Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

A Gentile at Shalom

 

“You must be the new Gentile kid,” Jeremy Levin asked at my first practice. Rather than shake hands, he threw the ball at me, hard, from about three feet away. Somehow I caught it and drove around him for a layup.

That was almost four decades ago. I wasn’t a Gentile then, nor am I today. My mother was Jewish, and I was considered Jewish in most circles. But all things are relative. At Shalom Academy, I was a Gentile. I will refer to myself as a Gentile from here on, even though it’s not true. Everything else I’m about to write is true. Everything.

Shalom Academy was not used to winning basketball teams. When I transferred in, in my junior year, some people gave us a chance. Not because I was so good. I was your basic average high school player. It was because I could bring the ball up court for Lucky Bowden. You might have heard that name before. Or maybe not. Lucky went on to help Shipley State make the Class AA finals one year. He was an athlete, all 6’5” of him. He would have been a standout on any high school team. At Shalom, he was a superstar. He was the other Gentile.

Being one of two Gentile athletes had certain advantages, especially on weekends. The girls thought I’d be different from the boys they’d known. I wasn’t. The difference was entirely in their eyes. They probably don’t even remember me today. I didn’t grow up to be a famous neurosurgeon or politician like some other graduates of Shalom. Mediocrity has been a stretch for me.

Lucky went to Shalom because his mother was a gym teacher there. I got there because my father was tossing about from one job to another and getting tossed out of one job after another. I spent several years moving and changing schools—until some family friends, who had connections with Shalom, had an idea.

“What makes you want to attend Shalom Academy?” Mr. Silvers, the headmaster, asked in the interview.

I murmured something I thought he wanted to hear about the school’s reputation as an academic powerhouse. He put his interview script aside and cut to the chase.

“If you got into Shalom, would you play on the basketball team?”

Word spread fast, even before our first game, out of practice, that a second Gentile kid was on the team, and he could play.

Lucky and I started to click together in practice. And I found out that Jeremy was alert on the court. I could throw the ball to him and he’d catch it. Not if I stood next to him and slammed it like he’d done to me, but he could catch most passes, take a couple of dribbles, and throw to an open man. He knew his limitations and his basketball strengths, which were not many. He played within himself, you might say in today’s language, although we never talked like that back then.

Lucky, Jeremy, and I became friends. In other words, we spent many hours talking about girls, going out on triple dates, venturing into Gentile neighborhoods to try to pick up Gentile girls, who were supposed to be easy. Once we got fake IDs and went to a strip club on Baltimore’s notorious Block. In those days, seven year olds could drink on the ID of a seventy year old.

“They’re old,” Lucky said of the women parading in front of us.

“If you have enough money on you, you might get to lie between the legs of one of those old women,” Jeremy responded sagely. He knew neither Lucky nor I had enough money. He probably didn’t either. His father ran a pharmacy and would become wildly successful, but not back then.

My first game in a brown and white uniform was against McGill Academy, the elite prep school that had beaten Shalom twice a year, every year since the founding of the Baltimore Area Private Academy League (BAPAL).

When Coach Finer announced the starting line up, I wasn’t in it. That didn’t surprise me. I’d transferred in at a time when Joey Rosen had already been working at the point guard position. Joey later died in Vietnam, which I avoided. Everyone loved Joey, even back then. But he couldn’t play basketball. From the bench, I watched Joey get tied up four times and kick two dribbles.

“You,” Coach Finer finally yelled at me, as if I was the one kicking dribbles. “Get in there and play ball.”

A whisper of excitement ran through the home crowd when I reported to the scorer’s table. Something beyond everyone’s experience was about to happen: Not only was Shalom going to have two Gentiles on the court at the same time, but they could both play.

McGill had been headed for a runaway, but we began chipping away, as I fed Lucky at the pivot or found him on a give and go. The first half was just about over, with the score 20-16, when he got hung up on the baseline and passed to me just beyond the arc, a little beyond my comfort zone.  I put it up anyway, and it went in. Then Lucky stole the inbound pass and hit me in the same spot and I swished it again, just before the buzzer. A stunned McGill team left the court at halftime with the score tied.

