Friday, November 30, 2012

November 30, 2012--Chapter 16: The Boys of Harlem

Donny Friedlander, who was our best foul shooter, was on the line.  Typically, he sank eight of every ten attempts.   Not bad for a skinny sixteen year-old from Brooklyn. 
He was also well known for his preparation routine before shooting—three dribbles on his left side, three on his right, a semi- deep-knee bend, followed by a quick two-handed shot.  And then swish 80 percent of the time.  One point for the Rugby Rockets of the Brooklyn Boys Club. 
This time, however, he dribbled just twice on his left, once on his right, and forgot the deep-knee bend entirely.  We knew something was wrong; and this was confirmed when his shot missed both the rim and backboard. 
The ball was immediately rebounded by our opponents’ center, who passed it like a spear the full length of the court, where it settled into the hands of their darting point guard who, in a single graceful motion, caught it in midair and slammed it home, just beating the buzzer that signaled the end of the first half. 
The crowd went wild and the scoreboard flashed— 
Visitors (us)—6 . . .  Harlem Boys Club 22 
Demoralized, we gathered our sweat-soaked towels and slunk back to the locker room where our coach, Mr. Ludwig, spent the next fifteen minutes berating us.
“That was pathetic,” he spat, glaring at Donny who sat slumped on the bench in front of the pockmarked steel locker, “You throw up an air ball to end the half and they convert it into two points.  A three-point swing.  This is the way you compete for the New York City Boys Club Championship?”  He now included all of us in his contempt.  “How many times do I need to remind you about how to face challenges?  Do I need to tell you again about D Day, June sixth, nineteen hundred and forty-four?” 
If any of us had had the energy we would have groaned, having heard about the First Wave from him at least a hundred times.  “Well, those of us assigned to the First Wave,” I looked over toward Heshy Perlmutter, hoping to catch his eye so we could together distract ourselves by mouthing the words to this all too familiar story, “we huddled in our LCTs, our amphibious landing craft, waiting for the ramp to drop and the whistle to blow indicating it was time to hit the beaches.”  He paused to allow the full effect to descend on us.  No one moved or looked at him.  We were all lost in our exhaustion, and fear.  Not of him but of our opponents and even more of the neighborhood, Harlem, where we found ourselves.  Most of us had never ventured so far from Brooklyn.  Much less here. 
“The Jerrys were waiting for us; but when that ramp dropped,” for emphasis he slammed his hand against a locker door and even the Harlem Boys Club team members, who were clustered at their end of the locker room exchanging high fives in celebration of their success, jumped as if shot.  “When that ramp dropped, even though we were staring right down the muzzles of the Krauts’ guns, we hit the beaches.  You remember the pictures I showed you?  From the newsreels?”  
Arnie Schwartz rolled his eyes up in his head but nodded back at Mr. Ludwig as a surrogate for the rest of us who were still trying to suck air back into our lungs.  The second half would be starting in a few minutes.  All we wanted to do was get it over with and back safely to Brooklyn. 
“That longest day was a living hell,” he had lowered his voice as he always did out of respect for the lost and wounded.  “But did that stop us?”  He had resumed his stentorious narrative, “Did we curl up in a ball and cry for our mommies?  Did we quit?”  By not so subtle implication it was obvious that as he reached his peroration of rhetorical questions the comparisons he would be drawing between his courageous band of brothers and our team of wimps would be starkly clear.  He pointed at me now, I was the team’s undeserving captain—it was simply that I was his favorite because he and my mother were friends—“I ask you what would have happened if we had given up?”  
Without waiting for an answer, he played his trump card, “Well, all of you would be speaking German or maybe already have been made into bars of soap or lampshades.”  He snorted and let the nightmare of that possibility sink in. 
Though the thought of serving as some Nazi’s night light was no longer as frightening as it had been the first dozen times he had forced us to imagine the fate we had escaped, it did seem to again agitate five-foot-two Lenny Sugerman enough so that he threw up all over his sneakers. 
Mr. Ludwig nodded knowingly in his direction and said, “Exactly.  Just as I was saying.”  No one had the energy or motivation to ask him what he meant by that non sequitur; but he must have thought Lenny helped drive home his point since he smiled empathetically at him while the rest of us struggled to stifle our own rising nausea as the mess and smell permeated that over-heated space. 
“So, men, again we find ourselves at war.  Far from home,” his majestic gesture took in all of the battered locker room.  “But we are not alone.  We have each other.”  He tried to force each of us to look him in the eye.  “That’s the definition of a team.  We are like a hand,” from this familiar simile we knew he was near the end of his inspirational rant, “Look at my hand.”  He held his hand before us with the fingers spread widely apart.  We knew he would not continue unless we looked up at his starfish-contorted hand.  So we did.  “Note how without the thumb,” he flexed it back and forth on its hinge while holding Donny in his gaze, “it is no longer a hand.  Just four fingers.”  Donny was always the thumb.  “And of course the smallest of fingers, the pinky,” he wiggled it, looking at Lenny, of course, who because of his size and lack of coordination had never been put into any of our games, Lenny was our pinky, “without it there also would be no hand.”  He added, “No team” in case we were missing his analogy. 
