Overtime: A Basketball Parable (chapter 26)

 

26.

 

 

When I got the call from Sam Janetti in March I thought he would be asking me to vote on West Virginia Coach of The Year.  In years past it had been galling to me to have to vote for others who were getting what I wanted, but I was so low this time that I considered the prospect of simply participating in the selection process an honor.  I relished the idea of being included in something even that common. But that wasn’t why he called.

 

Sam was an unusual case. A West Virginia boy who had lit it up as a high-school player and who had, one way or another, found his way out of the in-state recruitment grid and into that of the University of Kentucky. He aimed a little too high by accepting their offer, but he did actually play freshman ball there – or had been on the freshman team, at any rate. And because of his later fantastic success in the septic-tank business – based, at least in part on his status as a former Wildcat -Sam was able to become a big contributor to the UK program and, thus, an insider.  He was calling to invite me to a dinner just across the state line in Ashland, Kentucky.  It was a fundraiser, of course, but the room was to be filled with basketball people and some of them, he told me, wanted to talk to me about what I had done with my team this year.  Although I had missed the tournament again, and forfeited forever my dream of a championship, Sparks’ shooting numbers for that year were close to unbelievable, and the stories about his high-arching shots made great conversation.  Janetti told me that Joe B. Hall, the coach at the University of Kentucky, arguably the greatest college basketball program in the country, would likely be there. Hall was coming off a mediocre season, by Kentucky standards, missing an invitation to the NCAA tournament and losing in the first round of the NIT. But the year before he had won it all and been named NCAA Coach of the Year.

 

The restaurant itself wasn’t much.  I guess it was the only place in that little town that would seat 300, but it was nothing more than a big diner, really.  But the crowd was distinguished, and very tall. There were former players I recognized, a few of whom anyone would have known. One or two of them had gotten some time in the NBA, and lots more had obviously found success in business in the State of Kentucky, due in no small part to their fame and their connections garnered during their time at UK.   When I parked my Beetle in the lot there, I was between a new BMW and a new Mercedes. I let myself consider that I was probably the only attendee who was concerned about paying for the gasoline that it took to get there. Inside, all the sports-jackets were new and tailor-fitted. All the shirts were crisp. All the shoes were shined. All was smiles and confidence. Everyone was happy to be there and more than able to be generous with that program that had given them such memories and distinction and that had lifted them from lives of quiet desperation into this glowing world of success and meaning and friendship and shared confidence. This, exactly this, was the society and fellowship that I coveted. This was the world that I wanted and this dinner with its air of success and strength and merit and money and shared memories and trusted friendships was more than enough evidence to convince me, yet again, that the world I imagined and longed for really did exist.

 

Although I was more than flattered by the invitation to the dinner and allowed myself to hope that it might lead me somewhere in my career, I did consider the prospect that it might be a complete bust for me. I didn’t put it past old Sam that he just knew the right words to say to me to get me to make the fifty-mile trip and put my fifty dollars in the plate. I was deluded about that much. Nobody in that room needed any of my fifty bucks. I imagined the prospect of entering the room where everybody knew everybody but me. I thought of being politely shunted to the table and perhaps even the chair that had been set aside in some ante-room for those wannabes who might show up uninvited.

 

At first, and for most of the evening, that was exactly how it felt. When I walked into the room, Sam was across the crowd from me, engaged in a conversation with a group of those tall guys with the expensive shirts and coats. He waved to me and mouthed a hello. It was just enough to remove any excuse I might have had to walk into that happy, intimate group and let him know that I had arrived.

 

I was seated at the far end of the room, as far from Joe B. Hall and all of the action as you could get.  I didn’t know anyone near me, but the talk was all basketball and I could talk that talk with anybody.  After Hall’s speech – everything was coming up roses for the Wildcats – someone at my table put it together that I was the guy who had coached that kid who had just set shooting percentage records in West Virginia.  He told me that one of Hall’s assistant coaches – a guy from West Virginia – had been following my team and was interested in how we had done it. I knew who that would likely be – John McKnight, who played at West Virginia Wesleyan a few years after I graduated and who had had all the basketball luck that had eluded me since then. He had gotten assistant coaching stints at NC State and Davidson before Coach Hall snatched him up. He knew everybody and never made an enemy. The conventional wisdom was that McKnight would get the next head coaching job that came open in a major conference.

 

He was a very easy man to talk to and convinced me from the start that he was interested in me and in what I had done. We talked at first about guys we both knew from our times as players in the WVIAC, but he quickly shifted to my season just past and to my famous long-shooter. McKnight not only knew our record for the year, he knew Sparks’ statistics backwards and forwards. He told me about a job that was opening up at Centre College in Danville, forty miles south of Lexington.   It was a DIII school that was all about academics and no basketball tradition to speak of, but right in the middle of UK territory where every mother’s son was brought up to play basketball and only two or three of those sons, per year, would ever have a chance at the UK roster.

