Friday, June 19, 8:30 A.M.
“We’re gonna kill them bums, Mr. Jones. Kill ’em. That’s right. You’ll see. Right, Mr. Jones? We’re gonna kill them!” Michael Rice is sliding into his cushioned airline seat, jabbing words at me through a confident smile: “You’ll see. We’re gonna murder them guys!” My eyes follow Michael into his seat and watch Eddie Cotter help him with the safety belt. I count to myself. Michael and Eddie in the seats in front of me, Joey next to me, and Audie and Jimmy across the aisle. Good. Everyone’s here. I count one more time. All five are on the plane. In the past hour I have mentally lassoed these five a dozen times. In the next two days, I will count to five perhaps a thousand times. Together, we make up the San Francisco Special Olympic Basketball Team.
Michael twists in his seat so he can reach back and grab my hand. Just as I think he is going to change the topic of conversation, he smiles and reminds me of our mission. “Coach, we’re gonna kill ’em.”
Michael is the team’s leader, mostly because of his size and generosity. When standing, Michael bends forward like a top-heavy tree, and in motion he shuffles his feet as if on a slippery surface. Like the other players, Michael cannot add a row of numbers or write a sentence. He has not learned about Racism, Republicanism, East or Westism. The social baggage we carry is irrelevant to Michael. Michael welcomes strangers into his thoughts by throwing his arm around them and courting their interest with a barrage of enthusiastic chatter. His thoughts are disarmingly honest and to the point, even if they are repetitious. And though his words are predictable, his enthusiasm and affection are always a wonderful surprise. So I hold hands with this kindly giant that is talking of murder and smiling of life. And I wait to be hugged by him at some unexpected moment. I know I will find myself jumping excitedly into the air with Michael over some soon-to-be accomplishment or common-place event. I am stuck between two worlds: my world of educated reason that tells me to pay attention, and Michael’s world of open enthusiasm and affection that tells me I will perform miracles. His world reminds me that the miracle is waiting in Los Angeles and it will not be orchestrated by reason.
Michael’s seatmate, Eddie Cotter, doesn’t like the idea of Michael standing. Eddie points all around the cabin, showing Michael that everyone is seated. Then he tells everyone about seat belts. “Put on your seat belt. Like this! Here, Michael Rice, put on your seat belt like this.” Eddie is the team’s lawyer. He worries constantly about what is “right” and the performance of “rightness.” “Isn’t that right, Mr. Jones? It’s time. Come on you guys. It’s time to put on your seat belts. Joey, you put on your seat belt like this. This is the way you do it.” Joey will have none of it. He is listening to Michael’s jabber about mayhem on the court. And every time Michael says the word “kill,” Joey yelps his approval and shakes both fists in the air. So I reach over and buckle Joey’s seat belt.
In between Michael’s game plan and Eddie’s seat-belt plan, I ask Joey if this is his first time on an airplane. Joey nods yes, and punctuates the nod with a great gulp of air. Continuing our conversation, Joey throws a hand in the air, school-boy style, and slowly bends his fingers, until one finger points skyward. “Yes,” I answer, “We’re number one. We can’t miss with these killer black uniforms, now can we?” I know my words will make Joey smile. He can’t hide his feelings or form words, so he “talks” by flooding you with his emotions. And it works. His smile and raspy sounds are telepathic. At the mention of our uniforms, Joey’s eyes light up. He tilts his head back and lets loose with a choking laugh. Then, with his eyes still glistening, he directs a question at me. He points at his uniform bag, then rubs my shirt. “No,” I respond, “I don’t have a uniform. I’m the coach — remember?” Joey grins in acknowledgement. Eddie continues talking about seat belts. Michael talks on about winning. Joey uses his clenched handkerchief to catch saliva rolling from his open mouth. I count to five.
Other passengers are now boarding the plane. They look stunned at row after row of athletes, wearing bright yellow hats, blue warm-up jerseys, and disabled bodies. The Olympians snap their stares by applauding them. A ripple of clapping greets each passenger as he filters toward the rear of the plane. These travelers are not expecting applause; they smile nervously as row after row of Olympians reach out to touch them or wave hello. Within moments, athletes and passengers are shaking hands, exchanging sign language, and sharing destinations.
