Not long after daylight they arrive. Three trucks and a crew of ten. Hard hats and coveralls. These are men who know and enjoy their work and they get to it immediately and without fanfare. One of them puts on goggles and lights an acetylene torch and in no time at all both goal standards have been cut down and into lengths small enough to fit into the bed of one of the pickups. Then they start with the jackhammers and tear into this lousy asphalt surface.
One of the men had hoped to salvage one of the goals for his little boy, but when he sees the shape they are in he gives up on the idea and tosses both into another one of the trucks. This guy has played before; I can tell by the way he moves. Long muscled, loose in the shoulders and back, a little pigeon-toed, a quick step. I’ve had forty like him.
I’ll tell you, if you could have this kind of work every day at a fair wage not much would beat it. You’re outside, moving around, seeing results and when your day is over, it’s over. I enjoy seeing men at work, doing something wholeheartedly together. It’s one of the best parts of sports. But, as crummy a place as this is and as long overdue this demolition, I am now saddened by its disappearance. By now, this place is the closest thing I have to a home and it is a spot that marks the release of so much weight that I had carried with me for so long. It reminds me now of Kelso and Sparks and the fact that we are all square with each other now. Reconciled. This is a great comfort to me, and I do not want the feeling to fade.
As the ragged surface disappears, into wheelbarrows and then into truck beds I am forlorn and shaken and wondering what will become of me now. One of the workers, wielding a sledgehammer, approaches the bench where I sit. He is, of course, completely oblivious to my presence, but before he can swing the tool the foreman calls him off, saying something about particular instructions relating to the bench.
The crew never stops. They are obviously being paid by the job, not by the hour. It is motion and noise even through the lunch hour and up until almost dusk when the last truckload of the busted-up asphalt is driven away. The silence is haunting. Everything is gone. I know that I have done right and have no regret now about my time here and know that even if there is nothing more but a view of grass for me, I have done right and must be satisfied with my new-found peace. Nonetheless, I feel terribly empty and long for those pitiful baskets and the sight of some kid trying to throw a shot into one of them.
As darkness falls, my desolation is complete. I know that even my shadowy visitors will return no more. The business that was left undone is all finished now, and there is no place to play. I look from my spot on the bench toward where the old backboard used to be and I am as barren in my heart and soul as this good-for-nothing, bald rectangle of ground before me. I have gone from torment to complete emptiness. The drama is over. Complete. Resolved. Nothing remains.
But what happens to me? I am at peace, but not at rest. I wrestle with my thoughts, thinking now – hoping – that there must be something more, that the story cannot simply end this way. It cannot end in nothingness. But then I consider the final justice of it. Is this not exactly what I deserve? Wherever I might have sacrificed some precious goal of mine for the benefit of another, I went my own way. I left precisely no legacy. Nothing to anyone. To me, people were means to an end. To my own end. Should I be surprised to learn that I have no inheritance here, in this eternal court, when I failed, even on my own terms, in every effort that I undertook in my life? This empty playground is my inheritance, my destiny.
What I did not learn before and now must come to understand as this emptiness continues is that goodness is its own reward. I have done right, finally, by two men, at least. I am sure of that now and the rest I will have – if I will have any rest – is in the knowledge that I have at least set two accounts right. That is all the reward I have and I must teach my heart to be satisfied with that. It will have to be enough. As I consider it, and think of the endless days and evenings ahead of me, it seems an impossible task, but I think again of what I have accomplished here today and how that was unimaginable to me only hours ago. I think of the hints I had in college of the philosophies of the Hindus and Buddhists. The idea of nirvana, of nothingness. It is no more appealing to me than it ever was, but maybe they were right. Maybe what is left to me is only to quiet my mind completely, to the point where I am one with this scene; with this darkness; with this desolation. I will find peace only as my consciousness dissolves. As I cease to be. Maybe, with these accounts squared, I am ready to begin that process now.
But I cannot surrender to this notion. At least not yet. Though I know that false hope will only make matters worse in the long run, I nonetheless entertain hope. I cannot hope for justice. I have justice now. But I think instead of what I would like to have as a reward. What is my real, my true, desire? As I think of every hope I had in life for accomplishment and influence and power as a coach and in the world of men, I reject it all willingly and without irony or reservation or regret. There was no joy in it, ever.
My greatest joy, and the thing that remains unspoiled by my own selfishness and pride, was playing the game. In the earliest days my play was an exercise of pure gift. I did not care, at first, about beating the other guy. That was something that had to be taught, or drilled in to me. Of course, someone wins, and there is no game unless you play to win. But beating the other guy was, at first, secondary, of minimal importance, compared to the joy of play. What winning brought with it, I thought, were all the other rewards; those that forever eluded me – money, influence, prestige. I played, at first, in the same way and for the same reasons that skaters skated and that dancers danced and that hawks flew and deer ran. For the same reason that sailfish slice and glide through sunny blue water. For the joy of movement. For complete release. For complete immersion in what I had been designed to do. I lost myself in the game. If I could have gotten up off of this bench and run that old court that was here yesterday and leap into the air and lay the ball soft and high off the backboard and hear it slide roughly through the net, then I would have the wings of a dove.
More than that. At its very best, basketball was less of a matter of winning and losing and more of a fraternal exercise. In my earliest days I knew and belonged to and never played outside of a brotherhood of those who shared my gift and passion. We instinctively knew what was fair and had no desire to go beyond those boundaries. Nothing was feigned. If I could know that brotherhood again, I would not care if I could speak with the tongues of men or angels.
Finally, I would want some consolation over my adult life. I do not want recognition for anything that I did not achieve. I do not want the praise of men. But if I had some assurance, some marker, that I had been some good to someone, somewhere along the way, it would be the end of all desire for me.
Now I know what I want, but it is too late, I fear, to ever achieve or deserve any part of it. The court is gone; life is over; the day of reckoning is over; all that will be fulfilled has been fulfilled. Twilight passes and darkness falls and I sit alone.