It wasn’t cool having Dad drop me off, and I looked around. I didn’t want the girl that works there sometimes, Teresa, to see me getting out of the car. I didn’t see her or anyone else, so I got Dad going as quick as I could and walked on up to the door.
I figured maybe Teresa was inside, and I checked my hair in the door glass before I opened it. When I did, a noise explosion nearly blasted me back outside again. Ten little boys were stampeding after a basketball while two referees towered over them like mutant giraffes. The coaches were screaming, and five or six moms and grandmothers were screaming, too.
“Hey Coach D! Coach D!” Mike skipped across the court. “JJ’s over there with his cousin.”
He tripped over his flapping shoe laces and almost fell into me. “And Kevin’s outside. You want me to get ‘em?”
Before I could open my mouth, he hollered. “JJ, JJ! Coach is here!”
JJ had a dingy LeBron James sweatband on his head. All he did was raise his chin at us.
There was a time out, and the players ran over to the coaches. Then three or four even littler boys and girls skipped and hopped from one side of the court to the other. Everyone else shouted at the players, mostly to shoot more. The horn whinnied from a little fold-up scoreboard, and the referee’s whistle ripped my ear drums. Then the screaming and stomping started all over.
Mike pulled my shirt. “You want me to get Kevin?”
I was ready this time. “No! I mean, not right now.”
Mike pointed toward the white and blue mob rumbling back and forth on the court. “That’s my cousin’s team. See? He’s Dominick but we call him Tookie. He’s got on white. They’re winning. He always wins whatever team he’s on. SHOOT, TOOK’! SHOOT, TOOK’!”
The whistles screeched again and there was another timeout.
Mike waved at me and ran off back across the court. “We gonna win, too!”
He crashed into a little kid, and they both jumped up and ran off again like it was part of the regular routine.
By now the smell of dust and sweat lay over my head like a dirty blanket, and I slid over to a corner door hoping for some relief. Three old men wearing dark polo shirts, dress pants and tasseled loafers sat in rusted metal chairs. The oldest man leaned forward on a cane. He asked me when my team played. I told him 10:45.
“It’ll be about eleven. We’re a little behind.”
I thanked him. I watched the game, and the men watched me.
I didn’t like being looked at so much, but since they were old I couldn’t really say anything. I turned the other way and hoped they would stop. A bunch of other people were looking at me, too, and I tried to check my zipper without giving anything away.
I quick looked for Teresa. She always sass mouthed me anytime she was around. I especially didn’t need her seeing me check my zipper.
Teresa was the real reason I came on to hang around early. She was the real reason I let myself get talked into coaching these little Eastside kids, too, and I had spent all night thinking up impressive things to say to her for when she started in on me today.
Teresa still wasn’t around, so I looked for my other Lakers. Beep Beep ran in the door and slammed two little girls into the middle of a free throw. I saw Quayvon skip in wearing some too big UNC shorts taped up around his waist.
By half-time of the game before ours, everyone was there except Charles. With three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, he walked in the door. He wore big green bedroom slippers and carried his shoes in a shoe bag with Pizza Hut printed on it.
I looked around the gym to see if Kevin had come in from outside, and I spotted Teresa walking right at me. Her pink gym shorts peaked out from under a Nike tank top that begged my eyes to drift along the neckline, and all the impressive things I had thought up to say rolled into a brain cave.
Before I could pull out something, she walked past without looking at me. “Hey, Mr. Sims. Hey, Dr. Townsend.”
Two of the old men stood up. Her voice was sugar sweet, not sassy like what she always lays on me. She leaned in to give each of them a hug. Then she leaned down to where the oldest man sat and gave him a little hug, too. “Hey, Mr. Hight.”
She looked so crazy fine I couldn’t pull my eyes off her, but she wasn’t giving anyone a reason to think she even knew I was on the planet.
When she turned away, the old men acted pretty entertained, looking at each other and me and back to each other. I was feeling like one of those pickled dead frogs the biology teacher kept in a jar in her classroom.
I checked out the gym again for something different to think about. It wasn’t big enough for bleachers, but on one side a few people set up lawn chairs. The ends were so cramped I wondered if on some throw ins would we have to open the door and step outside to have room to toss the ball.
The scoreboard went to zero, and the players lined up to shake hands. Then they took the jerseys off from over their t-shirts and tossed them in a pile.
My kids ran over to me.
“Are we next?”
“Are those our uniforms?”
“Which are we? Are we white?”
“Coach! Coach!” The scorekeeper yelled. “Coach, we need your lineup!”
