Charlie's life of basketball takes a turn for the worse.
|From the End of the Bench
Charlie rose from his seat as the referee handed the ball to Tony. Then, the coach yelled, “Watch the press!” Tony shook his head like he knew what the coach was talking about.
Tony tried to inbound the ball to Stuart, but the ball was stolen. As the other team’s player threw up a shot from half-court, the buzzer sounded. The gym went silent for a split second. Nervous tension filled the seats as everyone wondered if the ball would meet nylon on its trip to the ground.
The ball floated like a hot air balloon, passing in between some of the steel rafters in the ceiling. As it descended, the backspin lifted the ball for the final few feet as it bounced off the rim. C-L-A-N-K! It caromed off the backboard and up into the air. It soon became apparent that it was not going to go in the basket.
The crowd erupted. The players found a bright orange water cooler at the end of the bench. After taking the top off, Tony and Stuart distracted Charlie long enough for James and Andrew to sneak up behind him and dump the remaining water on the coach.
Together, they had accomplished what they set out to do almost six months earlier. Basketball season was over, and they had won their final game. That could only mean one thing. They were state champions. Now, they could sit back and enjoy as the congratulations would start rolling in. And roll in they did.
Turning into the school parking lot, about 400 people were waiting. Quite a sight considering the town had a population of about 800. The town’s police department cleared a path for the bus, and the mayor was standing in front of the crowd. The school was decorated in crepe paper of the school colors, maroon and gold. In the school gym, a podium was set up as a hint that the public wanted to hear the coach talk.
Charlie did indeed talk. He talked about how this team really came together to battle adversity. He talked about how this team made believers out of every big school in the state.
“I am truly one of the luckiest people in the world,” he said. “For the past 25 years, I was able to take young minds and bodies and transform them into basketball players. Today, the goal every player holds above all else, a state championship, became a reality for these young men.”
He had to take a break to wipe the tears from his eyes and the sweat from his forehead. After regaining his composure, he continued. “Today, that great dream became a reality for me, too. Now, it is time for me to step aside and announce that I am retiring at the end of this school year.”
Everyone there could tell that there was more to this story, but no one wanted to ask. Charlie Kearney was an imposing figure. He stood almost six feet, six inches tall and weighed nearly 250 pounds. He had spent countless hours in the town’s fitness center. Seeing tears rolling down his cheeks was painful enough for the fans. Charlie hesitated as he started to walk out of the gym. His right foot would bother him once in a while. He always thought it was just gout, and time always seemed to relieve the symptoms.
Upon his arrival at home, Charlie’s wife, Angel, was ready, her pale complexion a sign that the sun hadn’t shone on this part of the country in nearly four months. Her large brown eyes stared at Charlie as he walked in the door. “Well, did you do it?”
“Yep.” Charlie replied in his hoarse voice. Coaching for all those years had robbed him of his natural voice, but the hint of the southern drawl was still there. “I told ‘um. And boy were they surprised.”
Angel simply walked up to Charlie, smiled coyly, and gave him a hug. This wasn’t just any hug, though. This was one of those hugs that would bruise the ribs of a normal man. Luckily, Charlie wasn’t a normal man. When she finally let go, she said, “I’m glad you finally did it. I love you.”
Charlie was walking to school the next day when he noticed the pain radiating up his leg. He sat down for a few minutes, and the pain subsided, just like it always had. He rose from the park bench and continued walking. The school, of course, was only a three block walk from home. The park represented about half way to the school. Before he got there, though, he noticed the pain coming back again. This time, the stabbing pain caused him to drop to his knees. He didn’t have the benefit of a bench this time. He had to sit on the side of the road.
Just then, the principal, Mike LaBrie, pulled up in his maroon and gold Chrysler Sebring convertible. It was an unseasonably warm day so the top was down. He offered Charlie a ride but had his offer rejected. Charlie simply decided he would walk to work. This time, the pain lasted about 10 minutes as he sat there on the shoulder. In this small town, Mike’s car was the only one to drive by during the time Charlie was anguishing. Again, he rose and continued on to school.
Finally arriving at work, 15 minutes late, Charlie went to Mr. LaBrie’s office to tell him what had happened. Mike asked him into his office and offered a seat to Charlie. In another attempt to show his pride, Charlie refused, but this time, Mike wouldn’t take no for an answer. After they both sat down, Mike took a sip from his coffee cup. Then, he looked up at Charlie and said, “Mr. Kearney, we’ve been through a lot together. You taught me so much about leadership. It started 20 years ago when I played for you. I never would have imagined you telling every one that you are retiring before you told me.”
