The cross-town rivalry between our two schools was an epic event that filled bleachers and the minds of everyone who would lay witness to an epic battle. While the gymnasium resonated with the sound of dribbling basketballs during pre-game warm-ups, people flocked in at an alarming rate.
Brother McDonough and Sister Evelyn manned the entrance as eager patrons gratefully handed over three dollars each for the right to witness this legendary high school battle royal and be part of the crosstown lore. Upon entering, each would crane their necks to locate their fellow friends and boosters.
Inside the door was Brother Miller who was all too willing to assist anyone hoping to navigate the hundreds of screaming fans to their destination. Mere pointing provided little assistance but with a small smirk on his face, Brother Miller would point and give them the common reference point by which they could easily map out their desired location.
Looking like deer in headlights, several more entered the gym. Raising his voice just high enough to be heard, Brother Miller gestured with an outstretched hand and said, “Just to the left of Mrs. T!” Without another word, they nodded and thanked him. As if assured by a beaming lighthouse, they navigated confidently to their destination.
There were three areas on any bleacher section we visited. The home section, the visiting section and the section that was aptly called “Mrs. T’s” zone. At single bleacher venues, it was located at the top of the bleacher section and just off-center on our side. Mrs. T would arrive at a gym well before anyone else and quickly entered and cordoned off the two by two-person square area with her obnoxious paraphernalia. It was an imposing image for anyone to witness.
Mom was a unique woman in many aspects. She was not only a well-known supporter and booster for our school sports programs but her generosity expanded to every rival sports program that I played against. Throughout my years in sports, her generosity was recognized at every venue. When she made her way to a rival concession stand, she felt very confident that her prominent display of “stuff” was respectfully watched and protected by those around her area. There was an air of respect for the lady who loved sports in general. Everyone knew that if you messed with Mrs. T and her paraphernalia, there was a good chance you would end up missing and that your face would end up on a milk carton.
Every family has an eccentric sports nut and in my case, that honor was bestowed upon my mother. It’s safe to say that all my sports enthusiasm was bred out of my Mom’s genes. Almost to a frenzied state, she adored her baseball, football, hockey and of course basketball.
On any Saturday afternoon, Mom would be on the edge of her seat in our living room in front of the twenty-five-inch Zenith console television, watching her beloved Cincinnati Reds. We all accepted; Dad included, Mom’s unconditional love for the famed and legendary catcher, Johnny Bench.
Not only was Mom a fan but she was not shy to play the sports she loved so much. Her vicious whiffle ball knuckler was legendary. Opposing batters dislocated many a shoulder chasing the elusive plastic-on-plastic connection from that awe-inspiring pitch.
In winter months, shackled with tons of hockey gear, I begrudgingly plodded behind her to the Middleton’s backyard winter oasis. It was there that Mr. Middleton constructed an extremely impressive hockey rink for everyone to enjoy. This rink wasn’t for the silly ice princess weekend twirlers. This was for raw, explosive pick-up games of four on four hockey games. It was on that ice that Mom could live out her Bobby Orr fantasy by body checking some helpless, puck chasing skater five feet out of the rink and into Mrs. Middleton’s catalpa tree.
Baseball and hockey aside, her basketball prowess was fabled. Standing tall at five foot one inch, Mom’s left-right-left, through-the-legs, double crossover dribble would leave defenders unbalanced, falling backward and embarrassingly backstroking air. With deft accuracy, she would smoothly pull up and swish her patented seventeen-foot fadeaway jump shot.
To be fair, Dad was highly coordinated but was stymied with a recessive gene that robbed him of being athletically gifted in any of the true blood sports. Dad’s talent was more crafted in ballistic accuracy and mental fortitude when it came to the fine art of playing pool, bocce and an old-fashion, metal-tipped lawn jarts.
The odds were good that out of five children, one would be coordinated and motivated enough to excel in at least one of my mother’s beloved sports. Unfortunately, Mom had to wait until her 4th child to live vicariously through her child’s athleticism. For her, I was a welcome surprise and her athletic prodigy. In turn, she became my greatest supporter, my coach and the president of my fan club.
At every game, you could hear my mother shouting encouragement at a level that rivaled any Who concert. Her boisterous stamina was superhuman but infectious. Other parents became equally rabid as she orchestrated them in off-the-cuff bleacher chants. Throughout the years of competitive sports, countless rival managers, coaches, players, referees and umpires alike, all knew that if I was playing, then “Mrs. T” would be there to give them an ear full.