I won’t dwell on the rest of the game. Coach Finer started Joey in the second half and the game got lopsided again. But Lucky battled heroically and Jeremy made one basket and never lost the ball once. When I went into the game, deep in the third quarter, McGill had a commanding lead, but I kept working the ball in to Lucky, who scored often despite having three men guarding him. We crept back, and the game was seesaw, nip and tuck all fourth quarter.

With less than a minute to go, we trailed by two when Lucky got surrounded in the backcourt. He heaved the ball toward me as I broke around Jeremy’s screen. As I pushed the ball up, I realized I was just beyond the arc in the exact same spot where I’d hit my shots at the end of the half. This shot went down, exactly like the other ones.

With seconds left and the score tied, McGill called time to set up their winning shot, but it didn’t work the way they planned. Jeremy stole the ball and passed it to me, just beyond the arc. It was a remarkable pass, but it wasn’t what people remembered after the game.

As I put the ball up, I had the feeling I was watching someone else take a shot. It was the Gentile kid, who’d already put in three baskets from that same spot. Surely, his luck couldn’t hold up. It was a high soft shot that seemed to take seconds to descend, but when it did, the unbelievable had happened.

The brown and white fans never practiced it, never even dreamed of needing to know how to do it, but without hesitation they lifted me up and carried me off the court on their shoulders. The triumphant Gentile. I still remember the view from up there, looking over the gym, seeing the fans staring up at me, and watching the McGill team troop off the floor, in shock after losing to Shalom.

I have nothing bad to say about the McGill players, but some of their fans deserve comment, even years later, like the well-dressed man who hissed at me: “You like playing with a bunch of kikes?” Lucky told me he’d gotten the same treatment.

For that one night, and for a little afterward, I was adored. I don’t know if anyone remembers that moment today, besides Lucky and Jeremy.

At the party afterward, Phyllis Katz, a senior, pulled me aside. She held my shirt in her little fist and whispered, “Let’s go to my place and listen to music.”

“Music?” Sure, I was longing for some “music.” That longing had been building up in my blood for a few years now.

Her “place” was a huge stone mansion. As we drove up the driveway I could see it was totally dark inside, no sign of her parents. We danced for a while, kissed a few times, and sat down on a huge couch. Then she put my hand somewhere it had never been before. The hand was very excited by this new experience, as were other parts of me. She moaned in a way I’d never heard.

The next day, I met Jeremy at his father’s drug store. We often sat there on Saturday afternoons sipping ice cream sodas, on the house.

“How did you like Phyllis Katz?” The way Jeremy asked this question, I could tell there was something special about Phyllis’s reputation.

“She’ll make a man out of you,” he added. He had a way of talking that was wise beyond his years. At that time I wasn’t sure if he really was that wise. It didn’t matter. He was my friend.

*    *    *

That first game had been a tough act to follow, but I hung in there. I did a good job feeding Lucky, and Jeremy began to develop a reliable wide-open ten footer, so we finished the season above 500. It was a good season, and nobody could fault me for my play, not really, although I knew the brown and white fans were wondering why I hadn’t been spectacular again, like in that first game against McGill, at least once more in the season.      

That summer I got a job working as a groundskeeper and janitor around apartment buildings. I mowed lawns, carried garbage cans in and out, and lugged a mop bucket up and down stairs. In the sweltering Baltimore heat, I was getting in the best shape of my young life

 That fall I tried soccer, but feet trying to be hands wasn’t my forte. Being outside on a soccer field on a beautiful fall day was a wonderful thing, but I was glad to get back into a sweaty gym. When basketball practice began, I could see the difference in my play. This year I was faster and stronger. I took a running start and floated through the air, touching the rim with ease, almost dunking.

Even Coach Finer had something to say about it. He crossed his arms and peered down his nose at me. “You’ve picked up speed,” he grumbled, like I’d done something wrong.

“You think you’ll be a star this year?” Jeremy asked. I couldn’t tell what he thought from the question, but I had every intention of being a star.

I started off playing pretty well, and Lucky was great as usual. He’d picked up even more upper body strength, was more unstoppable with defenders on him. We beat Boys Latin with ease. We thought the only team in BAPAL that would give us a problem was McGill. Apparently their headmaster had thought long and hard about their upset at the hands of the two Gentiles. He had recruited a Black kid.

