In the telling of this story—of me; of Scully; of the big Dunn twins; of the influence of Stuckley, the town full of white-skinned, yel- low-toothed, racist, and anti-Semitic workingmen and their kids; of the Irish Catholic fury that the four of us, in different roles and in dif- ferent ways, instilled in the heart of our team—in the telling of all of it, here’s what you have to start by saying: Roll up three hundred years of Irish finding their way to Philadelphia, working for nothing, drinking themselves to death, building the city and everything around it, hating all those who hated them, starting with the English and all the way through. Roll up the uneducated, blarney-sweet, mellifluous stories and songs of braggarts and the prattle of washerwomen searching for a world of order, following the Church in Rome and building its outpost schools and rectories, feeling that all were lifted and some were rising so far that the mothers would cackle and the sons would burn with envy, being set back but proud of their boys in all the wars, all the wars, the broken and dying boys in the great struggles and the boys who made it through and sons moving to the police forces, perfect they were for cops to keep hold of this grand new world. Keep those things in mind and you can start to understand it. And even when it long since stopped being new, even when the old country recipes were eroded from memory and real Irish butter and unprocessed corned beef and celery with cream cheese were no longer proper, and kids had no sense of horseshit on me boots as something that made sense, long after these memories faded, the people, the Irish people of this assimilated colony each still keep in their hearts an imprinted sense memory emotion of where they came from, their identity fired by Celtic dragon DNA-flavored blood, the skeletal whiteness of their bodies undisguised, the intensity of their poetic minds, the density of their wild-eyed anger, and their propensity for life at the extreme, dangerous edges of passion, rendered ironic because they are so often the ones enforcing it, in religion, in law, in writing. I am of this world but not in it, same as Knight is perfectly Irish but not thought of as such. I am set off by the black hair of my father.
Stuckley was Catholic and so were the Scullys. I waited for Chris outside St. Ignatius, on a sidewalk between the church and the rectory where the priests lived. I brought the ball when he had to do early Mass. Actually, I brought his ball, which he left with me the night before, because Chris Scully didn’t like to play with someone else’s ball.
Scully was always number one. He was the point guard and I was his backup. He wouldn’t play at the Boys Club. None of the Stuckley guys would. They played for St. Ignatius in the church league for kids, in ratty gyms in basements or in multipurpose rooms that doubled as the school auditorium. It was pretty disorganized. When they were short on players, Scully got me to fill in. He gave me a jersey in the car and told me to use the name of whichever moron was out smoking bowls in the parking lot because he didn’t give a shit about basketball like we did. We ran it up on the fancy new churches with courts inside rec centers that had air-conditioning and carpeting.
We were happiest when there was no school, especially on snow days and over Christmas. In eighth grade, we did the same thing nine days straight during the holidays. Scully left his gown in the changing room off the side of the altar and met me outside, where he took the ball and started walking. I followed, happy to let him lead because he cut the wind. His boots stepped in the black ice, snow, and salt mixed on the side of the county roads, leading from Stuckley up to Indian Pass Junior High. We stood on the cement islands at intersections and waited for the cars to pass before heading through the next stretch of highway in the frozen rain. We had winter coats with the Eskimo hoods and knit hats with eyeholes and mouth holes that made us look like bank robbers. Scrappy little bank robbers.
We had to go around back to a janitor’s door, which had a bad lock. We didn’t exactly pick it; it jarred open when Scully smashed it with a rock. Inside, we took off our wet stuff and pulled our sneakers from under our jackets. He had a trick for keeping his shoes dry: he stuck the toes down the back of his jeans, wedged under all of his other garments. We kept the ball as dry as we could, but it took about ten minutes for it to heat up and bounce right.
The baskets were up, which meant we had to crank them down with the long metal rod that hooked to the side rigging. The rod had a hook on the end, which turned the center rod of the apparatus, raising and lower- ing the basket. But the rod was in the office and the door was locked. We saw the side window was not shut all the way, so Scully shoved it down until the gap was about three feet, then I held him up while he squeezed through the opening. He got the rod from next to the filing cabinet and climbed out.
We shot around for a while, getting warm. Then we ran drills. He started under the basket and I was at the top of the key. He popped out and I hit him on the left wing for a jumper. Twenty-five times. For the next twenty-five, he drove right, stopped, and hit a six-foot bank shot. Then the same thing on the other side: twenty-five jumpers, twenty-five stop-and-pops. Then it was my turn.