“Captains!” The referee was waving. “Coach, we need your captains!”
“JJ! Get your uniform!!” JJ’s cousin was screaming now. “I need your picture!!!”
JJ just scratched his elbow. At least he was keeping his cool. I drew on him for inspiration. “LAKERS! STAND ON THE FREE THROW LINE!”
And they did.
“OK. Come over and get a uniform.”
Before I could say “uniform,” all eight of my Lakers dove head first into the pile of jerseys. I fished out JJ and Kevin and pushed them toward center court where the referees waited. I ran over to the table with my lineup. By the time I got back to the bench, everyone had on a jersey. Only three of them were on backwards.
“Two lines!” I threw out a ball. JJ and Kevin ran back over and the Lakers started doing layups.
I finally looked over at the visiting team. They were the Hawks. They’d wear blue. The coach looked like he was still in high school, same as me. He wore a black t-shirt with a 3-color map of Africa on it over do-it yourself ripped jeans.
I looked around to find my seat, and Teresa was leaning up against the wall behind it. The Hawks coach glared at Teresa and pointed to an empty chair behind him. She put all her sass into her face and turned her back. Then the coach stared at me.
I started wondering what was going on. I was for sure tired of being stared at all morning. He finally looked back at Teresa, and his eyes squeezed into slits. Something was going on for sure, but I couldn’t be worried about it now because we were lining the kids up for the tip. After a minute to make sure they knew which basket to shoot at, the whistle screeched and the ball went up.
Kevin knocked the blue center out of the way and slapped the ball toward our goal. JJ chased it down, rolled it, picked it up, bounced it, stumbled, and threw it straight up. It dropped straight down through the basket.
“Wooo hooo, JJ. Wooooooo!”
“The’ you go, JJ!”
I pushed my hair back with both hands and looked up at the ceiling. We weren’t going to be shut out.
We were only down 4 – 2 when I sent my Lakers out for the second quarter, and I felt pretty good. I didn’t think much about the Hawks coach still glaring back and forth from Teresa to me and back again.
It was our throw in, and the Hawks climbed all over my kids. We could hardly get the ball inbounds. When we did, they double teamed JJ full court and pressed us end line to end line. The rougher they got, the more the Hawk’s coach yelled for his kids to get up in our face and push us around.
Screams poured over us.
“Lakers! What you doin’?”
“You gotta throw the ball in Kevin. THROW THE BALL!”
“JJ, you gotta go get the ball.”
I called all my timeouts, but all I could do was stand and watch my Lakers get blown off the court.
We were down 13 – 3 at halftime, and my kids slammed onto the bench yelling.
“Kevin, you gotta throw the ball!”
“When I do they take it!”
I got fed up real quick with these kids pushing and yelling at each other. “OK! Just shut up!”
The kids hung their heads.
I took a breath. “Ok. It’s Ok.”
“But we getting beat bad, Coach. We can’t ever catch up.”
“Yeah we can.” I pulled the starters in close and hoped they couldn’t tell I was clueless. “Just get in there and ball!”
My Lakers came out and scrapped like crazy. We had six steals. JJ and Quayvon each hit a basket. Kevin even made a free throw. I was feeling like a genius. Then the fourth quarter came and the Hawks pressed us all over again. The score went from 14 – 7 to 21 – 7, and even though three Hawks fouled out, the Hawks coach kept on pressing. By the time the score went to 25 – 8, I was really pissed. There wasn’t any reason to keep pressing except to make us feel like clowns and make us look like morons.
The game finally ended 30 – 9. My kids dragged themselves through the handshake line and tugged off their white jerseys.
I felt the crappiest I’d ever felt in my life. I wanted to crawl away and throw up, but all these kids wanted to do was stick their dirty noses up in my face.
“Coach we terrible.”
“We’re not ever going to win.”
Charles kicked off his shoes and shoved them in his Pizza Hut shoe bag. “That coach was laughing at us.”
That pissed me off even more, if that was even possible, and about that time the Hawks coach walked past and slammed my shoulder. “Way to go big boy. You gonna be Coach of the Year.”
Then he jerked his head back at Teresa. “And now you can forget about havin’ that black bitch.”
My forearms exploded into his chest and drove him down onto the concrete floor.
The gym filled with screaming and whooping when he jumped up. “Come on! I’m down for some of that!”
I took a step toward him and bounced off Tony’s chest.
“Off the court! Both of you!” Tony runs the center. He’s the guy that talked me into coaching and got me into all this.
