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Authors: Jim Gavin

Middle Men

BOOK: Middle Men
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Play the Man


Elephant Doors


Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror

Middle Men

Part I: The Luau

Part II: Costello


About Jim Gavin

In memory of Barbara Gavin

Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.

—James Joyce,

Play the Man

he Romans had a hard time killing Polycarp of Smyrna. In the stadium, surrounded by bloodthirsty pagans, he heard a voice. “Be strong, Polycarp,” the voice said, “and play the man.” The good bishop smiled calmly at his persecutors. They tried to set him on fire, but his flesh would not be consumed. They pierced his heart with a sword, but a dove issued from his chest. The afternoon dragged on like that, miracle after miracle, until they finally cut off his balls, or fed him to the Sarlacc pit monster, or whatever. I'm not a theologian, so I don't know all the facts, but eventually Christian artisans painted those divine words, “Play the man,” on the gym wall of St. Polycarp High School in Long Beach.

On the first day of summer practice, Coach Boyd gathered us at center circle. I was going to be a junior and had just transferred from Trinity Prep, a bigger and better Catholic school in Orange County. St. Polycarp had one-third the enrollment, and it was all boys. I didn't know anybody yet, but according to my racial calculus—seven white, four black, one Asian—I would go straight into the starting lineup. It was 1992. Our shorts were getting baggy and Magic had AIDS.

“This is Pat Linehan,” said Coach Boyd, putting a hand on my shoulder. “We're lucky to have him.”

Trinity had the best basketball program in the state; I expected everyone to be impressed by my pedigree, but nobody seemed to care. Coach Boyd pointed to the fading mural of St. Polycarp.

“That's sort of our motto,” he told me. “ ‘Play the man.'”

“Do you mean man-to-man defense?” said a tall white kid with bad acne and luxurious eyebrows.

“You know what I mean,” said Coach Boyd.

“Because we play zone.”

“I know we play zone, Tully. Don't start with me.”

Earlier, when I first walked into the gym, one of the black kids, Greg Overton, told me that I looked just like Dustin Tully. He was right, except I also had braces, which should've come off a while ago, but my dad had lost his job, and our dental plan, and now I was stuck with them.

Coach Boyd was barefoot. I found this troubling. Authority figures usually wore shoes. At the time, with his thinning blond hair and mustache, he seemed like an old man, but he was probably in his early thirties. “Now, listen,” said Coach Boyd. “This summer we'll be taking a journey together.”

“You mean the tournament in Ventura?” said Tully.

“No,” said Coach Boyd.

“So we're not going to Ventura?” said Tully.

going to Ventura, but that's not the kind of journey I'm talking about. Just listen for a second.”

“Do you mean a
journey?” said Tully.

“Yeah, but if you say it like that, it sounds stupid.”

“Since we play zone,” said Tully, “maybe our motto should be ‘Play the zone.'”

“Do you want to run?” said Coach Boyd. “Because we can run all day.”

“Polycarp was schizophrenic,” said Tully. “All the saints were.”

“Baseline,” said Coach Boyd, and we spent the next hour running suicides.

•  •  •

For extra money my dad used to ref summer league games. As a result, I was lucky enough to grow up in gyms all over Southern California. At halftime I'd run down to the court with a ball, showing off my handle, my range. Even then I was a vain little shit. I imagined the bleachers full of college scouts, but the bleachers were usually empty. Summer league was a languid affair. Players yawned in the layup lines as their coaches sipped Big Gulps. In 1983, when I was seven, my dad worked a tournament at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The first game of the afternoon featured Crenshaw High, the L.A. city league powerhouse. They had John Williams,
John Williams, seventeen and already a legend. He walked in the gym and instead of warming up, he took a nap on the bleachers. I could hear him snoring. My dad blew the whistle for tip-off and one of his teammates woke him up. He walked to center court, still rubbing sleep from his eyes. Early on he got the ball on the right wing, drifted lazily to the baseline, then spun back, hard, into traffic, splitting two defenders, and though he could've dunked, he chose, with impeccable taste, to finish with a reverse layup. The beatific vision—you catch a glimpse and spend your whole life chasing it. At my next YMCA game, I tried to skip warm-ups and take a nap, but my dad yanked me up and threw me back among the mortals.

When I got older, he used to drive me around Long Beach,
looking for pickup games. If he drove by a park and didn't see a sufficient number of black guys who'd kick my ass, he'd keep going. His strategy almost paid off, because in eighth grade, after playing well in an AAU tournament, I was approached by a shadowy recruiter from Trinity—a “friend of the school,” he called himself—who said I would be a nice addition to the basketball program. My parents, wanting to vouchsafe my future, agreed to take on the higher tuition and longer commute. When I got to Trinity, the coaches described me as “heady” and “deceptively quick,” both of which meant I was “white.” Apparently, I was using my superior Western European intellect to cross over fools and get to the basket. Somehow this didn't transfer to the classroom. In ninth grade, I flunked algebra. A counselor suggested I might have a tragic condition called “math anxiety.”

