The youngest of eight children, Catherine Mines was raised in a town house in Cabrini-Green, not far from where William Gates grew up. Her father was a packer at a local fish market; her mother was a nurse’s assistant. Catherine had high aspirations: college, grad school, then a career–in fashion, medicine, or law.
In the summer she attended a day camp sponsored by Cycle, a local social service organization. They took her on outings to Wisconsin and Michigan, even to West Virginia. It was soothing to escape the city and sleep in solitude undisturbed by sirens, screams, or gunshots. There’s more to the world than Cabrini-Green, she thought. And I aim to see it all.
By seventh grade, William was the basketball star of Jenner grade school and most of the girls had a crush on him. But not Catherine. “Basketball players are jocks with empty heads,” she told her friends.
But her indifference only drew William closer. He visited her house, allegedly to lift weights with her older brother Gary. But eventually he made no pretense about it. They spent their time on the back porch teasing each other and chatting, and by the start of eighth grade they were going steady. Their romance was hot news among the eighth-grade crowd at Jenner. The girls couldn’t believe William had fallen for a bookworm, and the boys couldn’t believe a star like William would waste his time with just one girl.
As the class salutatorian, Catherine was required to give a speech at the graduation luncheon. She wanted to write an unforgettable address, about acting honestly and honorably and overcoming peer pressure. She worked on that speech for hours, trying to make each word sound right. On the day of the luncheon she wore a special pink dress, and William wore a gray suit handed down from his brothers. When the principal called her to the podium, William smiled and squeezed her hand.
“There were times that I felt I had no one to lean on,” she began. “Believe me there were times when I wanted to cheat for a grade or a classmate asked me to cheat. But I said no. I must admit that some people didn’t like me for this, but I was developing into an honest person. I tried to be fair-minded. I don’t prejudge individuals. I don’t make fun of their shortcomings. I had to learn to sacrifice certain pleasures. I had to be fiercely determined to reach my goals. I also had to have discipline. We are tomorrow’s future. We must learn to be leaders as well as followers.”
The audience gave her a rousing ovation, and she returned to the table radiant with ambitions. She truly wanted to lead.
Her grades were high enough for Chicago’s most selective high schools: Lane Tech, Whitney Young, Lincoln Park. But she was intimidated by the prospect of competing with dozens of students as hardworking and academically ambitious as herself. So she settled on Westinghouse, a west-side vocational school. It was more orderly than some of the north-side schools–and she knew she’d be among the highest achievers.
“Don’t go to Westinghouse,” William advised her. “It’s not good enough for you.”
“Who are you to tell me where to go?” she countered. “When you’re going all the way out to la-la land?” So it seemed. William had been recruited by Saint Joseph High School in far-off Westchester. To make the trip each day a little easier, he was moving in with his sister Peggy and brother-in-law Alvin on the west side.
But after a few months she realized William was right. Westinghouse wasn’t for her. The other girls lacked her drive. They wasted their free time hanging out in the washrooms, smoking cigarettes, adjusting their hair, plastering on makeup, and gossiping about boys. They mocked the way she talked–so precise, clear, and grammatically correct, the way her mother had taught her. “Catherine talks white,” they said behind her back.
Her parents had moved to the west side, but on the weekends she stayed with her sister in Cabrini-Green and saw William when he visited his family there. Their hours together passed so quickly. They ordered pizza and rented movies or watched TV. William never had the time to come to Westinghouse, and she didn’t feel a part of his world at Saint Joseph. She dutifully attended his games and rooted him on. But she didn’t really love basketball, and she could never understand why the fans got so carried away with it.
When summer came she moved in with her sister in Cabrini and spent almost all of her free time with William. They strolled along Lake Michigan and bicycled through the lakeside parks. She was as happy as she’d ever been, until a few days after her 15th birthday she discovered she was pregnant.
These things aren’t supposed to happen to me. I’m too smart. I’m too young. I’m going down. How could I have been so dumb?
She knew nothing about birth control. She’d never discussed the issue with her mother, and the health classes at Jenner had been no help. The teacher used a baseball bat and a catcher’s mitt to illustrate the act of intercourse, and the kids tried not to laugh.