He smiled again, but this time with a sense of self-satisfaction.  He felt that when the ramp, so to speak, was dropped to signal the beginning of the second half and the referee’s whistle blew, we would hit the hard-court beaches and no matter the incoming we would prevail.  
His team of Jewboys was not about to be made into deodorant soap for the Boys of Harlem.  Or so he imagined. 
Because just as we were wearily pulling ourselves to our feet and dragging ourselves back into the gym to complete our humiliation, Little Lenny, wiping the last globule of vomit from his chin, in his bird-like voice squeaked, “Mr. Ludwig.”  
Our coach, who was in full martial stride at the point of his straggling platoon, in his mind leading us back into battle, he was so startled by that unexpected chirp that he almost tripped as he stopped short and wheeled on Lenny, barking, “Yes, private?  Uh, Lenny?”
“Mr. Ludwig, I’m still scared.” 
“Of what?” he asked incredulously. 
“Of them,” Lenny whimpered.  “One of their players told me that if we score more than 15 points by the end of the game we’ll never make it back to the subway alive.”  The rest of us cringed at his report about this threat and wondered why not just forfeit the game right now and head home. 
Mr. Ludwig, though, had very different plans.  “Even if they don’t score in the second half, which is unlikely, 15 points will not be enough to win.  It won’t get the job done.  We came all this way to win a championship.  Not to put our tails between our legs and retreat like a bunch of cowards.  So get a move on.  There’ll be no shirkers on this team.”  
And with that he executed an impeccable about-face and marched through the tunnel back into the gym.  We crawled along behind him, and when we reappeared on the court the crowd of local people who had packed the makeshift grandstands greeted us with derisive whistles and mock cheers.  
“Hey, white boy,” one shouted, “what you have in those shorts?”  I saw Benny quiver and clutch a towel to cover the front of his pants as someone from the stands on the other side of the gym hollered back, “Not much,” which caused a rumble of raucous laughter to swell and then ricochet off the tiled walls from one end of the gym to the other. 
*   *   * 
It had not been like this back in Brooklyn.  Our team had been together since elementary school, from PS 244 days, and we felt we had become battle-hardened there during our race toward the Brooklyn Public School Championship.  True, we lost in the semi-finals by two points (at the final buzzer I missed a jump shot that would have taken us into overtime), but we felt that we had given a good account of ourselves, as did our coach, the ubiquitous Mr. Ludwig, good enough so that he encouraged all of us, even after entering various high schools, to become members of the Brooklyn Boys Club, remain a team, the Rugby Rockets, and play in the Boys Club league.  He of course volunteered himself to be our coach.  One more try for him at a championship before retiring on top and moving to south Florida to live on his pension. 
We did that and fared well enough to win the Brooklyn title after two wins in the quarterfinal round before going on to defeat the Staten Island team in the semis when they collapsed toward the end of the second half under the withering two-one-two zone defense that Mr. Ludwig taught us (“total team defense” he had called it, using the hand-as-a-team analogy for the first time), which had become our specialty. 
So we felt intrepid and confident when we trekked up to northern Manhattan, to Harlem, where the title would be determined in their gym—they had the best record in the city and had thereby earned home court advantage.  
Half of the Rockets had never even been to Manhattan, and those of us who had ventured across the East River had not ventured north of Central Park.  And the city was so segregated at the time that none of us had seen an all-black neighborhood.  Diversity to us meant that there were three Italian and two Irish families living in our otherwise all-Jewish neighborhood.   So when we emerged from the subway on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, we were not prepared for what we encountered on that sparkling late spring Saturday afternoon.
As we walked south toward the Boys Club on 118th Street, though if we had thought about it, it should not have been much of a surprise to any of us, literally everyone we saw on the street, in cars, in the stores, on the stoops, hanging out on street corners, all were Negroes.  It was as if we had entered a mirror-world where everything was reversed, where suddenly we had become the reflection.  I felt that everyone was staring at us, as curious and suspicious of us and what we might be doing there as we were afraid of and shyly fascinated by them. 
I was ashamed of my reaction to this obverse reality since being with a person of color was not so beyond my experience.  When I was about seven, my parents welcomed into our home Henry Cross, the nine-year-old son of our maid, Bessie, who, while juggling the many jobs she needed to work at in order to support them, could not care for him and her elderly parents who lived in South Carolina. 