“Where are you kids going?”
“To Los Angeles!”
“Who are you, I mean, who do you represent, all dressed up like this?”
“We’re going to Los Angeles!”
“What’s going to go on down there?”
“We’re gonna kill them!”
“Oh. Good luck.”
The stewardess is reading the mandatory emergency procedures. Each precaution is met by wild cheers. Methodically, every yellow hat turns upward to find the invisible oxygen mask, and looks to the rear of the cabin for the emergency door, and under the seat for the mysterious flotation cushion. Then the attention of the Olympians turns to the sensation of movement. The plane is beginning to tip toe. Great applause from the yellow cappers. We are on our way to Los Angeles. Like some winged horse, the plane glides down the runway, and with a final push sails cloudward. More applause. And yelling. This time, all the passengers are clapping.
I count heads. Michael and Eddie. Joey. Audie and Jimmy. Audie grabs my counting finger. His eyes are wide with fear. “I’m going to fall! I’m too high!” “Audie,” I say, “It’s all right. It’s all right. Audie, the plane has wings — see, out there. Those are wings and the air ‘lifts’ . . . um, the motors push the plane . . . we’re riding on waves of air created by — Audie, look at me. Audie, if you fall, I promise to catch you!” My explanation of air travel doesn’t exactly calm Audie’s fear. It doesn’t exactly instill me with confidence either. Fortunately, for both of us, the stewardess arrives with Coca-Cola.
Audie enjoys his Coke. He taps my hand and asks, “Bathroommm. Bathroommm.” I point to the line at the front of the plane. Audie stands up and moves to the front of the plane as if something important is about to happen. Actually, something important does happen. Audie is perhaps the strongest and fastest athlete in this contingent. As a basketball player, however, he has trouble with direction. When he rebounds, he returns the ball to the closest basket. About half the time his shots are aimed at what Eddie calls the “right” basket. The rest of the time, he is a fantastic scoring threat for the other team. Any basket sets off a spasm of delight — pure joy that is hard to stifle with the message that, “Audie, you have just scored two points for the other team!”
Audie lives in high gear. Nothing he does is slow or deliberate. I guess that’s why I selected Audie for our basketball team. When he shoots down the floor like a grinning rocket, I can point to the ball he leaves behind. I hope basketball will help Audie get a little control. Slow down. Run in the right direction. Well, he’s going to the front of the plane and that’s an accomplishment.
I do a quick body count. Michael has his arm around Eddie, talking about the right uniform to wear. Joey is gulping his Coke. Audie is in line. Jimmy Powers, his seat mate, is asleep. It’s 8:50.
Michael welcomes strangers by throwing his arms around them. . . . His thoughts are disarmingly honest and to the point . . .
Friday, 7:00 P.M.
We are in a sea of color. Three thousand athletes from all over California are assembled at Drake Field on the UCLA campus for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics. Jimmy is the shortest player on our team, so I hold his hand as waves of athletic teams move about us. Joey holds my other hand. Michael, Eddie and Audie walk ahead of us, arm in arm, like the Three Musketeers. Pride and friendship are on parade. Just as we hold each other, the sky and earth seem to move closer — brushing softly against the banners, listening to the muffled sounds of excitement and peals of laughter, joining us in this celebration.
Michael is the first to let the air out of Camelot. “Those suckers are big! Mr. Jones, do you SEE those suckers? Oh, brother, those suckers are BIG!” Sure enough, Michael is right. I stop dreaming and start being a coach. I count several towering figures wearing the red warm-ups of Fresno. And there’s a giant wearing the orange and white of Tri-Valley. Michael Rice is our tallest player at six feet, four inches. These guys look closer to seven feet. “Mr. Jones, see that tall dude over there? Those suckers are mean.”
