A Draft Excerpt from An African Rebound II
(Tentative Pub Date: October 2017)
Protagonist Jim Keating Meets Jackie Robinson
Jim's residence was atop a hill on the outskirts of Bujumbura, secured by an armed guard and a 15-foot high cast iron gate with spear-point rods. The residence was typical of the splendid quarters provided to those serving in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, especially in third-world countries like Burundi, where prime real estate could be purchased at a fraction of the cost of similar American properties.
"The pay for our diplomats is modest, but the living quarters, and the presence of servants, make for a very comfortable lifestyle," Jim's friend and savior, Barry Sklar, had told him.
Whenever Jim passed through the gate, he was always struck by the geometric balance of the grounds, which featured a French-style garden, tended to by Josiane Kakunze. A panoply of blossoming flowers included a special patch that Jim and Josiane had planted just prior to his trip home.
“This garden will become your loyal friend, Mr. Coach,” Josiane had said at the first planting. She was right, and Jim had come to value the patience and effort required of gardeners.
As Sklar had promised, Jim's domicile was an elegantly furnished apartment adjacent to the main white stucco house, with a spectacular view of the garden and Lake Tanganyika. The main house was empty while its diplomatic occupant, Deputy Chief of Mission, Jesse Abbot, was back in Virginia, on leave to try to sort out marital difficulties which had seen his wife hastily depart with their two children. Jim had quickly learned that the biggest adjustment for U. S. foreign service families, especially spouses and children, was to be so far away from home and loved ones – “the loneliness born of distance,” was the way Jim heard it described by another diplomat.
Jim was feeling that sort of loneliness at the moment, a temporary state of ennui. He didn’t know exactly why. Age? Maybe. Francesca? Likely. He ambled onto the veranda, settled into his favorite cushioned wicker chair, and gazed out at Lake Tanganyika. The coach had just finished reading, “I Never Had It Made,” a pretty good autobiography of Jackie Robinson and he thought about a recent reference the ambassador had made about Robinson. Her statement had evoked a memory, touching and unfading, and one he would share with her in a future discussion.
Philadelphia -- August 1945 – The Cathedral of College Basketball.
A couple weeks earlier, on what would become VJ Day, Jim had arrived home, bearing no physical but a multitude of psychological wounds. After spending three incessantly grueling years in the Pacific, he had developed a disdain for war and contempt for certain military “heroes,” notably MacArthur.
Jim’s first activity upon returning to Worcester was to accompany his mother, Mary, to his father’s gravesite, a visit that had reduced the young but hardened veteran to tears – and the resurgence of festering anger. Only two months after Jim had shipped out to the Pacific, a drunk driver had killed Frank Keating. Jim expected bereavement leave, but his platoon leader had said indifferently, “No way we can get you out of here, Keating. Sorry.”
Encounters with the Japanese were relentlessly vicious, often hand-to-hand. When a supply plane did get in, it went back out full of wounded. Jim stifled his anger-filled sorrow until he learned that the same lieutenant managed to get home for a cousin’s funeral. Upon his return, Jim could not resist: “I should make a complaint about you. Stay clear of me.”
The lieutenant said nothing and followed his subordinate’s inflexible order. War can change the way things are done.
After visiting the grave, Jim’s next stop was the home of Edna McCarthy. With no money, and the silent approval of Edna’s parents, Jim played the parlor, the only exceptions an afternoon at White City Theater to see Casablanca with Bogey and Bergman, and his daily workout at St. Peter’s High, nearly a mile from Edna’s home.
Each day, Edna joined Jim on the blazing hot asphalt court, serving as his feeder -- 300 daily shots -- then watching him run his wind sprints. Paul Procopio, a high school classmate, would faithfully drive by in his milk truck toward the end of the sessions and present both Jim and Edna with a daily quart of milk. Edna would gasp then laugh as Jim would down the entire quart in one gulp!
By the time he departed for the “City of Brotherly Love” ten days later, Jim had adopted as his mantra a saying a fellow soldier had shared during a long night of treacherous fighting: “Jimmy, any time not spent on love is wasted .”
Jim’s trip to Philadelphia was to take part in a tryout for one of two basketball scholarships still available at St. Thomas College. A decade later, when he became head coach at St. Thomas, the NCAA would preclude such tryouts, one of many foolish decisions by an organization Jim found to be rigid, if not archaic.
