by Ron Singer.
“If you ever diss my kid again, I’m gonna’ fuck you up —bad!”
I was shocked. I mean, this from the mouth of a fifty-something wearing an expensive suit and Gucci loafers, no socks or tie. Not only. Hank, his son, was our best player and, if anything, Coach’s Pet.
The threat was hissed in my ear after a Time-Out, right before the end of the first half of a rematch with a fierce rival. (Earlier in the season, they had beaten us by eight, at their place.) Okay, maybe, I had been a little harsh, but, shit, it was richly deserved. Although the kid, our off-guard, had made five of six three-point attempts, and led all scorers, he had been acting as if defense was not included in his job description.
What I said was, “Say, Hank, ever heard of boxing out? Their center has scored at least three put-backs while you stood there with your thumb up your ass. Yes, I know, you’re our leading scorer. But, on this team, there are no prima donnas. Capiche, Master Bader?”
Maybe, I shouldn’t have used that particular term of address. I mean, how would I have felt if someone had publically called my kid –if I had one– a self-abuser? (My ex-wife would have laughed.) I’m sure that was what prompted Bader Senior’s threat. Come to think of it, he had probably endured the same insult throughout his own youth. And the “thumb up your ass” part just added insult to insult.
In the second half, things really went our way. Hank wound up with twenty-eight, and we won by eleven. At the end, again with Mr. B. in earshot, I made it a point to single out his son.
“Great game, Hank,” I said, slapping him five. “Nice D. in the second half.”
Of course, the praise was merited, but it also showed I had not forgotten the ridiculous threat. Or was it ridiculous? I’ve heard enough stories about the parents at our fancy prep school to know that at least a couple of them are connected. Last spring, for instance, the father of one of our girls, the CEO of a big telecoms outfit, was found stuffed in the trunk of his own car, which I think was a CTS-V Caddy sedan. The trunk capacity of that baby (my ex-brother-in-law has one) is 13.7 cubic feet, about the size of a top-freezer refrigerator. The dead guy –I coach Amy, his daughter, in J.V. Softball, nice girl, good hitter—was built more along the lines of a wood stove. I heard he had been a gambler who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay his debts.
As usual on game days, it was after ten by the time I climbed down from the commuter train in Bentwood Heights, Long Island, which is where I live. Since I was bushed, I decided to take the shortcut to my home, through back streets, instead of the less-deserted Main Street. I knew this was somewhat risky, because there were a couple of gangs in town that had been growing bolder lately. But, hey, I’m a pretty bold guy, myself –or, on that night, at least, a pretty stupid one.
They came at me front and back, unmasked, apparently ignoring the bright LED lamps the town had installed last summer. There were five of them, three in front, two behind, as I saw when I jerked my head around. No one flashed a weapon, so maybe they were aware of the penal code.
The leader seemed to be a wiry little tow-headed guy with Slavic features. (Why was I glad to see that this gang was integrated?) Getting in my face, he made the three-fingered gesture, meaning “Your money! Now!”
Although my hands were shaking violently, I managed to get my wallet out, and to hand over the bills, fifty-three dollars. I was hoping they would not demand my credit cards or smartphone, or escort me to an ATM machine.
After counting the money, Tow Head surprised me by handing back the three singles. Then, he made a shushing gesture, whistled to the others as if they were trained dogs, and they all loped off, three toward the corner in front, two, behind.
The entire incident had taken no more than a minute, and not a word had been spoken. My heart was thumping like a basketball being pounded on the gym floor.
I realized that, if I called the police immediately, some, at least, of the muggers might be apprehended. But, after a few seconds’ hesitation, I decided not to do this, and I made my way home. “Why?” you ask.
Later, in the shower and, then, in bed, I thought the reason was that trying to catch these kids would not have been worth the hassle. Or, maybe, my decision was influenced by the three dollars. The next morning, as I took the shortcut again, back to the station, I had a nagging suspicion that the real reason was that I was scared.
By the time I was riding the subway from the train station to school, I had developed a full-blown theory. Mr. Bader had, indeed, sent the gang after me, but, because I had praised his son after the game, his threat had been modified to, “If you ever diss my kid again, I’m gonna’ fuck you up. This time, you’re lucky. You get off with a warning.” Were the three returned singles part of the luck, or part of the warning?
Wanting further answers, I considered how to get them. Seven hours later, at the start of practice, my light bulb went on. While the boys were stretching, I called Hank over.
“What’s up, Coach?” he asked, in his usual breezy manner. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, no,” I said, with a smile. “Quite the contrary. I just wanted to let you know you were our MVP last night.”
“Nah,” he said, grinning. “Derek was.” He referred to our flashy African-American point guard, a scholarship student from Brooklyn. “The only reason I scored twenty-eight was, Derek had twelve assists.”
“You’re both good.” I smiled again, trying not to overdo it. “Oh, and I want you to thank your father for me, for last night.”
He looked puzzled. “What … for screaming at you after you chewed me out? Which I completely deserved?”
“No, for what happened –and didn’t happen—on my way home.” He looked even more puzzled. “Tell your dad Coach thanks him for what didn’t happen on the way home. Can you remember that?”
I sent him back out onto the floor, blew my whistle, and we started lay-up drills.
The next afternoon, I waited for Hank to approach me with his dad’s response. But he didn’t. All through practice –a good one– I waited. Then, as the boys were heading for the showers, I called him over again.
“Well?” I asked. “What did he say?”
Again, he looked puzzled. “Wha…”
“What did your dad say when you told him I thanked him?”
He gave a nervous little laugh. “He didn’t say anything. He, uh, just looked surprised.”
The boy had obviously forgotten my request, but I decided to drop the matter. “No harm, no foul,” I said, not sure, myself, of what I meant. And that was that.
Except “that was that” often isn’t. A few days later, at the next game, Mr. Bader stood at his usual station behind our bench. Hank’s shot was off that night, but he was busting his butt, playing tough D. and passing brilliantly. At half time, we led by seven. Derek had twelve, nine of them off assists from Hank. After I had complimented the team for not taking our weak opponent lightly, and sent them off to the showers, Mr. Bader approached, this time with outstretched hand.
“Great job, Coach,” he said. “And, oh, I wanted to apologize for being such a rude asshole last week. I was way out of line.”
“No, no,” I said, “it was me who was rude –to your son.”
“Well, I guess we’re even, then.” And he extended his hand again.
Since we had nothing else in common, there was an awkward silence. Then, since I’m an impulsive guy, I blurted it out. “Well, it cost me fifty bucks, but what the hell? Easy come, easy go.”
“’Fifty bucks’?” he repeated. “What are you talking about?”
Now I knew. And out of my rich imagination came the perfect lie to shut this business down. “That’s right,” I said. “See, I’m aware that I have some anger management issues.”
“So my ex-wife and I devised a way to control my outbursts. Whenever I realize I’ve gone over the line, I donate fifty bucks to charity.”
I could see his brain whirring, as he thought of half-a-dozen questions at once. But he must have told it –his brain—to simmer down, because, when he replied, in a soft voice, all he said was, “Maybe, I should try that.”
Maybe, I should, too.