Take It to the Limit (excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues.) This is a repost. I needed a shot of 70’s style high school basketball and a reminder to live in the moment.
“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the Hilltopper’s student section chanted.
“No way that was a charge, Jack,” Jenkins shouted as he jerked Jack up from the floor. “Keep takin’ it to the hole.”
“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the students yelled as the referee signaled four and four with his hands, Jack’s uniform number, to the scorer’s table.
It was the rematch against the Black Hills Miners, midway through the fourth quarter of the suspended boys’ first game back, and Jack’s dunk over J.J. “Davy” Crockett would have given St. Jude its first lead of the game. Instead they remained a point down, and Jack picked up his fourth foul.
“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!”
The St. Jude crowd, stinging from the treatment at Black Hills, had been rowdy at the start, screaming like banshees during a tight first half. They hushed when Black Hills opened up a thirteen-point lead in the third, but revved up when St. Jude closed the gap in the fourth. Coach Collins took full advantage of the experienced gained by Tompkins, McElroy, and Pitman during the suspension, and rotated eleven players in and out of the game. Like a prizefighter saving a reserve of energy for the final round, when the fourth quarter rolled around Collins unleashed his rested starters along with the two-two-one full-court press. Not as deep as St. Jude, the Miners felt the squeeze, turning the ball over and letting the Hilltoppers back into the game.
As he ran up court after the foul, Jack glanced to the sidelines and saw Black Hill’s coach Stan “The General” Patton striding in front of the visitors bench, forever in his white shirt and black and red striped tie, hands clapping, grinning face a contorted scarlet, violet neck veins bulging. Patton was thrilled with the call, Jack thought, hopeful it might stem the Topper tide.
“Let ’em holler, Crockett,” Patton shouted. “That was a helluva play, boy. Way to sacrifice yourself. Good hustle, good goddamn hustle. Now let’s get two.”
Jack passed the half court line and the scorer’s table and looked to the Hilltoppers bench, expecting to see Collins shouting similar encouragement. Instead, Collins stood with his hands on his hips, staring into the howling student section, while Scooter shouted at the ref.
“You owe us one,” Scooter yelled, hoping to plant a seed for the next close call. “No way Crockett had position. No way.”
“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” echoed through the Wreck.
Collins turned and marched to the scorer’s table and snatched the PA announcer’s microphone. “Not here, not here,” he said into the mic, looking toward the student section.
The bullshit chant slowed, but did not stop.
“I said, not here!” Collins shouted and pointed at the students. “Not at St. Jude. We’re better than that.”
The chant faded then died, leaving a muffled murmur that rolled like an ocean swell around the gym. Collins handed the mic to the announcer, signaled for timeout and strode toward the bench.
As he did so the subdued swell transformed into a growing wave of cheers and a building crescendo of applause. The students began a different chant.
“We are HILLTOPPERS…We are HILLTOPPERS…WeAREHILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS!” The noise ricocheting off the concrete block walls as the entire crowd joined in.
Patton stared at Collins like a father caught in a lie by his son. The blood drained from his face, grin turning to a glare, as he stopped marching and called his players to the bench.
“What the hell does he mean ‘we’re better?’” Patton yelled at the Miner’s team physician, Dr. Keck. “Uppity—”
“C’mon, Stan,” Keck said, grabbing Patton by the arm and turning him to the bench.
Collins did not hear Patton or chose to ignore him. He unbuttoned the top button of his blue Brooks Brothers suit jacket and knelt on one knee in front of the St. Jude bench, head down. The five starters sat facing him, drinking water and wiping sweat off with white cotton towels.
Collins waved away the clipboard Scooter offered.
“You want to sub for Jack?” Lane asked. “That was his fourth, and we’ve got three-plus minutes to play.”
“Nope, we’ll keep him in,” Collins said, lifting his head. “Need his offense.”
Collins’s brown eyes roved from Jenkins to Gudy to Brewster to Connolly to Jack. He pointed to his head then thumped his chest with his fist. “That’s what it comes down to!” he shouted. “Keep up the full court pressure. Run the offense. Trust yourself and your teammates. Remember the ‘Law of the Jungle.’ Now let’s win this thing. I’m sick and tired of losing to Patton and the damn Miners.”
Collins stood and extended a steady right hand forward. Scooter, Lane, and the five starters covered it. The boys standing behind Collins closed in tight.
“We are,” the team shouted in unison with the surging crowd, “HILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS… WEAREHILLTOPPERS!”