I begin to question myself. I mean, asking Joey to play on our team was unavoidable. I know that you’re not supposed to have favorites in teaching, but Joey and I are best friends. We liked each other immediately. I think he liked the fact I played sports, and I loved Joey for the way he played sports. Joey moves like a mechanical soldier. His arms are stuck in a bend position and his gait is an awkward side-to-side gallop — a gallop that races full tilt, unable to change direction or stop. To slow down, Joey often runs into things or throws his body on the ground. I guess it’s that will to charge ahead, full speed, knowing you can’t stop, that I admire. He has more spirit than an evangelist on a hot summer night, but he can’t even catch a ball, much less dribble or shoot.
And Jimmy. Little Jimmy. He can dribble and shoot if no one stands in front of him. It’s going to take more than Joey’s spirit to help Jimmy even see the ball. I wish Jimmy were two feet taller. And Audie a lot slower. And Eddie — well, Eddie might be able to get the ball to Michael if he can stop debating with himself about what’s the right thing to do.
It’s time to start some reality therapy.
“You know, you guys, I’ve got an idea.” Michael, Eddie, Joey, Audie and Jimmy glue themselves to my side. “I was thinking, we need a team motto — you know, something special that we can share, like a secret.” The conspiracy thickens as my thoughts are welded by a uniform “ALL RIGHT!” “Good, our secret pledge for these games is togetherness.” “YEAH!” I lower my voice, “And instead of shouting all over the place that we’re number one, I think it’s better that we become number five.” I put up five fingers and give each finger a player’s name. “In this tournament, let’s not worry so much about number one. Our job is for each player to go as hard as he can. Instead of saying we’re number one, let’s say we’re number five.”
I stretch all five fingers in the air and hear a roar from my cohorts. “We’re number five!” “We’re number five!” This attempt at humility is followed by an unprompted, “We’re gonna kill them! You watch.” Eddie tailors his words. “We’ll win, right?” “You’ll see, Mr. Jones. We’ll win those big guys.” Everyone agrees with Eddie. “We’re gonna murder them,” Michael adds. “We’ll clobber them big suckers. We’re number one!” The whole team shouts with Michael, “We’re number one!” Joey smiles; Eddie shakes his head in the affirmative; Audie jumps up and down; Jimmy holds both small fists in mid-air; Michael holds up one finger — which is greeted by a unanimous “We’re Number One!”
I look around and every team in my circle of vision chants a similar claim. The big players from Fresno and Tri-Valley have their arms in the air. I fantasize that they can dunk the ball without jumping. Everyone around us is yelling, “We’re number one! We’re Number One!” I join the chorus and close Camelot’s drawbridge on thoughts of x’s and o’s and tall centers.
We’re Number One.
We’re Number One.
Saturday, 5:30 A.M.
I’m right in the technicolor part of a great dream. Good outlet pass. Fill the lanes. Here comes Audie. Pull up. Float a pass rim high. Audie slams it through. Joey and I are playing the tuff defense. We double-team the ball. Joey tips it free. I’m after it. So who’s knocking? What has that got to do with defense? A seven-foot center skittles in my way. The door is being pounded like a drum. Bang — Bang — Bang. Thoughts of fire drill, aerial bombardment, and a loose ball race around in my head. Bang — Bang — Bang. I place a hand over my eye sockets to end the mental filmworks. And slowly, very slowly, find the barking door. When I open it, I am assaulted by a blast of cold fluorescent light. And something else. At first I can’t quite make out who or what is standing in the hallway. Moving figures look like members of some assassin cult come to get me in the middle of the basketball game. They’re talking about death. When my squint becomes an eye opening, I find myself staring at five basketball players in full armor. It is 5:30 in the morning and the entire basketball team is outside my door, dressed and ready to kill.
On close examination I notice that these warriors are not all that ready. Michael has tied Joey’s shoes, but Joey has to hold up his pants — actually he is pinching his arms against his hips. Audie’s pants are on inside out. Jimmy is holding his supporter in one hand, asking where it goes. Eddie is telling him. “It goes in your bag. Right, Mr. Jones? It goes in your bag.” I shake off a dozen questions and ask one of my own. “Are you guys going to breakfast in your uniforms?” It’s a silly question. Of course we go to breakfast in our uniforms. White jersey tops, with black numerals, black silk shorts trimmed in white, Converse All-Stars and white high top socks with three black rings. When I ask Michael why everyone got into white tops instead of black, he answers matter of factly, “We’re saving the black tops for the championship game.”