The tryout was held at The Palestra … The Cathedral. Nineteen players – all military veterans – showed up to compete for the two spots. Because it was too late to register for first semester, the two chosen ones would begin their careers in second semester – January 1946.
Like most of the other hopefuls, Jim had not touched a basketball for his nearly three years in the Army. The ship ride home from the Pacific gave him the opportunity to regain some of his lost weight and strength. The multiple hours at the St. Peter’s court further improved his conditioning, as did a scrimmage he arranged with some Holy Cross players who would soon become fabled in college hoops annals.
Jim had wanted to play for Holy Cross, and remain in his hometown – close to Edna and his mother. But when he contacted the school’s Hall of Fame coach, Doggie Julian, Julian told him he’d committed all of his scholarships. Some of the Holy Cross players Jim scrimmaged with would lead the Crusaders to the 1947 NCAA Championship. That team would feature a dazzling freshman, an 18-year old from New York City by the name of Robert Joseph Cousy, along with a cast of military veterans, including another gifted New Yorker, Joe Mullaney, against whom Jim would coach – Mullaney becoming a household name at Providence College before serving as Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, which featured Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
The three hour tryout was the most intense, combative athletic competition Jim Keating had ever experienced -- before or since. Nearly all of the19 players competing for the two scholarships – including Jim -- had no other firm educational options at the time. For the most part, the group had been among the last to be discharged, and those with earlier release dates had taken up most of the available college basketball grant-in-aids.
During the tryout, Jim remembered thinking that the war he had left behind had come back with him to that hallowed court, which hosted the famed Philadelphia rivalries including St. Joe's, LaSalle, Temple, Penn –and the emerging St. Thomas basketball program. Four fist-fights and a swarm of flying elbows reflected the urgency that many of the players felt, knowing that this scrimmage might be their only opportunity to further their education. “My one chance to get out of the coal mines of West Virginia,” a rugged 6’4” center had said to Jim during pre-scrimmage warm-ups.
The young St. Thomas coach, Chris McKeon, who had been a hard-nosed football and basketball player at Southern Cal, had made arrangements for a 20th player to join in – an old friend against whom McKeon had competed in college. This allowed the coach to make up four teams of five.
The surprise guest, Jackie Robinson, was in town playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Jim knew of Robinson, who had drawn national acclaim for his exploits at UCLA in football, where he led the nation in kickoff returns, in basketball, where he led the PAC-8 conference in scoring , in track and field, where he was an NCAA champion in the long jump, and in baseball, allegedly his fourth best sport while a Bruin.
“Robinson is the best all-around American athlete since Jim Thorpe,” iconic sportswriter, Grantland Rice, had written.
For Jim, and likely most of the other hopefuls, playing against an African-American was a new experience. Having grown up in Worcester, his St. Peter’s High School team had never competed against a black player. In the late '30s, Worcester's integration was limited to the Irish, Italians, WASPs , Poles, Swedes, and Jews.
Jim never forgot a deplorable incident that occurred at the very beginning of the tryout. When Robinson walked onto the court, one of the 19 players walked off, saying loudly, "I ain't playing against any nigger." It caused Coach McKeon to suit up with one of the teams and Jim to notice that Robinson showed no emotion to the vicious affront. How could he be so composed?
Despite the segregated units in World War II, Jim had gotten to know several African-Americans during the war, and he grew to respect them. Yet in truth, he had never given much thought to the notion of true integration. Such separation was simply the way of his country – in war and peace. But that view would change in Philadelphia.
The Palestra was blazing hot – no air conditioning in those days. Jim’s time in the Pacific had accustomed him to brutal heat, a helpful aid in the tryout. Along with the unarmed combat, the games included a skill that Jim had heard about but had never seen executed – the jump shot.
The practitioner: Jackie Robinson.
It was only minutes into the first five-on-five “run” when Robinson, who was on Jim’s team, pulled up on a fast break. With a defender crowding him, Robinson elevated a good eighteen inches off the ground, positioned the ball above his head, and released it softly and with backspin. Jim remembered watching the ball caress the chain-link net – then observing the surprised expressions of most of the players.
