"O.K." He finished his cigarette. "Get out of here, Conroy."
In the two summers I worked at Camp Wahoo, that was the last time Mel Thompson spoke to me, even to say hello. His failure to acknowledge me left me feeling sullied and insulted, especially because he seemed to relate so well to the other counselors, the boys from rival colleges. I would see Coach Thompson's car packed with other coaches and counselors going into town for hamburgers and a movie. I witnessed his laughter but always from a distance, and when he smiled his face was transformed, making it softer, almost handsome. Those two summers in Virginia, I studied my coach as he passed me without a sign of recognition.
In the morning, with the sun rising up from the tidelands, I couldn't wait to take to the court. My days passed in a dreamy blur of pivots, stutter steps, crossover dribbles and outlet passes. That first summer, competing against players of the caliber of West, Hot Rod Hundley, Rod Thorn, Lenny Chappell, John Wetzel and Art Heyman, my game improved. I was a baitfish struggling upstream with the leaping wild salmon, but I was swimming in the same river and happy to be there.
My second summer—the summer after The Citadel's dreadful 1965-66 season—I returned to Wahoo with an unshakable sense of mission. My time on the bench during my dismal junior year had frustrated me greatly, and the modest dreams I'd entertained as a player were quickly slipping away. I needed to improve my jump shot, learn how to run a basketball team, how to play smothering defense. After Wahoo was finished I signed up to be a counselor at Vic Bubas's camp at Duke as well as the one at Dartmouth run by Doggie Julian and a young Rollie Massimino.
That last blissful summer at Wahoo, I hung on every word spoken by the coaches and pros who conducted the clinics, as though they were bringing me newly discovered gospels that would point the way toward my salvation as an athlete.
In that summer of fiercely contested night games, with the campers filling the stands, the counselors split up into teams and went to war. I have never enjoyed basketball as much as I did then, nor have I ever played it so well or against better players.
Because I passed the ball, I often played on the team selected to highlight the visiting pro. The star that summer was Art Heyman, Duke's fast-talking, gum-chewing All-America who won the player of the year award his senior year, beating out Walt Hazzard and Bill Bradley. When Art entered the room his outrageous big-city ways became the focus of every eye. Art Heyman was to teach us a new sensibility that was then making its presence known in basketball circles across America. With no apologies, Art's game was urban, wise-ass Jewish, no-holds-barred and a hot dog at Nathan's after the game. He seemed to delight in and feed off the hatred of the Southern boys who filled the ranks of counselor—boys out of VPI, Hampden-Sydney, Wake Forest and Richmond, who were much more at ease with the aw-shucks, pass-the-biscuits-ma'am variety of heroism embodied by West and Thorn. Heyman came up to me before the jump ball and whispered, "It's showtime, Peanut. Get me the ball."
For 40 whirlwind minutes I threw passes to the best college basketball player of 1963. Wetzel, the dazzling forward from Virginia Tech who would later play for the Los Angeles Lakers and coach the Phoenix Suns, was first to guard Heyman, and he did it with rabid intensity. He covered Heyman like a sheen of sweat. UVA's Chip Conner drew the assignment in the second half. Heyman ran his mouth the entire game. He was the first trash-talker I'd ever met, and there's nothing white Southern boys hate more than a trash-talker.
That night the overheated court shimmered with competitive zeal. I brought the ball upcourt, fast, but I was guarded by Spider Lockhart, a 6'5" jumping jack with long arms who was always a threat to steal the ball. My dribbling—the best part of my game—got me around him. The moment I was free I'd look for Heyman, who was engaged in a wrestling match with Wetzel on the left side of the court. Heyman used his body brilliantly and always got himself in a perfect position. Then with a call of "Right here, Peanut," he'd motion with his huge hand where he wanted the ball.
That night I looked like an All-America point guard when I was flipping the ball to Art Heyman. He scored almost at will. One play stands out in my mind. Heyman stole a pass intended for Wetzel and raced downcourt. Both Conner and Wetzel ran with him. Both men were faster and better leapers than Art. I'd broken right behind him and found myself filling the center lane, trailing the play by 10 feet.