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White Shadow memories: #6, 5, 4

March 24, 2016

nick9In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7).

6. Goldstein undergoes primal scream therapy.
The guys attend a late-’70s party in L.A., and while wandering around there the team’s benchwarmer, Goldstein, somehow gets involved with people practicing primal scream therapy. I cried with laughter when Goldstein whole-heartedly puts the practice to use.

 5. Thorpe’s crushed dreams
This one always haunted me. I think it was because at the time The White Shadow was on, I revered the older basketball players in my town, the high school stars, far beyond anything I felt for NBA players. I enjoyed thinking that my school’s star players would keep rising all the way to the NBA. This episode put that dream into Thorpe’s head as one he held for himself, and throughout the episode facts mounted up that killed that dream. Beautifully, Thorpe’s skills as an artist surfaced, giving him alternative, more tangible path into a good future. Even better, the episode climaxed with Thorpe winning a game with a Gerald Henderson-esque steal and score. Kevin Hooks was always brilliant as Thorpe. Like Vince Van Patten (and Thomas Carter, who played Hayward), he went on to become a successful director. I think this speaks well of the culture of the show—it seems to speak of an empowerment similar to that seen with the 1960s Celtics, who saw an inordinate number of players go on to become championship and/or award-winning coaches (Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Don Nelson, K.C. Jones, John Thompson).

4. Coolidge gets an agent/Coolidge becomes a TV star.
Coolidge was my favorite. He was funny, cool, and human. I can’t distinguish in my memory between these two episodes, but I think the basic gist was the same: Coolidge’s abundant talents push him outside the circle of the team. He gets fancy clothes, a fancy car, and begins addressing his peers as if from an Olympian remove. Have I ever been as satisfied by a show as when Coolidge, abashed, returns to the team? Doubtful.

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White Shadow memories: #9, 8, 7

March 24, 2016

215422In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow (possibly shoddy) memories (memory 10 is here).

9. Thorpe gives Coolidge VD.
Friday Night Lights is a great show, but did Saracen ever give Riggins VD?

8. Salami the boxer
I’d rank Salami as my third-favorite player, after Coolidge and Thorpe. I think he may have gotten an inordinately high number of “feature episodes,” perhaps as a product of network executive pressure to nudge him forward as the show’s “teen heartthrob.” That effort, if it existed, never really found purchase, even with the racy “Salami has an affair with a teacher” episode. The boxer plot gave Salami his biggest chance to chew the scenery in the Italianate style of method acting, channeling DeNiro, Stallone, Brando’s “coulda been a contender” speech. (Timothy Van Patten did a fine job as Salami, but he later found his true calling as a director, most notably on The Sopranos.)

7. The guys get a record contract.
I loved when the guys sang in the shower. For me it highlighted the playful side of the show, and it was one of many moments in the show when you could see that these guys were friends who enjoyed each other, surely a big part of the appeal to someone edging into a lonely adolescence, as I was. Also the songs sounded good (though lip-synching pushed the the suspension of disbelief factor toward a breaking point). This episode took that occasional feature and brought it center stage. I should say at this point that all these memories may be faulty, but as I remember it, this was one of two episodes that spoke directly to the “highlight the white guy” industry pressure mentioned above, as Salami was put forth by record execs as the front man for the group. (In the other whitey-as-chosen-one episode, Salami was selected by the coach as team captain, creating a near-mutiny by the team, who wanted Hayward as the official team leader.)

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White Shadow memories: #10. Mike Warren

March 24, 2016

woo0-064In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories.

10. UCLA national champ Mike Warren guest stars

A huge part of my love of The White Shadow rested on the basketball action being a close enough proximity to the real thing to keep the fictional reality afloat. Coolidge, Thorpe, and Coach Reeves could all play, and the others were for the most part close enough to not mangle the whole presentation. (This can happen—see: William Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story, DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly, every second of Teen Wolf up until Michael J. Fox’s stunt double for the wolf scenes starts mincing the opposition). The verisimilitude factor hit its peak in the episode guest-starring Mike Warren, who played on consecutive national championship teams at UCLA in 1967 and 1968, earning All-American honors in the latter year. On The White Shadow, Warren played a street ball legend who joins the team briefly before his irreparably damaged moral compass sends him back to other, darker eventualities. The morality tale for the team—even the most talented ballers can fall—was backed up by—and also somehow secondary to—the visceral thrill of watching someone who could really play the game.

