorable year. Let’s walk and run together, talk and dance together. Let’s share our hopes and dreams together. Let’s take advantage of every minute we have.

We don’t know how lucky we are.

For almost all of my career, and certainly in the fall of 1979, I was not a man to be influenced by words. I had heard enough of them – from players, player’s parents, teachers and every Tom, Dick and Harry in the town who thought they knew more about the game – and my team – than I did. Everyone who spoke was always proud of their words. They were always, you know, “heartfelt,” “insightful,” “sincere” and all of that. But I was the man who had to fight the battle and words never really did what I needed to have done. Some kid would promise me his attention, his best effort, and then let his man get by him six or seven times in the next game. Some teacher would talk about some kid’s good character and I would find out that what that meant was that the kid would be polite enough to allow the other team to get the rebound. I was a man who looked for action. I looked for what a man was able to do and what he actually did rather than listening to words. I wanted it known that I was not influenced by description or pleading. Those kids who could actually get the job done for me were the same ones who never said a word about it.

But I read the article that Sherry Johnson published in the school paper. Her words. I read it, of course, because she had written it and by then our conversations had gone far enough to make me intrigued and interested in any little bit I might learn about her. Like almost everything I had ever read in my life, I was disappointed in it. It did not really tell me anything I wanted to know, I thought. But unlike almost anything else I had ever read in my life, it stayed with me, almost haunting me. And I didn’t know why.

I stewed on that article for weeks on end, even as I continued to speak with Sherry in my classroom. As we let the surface of our conversations be dictated by the needs of the team were and the opinions of the cheering squad, I never raised the subject of her article. But as my interest in her grew, I finally realized why I was so taken with it. It was this: I needed a second chance at first things, too. I had missed, however willfully, every legitimate chance I’d been given in my twenties and now I was – or might be – getting a second chance at first things. She could give me a second chance at first things.

The article tells of her appreciation for being allowed to return to the school and to take up again her coveted position as cheerleader. She appreciated those things now more than ever before. I certainly understood that, from where I stood. But the article doesn’t tell another side of her story.

When I was a senior in high school, I was as oblivious to this fact as all boys are: they are no match for the best girls in their class. The best girls are at least five years ahead of the boys in expectations and in physical and emotional maturity. Given Sherry’s experience with her father’s illness and death and given the fact that she was a year older than anyone else in her class, she was ten years beyond them. She was appreciative of the second chance at first things that the school had given her, but bound to be disappointed. I was – or might be – her real second chance.   She could certainly have been mine.

copyright 2015

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