Saturday, January 30, 2010

"The Pit"....Knockout

(I've been asked, "Where did you get the pictures?" When I write, I visualize the story unfolding in illustrations... Over the past several months, sometimes my inspiration for a chapter unfolds on canvas. In KNOCKOUT, I have painted four 24" x 36" oils on canvas.)

I still have fond memories of putting on my black rubber snow boots, over my high top black Chuck Taylors [sneakers]; and heading over to the Longview Middle School in Ellington on a Saturday morning. If you weren't playing, you were watching your friends from high atop the stage. As the scoreboard glowed and quarters spun round and round, you wished the games would last for ever. Coaches like Goldie Spielman, Dick Gunn, Lenny Johnson, and Al Bemont...faced off like today's top college coaches. And if you were lucky, your team had a secret weapon..."the medicine ball." Ready to pump you up! Half time, which seemed like all of three minutes, usually consisted of letting every kid in the gym play a quick game of Knockout... It seems like yesterday. I hope you enjoy reading how I've incorporated these memories into Chapter 4.

KNOCKOUT, Chapter 4 "The Pit..."

The 3:15 bell echoed as I stuffed my planner into my backpack and raced out the door. I slid down the oak banister and headed straight for the pit. The hallway leading to the all-purpose room was lined with duffel bags, mismatched boots and tossed overcoats.
Everyone thought it was easy being the manager, but they didn't have put up with Coach.
“Why's the new kid got his scrimmage jersey on backwards?”
“What happened to the ice in the water jug?”
Just when you solved one problem, Coach had you thinking about something else.
Hopping off the last railing, my high tops sang as I pushed open the paneled door covered with wire fence. Legend has it, Coach actually mounted a section of fence to the door following an inadvertent pass thrown during his famous star drill. It wasn't so much the drill itself, but Coach always added his own twist to everything.
“Snap the ball!” Coach had shouted, as the five-line drill soon moved like a well-oiled machine. Coach loved to tell stories of how it used to be and everyone loved the classic star drill story the best.
“When the ball began to pop, that's when I decided to remove the basketball and replace it with a medicine ball!” No one knows where Coach ever discovered the lead-like ball for sure, but some say it felt like a cannon ball left over from the Civil War.
“What do you say?” Coach pleaded, trying to move the leather sphere faster and faster. I think Coach always leaves out the part when he should have warned the team of the super powers they were about to show. Around and around the ball went, building muscles with each grunt.
Coach said players began dropping like plants wilted in the sun; as Grandpa reached out and made believe he caught the imaginary medicine ball with one hand.
“That's when I took out the new red white and blue ball,” Coach said. “The players looked like they had just eaten three cans of spinach. The ball flew across the circle like it was shot out of a cannon.”
Grandpa said, “The medicine ball gave' m so much power they didn't know what to do with it. Sent' m right into orbit—just like a spaceship.”
Unfortunately for Coach, the ball and the player crashed into the door—just as Sister Mary Catherine was making her daily rounds.
And that's why the medicine ball is still up on the shelf—collecting cobwebs.
And that's why a piece of fence is covering the pit door.
Grandpa used to spend time teaching me ways of handling kids, like he was
getting me ready to be a coach someday.
“I wanna play!” I told him, following him around the pit.
And it didn't matter how much I brought it up or how big of a stink I made, the conversation always came back to me being the team's manager.
“Being the manager doesn't mean you do everything to get ready, but making sure everything is ready.” he'd say.
“What if I hurry up and get everything ready myself,” I suggested. “Then I can still have time to practice with the team.”
“Gotta learn how to delegate,” Coach insisted. “That's a word to get everyone to work together to get things done, It's like running a ship.”
I knew I didn't have a chance.
“If the captain did all the work,” Coach said. “The ship would never leave the port!”
I don't know why, but it's been a long time since I heard Grandpa use words like “delegate.” Words that went right over my head and out the door. Teaching me things that made me stop right in my tracks and think. Maybe it is time for me to start using some of the things Grandpa been teaching me.
“Alright Leon,” I said. “Since you're the first one into the pit, I've got a special job just for you!” Coach says I should always reward kids for hustling to practice.