In everything we did, ever, Scully went first. It wasn’t so much me, it was just Scully. We were the point guards. We led everybody and he led me. We were the same size, six foot, good sized for the point. He was better. He was wiry, strong, smart, and really, really tricky. He had brains and an edge I can only put on how crazy his mother was. He had three brothers. The oldest, Jack, was a douche bag five years older than us who was kicked off the varsity for fighting and smoking cigarettes his senior year. When we were nine, Chris and I followed Jack around, watching him pick on people, like the Black Hand in The Godfather: Part II. The one who says, “Wet my beak.” Chris was never as bad as Jack because he knew Jack was a loser.
Next, we played full court one-on-one to a hundred. The school was quiet, no running between the halls, no teachers smoking in the lounge, no reading, no kickball, no white cardboard cartons of pint-size Vitamin D homogenized white milk being sold in the lunchroom. Just Scully tak- ing a rebound sprinting up court, the ball part of his hand and me trying to catch him, finally catching up and him crossing over to his left just as I flew by, him laughing at me, saying “Bye,” and laying it in. I grabbed it out of the net and he was on me, slapping at me till he stripped it and laid it in again. Three times in a row, till I got by him—but then he caught me at half-court, and touched my hip with his hand, and I had to get by him all over again. When he put his hand on your hip, he had you. He might have been somewhere else, behind you, wherever. But when you got that hip check, he was in your jock.
Most days he beat me about 100-65. I judged how I was doing by how much above or below 65 I was. That day, I played him tough. I was ahead 90-86. He brought the ball up and pulled back from eighteen feet and I put a hand in his face. He missed.
“You heard me.”
I checked it to him up front and he went by me to the right, planting an elbow in the middle of my rib cage. I let it go. I took it out underneath and started up the right side. He forced me left so I put it behind my back, crossing over to the side he was giving me. He smashed his forearm right between my eyes.
When I looked up, he was finishing a left-handed layup. He slapped the backboard, as he did when he was mad. He grabbed the ball, came over, and handed it to me on the ground.
I tried, but the gym was spinning and I saw little flashes of white light around the corners of my eyelids. He slapped the ball out of my hands, turned, and hit it from the foul line. He gave it back.
“Ninety, eighty-nine, you.”
I was feeling the first drops of blood from the bridge of my nose.
“Hold on a second.”
“Nope.” He threw a chest pass and the ball hit my shoulder and rolled back toward him. He turned and made another one from the foul line. “Ninety all.”
“Cut it out. I’m hurt.”
He threw it off me. “You,” he said, “are a pussy.” He drove hard at the bucket. “And you don’t beat me.” He slapped the board again. “Ever.”
Each time he scored, he came back and threw it off me. After he got to 100, he put his stuff on and headed for the door. I managed to get up on an elbow and used my shirt for the blood. “I’m leaving,” he said.
The two-man is your sniper. When Jeremy Garrison squared to the bucket, the toe of the top of the line Adidas black-and-white basketball sneaker was a little more beige than the white-white leather of the shoe. A rubber hemisphere with vertical ridges ran from the arch across the tip of the toes to the flat line at its base. Eighty-six bones in the foot engaged, releasing fifty-seven others, as tendons brought forward his ankle, heavily fortified by, in order of application, antiseptic spray; a spongy Ace bandage product also used on the blood-blotched forearms of geriatrics; and two rolls of traditional one-inch Johnson & Johnson athletic tape, which were wound around a leg shaved ninety minutes before game time from the calf down by a Schick razor run through Gillette shaving cream.
The filaments of the Achilles and soleus locked together causing a contraction that started the lift. No matter how many times the other guy had been smoked, the elevation was faster, snappier, higher than antici- pated. Veins showed in the thigh and the quadriceps that overlapped the top of the kneecap, and carried first the center, then the rest of the core upward.The shorts were fire-engine red with yellow gold trim; underneath was the elastic Spalding athletic supporter with the same hemispheric shape and symmetrical lines as the rubber-ribbed toe of the Adidas shoe. The semicircle of the jock started at the waist and ran down, covering his package, keeping it together, and ended by the anus, where the material intersected with the two elastic leg straps, forming the whole system.
