A friend of mine once noted: “We sometimes learn humility through humiliation.” I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect we learn humiliation from humiliation. I own an ancient scar I haven’t looked at in eons. It’s a world record that will never be broken. Not all the Bar Keepers Friend, kerosene, bleach or sandpaper will remove that blemish from soul or resume. It’s not my Scarlet “A.” It’s my Scarlet “H.”
You see, I’m the first coach in Hart High history to lose a game to Canyon — in any sport.
Cue the Bach toccata fugue in R-Ruptured Flat. Tilt down my great broad brimmed hat and wrap a scarf around my hideous face as I scamper down a darkened paseo. Let the cold rain lash my face as I clutch to a stone cathedral gargoyle and ask the hunchbackean question: “Why can’t I be made of stone like thee?”
In 1971, I had a dream job and was the head coach of The Mighty Indian “B” basketball squad at my alma mater, Two-Gun Bill Hart High. Loss after loss piled up. Still. Got paid. Sometimes wondered if I should offer to refund some of the district’s money although I’m not sure if John Wooden or a chimpanzee could have eked out more wins.
We won the first game and then the horses ran away with the stage and the stage went over the edge of the Grand Canyon which turned into a bottomless pit which turned into a black hole which turned into a Hieronymus Bosch painting. You know the one. Fifteenth century Dutch artist who drew people with goat heads in Hell clutching their slashed intestines? There were some young, wonderful human lads on that squad of ’71 that I still love dearly today. Not a fault or blemish in any of them. They were the classic definition of The Hero: Doomed to failure, they try mightily anyway. Bless them so for that. Still. Childbirth might have been easier than basketball for some, myself included because I was the coach.
Drat. We won that first game, too. And it was away. I had changed my college major to P.E. because I confess — after that first victory, I saw myself getting an assistant coaching job at some small college, working my way back to UCLA and collecting 50 unbroken national championships.
I can’t recall who we played that first victory. I still have that green score book growing mildew in some banker’s box and games where the high scorer was in single digits. I do remember, having hair, being thin, athletic, full of hope. It’s the third quarter, then the fourth and cripes, what’s wrong with this picture? We’re — winning. Buzzer. We — won. We’re 1-0. With a little luck and lots of hard work, a perfect season awaits.
Then, Reality and Voodoo reared their ugly heads. We lost our best player with a broken leg. Two starters were yanked up to junior varsity.
O cursed ghosts dear me.
In one game we led in overtime with a few seconds to go AND the ball. As time wafts past, I forget the names of women I’ve married but I vividly remember my sibling-like substance Willie who played for me. Willie had the ball. All he had to do was hold on to it. Will pivoted, which normally, in basketball, is a good thing. Problem? Willie leaves a footprint the size of a yeti and he pivoted — OUT OF BOUNDS. The other team inbounded, chucked up a half-court circus shot and we lost by one.
The season was a blur of squeaking tennis shoes and whistles, yells and screams, scrawny cheerleaders who had just learned cursive handwriting 20 minutes earlier.
Down. The. Rabbit. Hole.
Around town, people in stores, in passing cars, Hart coaches from the 1940s all made it a point to remind me that We Better Not Lose To Canyon, which was an “Interpretive Dance” then. Their mascot was the Elephant Man.
Canyon didn’t actually have a “B” basketball team. Instead of detention, they just kept guys from gym class after school to play us. Those Cowboys not in wheelchairs spent the game sculpting crude clay ashtrays for the Make A Wish Foundation. That year, I remember meeting Abe Lemons, one of the most eclectic college basketball coaches in sports history. NIT champ and Hall of Famer, Abe never lost his Oklahoma drawl and was the Mark Twain of jockstraps. Abe said: “You can teach a mule to run the Kentucky Derby son, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna win it…”
For years, I’d bump into Newhallians who’d shake their head in mock solemnity at me, or curl their fingers into a capital “C.” And people ask why I changed my name.
I read somewhere that man can go three days without water, three weeks without food and 20 minutes without a justification. Midway through the season, you look for ways to instill life’s lessons and find ways to grow, to be better.
Our last game? The Newbury Park coach was smug, insufferable, rude. I actually considered punching him after the final buzzer. His Panthers were the undefeated league champs. We Indians were winless. Last game, they’re up by 35 and he calls a time out — to put his starting five back in with four minutes to go. They had an Allen Iverson point guard who was instructed to eat up the clock by doing a Harlem Globetrotter impersonation of sliding around the floor and dribbling behind his back and between his legs.
It was humiliating.
That season. The first sweet victory, then a bunch of zeroes. Then, having Newbury Park grind our soiled underwear in our face.
In slow motion.
Funny? Just this very moment — 50 years later?
I finally realized something.
I was the better coach.
John Boston is a local writer and until the Universe implodes upon itself billions of years hence, he’s still the first Hart High coach to lose to Canyon. In any sport.