Posts Tagged ‘Jim Young’

Home Court

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Home court

Old Ball photo by Todd

“There are only two reasons why people fail. One is irresponsibility. The second is fear.” Wally Amos

I have been enjoying the occasional stint in the Mendocino High School gym assisting coach Jim Young with training his most promising basketball players. The ambience of the indoor court takes me back to my two years as a gym rat at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s when that university was only a few years old. I was not much interested in academia, and when I wasn’t writing my fledgling fiction or throwing a Frisbee or hunting for pianos to play, I could be found in the field house playing basketball.

A towering five-foot-ten, I was a good shooter, a better passer, a reluctant rebounder, and a fair defender when the spirit moved me. My freshman year, in those days when basketball was still largely a non-contact sport, I was perhaps the thirtieth best player on a campus with a few thousand students, not many of them basketball players. Having honed my shooting skills on a bumpy sloping driveway with an out-of-round hoop, playing in a gym with a springy wood floor and glass backboards and perfectly round hoops was profoundly pleasurable for me.

A month or so into my second year of college, my game took a quantum leap and I began to dominate players who had previously dominated me. Faculty members who frequented the gym began to address me by my first name, and older guys who had previously ignored me, now wanted me on their teams.

One afternoon I was playing one-on-one with Alex, a fellow gym rat a few inches shorter than I, having a silly good time, when into our gym strolled two young men we had never seen before. One was a muscular six-foot-five, the other a rangy six-foot-two. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

To my ears, the tone of their challenge was condescending, and to my eyes they swaggered arrogantly as they came onto the court; and the game was no longer a game for me, but a battle, a defense of the one place in the world where I felt strong and competent and respected.

These two young giants—Clark and Zack—warmed up a bit before we played, while Alex and I rebounded and fed them the ball to expedite their warming up. This courtesy seemed to puzzle them, for they came from much less polite basketball traditions than those established in our gym. Clark and Zack were not only taller and stronger than we were, they were both excellent shooters and good ball handlers, and I could tell by the sag of Alex’s shoulders that he had already conceded defeat.

But I was determined to give these supercilious invaders a better game than they expected, and we did just that. I caught fire, we rebounded with uncharacteristic ferocity, Alex made shots I had never seen him make before, and we won handily. Clark, the taller of our two opponents, was enraged in defeat, Zack disgusted, and they demanded a rematch. We agreed, and we beat them again, though it would be truer to say they beat themselves in their furious haste to atone for their first loss.

Following their second loss to us, Clark raged around the gym, his hysterical cursing punctuated by terrible threats, while Zack sneeringly referred to us as “lucky little wimps.” When we wouldn’t grant them a third game, they vociferously suggested our testicles were either very small or non-existent. And so, wishing to avoid physical harm, we bid the sore losers adieu.

The next day, I arrived at the gym to find both ends of the court clogged with games underway. I set about assembling a team to play the winners of the game at the end of the court where the better players usually played, and espying Clark, I invited him to join my team.

“I already have a team,” he said, looking down at me. “And I got winners.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I will continue my hunt for teammates.”

“Hey,” he said, snarling at me. “You know you just got lucky yesterday. Pure luck.”

“You think so?” I said, enjoying my recollections of our glorious victory. “I think it was more home court advantage. We know the terrain.”

“Bullshit,” he said, still seething in defeat. “I’ll kick your ass next time.”

And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Clark’s team get trounced by a team led by an Economics professor who had played on the Duke team that won the national championship a few years before. I always guarded that professor when we were on opposing teams, and I always set screens for him when we were on the same team because he never missed from anywhere unless someone was draped all over him.

Time passed and Clark eventually calmed down and became a fellow gym rat known for being a good guy prone to temper tantrums when his team lost, which was not often. Turns out he had been a high school superstar, set state scoring records, and had garnered a basketball scholarship to Stanford where his anger issues got him booted off the team midway through his freshman year. When Clark was at his best, he was stupendous, but like many great athletes, his impatience and lack of self-discipline were his greatest obstacles to success.

One day Clark and I were playing one-on-one, having a silly good time, when into the gym strolled two young men we had never seen in our gym before. One of them was six-seven, the other six-foot-three. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

They were good. Really good. But we beat them. Twice.

Afterwards, Clark said, “They had no idea who they were up against.”

“Home court advantage,” I added. “We know the terrain.”

Gym Rats

Monday, August 15th, 2016

oasis tw

Oasis painting by Nolan Winkler

Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”

Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…

While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.

Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.

The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”

Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.

I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.

After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.

Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.

It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.

On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.

His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.

He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.

We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.

Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.

An audio version of Ruby & Spear narrated by the author is available from iTunes and Audible, while used copies of the novel may be had for pennies online.

Dead Airplane Kerouac Caen

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” William Faulkner

When my wife and I joined forces four years ago, she came equipped with the nicely aged Toyota pickup I’d always wanted and I came with a Toyota station wagon ideal for toting cellos, so we swapped. The station wagon was subsequently crushed by a falling pine and replaced by a more commodious sedan, but the pickup lives on and I love the old thing.

Marcia bought the truck from the person who bought the truck new, Jim Young, our superlative chiropractor and friend and coach of the Mendocino High School (boys) basketball team. Now and then when I am under Jim’s thumbs, as it were, he will inquire about his former truck and I am happy to report the old thing is humming right along and still getting admirable mileage in this age of fast-rising fuel costs.

The pickup is faded white, eighteen years old, with the requisite rust spots and windows that must be manually cranked up and down. Otherwise non-descript, the truck sports a subtle ornament that Jim affixed to the rear window, an insignia identifying the vehicle as a chariot of the Dead, the Grateful Dead, the band, not my ancestors. I had no idea these five nearly identical dancing bears—blue green yellow orange pink—had anything to do with the Grateful Dead until shortly after I took the helm and picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Fort Bragg, his first words to me, “Love those bears, man. Long live Jerry Garcia.”

Over these ensuing four years, I have been treated to salutes, knowing smiles, waves, words of comradery, and a Pass The Joint victory signal on the order of once a month as a result of Jim affixing those dancing bears to the truck’s window. There seems to be some debate among Deadheads as to whether the bears are dancing in the manner of a famed fan named Owsley tripping on LSD or whether the bears are marching. One Grateful Dead web site claims that a flipbook rendition of the bears proves conclusively that they are marching. In any case, a Gypsy woman winked at me yesterday as a consequence of those bears, and her wink sent me hurtling back to the bygone years of my youth when I and a few of my friends had the Grateful Dead, live, all to ourselves for hours on end.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Grateful Dead fan. Indeed, the only Dead tune I ever liked was Barefootin’ from their very first album, and the only words I think I remember from that song are See that girl, barefootin’ along, whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s, I had a friend who was a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, if you can imagine such a thing, and after attending their third concert of astonishingly accurate, and, to me, horrifying imitations of their heroes, I have avoided listening to the Grateful Dead for lo these forty years. Yet I do love the Grateful Dead, for they were of the utmost importance to me in my teenage years and provided the soundtrack for a great awakening.

“Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.” Sean O’Faolain

Ladera is a housing development a few miles from Stanford University that sprang up in the 1950’s and was home to professors and doctors and stock brokers and dentists and school teachers, mostly white people with a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese families, and a few serious artists who liked living close to San Francisco in a rural setting not far from beaches with such beautiful names as San Gregorio, Pomponio, and Pescadero.

Ladera had an elementary school that sent its graduates to junior high at La Entrada in Menlo Park, and from there to Woodside High, famous for being the first public high school in America to have a major pot bust in the early 1960’s, many of those busted being children of the first families of Ladera. And it was there in Ladera that the Grateful Dead, yes, Jerry’s band when the keyboard player was a gravel-voiced guy called Pig Pen, used to rehearse on weekends in the multi-purpose room at the elementary school; and I and a handful of my friends were admitted to that sanctum to dance to the music on a vast expanse of highly polished linoleum.

What I remember most vividly about those amazing afternoons are two superb conga players, each with multiple drums, and several men with long hair and mustaches playing guitars in front of stacks of amplifiers, Pig Pen hunched over his keyboard, the music all of a piece—a vast electric raga made of pulsing chords and hypnotic rhythms over which fantabulous guitar solos cried like phantasmagoric muezzins to which I danced and twirled and danced, my too too solid flesh melting and resolving into sweat and ecstasy, my body free of pain at last, and those persistent inner voices of doubt and shame drowned in the sonic deluge, my entire being steeped in glorious visions of life beyond the choking confines of suburbia and parental neuroses.