Because of the foul the Miners had to take the ball the length of the court, allowing the Toppers to set up their press. To make it more difficult, the Black Hills basket was on the side of the court away from their bench, making it impossible for his players to hear Patton.
“Jack, Gudy, Brew,” Collins shouted as the huddle broke, “because of Jack’s fouls he’s going to play safety on the press. Brew you take Gudy’s spot at right middle. Gudy you go to left middle. All right, let’s go!”
“This ain’t the NBA,” Patton shouted in the huddle. “No shot clock. So be patient. Get a good shot or make ’em foul. We have a one-point lead. We’re in the bonus. Foul puts you at the line. Remember, as long as we have the lead, the pressure’s on them to get the ball and score.”
Crockett inbounded the ball to the Miners point guard, a five-foot seven, one-hundred thirty pound watermelon-seed-slick kid named Freddy “Mercury” Morrissey. Jack did not know if the nickname paid homage to Queen’s smooth-sounding lead singer or the Miami Dolphins running back, Mercury Morris. Or if Mercury was what every fast kid was called by his buddies or by ground-down veteran sportswriters tired of trying to dub jocks with fresh handles. Regardless, the soot-freckled Mercury Morrissey gave opposing teams fits.
The full-court press on, Jenkins and Connolly, tried to trap Mercury in the corner, but he squirted free and hit Crockett in full stride with a looping pass at the top of the key. Gudy and Brewster tried to close, but neither possessed Jack’s athleticism and Crockett crossed half court, avoiding a ten count.
Jack hung back in Brewster’s safety position, knowing he might have picked the pass off. It was on such a play he drew his fourth foul. He leapt high, snatched the ball and drove to the hole. But Crockett, as swift as Jack, slipped in front of him and picked up the charge, forcing Collins to adjust the boys’ places in the press to protect Jack. But Jack reminded himself to not be too aggressive. He was the safety now, the last line of defense. With Gudy trailing the ball, Jack kept Crockett and the Miner’s center, Kurt Svenson, in front of him as the rest of the Toppers raced to pick up their man. Crockett waited for Morrissey than passed him the ball.
Then the cat and mouse game began.
Crockett and the three other Miners ran to the separate corners of the half court, leaving the point guard inside the half-court circle with Jenkins guarding him.
“Four-corners,” Collins shouted. “They’re running the four-corners offense. Stay with your man. Deny the ball. Force the five-second call. Don’t foul unless I tell you to. Jack, stay with Svenson. Gudy take Crockett. Brew pick up the other forward.”
The four-corners offense was designed to protect leads at the end of games and score, to move the ball within the square, the players in the corner cutting across the middle to free a man for an easy path to the basket or a backdoor pass for a lay up. It ate up clock, wore down the defense, and resulted in easy baskets or fatigue fouls and trips to the line. It required a strong point guard like Morrissey who could make free throws, but his teammates needed to be good ball-handlers and shooters as well. Morrissey could not dribble the ball for three-plus minutes.
The St. Jude crowd, recognizing the four-corners, booed.
“Play ball, Patton,” the students yelled. “You gutless wonder!”
But Jack knew Patton made the right call. The Toppers had momentum, closing the Miners thirteen point lead to one. Out of timeouts, the only way Patton could hope to get a measure of control was to slow the game down. On his haunches at the far end of the Black Hills bench, leathery palms cupped around his mouth, shouting instructions his players could not hear, Patton knew the issue could not be forced, this game one the Miners must survive, not go out and win. Patton reveled in the catcalls, as the fans grew restless watching the Toppers chase Morrissey and the Miners around. Better to hear boos than cheers when the Toppers stole the ball off the press and Jack or Gudy slammed home dunks.
The old warhorse knew how to win a basketball game.
It surprised Jack, however, that Patton would keep Svenson in the game, the lumbering Swede easy for Jack to guard and avoid a fifth foul. At six foot nine, two hundred and fifty pounds Svenson was a man among boys. Clogging the lane with his bulk, he forced high-fliers like Jack and Gudy to adjust their drives, while his shoving and leaning took a toll on Brewster. But he could not dribble, shoot the ball, or rebound reliably. Svenson was a basketball player only because Patton said he was.