“I should have researched these things on my own,” she told William. “I should have had some idea of what we were doing. I don’t blame you.”
William had the opposite reaction: instantaneous joy. He had stopped using condoms because he wanted to make Catherine pregnant. He wanted to create life because he feared death. Death was so routine and random around Cabrini-Green, and William knew so many young people who had been murdered. He had nightmares of his own death, another innocent victim caught in the line of fire. “If I die without leaving behind a baby, it’s like I never existed,” he told Catherine.
Within their families, no one approved of Catherine’s pregnancy. Her parents worried that William would desert her. William’s family thought Catherine was like a spider who’d trapped their baby brother in her web. “Don’t tell me she didn’t know what she was doing,” his sister Peggy said at the time. “In this day and age, with sex education in schools, these girls have to know what’s going on.” They noted how his brother Curtis’s grades had suffered after he impregnated his girlfriend, Beatrice, in high school. They cautioned William to keep his distance: “You can’t go to school, study, play basketball, and raise a baby,” they told him.
Catherine left Westinghouse and enrolled in a private school for pregnant teenagers. Other girls stared at her building belly in awe.
“Girl, is it true you’re carrying William’s baby?” they asked. “I got to see this baby.”
They envied her because they wanted to carry a basketball star’s child. Catherine wanted none of their envy. “They’re acting ignorant and dumb,” she told William. “They don’t understand what a baby can do to your life.”
But she understood. She saw the teenage mothers at Cabrini, deserted by the fathers of their children, trapped on welfare, wasting their lives. That would never happen to her.
“I’m going to love this baby,” she told William. “But we’re going to have to raise him or her together.”
“Catherine, I want this baby,” he said.
“You better not leave me.”
“I’ll be there.”
They figured out that the baby was due at the end of February or in early March of 1989, their sophomore year of high school.
“You’re going to be there when the baby’s born,” Catherine said.
“I’ll be there. And if I have to I’ll come after the game.”
“No, I need you in the hospital when the baby’s being born. Don’t desert me, William. I mean, I’m scared. I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never done this before. I hear it hurts. You can’t leave your girl alone–not at a time like this.”
William wanted to be there. But early March was playoff time. What if he had to choose between being there for Catherine and being there for his team? What if his child were born the day of a game that determined whether Saint Joseph went downstate? He was 16 years old; it would be the biggest decision of his life.
Saint Joseph won nine of its first eleven games, but coach Gene Pingatore wasn’t pleased. The games, he said, were too close. The Chargers were inconsistent, they played to the level of their competition. You’re too laid back, he told William, you don’t get up against bad teams. You have to take control.
William felt senior teammate Deryl Cunningham was doing him in. “He ain’t passin’ me the ball,” he complained to his older brother Curtis. But Curtis was unsympathetic–in fact, the conflict made him even more critical of William’s performance.
After a game against Marist Curtis confronted William in the locker room and berated him for not shooting enough.
“But Curtis, coach don’t want me shootin’ the ball like that,” William responded.
“Man, let me tell you about coaches. Coaches want to win and no coach gonna win with his shootin’ guard takin’ five shots or whatever,” Curtis said. “If the coach don’t like you shootin’, it’s ’cause you missin’, not ’cause you’re shootin’. If you miss three in a row he’ll holler at you. But as soon as you hit three in a row you’re his newfound friend.”
In a critical moment of the very next game, William dribbled downcourt, passed to Cunningham, and lost his defender on a pick. William was wide open, 15 feet from the basket, but Cunningham spun toward the hoop and forced a bad shot over two defenders. William looked at Curtis, shook his head, and trotted back up court. Curtis was incensed. “Pass William the ball,” he yelled, leaping to his feet. “Coach, coach, you gotta get William the ball.”
Pingatore sat rooted to his chair, hunched over, eyes locked in on the game, as though he hadn’t heard.
Curtis slammed his foot and slumped back in his seat. It’s insane, this strategy. This was no way to run a team. He turned to his right, where Catherine sat, squirming uncomfortably. The bleacher bench was hard and her stomach big. The baby was due in a month.
“Can you believe William just runnin’ up the court?” Curtis said to her.
“Curtis, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Catherine said.
“Pingatore shoulda put Cunningham on the bench.”
