I was a junior high school athlete, training for the State Championships in the 110-Meter High-Hurdles. The rain fell hard that day, so both, the track and baseball teams, sought indoor shelter in the gymnasium. Skinny track guys in their sweats lingered on one side, while burly baseball players in their matching uniforms meandered about the other.
While we waited for our coach to show, two 400-meter runners and I decided to shoot some baskets. As we did, I noticed Tony glancing our way. He was a baseball player and de facto leader of a group of boys who sat two lunch tables away from where my best friends and I ate. Tony and his gang came from Federal Hill, the largely Italian neighborhood in Providence that was–at that time–the home base for the entire New England Mafia. My friends and I were writers, actors, and musicians–two of whom had earrings, which, in 1981, bothered guys like Tony. He and his friends would mumble epithets like “fags”, sometimes lobbing empty milk cartons at us.
Once, a few of them cornered my friend Adam in the hall between classes. They began calling him names and threatening him. Worried, our lunch table wondered if things were going to escalate. So far, I had not been a direct target of their aggression.
On that rainy afternoon, however, I could see Tony growing more and more agitated from the other side of the gym. It was as if our game of basketball was an affront to him. Next time I looked, he was marching toward us–or me, really–with an expression of wanting to take care of something once and for all.
He arrived, stood in the middle of our game, and said, “Let me show you how a real man plays basketball.”
It was a strange moment. It was the only time in my life I’d ever heard someone seriously use that expression. “It’s make-believe,” I immediately thought. It seemed particularly so that day because I felt confident that particular game was not going to go the way he’d imagined. Tony, I was sure, fancied himself a tough guy, a street fighter. I was neither.
I was, however, six feet tall, and he was five-nine. Moreover, I was quick and I could jump, while Tony looked slow and physically dense. I’d met short guys who were better at basketball than I, but Tony was not one of them. Also, most importantly, I fully understood the merciless rules of competition. I knew how to play without fear, and I played to win. Some days, those rules made more sense to me than on others. That was such a day.
We started playing, and he couldn’t guard me. My jump shots were out of his reach, leaving him easily juked. When he tried to drive by me for a layup and I swatted his shot away, I felt something change. Whatever had brought him across the gym was gone. He ended the game quickly, said, “All right,” and headed back to his teammates.
Amazingly, he was not angry. I felt no threat of retribution in him. Watching him walk away, I kept thinking about that expression: a real man. He should have been able to see that I was taller, quicker, and jumpier than him. He should have known that basketball wasn’t his game. Yet, all his confidence was, apparently, based solely on some personally-held concept of manhood – which, it turns out, wasn’t real.
The next time I ran into Tony in the locker room, he was friendly. He made a joke about a math teacher we’d both had. All the other young athletes milled around us, gym bags over their shoulders, the smell of Bengay and dried sweat permanently hanging in the air, the clang of locker doors sounding above laughter and insults. I was comfortable there, in that barracks for the competitive, though I would leave it for good, once I went to college.
In fact, I sometimes wondered if sports served, primarily, as an avenue for me to meet Tony. The harassment from his lunch table soon dwindled to nothing, though I have no idea if our face-off had anything to do with that. But, I do know that he was amiable from that day forward. It made me wonder who in that lunch room was afraid of whom.
I knew perfectly well what Tony meant by “a real man.” I held such an image in my own mind, as well: some amalgam of athlete, soldier, and lawyer, who had no fear of the rough, indifferent world, where his fortune would be won; who had left his childhood behind with all its tears, complaints, and vulnerabilities; and who stands victorious over those other men, whose lives are governed, secretly, by a crippling yearning for tenderness. He was a hero for whom love waited at the end of the day in a woman’s arms–but never before. To seek it elsewhere was weakness, a desire to leave a game, a battle, a lawsuit, a negotiation still in-progress.
The worst fear I have known in my adult life is the belief that there is something more real in this world than love. Tony surely must have seen himself as an enforcer of the laws of ‘real’ manhood, laws he didn’t invent but by which he, nonetheless, tried to live. He must have been a little relieved after our game to learn that I was–at that moment–in my own way, no less free than he was.
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
We are proud of our SOCIAL INTEREST GROUPS—WEEKLY PHONE CALLS to discuss, gain insights, build communities— and help solve some of the most difficult challenges the world has today. Calls are for Members Only (although you can join the first call for free). Not yet a member of The Good Men Project? Join below!
Join the Conscious Intersectionality FACEBOOK GROUP here. Includes our new call series on Human Rights.
Join The Good Men Project Community
All levels get to view The Good Men Project site AD-FREE. The $50 Platinum Level is an ALL-ACCESS PASS—join as many groups and classes as you want for the entire year. The $25 Gold Level gives you access to any ONE Social Interest Group and ONE Class–and other benefits listed below the form. Or…for $12, join as a Bronze Member and support our mission, and have a great ad-free viewing experience.
Register New Account
Please note: If you are already a writer/contributor at The Good Men Project, log in here before registering. (Request a new password if needed).
ANNUAL PLATINUM membership ($50 per year) includes:
1. AN ALL ACCESS PASS — Join ANY and ALL of our weekly calls, Social Interest Groups, classes, workshops, and private Facebook groups. We have at least one group phone call or online class every day of the week.
2. See the website with no ads when logged in!
3. MEMBER commenting badge.
ANNUAL GOLD membership ($25 per year) includes all the benefits above — but only ONE Weekly Social Interest Group and ONE class.
ANNUAL BRONZE membership ($12 per year) is great if you are not ready to join the full conversation but want to support our mission anyway. You’ll still get a BRONZE commenting badge, and you can pop into any of our weekly Friday Calls with the Publisher when you have time. This is for people who believe—like we do—that this conversation about men and changing roles and goodness in the 21st century is one of the most important conversations you can have today.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
Photo credit: By Lanako [email protected]