I’ve never loved a TV show as much as I loved The White Shadow. As a kid I couldn’t believe it existed, that something so specifically appealing to me was out there. It was the story of fictional Chicago Bulls wide-body Ken Reeves, who after wrecking his knee while vying for a rebound (the picture above is, I believe, his fateful last moment in the big leagues) ends up coaching the Carver High basketball team. The show first aired in late November of 1978, just a month after the seminal moment of my childhood sports fandom occurred—the one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees. I was probably looking for something else to love around then.
Here are the stats for the players on that team, as I imagine them (and I have been imagining them for almost forty years):
Thorpe, point guard, 12.3 points per game, 5.7 assists per game, 2.6 steals per game
Hayward, shooting guard, 8.9 point per game, 2.4 assists per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, 1.8 steals per game
Jackson, small forward, 9.6 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game
Reese, power forward, 10.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game
Coolidge, center, 18.8 points per game, 15.6 rebounds per game, 3.2 blocks per game
Salami, guard-forward, 8.2 points per game
Gomez, guard, 2.8 points per game, 0.9 steals per game
Goldstein, forward, o.7 points per game, 2.5 fouls per game
I was ten when it first aired. I wasn’t even following pro basketball that much, but my older brother had started to play on a junior high team, and Tom had nailed a hoop up outside our garage, so I’d started shooting baskets.That was to be the main pursuit of my life for the next ten years. It worked its way into my bones.
There’s a basketball hoop outside the building where I work. I’ve never seen anyone use it. On Monday I was walking from my building to the next building, which has in it a little sundries store where I buy gum. I’ve been working on a novel in which a character starts noticing out of the corner of his eye basketballs sprouting up like little mushrooms around the fringe of an unused outdoor court outside his workplace. On my way to buy gum, I glanced over at the court this fictional court was based on and spotted a basketball. It was sitting in a bed of dirt next to the outdoor court. It was cold out. One or two people were staving off cubicle-related heart disease by trudging around the manmade pond by the court, but other than that no one was around. Everyone was inside working. I’d been planning to get gum and return to my cubicle for the rest of the day. But you see something like that, some manifestation of your inner life, you better follow it a little.
So I went and picked up the ball. It was a little low on air and in the cold weather was not very bouncy. Still, it felt good in my hands. Basketball, the game, is in my bones. I love basketball. That thought came into my head today as I was driving home, and I don’t even know where it came from. I wasn’t thinking about shooting at the hoop outside work, and I hadn’t yet learned the news that Ken Howard, the actor who portrayed Ken Reeves, had died. I shot a few baskets. I don’t have any spring in my legs anymore, and I don’t have any range on my shot, so I stuck in and around the key area and sank most of my shots. Ka-swish, ka-swish, kas-swish. What else can instantly connect you to your childhood like that?
I remember the first moment when I fell in love with the show. It was in the first episode when the team was helping the coach move. Coolidge is driving the moving truck. Thorpe asks him something about his driving, or about whether he knows how to drive a truck. I can’t remember the set-up, but I remember Coolidge’s reply.
“I ain’t got no license,” he says, smiling.
My brother and I fell out. For weeks we were saying it to one another, two white children in rural Vermont. Our new mantra.
I ain’t got no license. I ain’t got no license. I ain’t got no license.
I loved Coolidge, Thorpe, Salami. All of them. But it was the coach that centered the show. I watched the show through my first years playing organized basketball, and the coaches presiding over my own experiences fell far short of the guidance, warmth, and cool of Coach Reeves. The varsity coach in my town was a militaristic shithead who only had two things to go to in his coaching toolbox: caustic berating and hoarse-voiced screaming. The JV coach was a distracted post-college guy with a mustache who seemed to want to be elsewhere. And the junior high coach would be hauled away to prison some years later when discovered to be a child molester (the worst I got was a surreptitious knee-groping on the bench after I scored two baskets in a row). So these were the coaches in my actual life. Luckily I also had Ken Reeves.
If he needs help moving on to the next world, I want to be right in there in the moving truck beside Coolidge.