The Game of a Lifetime or It’s Only a Game

The Game of a Lifetime or It’s Only a Game

by Jim Luken

“The fight is won or lost, far away from witnesses.” Muhammad Ali

I sit down at my machine, late on the night before the absolute final deadline for Streetvibes. I have written hundreds of articles and essays here over the past five years. Many are intense, some angry. Tonight, for only the second time. I will do an article about sports.

Sports—especially national sporting events—do not fit comfortable into the “mission statement” of the Homeless Coalition or of Streetvibes. This paper has—as they say—more important fish to fry. But sports are a part of most of our lives, even the lives of the poorest of the poor. Most of my neighbors, and my friends among the vendors of this paper, enjoy sports, and support our local teams.

I write this article on the night when the Reds played this year’s “opening game.” I confess: I don’t really like baseball, and do not even know who won the game. This article is about basketball. Earlier tonight I went to a bar and watched the collegiate national championship game. Villanova, my graduate school alma mater, won with a “three pointer” at the buzzer.

Hockey is my favorite sport. I played men’s hockey until I was 63. But it is very expensive to play. As much as $1000 for equipment and skates. Rental fees every time you take the ice. And six players on each team.

I love watching professional football. But in order to play the game you need expensive equipment and 11 players per team.

Basketball is different. More than any other competitive sport, basketball, to borrow some of my earlier words, fits pretty comfortably into the OTR neighborhood where I live. All a kid needs is a ball and a ten­foot­high net. He or she can shoot hoops all by themselves. Add another player and you can go “one-on-one” in “head-to-head” competition.

I am almost 72 years old. I live in a tenement near the casino. My wonderful wooden balcony that looks out on a tiny city park which has its own basketball court.

Over the years, at this isolated venue, I have watched many poor people—young, older; males-females; single shooters and full five person teams playing against one another with a paid ref. I have seen a few incredibly gifted basketball players on that small court. Such expert skills can be thrilling to watch.

In all likelihood, no player from the Spring Street court where I live ever made it to the pros or to the NCAA finals. But a number of these neighborhood players probably played credible high school ball, and a few of them—no doubt—went to college thanks to their round ball skills.

My point is that this little court, and dozens like it around town, can evolve into a kind of “field of dreams” for young people from the neighborhood. They can imagine themselves moving into another, brighter world as they practice their lay­ups and their fade away jump shots.

In an intimate, imaginative way, they can go for the gold, reach for the stars, see themselves as winners. All this is a kind of preamble to the Villanova win last night and to the complex, and quite sad, set of memories that victory evoked for me.

My History with Villanova Basketball

In 1970, at age 26, I left Cincinnati with my then small family to do a masters degree in theater at Villanova, a somewhat unknown Catholic university located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Having taught at Elder High School for the previous four years, I was a huge basketball fan.

That year, the Villanova Wildcats were a scrappy team, but no one expected them to make it to the finals. [At that time, only 25 teams competed in a two weeklong tournament]. But they did indeed beat several better teams in order to face off against the dominant UCLA Bruins, under Coach John Wooden. The Bruins had won the championship for the four years previous. It was a case of a small school David against a West Coast powerhouse Goliath.

Need I say that our campus was abuzz in anticipation of this nationally televised championship game. Not exactly “abuzz.” Maybe I should say “afire” with passion for the team. On the day of the game, a rumor drifted around the quiet, gray stoned Villanova campus. We learned—everyone heard this—that some of the students were threatening to burn down the “Bandbox” if our team lost, as was expected.

The Bandbox was a V­shaped former army barracks where the school band practiced and kept its instruments. One half of the “V” comprised the rehearsal space for our (my) theater department. No one believed that this would be allowed to happen, because the warnings had been so clear.