 

I could tell that our conversation was winding down when he asked me if any colleges had shown an interest in Sparks. I wanted our conversation to go on. I wanted those in the room to see me as an insider, to wonder and ask who I was. I wanted to hear a little more encouragement about that job at Centre College that would have tripled my salary and delivered me from the mess I had made of things where I was. And so I did things then that were wrong. They were wrong, generally, in that they were selfish and dishonest. I exaggerated; I inflated my own role, my work, my insight. I lied. But, worst of all, and to effects that can never be rectified, I broke my own rule. I told another about a wrong between myself and one of my players. I violated the confidence of the inner ring.

 

“Anybody ever show any interest in that kid?”

 

“Oh, yeah. I said. Yes sir. You know old Bud Call down at Furman?”

 

“Know him well. I was in the Southern Conference for three years at Davidson. Played golf with him. Great guy.”

 

“Well, he and I had been working on getting something for old Sparks all year.”

 

“Oh. Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Bud stays in touch with me about the players I see in the conference.”

 

“Why Furman, of all places? I would have thought that Sparks was a WVIAC guy, if anything.”

 

“Well, you know they are instituting the three-point shot next season.”

 

“I’d heard something about that, but I didn’t think that it would ever happen. That ain’t good for Kentucky, buddy. We get the big guys. You start giving more points for shots taken outside and we lose some of our advantage. Is it just the Southern Conference?”

 

“Yeah. Just them.”

 

“Well, it’s just a gimmick. It’ll never last in the college game. I give it one year.”

 

“Maybe so, but I saw this coming and I started working on old Bud over a year ago. You know they’re setting the line at 22 feet. Nobody shoots those. No high school coach will put up with that kind of shooting. But Sparks is in range there. It’s what he has. All he has, really. I worked old Bud to get Sparks a full ride.”

 

“It’s a great school. I’ve been on the campus. I’d have liked to have gone there myself. Is Sparks going to go? Did you get him the deal?”

 

It was here that I stopped lying and started telling the truth. I told McKnight the pure, unadulterated truth about why Sparks was never going to Furman. I explained how he had rebelled and disrespected me, and had stiffed me, yet again, even when I had gone the extra mile to try to give him a chance to make things right. I told him the truth, that Sparks was never given the information about the offer from Furman.

 

My lies did not hurt Sparks, but my truth telling did.

 

I don’t know what I was thinking. What did I hope to gain? That McKnight would see me in my relations with Bud Call as an insider, a mover and shaker, a person with insight and influence? Yes. That McKnight would see me as a no-nonsense coach; a person in charge and not afraid to run the show, to act on principle? Yes. But after the sensation of the moment faded, he would know, even if subconsciously, that I was reckless – a person who betrayed the secrets of his locker room, who would undermine the reputation of his own players. I could not be trusted. That was the important point.

 

As I drove away from the dinner I knew in my gut that I had done the worst of wrongs, that I violated the most central of my own principles. I tried to convince myself that there would be no consequences. This gathering was, after all, high-level and certainly, surely, discreet. These people were not concerned with West Virginia, had few connections there, and would understand, in any case, that whatever was spoken there was in the strictest confidence. I tried to believe this and to calm myself down, but beneath it all I knew that what I had given McKnight was a choice piece of inside gossip – just the kind of thing that guys like him relished and traded on.

Nonetheless, I continued in an irrational hope that my truthful but uncharitable and gratuitous gossip about why I had kicked Mark Sparks off of my team would not make its way back to the town of Walhonde. There were two reasons. First, my reputation for maintaining the confidences of my players was sacred to me. This was more than just a practical consideration. More than just the notion that a trustworthy coach would have better results in recruiting and keeping players.   It was more fundamental and primal than that. What I had done was simply unmanly.

Second, and, as it turned out, far more importantly, was the issue of how this news would affect Mark himself. He was out of school now, but with no plans to leave town. No encouragement, really, to further his education. He’d been doing some work with his dad, I had heard, and he was the kind of kid who I could see staying in that type of work for a long time. Even for life.

His sin had been against me and against the team. His punishment – banishment from the team – was at least equal to and maybe greater than the crime. Mark Sparks had not robbed a bank or even failed to help his neighbor. His was a special wrong: the breaking of a man-made rule that affected a limited and privileged community. And, since the last game was over, that community no longer existed. He deserved no other consequence.

Given his employment with his father, I was certain that Mark had given Delmar some explanation of his departure from the team that he had accepted without violence. Mark, having been subject all of his life to the old man’s temper, would have known him very well and would have known the right time to speak of the matter and the right tones to use to minimize the prospect of setting him off. What he told Delmar may not even have been completely false.

But Delmar could not have known what Mark did not know, and that was that Mark’s rebellion – or, rather, his foolish submission to the exploitation of Murphy – had cost the boy a fortune.

No, not just a fortune; his fortune. In every sense of the word. Mark Sparks’ one shot at a better life, of enlightenment, of a way out of this town that I once loved but that would hold him in one place for the rest of his life. His one way away from the constricted course his family history and culture had set for him and otherwise limited him to.

