Gerald HendersonOctober 30, 2006
“Reckon no man happy till you see the day he crosses the river that severs life from death, unscathed by woe.”
— Sophocles, Oedipus the King
The general store in East Randolph didn’t sell basketball cards, so I’m not sure where I got this 1981 Gerald Henderson card that I’m posting in honor of the passing of Henderson’s onetime boss, the great Red Auerbach. I do know that 1981 was the year I first experienced what it was like to root for a championship team. I had been only vaguely aware of the Celtics championship in 1976, but by 1981 I had started playing “organized” (explanation for the quotation marks below) basketball myself and listening late into the night through heavy static to Johnny Most’s shovel-on-concrete voice turn Celtics games into battles of tough and beleaguered good versus filthy cheating evil.
In 1981 my own 8th grade basketball team was horrifically bad. Most of our pummelings at the hands of other Central Vermont squads were punctuated by my glasses getting raked off my face by somebody’s swinging elbow. After a few of these incidents my frames inevitably broke and from then on each spectacles-related game-stoppage entailed both of my lenses dislodging from the frames and skittering across the floor. The ref eventually blew his whistle and members of both teams got down on their knees to locate the frame and lenses for me, at which point I’d then go to the bench and wrap some more nerdifying adhesive tape around them while my coach, the much-beloved community icon Mick Lewis, who would years later be imprisoned for molesting players on his consistently dominant little league team, rubbed his eye sockets with the heels of his hand in the manner of someone with a migraine.
(Luckily, I was never a victim of his molestations, which I attribute in part to my ineptitude. I say this because the kid in my grade who claimed that he went camping with Mick and woke up to find the coach fellating him–a claim we all dismissed as impossible, the creation of a bald-faced liar–was an excellent athlete, and also because the one time Mick did do something to me that felt a little odd was right after I’d somehow miraculously scored two baskets in a row. Mick subbed for me after the second of these baskets, sat down next to me on the bench, and as play resumed told me what a good job I’d done and gave my thigh two unusually long and, well, ardent squeezes. Fortunately, I never came close to repeating my unprecedented scoring rampage.)
Anyway, when I wasn’t continuing my lifelong study of how it feels to lose, I was rooting for the Celtics, and they were winning. Let me tell you, it felt pretty fucking good to back a winner for once. So here’s to Red Auerbach, who sagely snatched Gerald Henderson out of the oblivion of something called the Western League (there’s a cartoon on the back of this card of, for some reason, some generic white guy who’s supposed to be Henderson holding a trophy that says “MVP WEST. LEAG”) in 1979 to back up the aging wizard Tiny Archibald. With Henderson’s help, the Celtics nabbed the 1981 title. Three years later in a Finals matchup against a favored Lakers team that just seemed too fast and too good for the Celtics, Henderson executed the most important play in the history of his storied franchise–a last-second steal and layup–to help the Celts begin to turn the tide against the Lakers and win another title. That offseason Auerbach traded Henderson for a draft pick that the Celtics would, in 1986, after yet another championship, use to draft the apparent can’t-miss superstar Lenny Bias. It looked to be one more in a long line of sweet deals orchestrated by the maestro of 16 NBA crowns, but of course Bias overdosed while freebasing cocaine on his very first night as a Celtic. Auerbach wept when he heard the news. This past Saturday as the greatest team builder who ever lived was taking his last breaths, I was at a Bob Dylan concert, and some words I heard sung that night in a Sophoclean Johnny Most growl occur to me now: “No man, no woman knows/the hour that sorrow will come.”
Rest in peace, Red. I guess losing is inevitable. But thank you for letting me know what it felt like, at least vicariously, at least temporarily, to be a winner.