“I think the baby’s moving.”
“If I was coachin’ this team I’d put that boy on the bench.”
“Curtis, I can’t believe you’re making such a big deal over a game.”
At their mother’s house, Curtis hammered at his shoot-more theme, playing videos of Michael Jordan to illustrate his point. On Monday Pingatore took over, making the same point with Isiah Thomas’s highlights as illustrations. After practice, William called Catherine. She wanted to know if he’d told his coach that a baby was coming.
“I just can’t tell him–at least not now. Maybe after the baby’s born,” William said. “He’s too preoccupied with the team.”
That night William was unable to sleep. His head ached and even aspirin couldn’t dull the pain. He lay awake for hours, as a cacophony of strident, maddening voices played in his head. The loudest of all belonged to Curtis.
The older guys at the local playground, the Avenue, were the first to discover Curtis Gates’s basketball ability. They were astute judges of talent, with personal motivations for finding the best. You played until your team lost on the playground; any team with Curtis held the court for hours.
By the time he was 13 Curtis was six foot one and strong, but height and heft were almost irrelevant because it was his heart and soul that made him great. He played with bottomless passion. He played into the night, in the snow, sleet, and rain. He had rock-solid shoulders and springboard legs, and when he drove for the basket the opposition cleared out. There was a fearlessness to his drive, a hunger to his dunks.
People gathered along the fence that lined the Avenue to watch him jump. He had a diverse repertoire of dunks: turnarounds, tomahawks, and baseline jams. The higher he jumped the louder they cheered and the louder they cheered the harder he played. Basketball was his life. He would play and play and play until he was playing in the NBA. Not once, not ever, did he doubt that one day he would play in the NBA.
In a future time, when scouts roamed playgrounds wooing blue-chip eighth-graders, every powerhouse school in Chicago would have recruited Curtis. But high school coaches were less predatory back in 1979–they hadn’t refined the art of recruitment. They let kids remain in their neighborhoods and attend the schools closest to home. Curtis went to Wells High School, an old soot-stained fortress on Ashland Avenue, as his older siblings, Peggy and Randy, had done before him.
Wells was a mediocre team in a mediocre division. Many of its students were Mexican immigrants who knew nothing of basketball. The coach was a well-meaning gym teacher who was lucky to find 12 guys to fill the roster. If he had a strategy, it was get the ball to Gates and get out of his way. Curtis played as he pleased. He defended the middle–blocking the shots of centers six inches taller–and then brought the ball up court like a guard. He shot or drove as he liked. “If the coach don’t like what I do let him put me on the bench, and see what happens to the team,” Curtis said. He played from start to finish, and averaged 39 points a game.
In the summer before his sophomore year, some friends from the playground suggested he transfer to Corliss, a south-side school. Curtis thought about it. It was not uncommon for players to crisscross the city, searching for the best deals they could find. They might follow a friend from one school to another, or leave because their old coach yelled too much or didn’t play them enough. Or maybe the new coach lured them with sneakers.
In Curtis’s case, he wanted more exposure and tougher competition. So at the start of the school year he hopped a bus for Corliss, where he lasted for all of one day–or about as long as it took the coach to tell him that transfer students were ineligible to play until the second half of the season.
“You mean I got to wait until January to play basketball?” Curtis asked.
“That’s right,” the coach said. “But you can participate in our practices.”
Curtis laughed in the coach’s face. He wasn’t traveling two hours a day to practice.
Back he went to Wells, where he closed out his high school career as the greatest player the school had ever seen. In his senior year he teamed up with his younger brother David, then a sophomore, and they dominated their division. Their strongest competition came from Roosevelt High School, which featured Chuck Taylor, one of the great shooting guards of his time. They had some incredible scoring duels, Curtis and Chuck, racing across the court, dunking and shooting, until each had scored 40, 50, even 60 points. After his last game against Roosevelt, Curtis exchanged hugs with Roosevelt’s coach Manny Weincord. “Son, I want to tell you–you’re one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen,” Weincord said. “It was an honor and a privilege to have coached against you. I wish you all the luck in the world. But I have to tell you somethin’. You won’t get anywhere with this game unless you hit the books and have the grades.”
