Jack Lawyer is a gifted athlete. Alan Dionne is not. They are friends because of shoes: Alan thinks they are the best he has ever worn, and Jack because the manufacturers pay him to play. To Alan, athletic competition is a noble endeavor; he believes in the Olympic Creed, and that the most important thing is the trying. To Jack, playing ball is a ticket out of his decaying mill town home, and the path to the riches of a professional career. They meet at a time when manufacturers of sporting equipment are beginning to funnel huge sums of money into amateur and collegiate sports, and this story chronicles both boy’s (and later men’s) trials through college and beyond.
Is sport a noble endeavor in itself? Or, is it high-dollar entertainment? Can it realistically be both?
The following is the first chapter. But first…
Copyright © 2015 by Ronald De Torre
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“We are inclined that if we watch a football game or a baseball game,
we have taken part in it.”
– John F. Kennedy
In the winter of 1974 there was a basketball game played between the University of New Glasgow Mammoths and the Garron State University Scarlet Riders. Alan Dionne was there to see it, and on his feet he wore shoes given to him by one of the players: Jack Lawyer. Jack Lawyer did not buy those shoes; they were given to him – given to him by a man on the payroll of the shoe company that made them. But, those shoes were not free. They were partial compensation for playing the game of basketball, for playing whenever and wherever the giver told him.
The game was played at the Garron State campus, in the Jock Leibowitz Memorial Field House, a basketball court curiously named after the school’s first legendary football coach. Perhaps not so odd, when one considers that in its relatively short history, Garron State had never produced a successful, much less famous, basketball coach.
It was the second of two games between the teams that year. The rival schools played home-and-home series, though neither school had a conference affiliation at the time, but their rivalry had been hot for several generations. The first game was won by New Glasgow by twenty points. As was the usual case, New Glasgow had a very good team. In fact, as they tipped-off for that final game of the regular season, the Mammoths had lost only one game – to the eventual NCAA Tournament champions, the North Carolina State Wolfpack of David Thompson, Monty Towe, Tim Stoddard, Phil Spence, and seven-foot, four-inch Tom Burleson. That team would end UCLA’s unparalleled streak of national championships. The Riders were struggling to finish with a .500 season, and had to scratch and claw to beat even size-limited, but disciplined teams like Army and Navy.
The schools’ fierce rivalry was rooted in their football teams. The competition between the two in football was as vicious and contentious as that between Pitt and Penn State, Alabama and Auburn, UCLA and USC, and Nebraska and Oklahoma. Separated by only several hundred miles, they both recruited heavily in the steel-making valley of New Glasgow, and the coal mining and farming country around State.
The basketball competition was just as intense, but rather one-sided in the favor of the Mammoths. In those years, with the exception of schools like UCLA, most basketball players stayed near their homes. The best teams tended to be near large metropolitan areas: Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, New York, Louisville, the tri-cities of North Carolina, and, of course, New Glasgow. For whatever reason, this never seemed to be the problem with football teams. More kids from New Glasgow ended up at Garron State than with the Mammoths. It might have had something to do with academic standards. Popular opinion was State would take anyone, but New Glasgow’s standards fluctuated depending upon how much time the alumni and population of the city could stand without a championship. In 1974, competition was on the upswing, academics taking a back seat.
The Mammoths were not named after the furry mammals with tusks, but in honor of the industrial mammoths that had the foresight to locate their steel mills in a wide part of the Carbonite River, just a figurative stone’s throw from fecund anthracite and bituminous coal beds. The Scarlet Riders took their identity from an outlaw band that terrorized the countryside during the Civil War.
Jack “The Law,” Lawyer was not a finesse basketball player. As the power forward, and standing over six-foot-seven-inches, he was an amazing physical specimen, and the Scarlet Rider’s enforcer – the muscle under the boards. His strength was his strength. If he’d played hockey, he’d have been called a goon. He was, as one particular basketball analyst would say, a Wide Body – and Wide Bodies usually swung hard elbows. He had broad shoulders, and clogged up the middle of the court like a bulldozer clogged up a highway. Whenever he would block a shot and slap it back into the face of his opponent, or snag a rebound while swinging those elbows wide, Rider fans would gleefully shout, “That’s The Law!” or, “Jack Splat!” regardless of the score. It was about all they had to cheer about. He had no jump shot to speak of, and couldn’t dribble the ball without dribbling it off his foot, or losing it to some cat-like point guard somewhere between the ground and his paw-like hand.
