Late in my freshman season, I gave Coby and Tim a ride to the local shoe dealer, hoping to swap my Jordan Xs, whose soles were pulling away from the shell, for an identical pair to finish out the year. In the locker room, I'd been assured of new kicks by teammates who'd traded in their own shoes all season for defects not nearly as bad. A scam was afoot, but, up to that point, I was never intrigued enough to investigate. More importantly, I liked my Jordans, bold with their simple white body, slick with a loop of black patent leather at the base. These were the first official release since his spring of 1995 comeback, a pair of shoes I linked - with the help of great marketing in Slam Magazine and on TNT double-headers - directly to the drive of my own game.
"Then get two pair," Coby had told me mysteriously. He'd then pointed to a non-existent blemish on his own black Air Flights. "And take me and Tim wit' you tomorrow."
The next day I followed my teammates into the shoe store, a few steps behind, pretending to glance at displays of sweat suits along the way. I warily grasped my Jordans by the laces, while Tim and Coby strode to the back office. After a quick knock, they were greeted by a short, well-tanned man in his early thirties. He wore a baggy Fila warm-up and a pair of Air Cortez, and had neon wraparound shades resting on his receding hairline. He called Tim and Coby by their first names, mentioned our seeding in the upcoming conference tournament, and the three slapped fives, exchanged chuckles. Then Coby called out for me. I recognized the guy from early in the pre-season, when he'd dropped by our weight room to get our shoe sizes and orders for the upcoming year. We were each allowed two pair of pre-determined Nikes, which came at a team discount as long as the school purchased Nike warm-ups and prominently displayed two Nike banners somewhere in the gym. Our discounted shoes could total no more than 150 dollars. There was another option, though, an option I chose, in which we could get any pair of non-discounted shoes we wanted that totaled less than 150 dollars.
My Jordan Xs ran 165, and I phoned my mom for the extra fifteen.
Apparently, I'd missed out on the fun part. Coby told me later that he'd also been well into his own freshman year before he'd had the nerve to get in on the scam, a scam that had been going on a for a few seasons, it seems. Nike's lax return policy was a key factor; at the time, they exchanged team shoes for almost any reason, so as to avoid contractual problems with the dealers and the schools. Here our local shoe dealer played the other important role, overcharging various area schools and marking up prices in order to balance his store’s books. According to Tim, this guy once had hoop dreams himself, the scam probably making him feel part of the team. Coby had seen him playing bad pick-up ball at the park, and leaving with a black girlfriend. This dealer also welcomed my teammates' commerce, so much so that he recommended they replace their shoes every few weeks, even if the shoes showed little signs of wear. Just to be on the safe side, he might pull out a few stitches, or put a puncture in the visible air pocket, before boxing them up and shipping them back to Nike. Then he exchanged my teammates' shoes at their regularly listed prices, instead of the discounted prices Northern had purchased them for. This turned two used-pairs of 75-dollar sneakers into over two hundred dollars of store credit. Many of my teammates used the difference to get newer models of sneakers and the latest in sports fashions, from baggy Adidas sweatpants to Kangol caps.
But some took the scam further, buying up more discounted shoes with the store credit, sometimes getting as many as five pairs for the two they'd traded in. From there, they could wear two pairs until it was time to exchange them again, save a pair for a rainy day, and trade the rest with buddies. The exchanges only multiplied, especially if they'd traded for a discount. Ultimately, their closets were filled with a month's supply of rainy days, each of which they took care of meticulously. The trading got ridiculous. Before leaving the team, Baby Shaq used his shoes to rent free movies and pick up all the used CDs he wanted at the local Media Exchange. Anthony somehow bartered his way into a new set of rims for his Cutlass, while Coby turned his footwear into the best stereo system on the team. Tim, our lone business major, made enough cold cash off his extra sets of shoes that I figured the IRS would eventually track him down.
That first day with Coby and Tim, I got a new pair of Jordan Xs, and because the Jordans were on sale, I got a half-priced pair of Nike running shoes as well. A few weeks later, after the season had ended, those turned into three pair of cross trainers. The free shoes were great. I had a few pairs in my closet, nearly ten years later. At the time, though, the most rewarding thing about the scam was that it became something else that bonded me with my teammates. Things like our moments on the court, in practice, at games, and our downtime with pizza and PlayStation, in the basketball house and in numerous motels across the Midwest. Beyond the effects of feeling accepted, these moments seemed to carry a quality of identity and accord for me, a sense of having a larger, denser concept stamped on my self – that of our team, of the lives of my teammates. Such emotions might be stronger for one who, by physical design, feels separate from his teammates, so that a part of his devotion can never be requited. Because of differences that could not go away, I felt I could never have too many shared moments with these guys.
As one of my teammates might say, We in this together; that this shared moment stuck it to the big shots at Nike and outfitted us little guys at the same time only sweetened the deal.
During the same semester, I was taking a sociology class that strengthened this vision. I now recognize its professor as a not uncommon type, the academic who wore her liberalism the way certain people wear jewelry – as an adornment which announces a perceived success, her intellectual and moral brass ring. If rappers had bling and diamond-studded teeth, my professor had a K.D. Lang haircut and a rainbow lapel pin. At the time, though, after I’d lived eighteen years in a closed-minded small-town, she seemed like a mixed-gendered prophet. The desire to root for the underdog was always alive in me, never more often than in sports, especially upon arriving at Northern, where we were almost always overmatched by our opponent. This segued into my own progressive politics, which continue to side with most every underdog, even if I didn't have the terminology for it all as a freshman. Thankfully, my sociology professor coaxed it out. She was repellent and sexless, allowing me to focus only on the lessons. She littered these lessons with fifty-cent words and illustrations from real life, nurturing my concurrence. The actual difference, she taught, is Weak and Strong, and this sounded simple enough to be accurate. Then she followed up with examples. Poor and Rich, she preached, is the real gap, bringing up the subsequent fall's presidential election while she was at it. She even called Bill Clinton the closest thing to a black president we've ever had, connecting his impoverished roots with his undying support in the African-American community. Don't forget our wars, she told us, where our poor fight others' weak, all for the rich and powerful. Then she gave us stories from the very town we lived in, pointing to the lowest workers on the totem pole at the Tyson plant, men and women who gutted chickens on the line and brought home very little to show for it, linked, if not by their skin color, by their socio-economic struggles.
