Dennis Danziger was a rookie teacher in the inner city. Failing on the job, with students failing in the classroom. Then he found they had one thing in common. Basketball.
Nothing I learned in teacher training school was working.
It didn’t help that I was teaching in South-Central Los Angeles. Eleventh grade English. In a home ec. room. In addition to 32 students, there were two refrigerators, a sink, a Maytag washer, a Kenmore dryer and a Tappan range.
The home ec. kids in the class before mine served meals, then tossed the table clothes into the washing machine. The minute I started teaching class, the spin cycle kicked in. I had to wait until it ended to call roll.
Besides the racket, I could do nothing with this group of 26 boys who wandered around the room as if it were Happy Hour….trying to get the digits from six girls…most of whom were talking on the phone.
When I asked this crew for their homework, they’d tell me I hadn’t assigned any. Even though I had written it on the board, and it was there, staring at them.
Worst of all was Deonte Mohammad, 16 years old, tall and lean like a whippet. He just smiled. Always smiling, never working. Two months into the semester and he had a negative average.
I hadn’t a clue as to what, if anything, went on inside Deonte’s mind.
Mind you, he never posed a threat. Waltzed in after the tardy bell…smiled…borrowed a pencil from one girl….a sheet of paper from another girl…then sat down and practiced tagging his gang name…Li’l Shooter…for the rest of the hour.
But on this day, I had just had it. I asked him to sit next to me. I asked him what was up. He said, and I quote, “Life is cool.”
I checked my grade book. I said, “How cool can life be when you’ve got a minus 13 average at the eight-week mark?”
He said, “It’s all good.”
I asked, “What do you do after school?”
He smiled. “JV bas-ket-ball,” he said. “Yo, I’m a baller.”
“You any good?”
He smiled again. Crenshaw High School basketball. Of course he was good. Crenshaw had won so many city and state championships that there was hardly any wall space in the gym to hang another banner.
“Deonte,” I said. “Tomorrow, me and you are playing ball. One on one.”
“At lunch,” I said.
“What’s wrong with now?” he asked.
”Two reasons. A, I’m wearing Hush Puppies. And B, I want you to think about it overnight.”
He headed back to his seat, then turned and asked, “You any good?”
I played high school ball in Texas…for a redneck coach named Henry Lyle. After one of my better games, Coach Lyle came up to me and said, “You know Dan-zin-ger, for a white boy you’re good….for a Jew, you’re incredible.
I announced my challenge to the class. Tomorrow at lunch they were cordially invited to witness Deonte get whupped by a middle-aged man, who couldn’t jump, or dribble, or go to his right.
When the bell rang on game day, Deonte and his entourage headed toward the gym, as I changed my clothes in my classroom.
Then…I watched him warm up.
He was built like a whippet. And he moved like one.
At the height of my game as a high school senior in 1969, I was a slow, flat-footed outside shooter. Almost twenty-four years later, I was a slower, more flat-footed outside shooter. To watch me and my Sunday morning basketball buddies run up and down the court, you might think we were playing under water.
Game on. First to ten.
Three point baskets counted for two points. Two point baskets counted for one.
I shot a “do or die” for bring in. I made it. My ball.
Deonte gave me an open twenty-two footer from the top of the key. Swish. 2 – nothing.
“Ooh,” Donte taunted, so the four or five dozen kids who had made their way to the gym could hear, “Teacher got a jumper.”
Winner’s in. I kept the rock.
Deonte stayed home again and let me launch another shot from beyond the arc. Nothing but net. 4 – nothing.
“Oooh, Deonte,” a girl sang, “You gonna lose to a white man.”
I knew one thing. The longer this game lasted the less chance I had of winning.
My ball in. And again, Donte backed off and let me shoot. Either playing defense wasn’t cool, or he was playing the odds that I couldn’t nail three in a row. I set my feet and shoulders and let it fly.
“You know it’s buttah,” a student yelled, “cause teacher be on a roll.”
My fourth shot clanked off the iron and Deonte started carving me up like a Christmas ham.
Quickly, he halved the gap, 6-3.
Someone shouted, “Cracker got no wheels.”
By now, word circulated campus, and the game was attracting more people than Back-to-School Night. The stands were filing up and the sharks were circling.
“Finish him off, Deonte.”
“Take his big honky butt to the glass.”
I was sucking air, trying to catch my breath. Finally Deonte missed and I picked up a long rebound. Did the only thing my body could manage. Dribbled behind the three-point line and let it fly.
“Air ball! Air ball!” they chanted with delight.
My legs were Jello and Deonte was finding his game. He hit a baseline jumper to make it 6-4, then backed me into the paint, leaped and finger rolled one between my outstretched arms.
More kids streamed into the gym which grew hotter and stuffier and noisier. Everyone cheered Deonte and jeered me. Maybe that was the motivation I needed. I picked up a loose ball, huffed and puffed behind the arc and found the bottom of the net.
Someone shouted, “What’s the score?”
A voice called, “Deonte five…the blue-eyed white devil, eight.”
When I missed my next shot, I was no match for Deonte’s speed. He drove past me for an easy lay-up. 8-6. He crossed me over and kissed a soft left-handed jumper off the glass. 8-7.
Then we started trading misses. But with each miss I grew closer to needing open-heart surgery and Deonte grew stronger.
So I reached for the only weapon I had left in my arsenal to try and salvage victory.
I talked trash.
“Hey Deonte, lose and you’ll never make varsity…”
“Deonte, beat me and you will fail English.”
And finally and pathetically.
“Deonte, lose in front of all these fine girls and you will never, ever get laid.”
It wasn’t my defensive skills. I don’t have any. Maybe the pressure wore him down. He missed shot after shot and finally, I labored behind the three-point line and launched one. It hit the backboard. Which I wasn’t aiming for. And somehow mysteriously, luckily died on the rim, and fell in.
10-7. My game.
I stuck out my hand. He ignored it.
“Run it back,” he demanded.
“I’m done for the day,” I said.
“The hell you are. Run it back. Best of three.”
I cut him a deal.
If his work habits and grades significantly improved, I’d play him again. Otherwise, he’d live with the shame of losing to a teacher with no possibility of redemption. Take it or leave it.
By week’s end, a dozen of Deonte’s classmates challenged me to lunch time games. I posted a sign-up sheet on my classroom door. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’d play the top name of the list. But only after reviewing the student’s work. Deonte’s rules applied to all comers. Poor work. Too many absences. Classroom b.s. Try again in a few weeks.
Didn’t matter if I won or lost those games. What mattered, was that some of my students and I had found common ground, on the court, a place we all preferred to the classroom.
On the court, I was no longer Mr. Danziger. The kids gave me a nickname. Larry Bird.
On the court, for those few minutes, my students and I were equals. For a basketball court is a true democracy. And anyone who has ever walked on a court instinctively knows this to be true.
Ever since that day, in my 20 years of teaching, I have pulled into the faculty parking lot with my school stuff in my shoulder bag and my basketball gear in my trunk, in case I faced a discipline problem in the classroom or I’m hungry for a game.
And Deonte, well, he did some work in English class, enough to pass and to earn two rematches, the results of which, I don’t care to talk about.
Hoops Schemes originally appeared in Black Clock, the literary magazine published by CalArts, in 2010.
photo: slgckgc / flickr