This archive document contains both parts of this story, which ran on November 27, 1992 and December 4, 1992.
March 3, 1992
I can still see Terrell–whippet thin and all of 17 years old–alone at the line, his team down by one, a few seconds on the clock, the whole season at stake.
His last shot, a jumper, had bounced off the rim, and he had been fouled in the fight for the rebound. If he hit his free throws, Roosevelt High would beat Prosser and move on to the next round of the Public League playoffs. If he missed, another season, his last, would end in disappointment. Either way Terrell Redmond would remember these free throws for the rest of his life.
The home crowd had been raucous, but now they hushed. It was an eerie, unnatural stillness that spread like a wave until it seemed that only Terrell was moving, and even he in a dreamy state of slow motion. A lesser man might have panicked. But not Terrell–this was his moment to be great.
For an instant he eyed the bench. His coach and teammates were standing, their expressions an odd mix of anguish and hope. Behind them stood a clump of fans–young blacks and older Jews–Pookie, Weiss, Arnie, Montrell . . . and me. I too was standing, my eyes half covered, almost afraid to look. I had been watching the team since tryouts, following them through injuries and illnesses, fights and fallouts, heartbreaking losses, disciplinary suspensions, and countless incredibly boneheaded teenage mistakes. And now, to tell you the truth, I was hooked. In love with the kids, their coach, the whole history of Roosevelt High.
I wanted Terrell to sink those shots because in 23 years of coaching Manny Weincord had never won a basketball title. Because Roosevelt was an average team in an awesome league. Because they played on slippery floors in dimly lit gyms before empty bleachers without cheerleaders, bands, or even parents present.
I wanted him to make those shots so that tomorrow’s papers would have to cover them. Because the papers rarely cover them, and the scouts rarely watch them, and their last title was in 1952, when the school was Jewish and Manny was on an Army ship bound for Korea.
I had this idea that if they won, Terrell would be a star, and the papers would quote Manny, and the school would hold a pep rally, and they’d bedeck the auditorium with bunting of blue and gold, and when the team hit the stage their classmates would cheer. My God, I wanted them to win.
Terrell bounced the ball once, then twice, then again and again and again before raising it and taking a breath. And now I really did close my eyes.
It was funny. The season’s so long. It stretches from November to March. There are so many games, so many practices, so many afternoons and evenings in a gym. When you’re young and in high school, the days pass slowly. You’re often bored and usually restless. You never think of endings. But this–this was different. Everything came down to this . . .
November 7, 1991
Twenty-one kids showed up for the first day of tryouts, though with all the whooping and hollering under the baskets it seemed like many more.
It was madness. Two half-court games going at once–a chaotic swirl of sneakers, shorts, socks, and columnar House Party haircuts.
From the look of the kids I passed in the hallway on my way to the gym, Roosevelt was one of those schools principals like to call a little United Nations–its student body a rich, almost even blend of blacks, whites, Asians, Arabs, and Hispanics. But all the kids in the gym were black, except for a timid Filipino, two flabby whites, and a lanky Hispanic who could dribble between his legs and pass behind his back.
The best of the bunch was a spindly kid with jumping-jack legs. He held the ball high over his head, bounced it hard on the floor, caught it in midair, and then, twisting away from the basket, jammed it through the hoop. It took my breath to see that.
Manny Weincord was in his office, his ear to a black rotary phone, talking to some guy named Arnie.
“Look . . . Arnie,” Manny stammered. “Arnie . . . For cry Pete, Arnie, you think I got time to make copies of song sheets?”
It was a small room behind the gym, with a sink in the back, takeout menus on the wall, and a big, paper-cluttered, coffee-stained desk clogging up the middle.
Manny couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I could tell their conversation had a ways to go. So I walked back into the gym and sat at the end of the bleachers, under blue and gold banners honoring past triumphs of the Roosevelt Rough Riders. A slippery layer of dust coated the floor, and some of the ceiling lights hung dark. It wasn’t a health club, but it was cleaner and brighter than most of the church and park gyms I had seen.
Two months had passed since my first visit to this gym. That was a lovely day in early September. I rode my bike to the school, dodging the kids who darted from the stoops of the old two-flats and walk-ups on either side of the street. The school consumed a full city block in the heart of Albany Park, at the corner of Kimball and Wilson, an enormous, rich-red brick building with tawny gold terra-cotta. Parapets and towers rose into the air, as though its designer wanted an air of ancient academia, a bit of Olde Oxford on the northwest side.
Manny met me in the front lobby and walked me to his office, through hallways and up stairs worn by thousands of feet.
I took a deep breath before I explained my business. I felt nervous, afraid he might say no. I told him that I loved basketball. Was a passionate and lifelong fan of the Bulls. I had always wanted to spend a season with a city high school team. I picked Roosevelt because . . .
Manny cut me off. “Fine.”
“Sure, why not? I’d love to have you. To tell you the truth, I could use the company.”
“And I can sit on the bench?”
He grinned. “The bench? The bench is the first row of what you get when you pull out the bleachers. If you want to sit on the bench, sit on the bench. But you might be better off sitting behind the bench in the second row. Then you can hear me better.”
“And have access to the locker room?”
“I’ve got no secrets. I only ask that every once in a while you laugh at my jokes.”
Two months had dragged past since that moment, during which I wondered impatiently what I would find when the season finally began. And now–the Hispanic kid was knocking down threes, the jumping-jack kid was rattling the rim with turnaround dunks, and I was convinced that I had stumbled on the great undiscovered team of Chicago.
Manny stepped out of his office. He blew his whistle. The players lined up along the wall. He blew his whistle again. They sprinted up and down the court. The room reeked of sweat. Someone opened a window. I felt a chilly blast. Manny blew the whistle again. They gathered on the bleachers. The lanky Hispanic looked eager, like he wanted to run some more.
“Welcome to Roosevelt,” Manny said. “I want to wish you all the luck in the world.”
As he talked, he paced. He wore a green sweater, blue chinos, and black rubber-sole shoes. He had silver hair, bushy eyebrows, a long face, and big, soft eyes. He was short and lean, not even a touch of flab. His voice was gravelly. When he said these, it came out dese. The kids eyed him carefully. Only Manny spoke.
As he saw it, he said, no one, not even the stars, had made the team. In fact there were no stars. Just players. Everyone gets treated the same. Play hard. Play smart. Hustle. And you’ll make the team.
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years, fellas. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen everything. There may be better coaches. There may be worse. But I’ll tell you this–I’ll give you 100 percent. Maybe I will leave you with something in your head. And, fellas, that’s important. ‘Cause once it’s in your head, no one can take it away.”
Manny paused. “A few things about me. I’m not an Xs and Os guy. I don’t call a lot of plays. How do you win? You score more points than the other team. How do you score? You get close and you put the ball in the basket. It’s a simple game.”
Some of the guys laughed, nervous laughter. Manny smiled.
“One more thing about me, fellas. I’m not a recruiter. I am what I am. You get what you see. Whoever walks through that door, I coach. And whoever walks through that door is coached by me.”
With that he blew the whistle. The players divided into groups of five for a series of full-court scrimmages. I stood next to Manny on the sidelines at center court. He pointed out the players as they ran by. The jumping-jack guard was Terrell Redmond, the lanky Hispanic David Casas. Then there was Kenric, Carey, Ronnie White, Mario, Sylvester, Mace, Larry, Garner, Kevin, Schurz. The names came so fast I could barely keep up.
Some of the kids were too slow to make the team. Manny let them play anyway. After about an hour he blew his whistle one last time. “That’s it. You’re all invited back. We’ll start making cuts next week.”
The players retreated to the bleachers. They dried their sweaty bodies with towels, lathered their armpits with deodorant, and put their clothes on over their shorts. The workout had been spirited. I could hear their good-natured bantering as I slipped out the door.
The roster has been trimmed to 12. It wasn’t hard. The slow guys got the message and quit on their own.
Practice began at 2:45, when the last class cleared from the gym. The players trickled in and started with lay-ups, followed by free throws and sprints. Then they formed two teams of five for an inbounding drill under the east basket. The offensive team wasn’t trying to score. They didn’t take a shot. They simply put the ball in play, as they would in a game after an opposing score, and tried to advance it across the half-court line; the defense pressured them, trying to force a turnover. They did the drill once. They did it again. And again. And again. Over and over. Manny watched, arms folded. He called out advice. Like: “Don’t give your man the baseline.”
And: “Don’t dribble so much.”
And: “Don’t telegraph your passes.”
And: “Don’t turn into your man.”
And: “Don’t let your hands down–keep ’em up.”
It went like this for at least an hour. Manny leavened his criticism with humor and praise. He good-naturedly called the players schmeckles, schmucks, putzes, and yutzes. They laughed. They loved his Yinglish. They didn’t care (or know) that he made most of it up.
Most of all they wanted to run full court. But they couldn’t because the frosh-soph team practiced at the other end of the court. The carnival, that’s what Manny called them. There were at least 20 of them. The exact number varied by the day. They ran around the gym. They shrieked. They hung from the rim. They wrestled. They were big on wrestling. They liked to roll around the floor. No one got hurt. It was all in fun. Their hormones were raging–it was that stage in life. “Hey, get off the rim–for cry Pete, they’re brand new,” Manny admonished. Other than that he ignored them. “I have enough to worry about,” he said. “They’ll learn the facts of life next year, when they move up to varsity.”
Their coach, Hutch, was a good-natured, roly-poly drafting teacher. He tried his best. But they were usually out of control by the time he got to practice.
“Can’t you kick ’em out?” asked senior guard Ronnie White. “I’m tired of their balls comin’ on our side of the court.”
“Some coach you’d make,” Manny answered.
The high point of practice came at about 4:15, when Hutch exiled the frosh-soph to the hallway for sprints. Then the varsity got to run full court. No refs. No time-outs. No clocks. Just unrestricted play. An endless procession up and down the court. Every now and then someone dunked, or shot a three, or blocked a shot, or looked left and passed right. The others then roared their appreciation. They were young and strong and would run forever.
They dressed by the bleachers. They didn’t use the locker room. “Why?” I asked Manny.
“Go see for yourself,” he replied.
The locker room was in the basement, at the bottom of a winding stairwell that curled beneath the gym’s northeast corner. It was like a jailhouse interrogation cell down there, with several rows of dented lockers illuminated by garish overhanging fluorescent lights. The urinals were stuffed with toilet paper. Smelly water ran on the floor. The shower water was cold. “There’s no hot water,” Manny said. “Now you know why no one takes a shower. Those showers will give you pneumonia. You’ll have icicles hanging from your schmeckle.”
Manny and I watched practice from the sidelines or under the basket. He with his whistle, I with my notebook. After practice we retired to his office. He entertained me with old stories and jokes.
“I had this kid ask me, ‘Coach, how old are you?’ I told him, “Son, I’m the oldest man in the world.’ He said, ‘How old?’ I said, ‘I’m so old, I’m older than my mother.’ Well, the kid looked at me, and then he walked away. Then he looked at me again, and then he talked it over with his friends. Then he comes back and says real serious, ‘I’m sorry, coach, but I just can’t believe you’re older than your mother.'”
I laughed and he told me about the kid who planned to drive from Chicago to Hawaii. “I told him, ‘You’d better put a paddle on that car.’ He says, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Don’t take my word on it, but I think there’s a little water between here and there.'”
We were the last to leave the gym. Manny killed the lights and locked the door. On the train home I thought about that kid driving to Hawaii and I laughed out loud. I told my wife and friends about Manny. I started saying “For cry Pete”–usually at my kids when they were doing something annoying. It bothered my wife. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. In time, however, I caught her saying it herself.
Manny never introduced me to the team. But I heard one guy telling another that I was a reporter. Word spread and every now and then one of the players would sneak a look my way. Mostly they ignored me. They must have decided that whatever I was up to had nothing to do with them. I was there and that was that.
I drew up a roster–my own little trading cards–to keep track of the team. It read like this:
Terrell Redmond: Senior guard. Nickname: Red. Strong points: Jordan-like hang time. Awesome dunker. Quick hands. Weak points: Gets too nervous.
Kenric Mattox: Junior center. No nickname. Strong points: 6-foot-5. Strong–very strong. Clogs up the middle. Tough rebounder. Weak points: Got flabby over the summer. Misses too many lay-ups.
David Casas: Senior forward. No nickname. Strong points: Quick, long arms. 6-foot-6. Dunks, blocks shots, passes, dribbles–does it all. Wants to play like a guard. Weak points: Manny doesn’t want him to play like a guard. Missed most of last season because of poor grades.
Herman Carey: Senior guard. Nickname: Mush. Strong points: Confident. Fast. Strong. Weak points: Dribbles too much. Talks too much. Prediction: his talking will drive Manny crazy.
Mario Ramos: Senior guard. Nickname: Rio. Strong points: Gorgeous rainbow jumper. Weak points: So quiet you forget he’s there.
Maceo Tillman: Senior forward. Nickname: Mace. Strong points: Marble-slab biceps. Fearless. Great spirit. Weak points: No shooting touch–his shot’s like a projectile.
Larry Wall: Junior center. No nickname. Strong points: 6-foot-5 and growing. Weak points: Clumsy, just growing into his body. Can’t shoot.
Kevin Lewis: Junior guard. Nickname: Cuz. Strong points: Superfast. Low-to-the ground dribble. Weak points: Plays out of control.
Anthony Garner: Junior forward. Nickname: Orr. Strong points: 6-foot-6. Long arms. Weak points: Raw.
There were two others–senior guard Ronnie White and his good friend, senior forward Sylvester Turner. But there was something fleeting about them. They blended in. They didn’t make an impression. At least not on me.
I shared my notes with Manny. He said I got it right. “Lots of potential on this team,” he said.
“I’ll go better than that. Manny, I think you may have one of the best teams in the city.”
He smiled. “How much high school basketball have you seen?” he asked.
“Not much. I mainly follow the Bulls.”
“Why did you pick us to follow?”
I reddened. “Well, I always wanted to spend a year with a team. And Roosevelt is so close to my home. And–”
“OK, well, I won’t lie to you. In my opinion, the world’s best high school basketball is right here in the Public League. But there are 64 teams in the Public League. And those teams are divided into four regions: north, south, central, and west. And those regions are divided into Red and Blue divisions. Red is for the good teams and Blue is for the not-so-good teams. We’re in Blue North. Which, you might say, is the weakest division in the weakest region of the city. And we’re not even the favorite in Blue North–Lane Tech is.”
“But you have so many guys who can dunk!”
He laughed. “There’s not a team in the city that doesn’t have a guy who can dunk. That’s nothin’. King High has two seven-footers. And they’re only juniors.”
I was silent. “Listen,” Manny said, “if you want to back out of the story, I won’t hold it against you.”
“No, no–I wouldn’t do that.”
“See, ’cause I think we could have a pretty good year. Each year the winner of Blue flip-flops with the last place team in Red. I think we can beat Lane. I think we can move up to Red. That’s my goal–to move up to Red.”
I met Arnie Kamen today, but only briefly. He ran out as fast as he ran in. “Got another appointment,” he said.
“Arnie and I graduated from Roosevelt together back in 1950,” Manny explained. “Arnie’s sort of a one-man booster club. He made his money tradin’ commodities and now he spends a lot of his time raisin’ money for the school. He paid for those backboards and he’s buyin’ us new uniforms. He’s a wonderful man–he’s a guy with a mission. He wants to teach all the kids the school song.”
“The school song?”
“He’s got the principal playin’ it over the loudspeaker in the mornin’. He wants all the kids to sing it at a pep rally. That’s why he wants those song sheets. He wants me to sing it with him–listen, I’ll get up onstage with a grass skirt and a hula hoop if it means more money for the team.”
I also met Sender and Weiss. Sender was a substitute teacher who called himself the assistant coach, although Manny had never officially appointed him to the position. He made himself useful by keeping track of rebounds, turnovers, and assists. He had a pointy face, perfect posture, and a puritanical outlook on things. To him, everything in life was a lesson. He was always telling the players to tuck in their jerseys and straighten their socks.
Weiss was big, round, and delightfully eccentric. He graduated from Roosevelt in the early 60s and now taught special ed. He wore a blue and gold Rough Riders sweatshirt, talked fast, distributed rock candy, and entertained the players by bantering with Manny in a thick Jewish accent.
Weiss: “So, Mista Veincord, how’s your yutz?”
Manny: “Very vell, Mista Schmecklepuss; how’s your putz?”
The kids thought stuff like this was hilarious.
Today Weiss introduced Manny to Efrain Cobos, a baby-faced, pear-shaped junior who wanted to be the team’s manager.
Manny gave Efrain a serious look-over. “You’ll have to fill the water bottles and keep score,” Manny said.
“We can’t pay you anythin’,” Manny added.
Efrain nodded again.
Manny smiled and patted Efrain’s belly. “But after the season I’ll buy you a corned-beef sandwich.”
Efrain became one of the regulars who wandered in and out of the gym. There were others: big Montrell “Sin” Cochran, a tackle on the football team; tiny Tommie Redmond, who had a biting wit; Ramon “Pookie” Willis, who wore his Jheri-curled hair down to his shoulders; and dapper Ed–Eddie Kroger, who harbored hopes of one day making the team.
There was one other kid–a silent sort, with old, sad eyes. I’ll call him Teddy. I asked Manny about him. “He was a great running back. Scored 14 touchdowns when he was a freshman. A helluva basketball player, too. He’d be a senior if he was still in school.”
“Why isn’t he?”
Manny shook his head. “He got kicked out of school for throwing a garbage can out of the auditorium balcony. It hit a woman and hurt her pretty bad.”
I snuck the kid another glance. “Why did he do it?”
Manny shot me a look of blank disbelief. “Why?” he repeated. “What possible reason could he have?”
Someone stole Manny’s whistle. “Took it right off my desk,” he said.
“Why would anyone steal a whistle?” I asked.
“Because it’s there–it’s the Mount Everest of whistles,” he said. “Don’t worry, I think they have one at Von Steuben [high school]. We’ll work out a deal: I’ll use it one day, they’ll use it the next.”
Practice was intense. A group of recent grads led by Tim Davis, last year’s starting center, stopped by. Manny gave them a go at five randomly picked players. The alumni winded fast. They walked up the court for every two times they ran. They didn’t have the energy to play defense. They lost 55 to 28.
While the graduates gasped for breath, Manny had the varsity run 20 sprints. Then he said, “You know, I’m not tired yet.” They groaned. He laughed. They ran five more sprints.
Afterward he gathered them in a semicircle. He told them that he loved them. That he appreciated their hard work. That they could be as good as–or better than–any team he ever coached. “We got one week of practice before the opening of the season. Don’t let down. Don’t give up.”
Only ten guys showed up for practice. Schurz hadn’t been seen in days. Manny called his home. No one answered. He called around the system and discovered that Schurz was a recent transfer who had flunked out of his last school. As far as most of the kids knew, he had dropped out.
David wasn’t at practice either. His grandfather had died, and David had flown to Mexico for the funeral. He’d be gone at least a week.
During warm-ups, Terrell left the court clutching his chest. Manny and Weiss rushed to his side. “It’s my asthma,” he told them.
“If it’s your asthma, don’t mess around,” said Manny. “You should quit right away.”
“Have you seen a doctor?” asked Weiss.
“Well, you should,” said Manny. “Take time off from practice. Basketball means nothing if you don’t have your health. First things first.”
“Does it hurt when you breathe?” asked Weiss.
“Breathe,” said Weiss, pressing his ear to Terrell’s chest.
“Oh, he’s stuffed,” said Weiss.
“Look, son,” said Manny, “have you ever taken Primatene?”
“No,” said Terrell.
“All right. See a doctor, but also take this stuff.”
“You can buy it off the shelf,” said Weiss.
“Put it in your mouth and spray,” said Manny.
“But don’t spray more than once,” said Weiss.
“OK,” said Terrell.
“‘Cause it can open you up too much,” said Weiss.
“That happened to me,” said Manny. “I had a bad case of asthma and I went to the hospital. The guy asks me–after he gave me the shot–‘Did you take any medication?’ I told him I took my daughter’s medication. He says, ‘You can die from this combination.’ I said, ‘Now you tell me–thanks a lot. I think I’ll just lay down over there in the corner and die.'”
Weiss and I laughed. Terrell smiled.
“You know what you should really do?” Manny continued. “Take some chicken soup. I see my mother, today, she tells me, ‘Manny, you don’t look so good. Have some chicken soup.’ I say, ‘Ma, I’m almost 60 years old, for cry Pete.'”
Manny turned to me. “You know the story about the old lady who goes to her neighbor’s funeral? She looks at the guy in the casket and goes up to the widow and says, ‘Give him 17 bowls of chicken soup.'”
“Oh, I know this joke,” said Weiss.
Manny continued: “‘It won’t help,’ the widow says.”
Weiss took the punch line: “‘Yeah, but it can’t hurt!'”
Weiss, Manny, and I laughed. Terrell smiled. A few minutes later Manny called Terrell into his office, reminded him to see a doctor, and gave him $10 to buy himself some Primatene.
Six guys showed up ready to practice.
Terrell was still too sick to play, as was Sylvester, who had come down with the flu. Although he did show up, long enough to wheeze and cough on everyone else.
Two other guys were serving suspensions for getting into separate fights. “I saw the one fight,” said Ronnie. “Our guy went after some freshman who was lippin’ off. If you ask me, the kid deserved it.”
“Great,” said Manny, “that’s comforting to hear.”
During a half-court scrimmage, Kenric stumbled over Larry and fell to the floor. He was clutching his face and writhing in agony.
Manny hurried over. “Son, is it your nose?”
“No,” Kenric moaned. “It’s my ankle.”
“Then why are you holding your face?”
Manny pressed and poked Kenric’s ankle. “Mattox, I have bad news for you. I think you’re gonna live.”
Still, he had Kenric sit out the practice. Now they were down to five able bodies.
“Can you believe this?” Manny raged. “This is crazy.”
At the end of the day he sat in his office behind his desk, which was covered with papers, and ran his hands through his hair. A season, he explained, is like a puzzle with hundreds of little pieces. You put it together one piece at a time. You don’t just throw them the ball and let them run. You teach them the stall, the trap, the press, the inbounds plays, the four corners, working the ball to the big man in the middle, man-to-man defense, the zones. Through ceaseless repetition they master many different skills so that in the course of a game you call out a number and they respond with the right play.
But how could he teach them anything when they didn’t have enough players for two three-man teams? Time was wasting. The season opener was a few days away. And aside from Kenric, David, and Terrell, Manny didn’t even know who would start. “We’re lost, damn it,” he said. “And we had so much momentum.”
On the last day of preseason practice, four guys showed up ready to play. The others were either injured, ill, in Mexico, or suspended.
We were one weekend away from the season-opening Taft Thanksgiving Tournament. It was a four-team tourney. Up first for Roosevelt was Taft, a Red North team, one of the best in the city. Their star player was Kenny Pratt, a nimble forward capable of scoring 25 or 30 points in a game. Manny wanted to talk to the team about Pratt. He wanted to talk to them about a lot of things. He wanted to tell them about fronting Pratt. About denying him the ball. About all the good things that could come if they played hard.
But who would he talk to? He poked his head out of his office and saw Herman sitting in the bleachers, aimlessly watching Mario and Larry play a lazy game of one-on-one. A sophomore strolled by, eating french fries. “Hey man, give me some,” said Herman. He grabbed a bunch.
The freshmen and sophomores had been dismissed from practice early. The gym was strangely silent without them, almost serene.
Manny sighed and returned to his office. So ended the final practice before the start of the season.
Mandel “Manny” Weincord (born February 24, 1932)
Manny’s father, Louis, was a conductor on the Ravenswood elevated line. His mother, Lillian, kept the house. They lived in Albany Park, which then was a predominantly Jewish working-class neighborhood of walk-ups and courtyard apartment buildings. They rented a two-and-a-half-room flat at 3546 W. Montrose. Manny slept on a cot in the living room. “There was only one entrance. In case of fire your best escape was to jump out the window.”
Manny was an only child–small, athletic, and fast like a bullet. He loved the Cubs, Sox, Bears, and Stags, an old professional basketball team.
He attended Roosevelt, beginning in the fall of 1946. He played lightweight basketball (for kids under 5-foot-7) and was coached by Sam Edelcup. As a senior he finished second in the citywide 100-yard dash. “I ran in argyle socks and baseball shoes; I must have looked like a schmuck.”