"Is there really a black section in this town?" she asked. "Is there a white section?"
I thought hard on this one. By spring, I'd gotten more serious with my jogging, and I'd passed through much of the community on foot. I'd also given rides to the elder statesmen of our team, the thirty-one-year-old Mouton and thirty-year-old Vance, often chauffeuring them to various apartment complexes and low-rent streets. I knew there was a black duplex or two. Often next to a white-trash one. The entire area was called “ghetto.” Once, after receiving a late-night call to pick them up from a house party, I watched Vance pull Mouton off a couple black guys he apparently worked with, their Afros mean, their clothes sloppy. But, now that I thought about it, there were some white townies there, too. A couple of blasted rednecks eyeballed the action. Then all of them eventually slapped hands and made up over cheap liquor. It wasn't exactly The Rainbow Coalition, but still.
"Then answer me this…" Before I had a chance to think it over completely, my professor interrupted with her husky voice: "Is there a poor section in this town? A rich?"
Well, this was much easier to answer. A mile strip in any direction would give her a resounding confirmation. Soon the classroom was a rash of nodding heads, including my own. But then my mind started working my professor's simple theories into a more egocentric equation. While I could never pass myself off as a rich man, I knew my roots weren't poor, either. They were lodged firmly in the middle-class. And in high school, hadn’t my middle-class roots felt safer around the richer kids, often because the poor in my hometown weren’t so warm and cuddly? I wondered where this left me, other than uncomfortable. And, as if she were reading my mind, wanting to make bloom that seed of doubt that had planted itself, my professor made it even simpler, more palatable for the other middle-class kids on her roster. The rich were only 5 percent of the population, it was explained, and they owned 95 percent of the wealth. (I've heard this ratio no less than a thousand times since that day, and every time it seems to do whatever trick needs to be done on any audience.) The poor were the rest of us, all 95 percent. She eventually turned this into one of her more hopeful lectures, speaking of an umbrella that includes people from varying walks of life, bound, strengthened by plebeian similarities. I got behind that idea, pushing aside any urge toward critical analysis – again motivated by a sense of camaraderie, this time to all my poor brothers and sisters – and letting the professor’s rhetoric define my total thoughts on the subject. From there she made an effortless shift to a rant about corporate greed, and, after crossing my legs to tuck my new Nike hi-tops behind my backpack, I took eager notes.
In one sense, it did feel like the opinions opened in me with this basic sociology class had always been there. Perhaps it's because they were, perhaps it's because I wanted them to be.
I’d always been moved by the idea of justice, and I can’t deny these ideas felt just, at least as she put them, but there was more to it than that. These ideas were something else that applied validation to my initial fascination with black people, an allure that had led me to Northern in the first place. That fascination had long been replaced by the desire for human connection, and this new view of the world made it seem possible. The role of the underdog - not just in sports, but in life itself - seemed the ultimate shared moment, the prime unifying force. We in this together.
Was I just talking about relief from loneliness? Is that what we chase when we pursue justice – the virtuous, coalescence a righteous cause produces? In any case, these ideas also formed the bones of a new fixation.
In April, following a particularly rousing sociology lecture on the evils of Tommy Hilfiger's inner-city marketing strategies, I headed back to the basketball house and fashioned a "Tommy Hilfiger is Dead" T-shirt with a white Hanes and a black magic marker. The scrawl was sloppy, but quite legible. I wore the shirt whenever I could, hoping to spark heated conversation in the cafeteria on suburban sprawl and sweatshops, and, as appropriate stories popped up on the national news or in the papers, I created new shirts. "Stop Gap" one top proclaimed. "Champagne Breakfast Club" offered another, probably too dryly. I’d picked up the latest Springsteen album, too – an acoustic, Guthrie-esque take on blue-collar lives in the nineties – and crafted this gem of a shirt: “Come Work for Tyson – and Make Us Rich Enough to Forget Your Name.” I wore these shirts like my teammates wore their kicks and my sociology professor wore her lapel pin. I tried hard to come up with my own ideas on the matters, so I didn't have to constantly regurgitate notes from Sociology 101, always worried a classmate might be within in earshot.
I continued wearing the shirts to shoot-arounds the rest of the spring and the following fall. Hard-headed, I even considered wearing the "Tommy is Dead" shirt as a warm-up before home games my sophomore season, until Coach Piper suggested otherwise. (I did get away with an official Clinton/Gore '96 shirt at a few exhibition games in October, but it looked slick and phony.) My teammates thought the shirts were pretty funny, especially the original Hilfiger masterpiece, even after explaining myself. Most laughed it off as Capps just being crazy again. "That nigga's out his mind," Mouton howled in the locker room after an early November practice, days before our annual alumni game, and not long before he was kicked off the squad. At his pronouncement, I acted cool, warmed inside with another, weird sense of acceptance. "Tommy's dead, foo!" Mouton continued, to the rousing laughter of others. But Coby wondered when I was going to make a Nike shirt, wryly glancing at my feet, as we stood opening our lockers. At the time, I was sporting my third pair of Air Max running shoes, a style that had cushioned my feet nicely on the way to developing my sleeker look over the past summer. Coby and I had been at the shoe store just a week earlier, where I'd talked up the Jordan XI's, due out soon. I'd wished aloud they'd be released before our alumni exhibition, our first game in front of the home fans, where we were pitted against a dozen or so former Northern players. Now my face flushed a bit, until Coby flashed a gold-toothed smile and put his arm around my shoulder.
"Just hit 'em in the pocket book," he whispered. "Scam's a scam, right?"
I smiled back, rolling my eyes. "I guess."
"Nah, man," he said. "I'm hearing you, though. I'm hearing you. Weak and strong, huh?" He bumped my fist and pulled off his own Nikes. "I had that class when I was a freshman, bro."
"Good shit, man. Firm," he said. "Fuck givin' up my threads, though."
I laughed. "No kidding," I told him. Then I sat on the bench and slipped off my own Nikes, seeing his point, while trying not to lose sight of my own.
