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Authors: Doug Merlino

The Hustle

The Hustle

One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White

Doug Merlino

For my teammates
In memory of Tyrell Johnson

The color line raises the issue of identity. Theirs. Yours. Mine. Will we blend, change, survive, or is the color line one more measure of the limits of our collective imagination, our cultural graveyard of either/or terminal distinctions: black/white, male/female, young/old, good/bad, rich/poor, spirit/flesh? Is it possible to imagine ourselves other than we are, better?

—John Edgar Wideman

Part One

The Season

Basketball is one of those vigorous team activities which will help the youth reach the highest level of human efficiency. Activity leading to further activity, guided by intelligent and sympathetic leadership to achieve the fullest development of latent powers and capacities, is the immediate aim and need of society. The quality of the development will be judged by society in terms of powers and capacities which make for complete living.

—From the introduction to
Basketball: A text-book for coaches, players, recreation leaders, students and teachers of physical education,
published in
1929

 

Spring 1986

Front row:
Eric Hampton, Damian Joseph, Myran Barnes, Willie McClain Jr., Tyrell Johnson

Back row:
Assistant coach Joe Miller, Doug Merlino, Maitland Finley, Tony Simmons, Sean O'Donnell, John Thompson, head coach Willie McClain

One for All

April 1986

The brown Dodge van bumps and shakes along the freeway. Willie McClain gives it some gas and a groan comes from under the hood. McClain's hair, a mass of jheri curls, juts above the driver's seat. He's punched in the news station on the radio, and the announcer's voice drones from the speakers in the van's doors, talking about a showdown between Ronald Reagan and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. We sit on the shag carpet in the back, rocking from side to side, bouncing with every jolt and leaning into every turn.

“Come on, Mait,” urges Tyrell, flashing an elfin smile.

A few stifled giggles, and then expectant eyes. “I don't know,” Maitland mumbles. He stares at the van's carpet. Under his shaggy, sandy brown hair, he looks like a cherub, with blue eyes, pink lips, and a plaster-white face.

“You can do it, Mait,” says JT. While Tyrell's voice carries edges of urgency and challenge, JT's is reassuring.

Mait keeps his eyes cast down. We look to Eric, who, as usual, has been silently observing. Sometimes I steal a glance at Eric and try to figure out what he's thinking. I never can. You can say about anything to Eric, but nothing will break his poker face.

Everyone knows that Eric will settle this. He's the arbiter, the only one in the van who knows both sides of the team. He's black, and has grown up in the same neighborhood as the other black kids, but he also goes to school with the white guys. If he waves Tyrell off, everyone's attention will turn from Mait in an instant. But Eric seems to have processed the whole interaction and considered its particular dynamics and ramifications. He nods his head. “It's all right, Mait,” he says in his soft voice.

Mait looks up, balls his hand into a fist, puts it up over his mouth, takes a breath, and begins to blow.

Puh-ha-ha, Puh-ha-ha, Puh-ha-ha, Puh!

Puh-ha-ha, Puh-ha-ha, Puh-ha-ha, Puh!

Unrestrained laughter bounces off the sides of the van. Myran rolls over on his side, Tyrell next to him, both holding their hands over their mouths as they giggle. Sean, next to me with his back resting against the side of the van, looks around and chuckles, his blond hair flopping down on his forehead. Even Coach McClain—along with his son, Willie Jr., who's riding shotgun—is busting up. While our laughter is the contralto titters of fourteen-year-old boys, Coach McClain's seems to get stoked somewhere deep inside before it climbs up and shakes his whole frame as it booms out. His shoulders rise up and down in his navy blue track suit.

Maitland looks up and smiles. His face shows relief, and maybe something else. In this moment, he fits in. The separation between him and everyone else has diminished. He's reduced the distance between all the kids in the van. We've all seen something no one else can ever say they've witnessed: We were there when Maitland beat-boxed.

His model is, of course, the Human Beat Box, of the Fat Boys, a trio of obese rappers whose rhymes are odes to gluttony. They are third on the list of rappers everyone listens to, following Run DMC and LL Cool J.

Damian can get the authoritative tone of Run DMC:

I'm the King of Rock,

there is none higher,

sucker MCs should call me sire,

to burn my kingdom,

you must use fire,

I won't stop rockin' til I retire!

And Tyrell, a self-styled ladies' man, has LL Cool J (short for Ladies Love Cool James):

My radio believe me I like it loud,

I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd,

Walkin' down the street to the hardcore beat,

while my JVC vibrates the concrete.

And now Maitland has cornered the Fat Boys.