The center of his universe was the Max Strauss Community Center, an old three-story brick building at Wilson and Lawndale. The Jewish Federation operated it. “The gym was so small you could install wall-to-wall carpeting at a reasonable price. The ceiling was so low we learned to shoot without an arc. I loved that place; I would have stayed there all night if they let me. I set the world record for the half-mile coming home from there every night. If I wasn’t home at 9:30, my mother would call the cops.”
He graduated in 1950, got drafted, and was sent to Korea. He had never been out of Chicago before that, had never really been out of Albany Park. He served in combat for more than a year, operating a howitzer cannon in the 45th Infantry Division. He shot and was shot at. He saw men killed. He lost most of the hearing in his right ear.
When he came home he got a job running the gym at Max Strauss. He took classes at night, earned a degree in physical education, got married, had three daughters, bought a house in the suburbs, and, in 1963, started working at Roosevelt. He taught gym and coached tennis, football, and track. On his own time he refereed basketball games, umped baseball games, and taught driver’s ed. In 1969 Sam Edelcup retired and Manny became Roosevelt’s head basketball coach. He was 37; he’s been coaching there ever since.
Most of the Jews left Albany Park years ago, replaced by Koreans, Arabs, blacks, and Hispanics. The Strauss center was demolished to make way for a low-income housing complex. About 15 years ago, some of the Slavic and Hispanic students asked Manny to start a soccer team. “All I knew about soccer was that there was a goalie and ten guys running around in short pants. Its strategy’s not much different than basketball’s: look for the open man, get back on defense, the ball gets there faster on the pass than the dribble. Besides, what counts in coaching is not the plays you run but the lessons you teach–teamwork, patience, responsibility. People ask me, ‘They speak all those different languages, how do they understand you?’ I say, ‘They don’t. That’s how come they win.’ Listen, if I can make them laugh, and have a little fun, I’ve succeeded.”
His soccer teams won Public League championships in 1978 and 1990. After that last triumph, his players placed a sombrero on Manny’s head, hoisted him on their shoulders, and paraded him around the field. “Instead of swearing at me in 30 different languages they praised me in 30 different languages. My father was dying of cancer. But as sick as he was, when I showed him that championship plaque, I could tell he was sharing my happiness.”
A few weeks later, his father died. The whole team, Arab kids included, attended the memorial service. When Manny saw them there, dressed up in their best coats and ties, he started to cry. “I never had any problems with the Arab students. I tell the kids that this is America, not the Middle East. I can’t resolve that conflict, I have enough troubles with the conflicts in my own life. I’m sure there’s plenty of wrong on both sides.”
The leading scorer on last year’s basketball team was a Palestinian kid–Mohammed “Mo” Ghanimah. Just before the start of his senior season, Mo and several friends were arrested by police and charged with spray-painting “P.L.O.” on a north-side synagogue.
“I called Mo into my office and told him that if he did what they said he did then he should be dragged through the streets like a dog. Not because I’m Jewish. That wasn’t the point. But to me, a synagogue is like a church, a temple, or a mosque–a house of worship. What was done was the worst kind of desecration.
“Mo started crying and he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I swear, I didn’t do it.'”
Some of Manny’s friends and many older alumni wanted Mo kicked off the team. But Manny let him play. “Mo had never given me a day of trouble. I’m not judge and jury. He deserved the benefit of the doubt; if others don’t like it, let them coach their own team.”
Taylor Bell wrote about Mo and Manny in his Sun-Times high school sports column. But for the most part, Manny ran his bare-bones program in anonymity. The public school system was almost bankrupt, and each year the sports budget was cut. Manny was supposed to pay referees, rent buses, and buy equipment on about $350 a year. Most expenses came out of his (or Arnie Kamen’s) pocket. He didn’t have any assistants. He kept track of the water bottles. And the score book. And the basketballs, which he toted in a sack to road games for the pregame shoot-around.
The kids bought their own gym shoes. By season’s end their soles were slippery, the leather torn. This year’s uniforms were six seasons old. The shorts were short and tight. The players wanted the long baggy look popularized by Michael Jordan. Appearances don’t matter, Manny told them. It’s what inside that counts. He once raced in argyles–remember?
But he saw their disappointment as they poked through the pile of torn, faded jerseys. He learned to live with such disappointments, just as he learned to live with the banged-up lockers, busted showers, dingy gyms, and, worst of all, the violence. There was more violence than his generation could have imagined. One of Manny’s soccer players, Fabian Diaz, was shot dead by gangbangers who mistook him for a member of a rival gang.
Styles changed. As soon as Manny got used to earrings on boys, his starting point guard started wearing a ring in his nose. The game changed too. Manny came of age in the era of the two-handed set shot. In those days the best teams were almost all Jewish. The first all-black powerhouse was the DuSable High Panthers of 1954. Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown, Reggie Henderson, coach Jim Brown–Manny still calls them the greatest team he ever saw. They revolutionized the game. They pressed. They ran the break. They dunked.
Nowadays every Public League team has a dunker and very few have any Jewish players. Blacks no longer are confined to one school or neighborhood (the north side, once all white, has been transformed by three decades of peaceful demographic change). Even if they were, they can attend any high school they want, thanks to a 1978 desegregation accord. “We got kids from all over the city comin’ to Roosevelt; half my team comes from the west side.”
Another thing that’s changed: now there are fewer two-letter athletes. Kids play organized basketball spring, summer, and fall. Because the high schools are open to all, some coaches openly recruit the best players–luring them with promises of more playing time or new gym shoes–knowing that one superstar can remake a program and enhance a coach’s reputation. If a player doesn’t like his coach or if there’s another coach he thinks he likes better or if he doesn’t think he’s playing enough, he changes schools. Nick Anderson, Mark Aguirre, Marcus Liberty–three city players who went on to star in college and the pros–they all changed high schools. Some kids transfer two or three times, moving from one end of the city to the other and even out to the suburbs.
Manny calls it a meat market and he wants no part of it. “It’s been 40 years since Roosevelt won a city title and I’ll let another 40 years pass if that’s what it takes to win another. How does it help a kid to go from school to school? Coaches are just using kids. They’re telling them that basketball is a ticket to a future. But if you can’t read, basketball is a ticket to nowhere.”
Manny warns his players that they need a C average to stay on his team. He tells them the story of Charlie Taylor, the greatest player he ever coached. Charlie practiced day and night, set a Public League career scoring record, won a full basketball scholarship to Indiana State. But the competition was tough. He didn’t start. He got restless. He transferred. He dropped out. He kicked around the city and wound up in the Marines. He caught spinal meningitis and died at age 24.
“I tell the kids that athletics is something they can lose in two seconds–your knee goes out, bang, and it’s gone. But they don’t listen.”
Manny wishes they would drop the dream, but he knows they can’t. The game seeps into their veins. Look at him–60 years old and still hanging around the gym.
He wonders sometimes if he would have been better off doing something else. When he was younger and might have been spending more time with his wife and three daughters, he was coaching and watching games instead. He works on the fringe of a multibillion-dollar business, yet he’s never made more than $45,000 a year, and he has to coach two sports, teach gym, and moonlight evenings and summers on the driver’s-ed range just to make that. His clothes are simple; he drives an old brown Chevy; he never traveled around the world.
Other high school coaches, the slick ones, advanced through the ranks, in some cases all the way to the pros. Manny would have liked that. But no one ever offered him a college job and he never asked for one. He stayed at Roosevelt. “The guy who’s always here.” Twenty-three seasons: 605 games, 375 wins, 230 losses. “Any coach can win with the best. But I never recruited. I did the best with the horses I had.”
His best team went 24 and 2 and made it to the semifinals of the Public League playoffs before he had to deliver another consolation speech.
He’s the dean of city coaches, known and respected by coaches and refs as a classy competitor. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t run up the score. Modest in victory, gracious in defeat, he always remembers to congratulate a coach who beats him.
Every now and then some bucket-bellied guy with a boy at his side will come up and say, “Coach, you don’t remember me, but I played against you. I’d like to introduce you to my son.” And Manny will say: “Do I remember you? Of course I remember you! For cry Pete, you gave us fits.” Then he’ll turn to the little boy and say, “Son, your father was one helluva ball player. I hated playin’ against him. He was one of the toughest competitors we faced.”
Manny got a Christmas card from a former student teacher who went on to become an assistant basketball coach at a couple of major midwestern colleges. “I just wanted to say hello and Merry Christmas,” the letter began. “I think about you all the time, I miss being around you. I never had a father who lived with my family–but if I did, I wish he could be like you. Take care. Our team is doing great. We’re ranked 24th in the nation.”
At times Manny thinks about retiring. But when tryouts come in November, his energy returns. He stands outside his office and watches another generation of players run up and down the court and he thinks: with a little luck, this might be the year we hang a new championship banner on the wall.
It took 45 minutes in withering bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic to reach Taft High School. I drove a couple of the players, Sender took some in his car, and others took public transportation, having received detailed advice on routes and transfer points from Manny during a brief meeting in the gym. When we arrived, game one of the Thanksgiving tournament was under way: Wells versus Phillips.
The gym was nearly empty. I counted maybe 50 spectators, including several members of the Taft wrestling team taking a break from practice. The crowd was silent. There was no band. No cheerleaders. You could hear the basketball thumping, gym shoes scraping, and players grunting as they lunged for rebounds. The lighting was dim and there was little room along the baseline for players to maneuver without crashing into the walls. The scoreboard rattled and the three scorekeepers huddled around a rickety card table. They introduced starters and announced fouls and substitutions, but the loudspeaker’s cackle swallowed their words.
The Taft team was on the sidelines. I recognized Kenny Pratt’s hard, chiseled features and black bushy eyebrows from his pictures in the paper. The whole team looked lean and handsome in their blue warm-up suits and matching white and blue sneakers.
The Rough Riders, some wore black sneakers, others white. Some wore their socks low, others high. They looked awed when Taft began an orchestrated lay-up drill and seemed bewildered as to how they should line up for their own. This was the first full-team gathering in more than a week.
Manny and Frank Hood, Taft’s coach, met at the scorer’s table. They shook hands. It was then that they noticed that both teams were wearing blue.
“You should have worn home white,” Hood told Manny.
“But we’re the visitors,” said Manny.
“No, you’re the home team.”
“But it’s your gym.”
“Yes, but this is a tournament game. And for this particular tournament game you’re the home team. It was in the schedule.”
Manny thought about this for a moment.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to change into white,” said Hood.
“But we didn’t bring our white uniforms,” said Manny.
Hood frowned. And his Eagles trudged back to the locker room, where they changed into their home whites, giving the Rough Riders another five minutes to practice their jump shots. Not a single one fell in.
“Oh boy, this is gonna be a long day,” said Weiss.
Manny clapped his hands and gathered the team around him. “We’ll start with the zone,” he said. “Front Pratt; deny him the ball. Don’t let one guy beat you. OK?
“We’re gonna go with David, Kenric, Terrell, Herman, and Maceo as the starters. Come on guys, we can beat this team.”
The Rough Riders put their hands together and chanted: “One, two, three, win!”
It took a minute to prove Manny wrong. Taft pressed relentlessly–hands, arms, fingers in the face–and the Rough Riders collapsed. They couldn’t advance the ball up the court. Manny tried everyone. He pulled players in and out every few minutes. Nothing worked. They traveled. They double-dribbled. They charged. They bounced the ball off their legs. In utter panic, they tossed the ball to a player from Taft. At one point Kenric abandoned his usual spot under the basket to lumber up-court with the ball. “Get back, get back,” Manny roared–the whole point of his offense was to work it to the big man down low.
David started bringing the ball up. He was good at it too, a slicker ball handler than most of the guards. But he was 6-foot-6 (big for high school) and Manny wanted him down low next to Kenric.
“You’re a forward, not a guard,” Manny screamed at David during a time-out.
“You belong down low, not bringing up the ball!”
David nodded again.
Two plays later David again brought up the ball. “Aw for cry Pete,” Manny moaned, as he buried his head in his hands.
Somewhere in the onslaught Ronnie lost his pants. Or nearly did. He pulled them down so they hung from the hips, not the waist. He wanted the low, long-pants Jordan look. But he was almost exposing his crack.
Manny turned red. “God damn it, White, pull up your pants!”
But Ronnie didn’t hear him. “Mario,” Manny yelled, “get in there for White.” Mario, sprawled across two rows of bleachers, his mind lost in space, didn’t hear Manny either. Manny got so angry he jumped up and down.
“This is ridiculous. We look awful. Mario, get your ass on the bench. Come on–at least look like a team.”
The players had apparently forgotten every lesson they had ever learned, or maybe they had never learned them at all. They exposed the ball to their defenders. They didn’t guard the baseline. They dribbled inside the key. They did everything Manny had told them not to.
The slaughter continued even after Hood pulled his starters. David fouled out; Larry fouled out; finally even Arnie Kamen stopped cheering. Mercifully, the game ended. The final score: 83 to 35. “At least you didn’t lose by 50,” I told Manny, vainly searching for some words of consolation.
Manny was not consoled. “This is the worst whippin’ a Rough Rider team has ever suffered. And what do you expect from a team that can only get four guys to its practice?”
Ten people attended the game against Wells. The Rough Riders won, thanks to Sylvester Turner–skinny, gawky, freckle-faced Sylvester, one of the kids who made no impression on me during those first days of practice (which shows how much I know). Sylvester came off the bench, hit six straight points, ending up with 18, and brought the Rough Riders rooters (Montrell, Tommie, and Pookie, that is) to their feet. I’m still not sure how he did it. He had the strangest release–more like a shot-putter’s heave.
After the game I congratulated him. “That was some of the greatest shooting I’ve ever seen.”
Sylvester mumbled something and then looked at the ground.
I walked over to Ronnie, Sylvester’s best friend. “Where you guys been hidin’ him?”
“Hey, man,” said Ronnie, “Sylvester’s been here all the time. You just didn’t see him.”
Sylvester kept up his hot shooting against Phillips, a south-side school, in game three of the tournament. He led the team with 16 points.
But Manny was mad at him anyway. He said Sylvester didn’t play defense and he didn’t box out under the boards.
So he pulled Sylvester and inserted long Anthony Garner, an all-arms-and-legs junior. Anthony had a great move to the basket, but he made a lot of mistakes. Manny kept yelling at him to stay under the basket, and still Anthony floated all over the court.
I don’t think Anthony responded well to yelling. He was new to Roosevelt. He had transferred from Orr High School when his family moved to Albany Park. He didn’t really know any of his teammates. He kept to himself, a quiet kid with big soulful eyes. His teammates nicknamed him Orr and said he looked like Scottie Pippen. He sort of winced when Manny yelled at him, absorbing the criticism like blows.
Manny replaced Anthony with Larry, another raw junior: tall, but clumsy. He always dribbled once before shooting a lay-up. At halftime Manny pulled him aside under the basket. “Larry, practice your lay-up. Stand on the right side. Lay it in. Catch it before it hits the ground and lay it in from the left. Now do it from the right. The point is to take the shot without dribbling.”
Two minutes into the third quarter, Larry grabbed an offensive rebound. Instead of laying it right up, he dribbled once. A smaller opponent slapped the ball away. “I give up,” Manny moaned.
His demeanor surprised me. At times he screamed so hard his neck veins bulged and his face turned purple. He called them gutless. He said they played like cowards and that he “could leave them in a gym for three weeks and they still wouldn’t make a shot.” When they hit a free throw, he clutched his heart and staggered, as though felled by disbelief. He cursed, he ranted, he threw his keys on the ground. After someone made a particularly boneheaded mistake, he rose from his seat and looked to replace him. The players on the bench pretended to be absorbed by the game. Manny paced before them, disgustedly eyeing them as if to say, “Look what I have to choose from.” Finally he’d say something like, “Ronnie, go in for Redmond. And try not to do something stupid.”
The players showed their dissatisfaction with Manny’s yelling in little ways. They muttered or frowned or gave him the cold shoulder on their way to the bench. They sat far from him.
Superfans Tommie and Pookie were no help. If Manny called Sylvester a schmuck, they’d say: “Hey, Sylvester, Weincord called you a schmuck.”
Near the end of the game Maceo missed a wide-open lay-up and Manny pulled him. As he walked to the bench, Maceo said: “Damn, I missed that easy little shot.”
“Damn straight, you did,” said Tommie.
“Shut your mouth,” said Maceo.
“Hey, Maceo,” said Pookie. “You can cry on my shoulder for a dollar.”
Roosevelt lost to Phillips, 72 to 64. After the game Kevin chased Tommie onto the court and tackled him. Both guys giggled as they wrestled on the floor–just like the frosh-soph team at practice.
I was almost out the door when Terrell ran up and asked if I would give him a lift back to Roosevelt. During the ride I tried to make small talk, but Terrell was distracted.
Finally, after about 15 minutes in the car, he said: “He’s in my head.”
“The guy be yelling all the time. I can’t play my game.”
We were a block from Terrell’s house and I pulled over to let him out. He looked sad, almost anguished.
“Look, Terrell, forget it. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday. You’re a great player. The season’s just starting.”
He shook his head. “I got to get him out of my head,” he said. “I got to play my game.”
By now I had my routine. I left home at two and rode the el to the end of the line at Kimball and Lawrence. From there I walked two blocks south to Wilson, passing a discount shoe store, a pawnshop, a seedy bar, a greasy spoon, a jewelry store, a Burger King, and a tide of students who all looked and sounded alike, regardless of race, as they came tumbling along the crumbling sidewalks, overjoyed to be done with school for the day. The boys cut their hair in some form of the Fade (long on top, short on the sides) and wore baggy pants, baseball caps, and jackets brightly blazoned with the names of their favorite sports teams.
I’d see some of the players killing time before practice at the Burger King–eating fries, drinking Cokes, nuzzling with the girls. Some would acknowledge me with a grunt. Some looked away, like they didn’t see me. Herman, Ronnie, and Mario were the friendliest–always said hello.
Today before practice, on a whim, I told Herman, “Sink 40 straight free throws and I’ll give you a ticket to Friday’s Bulls game.”
“No problem,” he said. He hit four, then missed.
“I can do it,” he said.
“But you only made four,” I said.
“Don’t matter. Everythin’s rhythm. I was just gettin’ my rhythm.”
“Herman, you’re so conceited,” said Sylvester.
“Hey, man, it ain’t conceited if it’s true.”
I was becoming enough of a fixture in the gym that I could sneak up close to the bench at the start of practice, when the players were lacing up their sneakers, and overhear their conversations. They talked a lot about sex. (Bragged about it mostly. One player was a father. His girlfriend sometimes brought their baby to practice.) Sometimes they talked about the police. “Almost all of us been picked up at least once,” said Ronnie. “You don’t have to be doin’ nothin’. They stop you for bein’ young and black.”
One player had been stopped over the weekend. “The cop sees my Roosevelt ID and says, ‘Do you know Coach Weincord?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I know Coach Weincord.’ The cop says, ‘I played against his team years ago.’ Then he let me go.”
Manny was a big thing in their lives. He had the power to bench them, play them, or kick them off the team. They all felt they deserved more playing time. But as Ronnie said many times, “The only vote that counts is Weincord’s.”
Over the weekend, Manny decided he had been too hard on the team and vowed to yell less.
“Believe it or not, I don’t like yellin’,” he said. “My own father once told me, ‘The way you holler, if a kid had poked you in the nose, I would have shaken his hand.’ He was right. No one should have to do anything out of fear. They might win, but they won’t be winners in life. Some coaches smack a kid in the rear, and then the kid goes out in the world and can’t do a thing unless someone smacks him.”
At the start of practice today, Manny apologized for calling them gutless. “I have to admit that even after all these years, I still make mistakes. I like you guys–you might not believe that, but I do. I criticize you because I want you to be successful. This is an open door to college. There are scouts at these games. And they don’t just watch the scorer. They look at guys who can pass and play defense. They’re looking for a team man. And that means when a coach takes you out of a game you don’t say, ‘Coach, screw you.’ Oh, you might not say that, but I can see what you’re thinking by the look on your face.”
And now he was off, he couldn’t help himself, scowling, slouching, strutting–imitating a sullen player’s angry exit from a game. He caught himself before he started yelling. “When I take you out, don’t run to the end of the bench or talk with your friends in the stands. Sit next to me, I won’t bite you.”
Manny had them work on the four-corners offense: a man is posted in each corner and the center in the middle, and they work the ball around the perimeter until someone pops free. He reminded them of upcoming games: Schurz, Curie, and then the big one, the game that stood out on the schedule like an exclamation mark–Glenbrook North.
“Glenbrook’s got Chris Collins. We all know about him. Doug Collins’s kid,” Manny said, referring to the former coach of the Bulls. “He’s one helluva scorer. But one player can’t beat a team. And that’s what we are–a team.”
“Right,” said David. “A team.”
“Now the game’s gonna be at their place in Northbrook. We’ll be takin’ a bus. I hear a lot of old Roosevelt grads who live out there will be comin’. They aren’t comin’ for Collins–they’re comin’ for you.”
A few of the players murmured.
“If you see a bunch of old guys with canes and walkers, you’ll know those are Weincord’s friends.”
The players laughed. Manny looked relieved. “So OK, guys, let’s say the season starts today.”
In the Schurz High School gym, chunks of paint fell from the walls and the floor needed a wash. At halftime a fat, oily centipede crawled across the court.
The Rough Riders played their best game of the season, patiently working the four-corners offense. They found the open man and hit their open shots. At the half they led by 22.
This time it was the other coach, Stu Menaker, who yelled. At one point he got so angry at his point guard that he turned to a kid sitting on the bench, grabbed him by the shirt, yanked him from his seat, and all but threw him into the game as a replacement.
The Rough Riders romped, 72 to 45. Efrain, the team manager, was particularly ecstatic. It was his first game keeping score (he had missed the Taft tournament), and he didn’t make any mistakes.
“I was really nervous, especially when I had to add everything up. I’m not very good at math.”
Manny had high praise for the whole team. “You were brilliant,” he said. “Really.”
“Bring on Glenbrook North,” said Herman.
One problem. The home opener against Curie came first. And Curie was fast, much better than expected. They raced to a ten-point lead, and the spectators started mocking the home team, as though they were watching their pesky little brothers screw up the fifth-grade play.
They howled when Ronnie double-dribbled and hooted when Terrell shot an air ball. If someone made an impressive move, they patronized. When Terrell scored off a rebound, Teddy, the kid who’d thrown the garbage can, said “That’s my nigger.”
There were about 40 fans there, most of whom, like Teddy, were black. A lot of them laughed at his remark. Not me. Terrell was trying to elevate himself, and Teddy and the others were trying to knock him back down.
As a child, sledding with friends, I yelled out, “Last one down the hill’s a nigger.” I don’t know why I said it. We didn’t live near any blacks; I didn’t know what the word meant. My father spanked me and I never used the word again. Years later I heard Lenny Bruce’s routine in which he suggests that we drain the sting from the word by saying it again and again. But Lenny Bruce never sat in the stands at Roosevelt High and heard one black kid crack it like a whip to keep another black kid in his place.
I turned around to say something to Teddy about the evils of self-deprecation, but he looked me dead in the eye and I froze, pushed by his stare back behind the line that divides black from white. This is our word, he was saying, and I’ll say what I want. Then another kid said it (in reference, this time, to Kenric), and I hunkered low, shamed by my silence, staring straight ahead, as if I had heard nothing, never so humiliated in my life.
At halftime the pom-pom squad–six girls, their names stitched in the bottoms of their blue and gold pajamalike sweat suits–turned on a silver boom box and boogied to some hip-hop beat.
“Shake yo’ big black butt,” one kid hollered.
From the back of the bleachers came a long and loud orgasmic moan. Lots of kids laughed, including most of the players.
The players didn’t laugh, however, when the fans turned on them.
“Sylvester, coach says you ain’t no good,” someone called.
Maceo, sitting on the bench, whirled around and snarled: “Shut up.”
“You gonna cry, Mace?”
Maceo looked like he wanted to wring the fellow’s neck, but reluctantly he turned back to the game. “They don’t stick by us, man,” he complained.
Manny called time. “Why is it that you put 40 people into a gym and you get bothered?” he asked the team. “Don’t listen to ’em. For cry Pete, ignore the crowd!”