Then I thought about Andy Campbell.
Andy Campbell was White, Strong and Rich, and he was headed back to town for the alumni game. He graduated the year before I arrived, having played a small but allegedly energetic role on Northern for three seasons. His father, a prominent businessman from the St. Louis area, seemed to have played an even bigger role, donating large sums of money to both the basketball program and school itself during Andy's time here. He continued helping with smaller annual donations, and our fancy jerseys and travel budget came out of Mr. Campbell's generosity. During my time at Northern, I'd heard Andy's name mentioned occasionally, but I'd never gotten a clear impression of what my older teammates had thought of him. Along with Coach Moore, Coby and Vance were among those who'd played with him. So had Baby Shaq, though he'd shuffled back to Virginia over the summer. Somehow Mouton claimed to have met Andy, even if Andy had left a full six months before Mouton arrived, and hadn't been back to Northern since. I had a hard time doubting Mouton, though, for the same reasons I hardly believed him.
But, after hearing Andy was making the trip back to Northern, fresh out of working as an assistant business advisor for Missouri Republicans as part of Bob Dole's recent presidential campaign, I knew what I thought of Andy. I knew that I'd love to whip out some of my better T-shirts in front of him. I knew he'd be an easy opponent to get myself worked up over. Then I imagined we could all get worked up, bonding against Andy – when it came right down to it, a revolt of sorts against the family that had outfitted us. For a week, I pumped The Grateful Dead’s cover of "Maggie's Farm" into my headphones on the way to class, shaking my head over such an outsider as Andy, whose father bought him a place on the team, and who now seemed a too obvious conductor of the machinery that made up the "ruling 5 percent" - an expression my Religions of the World instructor had recently managed to drop into a lecture on Buddhists.
A day before Andy's arrival, though, my theoretical anger got complicated. Coby and Vance seemed to like Andy. More surprisingly, they actually looked forward to this rich son-of-a-bitch getting to campus, if I was to believe what they told Coach Moore in the cafeteria before practice.
"He's riding over with Chuck," Moore told them. Chuck was an older alum, who lived somewhere between Northern and St. Louis. "It'll probably be early afternoon, but after the game, we're all going out."
"You boys be licking your wounds at that point," Coby promised Moore, who'd also be playing on the alumni squad. "But I'll buy you a beer anyway, old man."
"Keep talking," Moore said. He picked up his tray and started towards the trash. "Most of our team's still younger than Vance and Mouton."
Vance put up a middle finger and smiled. Then Coby started up about Andy.
"That boy was alright, though, man. He . . . he . . ." Coby started, like he wanted
to get it just right. "Couldn't shoot for nothing, but he was all over the place. Diving. Big ole shoulders. And could jump. I think all his points were dunks."
I looked to Vance for confirmation. He nodded and shrugged. "Andy was tight, Andy was tight," he said. "D up someone's ass, that's for sure."
"Armpit in the rim," Coby promised. "He did crazy shit, man. All pumped up and shit. Screaming, hollering."
Though it had been on my mind since I heard about him, I didn't bring up Andy's father, or his money, or even the Bob Dole stuff, which would've probably seemed like poor sportsmanship anyway, seeing how Dole’s right hand had been more energetic over the past month than his campaign. Instead, I considered how they'd just described Andy's game, which seemed remarkably similar to mine, and perhaps even better, in retrospect, in that way people talk about something years later. Another white boy using in-game histrionics to legitimize his place on the team, barking and frothing and throwing himself into harm’s way and generally turning 110 percent effort into fanaticism. Would talk of my game age as well as Andy’s? And, for that matter, where were the comparisons now? In an instant, I'd grown warm with embarrassment, and I didn't want to challenge Coby's or Vance's opinion, figuring they'd see right through me. But, with the competitor so alive and well in me, I wouldn’t let myself believe that Andy's skills were as solid as they claimed. Now my nerves itched for the alumni game.
But Vance and Coby seemed to itch for the post-game, all because of Andy. "He was straight cool though," Coby continued. "I was a freshman, see. I took a dip when I could. But those parties were hyped, boy. Hype!"
Vance explained that Andy and Chuck rented an apartment near campus Andy's
senior year. "Never seen so much pussy, Capps," he said. "White girls, black
"Skinny girls, fat girls," Coby interrupted. He thought of something. "Too bad
Mouton wasn't here for the fat ones."
We all laughed, but I held back a little. Vance remembered more.
"Cruising that Blazer of his like we was fucking O.J. or something," he told me. "If that apartment wasn't jumping, he had the hook-up over in KC, man. But, here? Really cool. Ole Baby Shaq used to call him 'the host.' Say he expected Andy to be walking around in a bathrobe with a pipe and some bunnies."
Then, as I was ready to believe they'd just completely blocked out the fact that Andy's family were multi-millionaires, Coby threw in this gem: "Andy's dad used to fly into that little ass airport out past the Sonic, just to see a game or two." He puffed out his chest and added: "My ass lit up those punk-bitch white boys at William Jewell for twenty-two one night he was here. Took all of us to the Pizza Hut later, and let Andy pay so they wouldn't be no trouble."
We'd talked about those punk-bitch white boys from William Jewell before, usually with a pre-text about them being spoiled-ass rich kids. As rivals, we were always the underdogs. Apparently, Coby saw no ideological conflict. Nor did Vance, for that matter. The entire conversation had shaken me. The two of them, unwittingly, had blown apart some imagined beef with Andy I'd created and nurtured entirely in my mind. More precisely, I now think, they had interrupted my vision of the unifying effect of just causes. Had I been so naïve? Had they been so wrong? Or, three years ago, had pussy and pizza simply whited-out the clash of rich and poor, strong and weak, before it ever started? I vowed not to be so weak; at the same time I vowed to just forget about it, but none of it was out of my head by the time practice started, where my shaking out the cobwebs led to several offensive mistakes during no-defense walk-throughs. Coach Piper kindly helped me out.
"Get his sorry ass out of there, Arnathan!"