The rhythm was identical each time: it carried up through the solar plexus and into the pecs as the triceps lifted the biceps of the left arm. He was, he must have been, left-handed, this kid, because he was of that tradition, the Musial, the Williams, the Stabler, the Koufax type. The fabric of that jersey did not breathe; it was the time before mesh and Nike. The letters were sewn on, as were the numbers, 2 and 4, 24, the correct number for the two guard. Their trim was the color of a Roman helmet, like a melted gold Crayola, around the neck and shoulder starting at the scapula and going up and around the deltoid. The strap rose over the trapezius. Up to a sweat line under the chin around creases, making, again, a semicircle, in this case around the neck. The eyes, dead black, saw not just the whole of the rim but the very closest part to him, the front, where he knew to put it. He learned this on his own, not from anyone, you can’t teach that, it’s too secret. But once he knew it, he knew like he knew to swallow, to put it just there, over the front.
There are eight lines around the circumference of the ball. His hand was perpendicular to the lines. From the base of his palm to the finger- tips, his hand touched three of those lines perpetually. It was how he caught it, handled it, held it. It was never different, it was a rule, like a given in geometry, a natural law. The wrist and palm and hand bent as the machine-body reached the apex of the lift and he kick-levered the stroke straightforward. The ball rolled off the palm like a tire on the highway or a steamroller on the ground. He made sure the last part that touched it every time, every single time, was the tip of the middle finger. As he put it forward, the last cell of the tip of the epidermis—the part even beyond the fingernail, another little half-moon, more of the pattern—disconnected from the last brown ridge of the circular grain of the leather, the last bit of touch. It flew away, a cycle of semicircles cast out, a sequence of spin- ning rainbows forming yet another semicircle between his hand and the ground that it hit after easing through the cords like a car going through the slotted hanging-down chamois cloths at the end of the carwash, taking its motion back the other way before it touched down on the painted, oiled, shellacked, varnished, and mopped wooden floor.
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen . . .
They say the great backcourts, the Fraziers and Monroes, comple- mented each other. Scully never would have been what he was without Jeremy Garrison. Garrison was left-handed. He was skinny and a little bigger than Chris. And he was just so money. At Glentop, he’d float around outside and wait for you to take your eye off him, then bang, lightning-fast left-hand stroke, chain-shred. Coaches taught guys to give weak side help but Garrison buried them for it.
He hated school. His dad was a big doctor and they had money, but Garrison wasn’t like that. He was quiet. He was bored whenever he wasn’t playing ball, and at Fallcrest, he got away with murder. He was smart and did okay in classes, and with all of the derelicts and drugs in the midseventies, the school had bigger problems than a rich white kid with a jump shot like Garrison’s. There was a guy named Stuey, who must have been like thirty, who came to our games. Stuey gambled and Garrison and a couple of his buddies fell in with him. Garrison skipped school a lot to go to Stuey’s house or the track at Brandywine. I used to see Garrison going into the locker room a half hour before practice and I knew he’d been at the races.
Garrison had a great way with the brothers, too. He didn’t try to mix or be black, which black people appreciate in the very white. He had an ear, and picked up new expressions Etheridge or Leonard used. He parroted things back long before anyone else caught on. Since he didn’t talk much it made it funnier. The black guys started calling a jump shot a “J” when we were kids, as in “shoot the J.” There were variations. If Leonard was open, for example, he said, “J-land,” which meant, “Give it to me.” If someone else or I was open, the black guys said “J-land,” as in “He’s open, give it to him.” So, when Garrison, the wiseass, got open he said, “I’m in J-land.” It was sarcastic, mocking his own whiteness. He also pretended to fall asleep when someone was coming at him, waiting till the last second to drain it, rubbing it in.
I did not know why—still don’t—but the brothers called each other “Cutty.” It might have had something to do with Cutty Sark whiskey, I guess. But whatever it was, Garrison caught on to it. When he got on the bus he walked by Stokes or Etheridge and said, “What’s up, Cutty?” They laughed their asses off.
He was just so goddamn money. Smooth where the rest of us—except Phillip—were all elbows and stains. Quick and slick. Bang bang. Over. Your ball, faggots. Off the court, he wore casual Adidas, low top with the red lines. He was not a pussy like a lot of shooters. He did not put his collar up; he did not wear shoes with no socks like the rest of those rich kids. He winked at girls when he walked down the halls. They went nuts for him—all in all I’d say he got the most out of any of us.
