Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Basketball Team

I’ve told bits of pieces of this story in the past. Back in 1994, my Dad decided he was going to coach a recreational league basketball team. Bob was a big sports guy in his past. He was a college basketball and football player at the University of Michigan. A collarbone injury derailed his chances for greatness. I really don’t know how good an athlete he was. By the way he tells it, he was one of the greatest athletes in Michigan history. But I know the way he exaggerates things, so I can’t believe all of what he says. The specifics don’t matter. What does is the fact that he loves sports and wanted to coach this team.

He went and talked to a gentleman named Rick, who ran the junior league. I was probably around ten years old at the time. They decided to let him coach the “Heat” youth basketball team. I’d never seen him happier than in the weeks leading up to that season. He treated the team like it was his only care in the world. He’d go to scouting day and try to assemble the best talent available. As I’ll later recount, his talent evaluation was not up to par.

By November, the team came together. I can’t remember all the names, but there are a few that stick out at me. One was Rasheed Shihada, this tall, lanky kid with big hair. He was a real stiff. We had two very talented players, Brian Atchley and Reggie Begum. I also remember Marc Widler, affectionately known as the derelict. Mr. Widler still torments the North Palm Beach Heights neighborhood to this very day. Finally, there was a kid we knew at the time as Mackey Lettick. Later, I learned that he used his Mom’s last name for some reason. His real name was Mackey Voss.

Our games were held at the Community Center on Burns road, home of the famous racquetball courts. We played the Suns. Bob and I thought we had no shot at winning. Somehow, we managed to win that game rather handily.

That was the last success we had. We went winless through Christmas. December 25, 1994 was the final straw for our embattled team. On that Christmas morning, I fractured my arm on a brand new Huffy bicycle. The injury would keep me out of competition for two months. I wasn’t a very good player at all, even though my Dad thought I was. But my absence caused him to lose faith in the team. I’d still attend games from time to time, but it wasn’t the same for him. As time went by, he’d cancel practices and only attend the games. The team continued to struggle and maybe won one more game that season.

My Dad began to show signs of losing his mind at that time. One day, I went up to a bulletin board and picked up a statistics sheet. The organizer told me to put it back on the board and I obliged. When I told my Dad, he started to freak out. He ran through the gym threatening to assault the gentleman. My Dad took the most minor incident and made a big deal out of it. His ranting that day embarrassed me.

One weekend that season, my Mom went out of town and left my Grandmother to watch me in her absence. Therefore, I couldn’t make one of his basketball games. That left him distraught. After the game that weekend, he sent Rasheed and Reggie over to my house. They repeatedly came up the door and requested to see me. Like a kid being lured away by candy, they said to my Grandmother that they had gifts for me. We looked out the window and saw Bob’s Ford Probe parked across the street. Per her instruction, she did not let the boys in. Bob was mentally unstable and not legally allowed to visit without supervision. So they left and didn’t return that day. The next day, a Sunday, my Mom returned. Right when she walked in the door, we were greeted by Jupiter Police officers. They demanded that I go out and see Bob. Trying to appease him, I walked outside and conversed with him for a minute. Eventually, the police told him to go home and he cooperated.

The last big memory I had was of our Super Bowl Party that year. Bob took Rasheed, Reggie, and myself over to his trailer park to watch the San Diego Chargers face the San Francisco 49ers. The game that year was being played at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. If you remember, S.F. went on to win in one of the biggest routs in Super Bowl history. Stan Humphreys wasn’t enough to carry the Chargers to victory. Things did not go well for my Dad. First, the kids weren’t there when we went to pick them up. He was appalled that they weren’t there promptly. Once we got together, he was offended when one of them mocked the singer of the national anthem. He went on this tirade about how great America was and how the troops died for our freedoms. By the 2nd Quarter, we abandoned the game and started playing pogs. You should have seen the look on Bob’s face. The Super Bowl, one of the year’s most prestigious events, was being passed on for a game of pogs. The moral of this story is that Bob couldn’t always relate well to kids. I still hear about this story when I talk to him.

My arm healed and I made it back for one game that season. It didn’t help much. Like I said before, my Dad had dreams that I’d follow in his footsteps. But that wasn’t meant to be. I wasn’t a terrible player, but I wasn’t at all great. He wanted to put me on an All-Star traveling team that summer. I had to tell him I was not interested. I could see how delusional he was to think I was prepared to play with the league’s premiere players. For all his good intentions, he failed to see that I wasn’t as good as he thought I was.

That was the last year he coached recreational league basketball. And in fact, it was the last year he was a marginally functional individual. He began to spiral deeper and deeper into depression and alcoholism. I honestly think that the basketball team was what kept him going. He hasn’t been the same since.

I take some lasting thoughts from that experience. One is that, deep down, he is a good man that wanted to help kids. He was active previously in the Big Brothers program. But he reached the point where I doubted whether he should be a mentor to kids. This is one thing that hurts me so much. I understand what a great person he is in his heart. The problem is that he cannot accept the passage of time. He doesn’t understand that I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. He can’t comprehend the fact that our family is no more and will never be so again.

Bob is somebody that NEEDS to be needed. That is why he wanted this role as coach. He saw it as an opportunity to help young people. I think our relationship has gone south because I do not need him, nor did I ever really need him. More than anything, he needs me and other people in order to survive. That must be sobering for someone who was successful for many years in business and social circles.

There is a picture that used to hang on my wall of the basketball team. I bring it out from time to time and think about those months. It is probably the final lasting memory I have of my Dad. I try not to remember him for the broken man he’s become today. I try to think about the exuberance he had for sports and the zest he had to help people. That whole team experience was a microcosm of his downfall in life.

It’s almost hard to believe that ten years have past since then. I don’t recall every detail, but the overriding themes are imbedded in my mind. Some people thought the experience was humorous, and I sometimes laugh at that season. But more than anything, it was a life lesson that was not forgotten.



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