It’s late in his career and Coach’s mother is ill. He and she have left their home in the plains. There has been another unspecified controversy, nothing too outrageous, and Coach has been forced to seek a job in the mountains, where the players are, for whatever reasons, less talented, and less committed to the holy sport of basketball. The job in Placerville for which he has interviewed is ostensibly teaching—he is a good teacher—but he’s a coach first. Forty-three years old and with his own flesh beginning to mortify, ravaged by hypertension, the survivor of seventy overtimes, fifty-four double overtimes, twenty-five triple overtimes, and nine quadruple overtimes, as well as countless twenty- and even thirty-point comebacks, and countless run-of-the-mill heart-stopping one- and two-point victories at the buzzer, Coach has spent most of his adult life wondering if he is a genius, or just someone obsessed by, aflame with, passion, and someone who tries really hard. When the genius is in him, he knows it for what it is, and is scoured by it, burnished by it—but when it leaves him, he feels ridiculously ordinary, vulnerable, and exposed, an imposter: completely undeserving of the responsibility that he has dared to assume and dared to pursue.
This is the beauty of small-school, high school girls’ basketball: there is almost never any game that cannot be won, almost never any game that cannot be lost.
Basketball on the eastern side of the state—the windy prairie—is an entirely different sport—a steady-burning, year-round religion, Indian ball, dominated by the hot-shooting, trick-passing, full-court press teams from the reservations, teams filled with players possessing intimidating names like Mankiller and Bearpaw, girls who play every second of every game as if basketball is the only thing in life, and yet also as if they have nothing to lose—while up in the mountains, the same sport can be a precise and careful game, one in which the focus is more on the sustained avoidance of mistakes rather than flights of brilliance.
And that’s okay: Coach knows how to win anywhere, with any kind of team. He would have liked to have stayed out on the prairie, but had to take this job so that he could keep his mother on his insurance. He was born when she was forty, which was when she first got sick. The doctors told her not to have the child but she did anyway, and then got better. Now she’s sick again, has been sick for the last ten years, battling the illness year after year, one day at a time. It’s too bad about his last job, not twenty miles from the family farm; that would have been a good one to finish out on.
But few coaches stay put forever. Their nights are haunted by the memories of the shots that do not drop—shots that bounce two, three, four times before falling back off the rim, or which swirl around on the rim before spinning back out as if repulsed by a negative polarity. Memories of the girl who travels in the backcourt with four seconds left, or the girl who goes glassy-eyed while inbounding and bounces it straight to the defender, who then takes one step forward for the easy layup, and the win, or loss, that extends one coach’s career but finishes another, at that particular school—because no matter what the school board and principal and fans and parents say about building character, you have to win. In the poorer communities, winning is character—there is nothing else left, or so it seems to them—and so it’s a pretty desperate fix, a pretty desperate lifestyle that Coach has gotten boxed into, here in his forty-third year. Win or go home. Win forever, or leave, banished from one’s homeland.
The first and foremost talent, then, Coach knows, is nothing less than being able to look into the soul of these girls and know what each is capable of, and then labor to tease it out over the four years you have with them—which is to say, you have to be able to fall in love with them. You have to proceed with the secret knowledge that such love is temporal, not enduring. In this sense it is a corrupted kind of love, able eventually to be compromised, diluted, or even dissolved by one too many losses, or one too many failures. Over the course of the relationship with each team, and each girl, then, every gesture matters. One day that intensity and sweetness, that love and attachment between him and the girls will fade, and they will either graduate and go away, or he will be fired, and sent off wandering into the desert, spurned and abandoned by those whom he once loved, sent to search for new love.
Coach has been to the state championships only once, but it was the single most transformative event in his adult life. Utterly intoxicating and transcendent, the season had been marked by scrap-and-claw, jockeying for an upper-tier berth in his division—in his girls’ division—with setbacks and reversals, last-second blocked shots, long shots at the buzzer, and titanic battles in the paint.