But they couldn’t, especially after he told them to. They ran from the ball, passing up the same sort of wide-open jumpers that they had eagerly accepted in the dim silence of Schurz.
With a minute or so left, Terrell accidentally bumped an opposing guard. The guard jammed his face against Terrell’s and said something. Terrell said something back. The ref pulled them apart just as a dozen or so Roosevelt students streamed onto the court.
The Curie players retreated to their bench, under a barrage of curses and threats, as Manny and Sender scooted across the court to lead the students back to their seats.
Curie won 74 to 68. “Coach,” Manny said to Curie coach James McLaughlin, “I’m sorry. Really. This crowd, they have disgraced the school.”
Long after the game, Manny sat in his office, feeling tired and blue. He wanted to go home, but there were so many things to do: phone the score into the City News Bureau, wait for the frosh-soph game to end, gather the balls, sweep the floor, collect receipts, lock the doors. He had been up early and now he would stay up late, stewing over the loss and the crowd’s behavior. On top of that, they were off to Glenbrook North tomorrow.
The streets were quiet for a Saturday night, and we zipped right up to Northbrook in no time at all–the bus rattling with the happy shrieks of the players and a few of their friends. No one had to be told that this was a special night. Without any prompting from Manny, the players had dressed well for their trip to the suburbs, many wearing jackets and ties. We sliced through the city, cut along the expressway, and entered a world of shopping malls and subdivisions. Manny carried the warm-up basketballs in a sack.
Glenbrook North, rising out of the foggy night, looked like a pile of bricks stacked in a cornfield. The driver pulled into the front driveway and stopped.
“Where’s the gym?” he asked.
“I’ll find it,” Manny sighed. He climbed off the bus, disappeared into the fog, and then reappeared with some good news. The gym was around the bend.
Actually it wasn’t one gym but five (or six–I lost count), housed in a sprawling athletic complex. The Roosevelt players hushed as they entered. They tried not to gawk.
The floor was carpeted, the hallways lined with glass trophy cases. On the walls were photos of celebrated graduates: baseball players Scott Sanderson and Doug Rader, Olympic ice skaters Leah Poulos and Anne Henning. We passed security guards, janitors, ticket takers, and concession-stand operators. Someone handed me a one-page computer-printed letter written by Glenbrook North head coach Brian James. It was called “The View From the Bench.” It featured up-to-date statistics on the Spartans.
From the main gym came the sound of basketballs bouncing. The Glenbrook frosh-soph squad was already well into warm-ups. They stopped shooting to watch our advance across the floor. It wasn’t dusty. It wasn’t slippery. It glistened. Our shoes squeaked. “Like walkin’ on Velcro,” I told Manny.
The walls were about 15 feet from the baskets and cushioned by wrestling mats. There were about 20 rows of bleachers, a balcony, and a concrete plateau on which rested a line of television cameras. (The game would be aired on a local cable station.) A sound system blared Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s hit “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” You could hear every word.
They had a few minutes to kill, so the players wandered back into the lobby. It was like a museum, a sports hall of fame. The trophy cases were lit from within. The Rough Riders stopped at each case. They eyed the trophies. They read the inscriptions. They discussed what they saw. Then they moved on to the next case.
A security guard led them to the visitors’ locker room–an enormous room, as wide and open as a soccer field. It was freshly scrubbed. No graffiti. No banged-in lockers. No broken lights. The players entered cautiously, afraid to disturb something. Then it dawned on them: this was theirs for the night. They got giddy as they undressed. They started bragging about who had the biggest muscles. Kevin flexed his biceps. “This is what the ladies want,” he said.
“No, no, I’m the ladies’ man,” said Ronnie. To prove it he pulled from his wallet a condom, which he waved in the air.
“How ’bout this?” called Mario. He made his stomach shake and roll like a belly dancer’s.
His buddies laughed and begged him to do it again. So he did. And they laughed again.
Then they began preparing for the game. Each had his ritual. Anthony lathered his legs with a creamy lotion. Herman adjusted his socks to look just right. Sylvester did pull-ups on a pipe that ran across the ceiling. Terrell jogged in place. David and Ronnie threw a basketball back and forth. Through the walls came the brassy sounds of a marching band playing old Chicago songs like “Colour My World” and “Make Me Smile.”
Ronnie was particularly happy. He’d played error-free ball against Curie. After the game, Manny had told him that he’d start against Glenbrook North. The news had surprised Ronnie. He didn’t think Manny liked him. He didn’t think any of his teachers liked him; he thought they held grudges against him for things he said he never did. Now he was starting. In the big game. Against Chris Collins. Imagine that.
Kevin burst in from the bathroom, breathless with delight. “Guys,” he loudly whispered. “Hurry up. Maceo’s takin’ a dump!”
Stifling giggles, holding their fingers to their lips, they crept on tiptoe to a stall in the bathroom. They pushed open the door to reveal Maceo–poor unsuspecting Maceo–pants to his ankles, toilet paper in hand.
Maceo looked sheepish. “Hey, what the hell?” was all he could offer. His teammates cracked up. They ran back into the locker room exchanging high fives.
And now they were really loose. A bunch of them started passing the ball back and forth, chanting “Win, win, win.”
It was a special moment–a moment for thanks.
“Prayer,” Terrell shouted. Maceo, having completed his business, gathered them in a semicircle. They dropped to their knees and rested their heads in their hands.
Maceo said: “God, we come to you as often as we know how. Lord, just give us strength, courage, and the power to go out and play the best possible game we can. And, you know, just carry us through the season injury free, Lord, and through any troubles that we have outside of the court. We should not bring our troubles onto the court with us, Lord. Lord, as I come to you, Lord, I thank you, Lord, for allowing us to be together one more time as a team. One more time, Lord. And I just want to say, amen.
In unison the others said amen.
They rose, put their hands in the middle, and chanted: “One, two, three–hang ’em up!”
Meanwhile, out in the gym it was like homecoming, what with all the old Roosevelt alums wearing blue and gold sweatshirts on hand to cheer the team. There were at least 40 of them, and the game was far from starting. They exchanged hugs and kisses, patted each other’s bellies, joked about receding hairlines, boasted about summer homes in Michigan, consoled one another over divorces, deaths, and other such sorrows.
Mostly they reminisced. About Al Klein, the football coach, and Morrie’s Hot Dog Stand, and sock hops, and old social clubs (the Senecas, the Ovikitahs), and the star players on the ’52 championship team (Mortie Miller, Eddie Rothenberg, Roy Roe, Moose Malitz, Louie Landt, Mort Gellman). They laughed, sometimes so hard they had tears in their eyes. Those were the days. They hadn’t had money. Or cars. They rode the trolleys and buses. They worked in their fathers’ stores. They listened to George Burns and Gracie Allen on the radio. They were young.
“I’d take the starting five from the ’52 champs over any of these teams any day,” someone said.
“They couldn’t jump like kids today, but they could hit the set shot.”
“They were disciplined. They knew how to run an offense.”
“Any kid make a crack about Jews, and Moose would flatten his face.”
“God bless him.”
Arnie Kamen was there, of course, collecting money for his Roosevelt athletic fund and leading his classmates in an off-tune rendition of the Roosevelt fight song. Someone put his arm around Manny and said, “Mandel, I envy you. I always wanted to be a coach.”
At 7:15 Manny broke away and met with his players in the locker room. “OK guys, a couple of things,” he said. “We’re not going to press them early. Play Collins like you’re playing anyone else. The idea is to deny him the ball. No one man can beat you, no one man is that good.”
A security guard poked his head through the door and said, “It’s time, coach.”
Manny nodded. He turned back to his team. “I really, honestly enjoyed working with you guys over the last month. I enjoy you guys. Let’s win.”
They burst from the locker room and circled the gym floor, rhythmically clapping their hands as they ran. Awaiting them under the basket was Jack Sherman, Roosevelt’s principal, a short, taciturn man with the steel-eyed stare of a skeptic who has heard every teenage excuse imaginable. He looked a little softer tonight, a little less rigid. He wore a Roosevelt sweatshirt and he shook the hand of each player as he ran past.
The air crackled with the hum of hundreds of conversations. The stands filled with high schoolers and parents, dozens of parents, wearing white turtlenecks and green sweaters; and children, lots of children, mostly little boys, fists clutching pencils, paper in their laps, ready to keep score.
The band kicked into the Glenbrook North fight song and the Spartans took the floor. They wore green and yellow satin warm-up suits, green and white sneakers, white anklets stenciled with the monogram GNS, and long, baggy, Jordanesque shorts. They had little American flags stitched to their jerseys. There was one black guy on the team, a seven-foot center.
Manny and coach James shook hands. Manny was wearing his best suit: gray, double-breasted, a little long in the pants. James wore a trim jacket, a skinny tie, pleated slacks, and dressy loafers. Except for his boyish face he looked like the host at a north-side ristorante.
The lights dimmed and the courtside announcer introduced the Roosevelt starters: Terrell, Anthony, David, Kenric, and Ronnie. He wasn’t some kid, the announcer. He was an adult. And when the time came to introduce the Spartans, he jacked up his enthusiasm–just like the Bulls’ courtside announcer at the Stadium. He said: “And now, the starting lineup for your Glenbrook North Spartans.” A spotlight picked up the first Spartan as he ran between two rows of pom-pom girls and cheerleaders and through a paper hoop held at center court by the team mascot. The last player out was Collins. The crowd rose and their cheers swelled to the rafters as he jogged to center court.
“Please remain standing and honor America by singing the national anthem,” the announcer continued. A deep-voiced man led the song and, yes, the crowd sang along, hands over their hearts, eyes glued to the flag hanging from the wall. In the last row of the bleachers was Doug Collins, the old Bulls coach himself, hand to his heart, looking proud to live in the land of the free.
The game was anticlimactic, the emotion of the evening having exhausted the Rough Riders. This wasn’t five-on-five, skins against shirts. This was the main event, and I think they were overwhelmed. On his first drive to the basket, Terrell banged into Glenbrook’s center. The foul could have gone either way, but the ref called Terrell for the charge. After that he avoided the lane and passed up open shots. You could almost see him thinking: don’t take a stupid shot; don’t make another foul. The fans at Glenbrook North would never see him slip along the baseline, they’d never see him soar to the basket. They’d never know what they were missing.
Collins was quietly brilliant. He dribbled up the court, drilled a shot if he had it, ran a play if not. That’s it. Effortless, confident, flawless, deceptively quick. Never ruffled, never altered his shot.
It was 9-0 before Roosevelt scored. At halftime the Spartans led 50 to 28. The cheerleaders danced, the band played, and the janitors swept the court. I couldn’t take it. The kids from Glenbrook had so much. It wasn’t right that they should also win the game.
I wandered through the lobby, packed with teenagers in jeans and designer jackets. The concession stand served hot dogs, potato chips, soda pop, and slices of pizza. By the time I tried to return to my seat, the second half had started. A security guard wouldn’t let me in. He said: “You can’t enter the floor once the game is going.”
I had to climb the stairs and sit in the balcony, between Doug Collins and the TV cameras. Manny went with Herman at guard for the second half. I could see Ronnie on the bench, his head down. Manny’s arms were waving, but I couldn’t hear what he said.
Most of the high schoolers around me had lost interest in the game. Obviously Roosevelt didn’t pop out on their schedule like an exclamation point. They giggled and gossiped and tried to decide who would drive and which party to attend.
Five gawky teens wandered in. They wore White Sox baseball caps, torn blue jeans, and Michael Jordan gym shoes. They wore their hair short on the sides. A tall, thin blond-haired girl walked past. They squirmed self-consciously. She smiled and said “Hi, Joey.”
Joey reddened. His buddies giggled.
“Fuck you,” Joey said.
“Suck my dick,” one of them shot back.
Joey pointed to his crotch. “Suck this, fag,” he said.
“You’re the fag.”
“Hey, man, don’t dis me.”
I turned toward them. “Dis?” I said. “Where did you pick that up?”
“I dunno,” said Joey.
“Well, what does it mean?”
“It’s ghetto talk,” said another one.
“Yeah, man,” said Joey. “You know, Boyz N the Hood.”
That made them crack up and they turned their caps sideways and started walking with the exaggerated strut of the rappers they watched on TV.
The final was 80 to 63. Collins scored 27, even though he sat out the final quarter. I bumped into Arnie on the main floor. “Life’s not fair,” I said.
He knew exactly what I meant. “Now do you understand?” he implored. “Now do you understand why I’m doing this? I want the kids at Roosevelt to have all of this too.”
In the locker room, Sylvester sat with his head in his hands. Ronnie stared at his locker. Manny consoled the team. “Fellows, I’m proud of you. You could have died, but you hustled to the end. All these people who came–win or lose they still love you and they love your school. There’s something special going on here. You’re lucky you go to Roosevelt. There will always be people who love you. So don’t get down.”
“That’s right,” called Terrell. “We gotta take it one game at a time.”
“OK fellas, no tears,” said Manny. “Forget about it. No matter what happened today, tomorrow is still Sunday.”
The Glenbrook Booster Club was sponsoring a postgame refreshment hour (coffee, soft drinks, and donuts) for players and their families. The Rough Riders weren’t invited. (The Spartans didn’t offer them so much as a cup of Coca-Cola.) The party was just starting as we boarded the bus for Chicago.
Manny was subdued on the way back. “I don’t think I’ll sleep much tonight. I’ll be thinking about the game. Ah, the older you get the less you want to sleep anyway. It’s because you’re afraid that you might not wake up.”
The bus started to turn on Kimball, two blocks from the school, when Herman bolted for the front door. “Let me off,” he shouted. “I gotta get off.”
Apparently there was someone on the corner he needed to see. The driver, startled, screeched to a halt in the middle of the street, opening the door just in time to prevent Herman from plowing through it. Suddenly the whole team was rumbling down the aisles and out the door. Someone yelled “fight.” I couldn’t tell what was happening. The last I saw they were running down an alley. Manny shook his head. “What kind of sense is that–to jump off a moving bus in the middle of traffic?”
We rode the rest of the way to Roosevelt. Manny was still carrying that sack of basketballs as he headed for his car.
The team was gone by the time I returned to the intersection. The streets were empty. The stores were shuttered. The fog had lifted. A cold wind stirred bits of trash.
On the corner stood one of the frosh-soph players, a gym bag slung across his back. He was waiting for the bus that would take him east to California Avenue, where he would have to wait for another bus that would take him home. It was almost 11. With luck, he’d be home by midnight.
Terrell Redmond (born July 23, 1974)
When he was a kid–maybe 11 or 12–Terrell liked to slip beneath the turnstile and catch a train to Clark and Division, where he and his buddies would break-dance on the corner for the nickels, dimes, and quarters pedestrians threw into their hats. Terrell loved break-dancing. Most of all he loved the oohs and ahs of disbelief that he could elicit with a complicated turn or a backward flip from a standstill position.
Before long they’d have to flee, the cops on their trail, though they were too fast to get caught. Sneakers flying over pavement, they’d dart off into the night, back to the subway, back to the west side. “My mama couldn’t believe I was so good at break-dancing. She would say, Is there anything you can’t do?”
Terrell was also good at tagging–a “sport” he learned from the Puerto Rican kids he met soon after his parents divorced and his mom moved him and his sister to the north side. “I had my own tag–Red. I tagged all over the north side, west side too. I know it’s not right. But sometimes doin’ wrong is a thrill. I can’t explain it. I don’t do it no more. I don’t even miss it, ‘cept maybe a little. I used to get a thrill knowin’ that so many people could see my name.”
He started with street-level signs and bus benches and worked his way up to the hard-to-reach viaducts and billboards. He’d slither up a pole, slap his tag, drop down, and run like the wind, his baseball cap on backward, his socks cut low, T-shirt flapping out of the side of his pants–setting a look that, in time, thousands of suburban kids would copy.
One day a cop caught him writing on a billboard. Terrell was handcuffed and taken to the station. “My mom bailed me out and she made me clean up the graffiti. She told me to stop. But I couldn’t. I was livin’ for that action.”
He never thought he’d get caught–not if he was careful. There wasn’t a cop fast enough to catch him.
But a few months later he got careless again. He was at a north-side subway stop–no one on the platform but some bum dressed in rags. “I didn’t pay him no mind. All of a sudden he yells, ‘Freeze, you’re under arrest.’ He was an undercover cop.”
Terrell ran to the end of the platform, jumped onto the tracks, and raced into the tunnel. To his surprise, the cop kept coming, huffing and puffing and cursing under his breath. Terrell ran faster, “Deep into the tunnel way under the ground. I lost that cop, I don’t know what happened to him. But there was a train comin’, gettin’ louder. I’m not kiddin’, man, I was scared. I saw this thing, like a cave in the wall. It’s hard to describe. But I hid in it, and the train went by.”
He was filthy and lost and could hear rats scurrying around him. “To this day I don’t know how I got out, but I did. I walked around down there for an hour. Then I found this ladder that led to a pothole out on the street. I think that if I could escape that maybe I’ve been blessed. I walked over to this gas station and said, ‘Are there any jobs I can do for $1 so I can get a bus and go home?’ The guy gave me a dollar and I went home. And that was it for me. No more taggin’ after that.”
In 1987 Terrell’s family moved to a three-bedroom apartment in Albany Park, not far from Roosevelt.
“After I stopped taggin’, I was looking for somethin’ excitin’ to do and a friend got me to try basketball. I had never done it before. I thought it was boring. But once I tried it I got so good so quick.”
In retrospect, it’s remarkable that some coach hadn’t already discovered him. Terrell’s body was made for basketball–long, lean, and springy. Jumping came easy. He didn’t really leap, he soared, hanging in the air while the others fell to the ground.
His long, quick arms were ideal for defense, as was his quick-start coordination. A guard moving to his right would see Terrell drifting to the left and lose track of him. Then bam, Terrell would double back, bat the ball away from the unsuspecting dribbler, and race for an uncontested lay-up.
He made the frosh-soph team at Roosevelt, but he was raw. He was still developing a jump shot, still learning the intricacies of zones and team defense.
He honed his skills in park and playground pickup games, where defense was a simple one-on-one. No zones. No double coverage. Your man picked you at the free-throw line. If you got past him, there was an open lane to the basket. Speed and quickness counted most. It was a finesse sport–like break-dancing or tagging.
In his sophomore year he experienced a revelation. A friend who worked at the Chicago Stadium slipped him into a Bulls game. For the first time in his life Terrell saw Michael Jordan play. Everything Jordan did–taking the baseline, hanging in the air, playing rush-the-ball defense, jamming over seven-foot centers–invigorated Terrell. He started renting Jordan’s videos and watching Bulls games, taping them if he wasn’t home. He studied how Jordan stood on the sidelines, arms on hips, talking to the coach. How he entered a game, smacking chalk on his hands, how he left a game, always sitting at the far end of the bench (away from the coach). How he hung out his tongue, how he flashed that innocent, beguiling, aw-shucks smile. How he walked on the court in game five against Cleveland–three seconds left, Bulls down by one–his eyes burning, the whole world knowing the ball was going his way, him wanting it anyway.
All the kids imitated Jordan in one way or another–shaving their heads, wearing wristbands just below their knees, pulling their shorts down low. But for Terrell it was different. In some ways he had been waiting his whole life for Michael Jordan. In Michael Jordan Terrell saw a piece of himself. Michael Jordan didn’t have to paint his name on a billboard. Somebody put it there for him, advertising the car he drove, the sneakers he wore, the hamburgers he ate. Michael Jordan was who Terrell wanted to be.
And there were times, moments of greatness, when Terrell almost made it. There were times when he spun past his man, slipped down the baseline, soared over the center, and jammed the ball through the hoop. They stopped practice after that. They had to. All the guys were high-fiving, yelling, pounding the floor and, yes, comparing him to Jordan. Terrell tried not to grandstand (Michael Jordan never did), but when that happened his heart raced with a higher high than tagging or break-dancing had ever given him.
By his senior year Terrell was a big man at Roosevelt. There was so much he could do on and off the court. He was a good painter and steady with a razor, the best barber in the school. He cut hair for $2 or $3, carving designs and messages into the fellows’ scalps. For Sylvester he cut a picture of two hands dunking a basketball; for Anthony he carved the letter X (as in Malcolm X); for Kevin, his nickname, “CUZ.”
Terrell and his closest friends formed a social club, named the 49ers after their favorite football team. “We aren’t a gang. We ain’t into drugs. We just hang together is all.”
One weekend they decided to throw a party at Terrell’s. They charged $3 for admission, sold soda and potato chips, and charged 50 cents to check coats. They stationed Montrell at the door as a bouncer and Terrell behind the stereo. He played rap, hip-hop, house, every now and then slipping in a slow song from his mother’s collection so the guys could dance a long, slow squeeze.
More than 100 kids showed up for that party, and they danced until dawn. For weeks people asked him to throw another.
Things came easily to Terrell. Maybe that’s why he was so easily frustrated on the basketball court. Organized ball was more grueling than the playgrounds. Defenders held, slapped, pushed, elbowed, even knocked him to the ground. They did whatever they could get away with, and to Terrell it seemed that the refs let them get away with too much. They upset him and he had to stop himself from stalking off the court or, worse, striking back.
On top of that there was Manny and his yelling. Terrell didn’t like to be corrected in public. It made him second-guess what should have come as natural as walking. He’d start thinking instead of doing. Should I shoot? No. If I miss, he’ll yell. Should I pass? No. Then he’ll yell ’cause I turned down a shot. Sometimes, as a solution, Terrell would try to disappear from the game. Let the other guys take the shots, let the other guys run the ball, let Manny yell at someone else. But that didn’t work. The team looked to him. Terrell was the igniter. If they were stalling, Manny blamed him. Why aren’t you hustling? Why don’t you shoot? Why don’t you take the ball to the basket? Terrell was discovering the pressures that are bred by expectations. Do something once and they expect you to do it again. If you don’t, they want to know why.
After each game Manny tried to say something nice. In order to boost Terrell’s confidence, Manny named him cocaptain (along with Kenric). “You have the talent to be a late bloomer,” Manny told Terrell. “You could score 30 points a game.”
In front of the whole team at a practice before the Glenbrook game, Manny said: “I think we have the guy who can stop Collins. And that guy is Redmond.”
Terrell got shivers when he heard that. “I know Coach Weincord really wants to help me. He can be the sweetest man in the world. I don’t mean to blame him for nothin’. I know I got it in me to be special. I just got to find it, that’s all.”
Terrell had big dreams–college, the pros, something more substantial than a playground sensation. He felt he could score on anyone. The opposing players were like that cop who chased him along the subway tracks through the tunnel. Terrell was too fast to get caught then, and he had too much talent to be stopped now.
On Monday the flu bug caught up with Manny. He missed school, but dragged himself out of bed for practice–his face was a yellowish green, his eyes glazed. He remembered to bring the sack of basketballs, which he carried on his back as he shuffled across the gym floor. He looked like Roosevelt’s version of Willy Loman, burdened by the weight of the world.
“I feel like crap,” he said. “I spent the day throwing up.”
He sprawled across three rows of bleachers–his head tilted back, his arms stretched to the sides, his eyes closed.
Sender walked up. “You want me to lead the practice, coach?” he said.
“Can I have the whistle?”
Manny opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. “There’s no whistle,” he said.
Sender was taken aback. “No whistle?”
Manny looked at Sender. “Coach, this is gonna be hard, but I gotta break you the news: the whistle’s gone.”
Sender said nothing, but he understood. He’d have to coach without the whistle. He turned back to the team, determined to carry on.
Manny rolled his eyes. “I’m dyin’ and that putz wants to know about the whistle.”
He lay motionless for a few minutes. There’s no good time to get sick, but this time was worse than most. The Rough Riders were in the middle of their exhibition season. Tomorrow they’d play Senn, two days later it would be Steinmetz–both of them Red North rivals. “The Red teams aren’t always better than the ones in Blue,” Manny said. “We can beat Senn and Steinmetz. We gotta keep workin’ on the four corners in practice.”
But they’d have to do it without him. After laying sprawled over the bleachers for a while, Manny sighed. “That’s it. I give up. I’m goin’ home. If I stay any longer, I’ll only throw up.”
He left as he came, with his head down. Not once did he glance at the players.