Henry quickly, in effect, became a version of an older brother.  I idolized him.  He taught me to ride a bicycle, when my father couldn’t, and read to me, when my mother wasn’t home.  He made me laugh when he imitated our neighbors (he had mastered a perfect Jewish accent) and stood by my side to protect me from the local bullies—it was goy on goy, but mine was black and thus was imbued by the others with special powers.  He knew how to play that edge, that bias and fear.  And since he was in such demand to play on teams in our street games, he elevated my status as I both brought him and tagged along behind.  
Then there were his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer who lived in the cellar by the coal furnace of our street’s only apartment house.  Uncle Homer stoked the fire and removed barrels of ashes and garbage while Aunt Sis swept and scoured the stairs and hallways in return for being allowed to live there, without having to pay rent, amid the cinders and trash. 
Henry and I helped Uncle Homer with his work.  He was ancient, to me he seemed to be at least a hundred, and could no longer do it alone.  And while we were there, in this basement home, he told us stories about his life as a sharecropper in Fayette, Mississippi.  How during the growing season he worked from stifling dawn to dusk behind a horse and plow; and how at picking time, he chopped the cotton by hand, filling long sacks that he dragged down the dusty rows.  These were stories that transported Henry and me back to another time; and, nested with Uncle Homer and Aunt Sis by that hot furnace, those days with him were among the happiest and securest of my early life.  Thus I was disappointed in myself to be so afraid of the black people we saw on the streets as we moved through Harlem. 
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Lenny whined, interrupting my memories of the Cross family.  In addition to his other afflictions, his bladder was no larger than a walnut, and he always seemed to have to pee at the most inconvenient times.  And that day, at the corner of 121st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, it for many reasons was by far the least convenient of times.  “I can go in there,” he whimpered, pointing at a candy store called Bernie’s.   He looked pleadingly up at Mr. Ludwig.  “They must have a toilet.  Is it OK?” 
“Lloyd,” Mr. Ludwig commanded me, “you’re the captain so take Heshy with you and go with him.  And make it snappy.  No need to wipe his ass.  Just make sure he doesn’t get lost.” 
Holding his crotch, Lenny didn’t wait for us and bolted into the store.  Heshy and I followed with some trepidation, again not knowing what to expect.  
Looking around, Heshy said, “It’s just like Krinsky’s, the candy store on his corner back in Brooklyn.  And it did.  With the same kind of long lunch counter that ran the length of the store, about a dozen leather-covered low-backed stools that swiveled on steel shafts, newspapers and magazines stacked in shelves just inside the entrance, two rotating circular wire racks in back stuffed with pocket books, and a wooden phone booth with an accordion-style fold-up glass door right next to the bathroom into which Lenny darted.
We stood just inside the front door taking it all in.  Two boys about our age stood by the shelves of magazines flipping through copies of Life and Ebony, a magazine I had never before seen.  Halfway up the counter there was a jet-black man dressed in what appeared to be African garb.  He was wrapped in a boldly-patterned scarlet robe that flowed to the floor, and on his head he wore what looked like a crocheted wool yarmulke.  He was sipping a cup of coffee and spread before him on the counter was the Herald Tribune.  Further down the counter, on the last stool, there was another man who looked much older.  He was dressed in tattered work clothes—overalls that looked as if they had been charred in a fire and a threadbare denim shirt.  There were two grimy shopping bags wrapped and knotted with rope on the floor beside him.  He had both arms folded on the counter and was slumped forward with his head resting on them.  He was fast asleep and even from a distance we could hear him mumbling something to himself.   And all the way in the back, there was a light-skinned man of about forty, dressed in a tweed jacket, who was rotating one of the racks of books.  He selected one and brought it up to the front where we were and placed it by the cash register where the counterman joined him to ring it up.  I caught a glimpse of the title.  It was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. 
“Thanks, Bernie,” he said to the white man who was clearly the owner.  “See you later in the week.” 
Bernie said, “I think you’ll like it.  I served in the Pacific and had trouble putting it down when it first appeared in the New Yorker.” 
As I was not expecting something so familiar, I turned to Heshy to see what he might be thinking.  He stood there, also quite mesmerized, and said, “Can you believe it, just like in Krinsky’s, they even have Breyers Ice Cream here.” 
*   *   * 
Mr. Ludwig gathered us in a circle in front of our bench and had us place our hands in a stack, one atop the other.  He glared at us one last time as we broke the huddle with a less-than-enthusiastic grunt that served as a cheer--as much to motivate us as to signal to the other team that we were to be regarded as a serious competitive threat.  
But since we were unable to fool ourselves much less them, we shuffled halfheartedly toward the center of the floor with Little Lenny, trailing along with us, even though he wouldn’t be starting, so he could hide behind Arnie Schwartz, our widest body, before having to return to the bench where he would, as the sixth man, sit exposed and unprotected. 