“I bet that kid can play,” Jeremy said, as the McGill team broke onto the court for practice. Coach Finer told me that I would guard him, only he didn’t say “him.” He used another word. It didn’t surprise me. Baltimore was a segregated city—even more so than today. What was shocking was not the word our coach used but the fact that the most snobbish school in BAPAL had recruited a Black athlete. The stands at McGill were emptier than usual. The well-dressed fan who hissed at Lucky and me wasn’t there.

As we lined up for the tip-off, Jeremy walked past me. “Shake hands,” he whispered. I held out a hand that had never shaken hands with a Black person. The Baltimore Sun ran a photo of that handshake. I saved the article. I looked at it the other day but all I could see was a yellow newspaper and a Black kid and a white kid shaking hands. All I can remember about it is that Jeremy suggested it, and it felt just like any the other pregame handshake.

“I’m George,” he said.

I did a good job guarding George and had my hand in his face the whole game, holding him to just 15 points. We won, and the team knew that it was as much because of my defense as it was because of Lucky’s 21 points. Defense was the main area in which my game had improved. I was a tiger on the court. But defense is more easily taken for granted than offense. I was still an above average guy in popularity but some of the excitement over the new Gentile had worn off.

Phyllis Katz had graduated. Now she was “listening to music” with college guys. I went out with Barbara Greenspan on Saturday nights. She liked having me for a friend—I had a deep crush on her. Growing up, my parents told me to look forward to being in love. Experiencing it was terrible. There should be a warning on it, so kids would know what they’re getting into: “This product can have harmful results and must be used with great caution.”

“Why aren’t you with Barbara?” Jeremy asked me one Saturday night. We were eating crab cakes at my house. He’d often come over for dinner because we had food like ham or shellfish that he couldn’t have in his house. Back then, crab cakes didn’t cost as much as a Cadillac.

“She said I’m getting too dependent on her,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, so my parents wouldn’t hear. Their sympathy would have been a painful pill.

Jeremy looked down at the last bite of crab cake on his plate. “She might be right,” he finally added, out of the corner of his mouth. Then he shook his head and finished off his crab cake.

I knew what Jeremy was thinking. My game was still good, especially my defense, but my scoring average was beginning to sag. We’d lost the second game to McGill and barely beat a poor Boys Latin team. When Phyllis and I had been going out, Jeremy worried that the all-night make-out sessions would interfere with my game. Now that things were on the rocks with Barbara, he worried that I wasn’t making out. Friends are hard to please.

But he was right. Athletes have to be tough. By the time Jeremy had finished chewing his crab cake, I had decided to stop dating Barbara. Of course, she had already made that decision for me, but in my mind, I was the one who was ending it.

Lying is the best way to deal with a damaged ego, and the best person to lie to is yourself. I’ve always been a good audience for lies of my own making. In self-help books on morale and confidence building, I’m surprised they don’t spell it out: “Point Number One: Tell Lies to Yourself. Point Number Two: Believe Them.”

We had to win the last two games to represent BAPAL in the Maryland Private School Playoffs. One of the games would be easy—Talmud Academy. They wore yarmulkes when they played. Since then, I’ve learned that some fine ballplayers wear yarmulkes on the court, but back then it was a joke. Three times I scored on fast breaks because the guy defending me ran back to pick up his yarmulke.

The lopsided victory against Talmud put wind in our sails. That game plus convincing myself that I’d broken up with Barbara and not the other way around had reenergized me on the court. I was living proof that self-deception can be a beautiful thing—leaping up to block shots against taller guys, stealing dribbles, passing to Lucky, and beginning to score a little more in my own right.

Our last game was against a much-improved Maryland Friends School team. The previous year, they’d been a bunch of gawky, grinning kids who actually said “sorry” when they fouled us.

“Sorry!” Coach Finder said scornfully. “If I ever catch any of you guys saying ‘sorry’ I’ll put a Converse All-Star up your sorry ass.”

Friends School had also done some recruiting. They’d reached into the Baltimore Catholic schools for three scrappy guys who didn’t say “sorry.” You had to be careful when you ventured into the lane. When the referee’s eyes were following the ball, limbs were getting hacked and eyes gouged by the Friends. Poor Lucky had not only met his match—it looked like he might meet his maker.

“Come on, stop playing like a girl,” Coach Finer growled at Lucky, when we were down by eight at halftime. “They might be Friends, but they’re not your friends!”