Scully and Garrison were magic. They weren’t best friends; they didn’t really even hang out. They played together in seventh grade at Indian Pass and it never changed after that. Scully was in charge: he brought it up, ran the offense, called the defense, yelled at everyone. Garrison was the two guard. His thing was getting open, being where they couldn’t find him, rubbing off picks, finding seams in zones. He released early to start the break; he looked for steals when Scully was all over some guy. Garrison was the one who shot technicals. On that team, that was saying something.
Three is five split down the middle. A hundred years into the game, the three-man is all things to all people. He is the sweet creamy center of every team. He is guard and forward, little man and big man, swing man, small forward, third guard.
The Boys Club was six blocks from the courthouse. Etheridge and Coverdale lived in the bad part of South Penwood, the “run-down” sec- tion as they said on Action News. Stokes and Leonard lived closer to the courthouse, in the well-kept Negro section of town. Back then, Dottie said, “The Polks are a nice colored family,” and there was never anyone less prejudiced than Dottie.
I remember sitting in the stands at the Boys Club when I was in seventh grade, eavesdropping on two guys talking in front of me.
“When you going, then?” said the first man.
“I’m not sure I want to go,” said the second.
“You don’t want the job?”
“I just don’t want to go. My job’s okay.”
“What the hell you want to stay around here for?”
The second man leaned back. “Lot of things.” He pointed at a player squaring up at the top of the key, number 44, tow-headed and strong. Phillip Ford. He shredded the jumper. The second man shook his head. “I want to watch that kid play, for one.”
That kind of shit happened all the time growing up with Phillip Ford. He made black guys who barely knew him want to stick around town to see him play. He was great-looking, a kind of young Redford, almost unreal. “The Hope,” that’s what Stokes called him. Put it this way, he was the leading scorer in every league he ever played in from the time he was eight until he graduated from high school. He was one of those guys, like a Jerry West. He was something special but he was always one of us. So half the time we didn’t notice, and he didn’t push it. He was a star who didn’t have to try; he was the reluctant kind, the shy and retiring kind, happy to be with the guys. I saw a documentary on HBO about the Baltimore Colts in the sixties. The way they described Johnny Unitas made me think about Phillip. The old-time Colts guys said they just loved playing with Johnny. They said they just wanted to be in the huddle with him. That was Phil, too. He wasn’t a floor general—Scully took care of that. Phillip was a different kind of genius. He played as if he was older than every- body else. And then when it got to where age didn’t matter, he was just better. He made space where it didn’t exist. He hit shots no one thought he could make. When it was tight, he got the rebound over five guys each five inches bigger than him. Play with a guy like Phillip once and you know what I’m talking about. It sounds queer, but I’m thankful I got to play with him all the time. I know what those guys from the Colts mean.
He moved up and down the court like everyone else was running around in a full-court bowl of lemon Jell-O. He was always a bit bigger than Scully and Garrison, but not as big as the twins or Stokes. He was completely ripped from head to toe. Little teenage girls brought signs to games saying I WANT TO MARRY PHILLIP FORD’S THIGHS.
He shot better than anyone except Garrison, who shot better than anyone anywhere. But that was only part of Phillip’s game. He also did what all threes have to do: he took it to the cup. From the left side, he dipped his shoulder enough to turn the corner, any amount, got it in there, in the chest, and got his triceps across the guy. Then he brought it through, smacking his left hand to join his right as he went down the lane. He looked for contact, trying to make someone stop him, think- ing of three. I never saw another guy try to draw fouls like that, like he wanted three the hard way every time. I imitated Phillip anytime I touched the ball.
They put Phillip on varsity when we were in tenth grade. He was a phenom, always in the papers, led the league on scoring as a sophomore. By our junior year Scully, Garrison, and Stokes were playing a lot on the varsity as well. Leonard and I made it, too, but we rode the bench.
