by Glen Draeger
. . . so you can learn just how much greater I am than you . . .
—Homer, The Iliad
“You want to put some money it?”
“No, I don’t play for money.”
“Twenty bucks just to make it interesting. What do you say?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
The two men talked in the West Park Recreation Center. One, a tall, middle-aged man, continued to shoot and retrieve his ball as the challenger, a taller, younger man, persisted.
“Come on. It’ll be the easiest twenty you’ve ever made.”
A five-on-five pick-up game was in progress on one of the two full courts and a three-on-three game had just ended at the other end of the court from where the two men stood.
“Look,” he said chuckling and smiling, “I don’t bet on games–particularly my own. It’s just not my thing. Let’s just play some one-on-one.”
The players from the three-on-three game, dripping sweat onto the hardwood floor, walked past the two men to crowd around a stainless steel drinking fountain. Several players wiped their wet faces, arms and legs with towels. The sound of their heavy breathing dissipated in the large expanse of the newly constructed gymnasium as a leather basketball lazily rolled past the basecourt line and stopped at the wall along with gym bags, watches and keys. Warm humid air had accumulated after hours of constant games, everything from one-on-one to full-court five-on-five. The odor of sweating men floated in the air like invisible fog. It was not an unpleasant smell to these men, many who felt more comfortable here than anywhere else, but a familiar one, one that reminded these players of high school games or long summers of boredom and basketball.
Jeff Bluefield had just gotten off work, the 8 a.m to 4 p.m. shift. He was a security guard at the new Dot.com Center in San Diego and had seen the rec center on his way home from work the day before, called about the hours of open play and decided to stop today for some pick-up basketball.
He continued to shoot from the top of key and his balls swished through the net with that snapping sound that sent the net upward toward the rim and back down to its resting position. Another player, a short, stocky man, passed the ball back to Jeff until one of his shots hit the back of the rim, bounced up, then down careening off the right side of the rim to the floor where it was retrieved by the other player who started shooting.
“What do you mean you don’t play for money?” Larry Gerlach asked accusingly, as if not playing for money suggested a moral defect. He had been at the gym since 3 o’clock, his normal weekday schedule, and he played his games, every game, as if contending for a championship. He yelled at players who missed crucial shots, who threw bad passes or who seemed too lackadaisical. He had been a great high school player, a forward, made first team All-City in San Francisco. He wore dark blue, cotton gym-shorts and a gray cotton tank top. His body was freckled, his arms thick, his hair brown and curly.
“The meaning seems clear to me,” Jeff replied. He didn’t like this guy. He knew that immediately. What was it that some men possessed to keep them pushing and pushing and pushing another man who did not want to be pushed? Was it confidence? Was it arrogance? Was that kind of aggressiveness and brazenness needed for this world? Sometimes Jeff felt as if his lack of these traits made him in some way a lesser man, but most of the time he thought it just made him not an asshole.
“Even if you lose, it’s only twenty bucks. Guy like you probably makes that in his sleep. My name’s Larry.” He held out his hand.
“Jeff.” He shook Larry’s hand disinterestedly.
“Listen, Jeff, I’ll spot you three points, we play to twenty-one by ones, winner’s outs, gotta win by two. What do you say?”
“No,” Jeff said shaking his head slowly. “I told you, I don’t bet on games.”
Several players wandered over to listen.
“Anybody here want to play me one-on-one for twenty bucks?”
“Hell, Larry, I don’t want to take your money.”
“Me either, I’m gonna win the lottery.”
Several players laughed.
“Jeff doesn’t play for money. I guess he just loves the game. You’re one of those ‘just do it’ kind of guys, huh Jeff?” Larry asked, then added, “I’ll bet, no pun intended, you’re some kind of fanatical, basketball purist, is that it?”
Jeff didn’t answer. He just smiled, but he didn’t like this. He had come to the gym to play basketball and to get some exercise. He had come to experience the satisfaction of watching the ball leave his hand, arc high above the court and players below to descend through the hoop and then the net with that familiar, snapping swish and to know it would pass through the center of the orange metal ring because of an unexplainable certainty based upon some combination of the feeling the leather had as it left the tips of his fingers and the smoothness with which his arm extended out toward his target. He had come to enjoy the company of other men, to laugh with them at the crazy, unbalanced shots that should not have gone in but did and to glory with them in those rare moments when a great shot transcends the game so that for a few seconds no one cares about the score or their jobs or their troubles, but only about the shared elation of those few moments. What he knew with certainty was that he had not come to the gym to be badgered into playing a game as if he were on a car lot attempting to buy a car.
