FAST BREAK TO LINE BREAK
Poets on the Art of Basketball
Michigan State University Press
Copyright © 2012 Michigan State University
All right reserved.
HIDDEN TALENTS FAIL TO MATERIALIZE
Some poets talk about baseball as the most poetic of sports because there is no clock, but I think sometimes poetry needs a clock—that sense of urgency created by the seconds ticking down. For my money, basketball is the most poetic of the major sports. The problem is that my money doesn't go very far, because when I played JV basketball at Fitzgerald High School, the only point I scored the whole season was a free throw after time had expired.
Basketball is also the most visibly sweaty of all major sports. The hot gym, the confined space, the towels to mop up sweat when the bodies fall to the hardwood. I've always liked my poetry with a little sweat in it. Though again I contradict myself, for I worked up very little sweat as the twelfth man on a thirteen-man team. The JV coach, Mr. Barkley, the chemistry teacher and backfield coach for the varsity football team, only put me in for the last minute or so. Sometimes just the last thirty seconds. No matter how badly we were losing. And every game was a loss.
You can learn a lot sitting on the bench—another bit of conventional wisdom—but I'm afraid I learned nothing (about basketball, at least). I spent a lot of time admiring the cheerleaders. Unlike basketball, poetry is not a team sport. That same year, I began writing poetry.
After tryouts had ended and the final roster was posted, I walked home with my friend Ron, who had been cut. Ron and I often played driveway hoops in the neighborhood. Tim, who was in my older brother Dave's class, called him Fat Ron, but he was never obese, and actually had slimmed down a lot by high school. But no one ever called him Fast Ron. He was my best friend, and it was a long walk home. He was passive and polite, even when drunk or stoned, so he wasn't visibly angry about not making the team; he was silent. I was silent. Silence—I was beginning to notice how one silence was different than another.
Two years later, Ron's father died in a car accident. Ron had been in the car and had gotten some cuts on his face, but otherwise was okay. Ron and I had always walked to school together. He lived a little farther away, so I'd wait for him to come down the street, then joined him. The morning after his father died, I assumed I would be walking to school alone, but as I stepped out the door, I spotted him, head down, coming toward me. Apparently, his mother was a wreck, and he didn't know what else to do, so he'd gotten himself up and got ready for school like any other day. I stood on the sidewalk waiting, trying to think of what I could possibly say to him. When he reached me, I got in step with him. We didn't say a word. A silence that dwarfed being cut from a basketball team.
When we got to school and were waiting for the bell to ring, somebody gave him a hard time about his scratched-up face, and I said, "Leave him alone, his dad just died."
So, there I was at the free-throw line, fouled at the buzzer while attempting one of my patented desperation shots—all my shots were desperation shots. Despite the game being over—another lopsided loss—the referee made sure I got my two free throws. The stands were filled for the varsity game coming up next. The varsity guys stood on the edge of the court, restless to start warming up. But I was going to get my shots.
The only reason I made the team, I think, was because Coach Barkley thought I had some of my brother Dave's athletic skills buried in me somewhere—hidden potential. Dave was captain of the football team, star running back, all conference, all county. I think he averaged over nine yards a carry his senior year. He was a National Merit Scholar. Harvard wanted to meet with him, but my parents said they couldn't afford Harvard. They were naïve in the ways of colleges, and didn't understand financial aid.
When Dave got a full ride to Michigan Tech by winning a scholarship funded by a local engineering firm, my parents were thrilled. It was a big deal that he was simply going to college, and the fact that he was going away from home to go to college carried with it a certain prestige. Going to college out of state was unheard of in our community.
My oldest brother Mike had gone to the community college—Twelve Mile High, we called it, because it was on Twelve Mile Road—one semester, then got a job at a truck repair place across the street from the Chrysler plant, where he would later work as a truck driver.
I was the number three son, and the jury was out as to just what I was going to end up doing. I hadn't been tracked college prep, and it wasn't until my junior year that I worked my way into those courses, motivated by the knowledge that in order to be a writer, I had to go to college. That year, I was in Earth Science, a class for those not going to college. I'd been relegated to that group in my move over from the Catholic school. It could've been those Cs and Ds in Conduct and Effort and Study Habits, along with all the checkmarks for bad behavior. In eighth grade, I had started to question all of the elements of faith that had been drilled into me by the nuns. That questioning, that not accepting what others told me, was another element that led me to poetry. In poetry, it seemed, you couldn't get into trouble by asking too many questions. You were supposed to ask questions. I turned out not to be a team player for the faith, though at that age I wasn't mature enough to figure out how to express my doubts without being a jerk about it.
