On the far northwest side of Chicago, in an alley tucked between Melvina and Merrimac avenues, Victor Zelant hits his fifth free throw in a row.
The fifth is the hardest, he figures. You can knock out one or two in a row, but that fifth is a killer. Hit the fifth, Victor tells himself, and you get in a rhythm. Hit the fifth and the rest are expected.
The light above the garbage cans in the alley illuminates his bare arms, the arc of the ball creating an orange rainbow to the hoop on this unseasonably warm October night.
He shoots. Swish.
Victor has been shooting free throws since eight o’clock, after he finished a bowl of beef stew while studying for a science test and watching Family Feud. It’s been more than an hour. His arms and shoulders feel strong. He’s committed himself to shooting 20 for 20 before he heads into the house for the night. He’s come close twice. His first attempt at perfection stopped at 18 shots in a row. A half an hour later he made it to 16. He hasn’t passed double digits since.
There are only two sports at Saint Lucy, Victor’s school. One of them is basketball. Some of the other Catholic schools in Chicago have football teams, but Saint Lucy has a wrestling team because Mr. Giovanni, the new gym teacher, used to wrestle in college. Victor tried wrestling last year, when he was in sixth grade, but quit after he accidentally grabbed Tom Czarnecki’s balls while trying to avoid a takedown during practice. When it happened, Czarnecki fell to the mat, then jumped up like a rocket and punched Victor in the back. Even though Mr. Giovanni said Victor did nothing wrong—”you were just grabbing a God-given handle”—Victor had to endure taunts of “Ball Grabber” and “Nut Squeezer” for weeks. He really wished the school had a football team. He could play center or nose tackle, positions where his weight would be an advantage. Victor thinks that he might try out for the team in high school. He thinks that he might be able to convince his mother to let him play at Portage Park next year. For now, though, he has basketball.
He holds the ball lightly in his fingers, as if it’s an oversized egg. He dribbles three times in a short, steady burst of sound.
The basketball season begins soon. Victor knows he’s too fat and slow to crack the starting lineup on Saint Lucy’s seventh-grade team, but he thinks this season could be special. He’s sure he’s found a role for himself: shooting specialist. That’s a term he heard watching those tape-delayed NBA games this summer, when he saw Larry Bird on the Boston Celtics. Bird looked like a leaner, taller version of himself, in Victor’s opinion, and although Bird couldn’t always keep up with some of the faster guys on the court, he was considered a shooting specialist. He could score from anywhere on the floor. Shooting specialist. Victor liked the sound of that. He decided he would take it one step further. He’d concentrate on free throws. It might impress the seventh-grade coaches when practices begin next month, and it would also position Victor to earn a trip downstate in the Knights of Columbus Free Throw Tournament next week. The tournament takes place on Columbus Day weekend each year, a couple of weeks before the basketball season begins. Saint Lucy is hosting neighboring parishes in the opening round, and Victor wants to be ready.
His plan is methodical. He knows he needs to build up his endurance. Build up concentration. Find a rhythm. Victor figures he’ll get on a hot streak and make 13 or more out of 20. All he needs to do is get on a streak. Once he feels it—that absence in his head, the weightlessness of the ball—he can keep the rhythm steady and focused.
When Victor first began his ritual during the summer, he was attached to the free throw line. Nothing could move him from his spot, not an errant bounce of the ball off the concrete or an aggressive mosquito. But he realized he had to adjust to his environment. Whether the ball returns to his hands or bounces down the alley, Victor has learned to retrieve it, reset himself on the line, and focus his attention on the net. He’s established a personal pattern that puts him in a trancelike state. He guides the ball with his left hand while pushing it with his right, which ends up above his head, pointed to the rim. It’s all about finding that rhythm, Victor tells himself. Find that rhythm.
He holds the ball in his palms before giving it three short bounces off the pavement. He breathes out, pushes his right hand upward, and lets the ball fly.