Charlie couldn’t control himself anymore. He felt that he had to let someone know what was going on. “Mike,” he said, “I went to the doctor last week. This pain I’ve been getting in my foot for all the years I’ve been coaching isn’t gout, like we thought.”
“What is it, then?”
“Well, it turns out it’s a symptom of some sort of diabetes. If it continues the way it has been for the last month or so, I will probably lose my leg. That’s why I can’t coach anymore. I won’t be able to walk the sidelines like I could before. You don’t get much respect from anyone when you are sitting on the bench.”
After a brief pause to contain his emotions, Mike took another drink of coffee, polishing off whatever was left in the bottom of the cup. Mike asked if there was anything he could do. Charlie responded simply, “Just don’t tell anyone.” As he nodded his head, Mike helped Charlie to his feet and escorted him down the hallway to his classroom. When they got there, Mike told him to take care of himself and reassured him that this secret would remain a secret.
* * *
Mike returned to his office. He sat down at his desk and picked up the phone. He began to dial, but then hung up the phone. Maybe the secret really was safe with him. As Mike sat at his desk, he began to remember his younger days. Charlie was his coach, and they had some pretty good basketball teams. One even advanced to the state semi-finals. They lost on a missed shot at the buzzer, much like the one that sealed this year’s championship. After graduating high school, Mike became a teacher much because of Mr. Kearney. He had a great respect for what Charlie stood for in his teaching style and methods. He made the jump to administration about eight years later, and he eventually wound up being Charlie’s boss, an awkward position for him to be in. Somehow, he needed to thank Charlie for all that he meant to him and to all the students that had passed through his classroom.
His heart began to pound because of the sense of urgency involved. The phone rang. As was his habit, Mike left the phone on speaker. “Hello?”
The voice answered, “Hello, Mike. It’s Angel Kearney.”
“Hi, Angel. How are you today?”
“Could be better, but I can’t complain because nobody really wants to hear it anyway.” She spouted this comeback like she had for many years when talking to close friends. “The reason I’m calling is to make sure that Charlie got to work today.”
“Yeah, he got here. Just left my office, in fact.”
With that, Angel breathed an audible sigh of relief. Mike could tell that a huge weight had been lifted. “I was just talking to Sandy at the coffee shop, and she told me Charlie was sitting on the side of the road for quite some time this morning,” Angel acknowledged.
Mike sat back in his chair and breathed a sigh of relief, too, because he had an idea: the perfect way to show how much Charlie meant to so many people from this small town. During the coming weeks, a retirement dinner would take place, and as many former players, students, and colleagues would be there to tell stories of the days when everyone was younger. Mike picked up the phone and began to make some calls.
It was about a week later that Charlie called Mike’s office in the morning and told him that he would be unable to come to work that day. Unfortunately, his condition had gotten worse, and he was going to the hospital to have surgery. He needed to take some time off to recover from the operation. He would be back in about three weeks. That was all the time Mike would need to make the arrangements for this dinner.
* * *
Mike’s first job, though, was to find someone to fill in for Charlie in the classroom, not an easy task in a town of 800 people. He called his good friend, Tom Baker, from his college days. Maybe if Mike explained the situation, Tom would be able to help out. Mike took out his little black book and got the phone number. He picked up the black phone and dialed the number. “Hello, is Tom there?
“Who’s calling?” a voice responded from the other end.
“This is Mike LaBrie. I’m a very old friend from college.” He could hear the click from the phone being placed on a table.
It was a lucky thing that the woman did that because the next thing Mike heard was, “TTTTTOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!!!” Then there was a brief pause. “TELEPHONE!!”
A minute later, Tom picked up on the other end. Mike began to explain the situation. Tom played for Coach Kearney, as well, but a couple years before Mike did. In fact, Tom’s senior year was the Coach’s first year as a coach. His team didn’t win a single game the entire season, a feat which would not be repeated during the remainder of his coaching tenure.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” Tom asked.
Mike simply responded, “We will. First, though, I need some help. He is taking some time off of work, and I need someone to fill in for about 3 weeks.”
“So are you asking if I can fill in?”
“Actually, I am. Are you accepting?”
Tom answered, “Yeah. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Mike acknowledged Tom’s response and bid goodbye to his longtime friend. He hung up the phone and started looking through his datebook. Three weeks without Charlie would put his return into the middle of April. That would leave the rest of April and most of May to plan the dinner.
