Yago Colás wonders about Jesus and why a kid from Wisconsin would want to paint on sideburns to look like Walt Frazier.
I saw Wilt Chamberlain in person one time, saw him play I mean. Probably a fair number of people my age who lived in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or even other NBA cities can say the same thing. But I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and, to this day, I’m the only person I know besides my Dad, who took me to the game, who ever saw Wilt play in person.
We moved to Madison from Portland, Oregon in July 1968, the summer I turned three. Though I can’t remember that summer, many of my earliest, and happiest, memories from our first few years in Madison involve basketball. My dad and oldest brother dug a posthole next to the driveway, poured concrete, put in a pole, and climbed high on a shining silver ladder to attach a backboard and rim. I stared up from directly below: the still stiff white net, circled by the bright orange rim, both crisply set off against a perfect blue sky. I would adjust my position, trying to stand just perfectly, so that as I stared straight up the circle of the bottom of the net and the circle of the rim would be aligned concentrically.
Not long after that, a second rim, bolted to a homemade, unpainted, plywood backboard, around seven feet off the ground for my benefit, was added to our basketball pole (itself soon to be painted with hot pink rust-proof paint). Of course, back then there was no cable television. Basketball, especially pro, was still struggling to sell itself to fans, to advertisers, and to television executives, so there weren’t a lot of games on television, and we had no hometown franchise in Madison. My basketball universe consisted of a game or two on television on the weekends, my older brother’s high school games, and an endless string of NCAA Championships and NBA Finals played out between me and my imagination in the driveway.
An entirely new world was opened to me when the Milwaukee Bucks joined the National Basketball Association as an expansion franchise in the 1968-69 season. When I was a boy, they played several games a year in Madison, either at the University of Wisconsin Field House or, more commonly, at the Dane County Coliseum. I don’t remember which was the first game I saw them play there. The truth is I don’t even remember for certain how many games I went to or which teams I saw them play. I think that, in all, I probably saw them around a dozen times or so over the course of several years.
In the troughs between the peaks of a seeing a live game in person, I discovered the consolations of radio. Starting around the time I was seven, there was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. My siblings were teenagers, so they argued amongst themselves a lot, and they also argued—especially my oldest brother—with my parents a lot. But above all, my parents fought with each other, especially at night after I’d gone to bed. I assume they thought I wouldn’t hear. Everybody tried to be real careful about that, but my bedroom was right above the kitchen, and I could hear. It seems like every night. Even if I couldn’t make out—or understand—most of the words, the tones were unmistakable: my mother’s low, mumbled stubbornness, my father’s more punctuated, staccato bark. Sometimes I still hear, softly from somewhere inside my ears, those unintelligible but unmistakable sounds as I fall asleep at night.
At that time, I had a little AM radio, shaped like a cube. In fact, it was a dice. It was red with white dots. The volume and tuning dials were the “two” side of the dice. I’d put that radio as close as I could to my head on the pillow. Then the mesmerizing cadence and tone of Eddie Doucette’s radio call would pull me away from the fading voices of adult unhappiness, disappointment and resentment, right through the radio to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Chicago Stadium, the Milwaukee Arena—Mecca as it was known—or Madison Square Garden. Today most of those arenas, if the structures even exist at all anymore, are branded, called names like ATT Center, Target Garden, or what have you. I wonder if that’s as magical to hear over a radio when your parents are fighting and you can’t fall asleep.
Eddie would both comfort and excite me with his description of Kareem’s sky-hooks, the Big O’s fall-away jumper, and Bobby “the Greyhound” Dandridge’s streaking fast-break lay-ups. I’d listen carefully when his color man, Ron “The Professor” Blomberg, would break down the plays and the strategy involved. Then, momentarily all child again, I’d laugh when Eddie would interview Bango, the Bucks mascot. Bango, incidentally, was named after the exclamation Eddie coined for a Bucks’ basket, as in “Kareem, on the baseline, fed by Robertson, fakes the pass to Curtis Perry in the lane, turns to his left for the sky hook—Bango!”
Working for a small-market franchise, Eddie would never be as widely famous as the big-market radio announcers like Chick Hearn or Johnny Most, but he was more than enough for me. And his call would serve as the template on which I’d base my own solitary adventures on the imaginary hardwood of the poured concrete driveway. I lived to hear the word “Bango.” I say I discovered radio, but really, I discovered the ambiguously soothing pleasures of solitude wrapped up in the sound blanket of Eddie Doucette.
During those first six glorious seasons, the Bucks played 20 games in Madison. As I said, I don’t remember for certain, with a few exceptions, exactly which games I attended. What I do remember very clearly are the bright lights of the Coliseum, its circular shape and dome-like roof that reminded me of a flying saucer. I remember the plush, red, fold-out theater seats in the arena and the bitter cold outside walking from and to the parking lot on frigid Madison winter nights—snow plowed into mountain ranges lining the edges of the lot. I remember poring over and almost accidentally memorizing the facts and photos in the glossy programs. I remember the gleaming, pristine, wooden floor, the perfect glass backboards, the brightly painted lanes, the fancy cube-shaped scoreboard hanging above center court—all so different from the high school gym where I watched my older brother play for his team.