Victor shot three for 20 at last year’s tournament, but that’s only because the rim he practiced on all summer was the wrong height. Last New Year’s Day, after a few shots of Wild Turkey to ring in 1981, Victor’s Uncle Luca finally admitted what Victor knew all along: he’d never bothered to measure the space between the ground and the rim before he screwed a backboard onto Victor’s garage. Victor had been begging for a basketball net since the fourth grade, and when his dad refused to put one up, his mom asked her brother for help. Victor had told Uncle Luca again and again that the rim needed to be exactly ten feet above the ground, but, lacking a tape measure, Uncle Luca, who knew he was about six feet tall, visualized his daughter, who he figured was about three feet tall, standing on his shoulders. Luca pictured her with her arms raised upward to make up that last foot before marking off the spots for the screws with the racing-form pencil he kept in his sock. Uncle Luca was off by a foot, which meant that Victor had been shooting at a nine-foot net all summer. He’d shot at least 100 free throws a day, going in for the night only after he hit seven out of ten or better. Uncle Luca fixed the basket in the spring. Victor made sure to stand on a ladder with a tape measure while his uncle adjusted the brackets to bring the rim to regulation height.
The alley is silent, except for the music coming from a garage four doors down, where Michael Pravo is working on the 1974 Pontiac Grand Prix his grandfather left him when he died. Victor blocks out the familiar chorus of Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” as he stands 15 feet in front of the rim.
The ball covers the moon for a split second—a Spaulding eclipse—as it sails toward the basket.
“Jesus, Zelant, put some muscle into it,” said Coach Andy at the first practice last season. “You gotta work on those noodle arms.”
Victor wanted to tell Coach Andy about the nine-foot rim on his garage, about how he’d spent his summer shooting thousands of free throws at a basket too low to the ground. But he kept his mouth shut, struggled to finish the end-of-practice laps, and took his place at the end of the bench for most of the season, where he memorized the cheerleaders’ routines and kept tallies of candy buyers and popcorn buyers at the concession stand. He played in just a few games last year, starting in only one—a 33-point Saturday morning loss to Saint Jerome—along with the only other four members of the team who weren’t caught riding the school’s dumbwaiter up and down the previous Thursday while waiting for practice to begin. The team were looking for something to do while Coach Andy argued with his wife on the pay phone in the hallway. Victor would’ve tried to ride the small, cube-like elevator, which was used to transport trays of uncooked hot lunches from the first floor to the kitchen each day, but he was afraid a boy his size would get stuck inside or lose consciousness once the push-down door was closed. Victor couldn’t chance having his father called in from the factory floor to be told by his foreman, “You need to go get your fat-ass son out of a dumbwaiter at Saint Lucy,” so he opted out, choosing instead to play L-I-O-N-S—a name-only variation on H-O-R-S-E, substituting the school mascot for the usual mammal.
On that Saturday morning last year, Saint Jerome’s starting center, a kid who looked like he was old enough to drive, pounded the ball straight to the basket on every possession. Victor, who had to play center, got knocked down at least ten times, and, despite planting his feet before he and the ball handler made contact, didn’t draw a charge all game. He wasn’t even lucky enough to foul out. Most times, he got tangled up in his own feet and crashed to the ground, much to the delight of his teammates on the bench. “Look out below,” they’d yell. “Timber!” Victor’s tailbone ached so badly when he came home that he spent the rest of the day watching TV in the basement, lying on the vinyl beanbag chair that reeked of cat urine.
Victor pushes the ball with his right hand harder than usual. It bounces off the backboard hard but falls directly into the net.
He steps back to let Mr. Loverdi’s Lincoln Continental pass, waving to his neighbor as he drives by, and walks slowly back up to the free throw line he painted on the pavement last summer with extra Candy Apple Red No. 5 from his Ford Mustang model kit. His front toes hug the charity stripe, as Coach Andy calls it.