Game One, Saturday, 10:00 A.M.
Our warm-up consists of everyone getting a free shot. Every careen of the ball prompts applause and excited yells of triumph. Joey and Audie have to race for the bathroom or risk peeing in their new uniforms. Michael rebounds each shot with a thud. Eddie paces. Joey returns to give encouragement. With each shot, he waves his crooked arms in the air like an official signalling a touchdown. When someone makes a basket, or comes close, Joey violently throws his arms down and let’s out a gutteral sound of pleasure. Michael pounds the loose ball and announces, “This is it, Mr. Jones. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is it!” Joey roars agreement. Audie runs around in a circle under the basket, with both hands in the air, yelling, “Now. Now. Now!”
The first game is against Tri-Valley. It’s scheduled to last ten minutes, and then the team with the most points will be declared the winner. The purpose of the game is to place teams into divisions of equal ability. The score at the end of ten minutes is 16 to 2. We get the last two points when Michael sinks a twenty foot running hook, our only two points. Nobody seems to care. Michael roars off the court and picks up Joey. Eddie congratulates Michael and asks what the score is now. Audie is still running down the court, unaware that the game is over. Jimmy takes a Muhammad Ali victory pose and asks if he did O.K. I answer, “Man, you did, everyone did great. Just great! I was proud of you. That shot of Michael’s was superb. I think if we work a little more on our defense we’ll. . . .” Michael finishes the sentence — “We’ll kill them!”
Actually I’m worried. We’ve been blown away sixteen to two. That places us in the lowest ability division, but even that is poor consolation for someone that hates to lose. I can’t help my feelings. For too many years I have played and coached basketball. Something happens when I get inside a gym. I love it. Love to play and love to win. Every intuitive and intellectual antenna clicks into automatic at the sight of another team doing lay-ups. I find myself scouting our opponents, scrutinizing the line-up of teams, pushing my team on the floor to practice at every available free time. It’s that extra effort; that extra lap or free throw that will make the difference. That’s what I think while I have everyone take defensive positions and attack the movement of the ball. We practice holding our hands up, cutting off the baseline, stopping the dribbler. If we play defense, we just might have a chance. Defense is something you can teach. Offense is an art.
To slow down, Joey often runs into things or throws his body on the ground. I guess it’s that will to charge ahead, full speed, knowing you can’t stop, that I admire. He has more spirit than an evangelist on a hot summer night, but he can’t even catch a ball, much less dribble or shoot.
Game Two, Saturday, 2:00 P.M.
We draw Southeast Los Angeles. You can tell the course of a game in the first few seconds. The Los Angeles team executes a tip-off play, streaks the length of the floor and scores the first two points. Then steals the inbound pass for a quick four point lead. Michael tries to take command of the game. He dribbles the length of the floor and casts off from the top of the key. The ball banks off the backboard and into a fast break. The score is six to nothing. I yell at Michael, “Get underneath, let Eddie handle the ball, get underneath!” Jimmy gets the ball. He tries to advance the ball up the court, but is surrounded by a wall of red uniforms. The ball kicks loose and a Los Angeles player sinks a jump shot. “My God. Did you see that shot — that kid could play for the Lakers!” I call time out.
In the huddle, I explain what I think is our only hope. “Look, Eddie, you dribble the ball up the court and feed the ball in deep to Michael — you got that? Michael, you take the ball and go right up with it. . . . O.K., Michael? This is the time — Go for your sky hook!” The team explodes back onto the floor loaded with confidence and visions of Michael’s sky hook. I sit down, then stand back up. Michael is dribbling the length of the floor. “No, Michael, No. Get in the key!” It is a set shot from thirty feet. The ball hits nothing . . . but net. “Two, Two, Yahoo! What a shot! Nice going, Jimmy. Now we’re going. . . . Come on, you guys, defense. Get back. Get back. Oh, no.” Following our basket, the entire team races to congratulate Jimmy. The other team throws a court length pass for a lay-up.
