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The Old Man and the Gym (TGWP 3)

April 28, 2016

TGWP photo-the Old Man and the Gym

From the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller (continued from TGWP 2: “Tucker on the Mountain”)

When they weren’t calling my father the old man, they called him Coach Ax. Al Axelrod had been coaching the Dust Flames for 29 years. He was, by most everyone’s estimation, or mine at least, one of the best coaches that ever lived.

Five years running, Blum had given the Flames his old-man-might-retire-so-let’s-send-him-out-in-style speech. The juniors and seniors knew it by heart. Every October my father came back and made a wolf-crier out of Blum. What was worse, Blum’s ploy hadn’t helped much lately. The team had been through three straight seasons that had been called “disappointments” by the Tribune and “travesties” by talk radio: 20-11, 18-10, 19-12; first round, second round, first round—out. The writers and talkers and radio callers began to question my father’s energy, his methods, his Philosophy. The even-handed attitude that had always been “implacable” was now “complacent” (Zantrum Tribune, 3/4/97). The emphasis on the fundamentals that had made him “The Fourth Wise Man” now made him “lamentably behind the times” (ibid., 2/6/98). The Philosophy, in which emotional and physical balance were intimately connected, had previously been said to bring “a moral dimension” to the game; now it was dismissed as “distracting, self-righteous superstition” (“Is Ax Losing His Edge?” Tribune Weekly Magazine, 10/12/99). The way I saw it, my father hadn’t changed a bit, and not changing a bit had been the right thing to do. He wanted to help players achieve that divine state in which there is no difference between automatic reflexes and proper fundamentals, a state he believed was not a hindrance to court creativity, but a precondition for it. The teacherly method by which Dad re-introduced players to the basics and had them work on them day in and day out—repetition, internalization, reinforcement—was not the sort of approach that becomes irrelevant.

In June, my father had suffered a minor heart attack in Maui. It was the second time in six years his heart had stopped. A new pacemaker had been installed and the doctor had pronounced him fit. The view among fans and pundits was that he ought to retire, but wouldn’t. Only Blum thought he actually might retire, but shouldn’t.

 

Blum had long since developed a romantic notion of himself as the old man’s one true partisan in a den of drawn daggers. Others saw him play the role, and play it hard. It amused them. He lived by a certain too-eager-to-please benchwarmer’s ethic that he’d never been able, or willing, to shake. He was a great teacher who was afraid to see himself as more than a student; it was no surprise, then, that a younger and harder man had come on staff and gradually appropriated his authority. Kenneth O’Kyle was in his fourth year as an assistant to Coach Ax. He’d played a decade in the NBA, and he used those years as a license to play bad cop with these college kids. The college kids readily granted this license. This guy, after all, had been in the League. O’Kyle thought I was a charity case. He thought my presence was another sign my father was going soft, and that Dad had ordered Blum to be my champion and protector. All this he’d told me to my face my second week on the job. Blum overheard it. Later, he smiled at me and punched me in the arm and said, “Motivational technique.”

“Well alright then,” I said. “I’m fired up.”

O’Kyle liked to exhale in quiet exasperation, push his little round glasses up with his middle finger, and explain things. “Let me explain something to you,” he would say, and proceed to explain in a way that left you feeling small, but certain you must have learned something of worth, if only you could remember what it was. People appeared to respect Kenneth O’Kyle. Kenneth O’Kyle looked good in a suit.

Blum, on he other hand, did not. Each morning he put on a pastel short-sleeve button-down and a thin black tie and a pair of thick rose-tinted glasses. He dressed this way even for practice. If Blum were thin in this get-up, he may have looked like a used car dealer, but he was not thin anymore; one tended to look past the clothes and relate directly to his massive cuddliness. Here was a 6-foot-8-inch man with a full, graying beard and long lashes and wide, watery eyes. He gave the general physical and moral impression of a Saint Bernard. Each year my friend Blum went a little softer in the middle and a little softer in the heart and came to grasp with a little less pain that he had been under the old man far too long to ever become like the old man: Whatever it was that made men fit to take the captain’s wheel had already passed through Blum and disappeared.

I’d always taken a peculiar pleasure in diagnosing Blum, in looking into his big warm heart and seeing all the ways he didn’t fit in. I’d start from a broad assumption—Blum as noble failure—and set to work characterizing the mechanics of his failure. It was an absurd exercise: The man had won two national championships as a player and two more as an assistant coach. I, on the other hand, was 29 years old and had won nothing. If Blum’s adult life had somehow ended up too static, mine had been entirely too slippery. Jobs, pursuits, cherished goals: all were forever falling away before I could realize they were falling. Sometimes you end up in a place you planned not to be, doing something you planned not to do. I, for instance, wasn’t supposed to have ended up back in Zantrum, back with Blum, back with my father. I was to have been the good kid with a big future, the one who listens well to his elders and then reaches worlds they never dreamed of. I loved my father’s game, but I’d left it for a reason: Coach Ax had conquered his world; to measure up meant to conquer one of my own. I’d spent a decade mulling what I was meant to be and ended up not even sure what I could be. By decade’s end, I had a wife and a child and it wasn’t enough anymore to be a good kid with a big future.