The Riders were coached by Adam Lucas, an aging echo of the past. His main claim to fame – or infamy – was as an assistant coach for the first Olympic team to lose to the Russians. His game pace was a plodding, deliberate style that tended to keep the score down.
Lucas’s starting five consisted of Andy Zilco, Ricky Black, Terry Angstrom, Angus Clipsheet, and Jack. Andy, the shooting guard, had set several state high school scoring records, but in college, he was small (5’8”) and as likely to miss twenty shots in a row as to make them, but when he was hot, the Riders had a chance to win. Ricky Black was the point guard who had set a Garron State record for assists as a sophomore (freshmen were not permitted to play varsity basketball in those days), but before his junior year had apparently gone on an eating spree that gained him fifty pounds and a large belly that cut seriously into his speed. Still, he was the best passer and play-maker the team had. Where Andy’s passes could be counted on to end up in the stands or in the hands of the opponent half the time, Ricky’s always got to his intended target, whether they were looking for the ball or not. Terry Angstrom was a 6’9” string bean of a center who couldn’t shoot a jump shot if his life depended on it – his best shot was a lay-up, considering dunking the ball was illegal in college at the time (the Lew Alcindor rule). Angus, the small forward, had a decent mid-range jump shot, could handle the ball well, and that was about it.
New Glasgow, that year, had an all-American forward named Donny Templar. Donny eventually went on to play in the ABA for the Pittsburgh Condors, and the Virginia Squires, then in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets and had a pretty good career, including a couple of trips to the NBA All-Star game.
That first game of 1974 took place in New Glasgow and was a rough affair won by the home team. Ricky Black ended up with a bloody nose, and Jack fouled out early.
The last game of the regular season was at State, and Alan Dionne, a student at Garron State, was in “Lee” Hall (or the Big Jock) watching it and cheering for the home team. New Glasgow was faster, more athletic, had that one star player, and a very good supporting cast, but there was one thing about the slow-down game that worked in State’s favor – it kept the score down and close.
Alan would tell you the Mammoths probably came into that game a little overconfident and looking forward too much to receiving a coveted bid to the NCAA tournament, but it seemed warranted. That night, though, they never got far ahead, but every time State made a run, Templar or one of the others managed to sink a key shot and kept the lead. The Mammoths were allowing Zilco to shoot from outside, and he was having one of his good nights. Jack Lawyer was his rough-and-tumble best, clogging up the lane and making anyone foolish enough to drive to the basket regret it. Somehow, through some hustle, scratching, clawing, Jack’s muscle and elbows, lackadaisical officiating, and some desperate outside shots that sank (home court helped, too – a couple of thousand screaming kids attaching their self-worth to the performance of young men they did not know personally and had little contact with), State managed to keep it close enough for those in the stands to sense the possibility of a BIG UPSET. Like their previous game, it was a rough one. The referees allowed a lot of physical contact. Either they thought that’s what basketball was supposed to be, or it had been a long season and they were too tired to pick up their whistles. Though there was no blood, this game was still a scrum, and Jack was good at that. Watching him from the stands one might conclude he was one mean son-of-a-bitch. That was the basketball Jack, not the one Alan knew.
With seconds left, New Glasgow had a one point lead and the ball after a desperation off-balance Zilco jump shot that rattled around the rim and miraculously dropped through the net. Lucas then called for a full court press, with Jack and his long arms waving at the Mammoth player throwing the ball in. In spite of Jack’s frantic waving, the ball was passed in to Templar, the team’s best ball handler, just beyond Jack’s desperate reach. Jack retreated to mid-court while Ricky Black came lumbering toward Templar. No doubt Templar expected to get fouled and must have flinched just a little bit. Instead, halfway between the free-throw line and mid-court, Black somehow pilfered the ball from the Mammoth’s best ball handler – cleanly, and not because the refs were looking the other way – but he couldn’t shoot it because Templar recovered quickly and had a hand in his face, and the rest of the Mammoths were rallying to his side. The only thing Black could do was to pass the ball back to his closest teammate – Jack Lawyer, the worst jump-shooter on the team. Jack promptly threw up a prayer – an arching thirty-footer just before the buzzer. As that ball hung in the air, “Lee” Hall Field House was totally silent – until the buzzer sounded and the basketball cleanly fell through the hoop making the twine sing.
If it is true that life is like sports, then it must be true that if you keep doing and trying, sometimes something truly magnificent and unexpected occurs – sometimes lightening strikes – though it might not be exactly the way it was planned. That’s how Alan wished he could remember Jack Lawyer – at the second of his triumph, all wrapped up in the magic of that moment.