I was a pretty good basketball player. Not great. Not very good. But pretty almost darn good. For a few years, I played on a lower-case traveling semi-pro team sponsored by Adidas, fine purveyor of basketball shoes. I was the handsomest guy on the team but blessed with the least talent.
We were stacked with mutants — ex-NBA stars, All-Americans, college all-stars in their day. Anyone could score 50 in a night, except maybe me, although as the point guard if I didn’t have to go through the bothersome rigmarole of — yick, hock, spit, ptooey — passing the ball, with enough shots, I could’ve averaged 3, maybe 4 points a night.
It was a fun ball club and we’d play anyone, from the Hollywood All-Stars to Mexico to our own Air Force and humiliate them by 40. A quick uniform change and flashing of fake ID, we’d play in California’s AAU tourney. In the top nosebleed quintuple blue bracket, we took the state title a few years in a row. Ever hear that rap song about letting the dogs out? We were those dogs. Let us loose and we beat pedigreed teams by 40.
One night, we’re playing some heralded all-star squad and abusing them like Bill Clinton as a chaperone on a prom night in the back seat of a limousine. It’s the fourth quarter and there’s this big, giant, muscles-atop-his-muscles 6-8 forward/surfer former Division I enforcer with flowing, blond, shoulder-length hair on the other squad. Poor guy. He was having a night of it. He had something like one point, one rebound, one technical and four fouls. Worse? All night, Psycho Surfer had been crapped on by horrible officiating.
Surf got his fifth foul and I’m standing close enough to see the light go out of his eyes. It was an eye-wateringly bad call. The Teutonic Dennis Rodman lost it. No yelling. No protesting. He just clenched his fists, stepped toward the referee and launched a haymaker.
Well. Sort of.
As he swung, his teammates were already holding his arms and pulling him toward the parking lot. Like his game, he hit nothing but air and missed by a mile.
It gets better.
While Adonis is being held by three giant teammates with 14-inch foreheads — and I’m not making this up — the referee launches a wild roundhouse right.
One of my inner-city hoodlum friends and team’s franchise would later play for the Portland Trailblazers. He flashed the biggest smile and confirmed for all of us: “Holy, moly, I can die because now I have seen EVERYTHING!!!” which he somehow broke into six syllables followed by, “Cool…”
The stands went quiet.
It’s not like this was anyone’s first sports brawl. The referee was well-known to the home crowd. You see — the well-muscled official in the zebra shirt?
He was the local priest.
Padre here knocked out a guy whose arms were pinned behind him by three strong friends. No way to duck or defend himself. Unconscious with little X’s on his eyes, the KOed hoopster also got a technical.
As opposed to three Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition.
Another friend, an African-American gentleman, played the race card and said: “That priest must have been either Italian or Irish…”
There was a minute left in the game. We’re up by 42. So, the other ref (another priest, probably Polish because he was the peaceful sort) called the game. Sheepishly, embarrassed, everyone in the gym just left.
We keep our demons buried deep. Some people have long fuses and stew, swallowing ounce after ounce of injustice. Indigestible, these small impositions turn to bile and vengeance. In some, dark feelings ooze out for years as passive aggression. Others nag. Some rip flesh with rolling eyes and sarcasm. Others reinvent themselves as an ongoing emotional Vesuvius, erupting in eternal rage, terrorizing loved ones with screams and throbbing forehead veins to actual violence.
That game was long ago. I’d like to think that the pugilist priest greeted his mornings with placations to God to make him a better servant. I’m betting he had a life with more good than bad. Heard confessions. Offered good advice and consolation. Was of service. But what false viewpoint of reality did this holy man store in his heart to explode so? How many slights had he endured? What led him to carve a false god of victimhood to hide and worship?
A friend and philosophy teacher of mine shared a trenchant observation. She said: “What you hide, you keep.”
Worse? What you hide, grows. Mutates. It becomes its own emotional physics, needing to explode somewhere. In our cities, suburbs and middles of nowhere, it’s getting worse. Little murders on social media. A snarky letter to the editor. Screaming through a bullhorn. Name-calling. Nearly kicking someone to death in Portland. Shooting baby after baby after baby. A chorus of the insane — many of them our so-called leaders — cry certain people are not merely justified in their rage, but entitled to it.
Another old story?
A friend from forever had been terribly wronged in a betrayal so heartbreaking, it could not be weighed. He wanted more than a reckoning, more than revenge. We sat in my living room and he poured out his heart.
“I don’t want the guy to be dead,” my friend said. “I want him to be…”
He paused for the longest time.
Prayers come true. Even dark ones.
I was going to say that if we don’t stop, so shall it be.
But we’ve passed that. It already is.
John Boston is a local writer.