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As I faced the 1980-81 season and the lonely remnants of a team that had been put together to win last year, a team that had been built around Mark Sparks’ odd but accurate shooting, I made a decision. Or rather acknowledged and faced up to a decision that I had already made and that the fates had forced upon me. I was not going anywhere. There was no realistic prospect of me advancing in coaching any more. Under the very best of circumstances – which were by no means to be assumed – it would have taken me at least two more seasons to scrape together another team that might have a chance to contend. And, even if I somehow succeeded in what I had failed at for sixteen years, I would be forty-three years old by then. College programs hire both assistant coaches and head coaches, but assistants are hired primarily for what they can do to help with recruiting high-schoolers. The colleges want people who are only a few years out of school themselves – who still speak the same language of the kids they’ll be trying to convince. I had passed by that doorway long ago. And nobody in the world wants to hire a 43-year-old high-school coach to head up a college program. It just does not happen that way.
I was not going to muster the energy necessary to change horses and start selling insurance or houses or anything else. I was forty-four years old, with eighteen years of service in the school system. I would be eligible for early retirement with twenty-five years of service. Though my paycheck was not much to brag about, the public-school retirement package was a better deal than anyone was getting anywhere else. With no spouse or children to provide for, I’d get well over half my pay and keep all of my benefits and not have to hit a lick. Single, as I was and now almost certain to remain, I could have managed easily under that scheme and continued to put money in the bank, even in retirement. I could afford another house, maybe someplace warmer. I would be free to travel to see college games. Tournaments. Maybe even the Final Four someday.
And so I decided that I would stay put. With eighteen years in it would have been almost impossible for them to get rid of me and it was becoming more and more evident that there was so little emotion or concern left for basketball in my town that any effort to oust me would have died quickly from a lack of oxygen. I was the only one who cared.
And I would not care anymore. I would be, I decided, exactly that thing that I had hoped and striven never to be – the man who sleepwalks through life, demanding no more from himself than a passing grade from those who have won nothing themselves and who dole out the benefits of the flavorless middle to those who do not rock the boat and present no threat to their poor and easy security. I had to admit, as I looked at the prescription bottles on my table, that the years of failure and frustration and, yes, loneliness, had taken their toll on me. I had not conquered and I had not overcome and now I would set out only to do that which others around me did – survive.
It was not a difficult transition. I lifted my feet from the Earth and let it go spinning on its way beneath me and everything around me – every player, every administrator and every parent – supported me in my surrender. Everyone around me was wired this way. There was no resistance to a deliberate aim at mediocrity. It was expected. And wide were the gates and broad were the roads that I followed. There were no more spats with school administrators, no more friction with parents and no red-faced displays of emotion during basketball games. Out of season I was home before four o’clock. I watched sitcoms. I did my time. I had learned to budget quite well by then and I continued to deposit a good portion of my humble paycheck into savings for a coming day of complete freedom.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing to me about this metamorphosis was that it produced precisely no change in my results. My win-loss ratio stayed about the same. I was just below .500 one year and just above it the next. Every now and then I won a big game. I lost games I should have won. And every year I missed the cut for the State tournament. It became more and more difficult to fend off the notion that what I had believed and lived by before was in fact simply false. That effort and concentration and desire and risk-taking – that none of it really mattered. This possibility – that my best inclinations and best efforts had all been worthless – caused me more existential grief than the round-shouldered life I was leading day by day and month by month.
In some way I still knew there was another world. The world that men like Joe B. Hall and Pistol Pete lived and moved in. Where merit and effort were met with rewards that were overwhelming – pressed down, shaken together and overflowing. Where opportunity opened on every side for the man who had been resolute and fearless, and where dreams came true.
But that world was not my world and would forever remain beyond my reach. No one in the world I inhabited expected or even imagined such things and, thus, could conceive of no reason to venture themselves or to draw down or even allow such rich recompense for others. The world I had decided to accept was one of blurred distinctions and uneasy comfort. It was a world where success and any notion of great reward was resented and a world that conspired to keep men asleep. But I had been finally convinced that there was no way out for me.
Even as I passed this judgment on the world I had moved in, I did not allow myself to consider that in the days of my striving I had been neither just nor courageous. I had only acted to enforce the ends of justice where those ends were compatible with or the same as my own. And where life had presented me with the opportunity for love and only asked me to be brave I had cowered and preferred instead my own ever-smaller way. It was true that the concepts of achievement and reward were outside the vocabulary of those who surrounded me and controlled my destiny, but I did not recognize the irony of my demand for justice in that same world where I had been unjust. I did not see the absurdity of my hope to be loved in a place where I had, time and again, rejected the very best love that could have been offered me.
And so life went on. The days dragged by, but the years flew and the time of my sentence continued to ebb away and the balance in my modest accounts continued to gradually rise.