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I remember it was in mid-afternoon one winter day. The shadows from the light through the west-facing windows were already long across the worn hallway floor. My class had dispersed and my next period was open and I looked forward to having an hour to think through my plans for the practice I would be supervising immediately after the school-day. Somehow I was always more efficient in using time when I knew it to be stolen.
She appeared at my doorway and didn’t step across the threshold. Because of the recent firing of the band director after his affair with a majorette became public, it was common knowledge within the faculty that it was asking for trouble for any male teacher to ever be alone with a female student. The fact that Sherry Johnson apprehended this was one of the first signs of her maturity and circumspection. As she stood in my doorway, books in arms, she told me, in her discreet way, that she understood that the group had gotten it wrong – whatever it was – in the morning’s session.
But what I heard was that Sherry Johnson understood me; that she got me in a way that the other cheerleaders – and the rest of the world, for that matter – did not.
I was the sole of discretion myself, only shrugging and nodding in agreement, signaling that Sherry was right, of course, but that the matter was a small thing and nothing that I should care enough about to try and enforce my own opinions over those of her leader. In other words, I was superior, and gave Sherry Johnson a figurative pat on the head to indicate that I appreciated her confidence but that she should not bother herself about such trivialities in the future.
Of course, that was not how I really felt about it. I was moved by her visit, but knew that any acknowledgement of my sentiment would be inconsistent with the kind of professional distance that my position required of me and incompatible with the stoic image that I myself wanted to maintain. But she was not fooled by my best effort at untouchability.
She came again. This time after a rare – for that season – loss during which I had been penalized with a technical foul for arguing with a referee. I had gotten no support or sympathy in this from any other source. I believed that the school administration wasn’t happy with me for it. But Sherry Johnson told me that she understood why I had been angry and that she felt it was justified and that it was the ref who had been unreasonable.
You know, coach, I think you were right last night. About that foul on Mark. It was a terrible call and it cost us the game, in my opinion. I think you were right to argue it. Just like you did. I know that the refs never change their minds, but we need to know that someone cares about what we’re doing. That there’s somebody who’s willing to stand up for us. We’ll get taken advantage of if there isn’t.
Again, I smiled and waved her off, but when she left I was a changed man. What I had heard her say, beneath the particulars, was that she understood and respected my life’s struggle. This idea was intoxicating to me.
I am willing to admit with the psychologists that we are finally unaware of what it might be about another person that attracts us in such a profound way; that our deepest perceptions and motives are so far below our consciousness that we can’t even articulate them and when they appear and exercise their sway over us we are more surprised by our choices than a neutral onlooker would be. I don’t for a minute deny that I was subject to those hidden workings as I became attracted to Sherry Johnson. But at least one of the reasons why I fell for her was completely conscious and rational. When she said that she respected the stand I took, every cell in my body exhaled and said, as if aloud, ‘it’s been a long, long time.’
And it had been a long, long time. Although the emotional desert I had walked for some fifteen years was of my own making, I was not immune to its drought. I was numb enough by my own stubborn will in every year that brought me no surprises and no promises. But this year was different. Doors long closed seemed to be opening and then, when Sherry Johnson appeared and told me, so I thought, that she understood me; that she admired me, then there was before me the image of a satisfying drink. Whether it was a real spring or a mirage I did not know, but the prospect was close to me now in a way that I could not ignore and in a way that heightened or at least made me more aware of my thirst. Because I was winning, because I was finally about to receive my just inheritance, I choose to believe.
What I heard in Sherry Johnson’s few words was that she understood my personal struggle and that she admired me for it. She knew, I thought, that in all fairness, the world was coming to me; that someday soon I would have the desire of my heart and that the justice of my cause would be as clear as the noonday sun.
She came again and this time I invited her in.