* * *
The next day, Tom showed up to teach Charlie’s classes. He had a full teacher’s load of five classes to teach. When he got in front of that first class, though, something special happened. Noah, the boy in the third row, recognized him. He stood up in front of the class and asked, “Aren’t you the kid that played for Coach in his first year coaching?” Somehow, Noah always had a knack for remembering dates and statistics. “My dad talks about you all the time. He said you were pretty good, averaged something like fifteen points per game, right?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I was on that team, but basketball is a team game. The individual stats don’t mean anything. What mattered was that we all played hard and left everything we had on the court. When we were done playing a game, we all felt like we were going to drop to the ground because we were so tired.”
Tom Alexander was a basketball player to the core. His large stature, all six feet eight inches of him and 210 pounds, told everyone he was a player. After his final high school season, he played at State College and averaged ten points per game in his junior and senior seasons there. The highlight of his playing days was being named All-Conference at State. It was hard for Tom to talk about his high school basketball career. It seemed like everyone in town knew that first team of the Coach’s never managed to win a game, not even one.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to shift to history. After all, that is what he was there to teach. Noah wasn’t done, though. When class was over, he approached Tom and questioned him some more. “Mr. Alexander, what was it like to play in college? Especially after not winning a game in high school.”
“It was one of the most exciting times of my life. Someday, it may be one of the most exciting times in your life, too. Mr. LaBrie told me that you were an exciting player to watch on the sophomore team. In a couple of years, you should be a pretty exciting player to watch on the varsity court.”
“Somehow, though, I don’t think it will mean as much, now, with the Coach leaving.”
“Let me tell you a story. You already know that I played on Coach’s first team, right? Well, after my junior season, my coach left. His name was Mr. Simpson. I didn’t think things would ever be the same, either.” With that, Tom took his arm and placed it on Noah’s shoulder. Together, they started walking down the hallway towards Mr. LaBrie’s office. “Ya’ know what? They weren’t. They were different. Sometimes, different is a good thing. I never would have been recruited if it wasn’t for Coach Kearney taking over the team when he did. Mr. Simpson never had a player go on to play in college. Coach did it in his first season.”
Arriving at Mr. LaBrie’s office, Tom and Noah parted ways. Noah continued on to his next class. Tom opened the glass door to Mike’s office. Inside, he was greeted by the secretary. “Mike was hoping you would stop by. You can go in.”
“Thanks, Sue.” Tom knocked on the outside of the door leading into Mike’s office. His head poked around the corner as Mike told him to step inside. Even with his large frame, Tom was still intimidated by having to go into the principal’s office. Mike took off his eyeglasses and set them on his desk. After pouring Tom a cup of coffee, Mike returned to his desk and sat down.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that I called you to fill in, ya’ know.”
Tom answered, “I kinda’ figured that.”
“I’m in the very early stages of planning a retirement dinner for Coach. I’d like you to come and talk about the time you spent playing for the Coach. Even more importantly, though, I was hoping you could talk about the time you spent knowing the Coach.”
“Just let me know where you want me to be and when you need me there, Mike.” Mike nodded his head. As he was getting up to refill his coffee cup, the phone rang. It was Angel Kearney. Tom acknowledged the wave from the principal and exited the office.
* * *
Thursday morning, Angel drove Charlie into the city. They walked up the stairs to Memorial Hospital. The day both feared had finally come. After checking in, Charlie changed into a hospital gown. Angel couldn’t resist the opportunity. She took a towel out of the bedroom and cracked Charlie on the backside. With no protection there, Charlie winced in pain. He climbed into the bed and put the head up so he could sit comfortably. Just as he was pulling the covers up, the doctor walked in.
The doctor was six feet, eight inches tall. Most of the people around the hospital called him Dr. J. His name was actually Dr. Jendraszak, but with his immense height, the basketball moniker seemed appropriate. When he walked, his gait had a bounce to it. His head would bob up and down about four inches with each step. It’s a good thing it did because he was too tall to walk through a doorway without hitting the threshold on the down side of the bounce. “Hi, Mr. Kearney.”
Charlie replied, “What’s up, Doc?”
“Well, you know what we have to do. Do you have any questions before we get ready to start?”
Charlie told the doctor he didn’t have any questions. The doctor pulled out a syringe and put in some medication. As he was injecting the medicine into Charlie’s IV, he told the coach that this would help with some of the pain after the surgery as well as some of the nerves before it. About ten minutes later, Charlie was resting in bed. Angel kissed his forehead and assured him that everything would be alright. Then, an orderly wheeled the bed out of the room and headed down towards the operating room.
