My parents split up when I was 15. I spent the next year with my mother in California in a much larger town than I was used to. With no one that I knew, the large high school made me seem insignificant very quickly. In the small high school that I left in Colorado I was popular and played all the sports. But for the Bears in California, I was the 5th string quarterback.That allowed me to be the backup to the quarterback that got killed at every practice facing the 1st team defense. There were several times that I was looking out the earhole of my helmet after getting blasted by the starting team studs. I did earn a little respect in that I was ready every practice to be protected by the the worst blockers on the team, maybe the universe.
When basketball practice began, my best sport by the way, I faced the possibility of getting cut. An air force base was nearby, providing the majority of the team to be athletic black players. Because I came from a small high school, I had been given more attention than some of the players trying out. Many were playground players, out of control and hard to control. The coach was well-organized, keeping tally of all the things he expected. With quick hands and good fundamentals, I was the 15th player on a team of 15. There were two white players, the coach’s son and me. He was the best player, the best student, and the quietest person on the team. In modern times I might have been called the token white player.
Ivory, a tall black player who didn’t play football, toyed with my name.
“We have a whiteman playing for us,” he said , his eyes big with delight. “Us po’ colored boys have a chance now for sure.”
The only thing I could do well at this level is pass. The other guards wanted to do their thing before they passed the ball. There was no 3-point line as of yet, so the coaches wanted the ball inside to the big post players. With good timing and quick, accurate passes, I got to play in a lot of the scrimmage games. Of course, I had to put up with purposely hard screens, being bypassed by teammates when open, and sometimes even tripping.
One day, I came to practice with a pair of white ‘Chuck Taylor’ converse basketball shoes. At this time, they were the ultimate. Most of the rest of the team came over to watch me lace-up.
“Are these going to make you jump higher?”, questioned Ivory. Everyone laughed.
“Oh, I’m sure that they will,” I said with mock serious. I then ran up and down the court, a few steps each way. “look how fast I can run now.” expressing a silly giddiness. Several slapped my back as they passed by to prepare for drills. That was the first time that I knew I was the mascot.
I got to play in five games, always at the end of the game and always with less than one minute to play, once with 18 seconds to play. The team always ‘woohooed’ when I entered the game. I made two free throws during one game, that was my only shooting and my only scoring for the year.
Our campus was a series of yellow stuccoed buildings , California-style. There were covered passageways between the building, some quite narrow. One day between classes. I was halfway through a passageway before I discovered I was right in the middle of a vicious black gang fight, both exits were clogged , everyone crowded in to watch. I hugged my books in front of me and flattened against the wall. One fighter was knocked into me, causing both of us to fall. He was immediately kicked in the face. Blood splattered all over the place.
The kicker and another of his gang were running out of targets, they both looked down at me. Suddenly , somebody pulled me up by the back of my collar, a letter jacket stepped forward slightly in front of me. The fighters hesitated looking at the pair of letter jackets surrounding me.
“Whoa,” said Ivory sternly staring at the pair. “He’s one of us.”