by Joe Bardin
From the start, the scales of giving a damn were tipped against our coach, seeking to advance his career by rising through the college ranks, with Vassar College Men’s Basketball circa 1986 as his springboard. When he announced we would have to come back from Winter Break early to prepare for a holiday tournament at SUNY Binghamton, there was considerable grousing. I took a certain Spartan satisfaction in the sacrifice, but the upperclassmen had a confab on how to pass the long drive, which included thoughtful consideration of clandestine tequila shots and pot brownies.
None of us, of course, saw a future in basketball, so we lacked motivation beyond the write-up in the campus weekly that few cared about, the incidental comradery, and the fulfillment of physical exhaustion, which this coach was all too willing to deliver. Newly hired from a high school job in Queens, he was a grumpy, skeptical, old school kind of coach who always suspected his players of slacking, of overconfidence, of needing to be reined in.
The drilling was intensive, and we would end each practice with ten suicides– foul line and back, mid court line and back, far foul line and back, then finally the far baseline and back. That was one suicide. I’d never run so many in my life. The players cursed him, but I, secretly, was driven; I needed to lose myself in something, no matter how ultimately inconsequential.
There seemed to be two kinds of students at Vassar, one faction of earnest academics plunging into study for its own innate nobility, and a pragmatic group who understood it all to be a prelude to graduate schools and careers. I seemed to be neither – desiring the passion of the former, but experiencing much of the emotional indifference of the latter.
None of the freshman roommates on my floor really connected, as the housing people had somehow mismatched all of us — a New York prep school arty type paired with a Boston Catholic school musician; a cool volleyball player from the Bay Area with a straight-laced swimmer from Kansas; an everyman from Long Island, with a trust funder from Washington state who perhaps both mentioned boats in their application essays.
My roommate was from a mid-Atlantic Jewish background too much like mine to impress me, and I desperately wanted to be impressed. In 11th grade, my brother had invited me to visit him at Princeton and the sheer glamour of the experience would be ruinous by comparison. He had a producer’s way of presenting each friend as a kind of star, a defined character within the larger show of college, each with a prep school nickname that seemed to evoke belonging of a kind I longed for. How could anything compete with being 16 and treated with peer-like interest and engagement by the St. Paul’s School set he’d somehow fallen in with, with the campus gothic spires of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Paradise”, and with feeling, for the moment, my brother’s allusive pride and care?
Two years later, at Vassar, without his social showmanship, I could see no such bright lights. My roommate understandably soon found companionship elsewhere. Under such conditions, a girlfriend was imperative, and luckily for me, a determined and good-hearted one found me. Unfortunately for the fair maiden, I largely dragged her back to the lair of my own introversion. Which left basketball.
I’d starred in a small school league in the DC area by tenth grade, but high school had lasted too long, and some sensitivity to the exposure of talent had driven me inward, and my play declined sharply. Now, I tried to exhume my game again. I looked like the kind of six-foot white kid who spotted up for open jump shots, but that would have taken peace of mind I didn’t possess. Movement freed me from thought, and what I did well was drive the ball to the basket and pass it when someone stepped up to stop me, getting my teammates good open shots. Growing up with older brothers, I was intensely competitive, and since some of my teammates were in it for the celebrity, no matter how meager that might be, I had an edge.
We played a motley assortment of small State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) schools, private colleges, and vocational schools, which the coach drove hundreds of miles around greater New York City and the Hudson Valley to scout, working up game plans that were almost always the same anyway; on defense, a conservative 2 – 3 zone, on offense our conservative passing plays in which we were required to make a certain number of passes before we even thought about a shot.
We were not entirely without talent. Our point guard, Seamus, an Irish kid from the Bronx, could flat out play, and a six foot six red-headed center, tall for our level of Division III basketball, Paul, competed hard and could score inside. And others could contribute periodically. I started playing better, and the coach, in his reluctant, grumbling way, gave me more playing time and I found I could compete.