“It’s up to you and me,” Jeremy whispered.

On the first play of the second half, Jeremy faked a pass toward the lane. While Lucky was getting eaten alive by the three Friends School piranhas, Jeremy passed the ball to me, in my favorite spot. I knocked it down. And the next one too. The next time I brought the ball up court, one of them was on me, nibbling my heels, trying to hack at my wrist. I knew if I passed it to Lucky, the Friends would be on him in a feeding frenzy. And then I spotted Jeremy, wide open near the baseline, quite a bit beyond his comfort zone. He nailed that one and another the next time down the court. Now they had to loosen up on Lucky in order to cover Jeremy and me, so Lucky started to score.

At the end of the game, Shalom had won its first BAPAL championship. We didn’t get carried off the court but we were thronged—Lucky, Jeremy, and me. Coach Finer looked a little less dejected than usual. Headmaster Silvers had a cagey grin. Barbara Greenspan hugged me and hung around expectantly.

In two weeks we’d be heading to the Maryland State AAA Invitational Tournament (MSAAAIT). Those were heady days at Shalom. Academics were swept aside. Even our math teacher, Dr. Heizer, interrupted class to let everyone talk about basketball. Doc was German and knew nothing about the game. Because he was a tough disciplinarian with an accent, kids called him “The Nazi” behind his back. It was an insult I hope Doc never found out about. He had fled Germany just in time, but several members of his family were not so lucky.

 

Funny that in my almost two years at Shalom, I don’t ever remember hearing the word Holocaust. Only once did the Nazi extermination camps become a topic of any kind. It was on the Friday between the BAPAL championship and MSAAAIT. Jeremy, Lucky, and I cruised down Reisterstown Road looking for girls. It was definitely a cruising strip and featured Ameche’s, the first fast food restaurant in Baltimore, possibly the nation. With a burger that had real grease and a sesame seed roll, it couldn’t be beat—and it was owned by Alan Ameche, my favorite football player for the Baltimore Colts.

For some reason we didn’t like the cruising prospects, so we started back.

“How about a kosher frank?” Jeremy asked as we were crossing Park Heights. He was driving. Lucky and I quickly agreed.

The deli was near Northern Parkway. It was one of about five kosher delis clustered at that intersection. The food there was just as greasy as the fast food on Reisterstown Rd., but it was kosher, for all that that mattered to us. Kosher franks were the only deli item in our price range.

I didn’t recognize the man behind the counter but he seemed to recognize us: “Oh no, cheap Gentile kids. No tips here.”

Our order of three franks confirmed it for him. He looked put out, so we kept laughing and carrying on as he brought our hot dogs over. I still remember the way he balanced the three plates close to his body. He put them all on the counter and pushed one toward Lucky, then one to Jeremy. When he pushed the last plate toward me, his arm extended from the sleeve of his shirt. There it was, an insignificant looking blue tattoo.  In the back of my mind, it registered, but I might have left the deli without thinking about it.

 “Put another dime on the table,” Jeremy ordered as we stood up to go. That’s when it hit me. We normally didn’t leave tips, but Lucky and I quickly dug out all our change. I saw Lucky’s eyes go round—and Lucky was a deadpan guy.

*    *    *

The two weeks fled by, and MSAAIT was upon us. We boarded the bus in Baltimore for the long ride to Western Maryland, Garrett County to be exact, and the opening round of MSAAIT.

“These hillbillies can play,” Coach Finer said, keeping his balance in the aisle as the bus headed over the mountains. To kids from Baltimore, Garrett County was as foreign as Tierra del Fuego. They listened to funny music, spoke like hicks, hunted in the hills, and skinned what they shot. It was a long way from home.

As the bus plunged further into the darkness of Western Maryland, Coach Finer continued with his en-route talk. The Garrett High team could move the ball. “Every one of their guys can play,” he said, singling out Jeremy with a cold stare. “They’re tough as nails compared to you babies. And when you see their center, whatever you do, don’t stare.”

His little talk helped to unnerve us. We put on our uniforms and tied our shoes in the unfamiliarity of the visitors’ locker room. I’ll be ok, I thought—as soon as I get up on the court and start shooting around. The center would be somebody else’s problem. I played the point and didn’t guard centers.

