Monday, March 22, 2010

My Brush With Greatness

In the spirit of the season (March Madness), I thought I would recount the story of my encounter with one of the greatest college basketball coaches of our time, Rick Pitino. Travel with me now back to the year 1992. Right Said Fred was too sexy for their shirt and apparently anything else, the first President Bush barfed in the Japanese prime minister's lap and I was a paranoid, persecuted 8th grader.

The spectacle of the Final Four arrived in the Twin Cities for the first time that year. (The men's NCAA Division I college basketball championship had been played here once before, in 1951, but it wasn't nearly the spectacle back then.) As a college basketball-crazed adolescent, I was beside myself with glee. My dad took me out of school early on Friday to watch the teams' public practices at the Metrodome. That was the biggest thrill of the weekend. The practices were free and there was no assigned seating, so we kept moving down until we were within maybe 50 yards of the court. That might not seem very close, but, for a basketball event of that magnitude in a football stadium, it's like sitting courtside.

Michigan practiced before we got anywhere near the court, although seeing my favorite team, the fabled Fab Five, from a distance still gave me a chill. The confirmation that these superhumans were real, and I was in the same building as they, was exciting and disorienting. I enjoyed the practices most, because it was the first time I'd been in a Final Four venue and it was an exhibition. The competition in the games is what drives the sport, but basketball's aesthetic sets it apart. In the practices we could see the camaraderie of the teams as they joked around. Although the highlight was the layup line, when the players could show off their dunking prowess. What other sport puts such a high premium on style points that will never be counted?

On Saturday morning my dad took me to a high school where the NCAA was conducting a basketball clinic for kids. I signed up and got some freebies for my trouble, including a cool poster commemorating the centennial of basketball's birth. (Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented the sport at the Springfield, Mass. YMCA to keep his young charges entertained during the winter of 1891-1892.) We were divided into groups of 5-10 kids, each one overseen by a Golden Gopher men's or women's basketball player. Mine was led by Randy Carter, an elite recruit who'd been hobbled by knee injuries. He was pretty quiet and reserved, not what I'd call a "people person."

There were quite a few coaches who ran us through basic drills, including Tony Barone of Texas A&M and Joe Harrington of Colorado. Not exactly top-flight programs, but they were still in D-1, and major conferences at that, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. We all assembled in the bleachers when they brought out the big-name coach to talk. Exactly one week earlier, Rick Pitino had lost what was already being called the greatest college basketball game ever played. He resurrected the once-mighty Kentucky program and brought them to the brink of that year's Final Four. Only a miracle had denied them the opportunity and kept alive Duke's drive to repeat as national champions. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Grant Hill threw a three-quarter-court-length pass to Christian Laettner, who faked left, turned right and hit a jumper from the free-throw line as time expired.

I admired Coach Pitino for showing up to the clinic after what must've been a crushing defeat, even a week later. The content of his speech escaped my memory a long time ago. All I remember is lining up with maybe two dozen other kids to run through a drill with the coach. It was extremely basic. At the top of the key, behind the three-point line, each kid would fake right, take a dribble left and shoot. My first time up the shot seemed to fall about 2 feet short. Performing under pressure was not one of the strengths of my game.

My second time up Coach Pitino stopped me and tried to clarify the drill. Apparently, I was doing it wrong. Unfortunately, his clarification didn't sink in. If he had tried to explain to me how to open a door at that moment, I would've been trapped forever in whatever room I found myself in. I was so hypnotized by his aura nothing he said would've gotten through. So I did the drill exactly the same way I'd done it a few seconds earlier. I looked at him to see if I'd executed the maneuver to his satisfaction. He just shook his head while a faint smile drifted across his face. As I took my place at the back of the line, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I'd improved slightly on the first attempt. My shot had only fallen about 1 foot short this time.

People talk about how meeting their hero changed the course of their life. The hero said something to them that cleared the chaos in their mind and unlocked their true potential. They don't talk about when they met their hero and, instead of changing the course of their life, the hero merely confirmed what they had always suspected about themselves, namely, that they have no idea what the %#@$ they're doing. I hope that, with this story, I've done my part to correct that imbalance.

