The court was full yesterday, ten players and two officials, as usual, but more full than usual because the players were farm boys. We were out in the country just beyond the rural areas, looking back over terraced fields toward town. We were somewhere in the sticks, I think people would have said.
Both teams were large fellows, beef-eaters, the kind who put thick gravy on breakfast, lunch and dinner. These were not gazelles, more Clydesdales, smelling of diesel and old trucks on dirt roads. They were neither smooth nor fast but sincere, steadfast and strong. The map of rural Texas was writ large on each round face.
When they fouled, and they fouled often, they committed their acts of imperilment with gusto: shoulders hunched, nostrils flaring and heads lowered. These boys will go to technical school somewhere, or the service or back to the farm. Wherever they go, they will give a day's work for a day's pay, vote Republican when they vote, fix what they break and gut their own deer.
Perhaps the highlight of the day was the sixth man on the blue team. He was their only substitute, smaller than the others, round and bespectacled. He ran with the peculiar flat heeled gait of the mentally challenged, his body askew, his chubby arms not quite keeping step with his pounding feet.
He was Down-Syndrome.
Understand that basketball is not intentionally a collision sport, though collisions occur. Basketball is a contact sport. As much as I have seen other sports, the worst injuries I have seen to an athlete have befallen him or her on a basketball court. The wood is hard, the basket high and the bodies taut.
I feared for the boy's safety. I watched him more closely than the others. Things were happening too swiftly for him to process. No one tried to pass him the ball. He consistently faced the wrong way or reacted too slowly. He was, however, on the court, and the other nine boys, raging as they were at each other, took note of his disability and went around him.
The boys on both teams were budding men: protective of the weak, supportive of the needy, careful not to hurt someone who could not reasonably defend himself. Their actions were unannounced. While the little fellow was in the game, they played four on five and no quarter given but no one did anything remotely dangerous to the sixth man.
It was enough to make a gnarled old referee thoughtful. Kindness and sportsmanship are lost in these days, when so many futures and so much money are tied to the games. Every frustrated father thinks his child will get a D-I four year ride, though the child is a foot shorter than needed and three steps slower. His bench press might be little more than the empty bar but he will make up for it with heart, which is today defined as "taking every advantage."
There were no college athletes on the court yesterday. In fact, these boys could not have played on many high school teams. Their play was earnest, deeply felt, but clumsy. They gave their all without much to give.
On the other hand, they demonstrated manly virtue not in their play but in their care of the sixth man. He entered and left quickly, excited to be on the floor for a minute at a time, while one of the starters rested. He made no quarrel when relieved, only put down his head and trotted to the bench.
The last time he left the court, in the fourth quarter, with the game's outcome still very much in doubt, I had called a foul on one of his mates. He was replaced just then and chugged by me to his seat.
As he passed, he looked over at me, as if seeing me for the first time. I smiled at him encouragingly.
"Bad call," he said. "Really bad call."