His Lady Bearkats (he hates how the girls are always given short shrift that way—differentiated by that identifying pronoun of gender, Lady-this and Lady-that, rather than simply their team’s name itself; why are the boys not called, for instance, the Gentlemen Bearkats?) had just squeaked into the district playoffs, but had then caught fire, clamping down on one team after another with a superior defense, and winning one low-scoring game after another, with the girls playing their hearts out—the senior girls assuming leadership on their team, and weaving together a trust and mutual support more tightly than any family—and with Coach coaching his heart out, making genius substitutions, creating matchups that were based sometimes on long nights’ scrutiny of game films for each opponent, though other times on intuition. More exhilarating than any drug was this sweetest chemical, adrenaline, chased second by heart-pounding second with boilermakers of desire, yearning, desperation, and pure and elemental hope. He has never known anything more wonderful, has never felt more fully the incredible power of being alive, and of being able, through dint of will and force, to shape one’s world into the precise outcome one desires—though with everything at risk, the deep and lightless abyss of failure all around, attending every choice—the absolute compression of power and consequence into every melting second on the game clock.
To say that basketball for him is a matter of life and death is not to put too fine a point on it. For Coach, it’s more than that; the game is a small, dusty window in a high attic in an abandoned house in the country through which his soul, long trapped and dying, might yet find escape, and be illuminated.
And at that long-ago state championship: having defeated teams thought to be superior in the district playoffs, and in the divisional playoffs, until finally—what sweet and temporary alchemy!—the Lady Bearkats were starting to be considered superior—the entire town chartered buses and took off work to attend the finals in Bozeman, where, in the big city’s university arena, every individual from the small town of Tiber, population 5,167—all five thousand-plus of them, as well as the players’ relatives from all over the state—were on their feet in that one building roaring at the top of their lungs, their love, their howling passion, for the courageous hearts and cunning of their team and coach.
Pride existed there like thermonuclear expansion, so much so that standing beneath the bright lights, while the national anthem was being played—for that shining and suspended moment, while that one song played on almost interminably, and wonderfully so, all coaches and players had the briefest and most blasphemous of thoughts, lasting no more than half a breath, as they took their eyes off the flag for a moment to look back up into the stands, that right then, right there, is as good as it gets, that this is the pinnacle—that it all could and perhaps should end right here, before there is a winner and loser—for who needs even more euphoria than this?
And certainly, upon whom would one wish such heartbreak, following such ecstasy? But then the thought was washed away, almost before it was even a full thought, for at this level of achievement they were all, or had all become, voracious basketball warriors, just like Coach himself, living, breathing, and consuming the sport.
Is it healthy? Absolutely not. Would you ever wish such fragile intensity, such narrow obsession—such addiction and dependency—upon anyone you loved? Never. But should you ever be faced with such an unlikely temptation—the opportunity, or even the nearness of opportunity—there are few who would say no. There are many who think they would be able to say no; but on those rare occasions when a team draws ever nearer, accumulating victories through the long season, things change. The bird finds itself again in the attic, and either forgets or does not have the intelligence to consider how it got into the old house in the first place.
The bright lights of the state championship, and the adoration of the entire town, for one long, focused, unified moment: Coach has known it once, and would give anything to know it again, and he wants it desperately for every girl he ever loves, and for every town he ever moves to, in his wandering drift, his peregrinations of adolescent drama, small town booster-parent drama, and in the repetitions of passionate and sustained failure, year after year. The bird’s tiny wings fluttering against that windowpane, barely audible but earnest, beginning each day at dawn and continuing until long after dark.
The interview in Placerville had gone well. The school board said all of the things they always said, no matter where he interviewed—that a quality education was the key goal of the school district, and that there were singular challenges these days, particularly in underserved rural areas, to be competitive in the ever-changing global marketplace. And that with regard to sports, they were more interested in building character than winning per se. Their team had won only three games in the last two years while losing thirty-four, and in the interview—that too-brief part of it that covered basketball—the school board stressed how their main concern was that the girls have fun and continue to learn good sportsmanship. It was what they all said when they were losing, and it had gotten to where it rankled him to hear it. Just once he longed to sit down in an interview in which his teaching credentials—Montana history and Native American studies—were briefly examined, only to then really get down to business, with a unified school board telling him, Listen, we’re tired of losing. It’s bad for our school, bad for our girls’ spirit and self-esteem, and we want you to come in and do something about it.