“Come on in, Sherry.” I said. I was still playing the nonchalant; still appearing to be busy with other, more important things, and I gave this invitation in the tone and manner of one who might greet a stranger passing on the street. It was a step, and though I wanted her to understand that, I did not want her to be frightened and I did not want to put myself in a place that I couldn’t slip out of.
She wasn’t frightened. When I asked her in, she came in. She didn’t turn to look behind her in the hall or to the right or the left to see if any burning eyes might be looking on. She just walked in. I really don’t know if I would have fallen as I did had she turned to look; had she thought of hedging her bet. What I heard her say as she stepped across the threshold into my empty classroom without so much as a glance to the realm that might have sat as her judge was that she was ready to leave that world behind; that I was worth the price she would pay.
Even as I was in the middle of this rapture, I remained aware that it all could be in my head; that I was inferring more than she meant to imply. Sure, there was commerce between us such as I had never had with any other female student. Confidences shared, compliments exchanged. But the circumstances prohibited any clear declarations and I knew that the moment could come where everything I had said and all that I had interpreted could be seen in a different light – one that made clear that there never had been the slightest intent or affection on her part. I dreaded that possibility, but it never came. Not long after this bright, soaring bird that I let myself get carried away by came falling out of the sky, I was to learn for certain that Sherry Johnson had in fact understood our moments together – all of them – just the way I had. Time, when it was too late, finally showed that what I felt had in fact been mutually felt.
After it was all said and done between Sherry Johnson and me, the clear evidence showed that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. I was right in my estimation that she did know what her visits meant to me. I was right that she did see me in a way that others didn’t and that she was interested in me in a deep, long-term and personal way. I was right – as was Esther Gomulka – that, absent certain obstacles, it could have worked out between us. Might have been the best thing for both of us. But the notion that when the time came all would be easy for us – that every difference between us would dissolve painlessly into our overwhelming joy at having what had once seemed impossible – I know now that that was the height of naiveté.
But my biggest mistake was believing that this nineteen-year-old cheerleader would sacrifice all of the thrills and social privileges of her senior year in high school in favor of me. I knew that she was at the very top of that world and had been for two-and- a- half years already. Surely, I let myself think, she had seen and tasted it all and knew how fleeting and shallow the pleasures that high-school society could offer were. Surely she had by now learned that there was no satisfaction there for her and nothing left for her to explore. Surely she was sick of that little world. That was why she dared to disagree with the head cheerleader. That was why she had the guts to show an interest in me. I let myself believe that any person as mature as she was would have weighed all of that before she walked across the threshold of my classroom and that she would have understood her action to signal a putting away of childish things. Again, it was unjust of me to expect such consideration and indulgence – I was forfeiting precisely nothing for her – but, more than my tacit demand being unfair, my assumption was simply and profoundly stupid.
My team was ten and three in mid-January. We were in second place in our very competitive conference and finishing there would land us in the state tournament. Mark Sparks was leading the conference in scoring and second in the state overall, averaging just over 19 points a game.
I was ecstatic. We needed just four more wins in our remaining eight games to be assured of a spot in the state tournament and two of those last games were against teams with obvious limitations that we had already beaten soundly earlier in the season. So, if we could win two out of the remaining six games, we were in and my star would keep rising. Our next contest was a non-conference game against Lincoln High. Lincoln had only lost once and that was against a private school from northern Virginia with a nationally-ranked basketball team that they had faced in a tournament at the start of the season. No one in the state had even given them a run for their money. Lincoln was a big school in the Eastern Panhandle of the state. They had their share of boys with rich fathers who commuted in to DC, made lots of money, and sent their high-achieving sons to the best gyms and trainers and basketball camps since they were five years old. Then there were the poor kids from up the creeks and mountain hollows who had spent their lives running the woods and hills and for whom a basketball game was a natural extension of the adventure and fight their lives had been from the very beginning. Those extremes did not always make for easy and comfortable team chemistry, but when it worked, it really worked, and this year it had been working.