During this seesaw war, Michael never did get in the pivot. I point. Jump up and down. Even run along the sidelines screaming instructions. “Michael, get under the basket. No, no, no. Don’t dribble the ball.” They have another steal, and another. It is xerox time. “Michael, let Eddie bring up the ball; get underneath. Michael — down there, get down there where you belong. . . .” The five in white run around officials and past the bench and to the key, and back across the center line to the other end. Drop the ball. Kick it. Roll over it. Only to do it all over again.
We lose 58 to 6. The score doesn’t bother me as much as what this humiliation might mean for my killers in white. Michael played like a lion. He sensed the onslaught and tried all by himself to balance the score. No one could have tried harder. Eddie was simply unable to calculate the right place to be or the right pass to make. You could feel his hesitation as he rocked his arms, looking for someone to pass to or some place to run toward. Joey valiantly chased the ball the entire game. No matter where the ball went, Joey was in pursuit. Throughout the game, he didn’t touch the ball. Not once. Several times he galloped right past a loose ball, grinning all the way, both arms waving like iron gates. Audie circled during most of the game, with both hands raised above his head, signalling for someone, anyone, anytime, to throw him a pass. Jimmy tried and tried and tried. I am afraid the team’s heart will be broken.
The tournament official comes up to me and stuffs a large brown envelope into my hand. “Here,” he says in a soft voice. “Here are the participation medals for your team — your guys might need a little pick up.” Together we crank our heads to see how my team is taking their loss. What we see hits us with a jolt. Michael has led everyone over to the roll of mats at the end of the next court. The team is kneeling on the mats, cheering for a game in progress. Whooping it up for baskets made and passes completed. And in the midst of their yells, we both hear a spirited challenge — “We’re gonna kill you guys!”
The official hangs on to his envelope. “Maybe you don’t need this. I mean, where did your team get its spirit? They might be the worst team in the tournament and here they are challenging everyone in sight to a shoot out at high noon.” My shrug doesn’t answer his question, so he continues. “Do they know they just lost?” I offer an idea. “I don’t think they know the difference between winning and losing!” We are both shaking our heads in admiration and disbelief. The official takes back his envelope. “Well, coach, you’ve got one more chance to get a medal. If you can win this afternoon at four against Sonoma, well then you can play tomorrow for a third place medal in your division. Who knows, those characters might yell themselves a medal.”
I walk slowly over to my team. They are bubbling with enthusiasm, pointing to good plays and shouting familiar directions. “Get back, get back, you turkeys. Hands up! Hands up!” They seem wired to the play. Every nuance and gesture is picked up. A player’s happiness and success is immediately known and shared by the observers. It is almost as if my team were playing another game. By throwing their voices onto the court, they participate in the game. I have always seen the game as a match-up of strategies. If one team throws up a zone, you move the ball and overload one side of the court. If an opponent is superior in ability, you slow down the game tempo. If you get ahead late in the game, you spread your offense and force your opponent to play man-to-man defense. If behind, you double-team the ball and pressure the offense. . . . My team is watching another game and enjoying it as much as any game ever played.
I want to know more about this other game, when Joey jerks in front of me. He points across the floor — and then jabs his hand into his chest. I nod, yes, expecting Joey to romp for the bathroom. Joey runs straight into the game in progress. He simply joins in; chases the ball around trying to vacuum it up with his mechanical arms. I jump after him. In between passes and fast breaks, I chase Joey around the court. When I catch him, we both join our team. They are cheering Joey and me. And the game in progress. And future games. And their own prowess. If an alien force were to ask me about the game of basketball, I don’t know who I’d send forward . . . Alvin Attles or Joey Asaro.
That 26 points scares me. On the basis our warm-up shooting, I calculate it would take us three games to score that many baskets. And that’s without a defense.
Game Four, Sunday, Noon
This is it! The big game. We’ve made it by accident. The Saturday afternoon game with Sonoma was a forfeit — their bus broke down. So we played against ourselves and won. Actually, several nieces, nephews and parents joined me in playing our Olympic team. It was the most enjoyable basketball game I’ve ever played. The sidelines were like rubber bands. We chased, pushed, pulled each other. Ran with the ball, passed it, tripped over it, and hugged it. Kept our own score. Forgot the score. Made up a score. Took pleasure in all manner of accomplishment.
