Overtime: A Basketball Parable (Chapter 29)

29.

On this, the last day with Kelso before tryouts begin I can barely push myself to keep up appearances. If I could do it myself, I would become invisible to him again. But I take him once more through all our drills. I choke back my real emotions and encourage him and push him, just like always.

I feel helpless now. Even more helpless than before. It is not only that I cannot get up off of this bench. Now it seems to me that everything I’ve worked and hoped for here is lost. The kid has actually improved some, and it may even be noticeable to the coach – to me. But it is obvious that it is not enough, not enough to change the coach’s – my – calculus when the cuts have to be made. He’s essentially the same player with the same limitations. He’ll still fall in the same slot in the order of prospects. His fate won’t change.

And for a moment I am bitter and think that these sessions were not a breakthrough at all, but meaningless torment. I have been forced to look long and closely at the hurt I caused and to feel in a deeper way than ever before the injustice and cowardice of it.   There is no reprieve, salvation or redemption for me. But before he is out of sight I recall a small article I read in the local paper just the day before I died. Two paragraphs, just above the baseball standings.   It was about his sons, Danny Kelso’s sons. They had both made academic All-American in the same semester – one at Yale and one at Princeton. I don’t recall what sport either of them played, but neither played basketball.   I remember now my reaction to my first reading of this little item – that academic honors, which those are, have no place on the sports page. And this reminds me of my own opposition to Danny’s own induction into the high school’s Hall of Fame, only a few years ago.   It was a fight that, I am now happy to say, I lost.

His induction was one of the very few ever in our Hall of Fame that was not based on athletic achievement. The trustees and members of the Hall don’t really like to go much beyond sports. It becomes too hard to make judgments. This was the argument I advanced in opposition to his induction. But, there were a couple of non-athletic precedents and, given Danny Kelso’s accomplishments, not inducting him would have made the Hall of Fame look biased and rather shallow. Inducting him, on the other hand, increased the status and credibility of the honorary.   It was the best-attended induction ceremony I have ever seen.   I met his wife there; a girl he had met in church after coming back to town. She was at least ten years his junior and knew nothing of his earlier struggles. She was one of those special ones. You saw them in our school once every ten years or so.   Willowy, understated, flawless.   What God meant when He said “woman.”

In a twinkling I remember it all now. He was forgotten, a pariah in the school, one of the boys on the successful but widely-ignored debate team, until the senior awards assembly the day before graduation. Miss Rockwell, who had discovered him beneath all the discouragement and disappointment, understood his potential.   And because he was shunned by his classmates, he was more than willing to listen to her plans that were distinct from the short trips to the state university that almost everyone else in his class would be taking. The last announcement in that assembly was hers. She could not suppress her broad smile as she told the school that Kelso had won a full academic scholarship to Washington and Lee, the most prestigious liberal arts college in the southeast.

From there, Kelso gained admission to the medical school at the University of Maryland where he in time made his name in cardiology by aligning himself with Dr. Mary Enig. While conventional thinking within the profession began its baseless drift into adopting the idea that traditional foods – bacon and eggs, for example – were bad for the cardiovascular system, Enig’s research showed that the opposite was true: that traditional diets, rich in naturally-occurring fats, actually protected the heart and prevented obesity, and that the modern substitutes for food – processed cereals, pre-packaged and fat-free products fortified with sugar – were the actual culprits. Given that the growing fast-food and food-processing industry put all its money behind the new conventions, Mary Enig lost the battle. The trend toward processed food continued and obesity and heart disease skyrocketed throughout the country.

But Kelso stuck with Enig’s conclusions and, given his experience in high school, the fact that his stand kept him outside of the mainstream of his profession and the various inner rings he might have otherwise been admitted to and the multitude of subsidies he might have otherwise enjoyed did not faze him. It took over twenty years and untold suffering by patients who were told to do the opposite of what they should have been doing, but time finally vindicated Dr., Enig and, accordingly, Dr. Danny Kelso, who had adhered to her thinking in both his practice and his writing.