As the Rocket’s center it was my responsibility to attempt to tap the ball to a team member when the referee tossed the ball in the air to launch the half.   This felt like a hopeless task since at the start of the game the Harlem Boys Club center, though four inches shorter than me, leaped so high that he was able to tip the ball, before it reached its apogee, to one of his cutting guards who streaked down the floor with it for an uncontested lay-up.  They thus had two points lighting the scoreboard even before I had had a chance to leave my feet. 
But this time, the referee’s errant toss floated toward my side of the center circle and I managed to synchronize my jump with its trajectory, slapping it to Donny, who for a moment forgot his fear and instinctively resumed being the Donny we knew--the Rocket’s thumb.  He grabbed hold of the ball, and dribbled it in a serpentine path through all of their defenders, pulling up abruptly at the foul line where he, in a graceful gyration, lifted himself in the air while simultaneously launching a high-arcing shot that ripped through the net, swish, without even nicking the rim. 
Visitors—8 . . . Harlem Boys Club (still)--22 
I glanced over to Lenny, who was slouching on the bench, and knew what he was thinking—just six seconds had ticked off the clock and we already were up to eight points. Seven more and we would reach the fateful fifteen.  I saw him peek toward the exit sign, probably mapping his escape route.  But while watching Lenny, and in truth also thinking about how I would escape with my life, after Donny’s quick basket, they quickly put the ball back in play and streaked down court passed us, catching us flatfooted, breaking into the clear, heading toward what would certainly be another uncontested basket.  But, seemingly out of nowhere, Arnie Schwartz, who after the center jump had not lumbered down the court with the rest of us, somehow managed to position his hulking body between the basket and the driving player where he absorbed a charging foul.  He was slammed to the floor by the collision and the score remained 22-8. 
My somehow managing to win the jump, Donny’s quick and graceful basket, and Arnie’s sacrificing his body for the sake of defense energized our team and for the moment shocked and silenced the crowd.  Though we still trailed by a probably-insurmountable 14 points, there was for the first time some slight evidence that this could still turn out to be a game and not a pathetic rout. 
Much of this feeling came from Mr. Ludwig who sat impassively on the bench, right beside Lenny, signaling by his calm that we had things under control.  Even perhaps that we had the Harlem team right where we wanted them--in a form of perverse strategy of ineptitude that would lull them into complacency.  And then, just when they were feeling it was all over, we would pounce and run them off the floor.  
While the game moved back and forth inconsequentially, no one scoring for the next few minutes, which was a form of progress for us, I ran through my mind some of Mr. Ludwig’s war stories, looking for analogies to our situation and his during what he often referred to as the “Big One.”   Were there situations he had told us about when his battalion rose up suddenly to grab victory from the jaws of seeming defeat?  I could think of none—all that he ever recounted was their relentless, inexorable moving forward.  So what could he be thinking now as he sat there exuding such calm confidence in us, even though we were still stalled out, so far behind? 
As I was having these distracting thoughts, the Harlem boys regained their collective stride and ripped off two quick baskets, one after intercepting Benny Berlin’s inbound pass and slamming it home before we had a chance to turn around.  We thus found ourselves further behind—26 to 8. 
That seemed to rouse Mr. Ludwig who sprang from the bench and whistled to Donny who asked for a time out.  The crowd was back in the game, chanting “HBC!  HBC! HBC!  Harlem Boys Club!” as we again gathered at our bench.  
During the entire time out, Mr. Ludwig ignored us, not even joining our huddle.  He had moved out toward the middle of the court and stood there staring up at the scoreboard which fluttered as if there was about to be a power failure.  We looked at each other, wondering what he was up to, what he was expecting us to do, what kind of reverse psychology he might be using since this was so uncharacteristic of him.  In every other instance he would minimally have had something to say about the “fallen heroes of Normandy” or liberating “les mademoiselles de Paris.”  But there he was, looking as if he had finally lost the rest of his mind. 
Arnie turned to Heshy, by far our most insightful teammate, our best psychologist, and asked, “What’s he up to?  What the fuck is goin’ on?”  
The rest of us leaned in to hear what Heshy might say.  The crowd was on its feet, continuing to scream, “HBC!  HBC!”   Incited now by what they too saw to be our coach’s erratic behavior.
“I think he feels,” Heshy whispered huskily, “that he lived his whole life for this moment.  Including the war.  Especially the war.  To bring to us what he fought for.  To give us this opportunity.  And what he is seeing is not just that we are losing but how we’re deporting ourselves.  If we are the future he almost died for, what kind of future will that be?” 
Benny broke our silence, “To tell you the truth, Heshy, though this sounds like a lot of bullshit to me, I think we should try his two-one-two defense.  At least go out in a blaze of glory.  That is, Lloyd, as the man in the middle, if you feel you can handle it.” 