The ugly truth was that losing all the time eventually got to be where it was no fun at all, while winning was as much fun as anything these girls would have known up to this point. But he never told them this.
Instead—in that little window of time he got to talk to the board about basketball—he always laid out the threefold path to turning around a losing program. “Number One: family first. The parents have got to love their children. I need to know, and the kids need to know, someone besides me will always have their backs. Number Two: I'll stress academic excellence. Only until we reestablish those two things, will the third part, athletic excellence, return.”
And always, in these small schools, athletic excellence had been there before; always, the residue of it hung in the hallway above the entrance to the ancient, dimly lit gymnasium, in the dusty, sun-faded photos of the hauntingly obscure teams from thirty, forty, even fifty years ago, with those past fleeting glories so isolated by forgetfulness as to threaten to make a mockery of the same passion the players and the fans in the here and now pursued.
In every interview, Coach talked briefly of his experience that one time he had gone to state. He mentioned it only casually, for he knew that in their initial earnestness, the school board members truly believed what they were saying about wanting only for the girls to have fun (as if they believed there was anything fun about losing).
It was only after he would begin to win games that they would change their tune, and dare to believe, and dare to be tempted. Would always yield to that temptation.
For now, he dialed it way down; but even so, he could not tamp or completely squelch the radiant love, radiant fury, he had for the game and all its virtues. And in the beginning, in Placerville, as in all the other places he had coached, the school board had been initially amused—not yet captivated—by his passions, and had given him the job immediately, after assuring him that his mother would be able to continue her health coverage under his state teacher’s policy.
The first thing they took him to see, the very next day, was the volcano, or what they called a volcano. Up in the mountains south of town, the old mine had had so much ore gouged out of it that following the big snow year of 1963, the overburden of stony earth had collapsed like a fallen cake, and was still collapsing, the caldera widening every year, so the effect was that of some great beast gagging and choking on the earth, on the burning stone it sought to disgorge.
In subsequent years wildfires had burned across the rubble of the ever-deepening caldera, igniting newly exposed seams and strata of high-sulfur coal, which burned slowly down deeper into the mountain’s heart, issuing at almost all hours of day and night towering billows of acrid yellow-brown smoke, redolent with the odor of rotting eggs, and with the mist from those vapors so acidic that the downwind drift of it stung the eyes and lungs of the residents of Placerville, several miles from the mountain.
The acid turned the foliage of the maple trees in town, and the summer-green grass of the lawns, a speckled, mottled yellow, and dulled the luster and finish on the paint of the cars and trucks, so that after no time, all of the vehicles had the same appearance—as if they were a fleet owned by one company, and utilized by a vast though curiously unambitious workforce: for none of the cars ever appeared to be traveling anywhere specific, with their drivers seeming to possess no mission other than a trip to the grocery, or the post office, or, for entertainment, the bowling alley or movie theater, or the bars and the churches.
Sometimes in the spring one of the trucks might drive past with a sapling in the back, to be replanted in a yard, replacing one of the acid-speckled trees; in the fall the backs of the same trucks would be filled with cut and split firewood gotten from the dead and dying trees up in the forest. But beyond that, all else was slumber.
It was only after Coach had said yes that the school board and town boosters took him up to look at the volcano. It was late in May when he had interviewed over the holiday, and a wet snowstorm had passed through the mountains, bending over and sometimes snapping the green limbs of younger trees and bushes. The travelers rode toward the mountaintop in a caravan of four-wheel drive vehicles, tires spinning against the slurry of springtime runoff, slipping and fishtailing in the deep snow that would be gone within the day. Already the late morning sun was beginning to rout the snow, slender double-bent branches arcing suddenly skyward as they shed their loads with the suddenness of traps being sprung—all around them, the woods were dancing, leaping in this fashion—and steam was rising from the forest as if all of the forest was afire, and the thunk and scatter of gravel churned against the truck’s undercarriage in a steady fountain of protest, the truck hopping and bogging down, roaring, then lunging forward again: an army-like procession, a mindless slog, an initiation.