Most of all, I remember the thrill and awe of the size of the players as they trotted in a line out of their locker rooms and onto the court for their pre-game warm-up routines and then peeled off those flashy warm-ups to reveal the bright uniforms. Pistol Pete Maravich, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Tiny Archibald, Bob McAdoo, and John Havlicek were just a few of the legends I saw and for whom I formed such atavistic, powerful attachments and aversions. On the face of it, those feelings were as simple and definite as a love of chocolate ice cream and a hatred for the smell of cauliflower. I loved Oscar Robertson and hated Rick Barry. I loved Tiny Archibald and hated John Havlicek. I loved Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier and hated Gail Goodrich (though I did like his name).
When I reflect a little on these players, though, the bottom drops out of the simplicity, and deeply-hidden, dimly-perceived swirling forces driving these preferences begin to surface. There is, first of all, race. In the list above, the three players I loved were African-American, the three that I hated, Caucasian. And as I think about other affinities and aversions of the day, I realize that was often the case. I’m not entirely sure how this works—growing up in a suburban neighborhood, in a university town in the Midwest, I don’t remember meeting many black kids or adults, at least not until my new best friend Robb moved into the neighborhood sometime around 1976. And I’m not aware of any conscious feelings or attitudes about race from my early childhood. I don’t remember even being aware of race, period. And yet, the fact remains: the map of my passions was racially segregated, and my heart lived on the wrong side of the tracks.
When I think about how I actually experienced the objects of my affection and loathing, I think this: I loved smooth and fluid, fast but unhurried, creative but cool and apparently effortless effectiveness. I hated rough, scurrying, emotional, clumsy, scrapping effectiveness. It was not about effort (Oscar Robertson tried just as hard as Rick Barry). It was not about talent (all the hated players I named are now Hall of Famers). It was not about effectiveness (I didn’t even notice, let alone love or hate, the ineffective players).
It was about style, about aesthetics and something that I apparently invested in that style, upon which I then unconsciously mapped race. I connected my hated style—and the players I reduced to incarnations of it—with being emotional and out of control, and I believe I hated that because it felt like such a dominant feature of my household growing up, especially of my father. In addition, as the youngest by far, I always felt like I was trying: trying to keep up, trying to be good, trying not to be a crybaby. I hated myself for the effort I had to make, and I realize that I also hated the sweaty, panting, grimacing evidence of effort apparent on my hated players. So in hating Rick Barry’s matted sweaty hair, his foolish-looking (if incredibly effective) underhanded free-throw shooting style, his shoving and holding on defense, his petulant whining to the refs, I was hating my dad, and my family as a whole. And I was hating myself.
Conversely, in loving Oscar, Tiny, and Clyde, I was loving a desired possibility, a different way to be. It’s striking to me now that this desired possibility never, ever seemed elusive. Differences in talent, size, age, or race made no difference to my imagination, which hurdled those gaps with ease. I think I was ten years old before I realized, really realized, that the players I loved were almost all black and I wasn’t. Even after that it didn’t matter. Anything could happen in the universe of basketball.
I once got permission from my mother to transform an old white undershirt of mine—how tiny it must have been—into a Knicks jersey by painting “Knicks” on the front and the number 10 below the name “Frazier” on the back. Then, for good measure, I took the same black tempera paint and gave myself the beard and sideburns that I thought looked like Clyde’s. I love that memory because it speaks to me of a time in the past (and perhaps whispers of a possible dimension of myself in the present) when my sense of possibility was so large and flexible that I could seamlessly identify with and transform myself into a 28-year-old, 6′-4″ black man, known almost as much for his fancy hats, suits, and his Rolls Royce off the court as for his defensive wizardry and smooth playmaking on the court.
Which brings to mind the other feature shared by nearly all the players I loved: they were playmakers, floor generals, point guards. They were also often, not always, the smallest players on the floor, which must have appealed to me as well. Not because I already knew that I’d never be tall, but because I was the smallest in my family. Despite their relatively diminutive stature, with their intelligence, their quickness, their unerring judgment, and their ball-handling skills, they controlled the complex flowing pattern of player and ball movement on the floor. Or at least that’s how it looked to me. It would probably be more accurate, I think now, to say that they harmonized themselves with and thereby influenced that pattern. But to me they were small and in control, and what could be better than a world run by the smallest.
In addition, their control of the game was also a positive function of their unselfishness. They controlled, not by dominating others, not by physically threatening them, not by bossing or asserting their will or demands, but rather by giving to others. I know that in reality things were much more complicated, but as I experienced my family at the time, things looked pretty simple: my dad was assertive. He bossed and yelled and demanded a lot, while my mom was quiet and kind and compassionate and generous and understanding. Besides the obvious reasons why a young boy might find the latter a more desirable model than the former, there was also the fact that with my siblings growing up and out of the house and my father gone much of the time, my mom and I spent a lot of time alone together and had a very close relationship. My mom was the point guard, and in many ways, for better and for worse, I learned from her that love meant being a pass-first point guard.
It wasn’t hard for me, raised Catholic and in Catholic schools, to see Jesus as God’s very own coach on the floor, a divine pass-first point guard. With the twin examples of my mother and Jesus, was there any question that I would compress and shape myself, on the court and off, into the very best pass-first point guard that I could? What force could possibly serve as a counter to the endlessly patient, smiling kindness of those two? What Satan could possibly awaken the desire in me for anything else? What Satan could save me from these sweet saviors?
Read part two here.
—Photo zabriensky what?/Flickr; AP