At first, the four-corners worked to perfection. Morrissey zipped in and out, dribbling, cutting, faking drives to the hole and then reversing, a gasping Jenkins focused on keeping the slippery guard from slithering past for an easy layup. After fifteen to twenty seconds, Morrissey gave up the ball to Crockett, or any teammate besides Svenson, who passed or dribbled for five to ten seconds before returning the ball to Morrissey. A minute fell off the game clock like a raindrop from heaven, and the frenzied St. Jude fans howled in frustration.
“Deny the pass,” Collins shouted at Gudy, Brewster, and Lane the next time Morrissey had the ball in the middle. “Jack, Jenkins. Trap the ball. Trap the ball!”
Patton, hearing Collins, jumped up and whistled and waved like a traffic cop, desperate to signal his players. But Morrissey, back to the Black Hills bench, could not see Patton, and the coach’s whistling was lost in the hooting and hollering of the Toppers fans. Morrissey dribbled hard to the hoop on the right side of the court where Jack stood keeping his body between Svenson and the ball. Jenkins denied Morrissey a path to the basket, the little man stopped short of the baseline, spun to his right and shifted the ball to his left, expecting to see Jack with Svenson and squirt between them and Jenkins toward the half court line.
But as Morrissey spun, Jack abandoned Svenson, planted his right foot on the base line and spread his left leg wide. Jenkins closed fast also and within a split second they bottled the slick Mercury on the baseline.
“One…two… three…” the ref counted, right hand holding a silver whistle in pursed lips, ready to blow, left arm marking the count with hatchet-like chops. If he reached five, the Toppers took possession. Morrissey’s eyes searched for an open cutter between Jack and Jenkins’s arms and elbows, but Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster stayed on their men, cutting off all hope.
In the corner stood the statue-like, blond-haired Svenson, arms extended, eyes wide, hands trembling.
“Mercury, Mercury, Mercury,” he dry-mouthed, not wanting the ball but compelled by a sense of duty to call for it.
“Four…” the ref roared, left arm slashing.
Morrissey kept his pivot foot in place, ball faked toward half court then jab stepped to the baseline extending his short arms toward the crowd behind the basket and wrapped a short bounce pass around Jack’s right leg to Svenson. The big man bent low, caught the ball and held it above his head looking, like Morrissey had, for an open man. But Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster had their men covered, Jenkins stayed with Morrissey, and Jack turned and closed fast on Svenson. Jack planted his left leg on the baseline, keeping his body between the center and the basket. Svenson would have to find an open player or dribble the ball up the sideline toward center court, a perilous trip even for an expert dribbler.
“One…two…” the ref began again.
Jack thrust his arms to the sky and edged as close to Svenson as he dared without fouling. The Swede’s blue eyes bulged, sweat rolled down his flushed face. No man open, no timeouts left. The massive Miner had one path to freedom.
“Three…” the ref yelled.
Svenson pivoted away from Jack, brought the ball to his waist and laid it with a solid THUMP against the hardwood, shuffling up the sideline, white, size fourteen, Converse high tops skimming the floor, eyes on the ball, big body creeping like a man lost in the dark.
THUMP went the ball again, and Svenson slid down the line, Jack pressing him on every step.
The St. Jude fans screamed. The few Black Hills fans in attendance and the entire bench, including Patton, stood frozen, never having seen the senior center dribble more than a few times in succession during the course of his three-year varsity career.
THUMP, THUMP…Svenson dribbled twice in succession and took a full step forward, confidence growing.
“Sven!” a sprinting Morrissey shouted, freed from Jenkins by a pick from Crockett .
Svenson, releasing the ball for another dribble, lifted his head and turned a few degrees to see Mercury streak by, arms waving, and as the big man’s head rose, his huge foot followed. He dropped his hands to catch the ball and whip it to Mercury, but instead of one last reassuring THUMP against the hardwood there was a muffled THUD as the leather ball landed on the toe of the Swede’s big sneaker and bounced out of bounds.
An ecstatic St. Jude student wearing dark glasses and a Blues Brothers fedora caught the ball as the ref shouted, “Toppers ball!” and pointed toward the St. Jude basket.
Svenson clutched his head as he ran down the court. Crockett patted him on the back. Patton kicked the floor, cursing not Svenson but himself for not pulling the big man during the timeout.
“Run the offense!” Collins pointed to Jenkins as he took the inbounds pass from Connolly.
Unlike a lot of coaches, Collins did not call timeout to set up a play at the end of a game. He believed this was where good coaching and practice paid dividends. No need to diagram a play and allow the rattled Miners to set up an inbounds defense. The Toppers either executed the motion offense as taught or not. “Practices are class, games are tests,” he said many times. “And the end of a close game is like a final exam. Let’s see how you do when the pressure’s on.” He could not play the game for them. He would not play the game for them.