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Ken Reeves

March 23, 2016

Reeves

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.

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Fernando Valenzuela

March 11, 2016

Fernando Valenzuela

This is of course the moment in Fernando Valenzuela’s indelible windup when he has first come out of his brief sky-trance. We all should approach our life’s work with this mixture of focus and mysterious surrender.

What is my life’s work? I still don’t know. Not this, surely, this hobby. Collecting. What does it even mean to collect?

When I was a little boy about the same age my oldest son is now, four and a half, I rode in a VW Camper with my brother, mother, and her boyfriend, Tom, down through all the states from New Jersey to Texas and on into Mexico. We were there all summer in Fernando Valenzuela’s country.

It was 1973. Tom had long hair and a big beard, and my brother and I had unruly curls that the women in Mexico all wanted to touch. I didn’t want to be touched.

At some point we picked up two fellow American longhairs who were hitchhiking, a young man and woman who clambered into the back with my brother and me and started making out, their writhing bodies colliding with us in the small space. I didn’t want to be touched. They weren’t with us for that long, a few hours at the most, and yet here it is over forty years later and they’re still riding with me, those groping hippies.

My father had a job, but he got a week or so off and flew down to meet up with us for a while. We were all in it together, sort of, but of course things were more complicated than I could fathom. I stuck to my brother as much as I could. I ate ham sandwiches everywhere we went. Jambon. I think that’s what they were called. It was one piece of the world that was the same.

There were towering ruins everywhere. That’s what I’ll carry with me the longest I guess. This sense of an ancient vanished world. I worry that in my own timid adult existence I won’t ever give to my sons the same sprawling awe I apprehended in childhood by virtue of being raised by people who believed a new era of joy was upon us, just up around the next bend.

I brought back from Mexico a small stone replica of a ruin. I can’t even remember what it was, maybe a miniature version of some god or goddess. What doesn’t erode in our minds? What I remember was the feel of it, how soft the stone was, how it was almost wearing away as I touched it but at the same time seemed to have a solidity that would outlast everything else in my room, all those bright plastic American toys. But I lost it somewhere on the way.

I’m still coming out of the trance of childhood. I’m looking for some target, I guess, though much of the time I’m also still trying to find my way back into the trance.

I don’t know where I got this card. It appeared well after my years of voraciously buying packs. I didn’t seek it out. Collecting to me doesn’t mean pursuing. Some stuff ends up in my possession, most of it disappears, I try to oppose this disappearing sometimes.

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Mike Miley

March 8, 2016

Mike Miley

I probably didn’t linger very long on this card when I got it in 1977. But every card got at least a little look. Surely I flipped to the back and saw that this player never cracked .200 in his two partial years in the majors. There was a note beneath the anemic numbers about him winning a game against the Brewers with a home run in bottom of the 15th inning. But so what? And I probably didn’t register that this player had been taken in the first round of the 1974 draft. I was looking for superstars and didn’t consider that the best was still to come for Mike Miley. This was not anyone to exult over, to hold onto tightly.

I was nine that year and didn’t read the papers. I didn’t know what had happened to Mike Miley in January, that he flipped his car and died. I didn’t know much about death. I knew a little. By 1977 we’d lost our first dog, a beautiful Irish Setter-Golden Retriever mix named Jupiter. He got hit by a car. It was cold out, and the ground was frozen, and Tom had to use a pick-axe to break up the ground for a grave. He was out there for hours, hacking, grieving. When he was done Mom and my brother and I all went out into the back yard to join Tom and stare down at our red and golden dog lying in the shallow crater.

Now is when you say something. What is there to day?

According to a January 14, 1977, AP news report, Mike Miley had a blood alcohol level of .23 when he died in a one-car accident while driving his sports car. The accident occurred close to the LSU football stadium where just four years earlier Mike Miley had quarterbacked LSU to nine straight wins and a berth in the Orange Bowl. He threw bombs. He bootlegged around the line for daring last-second game-winning touchdowns. His nickname was Miracle Mike.