After this summer, Victor considers himself the sixth or seventh best player out of the 13 boys on the team. Despite his weight, he knows he’ll be able to run up and down the court during practice without throwing up, unlike Stan Szyliewski. His jump shot, while not perfect, is consistent. He’s confident when shooting the ball inside the lane and is smart enough to use the backboard when he’s under the basket, unlike Dan Malen, who throws the ball straight up into the air after grabbing a rebound.
But Szyliewski and Malen still played more than Victor last year, as did most boys on the team. When Victor did get playing time at the end of a game, Saint Lucy was usually winning by 15 or more. He hated going in during a blowout. His teammates would chant his name until he made a basket. When that happened against Our Lady of Blessed Sorrows last year, his mother and grandmother joined in, unaware that Victor detested those chants. The rhythmic yelling of his name made him feel like he was the weakest player on the floor, a charity case. As the chants grew louder, Victor began passing the ball off every time a teammate passed it his way. He could feel his uniform burning into his skin. He wanted to take himself out of the game when the tears struggling to escape his eyes blurred his vision. But he didn’t. He stayed in, passing the ball back to the other members of the team, who shrugged and took shots from the top of the key.
Victor knew he wasn’t the weakest player on the team. He was the sixth or seventh best, he told himself. Maybe better. Maybe even fourth or fifth, considering how well he can hit his free throws.
He holds the ball loosely in his hands, spinning it toward him three times. He dribbles three times, bends his knees, extends and releases.
As a way to make money to purchase a new Saint Joseph statue for the church—necessary after since-expelled Eddie Richter painted a Groucho Marx mustache, eyebrows, and glasses on the old one on a dare—Father Thaddeus came up with a plan to make all-school Stations of the Cross services turn a profit. He announced that parents could bid on roles for their children to play in the reenactments, held every Friday during Lent. They could be Roman soldiers, outfitted with tinfoil-covered swords and brown fabric whips, the crying Mother Mary, adorned in a light-blue terry cloth robe, or Pontius Pilate, wearing the priestly garments of Father Nick, a five-foot-tall former associate at the parish who left the priesthood two years earlier to join a Beatles tribute band.
Most Stations of the Cross parts went to kids in the third grade and up and were usually secured with a five- or ten-dollar donation. But the plum role of Jesus was reserved for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Playing Jesus required the courage to wear nothing more than a white pillowcase around your waist, and the strength to carry around a cross made from planks left over from the remodeling of the rectory’s TV room. Male students, especially those with waistlines at the wide end of the Toughskins spectrum, begged their moms and dads not to give Jesus donations.
Grandparents were immune to begging, though. Victor’s grandmother, who never felt comfortable as a German immigrant in a neighborhood filled with Irish and Polish transplants, didn’t care that Victor weighed more than 180 pounds and had already developed a noticeable case of acne on his back. She wanted him to be Jesus every week, and she’d pony up the 20 bucks or so it took to ensure that her only grandson would be the King of Kings. He’d walk up the side aisles of the church, his grandmother following close behind with her Instamatic, snapping pictures of her grandson as a crown of thorns made of drinking straws was shoved on his head and he was nailed to the cross with plastic hammers. Last year the pillowcase loincloth snagged on a corner of the cross (although some of the first and second graders swore they saw the 45th Ward alderman’s son, an eighth grader at the time, grab at Victor’s wardrobe) giving the students of Saint Lucy a quick look not only at Victor’s Fruit of the Looms but at some of the doughy, usually hidden flesh around them.
Victor forces the scene out of his mind, concentrating instead on Larry Bird’s form, which he attempts to replicate as Mr. Helinowski—the out-of-work electrician who lives in the red-brick Cape Cod directly behind his house—throws a bag of garbage into his trash can. He shoots.