I had almost written the Lincoln game off. Anything can happen, but we did not match up well with them at all. Sparks would get his twenty, but Lincoln’s scoring was balanced. They would have four or five guys in double figures. Their post players were every bit as big as ours and far more skilled. Their coach was as sharp as they came and I was sure he’d be ready for our “boxing-in” tactics. He got heavy minutes from nine of his players and our talent level dropped off drastically after our seventh guy. They would try to run and wear us down. Get us in foul trouble. We would lose the battle on the boards and they were smart enough and disciplined enough to take advantage of every break and every battle won.
I didn’t give my boys a hint of it, but I had more or less resigned myself to this. We didn’t have to have the win against Lincoln and we would not see them again until the finals of the state tournament, if we got there. And so I began to focus on the other five games that were challenges but not at all beyond us. That was the best path to the goal. We should win two of those five easily, I thought.
Others felt differently about the game. There was state-wide radio coverage and a good deal of pregame hype on the sports pages. That shot of Sparks’ always made good copy and the whole north-south face-off was an easy theme for them, too. Our student body, responding not only to our winning record, but the faithful PR work of the cheerleaders and the media play, was far more optimistic about our prospects than I was. As my team started warm-ups there was not an empty spot anywhere on those bleachers.
As I watched the teams go through their pre-game drills I was standing right in the middle of the world I had made; the world that had finally come together for me. I was, I thought, right on the cusp of coming in to my own; to being recognized for the talent that was mine and for the work I had done. Every part of the evening, every aspect of that game and even the atmosphere in the gym was of my creating, directly or indirectly. Here it was – high-school basketball as it was meant to be. As I meant it to be. And yet, as I stood in the very midst of it all, I surprised myself at how detached I was. I had no real hope of winning this game. I was focused on the next few games ahead – games I had a chance at winning and that I needed to win at least two of to keep my dream alive.
I also thought of Sherry Johnson. In my last meeting with the cheerleaders I had given her the same signs that had made it obvious to her before that I was unhappy with the results of the meeting. I really was not that bothered by whatever had been at stake, but I wanted Sherry to think that I had been so that I would get another one of those conciliatory visits that I had come to expect. I was sure she had read my message and sure that she would come by later that afternoon, but she didn’t come. There were a thousand possible and rational explanations for that, this being a big game day and everything, but I was still a little bothered about it. When I came into the gym, I looked her way across the floor to make eye contact with her the way we had in the past few games, but she was involved with the crowd.
Lincoln opened the game in a man-to-man defense aimed at shutting Sparks down. The guy guarding Sparks was not a big scorer himself, but he was bigger and quicker than Sparks and having the assignment to stop our star was glorious for him and he went at it as if it was a matter of life and death. We couldn’t even get the ball to Mark. Since we were overmatched under the basket as well, our usual response to shut-down defense on Sparks was not an option. Because I was not obsessed with winning this game, my advice to the team was uncharacteristically casual and open-handed. I called a time-out with two minutes gone in the first quarter and spoke to my team in a calm, almost friendly tone that I had never used in a game before.
“Okay, guys.” I said. “These city boys think they’ve got us all figured out. They think that if they put Goliath on old Sparks here they can just shut us down. Well, I think they’re wrong about that and we’re going to show them something here. Here’s what we’re going to do. Pass the ball and run the motion offense till you find an open man and the open man shoots. I don’t care who it is, and I don’t want any hesitation. Just shoot. I don’t care if it’s the first pass after you get the ball up the court or whether it takes fifteen minutes. Nobody gets pulled for missing a shot. Anybody gets an open look at the rim, I want the ball in the air. Let’s see how they like that.”
I figured this might at least teach me something about my other players. Maybe someone would step up and surprise me. But my guys mistook my apathy for confidence and my knee-jerk, uncalculated advice as an expression of trust in every one of them. It may have been the best single bit of coaching I ever did. They came out of that time-out with the joy and energy of loosed hounds and they started setting that gym on fire.