As they labored up the mountain, encountering the first burned-out scablands of lukewarm coal-water and pustulous rivulets of toxic runoff from the old days of cyanide and arsenic heap-leach mining—past the charred and broken mineshaft timbers protruding through that rubbled ground as if seeking to reemerge, to escape their once-utilitarian existence, if only to burn, freely now, to ash—Coach came to understand that his employers were proud of rather than repulsed by the smoldering volcano.
“The kids come up here to drink on weekends,” one of the boosters told him. “We need to put a gate on it, but haven’t gotten around to it.” They were still driving, close enough to the craters that no snow remained—even in deepest winter, they told him, the area around the crater stayed snow free—and the inexorable creep, the burning itch, of the coal, would occasionally encounter the roots of one of the sulfur-strangled trees that it had killed in previous years. In these places, the fire would find the one thing it needed most, oxygen, within that tree’s hollowed husk, and the entire tree would burst into crackling flame. It could happen at any time, the boosters said.
They stopped at the edge of the pit and got out. It was windy, and the acid stung Coach’s eyes and made him squint. He could hear little flames and embers hissing underground, could see vapors rising from the dried-out soil, and imagined—or was it real?—that even the ground on which they stood was trembling, also about to collapse, and that he could somehow detect a hollowness, just below him, just beneath the spot where they were all parked.
The rotten-egg smell was overwhelming, as was the burning in his eyes—tears streamed down his face as if he was weeping, so that he had to wipe them clean with the crook of his arm, and when he did so, the gesture left a black smudge on his shirtsleeve—and yet there was another odor, too, above that of the charred wood and sulfur; and peering through the blowing mist and steam down into the gullet of the crater, where a few live coals blinked and flared like the winking teeth in a jack-o’-lantern, he saw that the crater was being used as a town dump, as well; that it was stippled with the carcasses of old televisions, recliners, charred and smoldering car batteries, couches, refrigerators, card tables, broken-down treadmills, as well as semi-melted plastic garbage bags of barely identifiable materials of organic provenance—deer bones, watermelon rinds, banana peels, cereal boxes, corncobs, and seemingly all the other detritus of the century.
The boosters admitted that although there was a no-dumping ordinance, people had been doing it for so long that there was really no way to stop them, that it had gotten to be a tradition; and Coach saw that long ago they had embraced its strange toxicity, and had made no efforts to alter or correct it.
Coach could smell rubber burning, and whether from the tires of the trucks they had driven up here, or the myriad tires tossed into the crater, he could not be sure.
“Have you tried to do anything with it?” he asked: by which he meant methane gas capture, geothermal energy production, or even piping warm water down the mountain and beneath the streets and sidewalks in town, to provide faint passive warming. Any kind of tinkering, any kind of improvement.
No, they said, nothing like that: and they glanced at one another, smiling, almost mirthful, at the bargain they appeared to have gotten—all that useless extra energy in him, all that spitting passion, and the clamant need for self-improvement. He would wear himself out, they knew, here in the mountains, where nothing ever changed.
Coach felt the stench beginning to permeate not just his clothes and his short-cropped thinning hair, but also his skin. He could not wait to get back to his motel room, to take a hot shower. He turned away from the pit, saying that he was chilled, and went and got back in the truck, while the boosters lingered a while longer, admiring their abyss, and listening to the faint subterranean cracklings.
When they finally turned away and joined him in the truck, the sulfur- and garbage-odors were deep-set in the fabric of their woolen sweaters. Coach asked if they could go see the gym now; and said that he was eager also to meet the girls.
“They will never be loved by another as I will love them,” he said. “They can despise me, and it will not change my love for them.”
The boosters smiled at one another. What energy—what a bargain!
Coach has had an interesting life. Before the basketball, he was in the army, and before the army, he was in basketball again. And before that, there was only the prairie, and the farmhouse where he lived alone with his mother after his father left them both when Coach was six, and his mother still sick, sick even then, leaving her to raise him alone. Coach has not seen his father since that time, thirty-seven years ago, though he knows he’s still alive, knows where he’s living, in California.