But they sure glanced at him. When he had left, when they could no longer hear his footsteps, they rejoiced. Herman needled Kevin and Kevin needled back. A playful slapping match broke out. Stop, Sender demanded. They laughed. Sender pursed his lips. Where was that whistle when you needed it?
“Come on, guys,” David pleaded. And they stopped. Sender gathered them under the basket. “Men, in Coach Weincord’s absence, I’m in charge,” he began. As he talked Kevin stood behind him and made goofy faces. A few players giggled. When Sender turned to look, Kevin abruptly stopped and adopted a solemn expression, as though he were listening intently. Sender turned back and Kevin started making goofy faces again.
The defiance surprised me. The players always had been so well behaved, calling Manny coach and never, ever, questioning his authority. At least to his face. But this looked like mutiny. The teacher was gone and they were alone with the substitute. Party time!
Sender divided them into two teams (with David sitting out) and announced that they would practice the shuffle.
The shuffle was a complicated weave play that Sender admired and Manny resisted. “I like to keep things simple,” Manny had said. “We’ve got enough trouble running the easy plays.”
But Manny was gone and Sender was in charge, so today they would run the shuffle.
“What’s the point?” asked Maceo. “Coach Weincord’s never gonna let us run it in a game.”
“Men!” said Sender.
“But it’s true,” said Herman.
“That’s enough,” said Sender.
“Yes sir, yes sir,” said Kevin, sarcastically saluting Sender.
“Coach Weincord told us to play differently,” said Ronnie.
Sender smiled. “Coach Weincord and I agree on some things and disagree on others. He left me in charge, so do it.”
“But that don’t make sense,” said Ronnie.
“That’s it, White,” Sender said. “Get out. Go to the sidelines. David, come in.”
David rose from the bleachers.
Maceo scowled. “That’s bullshit.”
Ronnie was upset. “Man, you can’t do that,” he said. “We had teams.”
Kevin and Herman joined the chorus of complaints. “Come on Sender,” said Herman, “let us play.”
Emboldened by their support, Ronnie turned defiant. “I’m not leavin’.”
David, who had walked onto the court, raised his hands in exasperation and returned to the bleachers.
“Casas,” said Sender. “I told you to get in the game.”
“Man, you guys figure this out,” said David.
The standoff finally ended when Ronnie, muttering, left the court.
“What’s that you say?” Sender demanded.
“Come on coach,” yelled Terrell. “Why hold up practice for one guy? You have all the rest of us sitting out here.”
Reluctantly Sender turned back to the practice. And the team kind of shuffled through the shuffle. No one hustled. And Kevin continued to make funny faces.
“This stinks,” said Ronnie, watching from the sidelines. “Coach Weincord’s never gonna run this. Why waste our time? We got two big games this week. Two big ones. We got a game tomorrow and we’re running this stuff. I tell you what. Say what you want about Weincord. But he’s been gone only 25 minutes and I already miss him.”
Manny, still sick, missed the game against Senn. In his absence the players continued their insurrection, violating all of his prohibitions: David brought the ball up-court. Herman (head down and oblivious to teammates) recklessly drove for the hoop. Terrell fired up threes. Kenric, frustrated that no one attempted to get him the ball, left his post under the basket and tried an outside shot. Not once did they run anything remotely resembling a play. Despite a few clutch steals and baskets by Mario, the Rough Riders lost 68 to 56, and their record fell to 2-5.
Poor Sender. The players rolled their eyes at his pep talks, ignored his instructions, and then blamed him for the loss.
Only eight guys showed up for practice. They didn’t practice free throws or run sprints, and their raggedy 45-minute practice ended after Sender dismissed Sylvester for insubordination. I didn’t even hear what it was that he said.
Not knowing what else to do, I joined Ronnie on the bench and watched Maceo and Herman flex their biceps to see whose was bigger. Maceo won, only Herman said he cheated.
“Jesus, Maceo,” I said, “your arms are like marble slabs.”
Maceo beamed. “I’m a football player first,” he said. “I plan to play in college and, eventually, the NFL. That’s my dream. I’m 6-foot-2 and I weigh 200 pounds, and I plan to put on at least 20 more pounds of muscle.”
“Why bother with basketball at all?”
“‘Cause I love the game and my teammates. I love these guys with all my heart, although they upset me and frustrate me.”
“Do you love Manny?”
“Yes, I do. I love Manny as a coach and a person. I’m gonna miss that man when I leave here. Out of all the people at Roosevelt, I’ll miss him the most. I respect him as a person. He doesn’t hold anything back. He’s not two-faced. He’ll tell you how he feels, and he’ll tell you it to your face. But then, when the chips are down, he’ll be on your side.”
Herman yawned loudly. “Hey, man,” he said to me, cutting Maceo off. “I wanna tell you what’s wrong with the team.”
“OK,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. “Well?” I said.
“Aren’t you gonna take notes?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said, opening my notebook. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“OK. Well, first thing is, we’re good. This same bunch of guys won 24 games two years ago as the frosh-soph team. Now, you can’t do that unless you’re good.”
“So what’s that prove?”
“That Sender can’t coach.”
“Sender? He’s only been your acting coach for a week.”
“Well, I got problems with Weincord, too. He don’t substitute enough. He’s playin’ guys too long. You gotta keep guys fresh. Michael Jordan don’t even play a whole game. I should coach this team.”
“Aw, Herman,” said Maceo, “you just want to play more.”
“That ain’t it, man. That ain’t it at all. I would be sayin’ the same thing if I was playin’ the whole 32 minutes, like David or Terrell.”
“Aw, Herman,” said Maceo, “you can’t coach.”
“I could. Man, I should be doin’ it. We’d be five and two–at least.”
One by one the guys left, until it was just me and Ronnie.
“Wanna go to Burger King?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Sure.”
We took a shortcut, through a side exit and across the barren baseball diamond. It was bitter cold. Ronnie wore no hat, scarf, or gloves, just tucked his hands deep into his pockets. At Burger King he bought a soda and fries.
We talked a little about a lot of things, including literature.
“The last book I read was a biography of Elijah Muhammad,” Ronnie said.
“Did you like it?”
“It was OK, as far as I got. I haven’t finished the whole thing yet, to tell you the truth.”
“Are you a Muslim?”
“No, but I respect them. They don’t take no shit.”
“Have you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X?”
“I was plannin’ to. Then I saw that Spike Lee was makin’ the movie. So I decided to see the movie first.”
I asked him how Kevin Lewis, the junior guard, got his nickname, “Cuz.”
“It’s ’cause Kevin knows everyone–everyone’s his cousin. You be sittin’ with him in a restaurant or somethin’ and some guy comes up and says, ‘Hey, Kev.’ And you say, ‘Hey man, who’s that?’ And Cuz’ll say, ‘Him? Oh, he’s my cousin.'”
I laughed. Then we fell silent. Just sat there, eating french fries and whiling away the time that ought to have been practice.
Manny returned for the home game against Steinmetz, his energy sapped by the flu. He was pale and hoarse. He tried not to yell because yelling made him cough. But it was tough; so many little things infuriated him.
In the middle of the second quarter the scoreboard died and play had to stop. Sender jiggled the cord and the scoreboard flickered back on. But no one really knew why it had stopped or why it had started or whether it would go out again. “That damn thing’s gonna cost us a game sometime,” said Manny.
With 30 seconds left and his team ahead by one, David got the ball about 15 feet from the basket. He faked left and drove right, spinning past his man and forcing Steinmetz’s center to leave his position to cover him. In one smooth move he fired a bullet pass to Maceo, who was wide open near the basket and laid the ball in. It was David at his best, a splendid display of on-court vision and coordination. But it was Maceo who impressed me. It was a pressure shot, and he hadn’t panicked. Roosevelt went on to win 57 to 49 as Terrell scored twice in the final seconds.
After the game, players and fans rushed onto the court and embraced Maceo. “Yes, yes, yes,” Maceo bellowed. “I live for this.”
Manny opened practice with another team talk. “Guys, I know you’re happy you beat Steinmetz. But you made a lot of mistakes in that game. Some of the same mistakes you were makin’ two weeks ago. And then when I yell, you look at me with this hurt look on your face. Well guys, what do you want me to do, hug and kiss you? You say coach gets too angry, well, you bet I’m angry. This is your chance to play basketball and get a free college tuition. And you’re screwing it up.”
He paused, and as he stopped speaking his anger faded and his voice softened. “Is it somethin’ I’ve done? Is it somethin’ I’ve said? Tell me.”
Silence. Manny’s voice got even softer. He was almost pleading. “Come on–we’re like family here.”
Finally Sylvester spoke, slowly and quietly–his words almost choking him as they came out.
“It’s just that, uh, coach, you, uh, your yellin’ takes us out of our game.”
Unfortunately, Manny didn’t understand exactly what Sylvester had said. I think he thought Sylvester was complaining about playing out of position–in this specific case, that Sylvester would rather play forward than guard.
“Is that it, Sylvester?” said Manny. “You guys don’t want to play out of position. I see. OK, I learned something.”
I thought about speaking up and explaining what Sylvester had really meant. But I kept quiet. It wasn’t my place.
No one said anything, all heads looked down. The frosh-soph ruckus took over the gym.
Manny shrugged. “OK guys, the Luther North Christmas tournament’s next. There’s a lot of good teams in that tournament. We can show what we’ve got. Let’s act like this was the first day of practice.”
The team formed a lay-up line and Manny watched from center court. “When I talk to these guys, I talk from my heart,” he said sadly. “They think I’m blowing out of my ass.”
A basketball junkie’s fix–that was the Christmas tournament at Luther North, a private school on the city’s far-northwest side. Sixteen teams, public and private, from city and suburbs. Each team playing four games over six days, with the action going almost around the clock.
Roosevelt’s first opponent, Saint Rita, a perennial football powerhouse, ran a cautious offense and played rugged defense. It was a plodding, defensive struggle. At the half, Saint Rita led 21 to 20.
“They’re stymied, baby,” Manny said, as the team gathered in the locker room. “They thought they’d be beating you by ten, and you’ve got them scared. Your defense is tremendous. I’m proud of you. I love you. Give yourself a hand. We didn’t come here to play–we came here to win!”
But what a frustrating fight for the Rough Riders: lay-ups clanked off the backboard; open jumpers rattled off the rim; and free throws–they missed them all. Or so it seemed. It had to be psychological. The Rough Riders were too good, too smart, to shoot so poorly. Manny, Sender, every coach they’d ever known had told them the same thing about free throws: find your style and keep it. The great free-throw shooters never wavered; they all had their almost mindless routines. But few Rough Riders shot the same way twice. Nor did they take a moment before shooting to relax and collect their thoughts. At one point the team missed eight free throws in a row (including four “one and ones”–you don’t get a second free throw unless you make the first).
Desperately searching for a combination that could score some points, Manny benched several starters at the start of the fourth quarter for Kevin, Ronnie, Sylvester, and Larry. But the subs were nervous and cold. At one point Ronnie was surrounded by defenders, arms in his face, panic in his eyes, Manny’s voice in his ears screeching, “Pass, pass, pass.” He finally lofted a pass, or maybe it was a shot. It fell shy of the basket and bounced out of bounds.
“God damn it, White,” bellowed Manny.
Saint Rita won 49 to 33. It wasn’t going to be a very merry Christmas.
With no games on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, Manny had two days to stew on the loss, and on the headline in the Sun-Times, which just made it worse: “St. Rita crunches Roosevelt.”
“We weren’t crunched,” said Manny. “I’ve seen crunchings. That was no crunching. That game was close until the end.”
It was about 11 AM, an hour before the game against Luther North. Manny sat in the host school’s cafeteria sipping coffee. He watched his players file in, heading for the downstairs locker room.
“Yesterday we got the upstairs locker room,” Manny said. “One loss and they put you in the dungeon.”
He was in a sour mood.
“I’m beginning to take this personally,” he said. “I think they’ve stopped playing for me.”
“Come on, Manny,” I said.
“No, seriously, these shots that they’re missing. These mistakes. I could understand it if they were bad. But they’re too good for that.”
Maceo walked into the cafeteria and Manny called him over. “Mace, I’m startin’ to wonder: have the players stopped playin’ for me?”
Maceo squirmed. He’d been up late with his teammates at a Christmas-night rap party. His mind was fuzzy. Now this. “We don’t have our heads in the game, coach,” he said.
The answer didn’t satisfy Manny. “You see what he said?” Manny said after Maceo left. “Nothin’. And he’s one of the guys I get along with best. He could have said, “Coach, we’re behind you.’ But he didn’t say nothin’. Well the hell with that.”
Suddenly Manny was up and heading toward the back door.
I scampered after him. “Manny, what are you doin’?”
He bustled down the stairs. “I tried to be nice. I tried to understand. It got me nowhere. Sometimes people mistake niceness for weakness. They take advantage of you. They think they can get away with anything they want. They’re just gonna show up when they want to and do what they want to. I can’t let them get away with that.”
He headed down a basement hallway. “They think they can just go through life doing what they please. Show up when they want. Do what they want. Don’t follow directions. They’ll see–the world’s not like that.”
He marched into the locker room, without a hello or how are you to his players, most of them in their jockstraps or underwear.
Manny cleared his throat. “Guys, I’m beginning to take this personally, like you’re not playin’ for me. You don’t want to play, you can turn in your jerseys right now. Because, I’ll be honest with you, you’re not showing me anythin’. You don’t care. You don’t play with pride. You shoot free throws like first-graders. You just go up there and fling away. You don’t set, you don’t take your time. I tell you 100 times how to do things and you still don’t do them.
“See, now maybe some of you don’t think I’m a good coach. Well that’s bullshit. ‘Cause if you don’t want to play for me, you can just turn in your uniforms. I’ll outlast you all. I’m not leavin’ till I’m ready. And your not wantin’ to play for me only makes me want to stay longer. See. I may stay another ten years. I’ll be walkin’ down the halls with a cane–old man Weincord. But I’ll be here.”
With that he left. The players were stunned, their mouths agape. They were hung over. Tired. It wasn’t even noon. They had a game in an hour. And already he was yelling.
“Man, what the hell got into him?” said Herman.
The game against Luther North featured more of the same: more botched shots, more missed free throws, more yelling. At halftime Manny ordered them to practice free throws.
“You do it like this,” he said. He planted his feet at the free-throw line, bounced the ball five times, and threw up a shot. It swished through the net. Manny tried not to show his surprise. “If an old man can do it,” he said, “you can too.”
Midway through the second quarter, Saul Lutwig walked in. Manny had told me about him. Saul was a 70-year-old retired milkman who had known Manny since the 1950s, when they both worked at the Strauss Center. He rarely missed a soccer or basketball game, but for the last few weeks he’d been laid up, recuperating from knee surgery.
It took him five minutes to cross the gym. He walked on crutches. Tough old codger. He looked a lot like Bill Veeck, with his big baggy ears and a jowly face. Manny hugged him.
“Saul, it’s good to see you.”
“Hey, Manny, I saw in the Times you guys got crunched.”
Manny shook his head. “Saul, it’s nice to see you too.”
Saul took a seat behind the bench and kept a patter up for most of the game.
“Geez, Manny, is that Mattox?”
“Yeah. Who do you think it is, Mr. Magoo?”
“He got fat.”
“I said, ‘Yeah.'”
Roosevelt won 52 to 44. But Manny wasn’t satisfied. Neither was Saul. “Missed too many free throws,” he told Manny. “Especially down the stretch. Shouldn’t have been so close.”
Manny shook his head. “Saul, you’re a wonderful man.”
Back they came for game three. Manny was edgy, the team tense. It seemed like he had been mad at them for weeks. Resentment festered in the locker room. The players didn’t laugh. Or crack jokes. Arnie wasn’t there (he was on vacation) to break the tension with his upbeat chatter.
“We won, what does he want?” said Ronnie.
“With him, we can’t do nothin’ right,” Terrell complained.
Maceo sang a mournful dirge: “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.”
“Jesus, Maceo,” cracked Weiss, “you aren’t on a chain gang.”
Their opponents for game three were the Ridgewood Rebels, a slow and cumbersome team from the suburbs. Ridgewood played hard defense–stabbing for the ball, hoping to steal, usually fouling, not caring if they did. They managed to stay close, but Mario sank a clutch three-pointer and Herman hit two free throws; with a minute left, Manny looked relieved.
“Not a bad effort,” he told the players on the bench. “When the clock hits 30 seconds stand up and give the guys a hand.”
Just then a husky guard named Bob Amelio slammed into Terrell. Amelio was going for a steal, and he missed. Terrell should have shrugged it off. Ordinarily he would have. But he’d been shrugging them off through the whole tournament and now he was tired. Tired of being hacked, tired of being held, tired of the shellacking he routinely received from his slower, more cumbersome opponents. And most of all, tired of not getting the calls.
He lost control.
He elbowed Amelio. Hit him hard in the back, just above the kidney. Amelio collapsed and for a split second no one moved. Then a student from Roosevelt (whose name I never learned) leaped from the stands and stood above Amelio, taunting him, saying that Terrell had kicked his butt.
Up in the stands a woman in a green Ridgewood windbreaker began screaming: “He’s laughing at my boy.”
The Rebels and the Rough Riders rushed from the benches. One team was black, the other team white. We were heading for a nasty confrontation.
The coaches–Manny and Ridgewood’s Ron Kalina–quickly intervened. They corralled their players. Sender pulled the taunter back to the stands. Terrell was ejected from the game, banished from the gym. The two teams were ready to take the floor. And still Amelio didn’t get up.
He was having convulsions; his moans were muffled because his cheek was flat against the floor. Kalina applied an ice pack to his back.
The crowd hushed. Someone called for an ambulance. Two paramedics arrived. They unfolded a wheelchair.
“Who’s got his clothes?” Kalina asked.
A skinny kid from the Ridgewood team held up a green and white satchel. Gingerly, Amelio rose to his knees. The paramedics eased him into the wheelchair. They wheeled him out the door and drove him to a hospital.
The game continued. Someone hit some free throws, someone scored a three. The 30-second mark came and went; no one stood. No one cheered. Roosevelt won 50 to 41.
Terrell, fully dressed, waited in the stairwell leading to the lockers.
“Terrell,” I asked, “what happened?”
“I don’t know. It happened so fast. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I feel awful, man, I feel terrible.”
He tried to apologize to Kalina, but the coach refused to shake his hand.
Manny, meanwhile, followed Kalina downstairs and stood with him outside the Ridgewood locker room.
“Really, coach, I’m really sorry, very sorry,” he said. “I make no alibis. If there’s anything I can do, I’ll do it.”
Kalina lit a cigarette. He took a long drag. “Forget it, Manny. It wasn’t your fault.”
I was sort of hoping that Manny would give it up after that. Go home for the night. Not Manny. Not yet.
He stormed back to the locker room and kicked open the door. Once again the players stood before him in their underwear and jockstraps. They looked angry and hurt. The whole damn tournament had been nothing but torment and humiliation. I remembered what Manny’s father had told him about getting punched in the face. I figured this was it: how much more could the team take? I wondered who would take the first swing. If there was a fight, Manny didn’t stand a chance. He didn’t have many friends in the room.
But Manny was fearless. He stood in that cramped, stinky locker room, amid a dozen sweaty young men a third his age and twice his size. This little man, almost 60 years old. His gray hair falling over his forehead. His face contorted. His body trembling. His neck veins bursting. And he called them a bunch of gutless cowards. He said that what they did was far worse than losing. He said that they had tarnished their reputations and disgraced their school. He said that the next player who threw a punch would be banished from the team.
He told them: “I’ll start a team of girls and freshmen before I put up with any bullshit like this.”
And then he stopped, his mouth quivering, almost daring them to say something in response. They said nothing. No one moved.
He waited a moment, pivoted, and left as furiously as he had entered, the door banging hard behind him.
Part II (December 4, 1992)
Arnold “Arnie” Kamen
(born April 21, 1933)
Time wasted was opportunity lost–a lesson Arnie Kamen learned long ago. Which is why he always moved fast, his eye on the clock, his day organized around the setting of goals and the completion of tasks.
He grew up in Albany Park, in an apartment at the corner of Hamlin and Montrose–about six blocks from Roosevelt High School and just down the street from his classmate Mandel “Manny” Weincord, who went on to become coach of Roosevelt’s basketball and soccer teams. Arnie’s father, Harry, was a wholesale liquor salesman. His mother, Belle, ran the house. By the time he was 29, Arnie had graduated from Roosevelt, spent two years in the Army, graduated college, married, had one child (the first of seven), bought a house in the suburbs, and started a business on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“I was always good with numbers, always had a head for quick calculations. We traded butter and egg futures. You didn’t have to know the product. You have guys trading soybeans, most of them have never even seen a soybean. You have to be quick on your feet.”
Within a few years he was operating his own clearing company, which meant customers could trade directly through his firm. Eventually he owned seats on five exchanges, including the New York Coffee and Sugar Exchange and the New York Cotton Exchange, and operated offices in 11 cities. He bought a bigger house, put his kids through college, traveled around the world, made shrewd investments, built his own little fortune, and became one of Roosevelt High School’s many rags-to-riches success stories.
There were a lot of them, particularly in Arnie’s class, the class of 1950. At reunions they told and retold their triumphs. One graduate, Howard Lazar, conducted an informal survey of their achievements. According to Lazar, the class contains 72 millionaires, 15 lawyers, 14 doctorates, 7 authors, 6 doctors, 5 certified public accountants, 5 aerospace engineers, 3 judges, 2 newspaper columnists, one entertainer, and a rabbi.
“Considering that there were only 280 of us to start with, I’d say we have done well!” Lazar wrote in an article for the Jewish United Fund News. “We were born at the height of the Depression. Our parents were foreign born or first-generation Americans. We grew up during World War II, a period of unrest, turbulence, and change. We were hungry for all America had to offer. Hungry for the security that wealth and position could bring. So we marched down the hall on Wilson Avenue, got our diplomas, and went out to conquer the world.”
In their hunger, their rush to conquer the world, most left Roosevelt and Albany Park far behind. But there are still some ties. The school’s principal, Jack Sherman, and several teachers (including Manny Weincord and Don Weiss) are Roosevelt graduates. There’s an alumni association. Regular reunions. Old-timer basketball games.
And a newsletter, the “Roosevelt Alumni News,” published by Al Klein, the school’s former football coach. It consists of bubbly blurbs, melancholy reminiscences, and cheery updates extracted from the hundreds of letters sent to Klein from Roosevelt graduates across the country.
In one issue, Tom Sigrist, a dentist from the class of ’65, wrote that he and his wife had spent two years “serving our Lord as missionaries in the jungles of Peru.”
Irwin Schulman (class of ’59) wrote: “Had a great time at the All School Reunion. Hope you have forgiven me for going offsides against Englewood down at the five-yard line at Solider Field.”
Benton Curtis (class of ’27) wrote: “I am eighty years old and my memory fails in many ways, but I will never forget moving from then Hibbard High School (a temporary school while Roosevelt was being built). We actually carried the chemistry lab on our laps while being driven to the new school. It’s too bad that the person who could have written about that period is long gone. That was Nelson Algren (known as Nelson Abraham in school), writer of The Man With the Golden Arm. Basketball being our only major sport, it drove us wild when our lightweight team won the city championship. That was possibly one of the greatest years of our lives. As seniors in the new building we were floating on air–the school was not completely finished and we stumbled over boards and bags but it was ours. We felt close to the other students and thought a great deal of our teachers. Even with my bad memory, I still remember them all, even most of their names.”
Arnie Kamen was one of Roosevelt’s sentimental alums. He subscribed to Al Klein’s newsletter and attended the old-timer basketball games and reunions. And yet as the years rode by he came to the realization that reminiscing about the old days wasn’t enough. After every reunion, he–like the others–returned to the suburbs, went back to his office, went on with his life. Arnie decided he wanted to do more. Much more was needed. He owed it to the school–he owed it to the kids.
He wandered through the old building and he felt something was wrong. The halls were clean. The school was safe. Order was kept. But some essential spirit was missing. He was determined to bring it back.
It was all part of a larger effort to change his own life, to spend his time “doing something more important.” He left the Merc. He rented his seats. He spent more time with his family and more time at Roosevelt.
“I walked down the halls and when I saw those kids I saw myself 40 years ago. I started thinking about where I was and where I had been and all the time that had passed. As I got older I realized that I was lucky. I’ve had a good life and it all started at Roosevelt.”
