This is the seventh pre-publication draft in my series of pieces (many of them memoir) about Buffalo, my hometown, that will be released in 2013. If you liked this, you can find the others in my blog archives.
When I was nineteen and my buddy Donnie’s youngest sister was about twelve, she played ball and I watched her.
One late afternoon about a month after the big blizzard, we embarked on a road trip to an old church whose well-scuffed gym floor, pull-out wooden bleachers, dank air and dour nuns-on-patrol underscored the name of the neighborhood we found ourselves in: Black Rock. It was like watching a basketball game in an old European wine cellar, minus the wine. We’d need a miracle like the one Jesus pulled off at that wedding in Cana. We weren’t the home team.
There were still huge mountains of snow all over town. The gray asphalt street outside the church doors was mostly clear and dry, running between taller-than-men mounds of dirty ice like a grey stream through the Himalayas. The hoops were inside, but it was the contest on that street that day, and the role played by an icy patch or two remaining from the storm, that left a bigger mark on me.
The old gym was packed: Three hundred spectators, easily. For such a small place, bursting at the seams. Hanging from the rafters. Well, it might have been a playoff game. I don’t remember that detail as well as I remember The Equalizer.
I sat with Donnie and his Dad. The Bonos were an athletic family, and vocal fans of each other. The noises were joyous at first. Our Holy Spirit Parish girls were having their way in the first half. They clearly had a big talent advantage against our Black Rock hosts, looking more like a high school team than like seventh and eigth graders. But a few minutes before halftime, The Equalizer started to make his presence felt. He began to stop the game every few seconds, blowing a whistle and pointing at one Holy Spirit girl or another. That’s a foul. Or a travelling call. Or palming the basketball, or any one of several rule infractions that can very quickly, when stacked in a deck, change a game’s outcome.
“What!” Sixty-some years old and losing his ability to walk well after decades in the steel mills, Mr. Bono, sitting on my right, was finding his youthful exhuberance in riding the official. After the second or third lousy call, Donnie cautioned, “Easy, Dad. It doesn’t matter – we’re killing them.”
But by halftime, Holy Spirit’s lead, which at one time might have been up to about eighteen points, had been shaved to nine or ten. Mr. Bono was not going to let The Equalizer get off easy. There were words at halftime.
“Hey! Why don’t you let the girls decide the game?” Mr. Bono had found The Equalizer out in the hallway during the break and started giving it to him.
“Why don’t you just shut up and watch? Or I’ll throw you out of the gym.”
That went well.
“You can’t throw him out!” laughed Donnie, all five feet three, a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, into the much larger Equalizer’s face. “If you can’t take a little heat from the fans, you shouldn’t be reffing!”
“I paid my two bucks at the door!” Mr. Bono kept repeating. “I’ll yell at you all I want!”
“You shut up,” The Equalizer responded. “I’ll throw all three of your asses out of here.” Donnie… Donnie’s dad… yup. The third ass he referred to was mine.
At five foot ten or eleven and about 200 pounds, The Equalizer was two or three inches shorter, and maybe fifteen pounds heavier than me.
When the second half began, the pattern that The Equalizer began to establish late in the first half continued. But when Donnie’s sister stole the ball, dribbled the length of the court and made a layup to restore Holy Spirit to a seven or eight point lead with four minutes to go in the game – and then the referee blew his whistle and called her for a foul after the ball dropped into the bucket – a line had been crossed.
“You’re throwing the game!” Mr. Bono exploded. Bless him, I thought. He’s gonna give himself a coronary. Donnie’s dad, whose health was beginning to decline and whose normal walk had slowed to more of a shuffle, was going to hit the ceiling – with such emphasis did he leap out of his sitting position that I swear for a dangerous fraction of a second he was suspended in mid-air.
Everyone in the gym heard him. The Equalizer certainly heard him. He called an official’s time out and came to the part of the floor that was closest to where we sat, perhaps five rows up in the little section of old wooden bleachers.
“That’s enough outta you!” The Equalizer pointed at old Mr. Bono. “You’re outta here! Now! Or I’m calling the game a forfeit!”
“You can’t do that!” Donnie shot up off his butt. So did everybody else. The whole gymful of people may have been suspended in mid-air for a fraction of a second.
“All three of you! You’re outta here! Now!”
All three of us laughed at him. Well, Donnie and I laughed. The elder Bono was yelling something about paying his two bucks at the door, and finding out The Equalizer’s name through his friends with the Catholic diocese downtown, and then making sure he never officiated another game.
Now the coaches both were approaching us. “You can’t throw them out,” one of them was saying to The Equalizer.
“Then make them shut up!” Everyone had stopped to listen. “I don’t have to put up with this harassment. I don’t get paid enough to put up with this!”
“Well, who’s paying you anyway? They should be paying you handsomely, for throwing the game!” Mr. Bono mentioned the name of the church whose team the Holy Spirit girls were opposing. “You butcher!” he added at the end for extra effect.
The ruckus died down and we weren’t kicked out, but certain officiating patterns continued. So did the heckling. But now, it wasn’t just three of us sharing opinions with The Equalizer. It had spread to the forty or fifty of us who trekked in to support the Holy Spirit squad.
“Hey, asshole! Who’s paying you?”
“You cheating SOB! Where are they takin’ you for dinner tonight?”