The great Phillip moment from that year came against Ridley, which had a player named John Donaly, who they said was as good as Phillip. I could tell in warm-ups that Phillip was feeling something different. After a sloppy first minute, Donaly juiced a twenty-six-footer. Phillip took the ball from Stokes on the inbounds, which ordinarily never happened because no one but Scully ever brought it up. He took it right at Donaly, jumped into him, and shot as he fell to the floor. The whistle blew for the foul and the ball went in. And one. Phil made the final shot to complete the three.
They brought it back down and Scully pressured the ball, but they got it to Donaly again and he pulled up from the same spot. As he released it, Phillip flicked his right hand down on Donaly’s shooting elbow. Air ball. No whistle. The refs saw nothing.
The next time you try to shoot a basketball, have someone flick your elbow as you release it. You will see what happened to John Donaly. Only the players, I mean the real players of the world, know how to do what Phillip did. “Watch,” Casale said to me on the bench, “he’s done.”
Except for the front end of a one-and-one in the third quarter, Donaly didn’t score any more. He finished with three points, one-for-twelve from the field, one-for-three from the line. Phillip had twenty-eight.
Glentop was our home every day it didn’t rain. A group of us white kids who could play started meeting up on our own. Scully and I walked there with the Dunns, Mike and Sean, big, scrappy identical twins. They were Stuckley boys like us; we’d known them since we were born. Garrison and Ford came together, getting a ride from Garrison’s brother, who got the car only if he brought them to Glentop. Those guys lived in Hollow Hills and brought big leather Adidas tennis bags for their basketball stuff: socks, sweatbands, tape, and towels. Mike Dunn called them fag- gots for bringing those bags. We played three-on-three or fours, and as we came together we had full runs.
The summer we were fourteen, a guy with a mustache showed up out of the blue. He asked Scully how often we played.
“That’s good,” he said. He took the ball. “I’m Jim Casale.” We knew he was the new coach at the high school, north, about four miles away. “I’m sending some guys over here tomorrow from Springton.” He was talking about the other junior high school that fed Fallcrest. “Do you know the guys over there?”
“They’re not great,” said Scully.
“The guys I’m sending are. They don’t play for their school because of the coach.”
“What, the black guys?” I said.
He looked at me. “That’s right.”
I liked those guys. Along with Leonard, it was David Stokes, Etheridge Butcher, and Henry Coverdale Jr. Leonard was the leader; Stokes was the biggest; Coverdale was the strongest; and Etheridge was the quickest. They came over with Stokes’s mom, who worked at Woodlawn Acres, the old folks’ home where Artie lived. They got a ride back to South Penwood any way they could, sometimes with Garrison’s brother, then later with Garrison when he started driving.
Before Casale sent the black guys over to Glentop, we sometimes talked about them, about getting them to play once we got to high school. Scully liked to scheme about it. “Who do you think can do it? Any of them?”
The other guys didn’t know.
“Stokes,” I said.
“He’s getting big,” said Phillip.
“There’s your four man, Chris,” I said.
Phillip was right, David Stokes was getting big, and as he grew, you could just see he was going to be stronger and faster and possessed of more ups than anyone around. More important, he felt it. Stokes lived in a little house on Center Street. His dad was gone and his mother was secretary at the AME Church of East Parkside.
Walk the side of the lane from the baseline to the foul line. That’s where the power forward eats, that’s his house. The first thing a good team will do is pound it down low to see if you can stop their four man. Coaches wonder what the other coach has down on the box. If you don’t own that, you can’t win. Stokes owned it like you want to own the best piece of pussy. He made us legit. He moved up and down and pounced on anything that came his way. His turnaround from the low part was so sweet, Casale called it “Carolina.”
It was an inside joke. Every team in the county had an offensive set called “Carolina,” the same thing every time, a motion play. Always the same thing: some punk brought it up yelling “Carolina,” then they swung it to the weak side, brought it back, set a double screen for their shooter in the corner. It never worked on us. Scully usually stripped the guard before they got started. Or Stokes and Phillip were so on the guys they were guarding, the point guard had to stop his dribble; or Leonard was so on top of the shooter, he couldn’t let it go and had to kick it back out front and they were screwed, no set left.
