“Do I go back in now?” Mike asked more as a plea than as a question?
My youngest son was playing on a pee-wee basketball team and his coach, my cousin Manley [Gaskill], had ushered the little boys in and out of the game on a regular basis to give everyone an equal chance to play. Keeping track of the coming and going of a dozen or more six-year old boys can be hectic at best; and sometimes very frustrating. Some of that frustration was evidenced in Manley’s response to Mike.
“Listen, Mike,” he responded, “you’ve played a whole quarter already, and everybody wants a chance to play.”
Manley was like a second father to my son, his being the same age as Manley’s son Brent, and living close beside him. The boys were together so often that both Manley and I were as comfortable and familiar with one as we were with the other. So Mike took no exception to the direct response that his question brought. Still, it was obvious to his coach that Mike was unhappy with the response, even if not the tone.
|James (Dixon), Mike, Joel, & Brent|
“I know they do, but they don’t want to play as much as I do!”
Taken aback just a little by how Mike had persisted, Manley stood still for a moment as if considering just how to proceed now that his decision had been openly questioned. Then, only a few seconds later, the wisdom of his years combined with the feelings of having himself once been a young boy who loved to play ball more than almost any of his friends; that wisdom was evidenced in a response that was as reasoned as it was resounding.
“You’re right.” he relented, “You go on back in there and play your heart out.”
Manley was technically my first cousin, once removed. His father, Sno’ball [Creston Gaskill] was my first cousin. But Sno’ball was older than my oldest brother, and thus was of a “whole ‘nother generation” than Manley and me. Manley lived next door, with literally less than twenty feet between our bedroom windows, and just five months my younger, so he and I came of age together and at the same time.
And together, we measured the steps in that process almost entirely in terms of ball; football, basketball, and especially baseball. Sno’ball had loved those same games as much as we did, and because of that we had a mentor who was with us all along the way; from rolling a rubber ball in the grass, to suiting up for high school teams that represented our school and community.
|Manley, "Brother" (Walter Gaskill),|
Anthony (Davis) & me in the front
yard waiting for Sno'ball to get home
As we matured Manley and I developed a routine of playing ball in the front yard every afternoon, especially as supper time grew closer. Actually, it was not unusual for us to play all day long. But we were sensitive to the hour when Manley’s father would be getting home from work. We knew that he would never venture to walk past us without stopping for at least a while to engage in whatever the game of that day happened to be.
Then, every evening after supper, he would come out again to hit us grounders, throw us passes, rebound our jump shots, or catch our best fast balls. Through it all he was telling us stories about the games he had played and the players he had watched or known. Those late afternoons were as much skull-sessions as practice. He made sure we knew how to think and talk about the games he loved as much as how to the field a grounder or run a pass pattern.
|Son'ball (Creston) Gaskill|
Even after Manley and I had grown into high school sports, Sno’ball was always there. He was careful not to interfere with our coaches while we were in their care, but both the coming and going to practices and games included extended conversations about what we had learned, or still needed to know. He loved us and he loved our games, a he was never tired of talking with one or about the other.
As Manley and I grew older, especially after we had boys of our own, we better appreciated the stories and even the lectures that had been part of Sno’ball’s tutoring. That “feel” for the game, and especially for those who played it, was what came out a generation later as Manley contemplated on how to respond to my son’s asking that he be put back in the game as soon as possible; even when it was not “his turn.”
|Mike and Brent|
Seeing some of himself in the pleading of his second cousin to get back on the floor as soon as possible, Manley proceeded to reply in the way he thought, even if unconsciously, his own father would have responded.
“You go on back in there and play your heart out,” he repeated. “And when we get back home, remind me to explain something to you about …”