Epilogue: Michigan won their semifinal later that Saturday, as did Duke. On Monday, however, Duke put a 20-point hurt on the Fab Five to capture their second straight national championship, becoming the first school in 19 years to repeat. It would be another 15 years before another school, Florida, won back-to-back titles. To put it another way, I watched in person as my favorite college basketball team of all time got blown out by my least favorite college basketball team of all time in a game that cemented the latter's place in my favorite sport's pantheon. To put it yet another way, it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.

Epilogue II: I was also at the '93 Final Four. Chris Webber's timeout probably condemned me to a life of melancholy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Other End of the Gun

(Author's Note: This is a short story about a future scenario I've been meaning to explore.)

Joe found a spot on the lawn and parked. He and Carrie got out. She was carrying "their" gift. His only contribution was the money to buy it. He didn't even know what it was. She'd told him, but his memory couldn't hold onto anything since he got back home.

They went around back to where the chairs and tent were set up. Joe hadn't wanted to come, but Carrie insisted it would be good for him. All their friends were there; that's why he hated it. He couldn't stand to be around anyone from his old life, from the time before his deployment. They didn't understand what he'd seen or what he'd done. They couldn't understand, which meant they could never forgive him, not that he could ever bring himself to ask for their forgiveness.

Carrie set the gift down on a table under the tent and went off to talk with some of her friends. Joe headed straight for the bar, hoping to drink his way through the joyous occasion. Just two yards short of his goal, his old pal Mark intervened.

"How's it goin', man?" Mark inquired jovially. "I haven't seen you since you got back."

"OK," Joe mumbled. He couldn't hide his irritation at being denied the sweet oblivion of booze.

"Can you believe Carl and Lisa are finally tyin' the knot? I never thought she'd get him to settle down."

"No." Joe was perceptibly shaking now. "Excuse me." He brushed past Mark and asked for a whiskey double. Mixers were a thing of the past for him, an old comfort that no longer comforted. Now he needed the truth of that straight whiskey burning down his throat. He couldn't stand anything sweet or soft anymore; it just seemed like a lie.

Joe stood off by himself, often looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was outside his range of sight. He didn't like being out in the open like this, surrounded by people. They weren't strangers, but they might as well have been. He did everything he could not to think about Iraq, about the suicide bomber at his checkpoint, about his friend who died that day, halfway across the world for a mission Joe didn't believe in.

He'd never questioned the mission before, but when Scott was blown to Kingdom Come the mission didn't make sense anymore. The Iraqis had a democracy. It wasn't perfect, but neither was ours. The country was fairly peaceful; they'd withdrawn from the cities a decade ago with no serious problems. All the American troops were stationed at remote bases, just trying to "keep a lid on" the region, as the folks in Washington liked to say.

That's why Joe didn't see the problem when the Iraqi government said they didn't need the U.S. military presence anymore. He was overjoyed at the thought of leaving. But the American politicians thought it was "dangerous" and "unwise" to leave Iraq completely, especially after they'd been forced out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iraq took its case to the U.N., where the sanction for the U.S. occupation was cancelled. Of course, the U.N. was no more able to end the Iraq War than they were to prevent it, so Iraq appealed to a more powerful body: OPEC. They weren't able to pass a full oil embargo of the U.S., but enough members went along with the idea that the American economy went from paraplegic to quad.

With its tail tucked firmly between its legs, the U.S. military abandoned Iraq, although not without a parting shot. The huge bases (and embassy) it had constructed during the occupation were demolished. Unfortunately, as in Af-Pak, some hardware was left behind. This knowledge of U.S. weaponry wiped out much of the American advantage in military technology. Combined with the economic depression at home, it pushed the world's last superpower back onto its own continent. There had even been a few attacks on "the homeland" using U.S. equipment, prompting the usual disproportionate retaliations against the revolutionary government in Mexico, which was only occasionally responsible for the attacks.