As a child, I grew at an alarming rate. Always being head and shoulders taller than all the kids at school, I became somewhat of a celebrity. Being tall had its advantages but it came at a price. Our pediatrician always prescribed medication in order to combat the debilitating growing pains I was experiencing. By the time I was entering seventh grade, I was nearly six feet tall. With two grandfathers over six foot nine, everyone assumed I would reach a similar height.
Living in one of the greatest eras of basketball, with stars like Irving, Magic, Bird, and of course, Jordan and Pippen leading my athletic imagination, it was no surprise that basketball became my calling.
My mother’s faith in my abilities fueled my ferocious competitiveness. Not only was she my biggest fan and booster, but she instilled both physical readiness and mental preparation in me. There is a big difference between instilling and not being pushed. I practiced morning, noon and night in any type of weather. I would shred through several pairs of canvas Converse All-Star sneakers in the summer. In the winter, it was not an uncommon sight to see me shovel snow off the middle school basketball court. I put in countless hours tweaking my own dunking style and perfecting my own rendition of the left-right-left double crossover, behind the back move with my own patented seventeen-foot fadeaway jump shot. Swoosh!
Halfway through the first quarter, the game was living up to its reputation. There were several lead changes and no side had more than a short-lived five-point lead. It was a strange rivalry in those years. We were all friends who played together in pickup games during the summer. We all knew each other and what our strengths and weaknesses were. As the game progressed into the fourth quarter, we found ourselves behind by four points with a few minutes left in the game. They had done a great job at double-teaming us all night but I was still able to come away with a few Kodak moments. One such moment was in the last minute of play.
Down by four points, I intercepted a cross-court pass and flew down the court for a quick lay-up. Down by two points, the opposing coach quickly called a timeout. We assessed how many fouls each of us had. The coach said to play smart and stop the clock in order to give us any chance.
The fans were in a frenzy and were standing on their feet and cheering. The whistle blew and we began our full-court press. With a few precise passes, they easily broke our defense and came rushing in with a man open on the wing.
Two dribbles and he was heading in for an easy layup. The only person that could stop him was me. As he glided up toward the rim, I leaped up and smothered any chance of him getting the ball into the air. If air tackling was legal, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have heard the loud tweet resonate through my ears from Mr. Berry’s whistle.
Much to my chagrin, air tackling wasn’t deemed legal yet. The player I swamped wasn’t upset. We knew each other rather well and played together in summer leagues together.
He knew I had to foul him. He also knew I wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt him. I made sure that when we made contact with the mats against the wall, that it was my back that made contact first. He smiled and thanked me for the free throws he was now going to be taking.
“FOUL! Number 42 Red. Two-shot penalty.”, bellowed Mr. Berry as he trotted toward the official’s table.
As the sighs and gasps subsided, a high pitched shriek started to build in our eardrums. “Are you blind? Are you mad? That was clearly a clean strip of the ball. Is that curly perm getting in your eyes?”, cried the loud piercing voice.
I cringed and rolled my eyes. Mr. Berry gave a stare and raised an eyebrow; much like Spock would give Captain Kirk when faced with an illogical conundrum. Without giving the heckler any direct attention or acknowledgment, Mr. Berry leaned toward me and said, “That’s your mother, isn’t it?”
“Well yes sir, it is. I’m sorry.”, I said sheepishly. Neither of us wanted to look toward the crackling noise that was emanating from our blind spot. The gist and the build-up of the tirade were slightly indiscernible and shrouded in shrill like screams of “Hold on a second! Wait for just a second!” but neither of us wanted to turn and confront the heckler who seemed strangely… close. Had my mother come down from her perch? Why is her screaming coming from what seems like the sideline? I begrudgingly turned my head in the direction of the shrill.
As if balanced on the edge of a cliff, my mother had swooped down from her perch and was now leaning precariously over the black sideline. Waving some kind of abnormally large pompom that seemed four times larger than a Siberian Husky, I was set frozen in shock and dismay. Where the hell had she been hiding that thing?
Mr. Berry was a beloved referee in the Big Ten conference. At six foot five inches tall, he was both large, highly respected and incredibly fair. He was easily recognized by his cool, curly perm, that was pretty hip for the times.
Carefully looking back over his shoulder, Mr. Berry’s eyes grew enormous as the shock, awe, and dismay at the massive pompom that this small woman was waving at him in an aggressive fashion. “What… is that?”, he said cautiously at the small badger sized woman.
