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In 1970 Gillespie's brother, a decorated combat pilot in Vietnam, returned on leave to Hamilton to look for a place to live. Captain Lawrence Gillespie offered to pay one landlord a year's rent in advance if he could take the apartment he liked for his family. The landlord, a prominent Hamilton attorney, refused. When several of the town's most powerful white businessmen intervened on Captain Gillespie's behalf, the landlord told them to go into the real estate business and sign bank notes guaranteeing mortgages on multimillion-dollar apartment complexes. Then they could rent to black war heroes. Captain Gillespie thanked his white supporters and returned to finish his duty in Vietnam. He did come back for three years, but eventually he left to become the personal pilot of the prime minister of Guyana.
"The situation in Hamilton is socially stagnant," Don Gillespie said, as his basketball players took their final practice shots. "This is a status quo town and not just for black people. But the young blacks say, 'Hurry up and let me get old enough to move out of here.' I had roots here and wanted to stay; in fact I still hope to move back someday. When I was a kid I served parties at the homes of rich white families, which gave me advantages later. I felt I knew the whole community. I didn't resent being a servant; it was just an apprenticeship. My father is a businessman himself. We lived in the Second Ward ghetto when I was a kid, but it seems poorer now, more hopeless. Some of my students who come from there have a very dim view of themselves. The black junior high allows them to practice stupidity as long as they don't become discipline problems. They get good at dumbness. We have to try to correct the junior high's mistakes when they come to Garfield, but teachers make up their minds on certain students who have a bad rep or poor grades, and they stick to their initial impression."
There was a sense that Gillespie didn't quite belong away from his hometown because he still cared too much about it. He had the objectivity of an outsider, having grown up black in Hamilton, yet this was combined with the insight and affection of an insider. Knowing the town's problems so intimately, he was wary of plunging back into Hamilton as a contestant for community stewardship. Gillespie summoned his players. They were slow to assemble; Hodge horsing around with his best friend, a black guard named Tony McCoy, while some other players tried long, idle hook shots from well past the key. Hodge and McCoy were partners on and off the court, known to everyone as salt and pepper. "Fellas, I said get your asses over here!" Gillespie bellowed. Now they crowded around him. "I don't know what I can tell you," Gillespie began. "Taft figures they're going to kill us. They're thinking state tournament, and we're just a little pebble in the road they can roll right over. The paper says, I quote, 'The Taft Tigers should encounter no difficulty with the Garfield Griffins.' End of quote, end of city rivalry, end of our self-esteem. Men, and that's what you are, I appeal to your potential, because you all have it. I appeal to your competitive instincts. Most of all, I appeal to your pride."
Waiting for the game to begin in the steamy Garfield gym, Flatiron muses on the relationship of the sport to its environment. "Basketball has always been a perfect game for the Midwest," he says. "This is a vast area of small towns that were tied together at first by interurban tracks and later by Model T's that enabled fans to follow their teams from town to town. There wasn't a damn thing to do in most Midwestern towns once the hunting season ended, so the local gym became the town hall for a few months. This crosstown matchup only goes back 17 years because before that Hamilton had just one public high school, the Big Blue they called them, and they won several state championships. When they built the two high schools they split the town, but they started a pretty hot rivalry. It should just about end tonight. Taft could win this by 30 or 40 points."
The gym explodes as the Taft team breaks onto the court, each player leaping dramatically through a paper banner held up by the cheerleaders. Next, the Garfield players do a loop around their own gym, and the crowd volume turns to thunder. There are a few boos for the Tigers, because they are in enemy territory, and for the Griffins, because they have a dismal (1-4) record.
The opening jump ball sets off a furious scramble until a Garfield forward seizes the ball, dashes for the basket and misses. Taft's Kolesar controls the rebound and slows down the play, setting his team's preferred pace. Taft scores first on an easy shot by Grevey. The Tigers lope to their end of the court while the Tigerettes—Taft's cheerleaders—give the yell that signals that their boys have drawn first blood. The Garfield Griffins, named after the mythical hybrid between a lion and an eagle, retaliate with a long jumper by Hodge, admirable not only for its accuracy but its trajectory. High school ballplayers, when they shoot a jump shot, often fire the ball straight at the basket, making a score impossible unless their aim is perfect; Hodge's shot, taken when he was high off the court, described an arc like the dotted line on a globe showing a great circle route across the North Atlantic.
With the score at 2-2, Taft's full-throated cheer is simply "Go!" repeated 10 times, though the Tigerettes pronounce it "Geaow." A freelance cheer wafts down from the Garfield stands: "Tiger thinks he's cool, but Griffin ain't no fool. We gonna get 'em, you just bet 'em, we got the jive-ass school!" The city's racial partition is reflected on the court and the sidelines. Garfield has three black starters, Taft none. Four of the six Garfield cheerleaders are black, only one of the six on the Taft side.
Taft controls the game easily at first, not yet hot, passing the ball too much, waiting to shoot until after the best opportunity has passed, but still in command. Garfield, by contrast, is disorganized, inconsistent in its shots, but always hustling. By fighting for every loose ball, the Griffins keep the game even until it is tied at 10, Taft scoring each basket first and Garfield responding. A pattern is established in a personal duel. The 6'2" Kolesar, Taft's leading scorer, cannot shake the player assigned to guard him, the 5'9" McCoy. It's a matchup between Mutt and Jeff. McCoy will hound Kolesar all night, crowding him, blocking his drives, stealing passes intended for him. He becomes Kolesar's shadow, his ghost, his tight-fitting glove.
Grevey fills the void left by McCoy's neutralization of Kolesar. According to McCollum, Grevey had been improving every week; as a 6'2" junior, he appeared ready to join the family tradition of high school stardom and a college scholarship. Maybe there would even be the NBA. The previous summer Gillespie had taken 12 Hamiltonians to play basketball in Poland. Both Kolesar and Grevey had made the trip, sponsored by the community, which included a musical welcome from the Poles, a tour of the 12th-century city of Walcz and an infatuation with a Polish ice cream known as Lody. Neither Hodge nor any other current Garfield player had gone to Poland.
Hodge and Grevey personified the differences between Garfield and Taft. They shared one characteristic—both their fathers wanted them to play basketball. Beyond that, their lives were completely different, beginning with the fact that Hodge was short and Grevey tall. The Greveys are a prominent Hamilton family. Norm Grevey, Scott's father, is a successful lawyer who in one three-day span flew to South Carolina to see his son Bryan play college ball, then up to Washington to watch Kevin with the pros and finally back to Hamilton in time to be at one of Scott's games for Taft. The fourth Grevey son, Norm Jr., was then only nine years old, and his father liked to say Normie hoped to quit junior high to turn pro as a hardship case. Norm admitted under a full-court press that his son Scott had repeated the eighth grade, though his marks were O.K. This widespread practice among athletes is known as redshirting, and it meant that Scott would be older and physically more mature—and therefore more attractive to college recruiters—by the time he played his last year of high school ball. The grade had been repeated, Norm claimed, because of a reading problem. The effect, Gillespie said, was that "Scott is bored, very bored. He's old enough to graduate and he's only a junior. He just bides his time. This wastes a year of a boy's life at a moment when he is either excited by learning or gets turned off to it forever."