And I remember my anguish when I arrived at the multi-purpose room one sunny Saturday afternoon and found the entrance barred by a huge man who said the rehearsals were now closed to the likes of me, only invited guests allowed, my magical mystery tour at end. I waited around for my friends to show up, and watched indignantly as the bouncer admitted my most beautiful friends Mona and Cassie, and rebuffed all the boys and the less beautiful girls. But that big goon couldn’t take away the visions I’d had while dancing to those awesome ragas of the Dead; and I vowed to start my own band one day and blow the roof off the jail, so to speak, and set everybody free.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Denis Diderot

My father had a 1963 Karmann Ghia, red bottom, white top. Cute little long-nosed Italian body, a two-seater with a Volkswagen engine. Remember those? In 1966, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, the Karmann Ghia got about thirty miles to the gallon, and it was twenty-seven miles from Redwood City to San Francisco. Four teenagers could squeeze into that little car, one in the cramped back compartment, one sitting on the lap of the one sitting in the passenger seat, and one (me) driving. And that’s how we got to the Fillmore, that vast windowless rotting warehouse in a dangerous part of San Francisco on many a Saturday night to hear Quicksilver Messenger Service (with or without Dino Valenti) open for the Grateful Dead who then set the stage for the Jefferson Airplane, pre-Grace Slick.

I have had several musical heroes in my life, most of them jazz people, but I have only adored one band and that was the original Jefferson Airplane. I saw the Airplane perform with their first female vocalist Signe Anderson four times, and each time I saw them they were brilliant and fabulously musical. Then Signe split and I was devastated, the devastation of a jilted teen. And then Grace Slick came aboard and my misery deepened, for to my ears the magical synergy of my favorite band was gone, so I kissed the folk rock scene goodbye.

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted;

One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing

Material place.
”

Emily Dickinson

So here we are forty-five years later living in the wilds of Mendocino where through the auspices of unseen patrons the San Francisco Chronicle arrives on our driveway every Sunday morning. The Chronicle of today is largely unreadable junk and wire service propaganda, but I dutifully solve the Sunday Jumble words, skim the Sports section for news of the Giants, and thank those unseen ones for providing us with a week’s worth of fire starter.

And this morning, while I was getting the fire going, a headline in last week’s pink section caught my eye: Jefferson Airplane Mansion for sale. Upon closer examination, I found this headline to be the lead item of a section entitled Wayback Machine, the headline referring to something that happened twenty-five years ago.

“February 4, 1986. The ‘Airplane House,’ a piece of San Francisco rock n’ roll history, is up for sale. The mansion overlooking Golden Gate Park that was once the home of the Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneer psychedelic bands of the ‘60s, is on the market for $795,000. The three-story, Colonial Revival-style mansion on Fulton Street, with its distinctive Doric columns in front, has 17 rooms, stained-glass windows, silk wallpaper, rich mahogany woodwork, fireplaces on every level and lots of memories. ‘If the walls could talk,’ said Nadine Condon, publicist for Starship, the band that evolved from the original group. ‘We’ve had some great parties here,’ she said, climbing to the uppermost floor. ‘The joke used to be that the higher you got, the higher you got.’ In 1968, still flush from the Summer of Love a year earlier, band mates Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady and their manager Bill Thompson, bought the mansion for $70,000. When the mansion was built in 1904 by R.A. Vance, a lumber baron, the Golden Gate Park did not exist and sand dunes rolled uninterrupted to the ocean. The mansion survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. According to legend, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, a friend of Vance, fled from the Palace Hotel on the day of the quake and found refuge in the house. Most of the house is as it always was, but the second-floor kitchen is trimmed in orange and purple Day-Glo paint. ‘The last vestiges of hippiedom,’ Condon said.”

EARLY SPRING

The dog writes on the window

With his nose

Philip Whalen

So what should I find on the flip side of that pink page with the story of the Jefferson Airplane mansion but a Chronicle Classic reprint of Herb Caen’s column from October 22, 1969, entitled One thing after another, which includes the following:

“Poor, embittered Jack Kerouac, dead at 47, almost forgotten in the North Beach byways he frequented—and helped make famous—more than a decade ago. In his last years, he turned on the young people, sometimes viciously, and they in turn turned their backs on him. Yet a small literary niche will forever be his. ‘On the Road’ remains the finest chronicle of the Beatnik era.”

And in the same Caen column: “Steve Frye, a hippie-hating L.A. policeman, now has mixed emotions. Last Wed. night, driving through the rain in Big Sur, he had a flat tire, and the only people who stopped to help him were—two hippies. This so unraveled him that after he drove on he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge to pick up a hippie hitchhiker. Which he did. There is hope for us all.”

See that girl, barefootin’ along,

Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.

There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,

She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street