Readers, indulge me here as I post a “Guest” today. “GOODNESS” is a piece written by a good friend, Steve Fout. You may learn more about Steve’s aesthetic at: http://tinyurl.com/yf47m5f
|Posted by Steve Fout at 02:20 PM on February 06, 2010||comments (0)|
It’s been thirty-six years since I played my last high school basketball game. My team was pretty good, and although I can’t remember our exact record that year in 1970, we finished second in our league with something like 18 wins and 6 losses. Not bad.
I can’t recall who defeated us in the district semifinals. I remember that the team was not in our conference and that our loss happened in a small country school that was about a two hour bus ride from Wellston. I remember having an average game which would have been about 15 points, 7 or 8 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots – good but not great. I think we lost by 8 or so.
We had a kid on our team, Paul Evans, who rarely got to play. He rarely got to play because he was terrible. T-e-r-r-i-b-l-e! He was tall enough but he was stooped and awkward and he couldn’t dribble, pass, or shoot. To borrow from one of my own stories, “he was so bad, he couldn’t even call time-out.” It was not unusual for Paul to sprint down court on a break and to inexplicably trip and fall. In the few minutes he would get to play every few weeks, he would finish the game covered in floor burns, bruises, and scratches. He was a mess.
Two things stand out in my mind about Paul. First, nobody called him “Paul”. Paul was “Sugar Babe”, or, more precisely, “Shuggah” or “Shugg”. Secondly, Shugg was covered with boil-sized pimples; pimples that were purplish-red and angry looking and tipped with yellow-headed pus sacks – so big that they (paraphrasing Drew Carey) “had stopped returning Spielberg’s calls.”
Besides being disfiguring, Shugg’s condition must have been painful; and in a time when clinical acne was linked to cleanliness and hygiene, it must have also been completely embarrassing.
Shugg has been on my mind lately, mostly because of all of the TV play that has been given to Jason McElwain, the autistic kid from Rochester, NY who scored 20 points in four minutes in his first ever high school basketball game. During and after Jason’s unbelievable display, he was cheered and then swarmed by his teammates and fans in an emotional and exhilarating demonstration of love.
As for Shugg, his time came during our last home game, where it was expected that if the score was right and if we were winning (or losing) by a wide enough margin, all of the seniors would get some game time in front of a capacity crowd of our hometown supporters. Each of the seniors, except for one, had gotten in and the clock had ticked down to less than three minutes when the crowd picked up on the fact that Shugg had not yet made an appearance. I’m not sure if our coach had noticed or not but when the whole student body thundered and stomped a whole time-out’s worth of, “We want Shugg!”, he not only noticed but called down to the end of the bench, “Evans!”
I was near Shugg when he got his call. He was sitting with a towel over his head when his name hit him a second time. “Evans!” I could hear something between a sigh and a groan leak from under Shugg’s towel. He flipped his head back to shed the towel, stood up and headed for the scorers table.
When he was motioned into the game by the officials, the student body didn’t cheer so much as whoop, “Shugg! Shugg! Shugg! Shugg! Shugg!”
Shugg came in on an out-of-bounds play. To start play, Bob Schultz whipped an in-bounds pass flush into Shugg’s cratered face. He went down with a bloodied lip. The stands went wild. Students and parents alike laughed for a full five minutes or so. Once Shugg returned to his feet, he shuffled to the bench under the most awful chorus of hoots and jeers I have ever heard. The crowd had gotten exactly what they had passively hoped for, a chance to further humiliate the team clown. Oddly, you didn’t get the sense of any guilt or shame from those delivering the blows to poor Shugg. It was as if he had been so dehumanized that he was reduced to the form of metaphor, a mere description of pity, and thus was somehow ineligible to receive what he so thoroughly embodied.
Last Friday night, Ian dressed with his high school’s varsity team for their first tournament game of the season. Ian has a pretty good game. He moves well without the ball, is a good shooter, and covers his defensive assignments pretty well. He hasn’t gotten as much game time as he (or I) would have liked this year, mostly because he is giving up quite a bit of height (often a foot) and because of his lack of organized team experience. To dress with the varsity team in tourney play was a small honor, bestowed in recognition of his diligence and commitment to practice and spirit.
I can’t explain exactly how it came to be because I was in Tampa on a business trip and not at the game, but with about four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and with Ian’s team up by thirty points, a movement commenced. According to Beth, one of the upper-school girls began a chant of, “We want Ian!” Soon the whole Wellington student body was yelling, “We want Ian!” Then the parents joined in. Then, Ian’s own teammates started: “We want Ian!”
By his own accounting, the coach strode down the line and passed by Ian. He then returned and when he got to Ian’s place on the bench he stopped and said, “Go.” Ian entered the game with about three minutes remaining.
The coach instructed the players to get the ball to Ian. He instructed Ian to go to the hoop and draw the foul. The team did what they were told to do and Ian stepped to the line with about a minute remaining. He missed the front end of a two shot foul but connected on the second. According to all who have replayed it for me, the place went nuts. The game wound down. Wellington won by thirty-six, a point for each year passed since my last basketball game.
When Ian emerged from the locker room, he was hoisted onto the shoulders of his classmates and carried to the team bus. Ian later told Beth that this had been the best day of his life. I marvel at such a statement and I wonder if I ever felt such certainty regarding my own joy.
My plane landed at about 10:00 p.m., an hour or so after the game, and I called Beth to get an update. She told me the story and my first reaction was dread and fear. I thought of Shugg. Although Ian is not the team clown and he is not a target of ridicule, my thoughts went to that night in Wellston when people I still know and like howled like fools at the pure essence of pathos.
I thought of the autistic kid, Jason, who was generously awarded and eagerly accepted the role of team mascot for an evening and then rewarded that generosity with a miracle. Ian’s role was not that of mascot nor was his performance miraculous.
So what happened?
I’m not sure but I can tell you what I want to believe. Sometimes there is a confluence of good people who assemble a pattern of good intentions directed at a single individual who, in a word, is good. Ian is a modest, generous, considerate and funny kid. On a single February night in 2006, a hundred or so people realized what I know at the exact same time.
Permit me this belief and I will concede that prayers are answered and that extraordinary moments hang in a balance of kind and cruel people everywhere.
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