“Gimme a hand folding up these tables,” I said, kicking the center rod with my heel, as the table snapped, like a soldier at attention.
Within minutes, Leon and I had all the tables cleared, just as Wesley and Elmer poked their heads through the wire mesh. Even with all the shades open, sunlight seldom made it all the way to the court, as the brick skyline blanked the sun's rays.
“Stack and roll!” I commanded. Wesley and Elmer shot into action. No one could make a higher pile of chairs.
I remember last fall when Elmer was trying to meet Wesley's challenge of pulling thirty-seven chairs across the pit. Little did Elmer know the chairs had been stacked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“Big-Oooooooooooooooo!” I cried out, happy to see the six foot three, two hundred and thirty pound sixth grader. Odin Kamay just moved from across the river, and filled out every bit of his seventeen inch sneakers.
“Hey big guy! I need your muscle,” I said, assigning him the task of rolling down the backboards. Usually, cries and moans were followed by popped blisters, but Odin accomplish the feat in less time that it took the rest of the team working together. And you never heard the Big-O complain that his arm was going to fall off. Coach said rolling up and down the backboards builds character, and if you ask me—the new kids got it.
Before Coach arrived, I would always get the kids warmed up with a game of Knockout.
The rules are simple; a player takes a shot at the basket from the foul line, and if they miss, they try and get their ball into the hoop before the player behind them makes their shot. It sounds easy, but believe me, when the game gets going and kids start scrambling after missed balls and shots are being taken from all over the pit—things can get pretty heated up.
Weeks and months passed before I finally won my very first game of Knockout.
“Knockout!” I screamed, as my ball caromed off the backboard, then tip-toed around, before dropping through the net. Elmer and his buddies stood with their tongues nearly touching the ground.
“No way!” cried Elmer, finally breaking the silence.
“Yes way,” I answered, raising my hands up—like the boys do—every time they win.
My success was short lived, the next time up I fired the ball too long and it went over everything—including the backboard. I was lucky it didn't go out the window and across the river.
“Knockout!” Wally said, easily putting the ball through the net after his shot rolled off the rim and right into his hands.
I was out, but vowed to get better from that day on. As weeks and months passed, I soon found myself going head to head with the best. Some boys took this as a threat, and refused to play, but one glance from Coach Buck and they found themselves watching from the sideline. And that is why I know I'm ready to be playing on the team, not just watching.
I was so good at Knockout, everyone started calling me Knockout. But it's not the same as playing in a real game.
Most the time the guys were pretty good about having “a girl” around. And some of them even went so far as to try and help me with my game. Sometimes I would try and get in a quick game of Horse before practice. That's a game where one player calls out the shot he's going to make—even before he shoots it. Then if he makes it, the next player has to make the same shot. Exactly!
My foul shot's my bread and butter.
Coach always says, “Save your bread and butter for the end—that's how you knock' m out.”
“Dribble the ball with two hands,” I shouted. “And then spin the ball into the air.”
I let the ball bounce a few feet ahead of me and the spin pulled it right back up into my hands—like a yo-yo on a string.
“Two steps, jump off the floor, follow through.” I add, as I took a peek at my competition. The ball banged off the little square just above the rim and into the hoop.
“Off the square!” I called, almost forgetting to make sure the next shooter banks their shot off the backboard.
Coach entered the gym and gave an ear-piercing, window-rattling, bone-chilling whistle. The whistle popped out of his mouth and rested comfortable, atop his shapely waistline. That tarnished whistle had seen it all—both the good times and the bad. Coach says the whistle was a gift from my grandma the day he received his first coaching job.
“Here, Coach!”
“Odin?” Coach called, looking over his glasses at the new face.
“Here, Coach!” Odin said, leaning over the clipboard.
Grandpa checked off each hopeful's name—one by one.
I knew I wasn't on that list, but I still waited. Waited to hear it right from my Grandpa's own lips. And of course I knew deep down, even if Grandpa called out names for days, I wasn't gonna hear the name, Alexandra Walkowitz. But it didn't stop me from waiting like everyone else.