“This is the Catholic league!” one of our girl’s mothers yelled at him. “We’re supposed to be teaching the girls about fairness.”
The Equalizer went about his business, and he was doing a good job of it, too. With a minute to go, he had whittled Holy Spirit’s lead down to two points.
I can’t remember too many details of the game’s last minute. He called some fouls, and the other team’s girls missed some free throws.
“This is like Russia stealing our gold medal in the ’72 Olympics!” one leather-lunged guy started yelling over and over.
But when the game ended, the Holy Spirit girls mobbed their coach. They had persevered through some of the most biased officiating ever seen at any kind of sporting event, and scored the win. When the horn or siren or whatever it was sounded, Mr. Bono bounded out of the bleachers faster than I’d seen him move in three or four years, making a beeline for The Equalizer.
“Damn you, I want to know your name!” exploded the elder stateman of the Bono family.
“Oh, oh,” I heard Donnie say. I knew what that meant. Sometimes Mr. Bono forgot that he wasn’t such a young guy anymore. I scrambled after him.
“Mr. Bono! Let it go! Mr. Bono, we won! Let’s just go home –“
Too late. By the time I got there, the two men were right in each other’s face. A crowd was gathering.
“You horse’s ass!” Donnie’s dad was pointing aged old fingers within a foot of the red-faced Equalizer’s nose. “You tell me your name, or I’ll find it out on my own. I’ve got friends – I’ll make sure this was the last game you ever work!”
“Leave me alone, sonofabitch! Or I’ll hurt you!”
That’s when I stepped between them.
“Over my dead body,” I deadpanned.
“Fine!” replied The Equalizer.
I don’t know which church the nuns were from. But they tried to force themselves between us.
“Everybody take it outside!” one nun was yelling. “There’ll be no fights in this building.”
“Just everyone get in your cars, and go home,” another nun was saying.
“Were Catholics!” another kept insisting. “We’re better than this!”
We were an angry gaggle, being escorted down a hallway and out to an exit door by seven or eight women in black habits. The air was very cold outside. The Equalizer ran across the street.
“Ha! Running away! You faggot!” yelled the ever-politically correct Mr. Bono.
It was as if The Equalizer, who now stood at his car door with keys in hand, had been instantly re-programmed. In a sudden move, he was scrambling back toward the trunk of the car. The trunk door swung upward and there, on a street in Black Rock lined with filthy gray snowbanks almost as high as a basketball goal, The Equalizer caused a large baseball bat to appear. He was now running toward us, brandishing the hickory weapon. “I’ll kill you!” he yelled.
I figured he was coming after Mr. Bono, who would not be able to defend himself. I ran out to the middle of the street and met him there.
“I’ll kill you, you mother of a fornicator,” The Equalizer ranted at me, bat at the ready. I never had heard a basketball official call anyone a mother of a fornicator before. Well, he used a popular, abbreviated version of that sentiment on me so technically, I still haven’t.
“You want him,” I informed him, “then you have to start with me.”
The nuns had come outside, along with many in the same crowd that had been part of the gaggle that wanted to see whether The Equalizer would really hit a much older guy. It was still light outside; not quite dusk.
“Fine!” The Equalizer said, and then he swung the bat at my head. I dodged, and he slipped on a small patch of ice on the asphalt roadway. He fell. Nervous laughter from about two dozen people filled the crisp air.
The bat was on the ground next to him, and he was awkwardly splayed on the ground. I stood over him, not laughing and not making a move.
I kid you not, the next thing I knew a nun made a hurried sign of the cross as she stooped over, and then grabbed the baseball bat away from him as he tried to recover it. Batless, The Equalizer scrambled to his feet.
“I don’t need a bat for you, anyway!” he threatened me.
“Get in your car and go home,” I said. “If I wanted to hurt you I just had a chance to break your…” WhOMP.
I saw it coming all the way; he reared back and telegraphed it. He caught me with my mouth open. I still have a souvenir from that connection; a chipped front tooth that makes my smile so charming to this very day.
I don’t know what I did in the instant after he had connected, but I’m content with the version Donnie tells of the moment. He says I stood still for a moment, and then laughed at the guy for a second, and then I attacked.
There I was, rolling around on the ground with The Equalizer. We were blessing one another with various epithets while I heard one nun begin to recite the “Hail, Mary” and another one tsk-tsking us for fighting after a girl’s elementary school basketball game. A Catholic one.
Then, one of the nuns began to throw her own weight around. “Stop this instant!” she was saying to both of us, intervening in as physical a fashion as I’ve ever known a nun to intervene. “You animals! Don’t hit a lady. Stop it! Now!”
We did stop. I guess neither one of us wanted to hit a nun.
“You all come see me at John Barleycorns – we’ll finish this there!” The Equalizer fumed said as he opened his car door to get in. John Barleycorns was a gin mill a few blocks away from the church in Black Rock. They sponsored a softball team that some of my friends played on. Never did make it into the place myself.
Donnie’s older brother got wind of what happened. He was part of the local association of basketball officials who did kid’s games. Turns out, Donnie’s older brother knew the guy.
We heard from Donnie’s older brother a couple of days later that The Equalizer tearfully turned himself in for taking money from someone associated with the other church to influence the game. I never sought any independent verification of this, but I never doubted that it was true. The way I figure it, wrestling with a nun out on the street in front of a church will give any man a conscience.