It's funny how much you learn about things you never cared about before when you're best friend dies. After Scott's death, Joe had gone online and read everything he could about why they were still in Iraq. What he found out was almost as jarring as losing Scott. They weren't fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. They were killing (mostly) innocent people for oil. Instead of setting him free, the truth had driven him deeper into a pit where no light could reach. Even at the wedding of two of his friends on a beautiful summer day he was alone in a dungeon. The joy of the people around him only made it worse. They were oblivious to the real world, the one he'd lived in and his best friend had died in. He hated them for being ignorant and selfish and happy.

"They're about to start," Carrie interrupted his rage. They took two seats at the back right. Joe always needed the option of a quick escape in case the anxiety got to him. The audience quieted down so the music could begin, but, just before the organist started in, a strange, distant noise pre-empted the ceremony. The hairs on the back of Joe's neck stood on end. He knew that sound. It was a UAV, a drone plane.

He leapt to his feet. "Everybody needs to take cover! Get inside NOW!"

"Joe, it's all right." Carrie stood up and tried to reassure him. "You're not in Iraq anymore. You're safe."

"No, Carrie, it's not all right! That's a drone! We've got about five seconds before it spots us!"

But Joe's estimate turned out to be optimistic. As he turned and saw the drone approaching, the missile had already been fired. There was only enough time for one last thought:

"My sins have followed me home."


Ahmed confirmed the strike visually and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Bombing people on the other side of the world was never easy, no matter how many times he'd done it. The rest of his shift was basic reconnaissance, no more unpleasant surprises to his relief. At 5 pm he took off the headset and logged out of the computer.

"Have a good one," Samir said as he took over Ahmed's workstation for the evening shift, arranging his coffee mug, sandwich and portfolio in their usual places in front of the monitor.

"You too," Ahmed replied. He got his coat and briefcase out of his locker and headed for the parking lot. The guard at the door nodded as Ahmed left the building. The sun was setting through the barbed wire. Ahmed showed the man at the gate his pass on his way out, and then he was outside the fence again, back in the land of the innocent.

"How was work?" Karimah asked from the kitchen when he came in.

"It was fine." There'd be time for coming clean later, after the kids had gone to bed.

"Good. Tell Jazmin and Salim to come in. Dinner's almost ready."

Ahmed opened the back door and saw his children playing soccer with the neighbor kids. They were still young enough to play co-ed without being embarrassed. He wanted to keep them this safe forever. These were the moments he thought of when he struggled with the morality of his job. This was what gave him the strength to continue.

Later that evening, when he and Karimah were getting ready for bed, Ahmed told her what had happened. He explained the situation and the intelligence, without going into specifics of course. He admitted they didn't know if it was a meeting of rogue U.S. soldiers or a garden party or a wedding or what. All they knew was at least one of the people there had been stationed in Iraq for a couple years, and his online postings indicated mental instability. Like always, she got that look on her face that killed him. It was as if the life had drained out of her, and her soul had been replaced by a motherboard.

"Well, you did what you thought was right." She turned away from him and got her nightgown out of the dresser.

"Please, Karimah. Don't do this to me. If you think I'm a murderer, there's no way I'm gonna be able to live with myself."

Her shoulders fell, and she seemed to shrink. When she turned around her face was red and her eyes wet.

"I don't know what to think. We called them murderers when they did it to us. How is it any different now?"

"We never invaded their country! We never killed hundreds of thousands of their people!"

"But how is this supposed to make us safer? They've left our countries. Why don't we leave them alone?"

"They still have thousands of nuclear weapons, Karimah. They could incinerate us with the push of a button. They need to know we can strike at them even in their precious 'homeland.' It's a deterrent."

"I don't see how poking an angry giant is a deterrent. You're just giving them an excuse to incinerate us. If you'd just let them be they'd forget about us and focus on the Mexicans. They're the only ones the Americans really hate anymore."

"I know," Ahmed admitted, collapsing on the bed. "It doesn't always make sense to me either. But if our leaders managed to kick the U.S. out of the Middle East, then I have to believe they're right about this too."

Karimah lay down next to him and rubbed his chest. "I wish I had your faith in generals and politicians."

Ahmed laughed. "I'm just hoping they're better than the American generals and politicians. It's not a very high standard."

"True." She kissed him on the cheek and set her head on his shoulder.

It wasn't enough to cure his insomnia forever, but it would get him through that night.