Our self-imposed win places us in Sunday’s game for third place medals against a San Diego team. As far as our team is concerned, we have won and now we are about to play for the championship of the world.
Saturday night’s waiting seems interminable. Five uniformed players hover about me like moths at a lamp. Every moment is filled with poking fingers, pumping hands, and landslides of conjecture. Eddie, weighing every possibility . . . over and over. “We should wear our black uniforms, right? We can wear them now, it’s all right now, we can wear our black uniforms. Isn’t it all right, Mr. Jones?” Sandwiched around Eddie’s thoughts was Michael’s insistence. “Too much for those guys. They don’t stand a chance. Not against us. We’re gonna annihilate those turkey legs from San Diego.” Piercing into this constant din is Audie’s fix: “What time is it? What time tomorrow? Do we play, what time in our black uniforms?” These three sentiments chase each other around and around. I feel I am being eaten alive by enthusiasm.
“Look, you guys have got to calm down. The game isn’t until twelve o’clock tomorrow.” Like an endless string of firecrackers, the mention of the game simply kicks off another round of excitement. In desperation, I try hallway exercises. After an hour, I am beat. Audie wants to go to the bathroom and the remainder of the team keeps doing windmills, while jogging in place. Now in greater desperation, I try a late night food raid. I figure if they eat something, anything, the talking cycle will be broken. Dressed in killer black uniforms, we attack the candy machines in the dormitory lobby. Evidently, we are not the only team in training. The machines are overdosed on athletes plunking in odd assortments of coinage and then pushing all the buttons as fast as possible. The telephone in the lobby has been reduced to a sound that cries the end of the world. It isn’t a dial tone or a busy signal but a steady whine. In this night before the BIG GAME, even God must be a little confused.
Announcing “lights out,” I discover Joey kneeling, bent in prayer, crossing himself over and over. When he finishes, I ask softly, “What are you praying for?” Joey gyrates with his hands. My mind is answering for him — what a wonderful moment, he’s saying the Lord’s Prayer. The urgency of his gestures serves to question my assumption. His hand is in a fist that stirs the air. Then a finger straightens to point at me and the Converse shoes placed at the end of this bed. I offer, “Joey, you’re praying for the basketball team.” No, his head thunders. He hits towards me with clenched hands and lower lip curled into a grimace.
“You want to win tomorrow,” I suggest. No, goes his head. Michael enters the room and joins my interpretations. He knows immediately what I don’t want to see. Joey sweeps into motion. He crosses himself in a spastic fashion and then smiles and hits outward. Michael knows what Joey is praying for. “We’re gonna kill them, right Joey!” Joey grins in the affirmative, then, like the other players, crawls into sleep wearing a starchy black uniform.
So here we are, at last. This is it. The Big Game. The San Diego team is a little shorter than we are, but they have a pair of good shooters. And to get into this game, they’ve actually won a real game. Scored 26 points against Butte County. That 26 points scares me. On the basis of our warm-up shooting, I calculate it would take us three games to score that many baskets. And that’s without a defense. I contemplate putting Michael and Eddie on the San Diego shooters and letting everyone else run around in a zone. No, it’s not a time for match-ups, or strategy. It’s a time to play hard and enjoy whatever happens. I decide to let Michael bring the ball down the court and give the team a simple rule: “If the ball comes to you, shoot!”
Both teams line up, not sure of which basket they defend or hope to shoot at. Michael gets the tip. The ball goes straight up and when it comes down, he is waiting for it. He dribbles straight ahead, full speed. Right for the basket. No one is in his way. When he stops to shoot, the trailing players pour by him. He is still alone. His shot rolls around the rim and falls off. Michael stretches his body and catches the ball with his arms extended. From this flat-footed stance, he pushes the ball once again at the target. This time it goes in. “Holy Hot Potato!” Pure exhilaration. The first two points are ours. “Get back. Get back!” Five players clad in black race backward. “That’s it! That’s it! Hands up!” They form a straight line. One behind each other, like some picket fence. It’s a new defense called stand-in-a-row. I am tempted for just a moment to yell instructions, to spread them out. No. “Hands up!” The fence grows a row of points that steal the pass. “Audie, this way.” “Audie, dribble the ball.” Audie dribbles. He isn’t running full tilt without the ball. Or circling. Or surrendering with his waving hands. Audie has his head down and he’s dribbling. Dribbling under control past the half court circle. “Keep going, Audie. Keep going.”
