Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 23)

Here is chapter 23.  You can buy the book here.

23.

Of course I had complete control over my practices. Even in 1979-80 there were almost no checks and balances in place where high-school sports were concerned. The gym was my domain and there my word was law and no one in that day gave the matter a second thought. It is no longer so, but back then the idea that some parent or administrator would come down on me for pushing the kids too hard or being too harsh with them was unthinkable. The boys I had then would have died before complaining to an adult and the adults who they had available to them at the time would have simply told them to stop their whining and to listen to what the coach said.

But even then I had to be careful. I had to punish and discourage and humiliate Murphy in such ways that it would not be obvious to the other boys what I was doing. If they had figured it out, if they even came to suspect that my actions were motivated by petty revenge over the loss of a girl – a girl their age, no less – well, I would have been a laughingstock.

I waited till Murphy was in a rebounding-drill line directly behind one of the football linebackers that I had recruited for this year’s team.   I let the drill progress until Murphy and the guy in front of him were up. It was almost quitting time and I blew my whistle and stopped the normal flow of the familiar drill and, feigning spontaneity, told the team that one of our weaknesses had been giving up too easily on rebounding. We’d been getting pushed around too much under the boards. I told them that those two – Murphy and the linebacker – were going to go head-to-head in a rebounding contest.   Murphy, who was quicker and faster and far better with the ball than the linebacker, would have waxed the big kid in any kind of fair exercise. But because this was about toughness, I announced, for the duration of this one drill, no fouls would be called.   I told them that we were going to see who was really determined and who really had the kind of guts that we wanted to see.

I knew my linebacker very well. Although he had done exactly what I had hoped he would do for us all season – rebounding and blocking up the middle on defense – and was one of the reasons for our surprising record, he was often frustrated in both practice and in games because of his poor basketball skills. Murphy, of course, was the first to roll his eyes at the kid’s every turnover or missed shot and worked to keep the ball away from him at all costs.   And so I felt doubly justified in giving this thick kid free reign to do what he could do better than anyone in the gym – muscle people around – and to do it to the one man who was most responsible for his embarrassment and exclusion.

From the foul line I underhanded the ball against the backboard and the two boys scrambled and Murphy immediately established superior position but the linebacker got low, almost into a football crouch, and as Murphy went up for the ball, the linebacker rammed him from behind and Murphy let out a groan and went down loudly on elbow and knees and the ball dropped to the floor and the lineman picked it up and handed it back to me.

Because he had lost the contest, I had Murphy run a Michigan State while the rest of the team looked on. The linebacker was on top of the world, bouncing on his toes, fighting back a grin and ready to go again. They did. Five more times. Five more Michigan States for Mr. Murphy. His bruises were visible the next day.

In other circumstances, some of the kids might have been onto me after that, but they were exhausted at the end of practice – too tired to think – and grateful for the physical relief that the one-on-one faceoff between Murphy and the linebacker gave them. More than that, by now Murphy’s magic had worn thin. There were several on the team who would have sided with the big guy over the smart-alec and superior Murphy and would have seen this drama as long-awaited justice and approved of every punishment that Murphy underwent at his hands.

The other limiting consideration that weighed on me even then was the need to keep the team intact enough to win three of our remaining seven games. At first I didn’t think that would be much of a problem. Two of the games left on our schedule were against bottom-dwelling teams that we had beaten soundly earlier in the season. We had improved substantially since then. If there had been the slightest doubt about that, our win over Lincoln made it indisputable. And these two teams – if their records were a fair indication – had not.   But the two cupcakes were the last two games of the season, and we needed at least one win against stronger competition to make it into the tournament.

After the win against Lincoln, I was more than confident. Although the teams we were to face in our next five games were all competitive – we’d lost to two of them already – none of them were nearly as good as the Lincoln team we had just beaten.

But we lost the next two games.   They were both very close and could have gone either way, right down to the last play.   Neither loss embarrassing; neither performance particularly bad on our part. We didn’t shoot well either night, which will happen during a season. It’s nobody’s fault. Nobody is loafing, nobody is ignoring the plan. The ball just doesn’t fall in and that’s that. The second of the two losses – an away game – was attributable in part to some biased officiating. In the last quarter they shot eight for eleven from the foul line. We didn’t hit the one-and-one bonus till two minutes left in the game and were one for three from the line

Then there were five regular season games left. Needing three out of seven is one thing. Needing three out of five is something else.