As Arnie saw it, he and his classmates had prospered because they were confident about their future. They believed that Roosevelt was preparing them for success. They saw Roosevelt as their gateway to a greater world outside of Albany Park.
The school nurtured them. Gave them spirit and pride. He remembered the great games against Von Steuben. What a rivalry. Von was just a few blocks away from Roosevelt. They were as close as any two high schools in the city. Two Jewish schools at a time when basketball was still a very Jewish game. The gym filled with noisy, partisan students, parents, and neighborhood kids–grade-schoolers–who idolized the players, knew their names and numbers by heart.
Arnie never saw kids at the games anymore. Rarely saw parents either. The games started at 3:15 PM, when many parents were working. Even if the school system could afford to open the gyms at night, it wouldn’t–for fear of crime.
“My generation didn’t have money, we didn’t have connections, but we had pride in ourselves and pride in our school. You’d go to a game and you’d see the people in the stands and you’d hear their cheers and you’d sing the school song and you’d swell with pride and feel part of a larger tradition. You shared the spirit. It gave you self-confidence. That’s what it’s all about. Self-confidence. That’s what gets people motivated to go out there and conquer the world!”
Arnie could see that the Roosevelt students of today lacked that confidence. They didn’t have the edge his generation had. They weren’t basking in the glow of a U.S. victory in a world war. Roosevelt was still a gateway to life, but the future didn’t glow as bright as it had for the class of 1950. The world looked elsewhere–to the suburbs–for the next generation of leaders.
So Arnie decided that, if nothing else, he would lead the cheers. He would be a one-man bridge linking the Roosevelt of yesteryear with the Roosevelt of today.
“We were the fortunate generation. We grew up in a world where we were happy, and then our generation screwed up the world. Most of us said we will give to our children all the things that we did not have. So we gave them the cars and TV sets and the trips to Europe. And yet we forgot to give them the one thing we did have: happiness. That’s what I want these kids at Roosevelt to have more of. I want to give these kids pride in their school that they might transfer to themselves.”
Arnie launched his campaign at a Roosevelt basketball game in the 1990-91 season. He climbed to the top of the bleachers, where he couldn’t be avoided, and asked all those around him–all six or seven students–to join him in the school song.
“What song?” one kid asked.
“What song!” Arnie exclaimed. “Why it’s only the greatest school song for the greatest school in the whole world. Jerry Bressler wrote it, and he was a Roosevelt graduate who went on to have a big career in Hollywood. He did music for the Jackie Gleason Show.”
Some kids giggled. Others stared wide-eyed in amazement, as though Arnie were from Mars. And, indeed, he might as well have been trying to bridge an interplanetary generation gap. They didn’t know from Jackie Gleason, let alone Jerry Bressler.
“I told them, ‘If you won’t join me, fine, I’ll sing it myself.'”
And so he did, unabashedly loud and slightly off key.
“Go on you Rough Riders go, go Roosevelt, go / Wave, wave your banners high / For V-i-c-t-o-r-y! / So go you Rough Riders go, go Roosevelt, go / We all are true to the gold and blue / So go Rough Riders, go / The gold and blue shall wave forever high / Our Alma Mater, shout it to the sky / Rough Riders show our spirit, / All shall fear it, go, go / Go Roosevelt, go / We all are true, to the gold and blue, / So go Rough Riders, go!”
He sang that song at every game he attended, sometimes accompanying himself with a recording he played on a cheap plastic tape recorder he’d borrowed from his son. Sometimes he’d cajole Manny or Jack Sherman into joining him.
“After I had been doing this for a while, I noticed that the kids were sitting on the other side of the gym. I walked over there and said, ‘Oh no, you guys can’t get rid of me that fast.'”
And he sang the song again–louder.
It was an odd sight to behold–a lone middle-aged Jewish guy singing in a crowd of black teenagers. But race wasn’t an issue. It was rarely mentioned. Once Arnie saw Mario Ramos, a senior guard on the basketball team, reading a copy of The Final Call, Minister Louis Farrakhan’s newspaper. “How can you admire Farrakhan?” Arnie implored.
Mario stood firm. “He’s a great leader.”
“But he’s anti-Semitic.”
“No, no. That’s got nothing to do with what he’s all about.”
Eventually they pretty much agreed to disagree. There were no racial or religious slurs–then or ever. Maybe the kids didn’t understand Arnie’s mission. Or his message. Or the world from which he came. Or why he was there. But they weren’t rude. They treated him a little like they treated me: without curiosity. They accepted his presence, no questions asked.
Arnie became a regular at the basketball games (girls’ and boys’ teams) as well as at soccer, track, swimming, softball, and baseball events. He wore his blue and gold Rough Riders sweatshirt and cheered until his voice was hoarse, his cheeks were flushed, and his sandy bangs flopped over his sweaty brow. Aside from one or two scouts, he was usually the only adult in the stands.
At the start of the 1991-92 school year he went to Jack Sherman with a plan. He was going to initiate a mass mailing to raise as much as $100,000 for a Roosevelt athletic fund.
Great, said the principal.
With the money to be used for equipment, uniforms, and fees for summer training camps and tournaments.
And now there’s one small thing I need from you.
I want these kids to learn the school song. I want it taught to them in music class. I want a recording made and then played over the loudspeakers at least once a day, maybe during homeroom–I’ll leave the details to you. I want song sheets distributed to every student. And I want to have a mandatory pep rally–maybe before the Lane game. I’ll bring some alumni and together we and the students will sing the song.
Sherman was skeptical. He wanted to be polite. He wanted to be appreciative. But it was a lot of extra work. As if running a public high school wasn’t demanding enough. “I love his spirit, but times have changed,” said Sherman. “This is a different day and age, and songs don’t matter so much.”
One day Manny raised the issue while they were watching practice. “Listen, Arnie, this business about the song. It’s not like when we went to school. You can’t press it.”
“What, are these kids stupid?” snapped Arnie.
“It’s not that.”
“Did we learn the song?”
“Then they can learn the song.”
So the conversation ended. Arnie wouldn’t budge. He had a goal. Don’t tell him it couldn’t be done. He had no tolerance for delay. He was used to the pace of the traders’ pit, where a second of indecision could cost millions.
There was so much to do. Phone calls to make. Letters to mail. Money to raise. Pep rallies to plan. And so little time to do it. He called the school two, three, sometimes four times a day. He visited at least once a week. He could be a persistent pain in the neck. He knew that, but he didn’t care. He badgered Sherman into piping the song into the classrooms once a day. “It’s a start,” Arnie said. “But the music’s not loud enough.”
He taught the school song to his wife, children, and friends. He enlisted Marvin Levin, an old classmate, to go with him door-to-door, seeking contributions from local merchants. He solicited funds from friends and classmates he hadn’t seen in years. He reminded them of the school motto: “You can if you will for Roosevelt.” By the start of the 1991-92 school year, he had raised about $4,000, enough to buy new backboards, uniforms, and a video camera. He put a plaque on the gym wall, thanking and naming the alumni whose donations had paid for the backboards.
“It’s a token of appreciation. We didn’t build a hospital. You start small, you work your way up. You’ve got to give kovid [honor] to people. You’ve got to make them feel good.”
He was as busy as he’d ever been. He’d rush into the gym having been out and about all day, juggling three or four different deals at once, and head straight for the phone in Manny’s office.
“Who you callin’?” I asked him one day.
“Leo Melamed–the guy who used to run the Merc?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“You’re gonna call him? Why would some rich guy like that care about Roosevelt?”
He gave me a look of impatient disgust. “Because he went here, silly. Class of ’50. I’ve known him since our freshman year. He was one of us then and he still is.”
Melamed donated $100 to the athletic fund.
“I asked for $100 and that’s what he gave. He did it for Roosevelt. You can if you will for Roosevelt. You’re never too good to lend someone a hand. Those kids in the suburbs–you don’t think anyone ever helps them?”
After the debacle at the Luther North tournament, the team had a week off for Christmas. Manny stayed away from the school–he didn’t see his players and they didn’t see him.
The players slept late. They partied. They worked. Most of them had part-time jobs. Herman Carey and Kevin Lewis worked at one Burger King, Maceo Tillman at another; David Casas, the long senior forward, worked at a sub shop and Larry Wall at a Taco Bell; Ronnie White worked at a shoe store, Mario Ramos at a copy shop.
They came back refreshed. “Great to see you, coach,” said Kevin as he charged into the gym.
“Great to see you, Cuz,” Manny said.
The casual camaraderie perplexed me. I wondered what happened to all of that hostility from the last week of December. Things were so strained between Manny and his team, I feared that one of the kids was going to deck him.
But they all seemed to have forgotten about it. “What, I’m gonna hold a grudge?” said Manny. Things had worked out reasonably well. After the ugly incident against Ridgewood, the Rough Riders closed the tournament with a victory over Morton. They were six and six. Bob Amelio, the Ridgewood kid who’d been laid out by Terrell Redmond’s elbow, wasn’t hurt: he had checked out of the hospital a few hours after the game. Now Manny was upbeat. “On Wednesday Arnie’s got his pep rally and we have the big game against Lane–the start of the Blue North season,” Manny said. “Think of today as the first practice of a new year.”
Then Herman burst into the gym. Talking a mile a minute. Something about David Casas. A fight. Sociology class. “The boy’s crazy, coach, he’s crazy.”
Manny didn’t know what Herman was talking about.
It became apparent soon enough, however, when the sociology teacher stopped by to give his account: David and Herman had been quarreling over something having to do with the team, which led to a crude and loud exchange of obscenities, with Herman making a crack or two about Hispanics.
“Aw, geez,” said Manny.
“I had to send Herman to the office, coach. I don’t want to complain. But it got out of hand.”
Manny sighed. “Listen, don’t apologize. You did the right thing. I apologize. Really. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior.”
After the teacher left, Manny ordered the team into the basement locker room for a meeting–a special meeting.
They clumped down the stairs and lined up on a bench while Manny slowly paced back and forth before them, his shoes squeaking on the shiny white marble-tile floor.
“Well, well, well,” he began. “So I hear we had a fight. And geez, well, I guess I was under a misconception. I guess I thought we were family. I guess I thought we were friends.”
He stopped pacing and faced them directly, his voice toughening. “I don’t want to do it, but fellas, if I have to, I’ll pull one of you aside and say, ‘You’re hurtin’ the team, hand in your jersey.’ See. What I’m sayin’, fellas, is that this has got to stop.”
He looked at Herman, whose account of the argument had differed substantially from the sociology teacher’s. “And another thing. Don’t try to bullshit the old coach. OK? You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. You may aggravate me. But you won’t fool me.”
He started pacing again. “Now I also hear there were some ethnic remarks. I don’t like that. You know, a few years back people said, ‘Coach, your school is 98 percent white, how come your team is black?’ I said, ‘They are?’ See, I don’t see race. I see people. When it comes to minorities, I belong to the oldest minority in the world–the Jews. I don’t appreciate ethnic remarks, ’cause I know what it’s like to hear them.
“Another thing. Your choice of language. You guys are basketball players. People look up to you. How would you like to hear that in front of your sister or mother?”
He stopped pacing. “I’m in the twilight years of coachin’. It’s been a long time. You know, when I started I was six feet tall and 300 pounds.”
He paused for laughter. A few guys grunted.
“Now fellas, I don’t have to tell you that we got a big game comin’ up against Lane. Their coach, John Lewis, I’ve known him for years. They got a great scorer in that guard, David Kaplan. The experts say we can’t beat them, but I know we can. Except we can’t beat them if we’re fightin’ ourselves. So OK, fellas, look, kiss and make up. You have to think like a team. Let’s go out and make it a good, happy, worthwhile season.”
Afterward David refused to accept Herman’s apologies. “I’ll never play with him again,” David said. “Never.”
“This looks serious,” I told Manny.
Manny scoffed. “Aah, these are high school kids. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow.”
At Arnie’s urging, seven graduates from the class of ’50 showed up for the pep rally and the big game: Howard Lazar, Jerry Wolf, Bruce Mertz, Howard Rudy, Sid Retsky, Al Zelinsky, and Gene Helfand.
They arrived at the school about an hour before tip-off, each in his own way looking a little gray, stoop-shouldered, and lost. Arnie greeted them outside the front office and escorted them to the gym. He showed them the new backboards and the plaque with their names. He introduced them to the players. He walked them to the auditorium for the mandatory assembly where about 300 juniors and seniors were waiting.
The alumni sat in metal folding chairs on the stage and watched while Eldevon Malcolm, the print shop teacher, called on Manny and the team. When the team took the stage, the crowd roared. It was hard to tell if the roar was facetious, but onstage, under the lights, with the cheers cascading down, it didn’t much matter. Their first pep rally–you could wait a lifetime for a moment like this. The players wore their uniforms. They were loose and giggly. They tickled each other. They waved to friends.
“Thank you for your support; we need support,” said Manny. “We can’t stay long because we’ve got to practice. We’ve got Lane waiting for us in the gym. It’s a big game, a real big game. If you can make it, we’d love to have you.”
Manny introduced each player by name. They stepped forward, took a bow, then dashed from the stage, down the hallway and toward the gym.
Then it was Arnie’s turn. He asked his classmates to rise. “We graduated in June 1950,” he said. “We must be smart because we’re still here.”
He paused. “We’re here for one reason and one reason alone. We love you guys. We’re committed to Roosevelt. And we want to help you in any way we can.”
He led his friends off the stage. They walked up the aisles and shook hands with the students, who looked startled to see them up close.
Coach Jerry Taylor and the girls’ basketball team took a bow. Former football coach Al Klein offered a brief history of the school song. “You should be proud of this song,” he said. “It belonged to me, and it belonged to them [the graduates], and it belongs to you because it’s the Roosevelt song, and you’re part of Roosevelt and that makes you special.”
Music teacher Harriet Moore and the beginning girls’ choir assembled onstage. Arnie took the mike. He stood before a sea of faces: gum chewing, giggling, yawning, chattering, snickering, and scowling. All races, all ethnic groups. He’d been preparing for this moment for months.
He nodded to the choir and they started to sing: “Go on you Rough Riders go, go Roosevelt, go . . . ”
I’d heard Arnie sing that song countless times–on the phone, in the gym, in front of the local school council–but never had I heard him sing it with such emotion and pride. Some of the class clowns in the front rows giggled and made faces. Arnie didn’t pay them any attention. He reached down to the mushy part of his heart and sang so tears came to his eyes.
A lot of the kids joined in. They didn’t know the words, but they had Arnie’s song sheets. As he sang, they sang. Soon almost everyone onstage was singing: the print shop teacher, the music teacher, the graduates, Coach Klein, Jack Sherman.
After that the assembly ended and at least 100 students (whites, Hispanics, and Asians as well as blacks) made their way to the gym. They filled the bleachers, the largest crowd of the year. They inspired the Rough Riders, who climaxed their lay-up drills with a series of crowd-pleasing dunks.
Sherman dug up an old hand-held microphone and Manny found an extension cord and Arnie introduced the starters, identifying them by streets in Albany Park: “From Central Park and Sunnyside, David Casas; from Kimball and Leland, Anthony Garner . . . ”
The players laughed and clapped and they gathered around Manny. Herman turned to Terrell Redmond, the cocaptain and star senior guard. “Whatever you do, stay in Kaplan’s face. Don’t give him no room and he can’t hurt you with that shot.”
“I believe in you,” Manny told the team. “I believe in you.” They scored the first two baskets. Terrell led the way. He drove the baseline. He nailed his jumper. He blocked a shot. He made a steal.
Lane’s big shooter, David Kaplan, turned out to be a stocky redhead with a buzz cut. He wasn’t fast. He couldn’t shake Terrell. After one quarter Kaplan was scoreless and Roosevelt led 17 to 8.
They broke huddle for the second quarter with confidence. “Come on, guys,” screamed David, “it’s show time.”
And then the scoreboard died. Play stopped. The players sat on the bench or on the floor or stood to the side with their hands on their hips. Sender, the assistant coach, and Hutch, the frosh-soph coach, and Herman and Eddie Kroger and Jack Sherman–they all took their turns jiggling the wires and poking at the computer keyboard that fed the scoreboard. Nothing worked. Sherman blamed the plug; Herman blamed the wiring; Manny blamed his old friend Saul Lutwig, a retired milkman who rarely missed a game.
“Damnit, Saul, quit steppin’ on the cord,” Manny snapped.
“I didn’t step on nothin’,” Saul retorted. “Honest, Manny.”
After a ten-minute delay, the scoreboard went back on. Like magic–no one knew how or why. Play resumed, but the Rough Riders had lost their momentum. Particularly Terrell. He forced a shot and got called for charging. He turned tentative. He forgot to front Kaplan, who suddenly scored back-to-back threes.
“I told you, man, you gotta stick that guy,” Herman screamed from the bench. “He’s too smart. You can’t give him any room.”
Kaplan’s buckets keyed an 11-point run and Lane took the lead.
Then the scoreboard stopped again. The refs, Lane coach John Lewis, Efrain, the Roosevelt team manager–now they tried wiggling the cord. Nothing worked.
“I think Arnie staged this,” Gene Helfand wisecracked.
“Hey, Arnie, are you gonna hit us up for a new scoreboard?” added Howard Lazar.
The gym filled with the murmur of time-killing chatter. The graduates sat in an even line in the second row (behind Manny). Kevin, Terrell, and David sat on the floor. Ronnie entertained everyone with his imitation of Manny. Herman laughed so hard he almost fell off the bench. Amthal Fakhoury, a frosh-soph guard, read his English assignment–until Eddie Kroger nabbed his book.
“Hmm, big book for a little boy,” said Eddie as he held up Amthal’s copy of The Scarlet Letter.
“Hey man, gimme that book back,” Amthal insisted.
“Boy, you can have it. I read that book last year. The moral is that women ain’t no good.”
“You didn’t read it.”
“Did too. The minister did it.”
Fifteen minutes passed and still the scoreboard didn’t work. Manny, Coach Lewis, and the referees caucused at center court. They decided that maybe the keyboard was broken. Someone said that there was another keyboard just like it at Immaculate Heart of Mary, a girls’ Catholic school not too far away. An assistant coach from Lane offered to drive over there and borrow the keyboard. Manny and Lewis agreed to finish the half without a scoreboard.
So the game continued with Sender standing at half court, a stopwatch in his hand. After a basket everyone asked everyone else for the score. Or how much time was left. Players on both teams kept calling out to Sender, “Hey man, how much time?”
At the half, Roosevelt led by one. Manny took them into the hallway for a pep talk. “Play hard, play tough,” he said. “Play like this is the most important half of your life.”
And they did. Both teams played ferociously. They drove to the basket. They skidded on their knees across the floor. They pushed and shoved and grunted and groaned. The lead bounced back and forth, neither side dominating, until a chubby kid with jet-black hair slipped off a screen, caught a Kaplan pass, and snapped the net with a high-arcing three.
“Who’s that?” I asked the scorekeeper.
“Rivera–Victor Rivera. He’s a senior guard.”
I’d never heard of him. But in the next four or five minutes Rivera looked like the best pure three-point shooter I’d seen all year, Chris Collins included. He hit four threes in succession–each shot a perfect rainbow arc–building Lane’s lead to ten. Smelling victory, Coach Lewis unleashed the full-court press.
Manny countered with Kevin–Cuz, the slashing guard. Body low, dribble quick, slicing through the press, dishing to the big men–Anthony, Larry, Kenric Mattox–the crowd chanting “Cuz, Cuz, Cuz.” But no matter how daringly Kevin drove, Lane held the lead. Roosevelt’s shots weren’t falling, not even the lay-ups. And they missed free throws, too.
With 1:38 remaining Lane scored to build their lead to 12, 66 to 54.
“Game’s over,” said Eddie Kroger.
I turned to him. “Not yet,” I said.
Eddie shook his head. “Is so. Damn. And we had ’em, too.”
No one seemed to notice Sylvester Turner, up off the bench for the final two minutes. He got the ball and took a shot. A desperation three. Just sort of heaved it–out of anger and frustration–still mad at Manny for not playing him more. It went in.
Then Herman stole the ball–slapped it away from Kaplan. He fed Sylvester, who nailed another three. It was 66 to 60 and in the stands we were roaring. Herman fouled a baby-faced forward, sending him to the line for a one and one. The noise was deafening–we stomped, shrieked, yodeled, whistled, rattled our keys. The kid’s shot bounced off the rim. Larry rebounded and passed to Kevin, who dribbled up-court and passed to Sylvester, who was wide open in the corner just behind the three-point line. Sylvester’s shot slipped through the net. 66-63. Utter pandemonium. In the bleachers students were jumping up and down. The old-timers were hugging one another. I was pounding Eddie Kroger on the back.
“I told you, I told you.”
“OK, OK. I believe.”
Back came Lane and once again Roosevelt fouled. And once again the baby-faced kid had to face the din. He looked terrified, standing alone on the line. As he bounced the ball the crowd noise grew louder–a steady roar, rattling the backboards, vibrating the walls. The shot clanked off the rim. Kenric rebounded, passed to Herman, who passed it to, yes, Sylvester, wide open once again, who launched a three.
From where I stood, it looked perfect: rising, arcing, falling gently–falling from the ceiling, heading for the net. I felt happy for Sylvester. How many times had he dreamed about taking this, the last-second shot? And now he was going to tie the game at 66 . . .
Oh well. It spun round the rim and fell out. I couldn’t believe it didn’t go in. Lane rebounded and the game ran its course. Kaplan went to the line. Gritty little senior. He hit his free throws–damn the noise.
The final was 70 to 63.
Suddenly everyone had to leave. The crowd was clotted trying to squeeze through the door. The game had gone on for almost two hours, what with all the scoreboard delays. Everyone had other things to do. Soon it was just me, Saul, and Manny, alone in Manny’s office. Manny, the phone cradled against his neck, on hold with City News, was going over the score book.
“Saul,” Manny said, “these numbers don’t add up.”
“Don’t blame me, Manny, your scorer added ’em up. I know how to add. I went to Crane, I didn’t go to Roosevelt.”
Saul looked at me and winked. Manny grunted. I said: “You would have beat ’em, Manny, if not for that scoreboard.”
He nodded: “When it went off, we lost our momentum.”
A few seconds passed. “What the hell, they gave it their best,” Manny said. “That’s high school basketball. Sooner or later, it’s gonna break your heart.”
He was still on hold with City News when I left the room a few minutes later.
At home, in bed, I thought about the day for hours: Arnie. The song. The alumni. The players, gooey-eyed and giggly as they stood under the lights. The big game, a great game, epitomizing everything magical about basketball. Thirty-two minutes of heart-pounding action–everything happening so fast, faster almost than the clock itself–building to one last shot. Sylvester’s shot. And it rolled out. I couldn’t believe it. I could still see it, too: a rainbow jumper, falling from the ceiling. I lay awake wondering what might have happened had it gone in.
The gym at Von Steuben was so small, the bleachers extended onto the playing floor; players going up and down the court had to dodge the feet of their teammates sitting on the bench.
This was supposed to be a big game–a 1990s enactment of a venerable rivalry between two high schools only a few blocks apart. I counted about 70 fans crowded into the four rows of bleachers that ran along the wall across from the Roosevelt bench. Their cheers and chants reverberated off the marble walls. It was like playing basketball in a tin can.
The Rough Riders were taller, stronger, and faster than Von, but the loss to Lane had bled them of energy and smarts. Von (three and ten coming into the game) scored first, and with each basket their confidence rose. Kenric didn’t play (sore foot). Terrell bombed away futilely. Anthony got a two-shot technical for hanging on the rim. David fouled out. At one point Roosevelt failed to advance the ball across half-court in five consecutive tries. Manny screamed.
The gym heated up as the game wore on. I took off my sweater and rolled up my sleeves. Von’s lead hit 30 and their fans were ecstatic–stomping, hooting, howling–raising a racket that pounded against my brain. Across the gym, a few girls from Von and a few boys from Roosevelt exchanged obscenities. Nothing serious. Just a little “suck this” and “lick that.” I would see them fraternizing in the hallway after the game.