“Did you see their center?” Jeremy asked me, as we were standing in line waiting for our lay ups. I turned my head so I could see the other team practicing out of the corner of my eye. A tall guy was swooping in for a one-handed layup. When he turned under the basket and ran back toward our side of the court, I could see he had a bony face with wild protruding eyes. He moved powerfully although he was skeleton thin. And he only had one arm.

In the pre-game huddle, Finer turned toward me. “You’ve got the center.”

They got the first possession, and I set up on his right, trying to prevent a drive to what was obviously his strong side. He took the ball at the foul line and started to move in that direction, holding his stump out, dribbling the ball behind him. I moved over to block his drive and felt a blow to my solar plexus so hard I almost fell over. The center was around me and laying the ball up with his one hand after hitting me with his stump.

I could see that guarding a one-armed center was a losing proposition. And the guy could play. He was tough under the boards, tipping rebounds to open teammates who ran like the wind. He could shoot and had amazing control of his one-handed dribbling. He could do everything on the court but throw a two-handed chest pass.

I wasn’t the only one wearing a brown and white uniform who had been thrown off their game. We blew several chances and the score was eight nothing before we steadied ourselves and started to play. Like most teams, they didn’t have a defense to stop Lucky. But we were still falling behind because I couldn’t guard their center’s relentless drives off his strong side—and the way he used his stump, which the refs didn’t or wouldn’t see. He’d scored on five of these drives, when Coach Finer pulled me aside.

“Play smart for a change. Don’t go for the ball, go for the elbow.”

The next time they came down court, I braced myself for his drive. He spun the ball in his powerful right hand and started to go up with it. Only this time I watched the way he cocked his elbow as he started his shot. I raised my right hand to draw the ref’s attention, while I gave his elbow a quick hack with my left. He glared at me, as Lucky pulled down the air ball.

My move worked again, and I was beginning to congratulate myself on my defensive prowess. I was depriving him of his bread and butter move. I was using a pretty rough defensive tactic, but basketball was a rough game. I wasn’t playing dirty, or the ref would have called it a foul, I reasoned.

At halftime, Coach Finer congratulated me. It was the only time he’d had something good to say about any of us. “I guess you showed that one-armed hick. Hack him some more.”

As we went out on the court after the half-time break, Jeremy grabbed my shirt. “You don’t have to do what he says,” he whispered.

I hacked the one-armed guy again, picked up the loose ball, and found Lucky breaking for an easy lay-up. Next time down the court, I looked into his eyes. They had the same wild look, only I saw something else. When he started to go up for his shot, his elbow was huge. It was frozen there in my mind when I remembered Jeremy’s words t, the four words: “You don’t have to.”

The center spun the ball up. It was a beautiful thing to see, the way he’d perfected that move, even down to the sharp thump of his stump. The rest of the game was a blur, but each time I went to hack him, I recalled Jeremy’s words.

The brown and white team fought hard, but Garrett High beat us thanks to their high-scoring center.

“You were tough as nails,” the center told me when the buzzer sounded. “Why’d you quit hacking me?”

“I got tired.”

Shaking the hand of a one-armed hick was about the same as shaking a Black guy’s hand. About the same as shaking anyone’s hand, except he squeezed a little harder.

“You played a good game,” Jeremy confided. “One of the best I’ve seen you play.”

Coach Finer turned away in disgust as we trotted off the court. A scattering of brown and white fans—those who’d made the long drive to Garrett County—stared at us. They thought I let them down, but I was happy, bumping shoulders with my two friends.

It had been a big two years. I’d entered Shalom as a boy and came out almost a man, a mediocre man. And the future was racing into my face and past me, faster than a one-armed center. I’d never again have the renown I achieved in that first game when we upset McGill, thanks to four shots from beyond my comfort zone, and the brown and white fans carried me off the court. But no matter how much I failed in later life, and continue to fail to the time of this writing, I’ll always have the memory of how things looked from up there, to the Gentile star, riding high on the shoulders of his adoring fans.

 

 

 

David Salner has worked as iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, janitor, longshoreman, teacher, and librarian. His writing appears in recent or forthcoming issues of Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, Salmagundi, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and many other magazines. He is the author of Blue Morning Light (2016, Pond Road Press), which features poems on the paintings of American artist George Bellows.  He has won numerous awards and seven Pushcart Prize nominations.

 

www.DSalner.wix.com/salner