It occurred to me that maybe I could kill two birds with one stone – continue to exact my revenge on Murphy and use the fear that that might instill in the rest of the boys to have them all step it up a bit.   And so on I went, looking for and finding natural breaks in the flow of practices where I might even things up a bit with Murphy – give him a chance to pay me back for leaving him on the team when anybody else would have sent him packing.

****

This bright afternoon Mr. Kelso is right on time and, as usual, happy to be here. I pretend to watch closely as he goes at it one more time in his first drills. I should be looking for the smallest mistake in any part of his execution; a spot where the right word to him might speed up his progress.   He is giving it his best effort, but I know very well that just the right adjustment in the way he drills here could make a substantial difference and I am convinced by now that his progress has to be accelerated if his fate is to change.

But I can’t focus there, where I know I ought to concentrate. Right now I am far too struck by the contrast in mood and atmosphere between my present interaction with this hopeful sophomore and my complicated dealings with what I had hoped would be my championship team.

There is no great talent in front of me now. Kelso, even at his best, has nothing that would have whetted my appetite in any of my years at Walhonde High. But what I am forced to see now is the beauty of the simplicity here. We are on the same page; working toward the same goal. There is nothing going on beneath the surface. There are no personal agendas here. No vengeance, no hatred, no adulteration or misalignment of roles. What is before me now is a young man, rightly formed in many ways, but still in need of further education. Given that he presents himself so candidly, I see what I could have done for him. I could never have made him a basketball star, but I could have made him more what he had the immediate potential to be. Even with his very real limitations, he could have developed to the point where his contribution would have been undeniable. He could have had a place among his peers. It is a relief to me now that I know that he finally reached that potential, but it remains troubling that I was not a part of his success and I could have and should have been.

I see Danny slow up a bit on this drive down the court. I yell at him to push it and tell him that if it doesn’t hurt, then he isn’t getting any stronger. His layup drops through the net and he grabs the ball and looks at me and gives me a quick nod and turns to head back down the court, pushing it just a bit harder.   As lost as I have been in my thoughts, some aspects of my long-learned habits are still engaged. I know that this is his fifteenth trip down the court and that in three more I’ll tell him to bring it in for the next drill.

I try to imagine what might have been. Kelso’s final destiny would surely have been unaffected, but how would mine have changed? What if I had looked at his case – at the daunting situation that surrounded him then – and decided that what the county was paying me for was not to become a sought-after DI college coach, but to lead the young men who came under my influence day by day at Walhonde High School? What if I had had the conviction that my role in the administration of justice was superior to my role as a basketball strategist? What if I had been willing to sacrifice what I then saw as my best hope for swift personal advancement? What if I had figured it out that my primary role was moral?   Would I have avoided ending up abusing my own players? Would I have ended up a frustrated and lonely old man?

These are thoughts that I can no longer escape, and they motivate me to continue with my work here with Kelso. But as this afternoon’s session ends and he dribbles around the corner of the school and fades into silhouette in the yellow afternoon sunlight I am more and more doubtful of the effect of this abbreviated training regimen. I see improvement; he even looks stronger and more squarely built as he dribbles away. But will it be enough?

Autumn comes nearer with every day and it is now only an hour or so after Kelso dribbles away that twilight falls and I am again haunted by those young ghosts from my last contending team. The scene, all in tones of grey, is so familiar to me now that I would be shaken if the boys did not appear, yet it is still true that their materialization each evening is something of a shock. Every evening the perfection of these figures with their mannerisms and movement and detail of face and form reminds me that what I see is not of my own making. It is not my memory or imagination at work. Every evening I see features and aspects that I had forgotten or perhaps never even noticed before and that remind me afresh of these two boys and our story together.

The players move soundlessly at the far end of the court.   The ball whips from Murphy to Sparks and then arcs high into the darkening air and drops hard onto the rusty, crooked rim and bounces this way or that way, but never into the basket.

Over and over again.

We needed three wins in our last five games and we won the first of those five. It was a fine win for us, against a good team, and it almost assured us of a tournament seeding. Now all that really remained was to win two of our last four games, and that was looking more and more like a sure thing. The last two teams we played that season were weak to begin with, but one had just lost a starter to grades and the other had lost each of its last two games by over thirty points and was in a state of near rebellion against its coach.