Coach and his mother ran the falling-down farm by themselves, hiring out when they could, but running parts of it themselves, in good years, when Coach’s mother was strong enough. It was she who instilled a love of all sports in him. They would listen to the radio in the evenings, following the nightly fates of whatever acoustic drift would come their way—picking up occasional marquis events, heavyweight title bouts, World Series games, and so forth, even the Davis Cup, each September, when the cottonwoods were first beginning to turn yellow and the summer’s terrible heat was finally leaving the land—but more regularly listening to the steady scroll, the nightly scratchy windstream, of Pioneer League baseball, local high school basketball and football; hockey from Missoula, girls’ volleyball from as far away as Lewiston and Miles City—anything regular, anything scheduled and dependable, with only the most infrequent of weather-related cancellations.
A hero is a hero in any age, under any setting; the fact that the athletes they listened to would never play in college, much less professionally, meant nothing to Coach and his mother: the various athletes each had names and specific characteristics, valor and passion, strengths and weaknesses, and as long as the radio was working, they were always there, separating Coach and his mother from the darkness that surrounded them, separating them from it as ably as if the names of those players, and the broadcast descriptions of their gestures, were luminous threads, currents of light, the tracing of which lingered in the night air, extending from Great Falls, or Choteau, or Havre, or wherever the gesture had originated, out past Coach’s and his mother’s farmhouse, extending all the way to the wall of blue mountains, the immense and snowy Front Range that separated west from east, and mountains from plains.
In the years when his mother was up to farming, Coach helped her clear the fields of the wind-varnished glacial moraine deposited there ten thousand years earlier. The stones and boulders—most of which were about the size of a basketball—were infinite in number, remnant and residue from the great ice shield that had overlain the prairie at some not-so-distant point—and no matter how many times they pried them up out of the loose, rich soil each spring, there were always more the next year, with the ice-polished boulders rising through the faint muscular rippling of each season’s frost heaves and being expelled like ancient eggs waiting to incubate in the mild sun.
In addition to listening to the games at the kitchen table with his mother every evening, those are Coach’s other deepest memories: trudging on stolid ankles through the new-furrowed soil, arms wrapped around one boulder at a time, reclearing the field each spring and summer while his mother, often lacking a tractor, plowed behind a single mule, while other seasons pulling the plow herself, then planting whatever section of field they had been able to clear.
Long spells of daydreaming by Coach, walking the fields in a trance, mesmerized by the shimmering opacity of warmer light radiating from the ground, and betranced, also, by his own physical exhaustion: though for as long as there were stones—or rather, for as long as there was daylight, for there were always stones—he would march back and forth across the fields, bellygripping each boulder as if anchored to it; and in the absence of any tractor clatter, the only sound would be that of the ever-present wind, and his own huffing as he labored onward, the muscles in his neck and back and upper legs burning. His calves sometimes so aflame that it would seem he could light a cigarette just by touching it to them. He was not a tall boy, but his arms stretched longer, over the years.
Occasionally in his work he would spy something else glinting in the loosened dirt—arrowhead, tip of buffalo skull—and would stop to pry it out, the regularity of his days leavened by such small discoveries. Not boredom, for even then, he knew he was waiting: that something big would happen, and when it did, he would be in charge, for once, of the change.
A pocketful of arrowheads, and then a box, then several boxes, to sell to the museum in Great Falls for spending money. (Later, when he got older, he returned all his unsold arrowheads to the tribe that had last occupied that land, the Blackfeet.) It was rumored that farther down were the bones of dinosaurs from millions of years ago. But his and his mother’s work never plowed that deep, never scratched deeper than the last few hundred years.