Jenkins dribbled the ball toward center court, Mercury Morrissey picking him up at the half court line.
Jack and the boys waited for Connolly to join them, each player taking his position, readying themselves for the action to come, hearts revving like the Indy 500 field waiting for the green flag. Jenkins picked up his dribble at the top of the key and fired a pass to Jack on the right wing. Jack held it strong in triple-threat position, two hands on the ball in shooting position, ready to sink the jumper or pass or dribble penetrate. Crockett was in his face, bouncing, waving his arms, a bundle of nervous energy, determined to block Jack’s shot from the wing or stop his drive to the hole.
“Make somebody else beat us,” Patton hollered.
Jack jab-stepped and head faked, but Crockett did not bite and stayed on him like cling wrap. Brewster and Gudy flashed off screens, but neither could get open or in a good position to do anything with the ball but pass it back. The idea of slashing past the overeager Crockett passed through Jack’s mind, his streetball, man-on-man instincts ready for the challenge. He glanced at the game clock. 1:20 left. Too soon. Jack saw the hulking Svenson lurking in the lane, threw a ball fake at Crockett and whipped the ball to Jenkins at the top of the key who fired it around the horn to Connolly on the opposite wing. Jack raced into the lane and set a pick for Gudy. Jenkins cut toward the hoop on the right as Brewster set a screen.
And with that, the Toppers cranked up the motion offense, the ball not touching the ground as the players flashed and dashed across and up and down the lane. Jack and Gudy popped out on the wings, Connolly and Jenkins rotated through and back up to the point. Brewster crisscrossed the court, setting picks, pivoting, back to the basket, the big man taking the occasional interior pass, looking for a cutter, throwing a fake at Svenson to keep him honest, set him up for the next play, then firing the ball to the wing or the key.
A low murmur of ooohs and aaahs spread across the bleachers, the standing crowd appreciative of the contradictory notion of the motion offense; its precision and free-flowing grace playing off each other, the ball be-bopping between the boys like pinball with a purpose. The mesmerized fans, like cool-cat-customers in a jazz club, let loose no prolonged cheers or screams. Everyone in the gym, including the Black Hills folks, was in the moment, marveling at the cuts, picks, passes and brief solos of the Toppers. Brewster’s work in the lane, Jack’s head and shoulder fakes on the wing, Jenkins taking two quick dribbles into the lane, then popping out, testing, poking, prodding, looking for a crack in the Miners defense. And the Miners countered, lunging, scrambling, Crockett face-up on Jack, Svenson leaning on Brewster, Morrissey scatting around Jenkins. Their defense flexed but did not crack, as the crowd admired the simple beauty of a well-played game, the ten boys dancing an unscripted basketball ballet, the finale approaching with every tick of the scoreboard clock.
Patton paced and shouted.
Scooter chewed his nails and prayed the rosary.
Lane, decked out in a pearl shaded leisure suit and wide-collar blue shirt, perched on the edge of the bench, fingertips tingling, ready to take the last shot. Always the gunner, confident he would drain it, astonished whenever the ball failed to fall but, with a true shooter’s self-assurance, certain the next one would.
Elbows on his knees, game program in his left hand, gold cross stuck to his sweating palm, brown eyes darting as the ball zoomed around the court, Collins leaned forward on the bench, fighting the urge to shout, not wanting to interrupt his players’ rhythm, break their concentration.
“Let ’em play,” he told himself. “Let ’em play.”
As the clock ticked down below twenty-five seconds, Jack weaved his way through the lane one more time, taking a pass from Connolly in the right corner. Crockett fought through Brewster’s screen, a step late getting to Jack, but managed to stay close enough to stop Jack from firing. Jack glanced at Crockett’s eyes.
“He’s gassed,” Jack thought and nodded toward the far corner as he tossed the ball to Connolly on the wing, faked Crockett to the left, and sprinted toward the hoop, crossing out of bounds over the baseline as Brewster slid toward Jack from the lower block and set a crushing screen on the trailing Crockett. As Crockett sprawled on the floor, the slow-footed Svenson tried to reverse course and stay with Jack.
