The Comeback

by

05/05/2004

331 E 10th St, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Manhattan

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Every high tide harvested beer bottles, oil containers, fishing lines, shiny candy wrappers, and plastic bags onto the sloping shoreline of Pattaya. At low tide I collected the trash into sea-worn rice bags. Within a half-hour the sand was devoid of any human refuse and I could smugly regard the pristine sand with pride.

While tourists turned their noses in disgust, the Thais from the beach cafes congratulated my efforts without ever breaking caste to aid my task. From under a parasol my girlfriend expressed her embarrassment by saying, “Tomorrow have plastic again. Every day have. You stop nothing.”

I continued my patrol. The bending proved very therapeutic. In fact not a single joint creaked and not one muscle ached. I could press my palms flat onto the sand. The ex-go-go dancer was under-pressed. “You only not hurt, because you stop play basketball.”

Mem was right.

I had not picked up a basketball in months.

Thais were mad about Man United. The NBA was a sideshow. The courts at the schools were used for pick-up football games. Their backboards were warped by the tropical sun. Occasionally I dribbled a basketball at the local mall and the Thais waited for a show, except ballhandling had never been the mainstay of my game.

My cousin, Bish, came out to visit and Mem asked, “He good playing basketball.”

My cousin and I had played our last one-on-one game twenty years ago.

“He’s the dirtiest player this side of Bill Laimbeer.” The Detroit Piston was legendary. The name meant nothing to Mem and she wrinkled her nose. “Dirty same not shower.”

Bish made a violent gesture with his elbow. “No, dirty same the Mafia.”

Bish was not far from wrong. My fouls on the street courts had to be approaching the half-million mark. Despite this record, I loved basketball and had so from even before I saw one.

In the 1950s I lived on a quiet street across the harbor from Portland, Maine. In the summertime my brother, my best friend, and I chased seagulls from the mudflats and explored the offshore islands in leaky rowboats. We played football in the autumn and my father built us a hockey rink from scavenged two by fours once the temperature dropped below freezing.

One night my father ran into the backyard and declared he saw a rattlesnake in the front yard. We hobbled into the house on the skates and he called the State Police. The deadly reptile turned out to be the silhouette of a paper bag flapping in the wind.

During dinner we joked about the episode, however an eight-year’s old mind is active in the dark and I heard the sibilant slither of the snakes. Panic-stricken I ran into my parents’ room and leapt into the bed. “There’s snakes under my bed.”

“Maine doesn’t have any snakes.” My father was exhausted.

“You thought saw one tonight.” If he believed snakes in the winter, then they might have sneaked into our house. “Can’t I sleep with you?”

“You’re getting a little old for this.” My father argued with closed eyes.

“He’s young.” My mother threw back the cover and I climbed into bed.

I didn’t realize the disruptiveness of this nocturnal interruption on their private lives until I was a little older, but the following day my father brought home two crystal radio sets shaped as rockets. They were made in Japan. You attached alligator clips to a metal object. The signal was transmitted to the earpiece and you tuned the radio with a retractable space needle jutting from the nose of the rocket.

At bedtime I dressed in my Davy Crockett pajamas, but before I could plant the earpiece, my mother ordered us to hand over the sets. My brother surrendered his and rolled over to sleep. I needed any explanation.

“You might be electrocuted.” She held out her hand.

I had read the flimsy instruction sheet. “They don’t have any batteries.”

“It’s not that,” she exhaled with exasperation. “In the night they play things you shouldn’t hear.”

This cryptic comment reanimated my dozing brother. “Things?”

As a devout supporter of Tailgunner Joe’s battle against the Reds my mother feared the subversion of the airwaves. Events of the Sixties proved her right. My father came into the bedroom and told my mother, “Let them listen to the radio. It’s a free country and the radio scares away the snakes.”

She gave him a withering glare. “You shouldn’t be telling them stories.”

“I just want a night’s sleep,” he whispered with a wink. My mother begrudgingly returned my brother’s set and kissed us both. “Sleep tight.”

“And don’t let the bedbugs bite,” my brother and I replied in unison. When the light went out, my brother fell asleep and I attached the alligator clips to the metal bed frame.

The men’s voices from Montreal, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Wheeling, West Virginia scared away the snakes. Music and radio shows appeared between the squawks of static, until a hoarse voice cried out, “And Cousy has the ball.”