Villanova played a great game that long-ago night and kept it very close. Midway through the second half, Coach Wooden had his team begin executing a “four corner stall.” At that time, the NCAA did not use the 30 second shot clock, so a leading team could stall indefinitely, forcing the other team to foul. Villanova fouled again and again, and UCLA made most of those foul shots, winning the game 68­62. This would prove to be the greatest—and the most ignominious—moment in the school’s basketball history, until the team’s 1985 victory over Georgetown to win its first national championship.

So the Wildcats played well, but lost the game. And the students followed through on their threat. They burned down the all wood Bandbox. [I won’t detail the difficulties we theater folks had securing decent rehearsal space].

The Howard Porter Story (tragedy, reconciliation and redemption)

The drama of that night did not end with the game’s heroics or the late-night fire. Although UCLA won, Villanova’s three-time all-American power forward, 6′ 8” Howard Porter was named the game’s “most outstanding player.”

Several months later, it was revealed that Porter (a naïve, poor kid from Sarasota, Florida) had signed a mid­season contract with an agent from an NBA team. Villanova’s name was quickly expunged from the record books. Humiliated and disgraced, the man who continues to be regarded as Villanova’s greatest basketball player, became a kind of pariah at his own university.

It would be decades before Porter would return to his alma mater and receive some of the recognition he had earned there as an outstanding student athlete.

Porter did turn pro and played for seven years, his career ending early because of cocaine addiction. Eventually, in 1989, he admitted himself for treatment and went on to become a respected parole officer in Minneapolis St. Paul. His life seemed to be on the right track, except for his relationship with Villanova.

Then, in 1996, on the 25th anniversary of that infamous championship game, he returned for a celebration of his team and its accomplishments. His jersey was retired, and Porter once again became part of the Villanova basketball “family.” In 2006, he was named the second greatest round ball player in Philadelphia’s “Big Five” college history.

But tragedy still dogged him. In May of 2007, he was found severely beaten in a trash strewn Minneapolis alley. He would die a week later. According to some accounts, he had been the unlucky victim of a brutal robbery.

As I researched Porter’s post­ basketball career, I had hoped this was the case. Tears had come to my eyes as I thought about this man’s tortured journey. I had hoped to dovetail Porter’s story of shame and redemption, of failure and success, into the picture of those young people—mostly poor and black—playing basketball on the court below my balcony in OTR.

In fact, Howard Porter seems to have been caught up once again in a situation that involved drugs and prostitution. He had been beaten unmercifully, gangland style. How then could I make a moral of his story?

Well, there is a moral there, because the story is real. Some of the kids playing basketball there on Spring Street may become stars of one kind or another. And some, no doubt, will be killed in the epidemic of violence that surrounds inner-city, black youth. Life, especially for those who come into it with two strikes against them, will often be muddied, and sometimes end tragically. Happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales.

Villanova: 2016 National Champions

Without cable TV at my place, I wandered to a local bar, jam-packed with young people to watch the game. My team was an underdog to the North Carolina Blue Devils, a team which had won the big prize many times.

In the second half, Villanova came back from a ten-point deficit, then went ahead by ten themselves. Slowly, North Carolina chipped away at that lead. With Villanova up by three, NC guard Marcus Paige sank an incredibly acrobatic shot from outside the circle. Tie Score. 4.7 seconds left on the clock. Taking the in­bound pass, Villanova’s star point guard, Ryan Arcidiacono, rushed down the floor, then—incredibly—passed the ball to junior forward Kris Jenkins who flew into the air, sinking a three pointer at the buzzer, the first three-point buzzer beater in finals history. 77­74. Streamers cascaded down from the rafters. My alma mater had done it again.

Cameras focused on Jenkins, beaming, and they replayed his winning shot over and over. As I stared at the TV screen, a very attractive, tipsy young woman leaned toward my ear, and whispered, “I know he’s going to get laid tonight.” I smiled, sensing that—in an oddly inappropriate way—she had summed up the game, the season, and my five­decade relationship with Villanova. And had given me a closing line for this odd story.

Sometimes things do have a happy ending.