Before the quarter was out I had scoring from six players and seven of our 14 points were from Murphy. From then on, he was the man to see. His strength was getting inside the heads of the other team and he did it in spades that night. He knew those rich boys. He knew their weaknesses; he knew what it would take to get them just rattled enough that they would miss those finely-tuned jump shots of theirs. He had eleven points, four rebounds, a block and two steals before halftime. I had always known that he was capable of much more than he had ever shown before, but I didn’t think I would ever see it.
At the half Murphy asked me to put on the full-court press.
“Coach, we need to press these guys. I know them. They don’t think we’ll do it. They don’t think we have the guts. They won’t be ready for it. We can break them.”
I was surprised at his direct approach to me. I did not encourage my players to speak to me in private about team matters. I was not their buddy and I wanted them to understand that I would not take sides among them or be lobbied. But I was impressed by Murphy’s first-half performance and, because of what I then thought was a comfortable position in the state rankings, a bit more relaxed than usual. His proposal also had some fundamental sense to it. I answered him as if I had already thought of this tactic, but was one step ahead of him.
“We can’t press the whole second half. We’ll wear out. You keep us in this game till four minutes left and stay out of foul trouble and then we’ll put it on them.”
I had hoped that Murphy would evidence some surprise or gratitude for this confidence I was sharing with him, but he didn’t. He went right on.
“We can do it. We can stay close enough. If they’re up six or seven by then, they’ll feel comfortable. They’ll go to sleep.”
Before we went out, I huddled the team around the blackboard and drew the diagram of our zone press.
“Guys, here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to keep it close till four minutes gone in the last quarter and then we’re going to press full court and make them forget how to dribble the ball. Watch the fouling out there. I’m going to need everybody if this press is going to work. You give this a chance and we might just shut these rich boys down and send them home disappointed.”
I was still concerned about Lincoln’s depth advantage and us wearing ourselves out, and it burned me a little to trust Murphy about anything, but I knew that he could read these guys and I wasn’t about to do anything that would put a damper on this furious and unexpected effort that had us within five points of the number-one team in the state. I could not have engendered more excitement if I had planned a speech for a week. My guys were empowered.
The clock stopped for a foul shot with four minutes and seventeen seconds left on the clock. We were down seven points and Sparks was at the line for two shots. Murphy looked at me and I nodded and Murphy discreetly tapped shoulders and nodded to the other players and it was game on. Sparks made both free throws – he was strong there, too – and when Lincoln took the ball out, Murphy was in the in-bounder’s face. Lincoln had not anticipated the press and there was only one guy back to in-bound to and we had him double teamed. The in-bounder held the ball for at least three seconds – you’re allowed five to get it in – and then made a desperate pass to his only teammate in the backcourt. Sparks managed to tip the in-bounds pass and Murphy picked it up and with one dribble and one step laid it in the basket and just like that we were down only three points.
Watching a full-court press from the stands will give you the impression that it is all physical – all that running and exertion. That it is simply a matter of the defense outworking the offense; of the defense being willing to expend more energy. It is that, for sure. But it is more and less than that, too. The full-court press is primarily psychological. If the team you are guarding has a decent ball handler, they can beat the press pretty easily. Watch the next time you see it. If the offense doesn’t get flustered; if they keep their heads and know what to do, the press, for all its sweat and spectacle, can be handled with one or two of the right passes. When that happens, the defensive team will abandon the press the next time. If the offense is ready for it and can show that they can deal with it, the press takes a lot more out of the defense – those doing it – than it does the offense.
The press only works when it gets in the heads of the offense. The first step in a successful press is surprise. You’ve got to spring it on the other guys. If they are ready for it – all properly spaced and positioned on the court and everybody ready to do their part, the press has almost no chance. You’ve got to be in the face of the guy who’s trying to in-bound the ball before he or anyone else knows what hit him. If you’re lucky, two or three of the guys on the other team won’t even notice the press till several seconds tick off the clock. Then the in-bounder gets worried and he forces a pass that is too long or too high or too hard and you’ve got your first turnover.
