birmingham, michigan in the fall
of 1949 seems huge and impersonal to me as mom and i make
our way through the brown, auburn, and gold leaves that clutter
the street in front of the old two story brick barnum junior
high school building. but, in fact, the population of the
small suburb of detroit is less than 30,000 people, mostly
employed in and about the auto industry that calls detroit
the day we arrive at the principal's
office, the school year has already begun for the rest
of the students. there are three hundred children in
this school; more children than there were people in
the town from which i've come. we are introduced to mabel
harabedian; a student in my own grade who will act as
a guide for me and show me around. she is dressed in
a plaid pleated skirt and a white blouse with a green
cardigan sweater and a circle pin.
"i'm mable." she
says; big grin on her face.
"hi. i'm noel."
"noel? oh, like christmas?",
she asks looking at my mother.
"yes", mom answers, "born
on december 30th."
"what's your last name?",
she turns back to me.
"i'll call you 'stook',
"okay", i say.
she is a great choice to guide
me. she loves the school. she loves the principal's office.
she loves the doorknob that she turns as we stepped out
into the hallway. she loves the hall. the hall loves
her. now don't get me wrong, mable isn't a gushy wushy
kind of person, it's just that she directs such focused
attention on anything that comes into her view that it
melts. like me.
after the brief tour of the
two story building, i am brought to the door of room
116; mister beam's room and my home for the next nine
homeroom 116 has one better
than average athelete. his name is john buick. he is
captain of our intramural basketball team. all boys in
homerooms 'participate' in intramural basketball. john
is resigned to this fact and actually appears to do quite
a good job of encouraging the rest of us by including
us in some portion of every game (though it very well
may be by mister beam's direction).
it doesn't take too long to
become aware of the athletic pecking order here at barnum
junior high. homeroom C128 is a monster on the basketball
court. pete kass is one of the guards. he has excellent
form and can hit a basket from 30 feet out. tim webber
has great moves from his left forward position and often
sinks fall-away jump shots from the corner. but the hulking
marvin green is generally regarded as high jock of the
school. he plays center with a surety and physical confidence
that is awesome. it never occurs to me at the time that
he may be a year or two older.
every wednesday the homerooms
meet after school on the gym floor to play a competitive
schedule that traditionally ends in a championship game
between two homerooms for which the school sets aside
two special hours during a regular school day.
the results of each wednesday's
matches are posted in the hallway along with the current
standings. amazingly, through a series of defaults (the
other team not showing up)
and john buick's exemplory
play, homeroom B116 is the sole occupant of second place
in the standings. C128, of course enjoying it's expected
steamroller season of no defeats.
this year, the top two teams
in the intramural league will play for the championship
of the school. and through a series of bizarre defaults
and narrow victories, homeroom B116 finds itself head
to head with the intimidating C128 squad. this game is
to be played during the school day and classes will be
suspended during the activity.
there is a core of six or
seven players with experience here amongst the homeroom
116 players. john buick has helped fashion a reasonable
bunch of ball handlers from this group of enthusiastic
non-atheletes. kurt emmerling plays right forward and
besides mable, is the only person with whom i've exchanged
more than a 'hi'.
there are eleven of us dressed
in our gym-class maroon cotton shorts and for this championship
game we've been given halter shirts with numbers on the
back. my number is 11. it seems like a good number. i
wonder a bit about numbers and their relationship to
performance. since i've only played in two of the games
this year, a total of about three or four minutes, i
have a lot of time to think about things like numbers
and stuff like that.
the gym is packed. the mid-morning
sun coming through the narrow casement windows above
the team benches projects random overbright white geometric
shapes on the far side of the gym near the exits to the
hallway. the team benches are on one side...the bleachers
on the other. the floor is wood, the walls are wood.
the echoes of the voices blend with the squeak of our
sneakers on the hardwood floor.
i suppose i would be nervous
if i was going to play, but since this is the championship
game, i'm not expecting more than my token appearance
sometime after the fourth quarter has begun. by then
we probably will have fallen so far behind that it will
be thought of as 'good sportsmanship' to put me in.
the starting lineups are announced
over the crackling public address system. perhaps it's
my imagination but the applause for the C-128 team seems
to underline the prevailing favoritism here. john leads
our four regular starters out to the floor. the crowd
begins some chatter. "alright, alright...lookin'
good, lookin' good! howboutcha 128!"
the buzzer sounds and from
the opening tip-off it is apparent that this will not
be a difficult game for C128. they sink three baskets
before we get our first shot; a foul shot that we miss
and the rebound from which leads to still
another C128 basket.
the first two quarters are
lost in a flurry of C128 ball handling and by halftime,
though C128 has not scored as well as expected from the
outside, marvin greene has controlled most of the under
basket activity and and his team has built, by intramural
standards, an impressive 15 to 6 lead.
john buick has scored all
but two of homeroom 116's points and in the locker room
there's not much to say: we all know what's happening
out there. we've been lucky...if webber and kass were
hitting their outside jumps like they usually do the
score could just as easily be 30 to 6. at least it still
kinda looks like a contest.
until the second half starts.
within the first few minutes
both guards for C128 hit from 20 and 30 feet out and
the worst fears are realized...C128 has decided to 'get
serious' and we are about to be on the short end of a
very embarrassing final score.
after still another miss at
their basket resulting in a turnover to C128, a discouraged
john buick calls a time out and comes over to the bench.