Roosevelt lost 80 to 53. Manny drifted through the locker room too disappointed and demoralized to yell. The Rough Riders dressed alongside a bunch of skinny white boys, members of Von’s swimming team. One Roosevelt student, his baseball cap tilted to the side, menacingly glared at the swimmers. “Hey, Weincord,” he said. “Want me to kick their ass?”
Great judgment, I thought. Just what we need–a locker-room brawl between whites and blacks. Manny didn’t hear him. Just as well. He muttered some platitudes to his players, but his heart wasn’t in it. No one was listening. No one seemed to care.
Arnie’s new uniforms arrived today and lifted everyone’s spirits. As the senior cocaptain, Terrell got first crack at them. For a moment he stared at the pile of new shirts and shorts on Manny’s desk. They seemed to glitter–so clean and fresh, every stitch in place, the gold lettering bright, the shorts Michael Jordan long.
“Stylin’ clothes,” said Terrell.
Manny leaned back in his chair. “Maybe they’ll help our free throws. Nothin’ else works.”
Terrell sifted through the pile. He was searching for number 23–Jordan’s number. He found it and picked it up.
“Look at Terrell,” snickered Kevin. “He wanna be like Mike.”
Terrell put the jersey down. Kevin’s smile faded. “Hey man, I didn’t mean nothin’.”
Terrell rummaged through the pile, coming back to 23. He scooped it up and darted from the room. On his way out, Kevin slapped him a high five.
One by one each of them picked through the pile. “Whatever you do, guys, try not to wear the shirts all the time, OK?” Manny cracked. “Some of you guys probably wanna wear them to bed.”
The guys laughed. Then they gathered along the bleachers to argue about who looked the best in the new duds.
“Manny, you’re amazing,” I said. “Where do you get your energy to put up with this stuff, even after that Von game?”
He smiled. “I’m like the Old Man in the Sea. You keep fightin’, or you drown.”
“But after the way they played against Von, why reward them with new uniforms?”
He bristled. “What, I should send the uniforms back and kick them off the team for losing a game? Whether they’re 24 and 4, or 4 and 24, I’m still the coach and they’re still my team. See. Everyone always wants to know about the winners. Oh sure, the papers wanna give all the headlines to the winners. But what about the kids who don’t win? What, they don’t matter?
“So maybe I should be Bobby Knight–Mr. Hardass. I should kick them off for missin’ a practice. Then what? They wander around the halls. They drop out. Wonderful solution.
“Look, these aren’t bad kids. OK, they do somethin’ stupid sometimes. They screw up. Sometimes I have to yell, sometimes I have to stroke their backs. Half the time I’m not even sure I know what I’m doin’. Then ten years later some guy comes up and says, ‘Hey, coach, remember me? I’m a cop. You helped straighten me out.’ I think, geez, he was the world’s biggest jagoff. I helped him? I coulda swore he never heard a word I said.”
The Rough Riders beat Amundsen 75-56. David shut down Amundsen’s star center–a 6-foot-8 Yugoslavian immigrant named Haris Mujezinovic–even blocking a few of his shots.
Terrell scored 26 points, twice slipping past his man for baseline dunks. In the stands was a free-lance talent scout for several junior colleges. “All the scouts know about King High School,” he said. “My clients want to know about the guys playing for Roosevelt or Amundsen.”
“So which Roosevelt kid impressed you the most?” I asked, certain he would name Terrell.
“Well, I knew about Kenric already, so he wasn’t a surprise. I’d say Wall, your back-up center.”
“Yeah, Larry Wall.”
“But he hardly played.”
“I know, but he’s 6-foot-6. Coaches like tall guys. They’re closer to the basket.”
“But, but, but . . . David.”
“Oh, I like Casas. What’s he, 6-foot-5? He’ll play somewhere next year.”
He shrugged. “What’s he, 6-2? I don’t know. He’s gotta bulk up and work on his defense.”
“But did you see the way he drove the baseline?”
“Hey, in college all the guards can do that. You have to ask yourself what’s he gonna do when he turns that corner and finds himself face-to-face with a 6-foot-8 leaper?”
I felt a burst of sympathy for Terrell. By the time I was 17, I had long dropped any delusions of a career in sports; I was too slow, soft, and small for that. But Terrell was strong and fast enough to be part of the mad, desperate scramble–a million black kids trying to run, jump, and shoot their way to the top. Watching from the sidelines and tracking with almost sadistic fascination which ones made it and which did not were guys like this scout and me. “It’s kind of sad what we’ve done with these kids in the Public League,” the scout was saying. “They haven’t been prepared for a realistic future. They think there’s a future for them playing basketball. A guy like Terrell, you have to ask yourself, does he have what it takes to spend hours in a gym, shooting jumpers and lifting weights? And even if he does all that, even then he probably won’t make it.”
On the other side of the gym, Terrell sat in the bleachers with his friends, watching the frosh-soph game. The scout shrugged. “Then again, who knows? Maybe Terrell’s gonna grow six inches over the summer. Stranger things have happened. He may be that one in a billion–the next Michael Jordan. Then you can watch him on TV and tell your friends that you knew he was gonna be a star all along.”
Manny started Sylvester at forward against Clemente. But on the first shot of the game, Sylvester’s man grabbed an offensive rebound. Manny leaped from the bench. “That’s it,” he screamed. “I’m sick of this guy not blockin’ out. Larry, get in the game for Turner.”
A few seconds later the substitution buzzer sounded and the players looked up in bewilderment, no doubt wondering who was getting yanked so early. Larry, pointing at Sylvester, lumbered onto the court. Sylvester’s mouth dropped in disbelief.
“Me?” he mouthed.
“Yeah man,” Larry whispered. “Who are you coverin’?” Sylvester didn’t respond. He stood alone for a second or two and then slowly headed toward the sidelines, his eyes misting over. He sat on the far end of the bench and buried his head in his hands.
Mercifully, the guys in the bleachers held their tongues. The game continued. It was no contest. Clemente was fast, but small. Kenric dominated the boards. Terrell scored 23 points. David blocked a bunch of shots. Roosevelt won 69 to 55. Sylvester missed it all; he didn’t look up once.
Tonight the Rough Riders had a Saturday-night exhibition game, a benefit for a homeless shelter against Niles West, a public school in Skokie. Arnie and Jack Sherman brought their wives to the game. “My wife won’t sit with me,” Arnie told Manny before the game. “She says I yell too much for an old guy.”
“You’re not old, Arnie,” said Manny. “You look around 30. Like you’ve been around 30 twice.”
“Hey, Weincord. Kish in tuchus.”
David was awesome, blocking shots, stealing the ball, making behind-the-back passes. The Rough Riders won 66 to 52. They never trailed. Manny got mad only once and it had nothing to do with the game. Poor Efrain, the team manager, forgot to list Larry Wall on the official roster of players.
“Why didn’t you put Larry’s name down?” Manny asked.
“Well, ’cause. He was in the bathroom when I was takin’ down the names,” Efrain explained.
Manny paused. He looked at Efrain. He looked at me. He looked back at Efrain. “Son, what did you think? He drove up here to take a crap?”
“Did you think he was gonna sit on the toilet for three hours, wipe himself, and go home?”
“Son, I wouldn’t yell. But if you don’t list him and he plays we get called for a technical. And . . . aw, forget it.”
After the game, Terrell, Herman, and Larry asked me for a ride back home. It was a bitter-cold night, and my car windows were caked with frost. I got lost in a tangle of subdivisions, missed the turnoff for the expressway, and wound up taking the long way home, driving south on Crawford, past an endless string of two-flats and darkened storefronts, from Skokie to the far west side. I dropped Larry off first and it was nearly midnight by the time we reached Herman’s house. A few tough-looking characters, their baseball caps tilted to the side, congregated on the sidewalk.
“Will you be all right?” I asked Herman.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Those guys love me.”
“Yeah man, no problem. They think I’m a star. Hey, it’s OK. This is where I live.”
After Herman got out, Terrell and I headed north.
“Do you think I should have heard from the colleges yet?” Terrell asked.
“I don’t know.”
“‘Cause I haven’t heard from none and I was just wonderin’. Most guys have picked their colleges by now. I see it in the papers.”
“What will you do next year?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess junior college. But I haven’t talked to none of them and no one’s called me. I don’t know what more I can do. Do you know what it is that they’re lookin’ for in a player?”
I remembered my talk with the scout. “Defense. Hustle. Grow six inches.”
Terrell smiled. We drove in silence for a while.
“Listen, Terrell, you don’t have to play basketball. I mean, you’re so talented, there’s a hundred other things you could do–like cutting hair. My wife’s a hairstylist and I’ll give her your number and she can tell you about the good haircutting schools you can go to and how to get a haircutting license.”
He nodded, but I don’t think he heard a word I said. “I think the key is recognition,” he said. “If I could get my picture in the paper, you know, a little recognition, then the colleges will know about me. And things will be all right.”
Kelvyn Park had the smallest, darkest gym I’d ever seen–two-thirds the size of a normal court. It was like playing in a shoebox.
It was a pathetic contest, winless Kelvyn Park being one of the city’s smallest and slowest teams. Roosevelt outscored them 27 to 4 in the first quarter. Terrell hit almost every shot he took, scoring 31 points. “That ought to get you mentioned in the paper,” I told him.
By the fourth quarter, Manny’s main concern was playing time for Eddie Kroger, who had been invited to join the team only last week. “Why not?” said Manny. “Eddie’s quite a leaper. And I have an extra uniform.”
With Roosevelt up by 40 and five minutes left on the clock, Manny turned to Eddie. “OK, kid, here’s your chance.”
Eddie gulped. “OK, coach.” He was so nervous he accidentally took off his jersey with his warm-up shirt.
“Eddie, I told you to go into the game,” said Manny. “I didn’t tell you to strip.”
The team started chanting: “Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die.” His first shot, a lay-up, rolled around the rim and out.
The players on the bench groaned.
“He’s nervous,” said Weiss.
“How can he be nervous when his team is winning by 50?” asked Hutch, the frosh-soph coach.
“You try it,” said Ronnie. “You see what it’s like.”
With a few seconds left in the game, Herman stole a pass and drove toward the basket. He was in the clear, but instead of shooting himself he flipped the ball to Eddie, who laid it in as the buzzer sounded. The bench exploded into cheers. “Unbelievable,” Manny said, “he should retire right now.”
On the day of Roosevelt’s game at Lake View, the Sun-Times published its midseason prep basketball review. Cited as outstanding Blue North players were David and Kenric; Terrell wasn’t mentioned.
The oversight hit him hard. He had averaged 24 points over the last four games. He was playing as well as anyone on the north side.
Herman tried to console him during warm-ups. “They robbed you, man.”
Terrell shook his head. “What do I have to do to get mentioned?”
It was a spiritless game played in Lake View’s bright red gym, where the running track hung over the court, blocking any shot from the corner. Terrell was in a funk. He stood apart from the team during time-outs and barely looked at Manny when the coach talked to him.
Manny turned to the guys on the bench. “What’s the matter with Terrell?” he asked.
No one said a word.
Terrell launched a three-point bomb that bounced out of bounds.
“Hey, Terrell,” Manny bellowed, “what kind of shot is that?”
“I’m tired,” Terrell called back.
“He’s tired,” said Manny. “Whenever he misses, he’s tired.”
Suddenly Terrell was walking off the court.
Manny was speechless.
“It’s my chest,” Terrell gasped. “My chest.”
“Is it your asthma?” asked Manny.
“Yeah,” said Terrell.
“Well geez, why didn’t you say so? Sit down.”
“Hey coach,” Herman called out, “we only got four guys in the game.”
“Oh geez,” said Manny. “Sylvester, get in the game.”
“I can’t just walk in,” said Sylvester.
“Call time-out,” Manny yelled.
“But hey, man, Terrell’s on the court.”
Sure enough, Terrell, as if in a daze, had drifted off the bench and back into the game.
“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Manny exclaimed.
Referee Vince Mancini blew his whistle and approached the bench. “Manny, a player can’t leave the court and then reenter without checking with the scorer.”
Mancini was a 34-year-old Chicago cop who had played basketball for Sullivan High School. He had played against Manny’s teams and had known him for almost 20 years.
“I know,” said Manny.
Mancini winced. “I hate to do this, Manny, but I’m gonna have to call a technical.”
“Vince, call it, I’m not gonna yell at you.”
A few minutes later, Manny asked Terrell if he wanted to return to the game, but Terrell declined, on account of his asthma. Herman and Ronnie traded knowing looks. Roosevelt won 66 to 44, but no one celebrated. “If that had been me walkin’ off the court, Weincord wouldn’t ask me if I wanted to play,” said Herman. “I ain’t playin’ as it is. I’m hustlin’ my ass off in practice and in games and Weincord, he ain’t even watchin’.”
The frosh-soph team had the day off, so the varsity, acting on their own and without Manny’s permission, skipped warm-ups and started practice with a full-court game.
It was a raggedy, bombs-away game. Maceo and David were disgusted. They kept looking at Manny–everyone was. They were breaking the rules and they knew it. They were waiting for him to intervene.
But Manny sat in the corner of the gym and didn’t say a word. “I want to see how far they’ll go,” he told me.
Kevin and Sylvester grappled for a loose ball and fell on the floor giggling.
Manny snorted. “As long as they’re having fun, nothin’ matters.”
During a break I asked Terrell why he had walked off the floor against Lake View. “I was frustrated, man,” he said. “I just got tired of playin’. I play hard; I’m scorin’ more than any other guard in Blue North, and the paper doesn’t even list my name. How am I gonna get into college if I don’t get the recognition?”
“Was your asthma bothering you?”
He shrugged. “A little.”
After practice, Manny was still angry at Terrell. “What really bugs me is that people are gonna think that I play kids when they’re sick. And that’s not true. You know that. How many times have I told Terrell, ‘Don’t play if you’re sick!’?
“I tell all the guys: your health comes first. But this guy, every time I ask him about his asthma he says, ‘It’s fine, coach.’ What am I supposed to do–read his mind? I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. But with some kids, it’s not ‘What can I do for you, coach?’ but ‘What can you do for me?’
“I’ve been too nice. Sometimes people mistake niceness for weakness.”
Manny called the team into his office and let them have it.
“In all my years I’ve never had a player walk off the floor. And it ain’t gonna happen again. If you don’t want to play here, leave. You’re a bunch of babies. You don’t do anything unless I tell you and even then I gotta tell you it a million times. I watched you yesterday. You didn’t shoot your free throws. You didn’t do your lay-ups. You played a scrimmage that was disgraceful. You wanna play like that–go play in a park!”
In his anger, Manny accidentally knocked over a can of Sprite; the soda dripped off his desk and onto the floor. No one snickered. They crowded around the desk, silent and motionless, eyes on the floor.
After practice, Manny pulled Herman aside. “Son, I want to tell you that I appreciate what you’re doing. I know one thing. I put you in, you’re gonna give 150 percent.”
Herman was overwhelmed. He opened his mouth and then shut it. Usually so loquacious, he didn’t know what to say.
Against Benito Juarez–a bunch of small but scrappy Mexican kids–Manny benched Terrell and started Herman. Terrell took it well. He cheered his teammates and hustled when he finally got to play. I think he was relieved that the ordeal was over.
Roosevelt won 98 to 41, as the hapless kids from Juarez flailed for rebounds but rarely jumped higher than Kenric or David’s chest. Next was the big rematch–at Lane. “I got a good feeling about that game,” Manny said.
So did I. The tongue-lashing had sparked the team. Manny hadn’t berated them like that since Luther North. In a strange way, they missed it. Like Herman, they all needed to know someone was watching.
Ronnie White (born September 11, 1974)
In the early 1980s, when Ronnie was growing up in Edgewater, his best friends were a Puerto Rican kid and a Cuban kid–call them Robbie and Ozzie. They played baseball together, starting in early spring, as soon as the snow melted; it was their passion.
“I knew Robbie since I was six. I used to sleep at his house. Robbie was the best hitter I ever saw. He could hit the ball 350 feet–and that was when he was 12. Ozzie pitched. He could throw some heat–75 miles an hour. He lives in Puerto Rico now. He went down there to get away from the gangs.”
Ronnie played the outfield and led off, like his idol Rickey Henderson, and passionately followed the Eastern Division title march of the ’84 Cubs. “I tacked their pictures on my wall and listened to their games on the radio. I even stayed up late to catch the west coast games.
“How’s that? Me, loving baseball. Ronnie White, all-American kid.”
Ronnie attended Roosevelt because it offered computer courses. Robbie went there too. But they stopped being friends. Blacks and Puerto Ricans weren’t supposed to hang together in high school.
“Robbie started hangin’ with his gang and I started hangin’ with mine. If I saw him in the hall, it wasn’t, ‘Hey, Robbie, man, how ya’ doin’?’ It would be cool, real cool, like: ‘What’s up, man?’ I wouldn’t even say his name.
“Let me say this–I hung with gangbangers, but I didn’t join a gang. OK? I wasn’t a banger. There’s a difference. I might stand on the corner with them, but I didn’t gangbang. I didn’t hassle people. But you see, once people see who you’re hangin’ with, they think they know you. You fit the nice little category they got laid out for you in their mind. I became Ronnie White, gangbanger. They didn’t see me as an ordinary kid.”
“Robbie’s dead. He got shot. The way I heard it, he and another gangbanger were sittin’ on the front of Our Lady of Mercy School and a car drove up and someone shot him. I think he was 16 when it happened. Left his woman pregnant, too.”
As time wore on, Ronnie started having his own troubles. He was always in and out of the principal’s office, always on the verge of expulsion. “You go look at my folder in the central office and it’s thick with all sorts of write-ups. Cuttin’ class–that sort of thing. I got suspended for cuttin’ into the lunchroom line. Isn’t that horrible? I got suspended for using the teachers’ washroom. I had to go, man–bad stomach.
“Mr. Sherman called me in his office and said I do one more thing and I’m getting kicked out. I was labeled an outcast.”
He had a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he was playing basketball in River Park the night Fabian Diaz, Manny’s soccer player, was shot.
“We’d be playin’ basketball while Fabian and them be playin’ soccer until three in the morning. This one night, I heard a pow, pow. And I saw everyone scatter. We saw two guys runnin’ with trench coats and hats over their faces. It was a Friday night about ten. Bein’ it so dark and they had a dark coat, you couldn’t see their faces. I don’t know why they would shoot him. Fabian wasn’t in no gang.”
Ronnie says he also saw the fabled incident in which a Roosevelt football player threw a garbage can over the auditorium balcony and hit a woman standing below.
“There were five of us sittin’ up there. And someone said, ‘Let’s make some noise.’ And the only thing Teddy [not his real name] saw was this garbage can. He got ready to do it and I said, ‘Don’t do it, man.’ He didn’t mean to hit anyone. He just threw it. And then we ran. He hit a lady and she went out on a stretcher. She was the parent of an eighth-grader in for orientation. I bet her kid didn’t come here.
“Teddy was the best football player I’d ever seen. They kicked him out of school and told him he was lucky he wasn’t in jail. Sender took him over to Triton College to talk to the coach. They said if he passes his GED he can come. But I don’t know. The man ain’t stayin’ in shape. Saddest damn thing, the way a guy’s life can change just like that.”
Ronnie learned something from Teddy’s fate: sometimes you do things without really knowing why. You may think you’re in control, but you’re not. You’re just following the pack. Doing things not because you want to, but because it’s what others expect of you.
Ronnie stopped playing baseball. “I had no particular reason. I didn’t, you know, say, ‘That’s it, I don’t like this, I quit.’ I don’t think the coach liked me–that was part of it. And I guess I was hangin’ with the wrong crowd. Maybe it’s a race thing. Baseball ain’t somethin’ that blacks are supposed to do.”
Ronnie might have studied more after he quit playing baseball. He was one of the smartest kids on the team–a philosophizing wiseass wit who read the paper every day.
He was also funny. He could tell a joke and do impersonations. He had Manny cold, right down to the movement of his hands. “I’d like to do a stand-up routine in a comedy club, just once. Just to see what it’s like. Maybe I will.”
Instead, he spent most of his free time playing basketball. That’s what his friends did, and he liked being with his friends. He was the shortest kid on the team, but he hustled, never missed practice, and played team defense.
His parents were divorced and his mom moved to the suburbs. Ronnie chose to stay at Roosevelt with his friends, so he moved into a basement apartment in his grandmother’s flat on the west side. His own bachelor’s pad: waterbed, VCR, stereo, big-screen TV. He got a job selling shoes at a store on Maxwell Street. He saved enough money to buy a ’78 Impala. “Just like Michael Jordan says in the commercials. ‘When I drive, I drive a Chevy.'”
He drove his teammates to school and to games. “I love my teammates. We might have our fights, but we stick together in a jam. You know why we ran off that bus after the Glenbrook game? ‘Cause some Puerto Rican gangbangers were lookin’ like they might mess with Herman. You shoulda seen their faces when they saw us come chargin’ off that bus. We chased them into the alley and got in a few good hits. Nothin’ serious. Just a few whacks. But I’ll tell you what, they’re gonna think twice about messin’ with Herman again.”
Despite his run-ins with other teachers, Ronnie got along with Manny. “I went up to Manny before the season started and I said, ‘Coach, I want to thank you for givin’ me the chance to play.’ I meant it, too. I don’t say nothin’ I don’t mean. I wasn’t tryin’ to suck up. He was givin’ me a break. I don’t get many breaks.”
Ronnie thought Manny was hilarious. “One time I was sittin’ with him in the gym and Manny said: ‘I’ve been going with the same woman for 30 years.’ I said, ‘Really, coach?’ And he says, ‘I hope my wife doesn’t find out.’ I cracked up. It was the way he set it up, with the pause before the punch line. The man knows how to tell a joke.
“I like to sit behind him during the games. That’s the best seat in the house. He’ll stand up and shout, ‘Sylvester’s been shootin’ 48 times and he ain’t hit the front of the rim.’ Or he’ll say, ‘For cry Pete, would you tell me what kind of defense that is?’ One time he got really mad at Maceo and yelled: ‘Maceo shoots like his balls weigh 80 pounds apiece.’ It happened to be really quiet in the gym at the time and everyone heard him.”
In the season’s first few games, Ronnie played a lot as Manny tested different lineups. “After the Curie game, Manny told me, ‘Ron, you don’t make many mistakes. You ran the offense.’ He said I don’t have a lot of talent like the other guys, but I do my best. It pumped me up. I thought about that a lot. Manny doesn’t realize how much we listen to what he says.
“It was the high point of my career when Manny let me start against Glenbrook. When Sherman shook my hand during warm-ups, I could have passed out. He said, ‘Ronnie, good luck. Take it easy. Play a good game and have some fun.’ That was the first nice thing he ever said to me. I think maybe he liked me then.
“I made one mistake in that game and Weincord pulled me out. I said, ‘OK, I’ll get my chance in the second half.’ But he didn’t start me in the third quarter. When I finally got in, I got a steal from Collins and I hit a jumper. But all of a sudden I see Kevin comin’ in for me. It was back to the bench. I don’t know why he pulled me. I could have cried, I felt so awful.”
Ronnie didn’t have the basketball confidence of, say, David or Herman. He didn’t feel about basketball the way he had about baseball. The game didn’t come naturally to him. When he knelt at the scorer’s table, waiting to enter a game, his palms sweated and his stomach churned. “You don’t know what it’s like, waitin’ at the table. You hear Manny yellin’ and you’re sayin’ to yourself, ‘Please, don’t make any mistakes.'”
Sometimes he tried to hide his anxieties by strutting defiantly to the scorer’s table, wearing a cold look of indifference. But that didn’t impress Manny. “Look at White,” Manny would say, “he looks like he doesn’t care.” In reality, he cared very much.
Ronnie didn’t see himself as a mop-up player. He felt he had a greater contribution to make. “People make judgments about you. They put you in a little box and they say, ‘This is who you are and this is what you can do.’ But they don’t know what I got inside me. They don’t know what I can do.
“All I need is a little extra playin’ time, a little boost of confidence. Then things will come together. Then people will see me for what I am.”
Ronnie thought about the paths he might take after high school. “I might go to college and get a degree in physical education. I’d love to coach. I’d be good at it too; I’d be a little like Weincord–I’d crack a lot of jokes. I might do a nightclub thing. I’m young. There’s more to life than high school.”