I didn’t respond but rather turned in my civilian version of an about-face and led the team back onto the floor, taking my position on defense.  Right in the middle, where Mr. Ludwig taught me to stand; one time, when we were alone in the PS 244 gym, saying, “Someone has to be there, so it might as well be you.” 
*   *   * 
And it worked.  With just three minutes to go in the game, though we had scored just two more points, which brought us to double-figures, 10; they had managed to score only four, on two lucky baskets from way beyond the keyhole.  Our zone defense been so effective, cutting down their driving guards and neutralizing their bulky forwards, that they needed to chuck their shots from that distance, missing at least ten of them before banging in two off the backboard. 
The scoreboard by then, more dark than lit, winked 30-10.  And with so little time remaining, we could feel some consolation for holding them to “only” a 20 point lead; and even Lenny could relax with just those 10 points of ours showing on the board. 
They poked one of Arnie’s cross-court passes out of bounds so we needed to toss the ball back into play.  But before the ref could hand it to Heshy to inbound it, from the scorer’s table, the horn blared signaling a substitution. 
We were all bent over, sucking air, when we heard a familiar voice, Little Lenny’s, lisping to Arnie, “Mr. Ludwig wants me to take over for you.”  
Arnie straightened up in surprise.  True, we were trailing by 20, but never in PS 244 or Boys Club history of the Rugby Rockets had Lenny ever been inserted into a game.  In truth, he served as sort of our mascot.  He knew that we felt he brought us luck and that in our adolescent ways we loved him, and he both accepted and liked playing that role and receiving that affection.  He understood that with his tiny and hopelessly uncoordinated body, he could barely catch a ball tossed to him much less move with or shoot it. 
But here he was on the floor with us.  It was a clearly a generous gesture for Mr. Ludwig to allow him in this way to be a part of what would for certain be the Rocket’s last game ever.  And his as our coach. 
For some time, the spectators had been celebrating their team’s impending victory, but with Lenny’s appearance they paused to see what might happen.  They too sensed that something unusual was going on.
The whistle blew and Heshy passed the ball in to Donny who dribbled it slowly up court.  He was not closely guarded—the game was effectively over.  There was no shot clock in that era and everyone expected Donny to stand at the top of the foul circle and dribble out the remaining minutes in a desultorily and unchallenged way.  Which he did. 
The clock ticked down to the remaining two minutes.  Donny dribbled and dribbled.  Standing in place.  Uncharacteristically, not moving.  The rest of us stood there, yards apart.  Alone with our thoughts.  I would not have been surprised if others besides me were reliving some of the things we had been through together.  I was by then attending a different high school from my teammates and expected that without the Rockets we would drift more and more apart.  This was to be the end of more than just our team. 
But as I was having these melancholy thoughts, with 90 seconds remaining, Donny snapped the ball over to Lenny who had been hovering close to him, seeking protection.   Then, for a final few moments, we became a team again; and as we had done hundreds of times in the past, as if on automatic, we shifted into our well-practiced weave at the top of the circl 
Lenny had managed to take hold of the ball though Donny’s pass had smacked into his chest.  And as we moved in a braid of motion behind him, as if to weave him into the fabric of our team, embraced in that way, he heaved the ball into the air, toward the basket, where it seemed to hover in the air in defiance of the laws of gravity, before slicing through the net soundlessly. 
The scoreboard with that regained full power and flashed enthusiastically— 
Visitors—12 . . .  Harlem Boys Club—30 
The Harlem Boys Club then took what would certainly turn out to be the final possession of the game, but their center’s casual pass was intercepted by Donny who darted in front of their guard to grab it.  So we had the ball again, now with only 72 seconds remaining. 
We set up once more in a large circle, with each of us in our accustomed position.  Lenny, though, hovered even closer to Donny who resumed his rhythmic dribble.  He was this time defended a little more closely.  The clock showed a minute to go.  Donny stood motionless, holding the ball high above his head with both hands.  He looked to his left toward Benny but then passed the ball quickly to Lenny.  This time he caught it cleanly.  He was loosely guarded.  He held the ball.  Not dribbling.  Clutching the ball to his chest.  The clock ticked down to 40 seconds.  
Heshy then called over to Lenny, and in a gentle voice said, “Shoot it Lenny.”  Which he promptly did, again in a ceiling-scraping arc.  Everyone watched it on its way up and then more intently as it began to descend.  This time it bounced high off the rim before dropping through the net for another two points.  No one moved.  The gym had become silent. 
Up in the rafters we saw-- 
Visitors—14 . . .  Harlem Boys Club—30
All members of both teams remained frozen in place, staring up at the scoreboard as if looking for some meaning there that might be revealed beyond the score.  And then before the Harlem team could toss the ball inbounds, Mr. Ludwig had us call one last time out.  