Though it might not have been related to my sloppy practice, my wondering mind slipped deeper into its funk when Coach Piper announced the rotations for the next night's alumni game. He was only mixing things up, he assured us, as even Maurice was going to be working with the second team. But I'd been pushed past that. Somehow I'd worked my way into the 11th spot, due to enter the game after the second-team played their minutes. While I retreated into myself, Coach lightened the mood, telling us to take it easy on Coach Moore in the game, as we needed him to be an assistant again next week. Coach Moore waved off the comments.
"How's it feel to play for the underdog?" Coach Piper razzed him a little more.
Then Piper tried to mention everybody who would be returning. I caught a few names, only recognizing Tim as someone I'd played with. My teammates were more involved, excited. In the locker room, word spread about Andy and Chuck's party. The local sports bar. Last chance to kick it before the season began. All that hype.
I left my practice shorts on, threw my top in the laundry, and slipped into my silver Air Max, deciding to do a few laps around the indoor track. I grabbed a dirty shirt from the pile at the bottom of my locker, in case I wanted to lift weights later. The locker room seemed to grow louder the farther down the hallway I strode. I put a nose to each armpit before I came out of the tunnel, then I sniffed the wadded up shirt in my hand. I gagged a little. I tried to shake out the thousand wrinkles, turning it right side out, seeing the stains like giant cigarette burns near the underarms, and then checked out the front. "-ommy Hilfiger is De--" it tried to tell me, the ink on the edges having faded to inky swill.
I shook it again, slipped it over my head, and hit the track. By the third mile, I'd gotten used to the smell.
Because of what violence happened to Andy later, I believe the little interaction I had with him on Alumni Saturday sticks out more than it should, carries weight it didn’t quite earn. We exchanged our first words when lining up to rebound a free throw, late in the first half, and went back and forth, occasionally, for the rest of the game. Our brief moment of interaction was totally insignificant. It was fleeting, really, but I choose to believe in it anyway; that is, I'll be damned if I didn't actually come to like the rich son-of-a-bitch, wishing I could’ve been around for all those times my teammates talked about so nostalgically.
The day of the alumni game certainly didn’t portend that outcome. I kept to myself for most of it, managing to keep Andy out of my mind. Unlike our regular game days, we had no shoot-around, and the pre-game meal wasn't mandatory, as Coach Piper and the Athletic Director were hosting some kind of alumni lunch late in the afternoon. Early on, I was in the weight room, and then had our manager, Winkles, unlock the equipment room so I could shoot some free throws. After lining up my right foot with the tiny little dot in the dead center of the free line, I hoisted a brick, my form graceless as an unfolding lawn chair. Two months earlier, I'd had minor surgery on my right wrist, removing a ganglion cyst that had developed after I'd failed to treat properly a small fracture from the previous season. I was laid out only two weeks, but lost a lot of wrist strength in my shots. Eventually that quick flick came back, but occasionally there were days like this, with a phantom hint of pain just where it bent, directly connected to my first shot of the day. If my first free throw felt like this, I’d come to accept that I was in for a long night. How much of this was mental, I don't know, but the wrist never failed to ache on the days my shots didn't feel straight.
On Alumni Saturday, I tracked down my rebound and rubbed my wrist, deciding just to work on my ball-handling. I was back at the basketball house soon, sluggish, unable to put together a single mental image for the night's game. Only noise. I fell asleep on my bed, somewhere between flipping the channels back-and-forth from college basketball to a Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, and woke-up warm, eyes-crusty, nearly late for the locker room. The five o'clock news was wrapping up. My sweat suit was wrinkled and damp. I know I sprinted out the front door, but I'm not sure I actually woke-up until pre-game warm-ups, and even then, I was groggy.
Then, noise. At least I had the noise part right. Our new P.A. system was getting quite a workout with our pre-determined song list. I felt the bass in my ribs.
God knows what they'd been up to that afternoon, but the rest of the guys seemed jacked-up now. Lay-up lines showed as much. Coby took two solid dribbles and extended his 6'1" frame for a one-handed dunk, much to the delight of the bleachers, nearly three-quarters full, with several orange-and-purple jackets still filing in. Mouton followed Coby, his old legs dead, but his energy still in grade school, as he took a pass, went up stiff, and pushed the ball just high enough to grab the rim, hard. The ball bounced long, and the rim snapped sudden, and the crowd ate it up even more. Mouton shook his head in delighted admonition. After I quick-released a finger-roll, I headed to the passing line, my eyes on the other end of the court, where the alumni team had finally emerged from their locker-room. They wore our practice jerseys, but many of them sported their own T-shirts as warm-ups. At this, I looked down at my own chest, my “Just Do It - Northern Missouri,” proud like all the others. Apparently, I'd pushed the idea of wearing a politically charged, homemade shirt out of my head at the same time I'd decided to just repress my questions of Andy. The fucking prick.
When Maurice tapped me on the shoulder, I hustled ahead of him, grabbing Anthony's rebound and giving a behind-the-back to Vance on my way to the end of the lay-up line. The crowd reacted when Vance reversed a dunk.
Now my eyes scanned the other end of our court. Coach Moore shot strange-looking threes, as a tall white guy with a buzz cut rebounded for him. When another shooter - a stubby white guard - called out, "Chuck!" Coach Moore's buzz-cut rebounder answered. I saw Tim, one of only two black guys on the alumni squad – a disquieting little fact of its own – and he crossed a dribble between his legs in front of an Honorable Mention All-American I'd seen on Piper's office walls. Tim still lived in town, and actually had a part-time job at the local shoe dealer. He had on a new-looking pair of year-old Air Flights, and I smiled. By the time we broke into stretching and individual shooting, I still hadn't spotted anyone who seemed to fit Andy's description. For a moment I took pause, wondering exactly what I'd pictured in the first place. A suit-and-tie? A bank executive in hi-tops? Even the descriptions Vance and Coby had given me I'd worked into worst-case scenarios, like Christian Laettner or a whiter David Robinson.
