Monday, December 16, 2013

Quitters, Take Heart!

I noticed in Sunday’s paper (in the Sports section, which I routinely toss without reading unless there’s mention of Saratoga horseracing) a commentary on a U. Albany basketball player. The headline caught my eye: “There’s no Quit in this Player.” It went on to predict success in medical school, a wealthy practice afterward, and all manner of deserved manna—apparently because he worked out on weights in the gym to get stronger in his senior year, which the coach prescribed while not believing that his player would. Consequently, the player got stronger and better and, in the view of the columnist, was guaranteed success for life.

Made me think back on all the times I quit in my life and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t. One time, in particular, sticks in my mind. I was reminded of it some years ago at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Party at the John J. Smolensky Democratic Club snug in the bosom of Polish Greenpoint. What was an Irishman doing in a Polish Club on that day? Well, my favorite bartender, Ronnie Zelichowski, asked me to come to show support for his Uncle Charlie who was footing the bill and running for District Leader (Ward Boss, in the vernacular). And it couldn’t hurt for a lowly beat cop like myself to rub elbows with a Man of Respect. As I stood at the Bar drinking a beer and showing support, the guy next to me in work clothes that cried house painter, said, out of the blue: “I remember you. The St. Anthony’s track meet in McCarran’s Park.“

First off, I don’t like some stranger saying he remembers me, just like that. Makes me anticipate the worst. Call me paranoid, maybe it’s my line of work, but in my experience, the next sentence will be something I don’t want to hear or I’ll be reaching for my off-duty piece. I faced him and looked for a threat but saw none. “You were the anchor in the 440 for St. Anthony’s,” he continued. “You had it won but you stopped dead ten yards before the tape. Always wondered why you did that?”

That was twenty years ago, and he remembered me. I hadn’t thought about that day in a very long time, no surprise there. The school had staged intramural races so the coach could look over local talent. I’d been picked to run last—‘anchor’—in the 440-yard dash. I was fast and I guess somebody’d heard. I was in the lead for the entire lap, my three teammates having been fast enough to put me there, and I was increasing the distance between me and the baying pack. My memories are like flash cards in my head: people lined up on both sides of the cinder track; no tape to break, signalling the end; I’m wearing dungarees (kids didn’t wear ‘jeans’ in my day) and I’m gasping to catch a breath. “Who remembers?” I say with a shrug as I move away from my interrogator.

No more track-and-field, but I played basketball, a ‘guard’ on the Junior Varsity (JV) team for St. Anthony’s Juniorate, the religious high school among the potato fields on the North Shore of Long Island; it turned out Franciscan Brothers to teach in the Catholic schools in the blue collar neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In my Freshman and Sophmore years, we played some of the powerhouse Catholic schools on the Island, like Chaminade High. We didn’t have a ‘deep bench’ (sportswriter lingo) because we were just thirty boys in the entire school, aged 12 through 18. I suppose there weren’t enough of us to be a ‘Varsity’. Our high scorer was Tom Pryor, a Junior, who was a terrific ball-handler, and Joe Rogus, from well-to-do Chappaqua, who had a great jump shot and polio, and “Skippy” Herbert, quick as a snake. We had three big men inside, Frank DiNapoli, Tom Carlin and our center, Geordie Doran. Must be true about the persistence of old memory versus the fleeting nature of the recent. How else explain instantly recalling the names and faces of boys I knew sixty years ago when face-to-face I forget the names of lawyers I’ve worked with off-and-on in the past year?

From ages 12 to 14, I loved basketball: the playing of it, not the cheering for home teams, except the Juniorate, of course. Problem was I dribbled the basketball like a drunk staggering home (maybe I exaggerate a little). I got in games infrequently, usually to substitute for one of the regulars when he fouled out. But I was on the bench, suited up for every game; I liked watching, more than playing myself. Yet when Brother Linus, our coach, would point and bark: “Knightly, in for Skippy!” (or whomever), my heart was in my mouth; I could taste the anxiety, the fear, whatever you choose to call it, but I’d rush on the court and take the ball out-of-bounds and head up Court towards the opponent’s basket. Linus kept me on the team despite my lack of skill in moving the ball because I was a scrambler. We numbered fifteen men. I wasn’t tall enough to play the Forward position under the Boards, but I would manage to get in close and jump against the six-footers for the balls rebounding off the backboard or the rim of the basket. And occasionally I’d wrest the ball away from an opponent. I could jump surprisingly high for a mere five-feet-eight, and felt a wild joy from the body contact and elbow-throwing in the melee under the baskets.

I will always remember my best game; it was against Kings Park High, from the next town over. Linus had put me in near the end of the First Half for an injured Skippy. As I moved the ball towards Center Court, I saw him on the sidelines making frantic T-signs which means: Call Time Out. Instead, I flung the ball one-handed and high at the opponent’s basket down Court as the final seconds ticked off. Dumbfounded, I stopped at Half-Court as the ball swished through the basket a second before the buzzer sounded, ending the first-half to the roar of the crowd. Nice. But something even better occurred later as I was back on the bench with a teammate who whispered to me that he’d heard a young girl in the stands behind us yell at the very moment I was taking the shot: “Look! He runs like a gazelle!” Of course, I looked for her in vain. And as I look back, I believe my persistent AWOLs sneaking into the Town of Kings Park were in search of The Girl. Soon enough, I was expelled as lacking a religious vocation. Right;: at 14, I was spared from a fate worse than death (the Vow of Chastity).

Later on, I quit on other occasions: jobs, people, places (some with regret, most not). But I‘ve come to regard them as so many Life Course Corrections to get back on The Path.

© 2013 Robert Knightly


  1. What a great romp through your early sports life!!

  2. Hope you found her - the gazelle girl... tjs

  3. I cannot imagine a more benign and at the same time complicated man as you, my dear friend. As long as you don't quit writing . . . .