I had two games left to play with before we hit the easy slide to the tournament.

In the first of these two real competitions Murphy was again his best self. He got the immediate edge on the kid who was defending him and never let up. He had twelve points and four rebounds and two steals at the half and three assists – all of them to Sparks. I did not play him in the second half. I knew we did not need the win and I knew that Murphy certainly did not need more fuel for that ego of his so I let him sit while the game got away from us.

The next game I did not start him. Although Murphy was a master at hiding his emotions I could tell that the benching in the last game had gotten to him. And I was amused with the idea that he might wonder why he was sitting and maybe begin to doubt himself, at least a bit. It would have done him a world of good. I liked the idea better and better as the game went on and as I watched Sherry Johnson from the corner of my eye. I was where I wanted to be – in control of things.

We lost.

The next day was a Saturday and practice, as usual, was set to begin at 9AM. I was in my office an hour early, as usual, outlining plans for how we would take it to our next opponent. I was going to move Murphy back into the starting lineup. I’d play him till the game was out of reach and then sit him down again. I was anxious to see how my benching of him might have worked on his head and I did not want to give this weak opponent the first notion that they could even stay in the gym with us. I had also noticed that Murphy being out of the game had put a real dent in Sparks’ scoring, and that had to be remedied.

I remember exactly when it dawned on me that Sparks and Murphy were no-shows. At five till nine I came into the gym and looked around at the kids who were in clusters around the baskets, free shooting before the first whistle.   Balls in the air everywhere. Normal. It was movement without form or order, but my first glance told me that the numbers were off. In a moment I knew who was missing. Without word or gesture I backtracked out of the gym and into the locker room and looked around the rows of lockers at empty benches. If I had not had thirteen kids waiting on me in the gym next door, kids who I could never let glimpse what I felt, I don’t know what I would have done. I knew that this was not a mistake or something that might be legitimately explained. I knew this was Murphy’s doing; this was rebellion.

Sparks and Murphy missed practice together. I quickly got word that they had thrown a party at Murphy’s house and gotten drunk with only about twenty of their best friends.   There was, apparently, a lot of talk at this affair about the practice they were missing and how little the coach or anyone else could do about it, since the team was so dependent on Sparks’ shooting.

The boys were right about the team being dependent on Sparks, but wrong in the notion that there was nothing I could do about their defiance. On the one hand, there was this season and the certainty that we would lose against whoever we matched up against after Nitro without Sparks’ twenty-some points. On the other was my entire reputation and authority as a coach. I had let the mob rule before and had almost not recovered and so I did not dither on this decision.

When they showed up for practice on Monday I called Murphy into my office first and dismissed him without ceremony or explanation.

As Murphy walked out of my office he said, in a way that I could tell had been carefully planned, “I don’t need you and I don’t need basketball.”   This went through me like a dose of salts and I had to strangle an urge to hit Murphy.   I had done all I could do to officially punish this kid who only had about three months left in the school, so I let it go.

My conversation with Sparks, I had hoped, would be different. I told him how disappointed I was, how he had let the team down and how necessary it was that some discipline be administered here. I warned him about his choice of friends. He sat there quietly. I thought he was listening, perhaps stunned. I told him that he was suspended for at least one game and that I would speak with him further on the matter after the next game. When I finished, he stood up quietly, and I thought I was looking at the old Mark Sparks and I thought of his dedication to the game and to me and for a moment second-guessed myself and the punishment I had just meted out. He did not speak until he was in my doorway. I thought he was completely devastated. But then he uttered the saddest and most false sentence I have ever heard spoken in my thirty years as a coach. “I don’t need you, and I don’t need basketball.” If there had been any doubt before about who had orchestrated this mess, there was none now.

Although Murphy’s own comment to me was arrogant and impudent, it was true. He did not need me and he didn’t need basketball.   A near perfect ACT score and family connections landed him at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, a first-tier and luxuriously-endowed liberal- arts college founded by the Episcopal Church. There, under the close supervision of some of the most accomplished and best paid professors in the country and in the midst of a student body made up of well-to-do achievers who were truly his intellectual equals and not the putty in his hands that the kids in high school were – that Mark Sparks, particularly, had been – he quickly matured and thereafter excelled, earning himself admission to dental school at West Virginia University. He went on to establish a lucrative practice in Cornelius, North Carolina, where he treats NASCAR drivers and half of the Carolina Panther football team and their families.