After that shot, and several other uncanny moves, it was clear that Robinson was the best player on the court, and the entire mood of the scrimmage changed, providing Jim with the first indelible lesson of the day. For it was Robinson’s brilliant play that caused Jim to consider, albeit briefly, a point that would eventually shape his thinking about bias of any sort. When someone does something very well, something that others admire, and wish they could do as well, and that someone is of a different race or creed, it causes at least a few to realize the shame of prejudice. Jim would be reminded of that notion years later when sports were finally integrated, and white boys would holler, “I’m Elgin Baylor” and Catholic and Protestant boys would yell with equal zest, “I’m Sandy Koufax.”
The fact that Robinson had been teamed with Jim was, he realized, a stroke of luck: not only did Robinson have remarkable individual talent, but he and Jim quickly adjusted to each other’s style and their skills complemented each other.
When the scrimmage ended, several white players who had cold-shouldered Robinson shook his hand. As he walked off that venerable court, its wood surface moistened by the sweat of the participants, Jim knew that he had teamed with the greatest athlete he had seen at that point – and one of the two best he would ever encounter – the other being Jim Brown when Keating’s St. Thomas coached basketball team played the Syracuse Orangemen. In fact, Keating thought that both Robinson and Brown could have been NBA players, had they not chosen the two professional sports – baseball and football – that made them iconic.
Another enduring lesson demonstrated by Robinson that day was his “competitive self-restraint” -- competing ferociously but maintaining his self-control. It was a lesson Jim carried forward throughout his playing and coaching career.
And, of course, there was that wondrous athletic skill. After the scrimmage, Jim discarded his two-hand set shot, one that had resulted in many points back in high school, and developed a jumper which, at the time, was still rare, and even opposed by many of the coaches of that era, a notable exception being Hall of Famer Joe Lapchick, who said presciently, “The jump shooter knows when he is going to jump. You don’t.”
Walking out of the Palestra with Robinson, Jim spontaneously raised a question: “Jackie, would you like to join me for a bite to eat?”
“Thanks, Jim. But I’ve got to catch a train to New York in an hour.”
Jim made eye contact, then paused. After fumbling for a moment for words, he said, “That … that incident at the beginning. When the guy walked off. I … I’m sorry."
“Me too. You know, when I arrived, Chris McKeon pointed that guy out to me. Said he thought the guy would get one of the two scholarships. What a damn fool, Jim.”
“That he is, Jackie.”
Next morning, August 28, 1945, Coach Chris McKeon informed Jim Keating that he would receive one of the two scholarships to St. Thomas. Later that day, at the Brooklyn Dodgers Headquarters, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson engaged in a historic three-hour meeting with Branch Rickey that set the stage for his entry into Major League Baseball two years later.
Over time, Jim would often think of the man he dubbed in his mind: “The Walk Off.” He wondered what would have happened to his life if Mr. Walk Off had stayed. He also wondered what would have happened had he not been teamed up with the great Jackie Robinson, who brought out Jim Keating’s basketball best.
Jim smiled at the Robinson memory and reached over for the large envelope, eager to read the ambassador’s overview. With each turn of the page, the coach grew increasingly excited, seeing that what the ambassador proposed – the African Scholar-Athlete Games -- not only made sense but could have a profound impact on Burundi youth -- indeed on African youth.
When finished, he placed the overview back atop the ebony gaboon table, and noticed that the last glow of sunset created a brilliant Burundian sky with shifting variations of vivid orange creased by strands of slowly darkening clouds. Weary from the long day of travel and activity, Jim nodded off, only to awaken two hours later, heeding the call of his enlarged prostate.
By now it was dark. Jim stood on the veranda gazing at the moon-lit and star-filled sky and thought of a story especially peculiar to Burundi, a story told to him by the venerable co-founder of Burundi Basketball, Mathias Bizimana.
“Jim, I suspect that one advantage of having no electricity in virtually ninety-nine percent of my country’s homes, is that it gives our citizens a greater appreciation of the magnificence of moonlight than … well … perhaps you Americans have -- what with your full-scale electricity. In fact, I once read a quote by Yasunari Kawabata, a favorite poet of mine, which made me think of this: “The true joy of a moonlit night is something we no longer understand. Only the men of old, when there were no lights, could understand the true joy of a moonlit night.”
“Well, Coach, we Burundians understand it!”
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