This time he was waiting for us as we strode to the bench.  What could possible be on his mind with only 29 seconds remaining and us still trailing by an impossible 16 points? 
We formed a circle around him as we had so many times over the years:  Donny Friedlander, our inspired floor general and leading scorer: holding hands with Benny Berlin, prior to that day deadly from beyond the keyhole; who held hands with me, the Rocket’s captain and, because of my unnatural height, top rebounder; and I in turn clutched the hand of Heshy Perlmutter, always moving without the ball, always thinking on his feet.  And during that final moment, Little Lenny was a part of that circle as well, grasping hands with Donny on his left and Heshy on his right. 
“Men,” Mr. Ludwig began, he looked first at Donny, “we’re going to lose.”  He saw how his acknowledging that shocked us, even with less than half a minute remaining in the game.  “I know, I have never said that to you before while there was still time left, but today is different.”  He swung around to Benny.  “I know you think that winning was all I ever cared about.”  He next held me in his gaze, and I thought I heard a slight break in his voice as he said to me, to us, “Like during the war.  My war.  Where there was to be no losing.   That was not acceptable.  You noticed how often I talked about that war and about how I tried to make connections between what happened there and what we were trying to achieve here.  Together.”  We all nodded.  He then looked directly at Heshy who locked eyes with him.  “You, Perlmutter, you always understood.  You knew what I was trying to teach these men.  How I was not much older than you when I was drafted.  I was just a boy.  Like you were.”  We noticed his use of the past tense—Heshy, who had been shaving for two years, in truth was already a man.  
And finally, he addressed Little Lenny who for the first time looked back at him.  “And how that war made me a man, brutally forced me to become one.  Robbing me of my youth.  For you, for you,” he took all of us in now as the whistle sounded, calling us back onto the floor, “I wanted it to be different.  Sure I wanted us to win.  I love winning, but all I ever really wanted was to see you begin to become men.  Learning that from playing together as a team.  And as much from losing, actually learning maybe more from losing than from winning.” 
He turned away from us as we broke our last huddle as the Rockets.  But even with his back to us, we heard him say, as much to himself as to us, “I am very proud of you men.”
The Harlem team had the ball out of bounds and we expected them to freeze it for the few remaining seconds.  But they quickly snapped the ball into play and broke toward their basket, clearly intent on doing more scoring.  There was so much cheering again that perhaps, to satisfy their fans who had placed bets on the game, they wanted to repad the point spread. 
But for one final time we too sprang into motion.  Quickly enough so that our zone took sufficient shape to impede their best shooter, who already had 12 points, as he cut to the basket.   His shot, a floating layup that rolled from his finger tips as he soared above the rim, hung on that rim and then fell off to where I had moved so that I was able to elevate myself enough to grab my sixth rebound of the day from out of the hands of their leaping center.  
There were still fourteen seconds on the clock.  Thirteen, twelve . . . . 
I immediately passed the ball down court to Donny who in a seamless motion got it on the other side of the court to Benny who released it to Heshy deep in the right-hand corner.  I trundled down court to join them.  
Through the microphone, the official scorer intoned, “Ten seconds remain in the game.  Ten seconds.” 
Little Lenny was moving right behind me, I could hear his sneakers slapping the floor as he cut to his left when he reached the top of the key.  He ran toward the corner opposite to where Heshy stood protecting the ball from his defender, who was frantically flailing his arms, attempting to steal it.  
As he approached his spot in the corner, Lenny raised his hand, calling for the ball.  And Heshy obliged, passing it dangerously back across court to him, something Mr. Ludwig drilled us never to do, where it settled into Lenny’s hands.  
Five seconds. 
Without hesitation this time, Little Lenny let it fly.  
Two seconds
While his other two shots were time-consuming, lofty parabolas, this final one was more efficiently flat and slammed off the backboard right above the basket, where it rolled around the rim before beginning to drop away, with only the final second showing.  
The clock inexorably ticked down to 0.0 as Heshy, forgotten by the other team which stood, as we did, transfixed, while Heshy for the first time in his life lifted his lanky body enough off the floor so that he, right at the rim’s edge, could tip the ball in. 
Two points. 
The buzzer sounded and scoreboard exploded with the final score— 
Visitors—16 . . . Harlem Boys Club 30
They had won, but we had passed the 15 points Lenny had been warned about.  Realizing that we collapsed around him, to cuddle and protect him. 
But he broke loose from us and ran to the middle of the floor where he danced with joy, alone in the center circle. 
We joined him there in celebration. 
Mr. Ludwig remained on the bench.  And the crowd resumed its chanting.  This time, however, it was— 
BBC!  BBC!  Brooklyn Boys Club!  Brooklyn Boys Club!  BCC!   BCC!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

