In 1975, when I was a junior, the physical education department of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., fired the men's basketball coach and introduced a new sport, t'ai chi. While basketball had only a fringe following on campus, t'ai chi, a Zen-influenced series of slow, stylized movements, became very popular.
One t'ai chi devotee, a friend of mine, said of his sport, "Adversaries are encircled in a rainbow of nonviolent motion, a reflection of the coming world order." Basketball, my friend said, symbolized urban madness: back and forth, back and forth, for no apparent reason. This view dismayed me, because his version of insanity had been the staple of my adolescence. Staring down at my black high-top Converse sneakers, I muttered something to him about fast breaks feeding the soul.
Although I had nothing against the Orient and had knowingly chosen to attend a former women's college whose students looked down on team sports, I was irked that we had lost our basketball coach. Though our team, the Green Machine, was no hoop powerhouse, it was a legitimate member of the NCAA's Division III. And there we were with no coach and no prospect of getting one. Imagine the headlines if the same thing had happened at Indiana University: BOBBY KNIGHT AXED AS ZEN WAVE HITS CAMPUS. ENRAGED COACH TOSSES CHAIR. BAD KARMA, KIDS SAY.
As consolation, a bunch of the previous year's team members would sneak into the school's woefully undersized gym a few times a week and—between the ballet classes—play three-on-three. We were an eclectic group: The point guard, a philosophy major, was once tossed from a game for calling the ref a sophist; our reserve forward insisted on practicing barefoot; and our high scorer, a transfer from California, missed the big game with Vassar because he went to the ballet with his girlfriend.
We were not very gifted, but all of us could shoot, pass and dribble—and in my sophomore year we won at least three games in the opening minutes, while our opponents were still laughing. Ignored by our school, ridiculed by our opponents, like a French Foreign Legion troop we drew strength from our isolation. But foot soldiers can't march without a leader.
I had just about reconciled myself to a lost season when I had a chat with the cochairs of Sarah Lawrence's physical education department, Patty Smyth and Marguerite Shaw, two kindly ladies in their 60s who had brought cookies and beer to all our games.
Smyth, a slim, energetic, white-haired woman, had been a crack fencer in her day, and Shaw could bowl with the best at the lanes in Yonkers. Together they controlled the phys-ed department's purse strings. Neither one knew much about basketball. So it was to my surprise that they told me how much they enjoyed the games and asked if another student and I would like to become player-coaches of the Sarah Lawrence team for the year.
I had never considered myself coaching material. I was 19, wore Indian beads and long hair, knew no boosters in the used car business and was an unpolished after-dinner speaker. But Sarah Lawrence had an avant-garde reputation to uphold. "Great," I said, undaunted by the challenge. "It's a deal." These were the conditions of my employment: We could practice twice a week (all other gym time was reserved for dance, yoga or t'ai chi) and I would be responsible for the balls, bags and medicine kit. Smyth and Shaw would wash our uniforms and supply the food and beer.
Word of my appointment spread slowly. (To my disappointment there was no announcement in the sports section of The New York Times.) I started scouring the campus for talent, besieging any male over 5'6" with my recruiting pitch. One of the few takers was a soccer player who appeared to be convinced it was a violation to touch the ball with his hands. But the team had no enforcer, no fierce rebounder with sharp elbows who could turn the entire program around. I figured that if I could find an enforcer, my reputation as a Sarah Lawrence coaching legend would be secure.
After staying up late one night to diagram a sagging zone for a small, slow, white team, I stumbled into the school cafeteria for breakfast and rubbed my eyes at what appeared to be an optical illusion. There, standing in line, reasonably well-proportioned, all limbs intact, wearing leather basketball sneakers, at least 6'6", was the Dave Cowens of my dreams. I cut into the line and introduced myself as the new basketball coach. "Are you enrolled here?" I asked. "If you're not, I know someone in the admissions department." To my delight he was a student, an actor/singer/dancer named Jim. Big Jim. Jammin' Jim. He said he hadn't played competitive basketball for several years.