If he had graduated one year before, no college team would have wanted him. Nobody was looking for a twenty-two-foot shot then. A year or two later there would have been a whole parade of high-school seniors who had learned of the new three-point rule and polished up their shot, looking for a way in. Most of those kids would have been better all-around players than Sparks, too. Most of them would have had better test scores.

But in the Spring of 1980, as the Southern Conference adopted the three-point shot, the Red Sea parted for Mark Sparks and he just stood there on Egypt’s shore. He never even saw the miracle.

It is very difficult to describe or even know how it is that you first become aware of something so pernicious as gossip penetrating the consciousness of the community. If you are guilty, as I was, of leaking that very news, you can almost feel it in the air. One morning you wake up and you just know. The certainty of it, even unconfirmed by witnesses, is enough to make you physically sick. I knew before I was told.

It issued in misery. Not only for Mark, who stopped the strenuous but lucrative and promising construction work for his father, and went to work on the city’s garbage-collection truck, but for me. From that time on, and for years following, Mark Sparks showed up in the gym for all of the Walhonde home games. Drunk.

For the first few seasons he would come accompanied by a few friends from work. They were loud and annoying and a distraction for me, but nothing compared to what came later. His friends lost interest over time and in a few years Mark Sparks came to the gym alone, so drunk that he could hardly walk. By then he had lost the job on the garbage truck, and no one seemed to know how he was keeping body and soul together. He no longer jeered or made scenes, but sat quietly, always on the same, bottom bleacher seat, directly across the floor from our bench. He sat huddled over, like he was hoping to be put into the game, or about ready to be sick. He never looked at me.

One night his seat was empty and I hoped that there had been some change that might have broken this evil spell. Maybe some kind of rehab; maybe a girlfriend or a new job. But, with minutes to go in the fourth quarter, he stumbled through the doorway, took a few swaying steps and collapsed. His fall was not modulated by any remaining strength or attempt at control. It was, like a glass knocked from a table, a twisting slam against the hardwood. His head hit, and bounced, but the greater sound was the unmistakable jangle of the vodka bottle breaking in his coat pocket. One of the referees, who was also a city fireman, ran off of the court and knelt beside Sparks and felt for pulse. The other official noticed and blew the whistle to stop play.

I did my best then to display to the crowd the feeling that everyone else in the gym – everyone who was innocent of the matter– felt at that moment. I shook my head slowly, trying to appear like I felt pity for this unfortunate soul who was once so promising – who was once one of us. I tried to shake it almost imperceptively, since I wanted to give the impression that I was doing everything I could do to avoid giving any impression.

After what I thought was enough of a pause to convince the crowd of my appropriate concern, I gathered my starters in a semi-circle before me and began talking as I would have in any other such break in the game. I have no memory of what I said. Even as I spoke, I had no idea what I was saying. I don’t know if I made any sense at all.

 

 

For a long time I hoped that I would never be confronted about my betrayal of Mark Sparks. This was in one respect not a baseless hope. Left to his own devices, Mark himself was not the sort of young man who could bring himself to challenge anyone, man to man, and especially me.   His short, disrespectful remark to me on that day in March was Brandon Murphy himself speaking as much as if it had been through a ventriloquist’s dummy. Those words and the sentiments they carried would never have occurred to Sparks and he did not, I am sure, appreciate the effect or the depth of the wrongfulness of his speech until long after he had made it. I don’t know that he would even have understood that it was wrong of me to have made our disagreement public as I had done.

But, his father would have. And his father knew how to play his hand and would await an opportunity – some moment that fate would present – where he could throw my treason up to me in a way that I could not deny or minimize. It would come somehow on his turf and in front of other men who would know the language he spoke and the meaning of his words to me. It would come as an unmistakable insult and a challenge, and I thought many times of how I would respond and whether I would actually accept a provocation to fight and I never could imagine a satisfactory answer. I dreaded the day this challenge would come. Not only did I fear the physical battle that I might get the worst of, I dreaded having to try to defend myself against a charge of which I was so completely and profoundly guilty. I dreaded standing before that strong, shrewd drunk stammering out some thin-gruel of an explanation.

I dreaded this confrontation, which I believed to be inevitable, for years. It followed me like a ghost, weighing heavier when I was out in the town after dark, even to buy groceries or gasoline. But it never happened. I knew that the threat had passed some four or five years later when I saw Delmar come reeling out of a joint across the street from the YMCA. I was leaving a kid’s game and headed for my car when I saw Delmar’s unmistakable gray flat-top radiate under the streetlamp. He saw me. He looked me over and I stood still like a guilty thing surprised and again looked around myself for what obstacles I might be thrown against in a fight. But he shook his head at me to let me know that he had seen me and that he understood what I had done to his son and then he went on his way. I don’t know that I have ever figured out why he never accosted me.

But the knowledge that there would be no confrontation on the point brought only short-term relief. My sin haunted me all the more when I came to understand that the air would never be cleared and that I would simply have to live with the results of my selfish choice. After a while I hoped that there would come a time when Delmar would put it right to me and get the thing over with, once and for all.

 

copyright 2015

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