Victor’s father can’t understand why his son watches basketball on television. “What’s so exciting about a bunch of black guys running around inside a gymnasium?” he asks. Victor has tried but can’t summon his father’s passion for soccer. He knows he should relish the Karl-Heinz Granitza autograph dad brought home from a Chicago Sting game this year—that other German or Polish kids in his neighborhood would love to have the signature of one of the world’s most famous soccer players framed above their beds. But Victor felt little enthusiasm when he watched Granitza and the Sting win the Soccer Bowl on TV last week.
Yet he still savors the yellowing sports pages his mom saved for him when the DePaul Blue Demons made the Final Four two years ago, only to lose to Larry Bird’s Indiana State by two points. Every time his father is in his room, he asks Victor about his “nigger wall” with its poster of Walter Payton, cut-out photos of Julius Erving and Magic Johnson, and cover from Sports Illustrated‘s 1980 college basketball preview featuring DePaul’s Mark Aguirre, Virginia’s Ralph Sampson, and Maryland’s Albert King dressed up like Revolutionary War soldiers.
Victor thinks about the Knights of Columbus members who’ll be standing under the basket with clipboards next week. He thinks about his classmates watching in amazement as he hits shot after shot after shot.
He bends his knees and exhales.
Victor hears his dad coughing through the bathroom window upstairs. He loathes that cough. It kept him awake each Saturday morning this summer as he tried to nap in the car on the way to Lisle, where dad played in pickup soccer games with other German immigrants. During those rides, Victor thought he could convince dad to send him to Ray Meyer’s basketball camp at DePaul, but he said he had no desire to drive down to Lincoln Park five nights in a row and pay for something his son could do in the alley for free.
Victor pulls the ball toward his chest and hears the familiar strains of the Eyewitness News theme from a neighbor’s kitchen.
Three quick dribbles on the pavement. Arms in motion. Follow-through.
Last spring, the sixth graders went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for their class trip. On the way home, after Victor had fallen asleep, Jim Doyle, his reluctant seat partner, pulled out a black Magic Marker—the one he used to write “Packers suck” on the back of the seat in front of him—and drew a Hitler mustache under Victor’s nose. He told the rest of the kids to pretend they didn’t see it and shield Victor from the teachers and chaperones on the way off the bus once they returned to school, which would be just in time for the dismissal bell.
Victor walked home unaware of Der Führer’s famous trademark on his face. He wondered why the girls from Resurrection High School stared at him as they stepped off the 88 Higgins bus at Austin, and why the old woman who cashiers at Citgo placed her hand on his when he bought a Charleston Chew and a can of grape Nehi before heading home and said, “Son, I don’t like the Jews either, but you might want to be careful. There’s a lot of Polacks who hate the Germans around here.” He didn’t notice it until he caught a glimpse of himself as he went to turn on the TV in the basement. He washed it off and spent the rest of the night crying in his bedroom. As mom rubbed his back in an effort to console him, he made her promise not to tell dad. The next day in school, someone asked him how many Jews he’d shoved in his oven when he got home. Several boys extended their right arms toward him as he walked down the hall and said, “Sieg heil!”
Victor looks down the alley and sees something crawl through the space under a nearby garage door. He’s startled by the sound of a motorcycle engine as it speeds down the street in front of his house. The basketball hits a crack in the pavement and jets down the alley. Victor chases it down and takes his time walking back to the free throw line. He exhales, goes through his ritual, and fires.
All net. Fifteen.
Victor hears a dog barking in a yard a few garages down the block then listens as Mrs. Kovak yells out the back door, “Princess. Hush down. Come in here, Princess. There’s nothing out there. Is there something out there? Is someone out there?”
“Just me, Mrs. Kovak,” answers Victor.
“Oh. She’s barking at you. Well that makes sense. She’s barking at you.”
Victor hears Mrs. Kovak pull her back door shut.