It was a refrain endlessly repeated and advice endlessly ignored. Books and classes left Curtis cold–basketball would take him far enough.
Dozens of colleges courted him. He accepted a four-year scholarship from Marquette, but that deal fell through. His grade point average was too low. Instead Curtis went to Colby, a two-year college in western Kansas. He lived in a dormitory, passed his courses, graduated with an associate of arts degree in psychology, and was the king of the court. It wasn’t much different from Wells. If he didn’t want to practice, he didn’t practice. If he wanted to shoot a jumper, he shot the jumper. If the coach called a play he didn’t like, he ran the one he did like. The play that mattered most to Curtis was the one where he took the ball to the hole and dunked. He played almost every minute of every game for two straight seasons, dominating the league, rewriting the school’s scoring records, and being named Colby’s player of the decade. Again the major colleges came calling; this time he settled on Central Florida, which offered him a full ride.
In the fall of 1986, Curtis and Beatrice (now married) and Sparkiesha, their four-year-old daughter, moved to Orlando. From the outset their stay was difficult. They lived in a cramped one-room dormitory apartment. They knew no one and had no social life. Worst of all, Curtis rode the bench. “Just keep plugging,” the coach told Curtis. “Your chance will come.”
Those who knew Curtis could only shake their heads. In some ways he was a victim of his own success. He had always been allowed to slide, to do exactly what he wanted. This was the first time he had ever been seriously challenged, and he didn’t know how to handle himself. David, Peggy, and her husband Alvin advised Curtis to be more compromising. They urged him to work on his jump shots and learn the coach’s half-court system. It wasn’t like Wells or Colby. This was Division One basketball–you couldn’t be a six-one center anymore.
“I’m adapting,” Curtis insisted. “The coach’s got something against me. I’m working hard; I’m practicing my shot. In practice I’m the hottest guy out there. But he won’t give me a chance.”
As the season wore on he was continually embarrassed. The coach kept him on the bench, even during a game for which his mother Emma and Peggy had flown down from Chicago. In mid-season Curtis suffered the most painful indignation of all: the coach asked him to lend his shorts and jersey to another player who had forgotten his uniform. You can’t take another player’s uniform, Curtis thought as he watched the game from the bench in his street clothes. I don’t care how bad he is, you can’t take his stuff and give it to someone else.
He didn’t show up for the next game against Jacksonville. The coach tried to track him down. He came to Curtis’s apartment and knocked on the door. “Curtis,” the coach said, “are you in there? We have to talk.” Curtis lay on his bed and didn’t reply. From his perspective, they had nothing to talk about. He had no patience for the bench; he wouldn’t stay if he couldn’t play.
In the morning he packed his bags, hailed a cab to the airport, and flew himself and his family home to Chicago. He never returned. Until then he didn’t comprehend the immensity of his expectations or the elusiveness of his dream. It took more than talent to reach the top. It also took resiliency and luck. If you fell you had to bounce back. But when Curtis fell it was with a thud and there was no bouncing back.
It was tough, coming home. People wanted to know what he was doing back at Cabrini, and why he wasn’t playing ball in college. He didn’t run from what happened, he didn’t lie or make excuses. He hated excuses; he never dodged the truth.
“I still have one year of eligibility left but I might as well give it up because nobody’s going to give a senior in college no athletic scholarship,” he told those who asked. “I decided just to quit school period and go on and work because I’ve got a wife and daughter. I got to think about them now. But as far as basketball goes, I don’t have any regrets. That coach broke my heart, but I don’t hate him. The coach didn’t play me. That’s his job. That’s his life. He got to take care of his family, he got to do what he sees best for his team. And that’s what he saw best, so I can’t downgrade him for that. But, yeah, well, it just crushed me.”
He moved in with Beatrice’s family, and got a job working as a watchman at Ravenswood Hospital. He rarely played basketball anymore–he didn’t see the point. Alvin tried to convince him to enroll at Northeastern Illinois, but Curtis didn’t see the point of going to college if he couldn’t play basketball.
Instead, he became his younger brother’s unofficial coach, attending his games, critiquing his play.
“You’re too hard on him,” David told Curtis.