Then came the accolades – the fellowship at Oxford, the admission to hospital staffs in Houston, Atlanta and Boston, and the money.

But the main reason advanced for Kelso’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame was the fact that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical account of his lonely battle with the medical establishment. In the book, Kelso pointed directly to his formative experience as an outcast in high school that steeled him for his long fight. The title of his book was Not Making It.

And now I understand, and know, finally, what I have to do. A step before he turns the corner of the building, forever lost to me, I yell to the fourteen-year-old boy.

“Come over here,” I use my coach’s encouraging tone of voice that I immediately realize is unfair and motion to the empty spot beside me on the bench. “Can you sit down here a minute? I’ve got something I have to tell you. To talk to you about.”

He comes immediately, cheerfully, dribbling the ball. He does not have a clue about what is coming. He looks like he expects me to tell him something more about that off-balance jump shot of his.

“I’m not sure how much I can say here, but I want to tell you that something is about to happen to you. It’s a bad thing. You don’t deserve it. It’s not your fault, but – and I hate to say this – it’s going to have consequences for you. For a long time.”

He looks bewildered, but not unbelieving. He is scared and trying to hide it.

“What is it? What’s going to happen? One of my parents . . .”

“No. It’s not that. And I don’t think it will do any good to tell you exactly what it is. I don’t really think I would be allowed to do that.   You wouldn’t remember it anyway. The point is – and what I think I can say – is that it all works out.”

As I say those words it is as if the bonds holding me here, both those within and those without, are tightened, not loosened.   I have not been conscious of breathing since I have been sitting here, but now I feel choked, asphyxiated. And I think of the boy and what I am doing to him now and what I will do to him then or actually have already done to him and I know that I have done even this specially-granted bit of it wrong and that I must not hold back, that there can be nothing half-hearted now. I know that the condition of my soul depends on this speech and I have given more honest, more sincere, more self-giving speeches at half-times of junior high games. And I know now what I must say and as I contemplate the words – the right words – I am shocked that there is still in me, even after all of this, a stern reluctance to say them. But now I know that this is what is wrong with me and I hate it and ignore its raging voice.

“No,” I admit. “No, that’s not what I want to say to you. What you need to know, and what I hope you can remember is not just that it all works out. What I need to tell you is that you win.” The words are hot and bitter in my mouth, but sweet to my ear.

“I win?”

“Yes. And, son, I have spent my life striving to win. I did everything for it and I lost. But you win.”

“What do I win?”

“Everything. Everything. Life. All of the things you want and that the rest of us want. You can’t imagine it now, but nothing will be held back from you.”

He just looks at me; convinced, but confused. “So, what can I do? What do I need to do?”

“You have to believe that. You’re not going to remember much about this conversation. But you’ve got to try to remember that what’s coming to you very soon is not your fault and, even though it’s going to last a long time and even though you can’t imagine how you’ll get away from it, you will. This thing will not in the end define you. You win. In every way. You’ve got to believe that.”

It is a long time before he responds. “Okay. I think I understand. There is stuff like that in books.”

“There is. And you should read those books. As many of them as you can.”

He nods almost knowingly. He is taking this in completely. I see how brave he is; although I guess I already knew that.   He really was – is – a different kind of kid.

“There’s another thing,” I say, and as terrible as this has felt up until now, I am almost physically sickened by the next admission I must make. “I am one of those people who are going to do this thing to you.”

He recoils away from me, upright, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Why?” he says.

“Because I was selfish. There is no other reason.”

“Can’t you stop it?”

“It’s a good question, but I am afraid I can’t. I’m afraid that I have done everything I can do.”

Danny Kelso looks away from me now toward the far end of the court and finally nods his head.   He looks back at me. “So, this is over, then? No more advice? I thought I was coming along.”

“Yes. I’m afraid it is.”

“You know, I’m close to making the team this year. I’ve got a real shot.”

“I know.”

“Any more advice?”