As for the rest of the season, Ronnie’s main goals were to play hard, help his teammates, and graduate. “I’ve done a lot just to get this far. No one thought I’d ever graduate. But I will. I’m gonna surprise the hell out of everybody. The main reason I stay on is that I wanna prove ’em all wrong. When I walk across that stage on graduation day, none of them are gonna believe it. I used to think that I’d walk up to Sherman and say, ‘Sherman, kiss my butt.’ But now I think I’ll just say thanks.
“I don’t know if I’ll go out for the baseball team. I still can play. Maybe not as good as I used to. Me, Ozzie, and Robbie–we could have gone anywhere in the city and played varsity. I was good and I just let it go. I could have played in the minor leagues. I think about that every night before I go to sleep.”
A large, spirited crowd turned out at Lane, and they went wild when the home team took the floor, chanting: “Seniors, seniors, seniors.”
Victor Rivera, the three-point wonder who’d iced the first game for Lane, was missing. “He’s out for the season,” the scorekeeper told me. “Academically ineligible.”
I was disappointed; I wanted to see his shot again.
Kenric played strong, shoving his man out of position, grabbing rebounds. Unfortunately, his teammates were cold–they could barely hit a lay-up. After one quarter they trailed by one, Kevin had three fouls, and Herman was itching to play. He sat next to Manny, rocking with restless energy, saying things like: “I’m ready, coach.” Or “Need me yet?”
One minute into the second quarter, Manny turned to Herman and said: “Go in for Kevin.”
They were magic words. Herman looked to the ceiling; I swear he offered a silent prayer.
They were down by eight when Herman took the floor, 23 to 15. But he stripped the ball from Lane’s star Kaplan and drove for a lay-up. Then he harassed Kaplan into making a crummy pass, which Terrell intercepted, setting off a three-on-one fast break. Terrell threw it to Herman who threw it to David (who once said he’d never play with Herman again). David buried a three: 23 to 20. Lane’s coach called time. The crowd was silenced. Roosevelt was back in the game. Herman fell to his knees. He banged the floor with his hands. He looked up, offering more thanks, and bellowed: “Yes, yes, yes.” His teammates (David included) rushed onto the court and embraced him.
At halftime, still down by three, Manny gathered the team in the stairwell that led to the locker room. “Kenric, you’re magnificent,” Manny said. “Herman, I can’t say enough; I’m so proud of you. For cry Pete, we can do it.”
Herman started the third quarter. He drove past Kaplan and fed Kenric for a lay-up that cut Lane’s lead to one. On defense he swarmed over Kaplan, picking him up at the half-court line, taking away his drive, forcing him to make foolish passes. He took charge. The game came down to whether Kaplan or Herman would get the better of their match.
But with five minutes left in the fourth quarter and Lane up by two, Manny pulled Herman and inserted Kevin. It was a hunch. “I think Herman’s tired,” Manny said.
It was a mistake. Herman’s hustle was carrying the team. Kevin was out of sync and indecisive. Worried that Kaplan might drive past him, he backed up, giving Kaplan too much room. Kaplan dribbled to the three-point stripe and boom, the quick release. A three-pointer. All net. Lane led 49 to 44.
David hit a jumper, but back came Kaplan. He dribbled to the three-point line, then stepped back, his eyes not even on the basket, like he was going to pass. Kevin relaxed. Again the quick release. Again all net: 52-46.
“Herman,” Manny yelled, “get back in the game.”
The crowd was going berserk. They chanted: “Hey, seniors, what’s your number? 92, 92–9, 9, 9, 92.”
The Rough Riders cut the lead to three with just over a minute left. Kaplan dribbled up-court. Herman hawked him, wouldn’t let him go. Kaplan went left, right, Herman stayed with him. His eyes locked in on Kaplan’s; he talked to him, too. He made him give up the dribble. He pressured him into making a stupid pass, which Terrell picked off, driving for a lay-up that cut the lead to 52-51. Larry, Eddie, Ronnie, all the guys on the bench jumped with excitement. Thirty seconds remained; Kaplan had the ball. “Foul him,” Manny yelled. To hell if Kaplan made the free throw. The point was to kill the clock and get the ball back.
But the team didn’t hear. The clock ticked down to ten seconds and still no one fouled Kaplan. “Goddamn it, foul him!” Manny yelled. I thought he was going to run out on the court and do it himself.
Maceo took charge. He marched across the floor, grabbed Kaplan by the wrist, and yanked him, good and hard. Too hard. The ref blew his whistle and called a flagrant foul. That meant Kaplan would shoot two, and Lane would get the ball. Maceo looked stunned by the call.
Manny jumped up and down. He threw his keys on the floor. He kicked his chair. He kicked his keys. His neck veins bulged. “What the hell kinda foul is that?” he screamed at Maceo.
“But I barely touched him, coach,” said Maceo, still wearing a wide-eyed look of incredulity.
“Barely touched him!” Manny roared. “You practically pulled his goddamn arm out of its goddamn socket!”
Kaplan hit both shots and Lane went on to win 55 to 51 as the crowd broke into a chorus of: “Nah, nah, nah, nah / Hey, hey, hey / Good-bye.” Herman and Kaplan met at center court. They shook hands and then embraced.
Manny and Coach Lewis met at the scorer’s table. Veteran coaches: one white, one black. Old friends. They embraced.
“Coach, I wanna congratulate you,” Manny said. “Your guys played one helluva game.”
Lewis put his arm around Manny. “It could have gone either way, Manny. You know that.”
Manny paused. “Well, John,” he said, “it looks like you’ll be division champs. You’ll be movin’ up to Red. I guess we won’t be playin’ you next year.”
“No way. As long as I’m coachin’ Lane and you’re at Roosevelt, there will always be a game between these schools. It may be a December exhibition, but we’ll figure somethin’ out.”
They embraced again. Manny walked down to the locker room. He was pale. I’d never seen him so down. “I blew this one,” he said. “I can’t blame anyone else. I never should have taken Herman out.”
The impact of the loss was just hitting him. They had a league record of five and three–three games behind Lane. They weren’t going to win the Blue North. Or move up to Red. Or hang a divisional banner on the wall.
Another cold, gray, miserable day. I waited 15 minutes for a train. The sidewalks along Kedzie were crumbling. A group of Asian kids stood on the corner calling each other muddahfukahs. I didn’t want to go to practice. I don’t think anyone did.
There wasn’t any practice. The girls had the gym for their game against Von. I sat with Sylvester and Ronnie in the bleachers and watched. They were also miserable, particularly Sylvester. “Weincord never gave me a chance,” he said. “He just pulled me out of that Clemente game like I was a dog.”
“He wouldn’t have done that to Terrell,” said Ronnie.
Sylvester nodded. “Or David. Or Kenric. That man plays favorites. He never did like me. I started on the frosh-soph team that won 24 games. Then I come to varsity and the man don’t even give me a chance. I’m sick of it. He calls me a schmuck. I ain’t no schmuck.”
We watched the girls shuffle up and down the court. Then I heard one freshman boy tell a freshman girl, “Bitch, suck . . . ” Well, you get the idea.
I got up. The kid saw me rise and started to apologize. “Hey man, sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
“Hey, if you have to apologize to me, you shouldn’t have said it to her.”
As soon as I said it, I felt old. I’d been feeling older and older for some time now. Everywhere I went–Von, Lane, Glenbrook, Taft–I heard kids telling each other to suck this or lick that and I wasn’t taking it well. I was turning into the kind of reactionary old crank who constantly harps on how things used to be even though he knows they really weren’t that way at all. I was sick of teenagers, tired of their excuses, sick of their whining. Tired of watching well-intentioned grown-ups lose their composure in a vain effort to pound some sense through those thick teenage skulls. I felt for the teachers. I couldn’t do what they did. I wouldn’t survive one year in a high school. I’d be one of those burnout cases, the kind of teacher who winds up selling real estate. I had no idea how Manny had lasted so long.
Speaking of Manny, he too looked miserable, sitting all alone in a folding chair outside his office, still down on himself for yesterday’s loss, still upset for having taken out Herman.
I wandered over to where he sat and, trying to make conversation, inquired after the unofficial assistant coach. “Where’s Sender?” I asked. “I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
“How do I know? The guy just stopped comin’. Look, people come and people go. I don’t ask questions. I guess he had somethin’ better to do. What am I, his baby-sitter?”
So much for him cheering me up. We didn’t say another word for the rest of the game. He looked as sour as I felt. His asthma was bothering him. It was keeping him up at night. Winter was wearing him down. The season was long. I looked at my pocket schedule. Six regular-season games remained–six games against some of the worst teams in the city. How in the world would we ever make it to the end?
Arnie led a second pep rally before the Von Steuben game. He brought in several other old graduates, including Jerry Wolf, Mickey Rottman, Freddy Rosen, and Louie Landt (the great Louie Landt, one of the leading scorers on the ’52 championship team).
Arnie introduced the girls’ team. They were section champs. And still a bunch of boys in the front rows booed. “It’s too much for them,” said Manny, “cheerin’ for girls.”
Al Klein said a few words about believing in your dreams. Herman, going along on a dare, joined Arnie at center stage to sing the school song. The kids in the audience mostly hooted. Then 30 or so showed up for the game.
Roosevelt creamed Von, leading from start to finish. Larry played a big game, his best of the season. He grabbed 14 rebounds and scored 12 points.
Right in the middle of the game–while Manny berated Anthony for some kind of defensive lapse–a kid walked into the gym. His cheeks were flushed; he was fresh from the outside. He took his time, walking toward the Roosevelt side of the gym. Past the Von bench. Past the scoring table. Right up to Manny. He stood there–a foot or two from play–waiting for Manny to stop yelling at Anthony.
I said: “Uh, Manny.”
Manny looked at me, and then followed my eyes to the kid.
The kid said there was a car blocking the driver’s-ed range.
Manny didn’t say a word, he just stared at the kid, and I thought uh-oh, we’re on the edge of an explosion. But the interruption seemed to soothe Manny. It gave him some perspective. It reminded him of where he was.
“What kind of car?” he asked.
Manny nodded. He walked over to where Jerry Wolf was sitting. “Hey, Jerry,” he said, “your car’s blockin’ the lane.”
Jerry left and Manny returned to his seat. A few minutes later he was interrupted again, this time by Weiss, who was taping the game with the video camera Arnie had purchased for the school. The camera was stuck on pause. Manny fiddled with it for a while and finally got it working.
“Thanks,” said Weiss.
“No problem,” said Manny. “Come to me anytime. Really. For anything. I’ve got nothin’ else to do–I’m only coachin’.”
I bumped into Efrain outside the school. He was waiting for a bus.
“I had to quit as manager,” he said. “I got a job.”
“Congratulations. But we’ll miss you.”
“I’ll really miss the team. And Coach Weincord. You know what? I think next year I’m gonna go out for the team.”
I’d seen him play Manny in H-O-R-S-E. Manny always won.
“That’s great, Efrain.”
“It’s somethin’ I’ve always dreamed about. Coach Weincord always said never give up our dreams.”
They played at Amundsen–the skinniest gym in the league. Almost every player was in a funk. Each had his own reason, mostly to do with not enough playing time.
At halftime, Manny didn’t take the team to the locker room. He didn’t give them a pep talk or a tongue-lashing. No instructions. They just sat silently on the bench.
“Manny, aren’t you gonna talk to them or somethin’?” I asked.
“What’s there to say that I haven’t said 100 times? If they don’t know what to do by now, they’ll never know.”
They won 56-52. Mario was outstanding. He scored two crucial fourth-quarter baskets and made a rally-ending steal. Everyone was happy for him. “If Mario gets goin’, you’ll go far in the playoffs,” Arnie told Manny.
For the first time in days, Manny’s mood brightened. “You gotta love Mario,” he said. “He’s a great kid. And he’s a good player. Sometimes the solution is right under your nose.”
The Sun-Times ran a picture of Terrell playing tough, hands-in-the-face defense against Amundsen (the photographer had shown up to take a shot of Haris Mujezinovic, the 6-foot-8 center). The fellows were delighted and the gym rang with laughter, as though some curse had been lifted. “That picture may be the tonic Terrell needs to get goin’,” said Manny. “I’ve always said he could carry this team.”
They also got a new manager, Hersey Jackson, a 15-year-old sophomore with big brown eyes and baby-round cheeks. He spent about an hour a day on buses and trains to reach Roosevelt from his home on the far south side. “There were too many gangs at my neighborhood high school,” he said.
“Can you figure out averages for each player if I give you the score book?” I asked him.
Hersey looked insulted. “Sure.”
He worked out the averages in about 20 minutes and didn’t make one mistake.
“Geez, Hersey, you’re a wizard.”
“I need to know math ’cause I plan to be an architect.”
During the scrimmage, Manny was his old self. “Did I tell you about the film of the Von game? Mr. Weiss is a beautiful man, but keep him away from a camera. He got excited and started cheerin’ and the camera started goin’ up and down. We got more pictures of the ceilin’ than the game. I got seasick watchin’ it. God bless him. At least he’s out here helpin’ the kids.”
Aisha Walls, the starting forward on the girls’ basketball team, wandered into the gym. She sat next to Manny.
“You want me to tell you what’s wrong with the team?” she asked Manny.
“OK, we’ll start with Kenric–he’s too fat.”
“Wait, I’ll take it down in shorthand,” Manny said. “Look, one hand’s shorter than the other.”
On the court, the scrimmage had stopped. Larry stood alone under the basket while the others walked away, holding their noses.
“Dang, Larry, a rat crawl up your ass and die?” said Kenric.
“What’s going on, fellas?” Manny called out.
The players looked embarrassed. Finally, Kenric spoke. “Larry–farted.”
Manny didn’t hear him. “What?”
“I said Larry–passed gas.”
“Oh, he passed gas. Well, catch it and put in the basket and it will be his first assist of the season.”
A couple of plays later, Larry banged Kenric on the head. “Look at Larry,” said Manny. “First he farts, then he fouls. What a day.”
The scrimmage went on for another few minutes. Then Kevin left for work. Manny brought in a freshman who had been watching on the side. His first pass sailed over Herman’s head and flew out the open door.
“That’s it,” Manny said. “Practice is over. Let’s clear out before someone gets hurt.”
He laughed when he said it, and I started to think that maybe the worst of the season was over.
They killed Clemente. On Clemente’s home court, too. And Clemente wasn’t bad (11-8 coming into the game). A hell of a lot better than, say, Kelvyn or Juarez.
Sylvester hit two threes and made some quick moves to the basket. At the half, Manny patted him on the shoulder. “You think I’ve got something against you when I yell. But I like you, Syl. I want you to do well.”
Terrell was brilliant. He made one midair move, switching the ball from his left hand to his right, that brought the crowd to its feet. After the game a skinny, wide-eyed freshman girl nervously approached him.
“Excuse me,” she said, “can I have your autograph?”
Terrell smiled and obliged her. Didn’t faze him a bit, like it happened all the time.
Herman didn’t suit up for Kelvyn Park (another blowout for Roosevelt). “Sherman suspended me from the team,” he told me. “They said I was harassin’ a teacher. That’s a lie. I never did it. I swear.”
The suspension caught Manny off guard. “Herman never gave me any trouble,” said Manny. “He’s cocky, but he’s always polite to me. He should be suspended for doin’ what he did, but I can only judge him on what I see.”
Manny thought about things for a while and then shook his head. “Ah geez, what luck. I figured somethin’ was bound to go wrong cause things were finally startin’ to look good.”
After the Lake View game (Roosevelt won, 76 to 62) I sat in the bleachers with Herman while the frosh-soph team played. Ronnie wandered over and we listened to Herman’s side of the story.
“There’s this teacher, man, she’s always harassin’ me. Over my earrings, over anything. Supposedly what happened is this. She called me a dog. And she said I said, ‘Give me some hoochie, and I’ll show you what a dog is.'”
“Did you say it?”
“No, man. I swear. They called this big meeting. Me, my mama, Sherman, four lady teachers, and a security guard. They talked about my attitude. They made me admit to sayin’ it. I was cryin’, man. My eyes were bloodshot red. They’re not only takin’ a sport from me, they’re takin’ away my future. I begged them: ‘Let me play.’ They made it seem like I was a bad influence on the team. Man, how can that be? I’m almost the youngest senior on the team. How am I gonna be tellin’ someone what to do? The counselor said, ‘We keep givin’ Herman chances.’ Like I’m a murderer or somethin’. Man, I’m 17 years old.
“I don’t think I’m insensitive to teachers. I’m tryin’ to get what they got. A job, a little security. And they’re tryin’ to take it all away.”
He stopped talking, and we watched a tiny guard for Lake View dribble up-court.
“Herman, I can’t believe this,” I said. “If you didn’t say these things, why would these teachers make it up?”
“They’re black females,” he said.
“Man, don’t you know what black females are about?”
“That’s right,” said Ronnie.
“They don’t know how much power they’ve got,” said Herman. “They just want to drag down us males.”
“Come on, Herman. It doesn’t make sense. Why would they lie?”
“I don’t know. But they do.”
“Look at what happened to Mike Tyson,” said Ronnie.
“They’re draggin’ him to jail,” said Herman.
“That was the bullshittiest trial I’ve ever seen,” said Ronnie. “Ain’t no million-dollar man gonna rape anyone. But whatever a woman says goes, especially when it’s about a black man. Now what trips me out, they’re doin’ nothing against that Kennedy kid.”
I didn’t know what to say. On the court, the Rough Riders were in the midst of a six-point run.
“I just feel bad for my teammates,” Herman continued. “I love them all, every last one. Through thick and thin, I’m with them. I feel like I let them down.”
The gym rumbled with rumors about a locker-room fight between Lake View and Roosevelt students after Friday’s frosh-soph game. In the ruckus, a Lake View player’s jacket had been stolen. Now the frosh-soph team faced an ultimatum from Jack Sherman: return the jacket by February 25 or forfeit the rest of the season.
Coach Hutch assembled ten members of his team for a conference outside Manny’s office.
“I know you know who took the jacket,” Hutch said. “I can’t believe you’d risk your season to save him.”
“But Hutch, man, this ain’t got nothin’ to do with us,” one stocky kid said.
“That’s right,” another kid said. “None of us took it.”
Manny watched. Then he cleared his throat. “Coach, I’d like to say a few words.”
“Go ahead, coach,” Hutch said.
Manny started talking quietly, but he quickly raised his voice. “I tell you what, fellas. I don’t know if any of you took that jacket. But I do know that you know who took it, and if you don’t get him to give it back, then you ain’t playin’ for me. You hear that? You either return that jacket or you don’t play for me next year. None of you. And I’ll tell you somethin’ else. I was thinkin’ of retirin’. But this gives me a reason to come back. See. Because I’ve been watchin’ you guys all season, and, to tell you the truth, you’re nothin’ but a bunch of jagoffs. I hate usin’ that word, but how else can I call it? Really. It’s like Romper Room down here. And now with this, I don’t want none of you playin’ for me. I’ll take my chances with any kid walkin’ down that hall. I’ll go 0 and 20 if I have to. That’s the way it’s gonna be.”
With that Manny and Hutch walked into the office, leaving me and the frosh-soph players alone by the bleachers. I hadn’t paid them much attention lately, but now it seemed to me that they had changed in the last few weeks. They had grown. They had hair on their faces. Their voices didn’t squeak quite so much.
They didn’t know what to say. They had heard all the stories about Manny, but this was their first face-to-face confrontation.
“He’s bullshittin’, man,” the stocky kid said. “Figure it out. There’s seven seniors on this team: Mario, Redmond, Herman, Mace, Ronnie, Sylvester, and Casas. He needs us more than we need him. How the hell he gonna field a team without us?”
The others weren’t so sure. “You heard him say he could do it,” said another.
“Right, what’s he gonna do–play a bunch of girls? Man, you guys are chumps.”
“Yeah, well, what if he kicks us off? What are we supposed to do? Transfer? Man, I plan to play basketball in college.”
They were silent. You could almost see their minds wrestling with the two sides of the argument.
“Better get that jacket,” one kid said.
“Hell with him,” the stocky kid said. “I don’t need him. I got football anyway.”
Manny sat at his desk staring out the window. “Is it my imagination or do these kids keep gettin’ younger?” he said as I walked in.
“Nah, we’re just gettin’ older,” I said.
He nodded and pointed to a bouquet of colorful balloons. “Today’s my birthday. My daughters sent me these balloons.”
“Oh, geez, Manny. Happy birthday. Which one is it?”
“Damn, Manny. I’m sorry, I should have at least sent you a card.”
“Forget it. I don’t need a lot of attention. It only makes me feel older. Christ, I feel old enough as it is. My mother threw a party for me this weekend. My aunts and relatives were there. People who knew me when I was just a baby. Birthdays never really meant much to me. But hittin’ 60 was somehow, I don’t know, different. I feel, where did the years go? You see these kids come and go. I coached guys who are grandfathers now. And I still remember being a young man.”
“How are you going to celebrate your birthday?”
“Oh, I’ve got big plans. I’m gonna help my mother buy her groceries.”
As we walked out the door, I called to the players, “Hey, fellas, did you know that it’s coach’s birthday today?”
A few of them waved. Mario came over and shook Manny’s hand. “How old are you, coach?” he asked.
Manny pointed to one of the balloons. “Like it says, I’m over the hill.”
Mario laughed and put his arm around Manny. “Not yet, coach,” he said. “You’re still climbin’ that hill.”
They chartered a bus for the game at Benito Juarez, and the frosh-soph got to go: somehow, someone had found and returned the missing jacket. It was the last game of the regular season.
The Juarez coach, an upbeat black man named Curtis Danzy, had his own player problems. He had suspended the starting center for insubordination.
“When I kicked him off he said: ‘I was wondering when you would do this,'” Danzy told Manny. “Isn’t that something?”
At the half the Rough Riders led 42 to 16.
“I’ll take off the press,” Manny told Danzy.
Danzy shook his head. “Keep it on. They need to learn pressure. Tomorrow’s the playoffs–a whole new season.”
In the fourth quarter, Manny brought in Ronnie, Eddie, Sylvester, and Maceo. Juarez countered with a full-court press; the second unit, unable to advance the ball, was outscored by 11 points in three minutes.
Manny was furious. How could he claim his team had progressed? This comedy of errors revived memories of game one against Taft. If I had been coach I would have called a time-out, gathered the guys around me, patted them on the back, and, you know, settled them down.
Of course I wouldn’t last one season as coach, let alone 23. Manny certainly hadn’t survived by coddling teenagers. Like Maceo said, he told you how he felt. So the season ended the way it started: Manny’s neck veins bulging, his face purplish red. He yanked Maceo, Ronnie, and Eddie (“You don’t want to play, fine. I’ll play someone who does”) and brought back three starters.
What a miserable end to a disappointing season–getting yanked from a blowout against one of the city’s weakest teams. Maceo and Ronnie took it hard. Maceo kicked the bench, then sat well behind the team in the bleachers. “I’m sick of this bullshit,” he roared. “I give my heart and soul to this school. And they don’t do nothin’. Nothin’! They don’t have no school spirit. Nothin’.”
Ronnie was near tears. “Man, these starters ain’t doin’ so great. They ain’t impressin’ me with no Georgetown offense. What am I supposed to be, Isiah Thomas? To hell with this. This don’t mean a thing. I’m still goin’ to college. I can play; I know I can play. I’ll show ’em, man. I’ll show ’em.”
Finally he ran out of energy and, like Maceo, watched in angry silence as the regular season ticked to a close. Throughout their outburst Manny stared straight ahead, chin in hand, engrossed in the game. Like he didn’t hear them. Good strategy. One thing he had learned in all his years of coaching was when to let the players blow off steam.
Roosevelt won 85 to 57, though you wouldn’t know it from watching the players shuffle morosely to the bus. “I saw some good things out there today,” said Manny, trying his best to cheer them up. “The important thing is we won the game. We won our last six–not bad, not bad. A season is like a puzzle, gotta put all the pieces together. I think we’re comin’ together just in time for the playoffs.”
I wasn’t sure they believed him or even if he believed himself. It didn’t really matter. One thing about Manny, he’s loyal. And win or lose, good or bad–they were still his team.
David Casas (born February 12, 1974)
In the middle of his junior year, David flunked English and got kicked off the team.
“Manny had no choice–my grade-point average fell below C. Coach told me that if I studied hard and brought my grades up, I could come back and play senior year. But man, I was too down to think about that.”