November 29, 2012--Funny

When was the last time Barack Obama said anything really funny? Excluding the jokes scripted for him for White House Correspondents' dinners. Like at the one in 2011 when he made fun of Donald Trump's birth certifcate. Funny stuff, but not really that clever much less spontaneous.
I ask because times like these demand that our leaders display a genuine sense of humor. Not just to help us deal with our fears but also to rally the public and make it possible, when struggling with tough issues, to reach consensus and strike deals. It's easier to come to difficult agreements if things are not always portrayed as portentous and grim. Humor has the ability to cut through dire.
Case in point, the so-called Fiscal Cliff.
It's scary stuff even if you don't feel that it represents the coming of the apocalypse. On January 1st taxes will go up for all, especially for the hard-pressed middle class and working poor; all sorts of social safety net programs will automatically be cut; we may not be able to pay our sovereign debt; our credit rating which is already down a notch will decline further and this will lead to all sorts of nasty international ramifications; and . . .
I take it back--maybe this is the apocalypse. 
If so, then we desperately need to do a little laughing, and not just at the snarky jokes available every night from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but more the self-deprecating kind that is suffused with hard, often unpleasant truth that can best be raised with humor and, as a result, goes down much easier
There is one helpful example out there--Alan Simpson of the Simpson-Bowles or, if you prefer, the Bowles-Simpson Commission. It was created by Barack Obama in 2010 to identify "policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run."
And, amazingly, even as bipartisan as it was (it included the scold Paul Ryan), the Commission did come up with a tough series of recommendations that call for real tax increase and heavy-duty cuts in all federal programs, very much including for the Pentagon and Medicare. Ten members, five Democrats and five Republicans voted for it.
But then nothing happened. Facing a tough reelection campaign, Obama thanked them and promptly ignored the commission’s politically unpopular proposals, and the Republican leadership in Congress blanched at the recommended tax increases. So it went nowhere in a hurry.
But now, like Freddy Kruger, it's back because Obama decisively won a second term (he got 53 percent of the popular vote) and all sorts of tax increases and spending cuts will take place automatically at the start of the new year unless Congress and the president work out a comprehensive deal. So Bowles and Simpson have been resurrected and are making the rounds on Capital Hill and on the cable and Sunday talk shows.
Wyoming rancher that he is, the star of the two-man show is former Republican senator Alan Simpson. In addition to being at least as good as Bill Clinton at explaining things, he is also very funny, and this helps him get his difficult messages across; and, if we are lucky, may help save our economic day. He delivers hard truth in humorous, folksy ways and that makes the truth more palatable.
Here are some examples of Simpson unplugged, about the budget as well about other matters--
"If you want to be a purist, go somewhere on a mountaintop and praise the east or something. But if you want to be in politics, learn to compromise. And you learn to compromise on the issue without compromising yourself. Show me a guy who won’t compromise and I’ll show you a guy with rock for brains."
"I watch Republicans. They give each other the saliva test of purity, and then they lose and bitch for four years."
"But the thing that is really impossible to believe is that whatever adjustment we make and whatever has been suggested for the last 10 years in Social Security reform, from top to bottom, none of that affects anybody over 57. Where do I get my mail? From those old cats, 70 and 80 year-olds, who are not affected one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to Denny's to get the AARP dissent. This is madness."

"Grandchildren now don't write thank you for the Christmas presents. They are walking on their pants with their caps on backwards, listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy, Snoopy Poop Dog."
Ronald Reagan was funny--just look at videos of him fooling around with his political "enemy," Tip O'Neill as they figured out how to do business together. Then there was patrician Franklin Roosevelt, whose humor helped Americans get through the Depression. And, in spite of how he is portrayed in the current Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln was a great raconteur, which enabled him to get things done with his frequently contentious team of rivals. 
In fact I try not to miss Stephen Colbert; but maybe if our leaders would sit down over a Scotch and while negotiating make each other laugh while poking fun at each other and, more important, themselves, we'd get somewhere.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November 28, 2012--Under the Bus

No one knows for certain where the expression to "throw someone under the bus" originated. But it has come into wider and wider use and is casually and especially applied to political situations.

Even here in Behind, I have recently used it a number of times. In Monday's posting, for example, I quoted Mitt Romney's claim that Obama "threw Israel under the bus" by, in his ill-informed view, not supporting them sufficiently. And yesterday, when writing about Susan Rice, if I had been inclined, I could have quoted Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, who said about Rice that he had initially "assumed she had full knowledge of everything that went on [in Benghazi], I'm not at all convinced of that now. She very well could have been thrown under the bus."

Others spoke about how Obama threw Rice under the bus to avoid having to throw Hillary Clinton under the bus since she, as Secretary of State, was and is responsible for keeping embassy officials and workers safe.

