Something Great and Lofty

By Blake Kilgore

C-2ome on, Coach, I’m tired.”

“And…?”

Coach Seneca was this middle aged white dude with a homeless man beard, a grey ponytail and an old yellow trench coat that seemed like it was always plastered on his husky shoulders. He was sweating profusely, breathing heavily. And smiling.

“You got somewhere to be?”

“You know… I got stuff, man.”

“Sure, sure – tell me anything.”

But he kept me working, listening to his lessons, steady, clear, effective.

Coach was crazy. I mean, he seemed sort of normal, but he just didn’t quit, didn’t give up on you. He taught at the school, was a good teacher, not just a coach who teaches so he can get paid while he spends all his effort coaching. A good coach, he was a better teacher.

I could remember the day I tried to get my cousin LJ to skip school. He was nuts, but he wouldn’t miss Coach Seneca’s class. That crazy old teach had us all hooked on the ancient Greeks and Romans and shit that was nothing more than dust and fairy tales.

LJ was the biggest thug in my hood, had done the most dirt. Hell, his own grandma had come to the school to try and get the teachers to say he was crazy so she could dump him on child services without looking like a sellout. Coach Seneca didn’t truck to that bullshit, loved the kid and said how smart he was, and she had to keep him, but not for too long. Soon that fool got himself shot to death on a B and E. I don’t think Coach ever forgot that. It was heavy for everybody and I know it cut Coach deep; he wasn’t one of these old-timers who think being tough means you don’t feel.

Coach Seneca got all jacked over this old brainiac called Socrates, not necessarily because he was so wise (maybe that, too), but because he had stones to stand against all the busters who talked game but didn’t do shit. Old Socrates got himself killed standing up for what was right, and we all said he was a dumbass, drinking that poison.

Not Coach. He just smiled and acted like it was the greatest shit you ever heard. Got all dreamy-eyed. Damn, he was practically crying. That’s why we loved that dude. He didn’t make no sense. Could be the nicest man ever, or a real hard ass, if he thought you weren’t doing right.

He had this crazy molester van we called the Trickster. Had the pimp lights at the top on the inside. Coach Seneca would teach all day, dealing with some rude psychos in the mix, and then get us lazy ass ballers to do homework for an hour after school before two hours of practice. Then he would drive most of us home in the Trickster.

We had this big kid on the team with no skills, but he was a goody boy with straight A’s, and Coach told him that his part on the team was to help us with our grades. No cheats, though; he actually made the kid teach us shit.

And he started to fit in, wasn’t such a piece. We actually kinda protected him, even in the neighborhood. Don’t nobody mess with Terrance, because that bitch gonna keep our grades up, and because Coach made him our teammate.

Then there was Kedron. That fool couldn’t dribble, couldn’t shoot. He was one of those silly B’s who tries to do globetrotter shit that looks good at the park playing pickup with a bunch of lazy asses who don’t play D. Do that in a game, well, you know. But this jack pulls coach aside and says, “Yo Coach, I know I suck, but I’ll get into Trouble. Will you keep me?”

Man, Coach kept that joker, and fucking coached him. Kid went from shit to okay, and even got in a game or two. One time he gets in the game and busts some And 1 moves, then jacks a three, and boom – makes it! The whole bench fell out. Hell, Coach practically fell on the ground laughing, too. But don’t you know Kedron did that shit twice more and Coach yanked his ass back to the bench. Something old school about screwing around and disrespecting your opponent.

Coach didn’t let you jerk around. He’d track you down in the hood. Anthony told me how he showed up at the High Risers in his lame ass wrinkled slacks and busted white man tie, looking all Po Po detective. Was about to get beat down when Kedron found him and took him to Anthony’s crib. His mom answered the door, all “Hi there Coach, so nice to see you. Anthony, someone is here to visit.” Surprised that mischievous motherfucker! Ha!

Another time one of the Kyle twins got mad in practice. He was too scary to say shit to guys jamming him so he told Coach to shut the fuck up. Coach got all ominous and we knew that buster was dead; after a day of work, an hour of study hall, two hours of practice and another hour of driving half the team home in the Trickster with the pimp lights, Coach shows at the Kyle house. The twins had one of those old school Pops who don’t suffer no fools. Well, let’s just say that twin was a choir boy from then on.

Thing is, you couldn’t do shit to make Coach turn on you. One asshole was talking crazy in class one day, speaking on Coach’s old girl, saying she was away getting stabbed by some other dude. Coach just got all somber and we could feel the volcano about to erupt and finally Jerry told that bitch to shut his hole before we all got sprayed. We all knew Coach had a temper. But after the storm blew over, he’d treat you like gold, like nothing happened. And he’d fight for his team.