“It’s called the Berry Ball. It comes out of hiding to announce one of your unfair calls!”, screamed my mother. Truthfully, she could have said other things while balancing herself precariously on the sideline but nobody really noticed. We were all transfixed on this Jurassic Park sized pompom that she was swinging from side to side.
As he peered back toward me with that same Spock-like eyebrow raise, I noticed the laughter building throughout the gymnasium. I brought my hands up in front of me, in full anticipation of Mr. Berry calling a technical foul. I gestured to him that I would handle it. I rushed over to my mother on the sideline.
“Mom – please. It’s okay! Go back up.” I begged.
“Tommy! You had a clean strip of that ball and he should know that.”, said my mother, all the while glancing a death ray stare at Mr. Berry who stood stoically behind me, looking half amused.
“Mom, I tackled him. On purpose… so we could stop the clock”, I said in a half disgusted and pleading voice.
My mother seemed oblivious and indifferent to this revelation. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Well, that’s okay Tommy. Just make sure that when you steal the ball the next time, you dunk it!” All I remember doing is nodding and walking back with a quizzical look on my face. As I trotted past Mr. Berry, he gave me a slight smile.
Just when we both thought things were back under control, we heard one last shrill from the small woman with the obnoxiously large curly pompom, “And YOU! Don’t think I won’t bring out the BERRY BALL again!” More laughter erupted from the gym.
As fate would have it, my friend missed both of his free throws. A quick rebound, several quick passes and we found ourselves scoring on a layup but our tired legs could offer no defense as they came back equally as quick. We were still two points behind with thirty seconds left in the game.
With the ball in our possession with thirty seconds left, our guard had the ball stripped away. As their player quickly advanced on a fast break, he saw an open teammate streaking down the other side of the court. He tried a cross-court pass that was tipped away and scooped up by one of my teammates. I was at midcourt by this time and immediately turned and sprinted back toward the opposing basket. Just as we had practiced a thousand times during our tipped ball skills, I anticipated a basketball to be thrown over my shoulder and land somewhere around the foul line.
Within a second, the ball bounced perfectly in front of me – at the very spot, I anticipated it to appear. Without missing a step, I grabbed the basketball in stride, leaped and glided to the hoop with two hands, slamming it down through the rim as several opposing hands pawed at my elbows.
As the throngs of fans erupted in deafening screams, the twirling wooden ball inside of Mr. Berry’s whistle resonated throughout the gymnasium. “Foul! Number 6, white. The basket is good. One-shot penalty.”, barked Mr. Berry, as he trotted to the scorer’s table. With the basketball tucked under his massive arms, he pointed toward me to take my place on the foul line.
I had been in this position before but never against a crosstown rival in such a pivotal game. I attempted to rub the sweat off my hands but realized my entire body was drenched in sweat. Before I had time to gather in the gravity of the situation, the ball was being bounced toward me by Mr. Berry. ‘One-shot!”, he barked. I took the ball and did my free-throw routine. Several bounces and one spin; trying to get my fingers to have the best feel on the ball. If it didn’t feel right, I went through the routine again.
As I concentrated on the rim, you could sense the bodies around the key leaning in trying to get the best position for any possible rebound. I bent my knees, brought the ball up and followed through. As the ball sailed through the air, I knew I had made the perfect shot and waited to hear the ball touch nothing but net. Swish! The gymnasium erupted as my teammates scrambled around the court barking out defensive weaknesses.
We were now ahead by one. The last twenty seconds were a blur, as we gave our opponent all the defense we could muster. A shot from the corner missed badly but the large carom off the rim put the ball into their best players’ hands.
With seconds left, he attempted one last desperation shot but I timed my jump perfectly to get a few fingers on the ball. With the buzzer sounding, it fell harmlessly three feet short and into the hands of one of our players. The game was over and we all met at half court for a congratulatory hug. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a mosh pit of adoring fans, friends, family and coaches, all trying to tell us how proud they were and patting our backs for a job well done.
While everyone continued the raucous celebration, I glanced up toward my mother, who I knew would never storm the court. Perched stoically in her zone; she leaned forward slightly with her hands folded in front of her. Even from a distance, I noted the small smirk brewing on her face as she stared intensely at me.
I knew what she was thinking. Under that simpering grin, she’s planning to take credit for that dunk.
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