He pushed me into his office. “What in God’s Holy hallelujah got in your head?”
I didn’t know if Tony wanted an answer or only wanted to make me feel even stupider, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t have any idea what in God’s holy hallelujah got in my head.
I did know I’ve never been some kind of big hero guy or anything, so it didn’t seem right I was taking up for Teresa. It wasn’t like she had been trying get me to like her or anything, either. More like she had been trying to run me off. And I’d taken my share of trash talk and dished out some myself. The Hawks' coach wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t handled before.
Maybe it was all the staring that got to me.
Tony crossed his arms. “You need to decide what to say to your kids. You’ll have to apologize to the Hawks coach, too. Wait here.”
I didn’t stick around because I felt like apologizing. I wanted to make sure this ass hole coach was clear on how I felt about him. He must have been pretty excited about seeing me, too, because Tony came right back in with him. “This is Cory.”
I gave Cory my best up-yours-with-a sharp stick look. “Sorry.”
“Screw you. You need to be some other place.” Cory took a big step toward me and stuck his hand over his head to give me a tough guy point down at my nose. “So next time, I’m kicking you’ white ass all the way back to the country.”
Tony stuck his elbow in front of Cory. “There won’t be a next time!”
Cory turned and put his hand on the doorknob. “Yeah there’ be a next time, because I’m beatin’ the white off his ass again in four weeks.”
Cory was out the door before Tony could say anything, so he took his attitude out on me. “I thought Cory would be my problem child, not you.”
I slinked back in the gym praying Teresa was gone. She probably laughed her head off watching my team get busted into a million pieces. If she did take off, it was probably so she could tell everyone she knew all about it. “Oh yeah, that boy is a bigtime loser. It was sooooo funny. Please like and share!!!”
Turned out Teresa was gone, but a woman stomped toward me dragging Quayvon behind her, and her voice rang between the metal walls. “Quayvon said you told him to shut up.”
I looked at the tops of my shoes.
“That’s not something you say to these children! You don’t ever say that to my boy again! You do and you won’t ever be coaching him or anyone else!”
There was no way I was going to be coaching Quayvon or anyone else.
I was done.
After I brushed my teeth Monday morning, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t much like the loser I saw, but I liked a lot less the idea of six more Saturday mornings like I just went through. Besides, Cory may need his ass kicked, but he was right. I didn’t belong over on the east side trying to coach those kids, and I’d had all I wanted of mommas yelling at me. Quitting was the right thing, even if I was a loser for doing it.
I picked up my phone, but texting Tony would really be weak. Plus, maybe I would feel less like a loser if I faced Tony in person. The thing was, I might have to face Teresa, too. I didn’t want any of that, and I started a text. I deleted it and tried again three more times. Every time I tried it sounded worse.
I gave up and put my phone in my pocket.
Lunch time would be the best time to catch Tony. The rec center would be wild with kids running around and Teresa and everyone would be busy. The conversation would have to be fast and I’d be gone. Then I could spend the rest of the summer just playing ball like I should be doing anyway.
I walked down to the bus stop at 10:30. I stepped off the bus at 11:15 and almost banged into Teresa.
“Watch where you’re going Coach of the Year.”
I remembered hearing the same words carried on Cory’s voice. I remembered Teresa turning her back on Cory and his glaring back and forth at us.
The sound of the picture clicking in my head was deafening. “You set me up?”
“So? You needed a lesson. You never even cared enough to show your kids how to throw the ball in.”
The sass in her voice burned my ears, and I turned up the hill toward the rec center.
Teresa wasn’t letting it go, and she fell in next to me chewing on my butt the whole way. “I guess you’re here to quit so you can spend all your time playing ball for yourself.”
“I’m not helping these boys.”
“To help these boys? That’s why you’re quitting? Or is it because they’re not helping you?”
“Look! It’s just not working out the way I planned!”
Teresa dropped her eyes to half closed. “Uh huh. I guess you think things always work out like they’re planned.”
I yanked the rec center door open. The handle slammed against the brick wall and the latch gashed the back of my wrist. “Shit!”
“Watch your mouth, Coach of the Year.”
Before I could come back at Teresa, JJ ran over with something in his hand. “Coach! Coach! Look at my picture my cousin took, Coach! I made two baskets. She wrote it on the back.”
The picture was JJ before the game smiling at the camera. On the back was JJ first game 4 points.
“You read it, Coach? It says, ‘first game,’ and I got four points!”
I held the picture of JJ smiling. He looked like it was the biggest day of his life.
“Did you read it? And I got four points!”
