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"But they're all bandaged," the woman said.
"I know," the father replied softly. "I know."
I was 14. The woman, my stepmother-to-be, had come to meet me for the first time. Her bewilderment was justified. For what she saw through the window was an adolescent male with bandages on all of his fingers except the thumbs, sitting on a basketball in a snowstorm at the base of a tall wire fence, holding a large portable radio and crying, the tears freezing almost at once on his face.
I was wearing bandages because without them the friction of a basketball leaving my hands in the dead of winter would tear open the tips of each finger, causing painful cuts that wouldn't heal until the spring. Gloves were useless, preventing a proper grip on the ball. But bandages, three on each finger, allowed for perfect manipulation, a sure feeling from the foul line, an easy authority from 13 feet. Even on the small playing surface of a New York City terrace with a constant wind as opponent, a Johnson & Johnson hand with three years' experience on its home court could guide a long set shot safely home to the gratifying swish of net.
I was crying because the Boston Celtics had been beaten in the last seconds by the New York Knickerbockers. It meant that the Knicks had swept the weekend home-and-home series, having narrowly won both games. It meant that Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy would shower and dress in what I imagined to be a furious silence, and disperse into the New England winter, sharing the heartbreak I knew only too well. It would often take me weeks to recover from a particularly devastating Celtic defeat. The players themselves could go on to other games and shake off the effects of a one-point setback. I, too, derived pleasure from subsequent victories, though I awoke in the night with defeat in my heart. Had Cousy but made the second foul shot. Had Macauley not been called for walking.
As the years passed, my stepmother would become familiar with these names, living as she did in the aggravating flow of their repetition. At the dinner table, in taxis, during the overtures of musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein in large theaters filled with strangers, I would speak the language of the National Basketball Association. "The Cooz hurt his elbow against the Nats," I would observe, as Yul Brynner appeared before us. Or, "Red's down on Borgia for good after the charging call on Cooper."
If my stepmother listened closely, and I have no reason to believe that she did, she might have wondered a bit about the fellow named Red, so reverentially disposed to him was I, so constant was my use of his name. In short, for 10 years I believed what Arnold (Red) Auerbach, the Celtics' coach, believed. About anything. Chinese food, Milton Berle, Sherman Adams. Auerbach was the authority in my life and my champion. In those days, the last three or four minutes of most NBA games, for lack of the 24-second clock, often consumed 45 minutes. And during that time, vegetables, fruit, pennies and peanuts would often be hurled at the apoplectic gentleman in the checked jacket who was attempting to get at a man a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than himself. Red was in a perpetual fury, and at 14 years of age on a New York terrace, with an unenviable scholastic record and few friends, I had my own private little fury which burned every bit as fiercely. Clearly, Auerbach was out there in the world on my behalf. The inequities I faced were the inequities he fought. Though I imagined him to be shy, and even reclusive when left to his own devices, I relied on the strength of his hysteria to bury my enemies and undo the disorder of my own frenzy.
It was in 1950-56, years in which the Celtics were not yet the powerhouse they were to become, that I came of basketball age, studying the game, the skills and deficiencies of the players on every team, and I haunted Madison Square Garden, arriving well before the first games of double-headers to seek out Leonard Koppett of the New York Herald Tribune, who wrote with passion and clarity on pro basketball, and whom I regarded as a kindred spirit. Before games, I would follow Koppett as he roamed the sidelines chatting with players and league or team officials, at first from a distance, and then boldly approaching him with absolutely terrific basketball questions, like, "Do you think a round-robin is the answer to the playoff muddle?"
"I do not," he replied, and was off.
"Do the Celtics have a shot at Syracuse?" I asked on another occasion.