Larry was taller than Jeff by an inch or two and his muscles were thick and defined, especially his pecs. Jeff’s thin body resembled that of a marathon runner, except for his calves. They bulged out as if he had solely exercised them at the expense of his hamstrings and quadriceps. He continued to shoot.
“Okay, Jeff,” Larry said glancing at the other players as he spoke, “here’s what I’ll do: I’ll spot you five points. Winner takes twenty bucks.”
“You just don’t quit, do you? Are you listening to me?”
“Okay, seven points. You’d either have to be a lousy basketball player or just a fool to pass that up.”
Jeff shot from the top of the key. The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced straight down to the floor. He turned abruptly toward Larry.
“Okay, here’s my offer,” Jeff said with some exasperation and more than a hint of anger. “We start even. You want to play for money–fine. What’s your time worth? What do you make an hour?”
“About a hundred,” Larry said as if he had just landed a nine-pound rainbow trout after playing it for 10 minutes.
Jeff felt something in him falter. A hundred dollars an hour? This guy was ten years younger than him, or more, and he was making a lot more money than he made. This was the kind of guy who walked past him every morning to the offices on the upper floors of his building, those lawyers, stock brokers and consultants who, ultimately, paid his wage, who smiled and called him by his first name every morning as they strode toward the elevators in their dark suits with their briefcases in hand.
Twenty years earlier Jeff had graduated from San Diego State University with a teaching credential, but teaching jobs were hard to come by and he took a security guard job hoping that something would come up. What came up was a new car, a marriage, two children, a house and finally a divorce. As a security guard Jeff had moved up through the ranks, finally becoming a supervisor overseeing the guards of a dozen large office buildings in San Diego, but finally resigning that position to take the supervisory role at the new Dot.com Center, a five building high-rise complex that advertised its space as specifically designed for on-line companies. It was less money, but it was also less time and less headaches.
“What do you do?” Jeff asked.
“I’m a lawyer.” Had he said it with condescension or had Jeff just imagined it? He didn’t know. Like boxers slowly and methodically assessing their opponents at the beginning of fight, Jeff had bantered with lawyers and consultants and brokers all his working life. Men who often, it seemed, viewed him almost as a child, who considered security guards second rate men, men who could not be anything else. Why, Jeff thought, had this suddenly descended into a confrontation; why should a basketball game be a test of–what was it a test of? Manhood? Courage? Balls? What had his coaches said? Sports broke down the barriers of race, religion and career. On the field or court, be it football, baseball, basketball or tennis, men became friends through the contest. They ceased hatred; they no longer courted war. It was bullshit. Jeff wanted to gain an advantage over this guy. He wanted, somehow, to recover the control he had lost or maybe never had, and he knew money, or at least the amount of money he had suddenly become willing to risk, would not be any real risk to this man. Then, like the sudden memory of a dream from the night before, he snatched the idea in an instant. “You beat me, I give you a hundred bucks; I beat you, it’s Truth or Dare?”
“Truth or Dare? The game. You probably saw that Madonna movie,” he said with sarcasm. “If I win, you have to tell me the truth or take a dare.”
“No way I’m taking a dare.”
“Fine. That makes it easy. You tell me the truth. I ask you a question and you answer it.” The words felt good to say, but the idea had struck too fast and he had spoken it before he had time to consider the ramifications of such a contest. Could he win a verbal battle with this lawyer and what would he ask him? What kind of question would make this wager worthwhile? “Answering a few questions shouldn’t be a problem for you,” he said cynically. Things had turned around, he had taken the advantage and he knew it and he liked it, but he had not controlled the change in the tone of his voice. The disinterest, the calmness, that he had wanted to maintain, slipped away. He had revealed something about himself that he had wanted to keep hidden.
By now the six men from the three-on-three game were all listening; one of them motioned guys over from the full court game that had just ended. This was getting interesting.
Larry listened attentively, but he showed no signs of nervousness or apprehension. “He probably wants to ask me about my sex life,” he said turning to the group that had gathered.
One of the guys said, “You could answer that easy: none.” Everyone laughed.
“I have no intention of asking you about your sex life,” Jeff said hoping that Larry masked some anxiousness or fear about being questioned. “I couldn’t possibly care less about it. Another thing. We see it through. I get an hour.”
“So,” Larry said, raising his eyebrows and resting his chin in the palm of his hand in a kind of mockery of ‘The Thinker,’ “the deal is this: if I win you pay me a hundred bucks and if you win all I have to do is answer your questions?” He ended the sentence in higher tone of voice.
“That’s it.” Jeff’s position seemed almost absurd as he considered it now: I lose, I’m out one hundred dollars; I win, I have to think up one damn good question.
Larry smiled. “Shit,” he said, “If I was you I’d start playing for money. I’d be crazy not to accept that. What if I just decide to lie? How are you going to know?”
“It won’t be that kind of question. It’ll be essay, not true or false.” The crowd had grown to over a dozen men and Jeff sensed he had gained some ground with this last statement.
“Okay, Socrates,” Larry said. “You’re on.”
Jeff began, “We start even; we play to 21 by ones.”
“Two out of three,” Larry responded.
“Then games are to fifteen, winner’s outs.”
“We call our own fouls.”
“Let’s do it,” Jeff said.
Jeff figured Larry was a better basketball player than he was, or at least in better shape or at least a lot younger. But better players could be beat. Jeff had been a solid player at San Diego State University starting as a Junior and Senior. He played point guard, not flashy, not outstanding, but dependable, the kind of player every team needs: good defense, good assist man, good ball-handler, competent shooter from both inside and outside, consistent, smart, as comfortable going to his left as to his right. He had been the kind of player that few people noticed, the kind of player who makes everyone else look good.
“All right, Socrates,” Larry said tossing him the ball. “Shoot for outs.”
Jeff dribbled to the top of key, turned to the basket and from a set position let the ball fly . . . swish.
The game started intensely. Larry played very close defense whether Jeff was at the top of the key or near the basket, but Jeff was in the “zone,” one of the terms used to denote that state when every shot seems to go in, when the off balance “prayer” baseline hook-shot arches the ball high over the defender’s outstretched arm to sneak past the edge of the backboard and down through the net that seemed itself to have drawn the ball from the very beginning. There was nothing Larry could have done short of breaking Jeff’s leg to stop it, but he did let Jeff know that there would be no free shots during this game. On Jeff’s first drive to the basket, when he was leading 5-1, Larry watched him go high for a lay-up then threw his shoulder into his rib cage.
“My foul,” Larry said quickly as Jeff’s butt hit the floor. He sat for a moment taking deep breaths. Larry walked over, basketball pinned against his side by his elbow and asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Jeff said still sitting on the floor.
Jeff stood slowly. “I’m sure,” he said, staring at Larry all the while he walked back to the top of the key where Larry threw him the ball. It was typical strategy: when your opponent makes his first drive to the basket give him a good shot–he’ll be a little apprehensive the next time. Jeff didn’t play that way. A foul was not something you tried to do, but something that occurred in the course of defending someone. Trying to foul someone, particularly trying to foul someone in a painful way seemed to him unsportsmanlike and yet–what was man’s sport like? What did it mean to “be a man”?
When Jeff led 11-4 and swished a base-line eighteen footer Larry yelled, “Damn!” After the 13th, he cried, “shit!” After the 14th point Larry said nothing, but when Jeff left him standing at the free-throw line to calmly lay in the winning basket Larry grabbed the ball and threw it against the wall. “You won’t be so lucky next time, Socrates,” he said on his way to the drinking fountain.
In the second game Jeff took another early lead, but then the shots stopped falling and when they did he knew he would have to rely on strategy. Larry’s defense remained intense–he was clearly in better shape than Jeff–and he hustled after every rebound as if engaged in a championship playoff game. Halfway through the second game, after Larry had tied the game at seven apiece, Jeff followed his fifteen foot jump-shot that did not go and as he came up behind Larry, Larry swung his elbow into Jeff’s left pectoral muscle with such force that the twenty-plus men watching let out a sympathetic groan as Jeff reeled round, then back barely keeping his balance. Larry called no foul. Jeff said nothing.
Larry took the lead at 8 points with a lay-up, then hit a series of jump shots and ended his six point streak at 13 with a slam dunk that made Jeff look and feel a little foolish as he stood flat-footed in the middle of the key while Larry yelled triumphantly, “Yes!!” He grabbed the ball with resolve, looked at Jeff and said, “We’re going to game three, Socrates. You better get ready.” The score stood at 13-7. But Jeff had been planning, theorizing and testing. He wanted to see what Larry could do. Jeff could lose this game if he could figure some things out: What were Larry’s weaknesses? What were his strengths? Larry had an unblockable jump-shot and he had a quick move to the basket, but both of these, Jeff noticed, he liked to take to his right, a typical habit for a right-handed shooter, a typical habit for gifted players who wouldn’t take the time to work on their short-comings, Jeff thought, who often wished he had been born with more natural talent. He forced Larry to his left by overplaying him to his right. Twice Larry beat him to the basket but couldn’t sink the lay-up with his left hand. Jeff started to come back and as he did he intensely wanted to win this game. He breathed hard and his mouth was dry. He had been playing regularly, but not often. A third game would be physically very tough. He concentrated on following his shots and screening Larry out and tied him at 13-13. His shirt was soaked with sweat and he could feel a tightness in his legs that reminded him he was a middle-aged man, not some high-school kid in the gym on summer vacation.
Jeff hit a long jumper for 14, but couldn’t finish it missing the next one. Then Larry hit three long ones and it was over, 16-14, one game a piece.
By now the crowd had grown to almost forty players. Everyone as they had come in wandered over to see what was going on. When they heard about Truth or Dare? and the amount of money involved they stayed and as the third game started the crowd, by a large majority, wanted Jeff to win.
“Come on, Socrates!” one of the younger men had said. “You got this guy.”
“Keep it up, Socrates,” another player said.
“Let’s go, Larry,” a voice from the minority yelled.
Jeff had an uneasy feeling of not wanting to lose, as he sucked water into his mouth at the drinking fountain, an emotion he knew wouldn’t help him. It would be better, he thought, to want only to win, not to worry oneself with the consequences of a loss until that became a reality. It felt strange to be playing for a crowd again and stranger still to be almost the sole object of their attention. In high school and college his teammates were the stars, the ones who had the twenty-plus point averages, the ability to reverse slam dunk with two hands, the ones who had the articles written about them, who in passing mentioned “the great group of guys” who were their teammates.
Jeff ruthlessly overplayed Larry to his right, but Larry still hit a streak of shots that gave him an 8-5 advantage. For the first time since the games had started Jeff realized he could lose a hundred dollars and asked himself why in the hell he had decided to up the bet? He persisted with his strategic game and finally noticed that Larry fell for what Jeff considered a silly little move. He would back Larry in toward the basket, fake one way, then the other as if he were going to do a turnaround jumper, get Larry in the air then go underneath him and lay it in. What baffled him, what amazed him was that Larry fell for this three times and then Jeff started shooting the turnaround jumper and the shots sank and suddenly it was Jeff’s advantage 13-11.
With this score, Jeff faked a jump-shot from the top of the key that Larry went for, but as Jeff headed toward the basket Larry, in desperation, flung his leg out and sent Jeff sprawling to the floor and the ball out of bounds. Jeff landed on his left elbow hard, hard enough that he grabbed it and sat on the floor for some seconds before rising. What was going on? he thought to himself. This is a basketball game and this is the second time I’ve been on the floor in pain.
“My ball,” Larry said.
“What?” Jeff said incredulously from the floor.
“You tripped. It’s my ball.”
Jeff stood up. “You tripped me,” he said walking toward him. He had faced dirty players in college, but there was always a referee to defer to. As the team captain he would often mention to refs to “watch the elbows on number 34” or “look at 50, he’s doing a lot of pushing in the key,” but here it was will against will, man against man, two male wolves fighting for dominance.
“That’s not what happened. Incidental and unintentional contact–you could have just as easily made a lay-up–you just happened to fall–got tangled up in your own legs. It’s my ball.”
“Come on, Larry,” someone said.
“Shut-up!” he said. “This is our game. Let us settle it.”
Jeff stared hard at Larry. “You’re crazy! It was clearly intentional, it was clearly a foul.”
“Look, Socrates,” Larry said, “the rule, in case you’ve forgotten, is, ‘we call our own fouls.’ You agreed to it. I’m not calling a foul so it doesn’t matter what the hell you think.”
“The rule is ‘call your own foul,’ so when you foul it means you are supposed to call it.”
“I didn’t foul. I already told you that.”
Jeff didn’t know what to do. “You really think it’s your outs?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Larry said. “I’m sure of it. Technically, I had position–it was probably your foul, you didn’t call it, but since the ball went out-of-bounds–it’s a moot point.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Jeff said. “My foul?”
“It’s my ball either way you look at it,” he said confidently. “Now let’s finish this.”
Jeff stared at him for few seconds while he rubbed his elbow. “This is bullshit,” he said then tossed the ball to Larry. “Okay, take it.”
“What’s the score?”
“13-11, mine,” Jeff said.
Larry took the ball, shot from the top of the key and it swished through. 13-12. Then he faked left and Jeff overplayed him allowing him to go right where he pulled up for an 7 foot jumper that banked off the glass backboard into the basket. 13-13. But Larry’s next shot bounced off the back of the rim into Jeff’s hands. He circled back to the top the key. He was exhausted by now and believed his best chance was to shoot from the outside. He did–swish. 14-13. Larry handed him the ball within three feet of him and then played a ruthless defense, trying to steal the ball and all the while maintaining position, but Jeff patiently moved toward the basket absorbing Larry’s body pushes and, almost undramatically, ended the game with a little right-handed hook shot he tossed in crossing the key. 15-13. “Yes,” he said quietly, but intensely while making fist. It felt good, really good to have won.
“Fuck!” Larry said, but the crowd was yelling and clapping so loud that no one heard him. Jeff walked toward the drinking fountain. “Fuck!” Larry said again and this time everyone heard him.
“Nice going,” one of the spectators said to Jeff. He nodded.
“Good game,” someone else said.
“What you gonna ask him?” another player said.
“I don’t know.”
Jeff took a long drink. The ice cold water from the stainless steel spout tasted as good as anything he had ever had. He took big gulps then walked over to his gym bag lying on the floor and pulled out a towel. He wiped his face and legs, pulled his wet t-shirt off and put on a dry navy-blue one with no pocket.
Larry walked by him and said, “Oh, what a tragedy, Socrates. Now I have to answer some questions.”
No one had left. Jeff wandered out onto the court in the middle of the key where the spectators formed a half circle around him. It had gotten quiet. The tension seemed to be that of nervousness, as if suddenly everyone realized how awkward the situation had become. Jeff felt as if he were in high school, as if the assignment had been to have a topic ready for a research paper and with only minutes to go before he had to turn in his paper with a title and thesis sentence he still had no idea what to write. What kind of question would he ask? How would Larry answer it? Would he make a fool of himself?
Larry walked through the crowd and stood at the free-throw line facing Jeff. Neither of them said anything. The crowd waited.
“Well? Let’s go or do you just want some hemlock?” Larry said.
“Why?” Jeff asked.
“Why what?” Larry answered defiantly.
Jeff stared at him. He felt angry. He had not realized, until now as his body cooled down and the adrenalin left his system, the extreme soreness of his ribs. Each breath sent a sharp pain through his left side. “Why did you give me that shot to the ribs?”
“I’m a competitor,” Larry said without the slightest hesitation. “I wanted to win this thing and if you thought about coming inside on me, I wanted you to think about it. I called the foul,” Larry said as if that justified it. “It’s a legitimate tactic. I’ve had guys do it to me–I don’t complain about it–I just deal with it.”
“What about tripping me?”
“I was desperate.” It angered Jeff that Larry admitted tripping him. “I figured I’d argue with you. I figured one of us would give in and I knew it wouldn’t be me. You acquiesced quicker than I thought you would. It surprised me.”
“You don’t mind that you cheated?”
“Look,” Larry said wagging his head, “I play hard. I do what I have to. Remember, this is a game for men.”
“So you lie not only to me but in front everyone else here so you can win? Is that what you think it means to be a man?”
“This is the kind of stuff you want to ask me?” Larry chuckled to himself. “Being a man means you suck it up. It means you do what you have to to win, to be number one, to be the best.”
“So I suppose only cheaters and liars can be the best?”
“Look, I didn’t kill you, I didn’t draw blood.”
“Why not? Why not kill me?” Jeff said a little over-anxiously, sensing the weakness of Larry’s logic. “If you want to be the best, if you want to be number one, why not murder me? Is the only thing holding you back a jail cell? Are you simply a domesticated wild animal always in danger of reverting?”
Larry chuckled knowingly. “You act as if you’re different than me, as if you are somehow better than me. But you did what you thought you had to. I’m not stupid. I knew you were forcing me to my weak side. You did it most of the second game and the entire third game. It worked. You couldn’t play me straight up and you chose not to because you wanted to win and you did.”
“Within the bounds of the rules of the game,” Jeff said angrily and slowly. “It’s not the same thing.”
“Oh, really? Then answer me this: why did you choose Truth or Dare? Why not just take the money? I’ll tell you why. You wanted to upstage me, you wanted to get over on me in front of these guys. You wanted to win in your own way–you were making your own rules. We’re men you and I and we do what men do and if we don’t do it we become something less than men.”
Jeff hesitated, then said, “All I wanted to do was play a game of basketball. You’re the one who kept forcing the issue, who wanted to make a wager.”
“You didn’t have to agree to it. I didn’t make you, but you’re a competitor–just like me–and you gave in. The truth here is that I won. I got you to do what you really didn’t want to do. You did what I wanted you to do. That’s what separates leaders from followers and you followed me–grudgingly maybe, but nonetheless, you followed me onto this court and played my game.”
“No I didn’t,” Jeff responded. “I played my game. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t trip you. I didn’t do any of those things.”
“In your own way you did. That’s why we’re having this dialog. All men want to be the alpha dog–but there can only be one.”
“It’s not true. Maybe some men, but not all.”
“There’s only one richest man in world, only one world champion boxer, only one Michael Jordan. It pleased me to no end that you finally agreed to play–if not for money–at least for something. In the beginning I really thought you wouldn’t do it. You sounded so morally superior about it. But you wanted it. You wanted to win just as bad as I did.” Larry paused, it seemed, for effect. No one spoke, no one moved. The words carried through the gym like a coach lecturing his players on the finer points of a full-court press. “You played my game because you agreed to play. The truth here, Socrates, is that I won when you agreed to make the wager.”
“But you lost the fucking game.”
“I lose bets all the time.”
Jeff had not expected this. He had had a vague hope of putting this guy in his place, of making it obvious that he was a better man, that his job as a security guard did not make him less important than those he protected. He wanted Larry to realize the folly of his life in some cathartic revelation, as if he had walked down the aisle at a Billy Graham Crusade, sobbing uncontrollably, to get saved. Instead, however, Jeff realized his own folly in as startling a manner as when the wind having wound its way through the labyrinth of rooms and halls in a house suddenly slams the front door shut. He didn’t know what to say; he didn’t want to say anything.
Larry waited, shrugged his shoulders then turned and walked out of the gym. Jeff stood silent for a moment with the men who had been watching the game, men who also stood silent and still waiting for someone else to take the first step, to speak the first word.
“Fuckin’ Lawyer,” Jeff said.
“He’s not a lawyer,” a young, blond-haired man said.
“But a hundred dollars an hour?” Jeff said weakly.
“He was just talkin’ smack,” the young man said almost condescendingly. “He works at a Seven-Eleven–the graveyard shift.” The circle of men disintegrated with mumbling and the bouncing of basketballs.
Jeff grabbed his gym bag and walked slowly out of the gymnasium, past the soda pop machines and the recreation center office and out on to the top of the steps that overlooked the parking lot. He looked down the four lane street that passed by the gym as if he expected something, as if the cars and their occupants had some message for him in their patterns of blue, brown, red and white and in their constant jockeying for position. Further down the street, on the corner, he watched Larry step on to a city bus.