Our play was not named after something as gay as that, something learned at expensive camps in the Poconos with college counselors wear- ing TARHEELS T-shirts, and high school coaches in coaching shorts, three- quarter-leg polyester. Our play was named after a girl. It came about because Casale was in a good mood one day and said, “Damn, Stokes, that is a sweet move. It’s like a girl at my college, Caroline, rhymes with wine. You know what I said to my boys? ‘Carolina got that vagina, you know what I’m saying?’” And we fell out. The brothers loved Casale. Stokes doubled over. Leonard laughed so hard, he lay on the ground saying, “NOOO coach . . . stoooop.”
Casale would not name a play after another team. He wasn’t like that. It was our play when we needed a bucket. Scully yelled “Carolina” one time only, not some dramatic announcement that gave the thing away. The right side was cleared. Stokes posted in low on the box and Chris got it to him. Stokes gave a quick feint left, pivoted on his right foot, squared, and rose and, with a soft flick at the top of the jump, let it go. The ball always kissed the top right corner of the box on the glass and went into the hole.
Funny, Swarthmore College is one of the great schools in America and it wasn’t twenty miles from Stuckley. We had no idea. We heard about it once in a while and never gave it a second thought. Dottie told me I was smart enough to go there, but I’d have to watch out because, as Artie said, “There’s a lot of communists over there.” Didn’t rule it out for her, but she wanted me to know.
That ’s how I went through school thinking about Swarthmore. That and their basketball team always sucked. In fairness, there were a lot of great little college teams in our area like Cheyney, Widener, and Drexel. Swarthmore didn’t have a chance against any of them, let alone Temple or St. Joe. The only other thing I knew about Swarth- more was that our big man, our center, five man, Steven (we called him Herman), his father taught there. Don LeFeber was six foot nine and had a PhD in microbiology. They lived between Stuck- ley and the developments. Professor LeFeber had some kind of genetic pituitary gland thing because his kids were all gigantic, too. Two boys, thank God—any girl that big would have been in trouble.
Steven was Herman’s real name. He went to practices the way most kids go to piano lessons. He was huge, about six six in eighth grade and six nine by the time he got to high school. And he was solid, not a string bean like most kids who get tall young. He was awkward and shy. He never talked and the kids tortured him. He took it, and over time he got a little better. It also was clear he wouldn’t quit.
But he was terrible, and no one thought about him much. So, it was a surprise when, a week after Casale’s visit, Scully ran to meet a Plymouth station wagon pulling into the Glentop parking lot. Doctor LeFeber and the big kid got out. Scully chatted with the professor for a minute and then brought the kid over to us. We all saw what Scully was doing.
Who knows why some things stick? As soon as they walked on the court, Stokes said, “Let’s play.” First time down, I gave it to the big kid at the foul line and he turned, backed in with two dribbles, spun, and put it in over Stokes. It was butt-ugly ball, but it got in. We all kind of just stood there, not knowing what to do. Then Leonard said, “Nice move, Herman. Where’s Lily?”
We cracked up at the reference to The Munsters. Scully ignored Leon- ard and just started up toward the other bucket and said, “Let’s go.” From then on, in the way of boys the world over, Steven LeFeber was called Herman.
A lot of the adjustment of having such a big dorky kid on the team was on Stokes, who really had to play with him, had to be his partner up front. Every basketball team has two groups: the guards and the big men. At the start of practice, the two groups split up. Everything was different for the big men. Drills, stats, assignments. Coaches yelled at them for different things. If your big guys didn’t get along, if they didn’t physically handle the other team, everything, all the savvy of a point guard like Scully, all the nothing-but-net of a shooter like Garrison, all of the full-court spider work of a star like Ford, did not matter. You needed buckets from inside, you needed boards.
During practice, I liked to look down at our big guys. Casale’s favorite drill was putting them all in the lane, bricking a shot, and telling them to fight for it. Stokes, Coverdale, and Mike Dunn pounded on Herman. If he got an easy rebound, Stokes yelled at him. “Don’t let me do that, man. Don’t let me take it. What’s wrong with you?”
Herman stayed late at Glentop and at practice and did the George Mikan drills: layup from the right, catch it without letting it bounce, layup from the left. Back and forth a hundred times. Stokes stayed with him most days, playing back-to-the-bucket one-on-one. They were both quiet guys and they got used to each other. They weren’t like call-you- on-the-phone friends, but they got tight. That’s what busting your ass together every day does. Sometimes I stuck around with Herman to lob it or bounce it into the low post, where he worked on his pivot moves. He even messed around with a baby hook.