That August, one of my father’s assistants had, with heartfelt apologies and bad timing, left Zantrum for a head-coaching job in Minot, North Dakota. It was just two months till the start of practice, and my father suddenly had, in addition to an unclean bill of health, an empty seat beside him on the bench. I was, at the moment, unemployed and living in a seaside California town I could no longer afford to live in.

My father came to visit.

My wife and I buckled the baby into the Subaru and moved to Zantrum.

I became the team’s Director of Basketball Operations, a perch otherwise known as “administrative assistant.” This, as my father made clear, was the bottom of the UZ totem pole. I can safely say I hadn’t much business being even there.

 

The players sprinted and the coaches shouted and Blum kept singsonging, “Faster, faster! It’s a great day to be a Dust Flame!” and the players rolled their eyes but deep down they loved it, loved it far more than they loved O’Kyle shouting, “You want to get to the League, you gotta bleed for it!” and they ran and they ran, on the very last day of pre-practice conditioning. The rules said college basketball teams could run, lift, sweat, talk, and dream all autumn long, but they could not actually practice basketball in front of their coaches until October 15. Arbitrary red dates on the calendar being the salesman’s best friend, sports marketing departments had built elaborate celebrations around the October 15 rule; the temporal barrier between the impermissible and the permissible became known as Midnight Madness, and the first practice of the year became a circus. So it was that while I was pondering geology atop Mud Pony Mountain, fireworks were being rigged in the fieldhouse rafters and our players were pouring something extra into their stride, dying to play but knowing the old man was right, that the running mattered, and that very soon, before the eyes of the Zantrum faithful, they’d get their chance to show just how much.

Maybe I’d envisioned the practice clearly enough that an argument could be made that I’d been there. How I wanted to have been there, to have found it within myself to make myself be there! Today mattered. The sweat mattered. The hoarseness in a coach’s voice mattered. It mattered to me when I returned home from 14-hour days, feeling small and scorched by O’Kyle’s glare.  On the other side of our blue, toylike door I’d hear the staccato slap of Evan’s one-year-old feet on the living room hardwood. I’d open cautiously because I knew he’d be coming at full speed, a brand-new walker already fast on his feet, an inheritor of his grandpa’s impeccable balance, a golden jet docking on a dark planet as I lifted him and lowered him and kissed the top of his head. He was too young to know what I’d been doing, but somehow I believed it mattered to him that I’d been doing it. It mattered to me that on those nights Priscilla would come from the family room, long blond hair disheveled, jeans streaked by the swipe of a green crayon. She’d be wearing some pale blue tanktop or old paisley blouse and the wearily triumphant expression she’d acquired with motherhood. I liked that expression. I feared it, but I liked it. She knew the day mattered, and that it mattered when the day had crumbled, or when I had crumbled in the day’s course.

What I had not told Blum was that I had driven to Bumbry Tower before five that morning. I had not told him that I had gotten out of the car, that I had visited the still-empty office, made phone calls and left messages at empty offices of other college basketball teams. Would Loyola Marymount share some Pepperdine video with us in exchange for our striking footage of Nevada Reno? Did Iowa State have anything on Colorado? I had gone to the empty weight room to chide and encourage the players who were not there. I had sat down on a stationary bike and spent an hour going nowhere, staring in the mirror, fascinated and horrified as if I were surveying a defiled lunar landscape. I had gone back to the office, moved paper from one place to the next, looked for things, found things that had been thought lost and discovered that other things had been lost instead. And then, just before six-thirty, when the first stirrings of life began in the athletic department, some leaden weight began tugging at me. It pulled at my stomach, at my eyes, at the corners of my mouth, at my hands and feet and heart. It pulled from the soil, from the magma, from the center of the earth. My face was soaked in sweat. I reached for a blue-tinted bottle and poured alpine water into my mouth, but I couldn’t swallow. I dragged myself out of the building, went out back, to a narrow strip of lawn between the offices and the recreational tennis courts. I sat down on the grass, still damp from its 5 a.m. sprinkling. I opened my phone and dialed my home number and hung up before it rang because I had a wife and a baby boy and they had not slept all night and what they did not need, what they would never need, was to be woken by a phone call and told by the husband, the father, that he was being slowly devoured by the earth. I dialed my father. When he answered I hung up. I went to my car and drove to the mountain and climbed.

Continue reading: TGWP Section 4: “Earthmovers.”

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