But Curtis disagreed. “I love William–he just means so much to me in so many ways,” Curtis said. “I mean, of course we fight and argue all the time. But deep down, I’m just so proud of him. If he don’t make it, I will sit there and cry.
“I mean, I don’t want him to not make it for the same reasons I didn’t make it. If he don’t make it I want it to be because of his ability. I don’t want him not to make it because some coach said this or that. I wish there’s something I could do to assure him that nothing like that is going to happen. But I can’t. All those basketball dreams he has, I had them once. And now they’re gone. And all my dreams are in him now. I want him to make it so bad I don’t know what to do.”
The birth of William’s baby and the start of the playoffs were two trains on one track heading for a crash.
On February 23 the Chargers began their playoff march, whipping Willowbrook High School 77-54.
On March 2 the baby was due.
Gene Pingatore could see that something was bothering William, but he didn’t know what. “Stay focused,” he told William. “Keep your concentration.”
“If you got it,” Curtis said, “now’s the time to show it.”
“If you aren’t with me at that hospital,” Catherine warned, “we’re through.”
He and Catherine bickered back and forth all the time.
“Why we makin’ this a big thing?” he told her. “We don’t even know the baby’s goin’ to be born on the day of a game.”
“It’s the principle, it’s what’s right. Your family’s got to come first. This baby is your flesh and blood.”
“But basketball’s our future. It’s how I get to college and then go on to the pros so I can take care of our baby.”
“Plenty of men take care of their babies all the time, William, without playing basketball. Any fool can play basketball. Any fool can make a baby. But only a man can be a father.”
William would lie in bed and replay these conversations for hours. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew Catherine was right. “Plenty of fools be havin’ babies all the time,” he thought. There would always be some game to play, some reason to be away from his family. He didn’t want to be the kind of father who always had something more important to do. He knew what it was like to be missing a father. His father had never been around. And his absence haunted William in ways he couldn’t accurately express. He wasn’t disappointed–you can’t be disappointed about a man you rarely saw. There were just some moments when he craved a father’s attention–a pat on the back, words of comfort or direction–and it was never there.
No, William wasn’t going to let his child grow up with that vacuum. He didn’t want to be like his father, who left Emma alone to raise six kids in Cabrini-Green.
March 2 came and went and Catherine didn’t feel a contraction.
On March 3, after watching Saint Joseph beat Proviso West, she spent the night on her sister’s couch, too bloated and achy to sleep.
The next day at practice William sat against the wall, his head rocking in pain. “You OK, man?” asked Mark Layton.
This was his best friend on the team, and he didn’t know. “You look like you’re sick,” said Layton.
“Naw, I’m fine,” said William.
On March 8 Saint Joseph got by the Fenwick Friars. That set up the sectional final against Tommy Kleinschmidt and his Rams of Gordon Tech–with the winner going downstate.
They ran down the hallway into the gym and they circled the floor. The fans on the Saint Joseph side rose as they entered, the band kicked into the Rocky theme, some student with his face painted red and white was running around waving a big Saint Joseph flag. Catherine was as round as the moon, she waddled when she walked, and each step was a pain, but she was here tonight, in the stands with the others: Curtis, Alvin, David, Peggy, Emma.
I’m a lucky fool, thought William as he waved to Catherine. The baby could come at any time, maybe even today. Wouldn’t that be something, having a baby right here in the stands. That would give Pingatore something to talk about.
William turned to the other end of the court and saw Kleinschmidt, waiting his turn in the lay-up line. He was a chunky blond with a flat top–a white kid who picked up a basketball early and couldn’t let go. He was a great shooter–on the playgrounds they called him the little Larry Bird. Kleinschmidt nodded at William and William nodded back. They wouldn’t cover each other–Kleinschmidt was a forward–but everyone would compare their performances: the two super sophomores in their first matchup. Probably been thinkin’ about me all day–like I been thinkin’ about him, thought William.
Up in the stands, Curtis was nervous and edgy–standing, sitting, almost jogging in place. “William’s got it tonight,” said Curtis.
“My boy’s ready,” said David. “I can tell.”
Saint Joseph won the tip and William began with a burst, driving past Kleinschmidt for a reverse lay-up. He hit a three, and then stole the ball, hit point guard Greg Orr on the fly, took a return pass, and drove for the middle. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Deryl Cunningham slipping out from behind his man. But instead of passing, William charged harder to the basket, spinning between two players and banking the ball off the glass.