I played in an utterly workmanlike, no non-sense way, not to please the coach, but because I didn’t have the confidence to embellish even minimally. I was so by the book in my approach that some of my teammates occasionally took to calling me “Showbiz” in ironic acknowledgement. Not how I would have wanted my brother to cast me.
One day in practice, our backup center, Tom, a self-avowed artist, a writer, informed the coach he would have to miss practice to attend a gallery opening in the City for some friend of his.
“A gallery opening?” The coach with his doughy Queens accent gave such an expression of incredulity that the team broke up in laughter.
I looked on with a kind of inchoate envy. The identity of artist was buried inside me like the divine name devout Jews dare not speak out loud. And here was Tom profaning that silence with what seemed an impossible pretense at the time, though indeed he would go on to be a writer of repute, much as he presented himself, whose work I admire today.
In fact, one of the mismatched freshman on my hall, who occasionally, for reasons only he would have understood, dropped his shower towel to flash me in the linoleum hallway, would also go on to some writing success. But at the time, the inward spiral of my own shell drained the place and its people of any such possibility.
The one bona fide divinity I came across early on, of the literary variety, James Salter, who sat in on several of our freshman English classes, I was not prepared to recognize either. He seemed warm but stuffy. When asked by a student to assess the writing on the Cosby Show, big back then, he answered: “I don’t have time for that.” We read his newest book, Solo Faces, about mountain climbing, which seemed overly self-serious, like him. Years later, in a used bookstore in Scottsdale, I would pick up a book only because I recognized his name on the spine, A Sport and a Pastime, and realize I’d been in the presence of a master who kindled fire with language.
Home games we played in the field house before a sparse crowd of friends, family from the area, and students cheerfully attempting, I think, to have a proper college experience of rooting on a sports team. For away games, we piled into a white van that toured the Taconic Parkway, north to places like Skidmore College and south to schools including West Point, with its forbidding fortress-like architecture, which Salter, who had attended, once described as “the great orphanage”, to be beaten handily by its junior varsity.
We were basketball orphans ourselves, driven by our coach’s ambitions to go anywhere for a game, from hectic, high school sized CUNY gyms like Medgar Evers in Brooklyn, out to Long Island’s Merchant Marine Academy, and down to Camden’s barb wire enclosed New Jersey Institute of Technology. Everyone, it seemed, had a basketball team on offer, from Yeshiva University to Pratt Institute of Design. More than once, on the Taconic, coming or going, we’d spot the New York University team, like rock stars in a full touring bus, pulled into a Ground Round for dinner, while we in our cramped little van searched out a McDonald’s along our route.
Liberal arts, like the military, are suited to young men and women whose minds have not yet formed sufficiently to resist, and I found myself sucked into class room debates, fiercely defending or attacking some chicken/egg proposition floated by a professor for precisely that effect, still burning with it after class, as if indeed one did really did come before the other. But coming from a family of arguers, it was the debate that drew me, rather than the matter itself.
The band R.E.M. was often heard in the quad, and their non-meaning lyrics seamed to challenge conventional definitions, and of course, that most collegiate of themes, the idea of meaning itself. But what then? The dismantling of one system of meaning demanded the installation of a new one, but only the undoing seemed on offer.
I took classes in literature, geography, political science, history and philosophy, eventually settling on poetry, which seemed difficult enough to hold some transcendent possibility, but sufficiently brief that I wouldn’t have to wait too long to find out. I read poetry with the intensity of an acolyte reading Scripture, consuming it to the best of my ability, but truth be told it, and despite my earnest efforts, it did not consume me as I would have liked, and I could never quite shake the feeling of passing time.
Time troubled me — I always seemed to have too much. Fortunately, there were these away basketball games to consume long bolts of it, more than any other freshman year activity, certainly more than studying. Some players read their Hemingway and their econ textbooks as the coach behind the wheel with his Santa Claus sack of basketballs beside him cursed traffic, but I could never read in a moving car, and instead tried to make meaning in my head of the melancholy breadth of the Hudson, the alarmingly abrupt entry into Manhattan, too massively mythical to assimilate; of prosaic, black yet somehow implicitly Jewish, Brooklyn; and the sooty freeways to the compact towns of Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.