I soon divined that five men played for the Seventy-Sixers and the Celtics. Each play mattered to the announcer and the roar of the crowd was as bloodthirsty as the Romans in the Coliseum. I rooted for the Boston team, since my mother had been born in Jamaica Plains, but Bill Russell was not stopping the dreaded giant, Wilt. Luckily the Sixers were befuddled by the Jones boys and at breakfast I recounted how the two brothers’ defense stopped the Philadelphia team.

“When you fall asleep?” my father asked and I answered, “Around midnight.”

“Don’t tell your mother or the Jones Boys will have a curfew.”

In 1960 we moved to Boston. My father took us to visit to the Garden. KC and Sam Jones were not brothers, but seeing the game further hooked me on basketball, despite my dribbling being rudimentary and my shooting abysmal. My skills didn’t improve in high school or college, yet my merciless ‘in your shorts’ defense’ allowed me to compete against much taller and talented players.

In 1976 I played at West 4th Street, famed for the high-flying leapers, deadeye shooters, and dazzling dribblers. Truthfully I didn’t deserve to stand on that pint-sized court. One summer day a muscle-bound guard from Mott Haven drove toward the basket. I planted my feet and took the charge. He bounced off my shoulder and I passed the loose ball for my teammate’s easy lay-up. Before any congratulations were offered, the guard said, “Point don’t count.”

“Why not?” Incredible skills didn’t prevent players from calling outrageous fouls.

“You charged me, Oppie.” He pushed me.

His grudge against Andy of Mayberry’s son wasn’t shutting my mouth. “You ran into me like a drunk driver hitting a telephone pole.”

“You think you’re funny?” The laughter from the line-up of ‘next games’ ignited the guard. I ducked his punch and wrestled him into a headlock. Our respective teams separated us and I shouted over the shoulder of the forward. “That was your best shot? Damn, that was a real Twinkie.”

“I’ll show you a shot, Oppie.” He reached into his bag for a gun.

I opted for discretion and returned to my studio flat on West 11th Street.

My hillbilly girlfriend saw my black eye. “That’s it. No more basketball.”

She threw my old baloney-skinned Spaulding out the window.

The next week we moved to the East Village and I obeyed her edict, until hearing the familiar thump of rubber on Avenue A. A Puerto Rican teenager was dribbling into Tompkins Square Park. I followed him. “Mind if I shoot around with you?”»

He bounce-passed the ball and I launched a high arcing shot. It missed the backboard, hoop, and net. He retrieved the ball at the top of the key and flicked the ball into the netless hoop. “Shit, man, you better play defense to compensate for that ugly brick.”

If he hadn’t been right, I might have been insulted. “I can’t get it right.”

“A couple of hundred shots each day. You gotta improve. The name’s Izzy.”

He was short, lean, and didn’t have a job. I was stocky and worked at a discotheque as a bouncer. The picks I set in a two-on-two game created a bond that was to endure into the 21st Century. Izzy scored the points and I defended the hoop. Anyone big, anyone rough, anyone with weight, Izzy say, “Stick ‘em.”

Before the game other player dunked the ball for intimidation and Izzy warned them, “Don’t try that shit on the Rock during the game. Players have scored more points and others have more rebounds. No one has more fouls than the Rock.”

The dunker smirked, only to discover Izzy hadn’t been kidding.

When my hillbilly girlfriend and I broke up over my infidelity problem, I treated the pain by shooting in the park. During the AIDS epidemic I shot baskets. To sweat out a hangover. To forget bad luck or a broken heart. To kill time. The park was my gym, therapy, and social club. I met friends, we told stories, and shared future plans. Izzy and I played in any weather other than rain, sleet or snow.

There were a few other all-year players; Terri with the knot on his head, Carmelo with the sweet touch and the evil temper, Jose, the mad Peruvian, Jim Thorne from Maine, the pure shooting Mark, crazy Hollywood with his fifty-foot swishing hook, JD’s devotion to winning, Shannon’s swooping glide, Church Charles with his Walter Bibby perfection, Mouse with his slashing drives to the hoop, and they helped me win a few more games than I should have.