In junior high school, still a boy, he pined for his father, but then hardened up, welded shut that little lockbox, cut off the flow of oxygen. He played high school ball, and with his long arms was a leading rebounder, pretty fair shooter, rogue defender, always fouling out in the fourth quarter, when his team needed him most. Mixed success, and with the welds on the lockbox not yet firmly or fully set: little seeps of oxygen still trickling in at inopportune times. Confusing the coach with his father, raging and rebelling and acting out, frustrated by his inability to be perfect for the man, or the team, he ended up quitting the team midway through his junior year, thinking the coach would come pleading for him to return.
No such drama ensued—he was replaced with a lesser player who, as if by mere mechanical tooling, soon developed to approximately the same caliber of player Coach had been, to the point where the team neither anguished nor prospered in his absence, but instead continued on as if he had never been there: a realization that sent him reeling into more rebellion, and more trouble, including numerous fights, his senior year. A little juvenile detention, some near-jail experiences, but then his old coach intervened, took him back under certain conditions, gave him some tough love, taught him the game, and teamwork, and straightened him out.
He had been mere hours away from the abyss. One of the attributes of a small town, for better or worse, was that you could never really get all the way lost.
So many paths and choices and dead-end trails available to him, in small town high school: all that walking back and forth across the furrowed fields had not prepared him for the multiplicity of options that would be available to him—before his coach got hold of him, the only two plays he knew were Quit or Push On—but that coach—long gone, now—essentially adopted him, mentored him in the seemingly useless art of pick-and-rolls, give-and-gos, diamond-plus-ones. Blew heavy, iron-forging bellows into the last cracks and fissures remaining in the secret lockbox, set him afire, a crackling pyre of unrestrained hunger, and showed him the new boundaries of the world, which were now the confines of the basketball court—as his and his mother’s field had known the confines of the rushing, sagging barbed-wire fence and the wind-whittled, leaning fence posts. Taught him how to coach, how to squeeze the game—where the little cracks and secret crevices were, so that giants might be toppled.
School ended, there was no money for college, and no scholarships, so he went into the army—they allowed him to put his mother on his insurance policy—and stationed in Germany, he served long enough to qualify for college on the gi bill. He played some basketball at various overseas bases, came back to Montana, got a degree in psychology—there was little new he learned in those classes, other than the official names for the things he already understood—and then went to work teaching, and coaching, on the reservations. His brother had had a stroke when he was thirty-three, his father at thirty-five, and neither of them had ever even coached—he was a ticking time bomb—but how glorious each pulsing victory was, and how excruciating and torturous each loss, whether large or small, expected or unanticipated. They were easily the best years of his life.
He was back on the east side, his mother was in remission, his heart was not yet bothering him, and he had a couple of flashy sophomores whom he could envision standing beneath those bright lights again in a couple of years. There was no guarantee he could hold his team together for that long—whether on or off the reservation, the pressures of small town, rural communities on adolescents was intense, and promising athletes were forever falling through the cracks—scholastic probation, bulimia and anorexia, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and family dramas and relocations—and Coach ferociously involved himself in every hour of his girls’ lives that was possible, rode herd on their friends, knew who they hung out with and what they did, and scheduled as many team dinners and bowling nights and movie nights as was humanly possible. It was high energy, high maintenance, but things were coming together, he was weaving a fabric, a culture, of success.
Then he got called up by the army, and that was that. He was stationed in Lebanon, was shot at, and dodged bombs for two full years before there were any studies confirming what everyone already knew, that two years of bombings was not good for the psyche—that one single blast event could take a lifetime to recover—and when that war ended, he was still alive, and still loved basketball, still had the blind spots of a genius, and now, courtesy of his patriotism, a new Achilles’ heel, a new impatience and irritability that he chose to confuse with his old impatience and passion.
Almost as if he had two brains, now, two ways of being: though he relaunched himself into his passion with such momentum and focus that for the most part he was able to mask that trauma, was able to stay out ahead of it: as if he had slapped the ball away from an opponent and was sprinting down the court now in a fast break, with no one between him and the orange rim of the basket. And even in his brief downtimes of rest and relaxation, he was able somehow to box out those memories of war—the shock of the first attacks in Lebanon, the shock of being hated indiscriminately, collectively—unfairly, it seemed, rather than specifically—when the first bombing victims were carried into his barracks.