I was still studying JJ’s face in the picture when he pulled on my arm. “She took a picture of you, too. It was when you were coaching us up. Man, you looked good, Coach! I wish she let me bring it, but she wouldn’t let me.”
Quayvon ran over while I was still staring at JJ’s picture. “Coach! Mike says he quit. He says we aren’t going to ever win. He says his cousin and everyone is saying it.”
Two days ago, Mike ran across the gym yelling, “Hey Coach D! Coach D!” like it was the biggest day of his life, too. Now he sat slumped by himself across the gym with his chin on his hands.
Teresa kept on walking past me toward Mike. “I’ll talk to him even though it’s not what I plaaaaaaaanned to do.”
I rubbed JJ’s picture with my thumb. “No.”
Teresa turned back to me. “Huh?”
“I said, ‘No.’”
“Uh huh. Who’s gonna talk to him?”
I handed JJ his picture. “His coach will.”
I walked close enough for Teresa to feel my breath in her hair. “Being right’s a big thing for you, isn’t it?”
“It’s not all that. Not as big as you being wrong.”
I kept walking toward Mike with no idea in my head what I would say. “’S up, Mike.”
Mike shrugged at the floor. I sat down on the floor next to him and lowered my voice. “Quayvon said you were quitting.”
Mike pushed a plastic bottle cap around the floor with his finger.
“I won’t get mad if you tell me, Mike. No foolin’.”
Mike looked up. “Huh?”
“I just mean you can tell me, and I won’t get fussy or say anything.”
Mike stared at the floor. “Everyone says we won’t ever win.”
The words burned my ears. “Everyone who?”
More shrugs. “My cousins and everyone.”
A bowling ball crashed against the pins in my head.
I picked the pins up one at a time and put them in place. “I promise you, I’m finding us a way to win.”
I could see Mike’s eyes welling up, and I kept coming up with words to say mainly so he wouldn’t cry. “I guess you’re kind of lucky to have all your cousins. I don’t even have a cousin, except an old one and we don’t hangout or anything . . .”
“They all say you can’t coach.”
The bowling ball in my head bowled a strike, and the sound thundered between my ears. “They all who?”
More shrugging. “Everyone.”
I was fed up with “everyone,” whoever they were. I stood up and paced away, then paced back. “What do you think?”
My heart started beating like I was running suicides uphill both ways. “Listen!”
My voice came out too loud, and I tried again. “Look, Mike. I want you on my team.”
I was searching for words, and I Iooked across the court. Teresa was pulling her hair back through her bandana headband, and somewhere from deep in my brain cave the words rolled out.
“Everyone down on the outside court. They said I was skinny, that I was a kid.”
I stopped, but Mike finished it. “Yeah. They said you’ white.”
I sat back down next to Mike. “Yeah. But I still played.”
Mike’s eyes stayed glued to the floor, and I looked at the floor with him. “But it’s OK. You can quit. We’ll still be friends.”
Mike didn’t say anything, and I took the chance to think about the words that had rolled out of my brain cave. “We will always be friends.”
I put out a fist, and Mike bumped it. I had started to stand when he spoke. “Ok.”
Mike looked at me for the first time. “My cousins and everyone say things about me too, but I’m gonna do like you and play.”
Then he pointed at my wrist. “You got blood.”
Blood from where I gashed the back of my wrist had rolled down the back of my hand and dried.
Mike jumped up. “I’ll get you a paper.”
He ran away and was back sitting next to me before I took three breaths. “Here.”
I took the scrunched-up paper towels and wiped off the blood. “Thanks, Mike.”
Mike and I and the rest of the Lakers hung out and talked and goofed around until Tony called, “Lunch.”
The kids said for me to stay and eat with them. I was pretty hungry, and it would have been cool, but there was stuff I needed to do. “Hey, Teresa, is there a place around here I can sit and think. Maybe write some stuff down before practice?”
“Like a library?”
Teresa’s eyes fell to half open. “Yes. We have a library. Two more blocks up on King Street.”
Teresa turned to march in the kitchen. “Stay here.”
She marched back out with a pizza slice on a paper plate and stuck it out toward me. “And what are you going to write on?”
I took the pizza with one hand and looked at the other.
Teresa slapped me in the belly with an old beat-up composition book. “They’ll have pencils you can borrow. Now go on.”
Then she walked away. “And be organized when you come back. At least plan how to throw the ball in.”
Her voice was all sassy, like it was before, but it sounded like she had sneaked some sweet in with it. Like maybe it was ok for me to be around.