David and Curtis were hugging one another and Catherine struggled to her feet to cheer. I love you, Deryl, thought William, but I want to win and go downstate.
At halftime he had 17 points and his team led by one. “Keep workin’ the ball,” Pingatore told them. “Get it to William. Play defense.”
But in the third quarter, Gordon Tech adjusted its defense. They ran a defender at William wherever he went, they kept a hand in his face. When the Chargers couldn’t pass it to William, they panicked. They tried to force the ball inside. But the big men were cold. Shots rolled out. They missed free throws. The system had fallen apart. They needed someone to take command. “Take the ball, William,” Curtis bellowed, “and shoot it.”
Kleinschmidt got hot. The Gordon Tech strategy was so simple: they ran him off of screens and got him the ball, and he had the same fluid motion on every shot. Their system was working; Gordon was feeding its go-to guy, but William was starving.
With 12 seconds left, Gordon Tech converted two free throws to take a three point lead. Pingatore called a time-out. The crowd rose, someone was beating a drum. The student with the red-and-white-painted face ran around with his flag. Catherine couldn’t look. “You gotta want it, man,” Curtis mumbled. “This is it. You gotta want it.”
William caught the inbounds pass and ran up the court. He crossed the half-court line and let fly. The ball slipped as it left his fingers and clanked off the front of the rim. Cunningham pulled it down, raced to the three-point line, turned and fired. It bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
William slumped out of the locker room and into David’s car. They drove back to Cabrini in silence and he lay alone in his bedroom, his mind numb, his head empty. The phone rang. It was Catherine. She was at her sister’s town house.
“It hurts, William.”
“Do you have the contractions?”
“Yeah, they’re coming all the time.”
He came over and sat beside her on the couch. They had the TV on and the sound turned down.
“Well, William, you think things are gonna work out?” Catherine asked.
“Yeah, we’ll be OK.”
The room was illuminated only by the glow of the TV, and they stared at the silent screen. “I’m glad you got to play in that game,” Catherine said.
“Yeah.” The last play was still replaying in his mind.
“I wish you had won–I really do.”
“Ah, it don’t mean nothin’.”
“It’s too weird,” she said. “You got a secret life–no one out there knows what you were going through. They don’t know about us.”
William shook his head. “I never did tell Pingatore,” he said. “I’ll have to tell him now. I can’t go on havin’ two lives. Ah, I don’t want to talk about it.” He was sick and tired of basketball.
In the early morning Catherine’s water bag broke and William called his brother David, who rushed right over and drove them to the hospital. They gave William a gown and a mask and led him to the delivery room. He held Catherine’s hand and told her when to breathe in and when to push. He laid a washcloth over her face and gave her ice water, and watched as his child slowly emerged into the world.
“It’s a girl,” the doctor said.
“Aw, God,” said William.
“Do you have a name?” asked the nurse.
“Alicia,” said William.
The doctor handed Alicia to Catherine and she handed her to William. His heart was racing and his eyes filled with tears.
“Her eyes are so big,” William said.
Catherine smiled, laid back her head, and rested. Alicia started to cry.
“Look at that–she recognized my voice,” William nearly shouted. “When I said somethin’ she knew who I was.”
He stood against the bed and rocked Alicia and played with her tiny fingers. Tears ran down his cheeks.
“Hello, little baby,” he said. Alicia turned toward his chest.
“I swear she knows my voice,” he exclaimed. “I’m tellin’ you, she knows who I am.”
“Of course,” said Catherine, “you’re her father.”
In the days after the season ended, William and Curtis were at opposite ends of their luck. William was moving, a young man in a hurry, up early and to bed late, always with someplace–school, practice, Catherine’s–to go. Curtis slept late and spent his afternoons watching TV. William played morning, afternoon, and night–honing his shot, working on his moves. Curtis, his skills rusty, didn’t have the spirit to return to the court. William was in the best shape of his life; Curtis’s belly sagged over his belt. William had a clerical job with Encyclopaedia Britannica, obtained through his school. Curtis lost his job at the hospital after quarreling with his boss.