Mark Sparks did not fare as well. Of course, it is true that not every high schooler who abuses alcohol becomes a drunk. Case in point, Brandon Murphy. But Mark Sparks did. A bad drunk. Worse, even, than his father.

Sparks had not been seriously recruited during his high-school career. Although his statistics raised some initial attention, he was small at 5’11” and, despite his phenomenal percentages, coaches were scared of the crazy-looking shooting style. But in June of 1980, the Southern Conference adopted the three-point shot. They were the first college conference to use it on anything other than an experimental basis and their line was set at 22 feet – farther than any self-respecting high-school coach would ever let anybody shoot in those pre-three days, but well within Mark Sparks’ range.

Bud Call, an assistant coach at Furman University, called me about Sparks.   I had played against Bud in the WVIAC during our college days. I remember every word of that conversation. I was excited then at the prospect of being consulted and, thus, included in the world of college coaching. Sparks was my project, and now what I had done was starting to matter in the big leagues. So, as I spoke to Bud, I measured every word of my own and took in every word of his. More than that, though, I remember this conversation because of what it could have meant to Sparks.

“Carl, I’m calling about a boy we’ve talked about before. That Sparks kid. The high shooter.”

“Okay. What do you need to know?”

“Couple of things we’re curious about.   How is he physically right now? Any injuries?”

“No. Nothing other than the normal burns and bruises. No knees or ankles or anything like that.”

“You ever tried to do anything with that shot of his?”

“I did for a while.”

“He resist you?”

“Not consciously, I don’t think. I quit trying to change it because it kept going in.”

“Well, we’re somewhat interested in that right now. You heard about our new rule? Southern Conference?”

“Don’t tell me. You’re giving extra points the higher the ball goes.”

“No, but close. We’re giving extra points – one extra point – for shots made over twenty-two feet from the basket.”

“I did hear some talk of that. I didn’t think anybody would ever do it.”

“Well, I don’t know how long it’ll last, but we’ve got an extra scholarship here and we’re looking for a player who can shoot from that range. There aren’t very many out there.”

“I know. Nobody lets a high-schooler shoot from that distance.”

“Does he have that kind of range?”

“Yeah. He’s in range at twenty-two feet. Best I’ve ever seen from that far out in high-school play. You looked at his shooting percentages?”

“Yeah. Unbelievable.”

“I’d say about one in three of his shots are from twenty feet or deeper. On a good night he’ll hit forty percent from there.”

“Sounds like our guy, Carl.”

“Well, I’d like to see it. It would be a tremendous break for the kid.”

“The other thing was – we heard that you had some disciplinary problems with him. We don’t want to spend our money on trouble. Can you tell me anything about it?”

“It’s garden-variety high- school stuff. Drinking.”

“We heard there might have been some insubordination involved. Did he defy you?”

“It’s a long story, really.”

“That’s not a no.”

“This kid. Well, his home situation is not ideal.”

“That’s true of a lot of them, Carl.”

“Yeah. Maybe most, to tell the truth.”

“This school can do a lot for a kid like that, you know. I’ve seen it. It’s a Christian school. I’ve never seen anything else like it. Place is rolling in money, too. But I can’t buy trouble. It would reflect on me, you know.”

“Well.   There was one matter. But that’s just about worked out. Going to be worked out. I’ll have to get back to you about it, Bud.”

“Alright, Carl. I hope you can give me good news. We’re pretty small inside next year. We could use some of those three-point buckets.”

The next morning I gave Spark’s homeroom teacher a note to give to Mark telling him that I had some news I’d like to talk to him about and summoning him to my office for the conversation. Although the note was put into his hands, he never showed and I never called the Furman coach back.

After the Lincoln game, Sherry Johnson never came to my classroom again. My morning meetings with the cheerleaders were fewer after that and they did not last as long. Sherry no longer came to those, either. This was painful to me, but it allowed me the cold comfort of knowing for certain that my understanding about what had been going on in her earlier visits was not just fantasy. If she hadn’t understood those visits as significant, if they had been completely innocent, she would have kept coming, I was sure of that. But in the long run I was to receive even more definite evidence of the fact that she had once had a serious interest in me.

copyright 2015

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