“You can look it up” is a phrase is most often attributed to baseball great Casey Stengel. Casey hadn’t been a great player, but he’d ended up in The Hall of Fame for managing the New York Yankees to five consecutive World Series victories, three of them over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, Brooklyn finally got to celebrate its first – and only – world championship. And then, just two years later, the team’s owner, Walter O’Malley – “May he rot in hell!” – moved our beloved Dodgers to Los Angeles. It was at that precise moment when our borough began to go downhill. We had lost our soul.
Still, we had our memories. At high school reunions, we would recall that we had grown up in the best place during the best time. Those who were active in their school alumni associations got to relive those times on a regular basis.
I went to James Madison High School, which is located on Bedford Avenue near Kings Highway. Madison had so many outstanding graduates that its alumni association decided to set up a Wall of Distinction just outside the school auditorium. If you went there today, you would see pictures of Carole King, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Judy – and even four Nobel Prize winners. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Just google “James Madison High School, Wall of Distinction.”
Hundreds of additional Madison graduates could make a good case for being placed on “the Wall,” but the alumni association’s board of directors is extremely selective. Still, if you are a great athlete, writer, actor, humanitarian, scientist, artist, or perhaps a prominent politician, then you’ve got a shot.
When I went to Madison, which was back in the fifties – the nineteen fifties, that is – the school had some outstanding basketball teams. We often contended for the city championship and got to play at Madison Square Garden. While that didn’t quite give us a home court advantage, perhaps our rivals felt a bit intimidated.
Do you happen to remember Rudy La Russo? Rudy began his basketball career at Madison, and went on to become an all-star with the Los Angeles Lakers. He actually wasn’t that great in high school, but he still managed to get on the Wall.
Bernie Sanders, who had been on the Brooklyn championship basketball team in elementary school, tried out for the team during his freshman year at Madison. He was heart-broken when he didn’t make the cut. Although he went on to become one of the best long distance runners in the city, not making the basketball team was one of his biggest regrets. In fact, after beating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic primary, he celebrated by shooting baskets in a school gym. You can look it up.
So why am I talking about all this stuff? Because I wanted to tell you about a guy who wasn’t on the Wall. But he really wanted to be. I mean, he wanted this honor so badly that he would buttonhole members of the alumni association board and ask them to vote for him.
I vaguely remembered Lenny – he had graduated a couple of years before me – but to him I was an old friend. He told me that he had written a few children’s books with his wife. But what he was proudest of was having been on one of the basketball teams that had played in the Garden.
Lenny was about six feet tall. I asked which position he had played.
“Point guard or shooting guard?”
And yet, there was something about him that just didn’t add up. I mean, it was bad enough that he was pestering members of the alumni board to put him on the wall. But he was even bothering me. I guess he figured that since I knew a few of the members, I could put in a good word.
A few years ago, when the alumni association held a sports luncheon in the gym, there were about a dozen former basketball players in their sixties and seventies shooting baskets. There were also a lot more guys who had been on other teams. But if you had played basketball for Madison, even fifty years later you were still something of a celebrity.
Someone asked me to organize a foul shooting contest. So I lined up the current basketball team and several guys who played mainly in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. I invited Lenny, but he modestly declined.
“Look! This is your big chance! Almost the entire alumni board is here, so they’ll see that you haven’t lost your touch.”
“Really? Even if I haven’t played competitively in years?”
“Hey, playing basketball is like riding a bicycle: you never forget. And besides, it’s just shooting fouls.”
So very reluctantly, he got in line behind. Ron, who was just ahead of him, looked almost the same as he did in high school, except for the gray hair. Soon it was his turn. He stepped up to the foul line, took a deep breath, and shot. Swish! All net. And then he sunk another – and another! Now he had the attention of everyone in the gym. He proceeded to sink nine foul shots in a row. When his last shot bounced in and out, there was a collective groan – which turned into a deafening cheer. The whole crowd was on its feet. Ron must have felt like he was back at the Garden.
The kids from the current team rushed over and shook his hand. I still remember what he said to them. “Guys, enjoy yourselves. These are the best days of your lives.”
And now it was Lenny’s turn. I did not envy him. What could he possibly do for an encore? The entire gym grew silent. Every eye was on him. Everyone was either pulling for him, or at least curious about what he would do.
He stepped up to the foul line and bounced the ball a couple of times. I heard one of the kids on the team whisper, “These old guys still got game.”
Lenny shot. I saw his shoulders begin to sag well before the ball hit the floor. It was an air ball. Not even close.
The ball was passed back to him. He bounced it a couple of times and shot. Another air ball. And then still another. Finally, he managed to hit the backboard. There was scattered cheering, but it was mean spirited. Lenny walked away from the foul line, his head bowed. He kept on walking, right out of the gym.
I didn’t say anything to him. I mean, what could I say?
For months afterwards, I continued to have mixed feelings about what had happened. On the one hand, Lenny had pushed and pushed about being on the Wall. And yet, deep down, he was probably delusional. I was not proud that I pushed him into such an embarrassing situation.
Still, something else bothered me – something that just didn’t compute. Back in high school, while I wasn’t nearly good enough to make the team, I used to play basketball with my friends in the playground or a schoolyard. And yet, even though I had played in years, there’s no way I would have ever shot air balls from the foul line.
A few months later, I went to an alumni get-together where I ran into a friend who had brought her yearbook. Lenny was in her graduating class. I asked if she remembered him, but she reminded me that there were nearly eleven hundred graduates.
They were listed in alphabetical order. Underneath each graduate’s photo was a blub listing their school activities -- stuff like Band, Cheerleaders, Math Team, English Squad, Boosters, Go-Getters, school play, Dean’s List, Girls’ Chorus, Madisonian Literary Magazine, and, of course, Basketball Team.
We found Lenny’s picture. His blurb was very short: gym guard.
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.