Thanks to Mikothebaby for editing this story with her usual panache even though she wemt through hell this week. Thanks also to those of you who read last week's story.
Every year at about this time, the entire country goes just a little bit basketball crazy. Okay maybe I'm understating it a tad, but it's pretty harmless isn't it? For just a little while, we concentrate on something other than which politicians are robbing us and which countries around the world want to destroy us. It's one of those rare things that can bring us all together as we all cheer on our favorite teams.
At least that's the way I always thought of it. I guess I should know a bit more about it than the average person does since I'm a basketball coach and this year I got to see it from the inside. I'm sure there are lots of you who've already heard the story I'm about to tell you. Most of you think you know something about what really happened. A very few of you actually might really know at least parts of it.
The story has been big news for a while. It even pushed the actual winners off of the front pages with everyone and his brother wondering why the hell I did what I did. I have reporters and TV people from all of the major networks camping out on my doorstep trying to interview me. Unfortunately for them, I'm not there. After the whole thing ended, I sat down in the office of the university's president with him and the athletic director to discuss how we'd handle things and then I came up here to think.
Here, of course, is Crystal Lake. It's a place I remembered from my childhood. There used to be a camp on the other side of the lake as I recall it. But years after I grew up, there was some kind of incident there. They ended up tearing the whole camp down to try to erase the memories of whatever happened there.
I don't think they were successful anymore than I'll be successful at trying to forget what just happened to me.
My name is Jim Turner. I am, at least for the moment, the head basketball coach for Pineland University. See, I knew that as soon as I told you that you'd start looking at me funny. You're wondering why I did it too aren't you? Maybe you or someone you know lost money on that game huh? Well all I can say is never bet money that you can't afford to lose. Or maybe there are no sure things. Never count your chickens before they hatch. Hopefully one of those make you feel a little better. Of course they don't work for me, but then I lost so much more than money.
Fifteen years ago I was the starting point guard for my own college team. I was pretty good and even as a sophomore was beginning to get some interest from NBA teams. But it was never to be. In my last game of my sophomore season I went up for a jumper and the guy guarding me bumped me in mid air. It didn't help. I still scored. But when I came down, I landed awkwardly and there was this little popping sound from my knee. It didn't really hurt that badly, it was just a burning sensation. Two days later I couldn't walk on the leg at all.
My knee had grown to the size of a Cantaloupe and I was scheduled for surgery. It turned out to be the last game I ever played. Even after multiple surgeries, by some of the best doctors in the state, there was simply nothing they could do. I am, of course, glad that I can walk without pain, but my knee will never allow me to run faster than a light jog. And even then I have to wear a knee brace, run on soft surfaces and be very careful changing directions. Any attempt at leaping or jumping brings me off the scale pain and days of recovery.
After a few years of bitterness, during which I had to actually study some, I went back to basketball; this time as a volunteer assistant coach. It was very different from being a player. At first, I was nothing more than a glorified water boy. I made sure all of the practice equipment and balls were stored and set up for each practice. I monitored practice time since there were rules against working the players for longer than a certain amount of time each day or each week. I also had to make sure that the players kept their grades at a certain level. That sometimes meant speaking to professors or even picking classes that were not only easy but where the instructor was aware of the big picture.
Before too long, I was also the fundamentals coach. It was my job to work with the incoming freshmen and make sure that they were ready for the college game. It was a big step up from playing in high school. The game is faster and more dynamic. Some of our most highly touted prospects just couldn't make the transition. There was also a period of time where they had to get their heads around the fact that literally thousands of people came to every game and millions watched on TV.
Some of those kids couldn't actually even dribble. Others were so used to the fact that their height advantage over most of the people they played against in high school meant that they barely had to jump. So they had never actually developed a good shot. Of course, there were also the ones who felt that since they had such a good shot, there was no need for them to develop any kind of skills as a defender. My job was to determine their weaknesses and strengths and to make them stronger where they were weak and stronger still at their specialties.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the position was that it actually gave me both a true status on the coaching staff and a paycheck. Our head coach, Jerry Atrick, seemed to be taking me under his wing. He asked for my opinion on all sorts of things and started taking me along with him on his recruiting trips. Of course, we were never able to go after the top recruits. Even in our area, our school was simply too small to interest them. The top kids all wanted to go to Michigan State or Michigan. But we did okay in our conference and dreamed of someday making it to the big dance.
I wish that I could even pretend that my life was wonderful and that I'd come to terms with things. The truth is that I hadn't. On the court and on the job I was thoroughly professional, but away from the school I was one messed up individual. It wasn't unusual for me to spend the majority of my nights in seedy bars downtown drinking away a large chunk of my small salary while I bemoaned how unfair it was for God to have taken my knee and my career away from me while giving it to a bunch of kids who neither appreciated or deserved what they had.
When I think back on it, I guess I was lucky because my life could have changed in any one of several different ways. First off, the amount of alcohol I was drinking could have destroyed my liver and killed me. Or one of the university's boosters or alumni or even a relative of a current student or player could have heard me whining and reported me. That might have ended my career. Or while I was drunk someone could have robbed and killed me. Or even one of the women I ended up going home with all too often could have had a terrible disease and just loaded me up with it. When I was drunk, every woman I spoke to was a ten.
If you're thinking that this is one of those stories where the hero picks himself up by his bootstraps and gets on with his life due to his awesome ethics, morals and determination to do the right thing, you're going to be sadly disappointed. Left to my own devices, I'd have ruined my life. My carefully crafted façade of professionalism was just beginning to crack around the edges when it happened.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was two years past graduating and in my third year of coaching. It was three days after my twenty-fourth birthday. We'd just defied the odds and beaten the hell out of East Virginia Tech. It was the eighth straight game we'd won at home and everyone was feeling really good. The problem we had was that we couldn't beat ranked teams and we just couldn't win on the road. I'd taken notes on everything we'd done that was successful during the game and was still sitting on the bench as the stands emptied. It was my habit to sit there and go over every play long after the pats on the back from well-wishers and fans were over.
I liked the solitude of the empty gym. The quiet just resonated with echoes of cheers and the ever present sound of the ball on the floor even though they were long past over. Most of the players and even the coaches were out somewhere celebrating our victory while I went over my list of things for each player to work on before our next game.
She never made a sound. I don't know what caused me to look up from my notebook and into the clearest prettiest bluest eyes I'd ever seen, but I did. She smiled and I waved. I guess to her that was the signal that it was okay to approach me.
I was ready for her though.
"Hi..." she began. She smiled again and hesitated as if she was unsure of what to say next. She was so pretty that I decided to make things easier on her.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But most ... well probably all of the guys are gone. But if you write down your name, your phone number and the name or number of the guy you're interested in. I'll pass it on to him the next time I see him. If you have an envelope on you, you could just put his number or name on the outside and that way even I won't be able to read it."
Her smile changed then. In a face that pretty it was remarkable that her entire expression could change so seamlessly even though for all intents and purposes she was still smiling. The corners of her beautiful lips softened very subtly. I don't think you could have measured the difference with a micrometer. Her eyes lost just a tiny bit of their incandescence. Again, the degree of difference was so small that most people wouldn't have noticed it but for me it was vast.
.... There is more of this story ...