Before Mr. Kovak died of lung cancer, he helped Victor’s dad install a chain-link fence in exchange for nothing but a case of Old Style. Dad felt he still owed his neighbor a debt, and it was up to Victor to work it off. Mrs. Kovak is always eager to collect. Victor has shoveled her snow every winter since he was in fourth grade. He’s cut her grass every summer. She never pays him. Nothing. Not even a dollar. Every once in a while she’ll hand him a paper bag filled with extra tomatoes or cucumbers from her garden. “Give these to your mother,” she’ll say, and, “Eat these instead of all those Twinkies you put in your belly.”
The shots are coming easy to Victor now. It’s natural, like breathing. He looks at the ball in his hands, studies the intersecting black lines and concentrates on his chest, which expands with air, then empties. He stands for a moment as silence returns to the alley. Then that silence is broken by the gentle rustle of the net.
Victor sees his mom in the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table reading People magazine, still wearing her Honeybee Maid uniform. She catches his eye, smiles and points to her wrist.
“It’s getting late, mein Liebchen,” she says. “I’m going up to bed. Lock the door when you’re finished.”
“I will. Just a few more shots.”
Victor thinks his mom looks exhausted. She works 12-hour days cleaning homes in Lake Forest and Highland Park. He knows that his dad makes enough money to pay for the house, the 1978 Ford Fairmont parked in the garage, and the Saint Lucy tuition. But he also knows his mom worries about the future. She followed the International Harvester strike that caused her sister’s family to move to a one-bedroom apartment in Cicero. He watches her check the newspaper’s business section every day to see if her husband’s factory, which builds pumps for tractors, will be forced to close. Victor sees her dump a glass of water in the sink. She stares at him through the window. He knows that she wishes she could’ve given him a brother or sister. She talks about it with his dad every once in a while. From his bedroom he can hear her talk to dad about how she can never have another baby. She talks about Victor’s weight, his grades, and his friends. Victor only hears his mother talk. His father says nothing.
Victor waves to his mother again.
He lines up the ball with the basket. Process. Shoot. Payoff.
When he was in fourth grade Victor won Cub Scout Pack 511’s Pinewood Derby in a rout. His black-and-yellow car was a perfectly formed piece of machinery. Victor had brought a block of wood home from a pack meeting, with a note from the leader taped to a small black-and-white checkerboard flag: remember, dads, this is to teach your sons the joys of working with their hands and the happiness that can come from working with their fathers.
Once Victor had sanded the block, his dad took the entire kit to the factory. At dinner he’d give Victor complete reports on the car’s progress. How he’d inserted ball bearings deep within the wood to give the car more density, making sure to stay within the weight limit. How he’d used the factory’s band saw to mimic the design of a 1975 Porsche 914, his dream car, and spent nearly four hours inserting the axles and putting on the wheels. After a week of cutting, painting, and perfecting, dad wrapped the car in one of the silk pillowcases Victor sometimes saw on his parents’ bed and placed it in the empty cigar box Victor’s grandfather had given him on his wedding night.
Victor was disappointed when dad brought it home from work. He’d heard some of his classmates talking about working with an electric saw for the first time or rolling the plastic wheels in graphite. He’d looked forward to all of that. Instead, his only task other than sanding the car—now named Der Stachel—was applying a sticker to the hood: an angry-looking bumblebee dad had bought from Roy’s model shop on Montrose, and watching as dad rewrapped the car and placed it back in the box.
At the Pinewood Derby that Saturday Der Stachel was untouchable, winning each heat by at least three car lengths. No one congratulated Victor. Kids from his class joked about the car being made by GM. Parents whispered remarks to one another about following the rules.
Dad was ecstatic. He took Victor and mom to Lockwood Castle on Devon for ice cream, where he placed the Grand Prix winner’s trophy on the table for everyone to see. Lockwood Castle, with its faux medieval theme and sparkler-lit sundaes, was probably Victor’s favorite place in the world. On that night, though, he had only a few spoonfuls of King Arthur’s Revenge, unable to get the ice cream past the stone in his stomach. That night, he heard his mother and father arguing in the basement.