Instead, as I sat down near half-court to stretch my back, I finally caught a glimpse of the real Andy, near the first few rows of bleachers, yucking it up with several girls I recognized from one of Northern’s sororities. Then he was yelling to someone near the upper level, waving. No one called his name, but they didn't have to. I recognized him from a place in my head, somewhere beyond clichéd visages of white-collar arrogance and Duke University, someplace closer to my biggest fear - reality. Andy had a glad-hander’s smile, but it appeared to come from a feeling of genuine fun, rather than the subjugation of the poor. His shoulders were huge, as advertised, but seemed loose as he stretched and chatted. He had shaggy-blond hair, and kept it out of his eyes with a doo-rag headband that, I immediately realized, wouldn't have been out of place on Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. tour nor my own travel bag last spring. My bad side suddenly wished he were one of those fools who'd misinterpreted Springsteen’s message, while my good side could only grin and shake my head at his shoes. New Balance, of course - "the only shoe corporation with any moral decency left," my Religions of the World teacher had managed to work into our notes last week. Who knew if Andy purchased those silver-and-navy mid-tops because of other shoe companies’ heavy reliance on tiny, Chinese fingers – he’d one-upped me either way.
I switched legs, stretched my left hamstring, reaching to the rubber toe of my Nikes.
Coach Moore called to Andy and asked him if he planned on playing or just being a “playa.” Tarik, who was stretching near me, heard the exchange, too, and he laughed benevolently at the bad pun. “Ah-haaaa ha,” he exaggerated. Meanwhile, I burned for a moment. Then it sunk back to malaise. As soon as Andy had appeared in the flesh, whatever ideas I wanted to have about him couldn’t stand on their own. Through the very little I’d seen, part of him did seem likable. Now he hustled from the bleachers, nearly tripping over the boa constrictor of cords and wires around the scorer’s table, and grabbed a ball from Moore. He then took a couple wild dribbles into a lane full of bodies and bouncing balls, and hurtled himself through the air, missing a two-handed dunk, though he was high enough to have made it. He swung around the rim, and landed with a crazy smile. Tim dribbled close to him, and bumped him hard, grinning. The two clapped hands, and pointed at each other. I guessed Tim was a fan, too, and I scowled with the part of me that still wanted to hate. After he’d played grab ass with seemingly every teammate on that end of the court, Andy came closer to our sideline, shaking hands with a smiling Piper. He said something about the ride down. Something about later. Piper laughed right along with it. When Andy turned, I finally caught a glimpse of his own warm-up shirt, black and tattered and cut sleeveless, its front image incongruous as all else, with two silver pistols pointing in opposite directions, snared by the thorny stem of a flower.
“Guns n’ Fucking Roses: World Tour 1991,” it read.
And why not? My first thought was of those ignorant rednecks from my hometown who used to drink and fight to Guns n’ Roses every weekend. Sometimes, every weekday. Then I thought of the music itself, a catalogue of furious, romantically embittered, proudly sleazy numbers that I’d never turn off if stumbled upon on the radio. Especially the later stuff. In the singer’s grimy defiance and aggression toward power, Guns n’ Roses might as well be music for us underdogs, music for the weak, music for the masses. And now Andy’s five percent ass had grabbed it, too, stolen it, really, with no appreciation for its crassness or its guttural artistry. This executive! This vice president! A few minutes later, when the alumni were given rousing individual introductions set to music of their choice, I knew Andy would pick a snippet of Guns n’ Roses. But, like the tourist he seemed to be, the song would probably be their easiest song of the bunch, something overused and vanilla at this point, something both trailer trash and music critics would scoff at.
After Coach Moore awkwardly strutted out to some early Van Halen and the guy named Chuck jogged out to a country song I didn’t recognize, Andy surprised me once again. It was Guns n’ Roses, but he’d picked something off their 1994 cover album, “The Spaghetti Incident.” Something really dark, something fairly obscure. Something good. Andy sprinted to center court, bumping forearms like Jose Canseco with old teammates, then pointing to the crowd, all while Axl Rose barfed up the first lines of “Ain’t It Fun,” a song written by some old school punks called the Dead Boys.
Ain’t it fun… when you’re always on the run
Ain’t it fun… when your, your friends despise what you become
Ain’t it fun… when you know that you gonna die young
So fun! So fun! So fu-uuun…
I don’t know how much our elderly fans from the community enjoyed the selection, but most of the crowd seemed to eat it up. Maybe they were just eating up Andy. I know I found myself nodding along, even if I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling. Now that we were here, ready to start the game, part of me really wanted a shot at the guy. But that was competitiveness, brought on by envy. My teammates loved him. They’d shared moments with him I’d never know, and it had put me in a shadow, it had put me at the end of the bench. But how did I feel about the actual person? Our introductions came next, but only our starting five were getting musical clips; in a perfect world, I imagined a moment where I charge to center court, focused on the game but pointing a finger right at Andy, all with John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” hammering our new P.A. system. (At this point, though, the competitor in me would forgo a perfect world just for the chance to start the game.) For that matter, how about a world where all the subtle gradations of human desire and personality, and the messy navigations they require, were boiled down to easily manageable political absolutes of Right and Wrong? How about a world where the Bad Guys were All Bad, and the Good Guys were All Good? What about a world where I knew where I stood on a guy like Andy?
Then the horn sounded.
Andy was exciting to watch. As Coby and Vance had advertised, he was fun. He was energetic. He roused enthusiasm in his teammates. And, without notching a single significant stat in the first five minutes, he seemed the sole reason the alumni team – the underdogs, as Piper had called them – stormed out to an eleven-point lead. So, in a roundabout way, Andy allowed me the pleasure of seeing Piper struggle with his anger at this first timeout, really wanting to let the starters have it, but not wanting to cause a scene in front of all the rich alumni in the crowd. His face went purple, and I thought his moustache was going to pop off his lip. He squatted in front of the bench and whispered something about getting our asses in gear and winning by thirty against these scrubs. Or else. But, whatever the reason, no one on our team really responded, and though the alumni squad seemed to be having a blast, eventually turning the ball over too many times to hold on for the win, and though Andy brought the house down with his only two points of the game, a follow-up dunk where he’d nearly bumped his head on the rim, the game itself was fairly dull, the dullest five-point victory I’d ever been a part of.