In retrospect, David realized that he was going through a restless, rebellious stage: ignoring his homework, watching too much TV, bickering with his father, buckling under the pressure of being the Hispanic kid on the team.
“My teammates welcomed me, but other students didn’t. Some people said, ‘Hey man, basketball isn’t a Hispanic sport.’ And some of my Hispanic friends would say, ‘Hey man, are you trying to be black?’ That stuff doesn’t bother me now. It’s a challenge to be the only Hispanic on the team, and I like a challenge. But then, it did get to me.”
His parents didn’t know what to do with him. His mother, Juanita, worked in a factory. His father, Jesus, drove a cab. They were Mexican immigrants who worked hard to support David and his two brothers. Jesus Casas told David that if he was going to sit around moping–if he wasn’t even playing basketball–he should at least get a job and develop a usable skill. David snapped back: Don’t tell me what to do. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 17. Almost a man.
“I had a real bad attitude, but what happened is that I went to visit some relatives in Mexico and I played basketball and I realized how good I was. I saw how much talent I had. And I realized that this was something I shouldn’t waste.”
Over the summer before his senior year, he grew to 6-foot-6, taller than anyone in his family. He started lifting weights. He would jog home from his girlfriend’s house, a five-mile run, his gym bag strapped to his back, dodging traffic, skipping over potholes. As he ran, he imagined himself under the lights, bringing up the ball, seconds ticking down, the crowd on its feet. Sometimes he’d hit the game-winning jumper, other times he’d set up a teammate with a no-look, behind-the-back pass.
In July, he, Kenric, Terrell, Maceo, and Sylvester took a trip downstate for the Morris Shootout, a tournament for some of the state’s finest high school teams. Sender drove them. They weren’t scheduled to compete, they were just going to watch. But one team didn’t show up, and Sender asked the ref if his boys could play. The next thing you know they were beating a good team, Joliet West, by 11 or 12 points. They wilted in the heat, blew the lead, and wound up losing by one. But that tiny taste of big-time basketball–the uniforms, the crowds, the big-name coaches who were watching, including Notre Dame’s John MacLeod and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski–thrilled David. “That one game made me realize how much I love playing basketball. How much I get fired up when the crowd is cheering or booing. I don’t mind that–that only makes me play harder. I love it when my opponent talks trash. I’ll say, ‘Hey, babe, let’s go.’ Once we get started, I’m on. Just give me the ball. Most of the things I do it’s to embarrass people. Not off the court. Off the court my opponent can be my friend. But on the court, it’s show time. Me against them. “Come on, guy, show me what you can do.’
“I like to watch tapes of Jordan, Magic, and Bird. I play their moves over in my mind. I love when Magic does one of his passes, when Michael takes it to the hoop, or when Larry hits his shot. It makes me tingle. I want to play like them. I want to play in the pros.”
He was transformed. His confidence soared; he made peace with his father. (In fact Jesus Casas was a regular at the games–one of the few parents in the crowd.) He was upbeat, almost bubbly, the friendliest, most outgoing guy on the team. “Mr. Personality” is what Manny called him. “One of the nicest kids I’ve ever coached.”
At time-outs or after great plays, David led the cheers, pumping and twirling his arms and yelling “show time!”
He was determined to remain academically eligible. When necessary, he stayed up late, fighting off sleep and battling boredom as he struggled with his books. Math wasn’t too bad, but literature was torture. “Especially Shakespeare, I hate that guy. It’s all thou this and thou that. Hey man, why can’t they talk English?”
Sometimes late at night his mind would detour into a fantasy in which he imagined himself studying medicine at Northwestern University. He wasn’t sure why he had picked Northwestern (or, for that matter, medicine); it just sounded like a classy school. “First thing I’d do if I was a doctor is that I’d take the money I’d made and buy my parents a nice house. Then I’d do somethin’ for the community, ’cause, like, I wouldn’t be one of those guys who walks away from his people.”
As the school year wore on, David saw basketball as his ticket to the larger world outside Roosevelt High. He became obsessed about improving his game. “I have certain disadvantages because I started playin’ later than a lot of these guys. My aunt was the one who suggested that I try it. And my junior-high gym teacher was the one who taught me how to dribble and shoot.”
He said he didn’t care if Manny yelled at him. “That’s how I learn, when he tells me things. If he says it loud, so what.”
When Manny called his name, David came running, saying, “Yes, coach.” Some of his teammates snickered and called him coach’s pet.
“I don’t care what they say. To tell you the truth, I think a lot of them complain too much. Some of them are always cuttin’ corners. They keep talkin’ about the frosh-soph team winnin’ all of those games. I was on the frosh-soph team and we were good. But our competition wasn’t that great. The best freshmen and sophomores go straight to varsity, they don’t even play on the frosh-soph level. And a lot of the other guys got bigger and stronger. You remember that skinny little guard you dunked over? Well, guess what, he grew over the summer and now he’s knockin’ your stuff down. You see, it’s not good enough just to be good, you got to keep gettin’ better just to stay even with everyone else.”
There was a fire in David, an almost grim determination, as though every practice sprint–every shot, steal, pass, and rebound–was a tiny step toward some distant goal.
At practice he kept to himself, rarely joining the banter about parties, girls, or movies. The one player he admired most was Mario. Now there was a guy with his head on right: good grades, tough courses, high score on the college exams. Mario was going to Northern Illinois University, going to get away from Chicago, with all of its fights and gangs and hassles.
“That’s what you got to do–you got to get away. You can’t just hang around the neighborhood and expect to get anywhere. You got to go to get out. Look at any of the old Roosevelt guys, like Arnie, all of them left the neighborhood and then they came back. I like that. I want to be like Arnie. I want to come back, and when I do, I want to come back with somethin’ to show.”
A few college scouts came to watch David play–one small college in Wisconsin even talked about a scholarship–and they all said the same thing: lots of promise, little polish. “David is talented, but he’s raw,” Manny said. “The year off hurt. He doesn’t always know the defenses, he’s not sure about his place in a zone. Sometimes he tries to do too much. I tell him, ‘David, you don’t have to block every shot. You don’t have to score every point.’ Then on the next play, you’ll see him knocking over his man, gettin’ called for the charge.”
He was an Hispanic kid playing a black kid’s game. He had started late and he had missed a lot. Now he was rushing to catch up.
As the second-place team in Blue North, Roosevelt’s first playoff opponent was Mather, the second-to-last-place team in Red North.
“It’s so much more intense in the playoffs,” said Manny. “You lose the game and the season’s over. Last year we opened with two playoff wins. Then we played Marshall–the best team out of the west side–and took a lead in the first quarter.”
“They blew us out.”
Manny still didn’t know who would start with Kenric, Terrell, David, and Kevin. Herman was out, as was Anthony (injured ankle). He asked Kenric and Terrell; they recommended Mario. “I guess it’s Mario,” Manny said. “He hustles and he can shoot. I could do a lot worse.”
“You gonna tell him?” I asked.
“Not today. He’d think about it too much and wouldn’t get any sleep. I’ll break it to him tomorrow.”
The team scrimmaged for 45 minutes, then Manny gathered them in the bleachers.
“Fellas, a few years ago I had a soccer team finish the regular season with a losing record. No one gave us a chance in the playoffs. Well, see that banner on the wall? They won the city title. There’s no reason you can’t do the same. I’m 250 years old, fellas. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen teams go on a roll when it was least expected. Let’s not be satisfied with one, or two–let’s win five.”
He let his eyes roll over them. “Everythin’ is in your favor. We didn’t practice all this year to lose. We came to win. The only thing that can beat us is if we beat ourselves.”
Five minutes before game time, Terrell broke the word to Mario: “You’re startin’.”
Mario thought Terrell was kidding, until Manny made it official. He was so nervous his fingers trembled and he couldn’t remove his gold chain.
The centers were lining up for the jump and Mario was still fiddling with his chain. He asked me for help, but what did I know about necklaces? Herman rescued us. Cool and calm. He snapped the chain off in two quick moves.
Mario hit his first two shots–both of them threes. He grabbed a rebound and fed David for a basket, then stole the ball and hit Terrell with a perfect bounce pass on the fly. “Mario, Mario,” some of the fans were chanting his name.
The Rough Riders led by 13 at the half and then blew Mather away in the third quarter. Kenric grabbed nine rebounds and Terrell had seven steals. Five guys scored in double figures. They won 79 to 49. Afterward they were ecstatic.
“Prosser’s next,” I told Maceo.
“I don’t care who we play,” said Maceo. “When we’re on, we can beat anyone.”
Manny was all smiles. “Don’t be satisfied with one,” he told the fellows. “Let’s make it two. Let’s keep on going.”
Mario, in particular, played brilliantly, racking up 16 points, three rebounds, and five assists.
I handed him back his gold chain and he slipped it around his neck. Friends patted his back; Manny shook his hand. He wore a giant grin. All of them were happy. Every one of them believed they could go all the way.
They played Prosser at home, and at the half Roosevelt was leading by 15. As Manny took the team down to the locker room, there wasn’t one of them who didn’t think they were going to win.
“This is like a chess game,” Manny told the team at halftime. “Every move they make, we make two.”
“They can’t do nothin’,” said Herman. “All they can do is wish. Damn, I wish I could play.”
They put their hands together and chanted: “One, two, three, win,” and then trotted up the stairs, through the darkness of the stairwell toward the light of the gym. The stands were filling up; there were even a few students in the balcony. Where they came from I don’t know. Word must have spread that the Rough Riders were about to win. The crowd roared when they took the floor.
“I bet if Roosevelt wins there’s gonna be a big pep rally,” I told Herman.
He nodded. “The whole school’s gonna get into it. Damn, I wish I could play!”
Maceo and the five starters knelt in a circle at center court. They held hands. Maceo led them in prayer.
The crowd started clapping; Arnie led five members of the girls’ team in the school song.
The Rough Riders started the second half like they had ended the first: finding the open man, hitting the open shot, scrapping for loose balls. “The game is so easy,” said Manny. “You work it to the open man and put the ball in.” They led 57 to 40 with two minutes left in the third.
Then Prosser’s coach, Lynn Mister, called for the press. Kevin, who had been flawless, lost control of the ball. Prosser scored. They stole the inbounds pass and scored again. Roosevelt missed a shot. Prosser rebounded and scored again. Six straight points. Now their players were cheering. Prosser pressed harder. Hands in the face. Kevin lost his dribble. Sandwiched between two men, he made one of the oldest mistakes: he turned toward a defender. The defender pried loose the ball and then accidentally stepped out of bounds. His foot was at least six inches over the line.
But the ref didn’t blow his whistle. The guard dribbled in for an uncontested lay-up. Manny started screaming: “He was outta bounds!”
The ref said: “Your man pushed him.”
“Then the basket shouldn’t count.”
The ref just ran the other way. At the end of the quarter, Prosser had cut Roosevelt’s lead to eight.
“Stay cool, guys,” Manny urged. “Help each other out.”
Prosser scored to start the fourth, then stole the ball and scored again. There was 6:40 left. The lead was four.
“I can’t look,” said Montrell. “I can’t take it.”
“We can’t lose this lead,” I said. “It’s impossible.”
On the inbounds, Mario stumbled. The ref called traveling.
Manny put his head in his hands. “This is where we miss Herman’s ball handling,” he said.
David blocked a shot. The ref called a foul. It was David’s fourth. One more and he was out. He looked at Manny. Manny waved him back into the game. “There’s no tomorrow. Keep playin’.”
Prosser hit a three. The lead was one. David rushed the ball up-court. “Slow down,” Manny called. David lunged toward the basket. A Prosser player stepped forward. They collided and David crashed into the wall.
The ref called a foul on Prosser, but David was too shaken to shoot the free throws. Herman helped him from the floor and over to the bench. Saul massaged David’s neck. Manny brought in Sylvester to shoot the free throws. Sylvester hadn’t played all day. He missed both shots.
Prosser scored. The impossible had happened. The lead was lost. With about four minutes left, Prosser led by one.
After that the lead bounced back and forth, changing hands on almost every possession. Kenric fouled out, but others rose to the moment. David, back in the game, hit a turn-around jumper. Mario blocked a shot and dove into the wall trying to keep the ball from going out of bounds. Kevin sliced through the press, the ball zipping from hand to hand. At one point Manny called time and the players, sucking on the water bottle and gasping for breath, gathered at the bench. “Get the ball to Red,” Manny pleaded. “And Red, take it to your man. The only way they can stop you, Red, is to foul you.” Sure enough, Terrell was fouled on the drive, then hit both free throws. Just like that. Mr. Clutch.
With 28 seconds left, Roosevelt led 69 to 66 and Prosser had the ball. The crowd rose to its feet.
“We’re gonna win,” screamed Herman.
“Don’t say that,” I said.
“Don’t jinx us,” said Montrell.
“Can’t jinx us,” said Herman. “We’re gonna do it.”
The ball went to Eddie Washington, Prosser’s 6-foot-8 sophomore center. He was standing way out. Beyond the three-point line. He held the ball for a moment, looking for someone to pass to. Then, with no one open, he turned toward the basket and shot.
It was one of those low-percentage heaves that drive coaches crazy. But it went in. Swish. All net. Big Eddie had hit a shot he should never have taken. A three-pointer that tied the game. Overtime.
In the stands, we didn’t say a word. Not me, not Montrell, not Herman, not Arnie–no one. We just stood there, dumbstruck. Never again, not in a million years, does that guy hit that shot.
Maceo, playing for Kenric, won the overtime jump. Things happened fast. We missed. They scored. We scored. The ball rolled out of bounds. Prosser’s ball, the referee said. The crowd moaned. From the din I could make out Arnie screaming, his voice a raspy gasp, “Press, press, press.” I realized he’d been screaming for several minutes straight.
David fouled out on a blocking call. He slumped to his knees, his hands behind his head. He looked up to the ceiling. His eyes misted with tears. “I didn’t touch him,” he cried. “I didn’t touch him.”
Larry came in. The seconds ticked down. Prosser led by one. “Get it to Red,” Manny bellowed, “get it to Red.” Terrell drove to the basket. His shot bounced off the rim. In the fight for the rebound, he was fouled . . .
So there he stood, on the line–17 years old and whippet thin. Where I will forever see him in my mind. Bouncing the ball. The crowd’s stillness spreading. Me, afraid to look. My stomach aching. I couldn’t believe that I cared so much about this game. I hadn’t meant to get emotionally involved. I had planned to remain disinterested. But there was something infectious about this team. Maybe it was knowing how far Terrell and the others had come or how much farther they had to go. Or maybe it was seeing Manny nervously pulling at his hair or hearing Arnie destroy his voice or watching the boys in the stands, jaded no more, their fists clenched in hopeful desperation, wanting, praying for their team, their high school team, to win the big game.
No, I hadn’t meant to root for the Rough Riders, but what can I say? Some guys play, other guys follow. Give them credit, Manny and his Rough Riders brought out the rooter in me.
“Down, down,” pleaded Hersey, the scorekeeper, on his tiptoes, straining to see above the crowd.
I silently pleaded for Terrell to make these shots. I couldn’t bear to see the season end this way. They had spent too much time in this gym to end the season by blowing a 17-point lead against an 11-13 team. They were better than this. They were better than mediocre. They had to beat Prosser and advance to the next round and maybe the round after that. They had to get their shot at mighty King.
I closed my eyes.
The crowd roared. His first shot had gone in. Game tied.
I watched Terrell shoot the second one. It rattled out. Another overtime. I blamed myself; I never should have watched him shoot that second free throw.
I don’t want to think about the second overtime. It’s still too painful to remember. They scored. We scored. They scored again. With 46 seconds left Roosevelt had the ball, down by two. Manny called time.
“Bring in Sylvester,” I pleaded. “We need the three.”
Manny looked surprised. It was my first coaching recommendation all year.
“A three is too much of a long shot,” he said.
“I know. But still. If the play breaks down it’s good to know Sylvester’s in the corner.”
Manny shrugged. What the hell. In 23 years of coaching he’d done dumber things than listen to me. Sylvester came into the game.
The teams lined up. Terrell stood at the half-court line. The ref handed him the ball. The players broke. Terrell looked left. He looked right. No one open. He had two seconds to inbound. “Pass the goddamn ball,” Manny yelled.
It was more of a lob. To no one in particular. It bounced once, then twice. For an instant I had a vague memory of a similar play months before. Now a Prosser player retrieved the ball. Terrell intentionally fouled him, trying to stop the clock. The guy made one of two free throws and big Eddie Washington grabbed the miss. Terrell intentionally fouled him. His fifth. He sat on the bench between Kenric and David. That’s when it hit me: we weren’t going to win. We never had a chance. Like Manny said, there are winners and there is everyone else. I’d been deluding myself just like the rest of them.
Prosser won 82 to 77. For the record, Mario, Kevin, Larry, Sylvester, and Maceo were on the court when the season ended.
Prosser’s jubilant players swarmed over their coach.
“I feel sick,” Arnie said. He did look a little green.
“We had a 17-point lead,” I said.
“I can’t believe we lost,” said Montrell.
“What a horrible way to end a season,” I said.
Arnie whirled around. “Hey, listen you,” he said to me. “You can’t give up. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about the kids. You gotta come back next season. You gotta hang in there for the long haul.”
David lay on the floor, looking at the ceiling. Mario sat on the bench holding his head in his hands. Kenric sat next to him and stared into space. His girlfriend tried to comfort him. Kevin, his T-shirt drenched with sweat, congratulated Prosser’s players.
Boom–Maceo kicked the bench. “My last game.”
Boom–he kicked the bench again. “I can’t believe this is my last game!”
Then he collapsed against the wall.
“It ain’t gonna be my last game,” said Ronnie defiantly. “No way. Unh-uh. I’m playin’ in college. You’ll see.”
They sat on the bench for about ten minutes. Eventually they peeled off their jerseys, wiped their sweat with towels, lathered their armpits with deodorant, slipped their clothes over their shorts, and headed for the door. Nine of them in a row (a few had already departed), leaving the way they came–the Rough Riders of Roosevelt High.
I called out their names, shook their hands, and wished them well. Even promised to stay in touch. They looked so sad. They had worked so hard. They had endured so much. They deserved so much more. They had lost every big game they played (from Taft to Glenbrook to Lane to Prosser), but I didn’t feel too sorry for them. They didn’t realize how lucky they were. At least they were good enough to play on the team. Some guys, well, we would have given up a lot just to sit on the bench.
There would be a new bunch of bodies wearing the blue and gold next year (including some of the knuckleheads from the frosh-soph team; thank goodness they turned in that jacket). In a few years the 1991-92 basketball season at Roosevelt High would mean nothing. Except to them. And me. I tried to imagine where they would be or what they would be like in 10 or 15 years. I couldn’t do it; it wasn’t fair. “You never know what a guy’s got in him.” Ronnie taught me that.
Within 20 minutes the gym was empty, except for two Hispanic kids playing one-on-one at the far east end of the court.
I walked into Manny’s office. He had the phone to his ear, on hold with City News. Saul sat at the other end of the desk, flipping through a newspaper, having just totaled up the score book. The slogan on his T-shirt read: “Old age and treachery will always prevail over youth and skill.”
“For cry Pete, Saul, you made a mistake in your math,” said Manny. “You gave us too many points.”
Saul shrugged. “Only tryin’ to give you a break.”
Saul chuckled and looked at me. “Did I tell you my joke?”
“OK, this old lady shocked her family on her 88th birthday by sayin’ she lives with three men.”
“Yeah. She wakes up with Will Power. Plays tootsie with Art Ritis. And goes to bed with Ben Gay.”
I laughed. Manny groaned. Coach Mister from Prosser walked into the room. He was glowing.
Manny rose and extended his hand. “Coach, I want to congratulate you. Your kids played a helluva game.”
They shook hands.
“What did you tell them at halftime?” I asked.
“I threatened them,” Mister said. And then he laughed, deep and from the heart.
Manny smiled. “Well listen, coach. I wanna wish you all the best luck in the world. I hope you do well. I really do.”
Mister left. We sat in silence. Then I spoke. “Remember that play back in the third quarter, Manny? The one where their guy stole the ball from Kevin? The ref blew the call, Manny. The kid was out of bounds–I saw it.”
“If that ref calls that guy out of bounds, they don’t score and you win the game,” I said.
Manny nodded. “Isn’t that somethin’–a whole season comes down to one play. What can you do? I realized long ago that there are things in life a whole lot worse than losin’ a game.”
After that we were quiet. Saul read the Sun-Times. Manny, still on hold, looked out the window. I picked up the basketball sitting on Manny’s desk.
I’d hardly touched a ball all season. I felt a little self-conscious around so many good players. I didn’t want to be embarrassed. But with no one around to watch, I slipped back into the gym.
My first shot fell short. The second bounced in. I went under the basket and practiced lay-ups. Easy shots, just to get the feel. Shooting from one side and then the other, grabbing the ball before it hit the floor. Like Manny taught Larry.
I had a ton of restless energy, pent-up frustration over the game. I started shooting long-range. Knocked down three in a row. I stepped back and tried a three. In my mind I was Sylvester, with the clock ticking down, taking that last shot against Lane. The net snapped–perfect. I’d been away from the game for too long. It felt great to be back. Maybe I could hook up with some of the old-timers down at the Y.
Manny ushered me and the kids out of the gym and turned out the lights. He had finally got through to City News.
November 5, 1992
Twenty-one kids showed up for tryouts, including Kenric, Kevin, Eddie Kroger, and Larry. They had grown over the summer, especially Kenric. Manny said he looked like two guys roped together.
Hersey, the mathematical wizard, was also there, scampering amid the big men, the smallest guy trying out–it was that hopeful time of year.
Arnie had planned to attend, but stayed home nursing a cold. His dedication to Roosevelt, however, had not wavered: he’s organizing an April 2 fund-raiser in honor of Manny. (“Have people call me at 708-432-2773 if they want information; also, put a plug in the paper for the December 5 game against Glenbrook North.”)
Last year’s seniors were elsewhere, of course. David, an inch or two taller and bulked up by weights, is playing small forward at Triton College this year. Maceo enrolled at Illinois Benedictine and Mario at Northern Illinois. Herman and Ronnie joined the Navy. Sylvester works as a messenger for a local bank. Terrell is a sales clerk at Montgomery Ward and plays in a Park District basketball league, scoring 20 points a game, still rattling the rims. He plans to attend Wright College in January.
Manny was back, smiling in the face of the school system’s fiscal troubles. The Board of Education, confronted with a $300 million budget deficit, had halved the high school athletic budget; the principals were going to cut the basketball season altogether until a consortium of business leaders raised close to $2 million to keep it going. This year Manny will receive $300 with which to run the basketball program. Anything over that will come out of his own pocket.
Manny let the hopefuls scrimmage awhile and then gathered them on the bleachers. Unlike last year, he didn’t pace, he sat in a chair. “Fellas, this is my 28th year, but every year I look forward to more than the year before. I’m asked, ‘When are you gonna quit?’ I always say, ‘When I don’t think I’m any good, I’ll quit.’ Some of the guys last year, they came up to me and said, ‘What’s wrong, coach? You’re not shoutin’.’ Well, I learn from you. I can see that with some guys shoutin’ doesn’t work. So this year I will suggest instead of criticize. And when I tell you, fellas, how important it is to study, I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I have guys who come back 20 years later and say, ‘Coach, I wish I had listened to you. I wish I had studied.’ I tell them, ‘It’s never too late. You’re never too old.’ Look at me–I didn’t go back to college until I was 26.
“I wanna tell you somethin’ else, fellas–you guys mean a lot to me. I love all my players. I remember their names. I can remember the faces of guys who played for me 28 years ago. It was a pleasure coachin’ them. I hope I gave them somethin’ they could use. The only thing I ask is that every now and then after you graduate you come back and say, ‘Hey coach, how ya’ doin’?’ Really. That’s all I ask.”
Manny sat silently for a moment and then rose from his seat. “My goal, fellas, is to win the section. Then a year from now you can say, ‘Hey, we boosted Roosevelt to Red.'”
He had them form two lines facing the basket. “We’ll practice some lay-ups. Don’t be nervous. If you miss a lay-up, don’t worry. I’ve seen the Bulls miss lay-ups.”
Manny clapped his hands, and another season began.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.