It was a tense time for the brothers. Curtis had always been his hero. It wasn’t easy for William to see him slip. At the same time, William wanted Curtis to treat him with more respect. “Don’t be tellin’ me what to do all the time,” William pleaded.
“You got to show me something more,” Curtis told him. “You got to take it to the next level.”
“If you were so great . . . ” He wanted to say something nasty, but he held back.
William decided to keep his distance. David drove him from one tournament to another, from one playground to the next. On weekends David got up early to take William to Catherine’s so he could see the baby. He never complained about it either. Mostly he drove in silence while William fiddled with the radio to find the station he wanted and moaned about the pressures of his life. Of working and going to school and seeing Catherine and caring for the baby. And all the games, the ceaseless games. And Curtis.
“I’m so sick of Curtis being on my case. If he’s so great, why didn’t he do it?” William said.
“Curtis did do it, William,” David said softly. “Could nobody do it like Curtis. I mean, William, I know you’re on top and you’re flying high and we all hope you make it. But you got to remember something. As good as you are, Curtis was the best. If he had gone to Saint Joseph, if he had a coach that stuck on his ass, if he had your opportunities, man, it would have been frightening what Curtis would have done.”
Before his junior season began, William was invited to a tournament at Loyola University held for the college coaches in the stands. Slipping on a pool of sweat, William fell to the floor. He rolled from side to side, clutching his right knee in his hand. The X rays were negative, and the doctors in the emergency room sent him home. He wrapped his knee in ice and watched a football game on TV.
“How’s it feeling?” David asked.
William shook his head. “It feels like it’s hangin’ by a thread,” he said.
The injury was diagnosed as a sprain. The pain went away. But as William was stretching his leg during a practice at Saint Joseph he felt a sharp tear, and his knee stuck in place. “I can’t move it!” he screamed.
The surgeon Pingatore sent him to scraped cartilage out of William’s knee, and now he was missing almost his entire junior season. And he wasn’t the only one in his family struggling.
Curtis had been out of work for almost six months. “Sometimes I feel it’d be better for my family if I just left,” he told William. “I just take food from the table and don’t give them nothin’.”
Catherine had the opposite problem: she was busy almost every waking hour. It was all part of the agreement she had worked out with her mother, Eula, who would take care of Alicia during the day so Catherine could attend Westinghouse. In return, Catherine dropped off the swim team and gave up the cheerleading squad so she could work nights at a fast-food restaurant and help pay the family’s bills.
She got home from school at 3:30 and checked in at work an hour later. They paid her minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, and made her wear a red-and-white outfit with a hair net. She baked biscuits and dropped frozen lumps of chicken into boiling vats of splattering grease.
One of her coworkers was a homeless teenager whose family had drifted away. The girl spent her nights in restaurants and bus terminals and parks, and she had big black circles under her eyes.
The clientele featured a ferocious-looking cast of hustlers, hookers, cops, and gangbangers. There was a shooting one night outside the drive-through window and she saw a young man lying in his blood. Wretched-looking men in tattered clothes sometimes came in screaming about strange voices they had heard. One night the place was robbed by a masked man who held a pistol to the homeless girl’s head and ordered her to clear out the register.
“I was so scared I was shaking,” she told Catherine.
“I’d a died,” Catherine said.
When she got home, long after midnight, she was exhausted, coated with grease and flour. But if the baby woke up it was Catherine’s turn to tend her.
“Mama, I’m so tired,” Catherine said one winter night. “Can’t you take care of Alicia?”
Her mother shook her head. “Maybe you won’t have any more kids,” her mother said.
Catherine picked up the baby and staggered into her bedroom, fell on the bed, and called William, even though Peggy and Alvin had explicitly warned her never to call after midnight. William answered the phone and she poured out her sorrows.
“All I do is work and work and work,” she cried. “You should be spending more time with me and Alicia, especially since you aren’t even playin’.”
“I’m workin’ too, you know. I’m rehabilitating my knee. I’m doin’ this for us and our future. So I can go to college.”
It was another variation of his same old argument, and hearing it made her so angry she wanted to throw the phone on the floor. “William, I plan to go to college and I don’t play basketball,” she said.
