In rural America, we can’t afford to leave anyone on the bench. Everyone gets to play – even the old guy who misjudges the talent.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the NCAA men’s tournament continues this week, we’re dusting off an old column by Dee Davis, publisher of the Daily Yonder. This essay originally ran on the Center for Rural Strategies website in 2002, five years before we began publishing the Yonder. Unlike Dee’s knees, we think the piece holds up pretty well.
Donald was 6’ 6”, a big 6’ 6” at that, with large hands, an open-mouth menacing look, acne scarred and a baseball cap mostly worn backwards, not that the rest of us were that damn handsome. Donald had some handicaps. Nobody said anything about it. Who would? Still you just noticed even if you were trying not to.
Donald would ride down with Otis in an old pick up truck along with this wiry high school kid who smoked cigarettes between games, and sometimes Otis’ little boy who would play in the dirt down at the other end of the court. Otis was a cockfighter back then. Guys would ask him about his chickens. Later when he got baptized he gave up on the roosters. I mainly remember Otis in spring, in suffocating summer heat, and in fall playing in work pants and a long sleeve shirt. He was spidery, and tricky in the post, but very sincere in other ways. When my friend Robert moved to town, Otis asked him, “Hey man, what’s your name?”
He answered, “Just call me Rob.”
Otis said, “Rob? I’ll never remember that. I’ll call you Red.”
I assumed that Otis and Donald were family, the way Otis looked after him, but I didn’t ask. My approach to basketball is to block out extraneous information. Think about the wrong thing, personal things, and you’ll get beat. I for one never asked about the chickens.
When it was in the paper that Donald had been run over by a truck, I was stunned. I had lost all contact years ago when he quit showing up to play. But just the week or so before it happened I was in the car heading out to Craft’s Colley to feed cats of friends who were out of town, and there he was sitting on a guard rail next to a bicycle. He waved. I didn’t realize it was him until I got past. He looked as though perhaps he had been going through a rough patch. His neck and chest were garlanded with what looked like a homemade necklace, maybe fashioned out of pop cans. And he looked smaller, much smaller, worn down someway. Still it was him, cap on backwards.
After the story came out in the paper, I found out almost everybody knew who he was because he spent his days riding his bike back and forth between Craft’s Colley and the WalMart. People said he was quick to wave and hard to miss. Those who had never even spoken to him were, just the same, hammered to learn of his death. He had a smile.
I am not conspicuously athletic. When I was little, we would play touch football in the street in front of my house. There were four of us in the neighborhood, and each day there would be a rigmarole about choosing up. Invariably whoever got me on his team would cuss, walk off, and have to be cajoled into coming back to play. But in sports, like in most things, if you do it enough, you get competent, even good at it. I have played pick-up outdoor court basketball for so long now that I regularly play with the children of guys who I played with over the years. I have put in almost 30 years on the concrete court beside the river behind the Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg. And if it is not all together true, it is alarmingly close that I remember every game I’ve played there. Constant reminders of those past games visit me regularly in the form of dysfunctional shoulders, a swollen knee, and arthritic fingers jammed so many times into whizzing passes and unprotected rebounds that it is difficult now to write a paragraph holding a pen.
And of all those viscerally memorized games, there is one day that stands apart. Eight of us showed up: Otis, Donald, the kid who smoked cigarettes, me, and four regulars who were all very good. There are different ways to choose sides in basketball, but mostly we do it by shooting free throws. First four to make it, say. This way no one gets picked last or gets left off a team because the others think he’s no good. It is as if you are leaving who’s on what team up to a higher power. More delicately I have heard it said, everybody shoot, and we’ll let the baby Jesus pick who’s on teams. And afterwards if sometimes the talent is disproportionately skewed to one side, you can swap players to even things up. Anyway I ended up on the team with Otis, Donald, and the kid who smoked cigarettes. I suggested to the others that we make a trade to make the game fair, but they wouldn’t. It rubbed me wrong. I started needling the other team: Was beating us that important to them? And when they wouldn’t respond to my taunts, I got increasingly obnoxious, going beyond what is generally acceptable to say in a game where extraneous information is problematic.
Finally Otis, getting embarrassed because it was sounding to him and all the world as if I was saying his crew with the big peculiar fellow weren’t good enough. It was kind of like when the boys on my street didn’t want me for touch. Otis came to me quietly and said, “We’ll be all right, we’ll play ‘em.”
So we played them, and as the baby Jesus had foreseen, we beat them over and over and over. The kid who smoked took care of the ball, Otis hacked their guys in the paint, and big Donald stood under the goal and took rebound after rebound, holding them high in the air, rebounds that eventually would get back to me on the wing. And I had a very good day.
At dark when we finally quit, I was rapturously happy, gloatingly happy, far too proud for someone who had started the afternoon by embarrassing everyone else, embarrassed myself at being teamed with a guy who didn’t fit the profile.
We videotaped Tom Daschle in Lake Preston, South Dakota, when he was Senate majority leader. We asked him what made rural communities special. He said it was because everyone is needed, that in small towns you couldn’t afford to leave anybody out, that the community had to have everyone contribute. What I know is that in small towns everybody gets to play, even guys who have grown old and embarrassingly slow, and who have been humbled time and time again trying to figure out what is an asset and what is a handicap. I don’t see Otis anymore. I hear he is bad sick. I played with his boy this summer, and he is a load. Rough like Otis, but bigger and strong. The kid that smoked, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll ask. But Donald I will always see in my mind’s eye. He is behind the church, ball hoisted in two hands, a giant in a backwards baseball cap, the baby Jesus aloft on his shoulders thoroughly entertained by the yearning below.
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder.