Jeff Pearlman

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Once you quit something …

Today, while dropping off my kids at elementary school, I was stopped by the principal—who happens to be a fellow Mahopac High School alum.

“Don’t you have anything good to say about Mahopac?” he asked. “Something?”

I thought about it for a tad, then told him I’d write about my experience as a member of the Mahopac High School varsity basketball team. Which lasted, I think, four days.

Back in the fall/winter of 1989, I decided to try out for the varsity. My odds weren’t great: A. Because I’d been cut from freshman and junior varsity; B. Because I’d spent the past three basketball seasons averaging about 5 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots alongside a group of friends on a team I called the Runnin’ Jeffies of the Mahopac Sports Association’s CBA-esque high school league; C. Because, save for blocking shots and defending small forwards, I wasn’t especially good.

That said, I loved basketball. Absolutely l-o-v-e-d it. Mine was the story of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird … when it didn’t work out. Shooting hoops in my driveway well into the night. Always looking for H-O-R-S-E or pickup games. Imagining myself as Bernard King or Jamaal Wilkes or Mike O’Koren. Were it not for a two-inch vertical and a 60-percent layup percentage, I could have been somewhat mediocre.

Anyhow, tryouts took three or four days, and I did, eh, OK. I could rebound, I could play defense, I could block shots. I recall hitting a couple of lucky 3s, and absolutely busting my ass. But, also, I was sort of a joke. The team’s stars, Louie Hanner and Larry Glover and Rick Oubina, never took my efforts particularly seriously, and I couldn’t blame them. My game was soft.

Finally—cut day. The coach, a local police officer named Lance DeMarzo, called each player in, one by one. Hanner, Glover, Rick Oubina, Jonathan Kozak, Chris Brown. Finally, dear God, me. He sat me down and asked if I felt I deserved a roster spot.

“I think so,” I said. “I play hard.”

“Would you be willing to do anything we ask?” he said.

“Sure.”

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “If I keep you, you’ll be out 12th man. That means not much playing time, that means keeping the scorebook, that means …”

“Sure.”

“OK,” he said. “Congratulations. You’ve made it.”

My legs went numb. I was a kid who ran for student government FIVE times, sans a victory; a kid who twice was cut from hoops. I made it! I friggin’ made it! I could have floated out of the gym. Hell, I did float out of the gym. However, upon reaching my car I was greeted by an awful sight. My best friend, Jonathan Powell, had been cut, and was standing there, crying. It was inexplicable—Powell was bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me. We had roughly the same game, only he did everything better. It was a heartbreaking moment.

I went home, told my parents I’d made it. A day later, uniforms were handed out. I was given No. 11—my lucky number, dating back to Little League. The first practice was all about defense; positioning; spacing. The second practice was probably the same. On the third practice, however, something happened. Three members of the previous year’s team—Pat Mealy, Vin DiGrandi and Kevin Downes—returned from college. The coach organized a scrimmage. “Current varsity against the three returnees,” he said. “Pearlman, you play with the three guys.”

What? Really? What the …

I slung a blue jersey over my shirt and joined their team. None of the three acknowledged my existence. I was there, but barely. I could have sat down on the court, Indian style, and no one would have noticed. Mealy was a quarterback at Hofstra, DiGrandi a shortstop at Nebraska, Downes a defensive back at Boston University. In other words: They didn’t exactly need me.

DeMarzo coached his players, offered instruction and critiques, as I starred as No. 0—the Invisible Man.

After 10 minutes or so, I had it. I walked off the court, threw my jersey on the ground and yelled, “To hell with this! I quit!” It was 17-year-old anger and frustration and disappointment and embarrassment and rage. I’d show them! Fucking coach! Fucking ex-players! To hell with them!

Upon further reflection I, of course, felt like a fool. I’d made a team and—pfft—now I’d thrown it away.

Tom Gilchrist—wise.

 

I tried hiding my feelings; tried telling folks it was for the best. Early the next week I approached Tom Gilchrist, my cross country coach (running was, by far, my best sport) and the freshman basketball coach. Before I’d decided to try out for hoops, he told me I could always help with the frosh.

“Well, I quit!” I told him. “I didn’t need that. And now I can work with you guys. What do you think?”

Coach Gilchrist was my all-time favorite. Thoughtful. Quiet. Wise. I will never, ever forget him looking at me, with that disappointed glare. When he spoke, his words carried emphasis. Weight.

“Jeff,” he said, “once you quit something, it gets easier and easier to do.”

That was 23 years ago. I’m 40 now, with a wife, two kids, a dog with a cone on her head. I’ve had extreme highs, extreme lows. I have never, ever forgotten Coach Gilchrist’s wisdom. I’ve repeated it often. To my kids. To friends. And, for as much as I regretted surrendering my hoop dream, I benefitted by being told those simple words.

“Once you quit something, it gets easier and easier to do.”

I rarely quit.

PS: Kevin Downes, a great guy, now coaches at Mahopac. It’s a wonderful story.

  • http://metsilverman.com metsilverman.com

    I live in a small town where they essentially beg the girls to play on the high school teams. My daughter, a freshman who is–unlike me–a good athlete, didn’t want to play hoops because her friends were bagging it. Next time she complains about a road trip, so-and -so being a you-know-what, or how much she hates whatever sport it is, I’ll send her this. Thanks.

  • http://www.alanpaul.net Alan Paul

    Good story and one to which I relate very closely. I had a very similar hoops game and also some big regrets about quitting 8th grade CYO travel team where I was 12th man. I actually didn’t show up to the final tryout because I was certain I wouldn’t make it and thought I’d save myself humiliation.

    The coach sought me out to make the point that I would have been on the team and I was a coward. He was a little nicer than that, but I got the point, and it also had a deep impact on my approach to life.

  • Carrie Larsen

    My late husband who was a professional cyclist would never quit a race. Greg Lemond warned him early on that if you quit one its easier to quit the next. Wise words.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life