Even more than in their freshman year, they lived in separate worlds. Her temper shortened, and she blamed William for her frustrations. William took it all. Finally he lost his temper when she snapped at him in front of his family. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
She apologized. William didn’t deserve such abuse–he was a dutiful daddy, visiting Alicia every chance he got. “This ain’t me,” she told him. ” I got so much pressure. I’m so tired all the time. I’ll be better once I get some more rest.”
On the weekends Catherine and William met at Cabrini so the whole Gates family could be together. William loved to play with Alicia, tickling her or dangling the pacifier into her mouth. Mostly Catherine slept on her mother-in-law’s couch.
She was there one Saturday afternoon when the doorbell rang and William limped to answer it.
It was Rankin, Curtis’s old junior college coach. “Curtis,” he exclaimed when William opened the door. “My God, you look great.”
“Coach, I ain’t Curtis,” said William. “I’m his baby brother.”
Rankin almost staggered when he saw Curtis. “My goodness, Curtis, you got big.”
“It ain’t nothin’ but baby fat,” Curtis said.
They sat on the couch with the TV turned low, paging through Curtis’s scrapbook and reminiscing about the good old days when Colby barnstormed the Great Plains, ransacking the opposition.
“You were the greatest player I ever coached,” Rankin said.
“You were the best coach I ever had,” said Curtis. “They loved us in that town. Man, everywhere I went people wanted my autograph. That was the best time of my life.”
Rankin took Curtis to a restaurant and bought him a steak and got down to business. He was now the head coach at a small college in Massachusetts. “I want you on my team,” he told Curtis. “Can you get in shape?”
“Man, I told you, this ain’t nothin’ but baby fat, coach.”
“You haven’t played in how long?”
“A year, but my skills are still here. They didn’t go nowhere.”
Curtis returned from that restaurant tingling with rich memories and bright dreams. He was all set to pack his bags and move out to Massachusetts. But there was a hitch: he couldn’t enroll until Rankin’s school had his transcripts, and Central Florida would not release his transcripts until he paid back a small debt he owed them.
Rankin called Curtis several times during the next few weeks. “All you have to do is write Colby and they’ll send you your transcripts directly,” he said. “I can’t write the letter. It has to come from you.”
“I’ll take care of it, coach,” said Curtis. But he never did. He picked up the pen and eyed the paper and never got any further than that. When he thought about it, he realized he didn’t want to move east, he didn’t want to work himself back into playing shape or risk the humiliation of not making the team. “Sooner or later, you gotta stop playing basketball, even if you make it to the NBA,” he told William. “I did all right with basketball, but I can’t worry about what I might have been. I got to get on with my life.”
Today, Curtis is a driver for Federal Express. He and Beatrice have a second child, Curtis Junior. Their daughter Sparkiesha is 12 years old.
He’s fondly remembered by coaches and reporters as one of the north side’s greatest players, but Curtis says he’s happy to be through with basketball. “I don’t miss the game,” says Curtis. “I feel so good about myself I don’t need it. I got a good job; I support my family. Basketball was fun while it lasted but I’m not gonna cry now that it’s gone.”
Catherine graduated from high school and enrolled at Northern Illinois University, where she was a student for two years. In 1993 she and William married. They now live in Milwaukee, where William is majoring in communications at Marquette University.
Catherine started classes at Marquette, but stopped after she became pregnant again. The birth of their second child had some parallels to Alicia’s birth. Once again Catherine was in the final stages of pregnancy as William prepared for a tournament. Will Junior was born on March 28, while William was in New York City with the rest of the Marquette team readying for the finals of the National Invitation Tournament. William caught a mid-morning flight home and arrived just after his son was born. The next day he zipped back to New York and watched from the bench, too tired to play, while his team lost a one-point heartbreaker to Virginia Tech.
With that game William’s basketball career ended; he has no plans to try out for the NBA. Instead, William and his family will move back to Chicago after he graduates in December, and he intends to get a job in public relations. “William and I have worked out a deal,” says Catherine. “I’m going to stay home and take care of the kids for a while. But after Will Junior’s a year or two old I’m going back to school and William’s going to pay for my college education. I plan to become a pharmacist. I have not given up on my dreams.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Bruce Powell.