There was a moment near the end of the game when the crowd got to hold their breath for a collective second or two. After a sloppy sequence of events beginning with me throwing an in-bounds pass just over Maurice’s outstretched hands then watching that pass bounce hard off Coach Moore’s head, Andy and Mouton found themselves running at full speed towards the ball, which was rolling near the scorer’s table. They didn’t realize, however, that they were headed directly towards each other, both starting to lower their heads, both with their eyes glued on the ball. Even the P.A. system seemed to gasp. But, at the last moment, tragedy was avoided, as Mouton stumbled over his own feet, sending him into a lumbering, violent roll, and Andy looked up in time to hop over him. Otherwise, the two of them probably would’ve spent the night in the hospital. As it turned out, they laughed it off, Andy helping Mouton up, Mouton chuckling and calling him, “Foo.” Andy patted Mouton’s shoulder, said something, then nodded as Mouton answered. Later, I found out that Mouton actually had met Andy at a pick-up game in Galveston, Texas, of all places, the summer before Mouton came to Northern. Andy was vacationing with his family. Mouton was working on a fishing boat.
The crowd roared at their interaction. I, too, breathed a sigh of relief.
I’d had a decent game, though my minutes had been few. I’d surprised myself by hitting three medium range jump shots in a row in the first half, the last of which gave us our first lead, and I stayed hot throughout the game, when I found the opportunity to shoot. I didn’t rub my bad wrist all evening. After I’d gotten hot in the first half, Andy had subbed in for the alumni squad, pointing a finger to me and saying: “I got Capps now.” I wondered how he knew my name until we lined up next to each other for a pair of Coby’s free throws.
He reached out and pulled at my shorts, like he was going to tug them down.
“So you’re the punk Jeff says is a better version of me,” he laughed. I blanked for a moment, then realized he was referring to Coach Moore. “I gotta say, your shot looks a hell of a lot better. Sweet J, man, seriously.”
I was still catching my breath, but I smiled. I was even touched. It was a simple thing to say, a gesture that plenty of assholes would probably make, too, but there was something in the tone – something as jocular and honest as the way he’d played the entire night – that forced me to believe, forced me to realize I knew nothing about this guy. (Certainly, too, I was overly eager to believe in Andy’s tone, as my jealousy had shriveled into a desire to be accepted by him.)
We both watched Coby’s first free-throw hit the front rim, then drop in. I wanted to offer something back, but whatever I could say would seem meager next to the beating I’d given Andy in my mind. I tried to be funny, and I tried to give him a compliment that had already been agreed upon, and, as a result, what I said came off extremely gay.
“You got giant shoulders, man . . . I mean, well, I work-out, too . . .”
He did a double-take, and broke into laughter. He even had to step out of position, holding up his hand to the ref. “Give me a minute,” he gasped. The ref nodded, and allowed more subs to come in. The horn buzzed. Andy grabbed my own shoulder, and looked at me with a cocked head, his voice still quivering. “You are a funny motherfucker, Capps.”
I smiled, but asked, “What?”
“Jeff says you’re fucking hilarious, sometimes. A little nutty, but . . . you’re alright.”
Now I tried to keep a straight face, like I’d planned on being funny all along. For the rest of the half, we got in chunks of conversation when we could, when we weren’t plowing into each other after a loose ball, or going up strong for rebounds. Andy’s was some of the most aggressive defense I’d ever played against, but I managed to draw a few fouls on him. When he was on offense, though, I was able to sag off and help.
“You embarrassing me, Capper! Get back here,” he shouted, drawing laughs from his own bench.
In the second half, we were on the court at the same time for only a few minutes, but Andy asked me about my own work-out program when he could. “Jeff says you’ve been hitting hard since last year, huh?”
I nodded, embarrassed. If our match-up had proved one thing, it was that he was definitely the better athlete. He was stronger, faster, quicker, and could jump higher, all things I thought I’d busted my ass on. Now an ex-player seemed better, and the bar went higher.
“But don’t overdo it, man,” Andy told me, the last time we lined up for a free throw together. I looked over at him, his hands on his hips, his shadow impervious. His words seemed foolish, but he also seemed to mean them. “Don’t wipe yourself out before the fucking game itself.”
Then the shot went up, and he battled me off for the defensive board. I landed wobbly, and put a hand to the court to steady myself. Andy gave a playful hip-check as he passed to an outlet and I stumbled a little more. By the time I got my feet, a loose ball foul had been called and Andy headed to the bench, pumping a fist to the crowd, slapping more fives with his squad. He put on his Guns n’ Roses shirt. When the game ended, the alumni guys stuck around for a brief ceremony at center court and headed to the visitor’s showers. After Piper tore into us in the locker room, we hit the showers, too. A few of the guys were shaking off the funk of playing such a close exhibition, but most were ready to just put it away, and move on to the night’s party.
Though it was out of character, I really considered heading to that sports bar with the rest of the guys. When I ran into the alumni players near the front of our gym, gathered in a giant group with people from tonight’s crowd, I decided against it. For a moment, in the middle of it all, I saw Andy by himself, unengaged after he told Chuck something and Chuck hustled off. He’d been a rock star all night, though now he seemed approachable. I slipped through the crowd and patted him on the back. He wheeled around, most likely expecting someone else. He smiled all the same: “Capper,” he told me. “Hey, man.” I don’t know what I expected him to say, as I really had nothing to say myself, but I still felt snubbed when Coach Moore suddenly called his name, said something about the bar, and Andy gave me a measly, “Later, bro.”
So I headed back to the basketball house, and lost myself in homework and Sports Center. There were no hard feelings, really. Andy had a lot of catching up to do. Later, I heard from Coby and Tarik that Andy had continued this catching up well into the night. He’d bought all the drinks, which was easy to sneer at. But he wasn’t buying friends. He was taking care of the ones he already had. Then he was making new ones, with his vivacity, with his personality, apparently staying long after the other alumni members had stumbled back across the street to their Super 8 or rental cars. At nearly two in the morning, as they themselves left the bar, the last of our team to leave, Coby and Tarik saw Andy at a booth with a bunch of local girls they didn’t recognize, women Andy had charmed at some point in that long, good night.