“Oh, man, Mait was
beat-boxing
,” Damian says, still laughing, as if he can't believe what he's seen and saying it out loud will make it real. Maitland's shoulders relax, and he looks around at the rest of us with the hint of a sly smile. In the four years I've known him, since fifth grade, I've hardly ever seen Mait look at ease. It's as if he's just exhaled in one long breath. I suddenly wish we could freeze and hold this moment, just to keep that look on his face a little longer.

We wear sweatpants, T-shirts, and sweatshirts over our bumblebee-yellow uniforms, which are made from some ungodly blend of synthetic fabric and perforated with tiny holes that are theoretically supposed to ventilate our perspiration. My shorts—and they are short—ride up my thighs and hug my butt in a way that is not comfortable. My jersey chafes me around the shoulders. I wear white and purple high-tops about the size of ski boots. They are Avias, never to be mistaken with anything remotely cool.

Everyone covets Air Jordans, black with a bold red Nike swoosh. The truth is, I actually have a pair of Jordans, but only wore them to school once. One of my friends ridiculed me for trying to “act black.” I was so embarrassed—the fact was, he was right—that I retired them to my closet and only occasionally put them on to shoot on the hoop in our driveway at home, if merely to justify for my mom the expense of buying them.

There are no quiet moments during the ride. If nothing else, someone will always start a capping battle.

“You're so ugly that mirrors have to get insurance in case you look in them.”

“You're so black, if you were walking down the street at night and closed your eyes, you'd be invisible.”

“Your mama's so fat, when she sits around the house, she
really
sits around the house.”

The goal is to come up with the most outrageous insult, one that will reduce the whole van to hysterics. The black guys—especially Tyrell, Myran, and Damian—are the teachers and the masters. It sometimes seems like the first words they ever said must have been caps. The rest of us act as a panel of judges, deciding who got in the best rip, our votes tallied by how hard we laugh. With no experience at playing the dozens, I usually sit silent and hope to go unnoticed. Not this time.

Myran jumps in. “Doug, your nose is so straight, it looks like a pencil.”

I look at Myran, who's looking at me, waiting for a response. I calculate the ways having a straight nose might be a bad thing. It seems low on the scale of life's catastrophes. I have plenty of weak spots—my lack of skills on the basketball court, for example, or my nearly total inability to utter anything coherent around a girl (Tyrell got at that when he capped on me: “Doug, you haven't been in a woman since you came out of your mama”)—but my nose has never really concerned me.

Myran continues. “You're so white, Casper the Friendly Ghost sees you and gets scared.”

My instinctive reaction, which I hold in, is to blurt out, “I am not that white!” I realize that saying it would only prove his point.

I feel my mouth hanging open. Myran loves to rank. Eric and Damian have been prepping me, telling me that I should have some caps ready to get him back if he goes after me. Eric—who usually sits just as silent as I do—has even helped me make up caps so I don't have to think of my own. Most relate to Myran's lips. Everyone goes at Myran for his lips. Their size is a van-ride leitmotif. As I sit there mute, I have Eric's ready-made caps on my own lips, but I hesitate.

I consider Damian and Eric's suggestions that I go back at Myran. Both of them are always watching the angles. A few weeks earlier, between games at a tournament when the team headed out of the gym to get lunch at McDonald's, Damian—a skinny guy with a strut and ears that stick out from his head—stopped near the door, climbed up into the stands, and sat down among a bunch of players on a team from one of Seattle's wealthiest suburbs. The rest of us kept walking toward McDonald's. Five minutes later, Damian caught up, a bag of Skittles in one hand and a can of Coke in the other as a result of his efforts. “They just gave them to me,” he explained.

Eric specializes in sizing people up. It's part of what makes him such a good basketball player. A quarter or two into a game, he'll have his opponent figured out and know how to exploit his weaknesses. If the guy goes for Eric's head fake, then Eric will throw that at him until he can stop it. If the guy dribbles only with his right hand, then Eric overplays until he has to go left.

Both seem to know more about human nature than I do. Maybe they are showing me a way to be accepted, like Maitland with the beat-boxing. Or they could be setting me up. More than anything, I worry about standing out. I don't want to start anything with Myran. All I really want to do is keep my head down and fit in with the group.

Myran is waiting. I begin to open my mouth. Nothing comes out. Maybe ten seconds pass. And then Myran moves on, and the natural flow of the ranking returns.

The back of the van is our own world. Coach McClain usually lets us be, content to pilot his raggedy old van down the freeway and let us go on talking about our usual subjects: the games we just played; everything and anything about girls; who's better—Magic, Jordan, Isiah, or Bird?