The press, when it is effective, builds on itself. One bad pass and one failure to get the ball past the ten-second line at half-court and you’ve got yourself some real momentum. They get frustrated. They get embarrassed. And if you’re really lucky, they get angry at each other. You can see it on their faces. This guy wasn’t where he was supposed to be, it wasn’t my fault. You know. At that point, you’ve got yourself a real snowball rolling down the mountain.
Our press worked. Murphy was right. Lincoln was not ready for it; had not imagined that we would try such a thing (neither had I) and the more we stopped them, the more my guys smelled blood. We drove to the basket off of steals. We had the numerical advantage and easy layups so often that they started to foul. The noise in the gym was deafening. The Lincoln players could not hear each other. They could not hear themselves think. It soon became obvious which of the Lincoln players were rich and which were poor. They were at each other’s throats. We exposed their fault line. We broke them.
We won the game by eight points and if we would have gone five more minutes it would have been twenty.
It is a coach’s job to be able see what a player might do if he goes all out. You succeed if you can manage to get him there – or near there – before the season is out. That win over Lincoln was the one time in my career when I can remember all of my guys playing up to their potential and some beyond it. I was lit up with their effort and congratulating myself on picking this bunch out and staying with them. But the greater thrill was that this unexpected win almost guaranteed us a spot in the tournament. We had seven games left – two against cupcakes – and we only needed three wins. And if we could beat Lincoln, who was going to stop us?
Basketball had promised me a lot. I believed that it was my special gift and my true destiny and my escape from a life of commonness, drudgery and boredom. It had been a long time since it had delivered anything on those promises. But with this surprise win over a very good team – maybe the best team in the state – and our place in the state tournament all but certain, I allowed myself to remember those heady possibilities and I allowed myself, once again, to believe them. I was going to go places, finally. I would make money; so much that I would not have to keep track of it. I would have the respect of the winners of this world. I would make a name for myself.
I gave the kids a happy, confident post-game speech. Told them how proud I was of them and how we had all surprised everybody in the gym that night – including me. I told them that good things were still waiting for us and that practice was at the regular time the next day. And then I went alone into my office – the site of so much grieving for the last ten years – and I sat by myself in the quiet and tried to decompress, to modulate my emotions and to re-think my opinion of Murphy. Was it possible that his under-achieving on the court had been my fault? Had I restricted him too much – maybe for the wrong reasons? It had been a strict principle with me throughout my career that all decisions about players and the team would be made with reference to basketball alone. I would give no weight to off-court considerations – grades, disciplinary problems, character and the like. Had I violated my own code in Murphy’s case?
I was feeling more charitable than ever toward that bright and able young man as I left my office and re-entered the now almost empty gym where I saw Murphy walking out of the far door with Sherry Johnson. He was carrying her bag.
An onlooker might have felt that my taking an interest in Sherry Johnson was unfair to her because of the inequality in experience and emotional maturity. But in fact the disparity was the opposite of what would be expected. She had never been without multiple admirers and had gone through her share of relationships; some of them fairly long-term and serious. Some she had ended herself, and, in at least one case I knew of, she had been heartbroken. She had had a stable and supportive family and a few close friends in whom she confided and who had shepherded her through those dramas and she had come through them stronger than ever. On the other hand, I had guarded myself against any kind of emotional involvement and had never – until then – made the first step toward commitment or vulnerability. I was a child in that respect; completely unacquainted with my own heart and unaware of the depth and intensity of my own emotions. I was naïve enough to think I had everything under control, and when my feelings overtook me I had no one I could have talked to even if the source of my frustration had been a peer and my hope completely proper by every standard. But, given this situation, the idea of my confiding in anybody was unthinkable.