Some claim that the expression originated with Cyndi Lauper back in 1983 when her album, "She's So Unusual" was not received all that well by critics. In response, to quote William Safire, she "jauntily tossed her critics 'under the bus.'"

But Safire suspects that the idiom actually comes from minor league baseball lore--how, when teams moved from stadium to stadium in buses, if a player didn't get to the departure site on time, he might as a result have to ride in the storage bay under the bus.

I like idioms and catch phrases as much as anyone, but this one has been transformed into something that seems particularly violent.

Whatever Susan Rice did or didn't do, the literal image of throwing her under a bus seems excessive. In fact, I recommend that the use itself of "throwing throwing someone under the bus" for any reason, much less "only" perhaps for misleading a congressional committee deserves itself to be retired or, if you insist, thrown under the bus.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

November 27, 2012--Not In Distress

Briefly, as I am feeling a little achey this morning, UN Ambassador Susan Rice is doing exactly the right thing today meeting with John McCain and his sidekick Lindsey Graham to talk about Benghazi.

I must admit that when two of the three amigos raised questions about her intelligence and fitness to serve as Hillary Clinton's possible successor as Secretary of State, I dismissed this as the frustrated ranting of angry white men and felt that she should not respond to them and leave it to Barack Obama to take the two senators on. Or, better, to simply ignore them.

But, three things--

First, so as not to appear to be a damsel-in-distress who needs a man to protect her, Ambassador Rice, by confronting (of meeting with) the senators will be demonstrating that she can take care of herself, thank you very much.

Second, as Rona noted, as the nation's top diplomat she has to meet and find ways to work with all sorts of high- and low-lifes. So why not McCain and Graham? Good point.

And, finally, it's smart politics--to get anything done with divided government, Obama and his administration, like it or not, have to find ways to work in bipartisan ways. Including to get his cabinet nominees approved by the Senate.

Personally, I'd prefer to see Senator John Kerry become the next Secretary of State, but I realize the loyalty Obama may feel he owes Susan Rice (a former Clinton official who at great political risk was with him from before the beginning) and know they fear that if Kerry is selected former Republican senator Scott Brown might easily get himself elected to replace Kerry and that this would tip the the numbers in the Senate toward the GOP.

On balance, Rice's personal diplomacy later today and Obama's ability to act dispassionately, though at times it feels like passivity, are signs that he intends to attempt to make his second term consequential.

Monday, November 26, 2012

November 26, 2012--Iron Dome

One of the things Barack Obama was accused of during the recent campaign was that he wasn't a faithful friend of Israel. To quote Mitt Romney, he threw our only true ally in the Middle East "under the bus."

In a speech delivered days before he departed for his ill-fated, pre-election trip to Europe and Israel, Romney said, "The people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world."

Things were allegedly so bad between Obama and Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly supported Romney. This attack was potent enough that Obama received "only" 70 percent of the Jewish vote, whereas Democrats running for president traditionally secure about 10 percentage points more.

But that was then and this is now. Before Obama and Hillary Clinton last week got Egypt to broker a ceasefire between Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

In an interview with Wolf Blitzer aired on CNN on Saturday, Israeli president Shimon Peres, when the 90-year-old, who still has all his marbles, was asked about Obama's support for Israel--was it as equivaical as claimed--with a smile slowly lighting his face, Peres, who intimately knows every American president since at least Ronald Reagan, said, "When I look at the record of President Obama concerning the major issue, security, I think it's a highly satisfactory record from and Israeli point of view."

Forget the hot rhetoric about Obama not supporting Israel. Look, instead, at the actual record. Specifically at one of many examples of how Obama has been quite a good friend of Israel, again, especially when it comes to security--the so-called Iron Dome missile defense system.

It is a very high-tech approach to defense with a very industrial-sounding name. Developed mainly by Israel with the active support of the United States, it was designed to protect Israel's population centers from Hamas rockets--those homemade in the Gaza Strip and, more threatening, technically advanced Iranian rockets smuggled into Gaza.

Anticipating such an attack, during the first four years of the Obama presidency, the U.S. shared anti-missle technology with israel and, with Barack Obama's personal advocacy and sign-off, paid the hundreds of millions of dollars required for its deployment.

The system was put to a severe test the past two weeks when the Palestinians bombarded Israel with thousands of missiles, some for the first time reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Because of American funding, Iron Dome was deployed extensively since Hamas had at least 1,000 Iranian-made rocket in its arsenal and fired nearly all of them into Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reports that the Iron Dome system had a success rate of about 90 percent, shooting down nearly all the Iranian-supplied rockets; and Israeli political leaders, including Netanyahu, are no longer reluctant to say publicly that if it weren't for the U.S.'s very real support this would not have been possible.

Of course we are unlikely to hear anything similar about this from either Mitt Romney (who was last seen pumping gas in La Jolla) or John McCain, who is still fulminating about Susan Rice.