In full stride, Jack peeled around Brewster, sweaty shoulders sliding white on black, black on white, hopped back in bounds and raced toward the left corner, free of all defenders. Connolly, who held the ball for a beat after Jack’s nod, ball-faked his man to buy Jack time, then cleared it with a blur to Jenkins at the top of the key who zipped it to Gudy on the left wing who fired a fastball back to the corner where Jack caught it with his right hand and jerked to a halt with the shriek of rubber-on-wood. He did not hear the crowd or coaches, nor did he think of his mother vanishing for days at a time, his father drinking himself to sleep, he felt no worries about what people thought, had no cares about winning or losing the game. The sound and fury of life, all the bullshit and the noise, floated like flotsam and jetsam in his wake as Jack propelled forward on his singular, simple mission, soul lost and found in the flash of an instant.
Pivoting toward the hoop on his left foot, he squared his shoulders to the basket; legs bent at the knees, his body strong from Collins’s constant conditioning, and pulled the ball in, left hand resting on its side, right hand in shooting position. Although slow as an overloaded grain truck creeping uphill, the desperate Svenson took one last labored stride, shot his arms in the air and lunged toward a jumping Jack.
At the height of his leap, Jack felt the dimples of the leather ball as it rolled off his fingertips. He watched it arc toward the hoop, spinning like a satellite in the weightlessness of space, reaching its apex, then tumbling down toward the welcoming white net, landing with a cuuuuuush.
He knew it was good the moment the ball left his hand, knew it without thinking, knew it the way a loved baby knows his mother will comfort him when he cries, instinctual, unspoken, understood.
He struck the pose for a split-second, right arm extended, Svenson stumbling past him and collapsing in a mismatched heap of alabaster knees, chest, hands, and body, smacking the beige floor boards with a shuddering thump, while all eyes in the building watched the ball slide through the net.
The Wreck exploded. The St. Jude fans jumped and shouted, the Black Hills faithful groaned.
And with that, like an alarm awaking him from a deep sleep, Jack returned to the world. Conscious now of the crowd, the players, and the scoreboard clock ticking down, the game still on.
“Get the ball, get the ball,” Patton shrieked.
“Set up the press,” Jenkins yelled.
Morrissey snatched the ball as Svenson and Crockett scrambled to their feet.
The Toppers’ scrambled to their defensive positions, no one slapping hands or smiling
Jack drifted to the left middle then remembered he was the safety as Crockett streaked down the opposite side of the court.
“Get back, Jack, get back!” Scooter shouted.
The game clock raced toward ten seconds as the ref started the five-count on the inbounds pass. Morrissey slid to the left side of the basket to keep his pass away from the backboard, set his stubby legs, and fired the ball over Connolly like a quarterback leading a wide receiver.
Crockett caught the ball over his right shoulder at the half court line and dribbled toward the left side of the hoop.
Jack, four steps behind and across the court, took an angle that would intercept Crockett in front of the hoop, if he could beat the fleet Miner to the spot.
But Crockett throttled down on his way to the basket, Svenson’s turnover fresh in his mind, not wanting to take any chances with the ball careening out of bounds.
Jack sprinted, fast-closing footsteps now thundering above the din of the crowd, Crockett glanced back and saw him, dribbled faster, passed the foul line, and went airborne six feet from the basket, the ball in his left hand, left leg raised, rim between Jack and the ball.
Jack took one last bounding stride and leapt towards the hoop, right arm shooting to the sky. Crockett, who decided midflight to lay the ball off the glass, not certain he could dunk with his weaker left hand, released the ball below the rim with a flick of his wrist, floating it up toward the glass. Jack soared, right elbow even with the basket and tipped the ball before it brushed the board. The ball bounced off the glass, dinged the rim, and fell to the court. Gudy, following the play, grabbed it before it went out of bounds and dribbled, playing keep away from lunging Miners as the buzzer sounded.
Collins, Scooter, and Lane turned to each other and slapped hands. Jack, Gudy, and the rest of the starters hopped, hugged, and high-fived.
Crockett and Svenson shook Jack’s and the rest of the Topper’s hands, as did Dr. Keck with Collins. But Patton and his assistants turned and double-timed with the rest of the Miners to the locker room. The St. Jude students, vengeance theirs, poured onto the court.
As the student body bounced and skipped like children playing in the rain, Jack scanned the stands for his family, relieved to see Mary Lou clapping and cheering. He smiled, a wave of satisfaction washing over him with exhilaration, surprise, and calm. Katy popped out from the throng and Jack swept her up in a hug. They turned and waved at his family then whooped and dove into the mob of screaming kids.