On January 5, 1988, I ran practice till seven o’clock, as usual. It was completely dark and bitter cold when I started my car and drove the four miles on the streets of town back to my house. I was 51 years old then, a confirmed bachelor, and as set in my ways as a man could be. We were still early in the season, but at three and six and the hard part of our schedule ahead of us, I had no illusions of success. I had long since decided that I was not going to take the matter any more seriously than anybody else. The kids didn’t care that much. They did not want to make the sacrifices it would take to win and I was tired – worn out – from trying to do it all on my own, year after year. I don’t remember much about those later years at all – the players, the games, the seasons. They are not pressed into memory like those from my early years. I no longer cared that much about what I was doing and had long ago abandoned any expectation that it would lead anywhere for me. I was a man without hope or choices; content to move on autopilot and yet disgusted with myself for my complete capitulation.
That evening I had I made my own supper, one of three or four meals that I had taught myself to prepare and that my budget would allow, and I dropped, like always, into my TV chair to watch the news. When I first heard the lead I did not take it in. There was no immediate shock. I kept watching and as they showed the footage from the gym in the Nazarene church in California where Pistoll Pete Maravich had been playing and where he had dropped dead and the story kept unfolding, detail by detail, and at last penetrated my defenses and disbelief.
I can think of no word to describe the emotions that overcame me then. Horror, fear, agony and irreplaceable loss. None of that is enough. None of that is complete. None of it accurate. What I can say is that I felt an ever increasing pressure almost physically pressing down on me from above. It was as if I was being smothered or crushed. It was so real and so strange that it frightened me almost more than the news. I tried to think of what to do and knew immediately that there was nothing I could do. There was no one whom I could call to console. There was no one who would call to console me. No one even knew that I knew him. No one really knew me at all. And yet my grief was overwhelming. Pete’s death was not the end of my life, but it broke the layers of shell that I had grown year by year. It evaporated the careful distance I had put between myself and everything else – even the game of basketball – and showed me that my life – every bit of love and striving and hope and ambition and desire I had ever owned or known – had ended long ago. I had pushed it all away. I had bet on the wrong horse too many times and I had nothing left to wager.
I had followed his career faithfully. The college stardom. The record-breaking starting salary; the rough first few pro years with the Atlanta Hawks; the formation of the New Orleans Jazz; the all-star and all-pro years. All the drinking and craziness; the knee injury; his last hurrah with the Boston Celtics; his retirement and, finally, his embrace of Christ.
He had done what I had failed to do and in some sense I lived through him. The thought of him dead and gone from the world made me feel very old and very alone. My feeling for him was only amplified by the fact that I never spoke to him after leaving Clemson. The moments we had were perfect and unblemished by any distortion that later successes and failures might have brought along.
I did not sleep at all that night and drove to school the next morning, still numb over the news. I did not expect any consolation from any of my peers at work. No one knew of my long-past but precious connection to Pete Maravich. No one knew how much I had substituted his colossal success for my own failures. In fact, I was unaware of the extent of my emotional reliance on his triumphs until I actually accepted the news. I hurt more deeply than I would ever have imagined.
I did not think that anyone at the school would notice any change in me. I was dumbstruck and depressed, but for the last seven years that had been, more or less, my normal mood at the school. Nonetheless, I was so low, so distraught, that I would have accepted solace from anyone.
Solace did come, at least so I originally thought.
I did not usually take coffee in the mornings, but I knew that I would need something to get me through this day. So from the parking lot I went straight to the cafeteria kitchen where I knew there would be a hot urn full, waiting for the bus drivers. On the way I passed at least two teachers who would normally have greeted me but who, as politely and quietly as possible, turned away. It made some sense to me then – I don’t know why – that they might have somehow intuited my grief and not known what to say to me. Maybe my countenance did give me away.
Johnny Musser, the black janitor, who was sweeping the kitchen, first spoke to me.
“You can’t let it get to you, coach. It’s too much to carry. A man ain’t meant to carry all that.” He laid one hand on my shoulder. I thanked him, got my coffee and slipped out of the kitchen and to my first classroom of the day. I felt that everyone was looking at me. Even the students. I decided I must be imagining that. I was wrong.
I did not learn that Mark Sparks had shot himself on the basketball court where I now sit until late that afternoon. I heard a couple of boys talking in the hallway, one of them the son of a city police officer.
“Dad said there was dogs there licking the blood and his brains were all over the place. They didn’t even have school there today. He used his dad’s shotgun. It was a twelve-gauge. Blew the back of his head clear off. It was a mess getting all that stuff out of the ice. He had a basketball there with him. Foot of snow on the ground and he had a basketball out there. Tell me he wasn’t crazy.”
I was only a few yards from the door to the gym when I overheard this and I was able somehow to make it into my office and lock my door before I started to sob.
I was forty eight then, and had six more years to live. But I began to die on that day. From that day forward, I never really finished another task. I never built another team, never devised another playing scheme, never took another player to the height of his ability. I no longer dreamed of success. I no longer dreamed at all. I let life get ahead of me. I neglected my own conditioning and gained weight. The things I repaired I did not return to perfection, but only slowed the rate of decay. I never again nursed the hope of career success. When I woke at night I thought of Victoria and I thought of Sherry and I thought of Mark. I had lost every round worth winning. I knew I was bound to lose the fight.