Being a jerk had helped put me in Earth Science. The smart kids were taking Biology, then Chemistry, then Physics.
I think we all have those moments in our lives where we're swinging by the hinges and can go either way. A lot of those moments come when we're too young to recognize them, too full of ourselves to see beyond the present. We need a little luck sometimes to swing the right way.
If you played on varsity, the cheerleaders made a poster for you and put it on your school locker on every game day. They were supposed to make locker posters for the JV team for one game that season, but for some reason, I didn't get one. I remember my disappointment at not getting that kind of recognition, even just for that one time. I didn't want to admit it to myself. I wanted to be too cool to care, but I cared. I wanted some cheerleader spelling out the letters of my name.
My brother's crew of bulky football players sat in the section of bleachers nearest the cheerleaders. They all wore their letter jackets. Sitting on the bench, I'd seen them enter together as our game wound down. Everywhere they went, they made an entrance. If my brother had not been one of them, I probably would have hated them.
Brother Mike had been allied with the greaser contingent. While he was not a particularly tough guy, nobody messed with him or his crowd. They worked on their cars a lot. Drank a lot. I don't think any of them went to college. I'm not sure they all even finished high school. I had Mike on the one side, and Dave on the other. I was not a jock. I was not a tough guy. And if I was a poet, I sure as hell wasn't going to be telling anyone. That would elicit scorn from all sides. No locker posters for poets.
In the parking lot in front of Bur-Ler's, a five-and-dime across the street from the school, Ed Tarkowski had jumped on me. I do not remember the circumstances leading up to that, but I remember lying in the crumbling blacktop of the parking lot with Tarkowski on top of me and thinking that I very well might be in the process of getting my ass kicked. A crowd had gathered, and someone shouted something like "C'mon, Daniels." Then, out of nowhere a big tough guy I had never seen before pulled Tarkowski off of me. He asked, "Are you a Daniels?" I said yes. He asked, "Do you want to fight this guy?" I said no. He kicked Tarkowski in the ass and said, "Get the hell out of here." He was obviously a friend of my brother Mike's. I hold that public moment up next to my one point, two moments where being a Daniels had paid off.
Having two brothers kept me from walling myself off from other groups at the school. It helped me see the human side of people who were not like me. It made me a better poet.
I tossed up my first free throw. It was not a pretty shot. I had no pretty shots. It bounced off the rim a couple of times before dropping in. My brother and his friends went wild. I turned back to where they were sitting, startled. I broke into a big smile. I didn't think anyone had been paying attention, and I suspect if it weren't for my brother, they wouldn't have been.
I once accumulated three fouls in my minute and a half. Coach Barkley just shook his head. He had this expressive face that featured a menacing grimace that suggested excruciating pain. I became very familiar with that face. But when I got in the game, I had nothing to lose. I went crazy out there, tossing up wild shots, hacking everybody. It was kind of like eighth grade in Catholic school all over again.
Once, I told the coach to put the thirteenth man, Nick, in ahead of me. After I scored my one point, that put me ahead of Nick, and Nick played football and baseball, so he had more at stake. That big zero next to his name was something that he'd have to live with for two more years, or maybe the rest of his life.
Here's an excerpt from "No Relation," a prose poem I wrote about Nick:
I quit scouts after six months to pursue my basketball career unimpeded. My last year I scored one point for an 0–16 team. One point the whole fucking season. I tried to write that without using fuck. Nick Manfred, who scored zero points, was killed by a drunk driver in California. I couldn't make that up, about the one point. I lied about Nick—he lived in a vegetative state for years before actually dying. Basketball was his worst sport. He was a center in football, a catcher in baseball. His jockstrap was always yanked halfway up his back. He'd go in for the last thirty seconds and toss up shots from half-court that bounced off the rafters. Everyone thought that was funny except me and Nick. My one point killed him.
1972, that's what I've left out.
1972: The varsity coach/athletic director, Mr. Dick Simpson, was just called "the Dick" by most of the athletes. And many of the best athletes did not play sports at all. Simpson had a flattop haircut that resembled a perfectly tended lawn, the kind of lawn our fathers dreamt about as an antidote to the dark, dirty, factory they worked in.
1972: The drinking age was eighteen, which meant, with trickle down, my friends and I had started drinking in ninth grade.
1972: Nearly everybody had long hair, even the tough guys, though there were only two identifiable hippies in our school of twelve hundred. Jim Tarpinski and Mike Clancy. Tarpinski may also have been the tallest kid in the school. He was identifiable as a hippie because Donald Litinger, our local right-wing fanatic, had attacked him at some rally because he was wearing an American flag T-shirt, and that offended Mr. Litinger, who had an uncanny resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald and could very well have shot Tarpinski. Tarpinski wandered the halls, a head above everyone else, his long frizzy hair making him seem even taller. He was an easy target for what was wrong with our society and our basketball team.