"stookey...you're in!" he
says and plops down dog tired.
"huh?" it's so early
in the game yet...
"go in - play center!"
as i run across the floor to the otherside where we will
bringing in the ball i hear mable's voice float out over
the referee's whistle blows
and the ball comes in to me. i'm trying to dribble and
walk and the ball is bouncing from the floor back up
to me at about chest height.
i begin to make my awkward
way down the floor. the defense closes in. i can see
they are waiting for the next five foot bounce. i take
the ball with both hands and pass it toward one of my
teammates. well, kinda toward...actually it sails about
three foot over his head and into the crowd...
there is a collective gasp
from the crowd.
get em!" mable's voice seems amazingly reassuring
despite it's starkness.
the ball is brought back in
bounds by C128 and as their quick passing brings the
ball up the court i find myself backed up under our basket
waving my arms about. a side pass off to marvin green
in the right forward position and he drives toward the
basket. i move out hesitantly to stop his shot and as
he releases the ball toward the hoop i jump up, reach
out with my hand, and slap it back down...it glances
off his head and out of bounds.
"atta way stooooook!"
well, how about that? our
the ball comes to me again
and i begin to dribble down the court again...kaboom,
one of my teammates comes
to back court. he motions to pass it to him. i thankfully
comply and trot on down near the basket. there seems
to be a lot of unneccessary activity here...all these
arms are out and waving and i just kinda back my way
in and wave with them when suddenly into the crowd comes
the ball and...i've got it!
'gee', i'm thinking, 'the
basket is right behind me.' i can see it in my mind.
'i'm probably close enough to shoot...'
i start to move to my left.
somebody's there. to my right...uh-uh, somebody there
as well...a hand is reaching at the ball...another one...suddenly
i know all i have to do is get up in the air where there's
some room...then i can turn around. still facing my end
of the court, i spring into the air, twirl around and
sure enough there's the basket. swish! two points!
my feet hit the floor and
i'm astounded. i've invented a new shot!
everyone seems as mystified
as i about what has just happened but as we all reach
the other end of the court and C128 misses their answering
shot the time-out buzzer goes off and back into the lineup
comes a charged-up john buick.
" go down and stand under
the basket" he whispers as he takes the ball out
of my hand. "just stand there and wait for the pass..."
and so it begins. i go down
and stand in front of the basket. john or someone on
the team brings the ball down
and eventually gets it to
me in the middle. i jump up in the air, turn around,
there's the basket and swish two points. jump, turn,
swish. jump, turn, swish. i do this ten times in the
second half. all of them go in the basket. punctuated
each time by an "okay, stooooooook", the game's
expected outcome completely flip-flops, C128 seems to
get horribly rattled, can't make the simplest shot and
homeroom B116 wins the intramural championship by 10
at the final buzzer a partially
stunned group of teachers and students make their way
out the exits of the gym. mable and i wave to each other
as i head for the locker room.
inside the locker room it
seems so quiet. i really don't know what to expect, but
i would think that there would be champagne and towel
snapping and jokes and pranks and all the things that
we see on t.v. now but of course this is 1949, pre-t.v.
and besides it's only junior high school and i've never
been in a locker room following a championship event
before...and i suppose i'm just as glad there's not a
bunch of festivity going on anyway cause then everybody
would see that i'm wearing boxer shorts underwear instead
of briefs like everybody else. gads... my legs are spindly
enough anyway without sticking out of these big white
pantaloons! we are all dressing to rejoin our classes.
john buick is first-dressed and claps my back as he leaves. "nice
game", he says. he is the only one in the locker
room to speak to me.
the hallways are deserted.
except for the muffled voices of the teachers through
the closed doors, there is only the echo of my shoes
in the hall as i approach mister battenhouse's room for
my science class. the class has been in session for about
15 minutes and as i open the door, i hope that i'll be
able to get to my seat without calling attention to myself.
the applause takes me totally
by surprise. and it doesn't stop. i feel my cheeks flush.
uh...what response is called for here? gads...i've never
been here before...i don't know anybody in this classroom...uh...
i bow from the waist.
the clapping stops abruptly.
there are a few giggles. i was on top of the world for
about an hour. now i'll have to start all over again.