More impressively, he’d also charmed the one who’d least expected it. He’d surprised me. He’d involved me. He’d played exactly to the seeming contradictions – that of standing out while fitting – that continued to seduce me. As long as they existed only in my head, those imagined grudges weren’t hard to push aside. Dad bought his way on the team? At least it was a team like Northern’s. Rich? The elite five percent? Somebody had to be. Republican? Well. . . maybe that was just nasty rumor. And if not, well fuck it, too. As for my thoughts on a perfect world, I momentarily wondered if we weren’t already in a perfect world, in spite of the social injustice and random violence, and Andy fit right along with the scheme of things. Perhaps the only quarrel was within my own perspective. We are all in this together, I figured, believe it or not. And, maybe, at the same time, my old sociology teacher was still right. Our similarities could unite us, all differences aside. Our similarities could withstand the injustices, could shield off the violence, might just get us through the day at hand. Perhaps the umbrella was big enough, and if not, it damn well should’ve been.
On the Sunday following the Alumni Game, sometime around four in the morning, Andy was taken to the outskirts of town, beaten with lumber, and nearly dragged to death behind his own blazer, which, in turn, was stolen, and later found wrecked and stripped about fifteen miles away. His most serious injuries were to his kidneys and lungs, which left him on various machines for several months after the attacks, and to his right leg, which had been caught on the bumper of his blazer, twisted and splintered and opened up all the way down his mangled shin. He also had welts and gashes on his face, as well as a couple broken teeth. The bottom half of his right ear was ground off on the gravel of a back road.
These were among the first details I learned of the incident, though they didn’t come easy. On the Sunday in question, we didn’t have practice, and I decided to drive to Kansas City to watch a few movies. When I got back to the basketball house, I ran into Coby and Anthony, and if either of them knew, they didn’t show it. But at practice the next afternoon, there was a buzz at the shoot-around. News was starting to spread, careful and gloomy. When Coach Piper blew his whistle to start practice, he huddled us for a brief announcement. He told us that after the Alumni Game, one of our former players – “Andy Campbell,” he’d said so dispassionately – had been involved in some kind of accident. I looked to the other guys. There were some nods, some looks registering, but there were also a few whose reactions let me know it was far worse than Piper was leading on. Vance looked like he might be able to kill someone. Mouton frowned, pitifully. Coby, who later told me he’d found out in one of his classes, had red, beaten eyes.
Piper had more on his mind than Andy – our regular season started in less than a week – but I think it’s unfair to assume he didn’t let us know more because he just wanted to get to rebounding drills. I’m sure some kind of hurt was what truly kept him from elaborating. Whatever this hurt was, though, he never discussed it in detail. Two weeks later, when we played an away game in Kansas City, we did stop by the hospital where Andy was staying, still in an intensive care unit, and tried to cheer him up. That night in his pre-game speech, Coach mentioned something about basketball transcending the ugliness of the world just before he told us to kick some ass. But that Monday, especially after going through a quiet practice, I wanted more; and in the cafeteria after showers, I got it.
This is what happened: Andy had made some enemies while he was at Northern, which, despite my own turnaround, didn’t seem too hard to believe. These specific enemies were just local rednecks, a couple of whom worked at Tyson, a couple of whom worked for the city utilities. These rednecks had no affiliation with the school, but, like so many other people, they’d crossed paths with Andy at a few of his giant parties. Words were exchanged, occasionally. On a specific evening, serious words, threats. Andy’s dad once caught wind of this, and allegedly had a few of the guys who were bothering Andy arrested.
Over supper, after giving grizzly particulars about the injuries, Vance explained this further, his voice nearly cracking a few times. He’d gotten his information from Coach Moore, who’d been among the first to find out, and from Mouton, who’d gotten his information from a few connections from his old job at Tyson. He and Vance even knew one of the probable attackers. They’d partied together as recently as September. Mouton could only nod along. Coby sat next to me, and listened hard. Maurice and Anthony filled out the table, nodding.
“Guess these motherfuckers heard he was coming back for the game,” Vance said. “Five of ’em. Coach Moore say that Andy got jumped right outside that fuckin’ bar we was all at. Thinks maybe some girls kept Andy there late on purpose. Get him alone, maybe.”
Nobody said anything. I looked at Coby, and his head was down, like a fear had been confirmed. “Girls, huh?” he mumbled weakly. “Man… me and Tarik, boy… we saw that… we saw him with fucking skank-ass town girls.”
“Fucking cave bitches,” Mouton offered.
“But,” I started, then my head ached. Though it hadn’t seemed unfair that Andy had enemies, an imagined visual of the gruesome injuries quickly flashed inside my head. I might’ve even flinched. “But this? What the fuck, I mean?”
Vance looked at me. We were in the cafeteria past hours, and in the other half of the room, janitors and work-study kids were putting chairs on the tables and turning off lights. “Yeah?” Vance asked.
I didn’t know. Those rednecks could’ve killed him, really, and probably would have had Andy not been so strong. Strong, I thought. Strong. And for a moment, that old sociology theory came scurrying back to me like a dream I’d been too embarrassed to talk about. Poor and Rich, I could hear clearly, thinking of my “sainted poor,” then shuddering with the knowledge that when you side with 95 percent of the population, you’re bound to side with some monsters. For a miscellany of reasons, as easily as the have-nots could be Tom Joad, they could just as easily be vicious barbarians whose resentment transcends any socio-economic slight they might claim. They could often be stunningly stupid, as well, far too stupid to rationalize their violence with my simple academic theories.
“Cause he was rich?”
Vance tilted his head, squinted. Everyone else had looked away, alone with his own thoughts. “What are you asking?”
“Why did they do this?”
Vance said nothing.
“Was it those fucking girls?” I asked. “What?”
He was shaking his head. “You mean, you don’t believe this could happen?”
I thought about it, and my throat burned. The same type of guys had threatened me back in my hometown. They said it was for acting black.
“You mean,” Vance continued, interrupting my thoughts. “Andy was white. What the fuck, right? How this gonna happen to a white boy?”
“That’s not what I said,” I told Vance, wondering how this had suddenly gotten so heated. I made a conscious effort to not sound angry. “You know one of the guys?”
Vance had backed down, too. “Think so.”
“You gonna tell the police?”
Vance looked at me like I was crazy. For a moment, I had an eerily contented notion that Vance and Mouton and whoever else weren’t going to go to the police because they were going to handle it themselves.