My feelings for Sherry Johnson were far more intense and uncontrollable than I had imagined, but they were not irrational.
I worked to deny my feelings, like they were a physical injury sustained in a game. I had played with pain before. I had been famous for it. Just ignore the thing. Get on with something else. Play ball. You’ll forget the pain; forget you were even hurt. Tough it out. Shake it off.
But these victories were short-lived. I could keep my head through the workday and was proud enough to keep myself from showing the first bit of weakness in any team practice. I could not bear the thought that Murphy might figure it out that he had beaten me at anything, much less at something that meant so much to me; that had completely humiliated me. But it was like holding your breath – you can only do it for so long, and then you are exhausted in a way that prevents you from functioning.
I could move. I could walk and I could run. I could drive my car and be more or less in my right mind. But I could not sit still. The moment I stopped moving I was accosted by emotions that were strange and overpowering and that I did not want to admit. These emotions were women’s emotions. This was not supposed to happen to me. I loved her – at least I wanted her – far more than I had imagined. While it was on between us I fancied that I could have walked away at any time and that I was very aware that she might do the same and that would be just fine with me, too. But I had been walking on ground that I had never tread before; ground that I should have let myself explore long ago. I had waited far too long to subject my soul to the stretching that any relationship demands of it. And now my heart was old and brittle and far too small to contain the flood of feelings that rushed in on it, moment by moment and day by day. I did not have the resilience or suppleness of youth that makes such losses bearable in the normal life and I lacked the perspective that normal experience might have afforded a man of my age. I was lost and without a friend.
This kind of agony, I had believed, was one of those things that basketball would save me from. I could not conceive of the greats of the game – players or coaches – being brought as low as I was now and thinking the petty thoughts that now haunted me. I could not imagine any of them so out of control of themselves; of caring so much about anything other than the game; of being so willing to concede. They had wives, or girlfriends, but all was in order. They had no grief and never longed for anything that was out of reach. If basketball was in its right place in the life of the chosen, if one was rightly dedicated, everything else would fall into place. That is what I believed, but it was not so.
My one bit of nobility through it all was that I managed (I don’t know how) to stay completely away from Sherry. Of course I had every fantasy about meeting her: that I would plead with her; that I would take all of my money out of the bank and whisk her away; that I would tell her all I knew of Murphy. I even thought about bad things happening to Murphy. But I didn’t give in there.
I could not sleep and I grew weaker and more short-tempered as the days went by. I sought relief in effort, in some form of physical release. I left home at five in the morning and drove to the snow-covered school track and ran sprints and laps in the dark and cold until I was dizzy with fatigue. I did push-ups until my arms gave out. I numbed myself.
I was only weeks away from the goal that I had been working long, frustrating years to reach. My ship was coming in. It was a certainty. The sportswriters had already started. They had seen and commented on my patience, my ability to see what others had missed, my ingenuity. It was coming; I would have what I had longed for. And yet, I had never been more miserable in my life. I would have given it all away for one more chance with Sherry, even if it had meant remaining on the county payroll at teacher’s wages for the rest of my life. I admitted that I did not want to be the person I had always thought I wanted to be. There was something I wanted more than that.
It did not take Murphy long to let me know, in his silent and cocky way, that he knew he had beaten me. I never believed that Sherry had breathed a word about it, but somehow he intuited the whole picture and in practice he sent me every unspoken message that he knew he had what I wanted. He knew that I was in earshot when he spoke to Sparks about his continuing relationship with her. He spoke of his visits to her house and the welcome he’d gotten from her mother, who was a basketball fanatic. Even when I could not hear what they were saying, I saw Murphy and Sparks talking and laughing and I knew that it was about her and that it might even have been about me.
My only power and my only means of expression, my only outlet for my frustration was in what I demanded of Murphy in practice. I considered that I had been far too easy on him over the last year only because of Sparks’ near total dependence on him. If not for that fact, I would have cut him from this year’s team. That indulgence would end now.