Jupiter was a blazing river of fire up through the woods. We’d go on hikes into the Green Mountains and free of the leash and choke collar he’d sprint way ahead, disappearing, and then sprint back, checking on us, and then he’d sprint out ahead again, climbing the mountain ten times for our one slow human ascent. On the way home, on the floor of our VW camper, Jupiter’s chest rose and fell as he slept, unbothered by pot holes, frost heaves, anything, the breath coming in deep and whistling out through his wet black nose. I reached down and stroked his soft red and gold fur again and again as he breathed. Sometimes his legs jerked. He was still running up the mountain.

Look at the eyes of Miracle Mike. Is there any doubt that life will continue? That the glory of winning games with last-minute touchdowns as 60,000 adoring fans roar is merely a preview of the bliss to come? The future will be a long, untroubled rise.

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Tim Krauss

March 1, 2016

Tim Krauss

This card from 1986 feels different than a major league card, flimsier, promotional, disposable. The player’s name is spelled differently on the front than it is on the back (“Krausse”), and on the back instead of the somehow comforting stack of years that you see on a major leaguer’s card there’s just one line of statistics, from the player’s previous season, which occurred with another team from a different organization, in another league, in another city, in another country. The numbers from that year, 1985, are without promise—3 homers, 2 steals, a .244 average. Above them are some other numbers for height, weight, and birth date that further fill in the portrait of a slight, plodding, light-hitting Triple A infielder who’ll turn 28 before the year is done.

But what gets me the most is the stray comma after the birthday info: 9-09-57,

The comma seems to be from the same disordered reality as the figures in the photo on the front of the card. The photo’s ostensible subject strikes a polite pose and smiles, but the slippage in focus of his gaze away from the camera loosens any possible ability of the figure to center the presentation. You aren’t drawn to any one thing in this world, and so you bounce from thing to thing randomly, from the necklace of the infielder to the blotchy sky to the other figures scattered around, all seeming to look with slackened boredom at various unremarkable occurrences.

I listened to a lecture on the drive to work today by a Buddhist teacher named Gil Fronsdal. He talked about how it’s important to pay attention to your body, to really feel moment by moment what you’re doing. There’s a part in my drive when I pull into the left-hand turn lane on Touhy to make a left on Elmhurst. I’m always in a long line of cars for this turn. It was at this point in the lecture when Fronsdal talked about what a waste of time it is to wait. When you are standing there, just feel yourself standing. Pay attention to the moment. Meditate. Breathe. Don’t cast yourself forward in time or strain against the expectations you brought into the moment, the disappointments those expectations bring.

There’s a huge billboard above the lights for that turn for a “gentleman’s club.” It advertises that it’s “full liquor” and “full contact” and that the “dancers work free.” I’m not sure what any of this means except for the liquor part, which I suppose means you can get hammered on any type of liquor you want. I guess you can grope the woman who work there at will and you don’t have to lure them toward you by waving money in the air. I’ve gone to strip clubs two or three times in my life, back when I was the age Tim Krauss is here, and there did seem to be customs around money and contact. On the billboard there was a large photo of a woman’s face. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was hanging open. Her eyelids were almost shut. She looked as if she’d been drugged. The other billboards on this strip of road sell other consumables and services, cheeseburgers, lawyers, liquidation.

The green arrow came on and it was my turn to go. The lecture ended and Fronsdal asked for questions. After some loud feedback a man in the audience ignored the request for questions and made a faintly but flintily challenging statement about how it seemed easy to follow the precepts of mindfulness when things were going OK, but when the body started breaking down or other life crises occurred it got a lot harder. Fronsdal said—he didn’t use these words, but this was the gist—that everyone would be wise to train the mind for when things inevitably start to suck. You’ll never be able to do it if you wait until the end.

And things will start to suck. You’ll lose whatever intermittent ability you might have had to turn on the inside fastball. And that will just be the first of it. All day at work I felt like I had been dropped from a height. I was woozy, weakened. This is closer to the norm than the exception. I never really feel that great anymore, physically, and yet I’m always waiting to somehow become 27 again going on 26, or 25, or 24, on one of those days back then when every muscle felt good and like the next card I drew was going to feel solid in my hand, not some discordant fortune of meaningless punctuation, anchorless desire.

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