I lowered my voice. “You guys are gonna do something?”
Vance finally smiled, a grin teeming with something darker. “Yeah, Capps. A bunch of niggers should go fuck up some white boys in the Bible Belt. That’ll end the violence.”
His words echoed, or I might’ve heard them twice. I didn’t gauge the others’ reactions. I had a hard enough time admitting my own. It can be shocking to realize someone just articulated an unspoken belief, a belief you’d never known was sitting in the back of your mind. I didn’t doubt that Vance liked Andy. The same goes for Coby and Mouton, and whatever other guys who’d ran into him before I did. The same goes for me. There also was no doubt that we liked him despite the significant differences we might’ve had with him. Namely, the money. And we liked him because of our similarities, yes. My naiveté even wanted to believe that under the right circumstances, those rednecks who’d nearly killed him might’ve seen some similarities as well. Hell, they’d been at the same party, right?
But while similarities – with all due respect to my sociology hermaphrodite – might be more unifying than differences, differences are far more dangerous. Differences can get you killed, even if you think you’re under the same fucking umbrella. When differences are in play – come life and death – it was not, in fact, “We in this together.” It was, “You are on this side. I am on that side.”
I left the cafeteria that night with an inner rage I figured would never leave me, even as I tried to ignore it. I tried pushing it all onto my anger over Andy. There was plenty anger about that, of course. Later in the week, during warm-ups at our first two games of the season, I wore a homemade shirt with the letters “A.C.” over my heart. I also scribbled G’n’f’n’R across the bottom of my Air Flights. But another week of games passed, then another weekend. The shoe tribute was soon smeared, and I stopped wearing the shirt. I wasn’t forgetting the ordeal, by any means, though none of us had really spoken of it since that first day after it happened. It was that whatever vengeful simplicity pushed me into paying cheap tribute had eventually faded, and the aftermath – those dark revelations I’d had in the cafeteria – became something I could barely stomach. When we visited Andy in the hospital, I hardly even stepped inside his room. I didn’t catch a glimpse of the smile some other teammates said he’d tried flashing under all the bandages.
By December, when I stopped by the shoe store to pick up the Jordan XI’s, I’d managed to block out most of it. But after Tim greeted me from behind the cash register, it was one of the first things he brought up. He asked about the team visiting Andy, and I gave him what details I remembered, and made a few up. He shook his head. He’d only talked to Coach Moore briefly about the whole ordeal, and he still had a few questions. I did the best I could, but it was all old information – trashy, the kind of stuff that’s pretty easy to relay when it hasn’t affected you in some way.
“They still haven’t made any arrests,” I told him. “Andy’s dad’s got all kinds of investigations going on, is the word … but, who knows?”
Maybe Tim could sense my discomfort with the subject, because he quickly changed it. He headed to the backroom to grab my Jordans, while I kept hearing the last words I’d said: Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?
And something hit me.
That was it, really, the uncertainty of it all. Nearly a year earlier, I’d learned a theory – and not a bad one at that – a theory that had lent relevance to my own ideas and convictions while blindly serving my own affectations. Then a real example had come along and brutally knocked the simplicity out of a theory, twice over. As it seemed, there are neither ideologies nor socio-political theories that can account for the unpredictable, contradictory, messy, and often ugly souls of individuals.
I’d used a theory to define and re-define me for nearly a year as another way to try to connect with humanity, and if a theory like that didn’t exist, all I’d connected with was unpredictable, contradicting, and eventually not there.
Now in the shoe store, I swallowed my uncertainty, pretending it was disgust. I gave up waiting for answers that would never come. Tim returned with my shoes, handing me a shiny box with a red Jordan logo, and we talked a little more. He asked about the team, and said he’d heard about Mouton getting kicked off. I told him about our Thanksgiving trip to New Orleans, then I asked him about his own job. “Jobs,” he corrected with a laugh. He liked his work at the shoe store best, but it wasn’t something long term, he’d realized. When I asked him what he meant, he shrugged.
“Ol’ boy loves having me here, man,” he said, referring to our local shoe dealer. “I’m sure he’d keep me here forever if he could. Maybe make me a partner.”
“Well, yeah. You want your own business, though, right?”
Tim nodded. “But … when I said long-term, Capps, I meant next month or two.”
“I’ve seen the books, man. He ain’t gonna make it. I don’t know how the motherfucker made it this long.”
“He couldn’t afford the boards to put over the windows if he to do it today.”
Tim shrugged. “It’s not like it’s shocking and shit, huh?” He pointed at the silver box under my arm. “I’d get your free shoes while you can,” he said. “But keep it quiet, if you don’t mind.”
I looked down at my Jordans. “Really?” I said. “Cause of this?”
“N’ah man,” Tim assured me. “It didn’t help, no. But he was just a bad businessman. He’d lose a little dealing with us, and then try and cheat some other suckers out of it. Some of the high school coaches got wise to it. They get all their cleats and uniforms outta Eastbay now. He ain’t got a lot of regulars past you boys now.”
“It happens.” Tim watched me just stand there. “Come on, Capps. Don’t let it ruin your fucking Jordans, man. Those are tight.”
I half-smiled. “No patent leather this year, though.”
After we tapped fists, I headed out to my car, catching a few quick gusts of December wind along the way. As I waited for the engine to warm, I opened the shoe box and admired the Jordans again. I smiled. Then I put them in the backseat, and put my hands near the heater. The town square wasn’t busy. A few shoppers straggled past. When I adjusted the heat again, I started coughing, something as innocent as a speck of dust having gotten in my throat, but before I knew it, my cough had turned into weeping. I was crying in a parked car in the middle of the afternoon. At first, I told myself it was over that poor fucking shoe dealer, that something about his place going under had hit a nerve. When I couldn’t stop, and had to blow my nose on an old shirt I had in the backseat, I allowed that it was about Andy, too.
© Josh Capps 2010
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Josh Capps's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Storyglossia, Carve Magazine, and Conversely. His essay "Wigger" was recently included in the collection For, From, About James T. Whitehead (University of Arkansas Press). He is working on a collection of basketball essays; "A Better Version of Me" is from this collection. His previous contributions to The Barcelona Review include Pa Don's Troops and Soldier of....
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