“No. But there’s one more thing I’ve got to ask you. Will you forgive me?”

“Before it even happens?”

“Yes. I don’t think I’ll have another chance.”

“But I don’t see . . .”

He stops and then with the sense of a teenager – the insight of someone who is constantly under tight supervision and always one step away from trouble himself – he speaks the truth. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m stuck.”

“Then this could help you, maybe?”

“I think it could.”

“Nobody dies, right?”

“That’s right.”

He nods at me and says the words. “Then I forgive you.”

“Thank you.”   His words pierce me like a sword.   I am only one step, only one moment away from complete disintegration. I am almost in tears and I know he does not need to see that. My penance is complete.

“I don’t know how much of this you will remember. But I want you to try very hard to remember that this bad thing is not your fault and that you will finally win. Win everything. Will you try to do that?”

“Yeah.”

“For me?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s all I can ask. You better get on home now, it’s almost dark.”

And he runs away in the near darkness, tossing and catching the ball and into an undeserved fate that becomes a destiny. It tears me up to see him go. I know him now in a way that I never did before. I see the beginnings of his character, his remarkable courage, and I love and respect him and miss my connection to him. I am also sorry to lose the daily work, to measure the small but undeniable bits of progress that we have made. The chance, once again, to practice the profession that I chose for myself and that in my better moments I did love. The kid actually did have some real basketball possibilities.

Even though I know that all is square between us now and that all is well and all will be well with Danny Kelso, the past cannot be undone. I did deprive him of something real and irreplaceable.

Many will not understand that, but many will.

Making the high-school varsity meant admission to an inner ring that lasts a lifetime. An inner ring that, at least inside the boundaries of the nation, is universal. Let me explain. Years ago, on one of the sports channels, a couple of the well-known sports broadcasters were covering a high-stakes college football game. One of the sidelights of interest was a dialogue with a famous leading man who had starred in a dozen action films, playing roles where he single-handedly beat back roomfuls of terrorists, jumped from airplanes, swam piranha-infested rivers, and always, always, got the girl. This guy, who had all the money in the world and the adulation of the masses, was adding to his image, showing the world what a rabid fan he was of one of the top football teams in the nation. He had such standing that his presence in a crowd of 85,000 was a story.

The broadcasters, both of whom had played major college football, were having a great time interviewing the action hero. They asked him pointed questions about the sophisticated offenses and defenses that both of the teams were known to run. The movie star handled the questions very gracefully, effortlessly. He was informed. He understood the game. He talked about the psychology of the players. How so and so had to be a little tougher mentally. How certain injuries affect a player’s performance. A real man. A regular guy. Then one of the broadcasters popped his bubble. Some might have said it was an innocent question, but I know what was going on. The broadcaster, who was physically small, and would never have been material for a leading man in either an action movie or a romantic comedy asked the action hero: Did you play in high school?

The hero answered matter-of-factly that he hadn’t played in high school. He tried to act like that it made no difference to him, but he knew he’d been had. He knew that he had been exposed. After his answer, the tone of the interview changed. The broadcasters were no longer interested in his insights. He would no longer be seen as a regular guy, but as a pretty face who was trying his darnedest to look like a regular guy. He was a poser. Doing everything he could to make himself look like something he wasn’t. He had been left out of the inner ring of high-school sports and no matter how many inner rings he might have entered later through fame, money or sex, he had missed the first one, the one that really mattered.

In fact, Kelso fared well in later life. But I denied him this membership, this bit of belonging that would matter always, that was mine alone to bestow. How I now long to say of him those words of inclusion – words that he deserved to have spoken of him and words that would have, finally, been more of a credit to me. How much I long to say that he was in the fraternity, that Danny Kelso had played for me.

But he is gone now, never to return, I am sure, and my greatest sensation now is relief. In my total moral exhaustion I become aware of a body that aches and longs for rest. And I remember my last words and hope that they are of some comfort, of some effect, and I remember Danny Kelso’s words to me.

copyright 2015

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