My brain was average and so was my body. The coaches who liked my game kept asking when I was going to “fill out.” I was six-foot and scrawny, with a weird concave chest that was a major source of shame. After playing JV my sophomore year, starting about half our games, I expected to move up, but several transfers arrived from exotic places like Westchester and Fontana and they were all seriously filled out. One kid was featured in a
Sports Illustrated
article as the best fifteen-year-old in the nation. At some point, Ted Washburn, the varsity head coach, called me into his office. He was a big man, with jowls, and in his Nike tracksuit, he exuded the portly air of a Renaissance king. After zero small talk he advised me to transfer so I could get some playing time. I vowed to fight for my place. “I like you, Pat,” he said. “But you don't have a place here.”

•  •  •

Coach Boyd finally told us to get water. As we drank from the porcelain fountain, sucking its leaden bounty, he conferred privately with Tully and then called us back to center circle. “I don't want to be an asshole,” he said. “I had plenty of asshole coaches and I don't want to be like that. All I ask for is your respect.”

That's when I started to lose respect for Coach Boyd. I thought we'd go into drills, but instead we divided up for a scrimmage. Chris Pham, the starting point guard, wore Rec Specs. He couldn't go left and every time he tried to change direction, I ripped his ball. I got down low and barked in his face, the way I had been taught. My rabid defensive posture amused my new teammates; they all sat back in a listless zone, waiting for something to happen. Tully was the tallest guy on the team, but he liked to hang around the three-point line. Overton and another black kid, Devaughn Weaver, swatted me a couple times, but otherwise I carved up their zone, either finishing or passing to someone with bad hands and no imagination.

After practice Tully asked why I had transferred. Anticipating this question, I had prepared a lie. “I got in a fight with a coach,” I said.

“Did he try and rape you or something?”


“So the sex was consensual?”

“Don't listen to him,” said Overton, laughing and pushing Tully out of the way.

Weaver asked about some of Trinity's players, guys with big local reps who were going to Pac-10 schools. I lied again, saying that before I left, I was also getting recruited.

“Serious?” said Weaver.

“Nobody good,” I said, with preening modesty. “Fresno State. UC Santa Barbara. Places like that.”

“I'm going to Cypress Junior College,” said Tully. “My stepmom went there, so I'm a legacy.”

I quickly changed my shirt, hoping no one would notice my weird concave chest.

“What's wrong with your chest?” said Tully.

“Nothing,” I said. “It's just like that.”

Everyone was staring. Pham switched from Rec Specs to glasses.

“My cousin's got the same thing,” said Weaver. “It's all pushed in.”

“It looks like somebody dropped a bowling ball on your chest,” said Tully.

More than humiliation, I felt stunned by the cold accuracy of his description. That's
what my chest looked like.

My mom was waiting for me in the gym parking lot. She worked the perfume counter at Montgomery Ward and she was still in her nice clothes. My three little brothers were in the back of the minivan. They spent their lives getting dragged to all my practices and games. My mom turned on KOST-FM and we all sat in silence, listening to Barry Manilow. Just before the Los Coyotes Diagonal, I heard thumping bass and saw Tully cruising alongside us in a burgundy Chevette. Overton was slumped in the passenger seat, with his leg out the window resting on the side mirror. They were both drinking forties. At a light they pulled up alongside us and put down their bottles. My mom turned and noticed them.

“Those guys are on your team,” she said.

“I know.”

“Well, say hi!”

I stared straight ahead.

“What's the matter with you?” She started waving and yelling out the window, as if her life depended on this minor social occasion. “Hey! I'm Pat's mom!”

“Hello, Mrs. Higginbottom!” said Tully.

“Linehan!” she said. “We're the Linehans!”

“I'll see you at the regatta, Mrs. Higginbottom!”

My mom looked at me. “What the hell is he talking about?”

The light changed and Tully accelerated past us. Before getting home, we stopped for gas. My mom believed that gas was somehow cheaper five dollars at a time, which meant we were always stopping for gas. I pumped while she stood next to me, smoking a Winston Gold and squinting into the four o'clock haze. She was still baffled by the Mrs. Higginbottom business.

“Was that little shit making fun of me?”

•  •  •

We lived in a leafy neighborhood near the Long Beach Airport. When we got home, my dad was up on a ladder in the driveway, putting a new net on the basket. He used to be an electrician, but ten years ago he started teaching at a vocational school. At first it was for extra money, but after a string of knee and back surgeries, most of them the result of his continued participation in a men's basketball league, he happily started teaching full-time. He worked with apprentice electricians, helping them get ready for their journeyman exams. Since the school closed in January, he had been looking for contract work, but new construction had slowed down and he was having a hard time “getting back in the game.” My mom didn't think he was looking hard enough. They had frequent arguments on this point. As we came up the driveway, he climbed
down the ladder on his bad knees, wincing in pain, to make my mom feel bad for being such a tyrant. She walked past him without saying a word.

BOOK: Middle Men
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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