How had he made it back to something as sissy and trivial as girls’ high school basketball, and with his passion somehow intact? Good upbringing, he guessed. He put the horrors aside and kept them blocked out the way he told his two smaller low posts to hinge-and-flange lockdown another team’s dominant center or high post. Remembering a game on the res when his 5’2” guard and 5’5” low post manhandled a 6’3” girl, the district’s leading scorer, held her to zero points, reduced her to a sobbing hulk on the bench midway through the third quarter, her confidence wrecked for the rest of the season and, to some extent, much of the rest of her career.
Even in those brief rests, in the off-season, he felt confident that he was able to keep it neutralized—that indeed, the paradoxical mix of high passion and deep irrelevance wrought by basketball was like therapy, and that he could use it to heal from or mask a lifetime of setbacks, as he urged his girls to do. He convinced himself that by making basketball his life, his life would not be able to bleed over into the game. It was a brave and foolish stratagem, simple and reckless. A genius does not always necessarily make a great coach. Obsession can carry the obsessed a long way, but has its costs.
What choice did he have, though? None. And because he loved his obsession—because it had rescued him, time and again, thus far—he wanted that for his girls, too.
He had trouble making friends anywhere—so much in this regard conspired against him, from the peripatetic nature of journeyman coach moving from one school to the next, to the social discomfort of a veteran in a politicized era.
But he did not miss or need the adult companionship. It was different, here in the mountains; on the east side, whenever he had taken a new job, he was swarmed with dinner invitations, neighborliness, potlucks; here, he’d thus far had no such invitations. Placerville was a place of brooding, self-absorbed doubt and paranoia, as he had heard was the nature of most of the mountain folk, particularly in basketball season, the dreary lock of winter and then, further on, late-season slush and soggy gray—but no matter, the girls were all, he had staked his life on them; wanted to change their lives, wanted to save their lives, as his mother had saved his, by putting hers on the line—not even knowing who he was or would be, but loving him nonetheless.
A little dizziness and shortness of breath, in the middle of some games. A little bit of clustered star-shot strobes of eerie green light, in the swimming darkness. Pain, sure, high in his chest, but what coach didn’t feel that, sometimes?
He was still a young man, but already—how did it go by so fast?—it was getting late in the game. As if he had had a fair-sized lead—not overwhelming, but enough—only to then have squandered it through mere inattention and lack of focus. As if he had paused, had decided not to breathe fire for just a little while, but in doing so, had made a mistake, had let the opposition—swarming like demons—overwhelm him.
On his third day in town, the boosters invite him to a team dinner, so that he may meet the girls. He has already received his $500 onetime signing bonus, courtesy of the governor of Montana, desperate to keep talented teachers in-state, and has already taken his mother to meet her new doctors, and is pleased with them. He’s transferred his insurance policy to the new school, has filled out the necessary paperwork for the twice monthly drib-trickle of contributions to his so-called teacher-retirement fund (he hopes for the best, that he might see that day—labors toward it—though he also derives a grim satisfaction from knowing he likely won’t live long enough to have to suffer that diminishment, that borderline humiliation). Not that the teacher’s life, or even teacher-coach’s life, is paved with any economic security—as with the game itself, there is only now, each one step or gesture before the next.
He has met with the utility company and had the power turned on, has spent the weekend hammering and sawing, installing a wheelchair-access ramp for his mother, has gotten the phone turned on and the satellite dish installed, so that they might watch all the world’s various sporting events together, and so that she can watch them by herself when he’s away at practice, or traveling to one of the away games, long bus trips to distant schools of similar enrollment. There are so few such schools in all of the state that the bus trips are always long, with the team not arriving back home until around midnight, exhausted, yet refreshed too—he will discover all this later—for having gotten out of Placerville even if briefly.
Late on the afternoon of the dinner, he finishes photocopying and hole punching the playbooks he has prepared for each girl, along with various short inspirational essays, proverbs, and mottoes, as well as a list of training rules, philosophies, and regulations.