“This was supposed to be for fathers and sons, not just fathers,” mom said.
“He won,” said dad. “What kind of boy doesn’t want that? What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing is wrong with him. He’s a good boy. What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked her husband. “What’s wrong with you?”
Victor looks down the alley. Planes line up in the sky to land at O’Hare. He holds the ball between his knees and wipes his hands on the bottom of his shirt. He dribbles, bends and shoots.
Earlier this summer, on the second day of the pump factory’s annual two-week shutdown, Victor rode his bike to Park 285 at Foster and Austin to avoid his dad’s angry moods and constant demands. He ended up playing right field in a game of baseball with several of his classmates. He knew the boys played there most afternoons, so for the next week he rode his bike to the park each day, hoping they’d need a player to even out the sides. He could handle right field. No one hit the ball there much. After playing in his second game, Victor and the boys were mesmerized by a copy of Hustler magazine, especially by the photos that regular-looking women submitted of themselves. Many had faces like those Victor saw each week at Dominick’s or the post office.
“You like that, Vicki?” asked Kevin Hanley, a classmate who already had thin traces of red hair sprouting on his upper lip. “We’re going to start our own version of Hustler Honeys. We’re going to call it Jefferson Park Pussies. Maybe you can help us get some models.”
The next day Victor showed up with a nude photo of his mother. He’d found it in his dad’s top drawer last Christmas vacation while looking for a deck of cards to play Solitaire. The poorly lit Polaroid shows Victor’s mom standing in her wedding veil, raising a glass of champagne. There’s a stack of envelopes and wrapped gifts on a hotel nightstand in the background. Victor’s friends only noticed Mrs. Zelant’s torpedo-shaped breasts and what looked like a square foot of plush carpeting between her legs.
“She call Empire to get that rug put in?” said Hanley.
“Jesus, Vic. Did you take this yourself?” asked Malen. “I mean, that’s your mother.”
Victor suddenly felt like he had to throw up. As the other boys climbed over one another to see the picture, he grabbed it out of Malen’s hands, stuffed it in his pocket, ran to his bike, and pedaled home so fast that his legs burned. He was almost hit by a car crossing Foster, then again on Higgins. His face was red with shame, the bottom of his shirt wet with tears.
In the alley, Victor’s arms are just beginning to feel sore, but he’s close. He bounces the ball three times and lets it fly. The ball bounces high off the back of the rim. It rolls down the backboard, straight into the net.
This year’s Knights of Columbus free throw contest will take place in less than four days. Victor doesn’t know yet that the format has been changed—that instead of shooting 20 shots in a row, contestants will be grouped by grade in single-file lines at the six baskets on the gym’s perimeter. He doesn’t know the seventh-grade boys from Saint Lucy, Saint Jerome, Saint Constance, and Our Lady of Ransom will take five shots at a time while the Knights of Columbus keep track of their totals. He doesn’t know that he’ll find his rhythm on his second shot and then sink the next three, but will then have to go to the back of the seventh-grade boys’ line where he’ll wait at least five minutes to add to his total. He doesn’t know he won’t do better than two for five in his three subsequent tries. He doesn’t know he’ll finish second to Kevin Hanley, who will shoot 12 for 25 and beat Victor by two baskets to advance to the city finals at Independence Park. He doesn’t know Hanley will advance to the state finals in Decatur, where he’ll finish in eighth place, sinking nine of 20, which will be enough to earn a $25 savings bond, a case of Ovaltine, and a photo in the Jefferson Park Press with a Knights of Columbus basketball tucked under his arm.
Victor grabs the ball after it bounces off the pavement. He spins it in his hands. Alley lights buzz, back-porch TV screens dance, and a Lake Michigan breeze pushes its way 60 blocks into the city. Dribble once, twice, three times. Bend, extend.