It was about six hours later when another orderly brought Charlie back to the hospital room where Angel was waiting. The orderly asked Angel if the doctor had been in to talk to her, and Angel told him that he had not been there yet. Just as he was telling her that he would probably be in shortly, the doctor opened the door.
“Hello Mrs. Kearney.”
“How did he do?”
The doctor replied, “He did just fine. We had to take the leg about three inches below the knee. We’ll give him a couple of days, and then we’ll have him fitted for a prosthetic leg so that he can learn to walk again, like we talked about.”
“So everything was alright. He didn’t have any problems?”
“No, he did fine, but the fight is just beginning. It’s a long road ahead if he wants to get back to the classroom before the end of the year.”
“Well, that’s definitely what he wants to do so he will make it.”
The doctor walked out the door, seeming to make sure he hit the doorway on the down bounce. Charlie was pretty incoherent at this point from the pain medication the doctors had used during and after the surgery. Angel lifted up the blanket and looked underneath. She pretended to be shocked at what she saw. She looked at Charlie, and said, “Charlie, they took off the wrong foot!”
“Don’t even joke around about that.”
“Who said I was kidding?”
“I already checked it out. I know they cut off the right foot.” Charlie assured his wife. Then, she sat down in the chair next to the bed, and they turned on the television. It was time for “Wheel of Fortune.”
* * *
Finally, the night came. It was May 17th, a Saturday night. Angel, knowing the secret all along, told Charlie that they were going to the banquet hall for a wedding. One of the invited guests was a printer, and he even printed an invitation to make it seem more realistic. By the time they arrived, the other folks, about 300 in all, were seated at tables throughout the banquet hall. As he hobbled to his seat, finally getting used to his prosthetic leg, the entire room came to its feet. A rousing ovation brought tears to Angel’s eyes, and some would say that the hint of a tear was in Charlie’s eyes as well, although he would deny it.
Mike took the microphone from the podium and began the night in grand fashion. First, he told his favorite Charlie Kearney story. “There was a kid on our team, didn’t have much talent. He was a five foot six point guard that couldn’t handle a press. Coach always said he led the team in heart, though. One day at practice, this kid was diving for a ball, dove head first into the first row of bleachers. He didn’t get up. Coach ran over to be at his side. He was out cold. There were tiny drops of blood on the floor by his ear. Charlie called an ambulance. When the kid woke up in the hospital, Coach Charlie Kearney was by his side. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I was that kid. I could go on and on about how Coach changed people’s lives, but that’s what you are here for. And to this day, I think this was the only time Charlie was ever wrong during his coaching career. Now, we all know that Charlie Kearney led every team he coached in heart.”
Then, he handed the microphone to Tom, a member of the only team Charlie ever coached that didn’t win a game. During Charlie’s coaching career, he would win plenty of games, but this team was always special because it was his first team. Another handoff, and eventually, the microphone would be handled by some 15 guests. Charlie’s amazement was written in the redness on his cheeks. Angel couldn’t believe it either. After all the guests had spoken, Charlie took the podium.
“I am truly one of the luckiest people on the face of the earth. I found something I liked doing and that I was good at, and I was able to do it for 25 years. I was able to win my final game. Now, I stand before you in awe of what all of you have accomplished. To even pretend like any of it was my doing would be wrong of me. It sounded like everyone here tonight thought they were lucky to know me. In my eyes, they were all wrong. I was the lucky one.”
Now, Charlie couldn’t deny the tears anymore as they were streaming down his cheeks. “As you all now know, I am playing another game right now, this one with bigger stakes than any basketball game I ever coached. I lost my leg about six weeks ago, and I will probably lose the other one in the not-too-distant future. This whole situation has made me see my life in a new perspective. It’s time for me to get back to living the way it was meant to be done. You see, when I should have been spending time at home with my wife and family, I was coaching basketball. Well, now I can only hope that I have a chance to spend some more time with my family as I won’t be coaching anymore. I thank you all for coming, and I hope we can do this again some time.”
As Charlie and Angel walked up to their front door, the stars were shining bright, and the moon was full. It brought back many memories of the days when Charlie was still courting Angel. Her brown hair flowed in the breeze. Her silhouette, still perfect after all these years, cast a shadow on the sidewalk like Marilyn Monroe in her younger days. On the front porch, Charlie pulled a ring from his front pants pocket and held it out in front of Angel. His eyes peered to the sky momentarily. He took a deep breath and asked, “Will you start my new life with me, Angel?”