Audie picks up the ball to run around several defensive players, but then puts it back on the floor in a controlled dribble. Within radar range of the right hoop, he jumps into the air and flings the ball toward the metal ring. The ball kisses the ring and almost skids in. Audie is jumping up and down. Joey is tracking the now loose ball. In the rebound effort, it kicks loose and is bouncing toward our basket. Joey is right behind it. So is a San Diego player. The other player scoops up the ball and veers for a sure lay-up. It’s too hard. Joey is now running the other direction full speed.
All the players on the floor are running after the San Diego lay-up attempt. Joey and the ball are flying past them, going the other direction. The two forces almost collide. Joey is now by himself chasing a ball that he has been pursuing for three games: “Go for it!” “Joey, get in front of it!” All the players realize that they have just overrun the ball and they begin to chase. At the three quarter mark, Joey lunges at the moving ball. His momentum only serves to push the ball further beyond his reach. “Joey, slow down. Let it go out of bounds. Let it go.” Joey can’t slow down. And doesn’t want to try. He continues to run toward the wall at the end of the gym. I’ve seen that determination before. I start running after him. Then I see what Joey has in his mind. He dives for the ball. If he misses, he slams head first into a doorway. If he hits it, I don’t — Joey lands on the ball. Its forward spin and shape punch Joey’s body skyward. His arms wrap around the rubber like a child grappling with a favorite doll. He won’t let go or be tossed off. The dive is followed by a bounce upward and a violent roll. Over and over, ball and Joey, Joey and the ball. They slam into the wall. Joey has his catch. He’s got that ball. He jumps up in that awkward way he has. And holds the ball against his chest. His face is wide with pleasure. The official following the play doesn’t know what to do. Everyone stops surrounding Joey and the ball. They are both a good 20 feet outside the end line. Joey’s smile indicates that something wonderful has happened. The official gives ceremony to this catch. He whistles loudly three times: then with great NBA flare, he yells, “Out of bounds. San Diego ball.”
Joey grins and nods his head, and unconsciously hops on one leg. He releases the ball by pulling both arms aside. The ball drops into the official’s waiting hand. Joey races to take his place in the picket fence defense. I’m cheering inside. And crying. Yelling, “Defense. Come on.” Joey shakes his fist in acknowledgement.
Somewhere in those first few moments of play, the floor tilts in our favor. It is one of those games where everything goes one way. Players get loose and then unstoppable. Michael, Eddie, Joey, Audie, and Jimmy become the players in their minds. They are Kareem and Dr. Dunk, Magic Johnson and a thousand television images. They fly down the floor. Tip the ball in. Throw court length bombs. Make baskets only dreamed about.
Before I can turn around, Audie is jumping at me. I catch his hips at eye level and absorb his crashing body. Joey lands on both of us, pounding us with his handkerchief fist. Michael catches the three of us in a great hug. Jimmy and Eddie join our dance.
We’ve won — 42 to 12.
Everyone on the floor is jumping up and down. Shaking hands. Slapping backs. Even the San Diego players seemed delighted by events. I search out the San Diego coach. I want to apologize for not being able to keep the game closer. In the blur of bodies, waving towels, and flying uniform tops, I find the San Diego coach and express my concern.
“I’m sorry coach, I couldn’t keep things a little more in control.” The San Diego coach smiles broadly and points at his team. “Look, you kiddin’, my kids think they killed you!”
Ron Jones works at the San Francisco Recreation Center for the Handicapped. This account is true, and will be included in an anthology of stories about teaching and children called No Substitute for Madness, $8 from Island Press, Star Route 1, Box 38, Covelo, Ca. 94528.