I continued to play strongly and the coach eventually made me a starter. Early on in the first game I started, an away game, I received a pass on the wing, and without a thought, pivoted, squared up my man and banked in a 15-foot jump shot with such exuberant spontaneity that the coach felt compelled to promptly pull me out. On the bench, guys high-fived me, “Showbiz!”. But the sudden flare of talent, and the immediate authoritative slap-down occurred so quickly I could barely register it consciously. I’d finally felt the flashing presence of poetry, but couldn’t maintain its momentum.
We did eventually play NYU at their place, a palace of an arena compared to our field house, and they blew us out. They had a six foot four kid who could shoot his jump shot right over our 2-3 zone, who must have scored thirty or more. The coach, in his scouting assessment, had grumbled that the kid had no business playing at the Division III level, and he was right. Never mind that such a scouting report was preparation for losing.
I played well for a while, starting several games, even leading the team in scoring, but ultimately, the season lasted too long, and the act of extroversion, which playing well was for me, I couldn’t sustain, and I was benched. Starting on the Vassar basketball team was hardly paradise, but the setback haunted me like the continuation of some archetypal pattern of loss, including the loss of my brother’s interest, which I was powerless to interrupt.
I had several excellent teachers at Vassar, whom I can still name twenty-five years later: Eamon Grennan, Pat Wallace, Michael Murray, Thomas Mallon. Grennan turned me on to Yeats, which lead to an obsession with the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. Wallace opened me to contemporary poetry, a necessary antidote to the above. Mallon was a wit who made fun of canonical writers, and further impressed with his New Yorker bylines. Murray made the inscrutability of Heidegger into a meaningful case for the limitations of reason, which I found liberating. In a senior year philosophy seminar, he allowed himself to drift off in thought in midsentence, right in front of us, in a silence that lasted several minutes, and seemed, because of his abandonment to it, and our own collusion, quite marvelous.
Still, I look in wonder at people who discovered themselves in college, while I was doing the opposite – wearing out some mask of myself that was all too slowly dissipating. Four years were not enough to finish Showbiz off. Perhaps this is why, for years afterward, I dreamed about Vassar. In my Vassar nightmare, I was lost on the campus, looking for someone or something, like a classroom or my mailbox, while losing something further, such as a notebook, that then became the anxious object of my futile search. Sometimes it was winter, when Poughkeepsie would warm up after it snowed, then cool quickly as the skies cleared, so that snow tended to melt to slush then freeze solid, rendering the paths into channels of ice on which students slipped cartoon style, feet airborne. The more I hunted, the more I lost things I had to look for, as if the place was somehow stripping me. All the while, in the back of my dreamer’s mind, I’d wonder if I should be there at all, enrolled at Vassar, again, and what I could possibly gain from it, having already graduated once.
This question would nag at me, simultaneous to the searching, but I kept to my quest anyway, however halfheartedly, compelled to play it out. Such is the adaptability of nightmare that, over the years, to keep it challenging maybe, the campus changed considerably, evolving from the tidy, charming liberal arts college I attended, into a larger and larger complex, eventually mutating into a teaming Tokyo maze of a city, almost Blade Runner-like in its ability to confuse and confound. In one version there’s even public transportation, a tram, that refuses to let me off at the proper stop, and I have to scramble through crowds, over fences and across train track. Then in the middle of it all, I suddenly realize what it is I’m searching for: my basketball shoes.
Joe Bardin is a writer based in Scottsdale, AZ. His literary nonfiction has appeared or is upcoming in Louisville Review, Superstition Review, Eclectica, Rock & Sling and Burrow Press Review, among others. His plays have been performed professionally. An alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, he is a Rhode Island International Film Festival screenplay semifinalist. He is also a messaging strategist and the Communications Director for People Unlimited and the Coalition for Radical Life Extension. (www.joebardin.com).