He showers and shaves, kisses his mother goodnight—she naps every evening from five to eight, then reawakens to watch the delayed telecasts from Europe, or the late-start games from the West Coast, surfing back and forth. The new doctor, who is more honest than the old one, as well as closer to her own age, says, when asked his assessment of her future, that at this stage every day is a blessing, and that surely she must be aware of how extraordinarily fortunate she is to have traveled so far into the world and seen so much, and how proud she must be to have a son who loves her.
And then, although the doctor is not really a basketball fan, he begins to talk about the team, and their hopes for the coming year.
Coach leaves a note for her, just as he used to do when he was a boy and would be going out somewhere, if she was not home, and then, feeling twenty or thirty years younger—every time that he has to leave one job and start anew, it is this way, terrifying and invigorating both—he lugs the cardboard box, bulging with folders and playbooks, out to his old 1982 Datsun truck—310,000 miles, two-wheel drive, rust-gutted from road salt and the howling winds of the prairie, speckled like Swiss cheese, so that driving down the road, a special harmonic is created that’s almost musical, or like eerie radio transmissions, perhaps, from another planet—and every bit as eager and nervous as a bridegroom preparing to first lay eyes on his bride, with the church bells beginning to ring, he hurries the short distance over to the school, wanting to get there before they do, not wanting to keep any of them waiting. He does not think he has seen any of them yet—in the grocery store, he’s kept an eye out for which girls might possibly be basketball girls—but he’s pretty sure he hasn’t spotted one of his players. The girls he’s glimpsed, here and there, traveling through town, or in the café, or at the bowling alley, did not look like any basketball girls he’d ever seen—though again, you never can tell. He’s willing to be surprised.
He’s the first one there. He spreads the playbooks out on the tops of each of the nine desks, up at the front of the classroom. He makes sure there is chalk for the chalkboard, and then the boosters arrive, smiling and nervous and eager themselves, carrying grocery sacks and armloads of unidentifiable casseroles, salads, brownies. A Crock-Pot of moose chili. Bread, cake, spaghetti, the meals of a thousand nightmares, but never has he been so glad to see them.
And then they enter, the girls themselves trickling in, laughing and loose, graceful yet also at some level just beneath the surface as wary as wild animals coming to a spring to drink: thirsting for the water but knowing also to be observant, maybe even cautious. But laughing, secure in each other’s company.
Look at them, Coach thinks, my God, they are beautiful. Look at them, loving each moment, not thinking anything about winning, or even basketball.
He is dazzled by their beauty, their youth, their waiting innocence. He smiles at them, more nervous than he can ever remember being. He cannot help but read them with computer speed, is already diagramming plays on the chalkboard in his mind and then erasing those plays and starting over. He continues to smile, watching them slide into their seats. He had thought that because they were small town, they might not be beautiful, might not be happy, might not be perfect.
Now the athletic director is introducing him, though Coach barely hears the words. Coach looks out at the girls, and still is not fully sure what he will tell them.
This is the best part, Coach thinks, even better than the addiction of the game itself. This is the absolute best. The beginning.
He can tell by the cadence as well as accruing stillness—as when concentric ripples in a pond finally begin to vanish—that the athletic director is finishing up his talk. As if through a muffled tube, Coach can hear that ancient phrasing, the one about how the principal goal is not winning, but to build character.
No phrase infuriates him more, but he tries his best to remain calm, and keeps smiling, almost stupidly: almost as if agreeing. He tries to will the throbbing veins at his temple to stay submerged. Can they see the steam leaking from his ears, he wonders, can they scent the fumes of his burning? He tries to consider the image of the stilled pond, and to consider the joy of the girls gathered before him. The speed with which they are leaving childhood and entering young adulthood: faster, really, and more intricate, than any play he could ever devise or diagram.
It’s absolutely intoxicating to behold, this arrested or suspended youth—this timelessness—and once more he stands at the edge of it; and hiding his secret heart, I must win, he smiles at them and steps up to the podium to introduce himself, in a place and a time where no one will ever grow older or in any way diminished, but instead will burn brightly, purely, cleanly, every day, and where each of them, even Coach himself, will—if only they can win—always be loved.