I’ve squared against Chinese soldiers in Tibet, ran full-court with heroin dealers in the mountains of the Golden Triangle, elbowed for position with French forwards in the dusty court inside the Parc de Luxembourg, fast-breaked barefoot with Filipino sailors in Penang, and faced baby gang-bangers in North Hollywood, but my home court was the three bent rims and buckled metal backboards of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. A few kids from the Boy’s Club across the street reached the college ranks. They were park’s stars, while I remained a 40-watt light bulb.

Teammates groaned at blown lay-ups, unchallenged tap-ins missed from under the basket, and long bombs rattling out of the cylinder. My opponents’ laughter inspired frenzied heights of defense. Great scorers gave lessons in cradling the ball, and I spent hundreds of hours shooting baskets, hoping one day the mechanics might click, yet I remained a 20% shooter

My teammates never went to me in the clutch, but two summers ago we had an insurmountable lead and Carmelo bounce-passed the ball to me. The ball struck my hand at an awkward angle and went out of bounds.

I didn’t chase it.

Izzy pointed at my dislocated finger. “You should go to the hospital.”

I had popped knees, cracked ribs, shattered teeth, had my eyes blacked from elbows, twisted ankles, and torn ligaments from head to toe. So had the other players in the park. We were great believers in self-cures. “I can fix this myself.”

“Hey, that’s your hand you’re talking about.”

“It’s my left hand.” I didn’t use my little finger for eating pizza and tugged it into place with the crack. “Good as new. Our ball.”

“Your ball?” our opponents crowed vainly, since I had the most seniority on the court.

Carmelo inbounded the ball and I spun to pop the ball toward the basket, a move I had been practicing that turn move for years without any success. This time the ball glided through the rim.

Carmelo blinked with disbelief and glanced at my left hand.

My grip had been altered and I nodded for him to pass the ball.

The other team was familiar with my awful shooting and didn’t bother defending me. I released my shot at the top of the jump. The ball actually had spin on it and dropped through the basket. Izzy declared, “It’s your birthday.”

I won every game that day and walked off the court a hero.

I cast it off as a fluke.

Next morning I ran into Richard at the court. The mailman was a solid 6-4 power forward with a deadly shot from behind the arc. My losing streak against him of one-on-one stretched over a decade. After he scored three unanswered points, I rebounded an errant bank shot and launched my shot. His eyes slitted with suspicion. “Luck was what that was. Stupid, dumb Luck.”

A football coach success is 95% hard work and 5% luck. Anyone would trade 50% of the hard work for another 5% of luck. I had entered a space/time warp of probability. Hooks fell, three-points rained, and lay-ups spun around the rim to drop in the hole.

“It’s my finger.” I flexed the crooked digit and challenged Richard to another game. “Best out of three.”

My longtime friend, Andy Kornfeld, had beaten me for over twenty years and mockingly berated my newfound skills. I defeated him effortlessly. My nickname went for ‘Brick’ to ‘Comeback’, although I had never been anyplace from where to comeback. Players discussed defending me. It didn’t matter. I was on fire.

The other players on the court called out my name like I was a MVP free agent and I didn’t fail them either. I beat my old adversaries. Not with an inside game. I stepped farther and farther from the basket. Day after day the victories mounted. My thirty-game winning streak was challenging UCLA under John Wooden, but the long hour sessions of basketball were tearing apart my body. My doctor witnessed me limping into a restaurant. “You’re almost fifty. You have to give your body a rest.”

“I’ll be fine.” Pros get a day off. College players rest after a game. I couldn’t stop. I was invincible. I would live forever. I would win win win.

The next day a college kid asked why I was playing at my age. I beat him inside and outside. On a crossover dribble God strummed my right knee. The shot fell for the win, but I dropped to the floor in agony. “No.”

The pain boiling through my knee did not lessened and Carmelo helped me home. The next time out my knee buckled and I limped to my apartment, praying that tomorrow I might be the same man I had been a week ago, only a month passed and then two. My knee was too weak to handle the stress of a three-on-three. My doctor was pleased to not have to listen to my litany of injuries and suggested, “Take up golf.”

I decided to ink my name on an extended disabled list.

A year has passed since that Spring.

Picking plastic off a beach has been a workout and I’ve been practicing my jumpshot with plastic fishing buoys. My body’s suppleness improved day by day. My knees are flexible and my little finger remains crooked. New York is only 25 hours away by plane.

One day soon I’ll return to my home court. I’ll be greeted like a ghost from the dead. It will be the game of my life, so start spreading the news, “I’m leaving today…..”

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