Sometimes, though, the balance wobbles. Usually it's Myran who starts it to rocking, such as when—treading dangerously close to his own weakness—he begins to make fun of
Maitland's
lips. Once Myran gets warmed up, only a display of greater force will stop him.

McClain, drawing from a lifetime accumulation of caps, finally takes control, breaking in from the driver's seat:

“Myran, Myran, it's such a shame, cuz you don't even know your daddy's name.”

The back of the van explodes with guffaws. Guys are rolling on their sides, hands on their foreheads. “Oh, Coach, that was
cold
!” Damian says.

It will be many years before I realize how desperately McClain wants the team to work out and how nervous he is that one of his guys will blurt out something that can't be taken back.

Myran sits silent. Hidden behind the bravado is a boy who is more adrift than any of us ever knew.

The gym looks the same as every other one we play in: collapsible wooden bleachers that stack up and roll out with a grudging rumble; the banners of all the schools in the conference hung on the cream-colored, cinderblock walls; an American flag, sagging just a bit in the middle, tacked up behind a hoop; the shiny maple floor that squeaks when the soles of your sneakers drag across it; over the door, a clock protected from stray balls by a metal grille; above the clock, a scoreboard with a timer and sides labeled “Home” and “Visitor.”

We walk onto the floor after the two-hour van ride. With no windows and fluorescent lighting, there is a twilight feeling inside the gym. It smells like basketball, a blend of sweat and dust.

We are north of Seattle, just a short drive from the Canadian border. Spectators meander from the stands to the concession stall, coming back balancing hot dogs, bags of popcorn, Red Vines, and soft drinks in Coca-Cola cups, all of it packed into flimsy cardboard carry boxes.

We strip off our sweatpants and T-shirts, stuff them in the bags we carry, and toss them behind the bench. This method means that we will not have to change in front of each other. It also looks kind of cool—or so it seems to me—like when NBA players brusquely rip off their warm-up gear before entering a game. Our tube socks ride high, pulled up three quarters of the way to our knees. Sean and I both wear white T-shirts under our uniforms, a look inspired by Patrick Ewing of the Georgetown Hoyas. I think it makes me look tough. Tyrell goes one better, wearing a yellow T-shirt—which matches our uniform tops in color—under his jersey. He also has a yellow sweatband perched halfway up his left forearm and a gold necklace that he absentmindedly flips in and out from under his shirt. The other guys wear our butt-hugging uniforms without adornment.

As we take the court, Randy Finley, our organizer and financial backer—and Maitland's father—sits one row behind Willie McClain and chatters in his ear. Finley is a six-foot-two white man with a big belly contained under a tan flannel shirt that he's tucked into his jeans, and a bushy head of salt-and-pepper hair with a thick mustache to match. McClain, with his muscular frame and scowl of concentration, looks a little scary to me—less like a basketball coach than someone who could play linebacker next to Mike Singletary on the Chicago Bears.

I've always had a hard time relating to coaches. On TV and in sports movies, they are always stern but wise, demanding but kindhearted. In my own experience, they are more likely to be commandeering, clipboard-toting strutters in nut-hugging sweatpants, consumed with dreams of glory. McClain, though, is absolutely restrained. If you mess up in practice, he'll yell, but without anger. He expects you to do as he says, because you don't want to find out what will happen if you don't.

We form two lines near midcourt and begin the drill nearly all basketball teams start with: From the right side, one player dribbles toward the basket and lays up a shot off the glass backboard. From the left, another waits for the ball to drop through the net, grabs it, and then fires a pass out to the next player approaching the hoop. Each player goes to the end of the opposite line, and the drill forms a perfect sequence, like a perpetual-motion machine. Here, it's all about showing off: Sean, who is mostly spindly legs in his uniform, weakly thumps the palm of his hand against the backboard as he lays it in; Tyrell comes under the hoop and puts in a reverse; Eric stutter-steps and then nonchalantly banks it off the glass; I imagine I am an NBA player striding toward the basket and then flipping the ball up like it's an afterthought. Maitland and JT are the only two players who don't try any moves. The gym reverberates with thumping basketballs.

The scorekeeper, seated at half court, hits a button on a black metal box on the table in front of him and a shrill buzzer squawks. We gather in a circle around Coach McClain, who kneels down and goes over his usual instructions: Stick to your man. Work to get open. Attack the basket. Look for the open player. When he finishes, we pile our hands one on top of another and slowly raise them.

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