1972: To play basketball at our school, you had to have short hair like Mr. Simpson. As a result, many of the free-form artists of the court refused to play. Nevertheless, they attended the games. Ken Salvador had played in ninth grade, but then refused to cut his hair in tenth. He'd sit in the bleachers, stoned out of his mind, watching the games and laughing at inappropriate moments.
Mike Clancy was my friend. He sat in front of me in Earth Science. He did the daily school announcements, which meant he got to choose the music that played in the hallways while we changed classes. Occasionally, he let me make requests. Once I gave him my Woodstock album and asked him to play "Soul Sacrifice" by Santana. What a great song to change classes to. I recommend it highly.
I'm glad I started out in classes like Earth Science so that I could make friends with people like Mike Clancy, one of the gentlest guys in the school. He may have ended up being gay—no one at our high school ever dared to come out.
The thing about poetry is that everything is related. There's no such thing as "No Relation." So, when I write about poetry and basketball, I'm saying that everything's related, even though sometimes it seems like nothing's related.
My point is this:
The Friday of Thanksgiving week, Ron's parents were out somewhere, and he asked me to come over and drink from his parents' well-stocked bar, which we had taken to doing on occasion. In the middle of getting drunk, I remembered I had basketball practice that day and rushed over to the gym.
I practiced drunk, and no one seemed to notice. I wish now that somebody had. Later that season, Kevin Rogers, who was on the team, came to a game drunk and threw up in the locker room during warm-ups.
Kevin later borrowed his brother's car and had an accident that killed Jeff Zelinsk, who was class president at the time. They were drunk.
I showed up drunk at the next high school dance, and one of the cheerleaders confronted me, saying that, after what happened, how could I?
Luck. Stupidity. Luck. Stupidity.
Our senior year, Ron and I coached a Little League basketball team together. Our team won the championship, and I still have the trophy, though the plate that says "Head Coach: Jim Daniels" fell off.
How did two lousy players like us coach a bunch of fifth-and sixth-graders to a championship? Maybe I lied. Maybe I learned a few things about sitting on a bench while sitting on the bench. I don't remember a lot about that season, except that we made sure everyone scored by the end of the year.
Improvisation out of a set play.
HIDDEN TALENTS FAIL TO MATERIALIZE was the yearbook headline for my basketball team. That headline seems vaguely oxymoronic as I look at it now. But it also seems right when I think about both my basketball career and poetry. The coach assumed I had some hidden talent that might emerge over time. He was wrong. But I was beginning to think about hidden things a lot that year, about what went unsaid, about what was happening beneath the surface of my daily life. I never played on a school team again. As soon as the basketball season ended, I got a job in a local party store, a job I kept for two and a half years. Playing basketball had allowed me to get out of gym class, which in our school tended to resemble Lord of the Flies, featuring naked swimming and naked brutality, bullying of the first degree.
Dave and I have never talked about my one point. We were never explicit about how we felt about each other back in those days. It only happened through indirection, the smoke and mirrors of the teenage years.
Okay, I think I've got it now. Give me the ball.
When the football team stood and cheered after my one free throw, I'd had a moment that no one else on that team had the entire season. You can say what you want about their cheers being half-mocking, but I prefer to think that the emotional transference that happens in any good poem was happening then, that those guys, and the others who joined them in cheering, were perhaps thinking about what they might be feeling if they were in my place, getting the spotlight after a season in the shadows. Perhaps thinking of all the things that they were not good at. Sharing in my triumphant moment, however brief. The coaches and the other players were already headed toward the locker room, or were in the locker room already, but I had my audience, and we'd made a connection as satisfying as any successful poem.
My heart swelled as I stood there waiting for the referee to hand me the ball for my second shot, which, of course, I missed. Missing that second shot made the first one mean that much more.
Basketball and Poetry
The Two Richies
Basketball was my first love. Or perhaps it was my religion, if religion can be defined as that which most governs your life. As a teenager, I played almost every day, sometimes shoveling snow off the schoolyard court in order to do so. Sometimes I played in the dark, a distant streetlight the only illumination. If there was no one to play with I played by myself, imagining opponents or just practicing my shots. By the time I was fourteen I was five feet eleven, and the only freshman to make the varsity high school team. But I remember the coach looking at my small feet and shaking his head. "You're not going to get any bigger," he said, and he was right. I set about cultivating skills appropriate to someone my size. Shooting. Ball-handling. And I thought basketball when I wasn't playing it.
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