Sports is a metaphor for a lot of things, many of them fairly mundane if not moronic. But one very beautiful and meaningful thing is sportsmanship. Playing fair, and cleanly, and being a good teammate, is no small metaphor for how a person should always try to live, even as it is largely a neglected art on the professional level where trash talk and loudly stinking millionaire egotism has become the norm in our sickened unto the death society.
Top personal contender for my proudest sports moment was a long, grueling contest I had on a paddle ball court in Queens with an Israeli who kept assuring his friend, waiting to play the winner on the only court available, that he’d beaten me many times, that I was shit, that he’d kick my ass easily, that I was lucky as a bitch every time I made a good shot. In his defense, he said all this in Hebrew and had no idea I understood everything he was saying.
He soon had me down 9-2 in a 15 point game, then 12-3. Then I just got sick of hearing his bullshit and wound up beating him in triple or quadruple overtime. You have to win by two when the game is tied at 14, 15, 16, etc. and in the end I did. He was like a wet, wrung-out rag as his friend started on to the court to play me.
I graciously gave them the court, but not before turning to my opponent, putting a hand on his shoulder, and telling him in flowing colloquial Hebrew “this happened to you, sweetheart, because it wasn’t enough for you to play the game and win– you wanted to annihilate me….”. The look on his face was indescribable and his friend had a very hard time not pissing himself as he fell over in hysterics. I waved goodbye and walked off, feeling like a true champion. I remember feeling like Bruce Lee.
But that was an ego-gratifying event in a sport I had decent skill in. The true number one moment in my life playing sports was this one, years later, with much less personal glory in it for me, but much more illustrative of the way I have always tried to live.
I taught a semester of French (a language I mangle badly) at the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public middle school in East Harlem, directly across the East River from Yankee Stadium. I was hired because the dynamic principal, Lorraine Monroe, hated her French teacher and wanted to get rid of him. I’d been working in every kind of weather (there were many blizzards that winter) as a sub at the attached elementary school, been screwed by the moron principal of the other place, who reneged on her offer of a full time job, and I went to the other side of the building to say goodbye to Ms. Monroe.
“Widaen, do you speak French by any chance?” she asked me. I told her I was taking a French translation test at CCNY in a few weeks to complete my Masters requirements. That was good enough for her.
I rehearsed the line I delivered with a Gallic shrug when the French department chair asked me how my French was. “Le Francais n’est pas exactement mon metier, you know,” here I gave the nonchalant little shrug and added what I didn’t know how to say in French “but I can get by”. He nodded, good enough for him. I was hired for an extended joke term as French teacher for several classes of 8th and 9th graders.
At the school there were several Teach for America teachers, America’s brightest and most idealistic young graduates, who taught for a year or two in inner city schools before going on to their graduate studies and lucrative and fabulous medical, legal, financial careers.
Toward the end of the year there was a school sports day and Lorraine Monroe walked her entire school and staff a couple of miles across Harlem to the State Park built on top of the sewage treatment plant on the Hudson River in West Harlem. The Park was impressive, a giant running track, many basketball courts, both indoor and outdoor, a weight room, tennis courts, an indoor pool. This particular day the air flow was moving the right way and it did not smell like the million tons of human waste being processed directly under us. In fairness to the many Harlemites who had protested its construction, on many days the whole neighborhood now does smell like shit.
When we got to the track, one of the young Teach for America guys, a tennis pro, I’d heard, challenged me to a foot race. He was ten years younger than me, and wiry, but the kids seemed to want to see the race, so I said ‘sure’. I was amazed by the number of kids who were noisily rooting for me as we ran. He claimed he won, but if he did, it was by less than a step. A surprisingly slow motherfucker for a young tennis pro, I remember thinking. I probably said as much to him at the time.
But that was not the great sports moment. It came an hour or two later, when I walked into a gym where a full court basketball game was going on. For some reason the tennis pro and an even more athletic Teach for America guy were on one team, the other team was all kids. The team with the two adults was beating them something like 45-6 when I stepped on to the court for the side that was having its ass kicked.
I don’t recall taking a single shot, or pulling down a single board, and I never was a very good basketball player. I just fell into the point guard role. I kept calmly talking sense, distributing the ball, pointing out a guy who wasn’t covered, getting everyone back on defense.
In a very short time the game was tied. I remember the way my teammates changed their demeanor, from whipped dogs to the clearly better team. I remember the shock on the two young superstar teacher’s faces as the seesaw pivoted, the cautious way they started to play, the shots they were suddenly bricking.
I don’t remember the final outcome. I think I probably left before the end of the game, rotated back out and left the gym, never found out who won or lost, I truly didn’t give a shit.
It remains my proudest sports moment.