One time he took us to get some grub after a weekend tournament. This clerk in the store was jiving, you know – eyeballing us up and down, and then all of a sudden Coach makes a fucking scene, just starts yelling crazy white man style at this asshole, talking about taking his job and getting a lawyer and shit. We got real proud of him that day.

Another time we were practicing with another team at the other end of the floor and their coach starts getting on us, telling Coach we were dicking around, and we were. Coach fucking goes nuts on the other guy, but real quiet like, grabs that bitch on the shoulder, hard, while he whispered in his ear. The dude kind of grimaced and just asked him to please let go and then fled the scene with his team, quick like. Then Coach came over and we were smiling, talking “Yeah, Coach! Get that fool!” and he goes crazy on us, put us on suicides for a half an hour.

Nearly got ejected many times. We’d play these rich, white prep schools. They used to beat our asses before Coach came on. They played all organized and shit and we just fell apart. Coach comes along and tells us those bitches think they’re smarter than us and they look down their rich white noses at us. He taught us how to play organized and then we started kicking their asses pretty regular.

Then their coaches start crying and you know how it is, playing at the Man’s home court. We start getting screwed. So Coach just goes crazy, hollering about they better call some shit accurate. He never came right out and called them racist, but he said it in between the lines. That used to piss me off sometimes, like why didn’t he just call it like he did with that restaurant clerk. But then I realized that we didn’t have nobody else there. He couldn’t get ejected, or we’d be alone among those wealthy, cultured wolves. So he just sat his white ass down on his chair and kept the sarcasm flowing like a bitch. It was funny, really. Even the refs liked it.

Like he’d crack jokes and stuff, talking about the refs wasn’t calling shit because they old lady was cooking dinner and they couldn’t be late for the jam. They’d bust up and smirk and then run on down the court and, sometimes, start calling a fair game.

In the playoffs one year we were playing Jefferson, and they hadn’t been beat in like three years. We had them down but they came back and stole it at the end. They were a real case, had forfeited a bunch of games because of a brawl with another team. They were trying to intimidate and one of those bitches hit Jerry in the nuts. Jerry was no fucking joke, had missed half the season for breaking some asshole’s nose in front of school one day. But Coach was like a hawk. He sees it going down and straight up runs to the middle of the court mid game and scoops Jerry up MMA style, then drags his ass back to the bench and slams him in his chair and freezes him with fear. And the refs must have respected it, because they didn’t give a technical, just let it go like nothing happened. They must have known he’d stopped a riot.

Didn’t nobody fuck up Coach. We were playing Hastings and getting beat and Angelo, our best player, was on the bench. He had fucked up in class that day, disrespecting the class and the teacher and the work. Mr. Breland, this dressed up wannabe gangster with greasy, rolling hair, and gold glimmering all over, peeking out from the pockets of his purple Sunday vest and from one corner of his creepy ivory smile, wearing those spit shine black boots, came leaning over to Coach, saying, “You know, Angelo might help us win.”

“And…?”

Coach didn’t even turn around, and we got beat. Angelo was a real asshole, but he was real good, could do everything except work. Coach had to run him most days. Hell, one day he was running the sidelines while we were practicing and Coach just explodes, runs over and grabs Angelo and starts dragging his ass up and down. And Coach could run. We were all laughing, but not too hard. Coach didn’t think it was funny when anyone fucked around. Said they were ruining themselves and hurting others.

He was always on that deep shit. He would drop all us kids who didn’t have rides (most of the team) after practice, but he always dropped me last, because I was the captain. He always tried to give me a lesson, try to teach me some shit, but I kept my hand on the door handle just waiting on the sermon to end so I could get home and play.

I thought being captain gave me an edge so I started acting out in class one day and the Principal (a real hard case) came in and I kind of got wise with him, thinking Coach would bail me out. I don’t know what he said to Coach, but it pissed him off, and there was always tension between the two of them after that. I was happy, because I knew Coach had my back. Dr. K could be an asshole and Coach knew it.

But later that night my auntie comes up into the stands while we are waiting on the JV game to end and snatches my arm. Coach needed me; I mean, Angelo and Jerry were both out with suspensions (half the team seemed to be out half the time). I looked at him and he just says he gotta respect my auntie’s wishes, and boom, I got yanked home and had my ass whipped, because Dr. K sold me out.

We lost. Coach lost, but he didn’t give a fuck. He loved winning and if he ever saw you acting like a bitch in a game, he would go crazy, but he didn’t try to win at any cost. The thing is, no matter how much we fucked up, no matter how much the system cheated us, he just kept his head down, leaning into the fight like one of those badass Spartan hoplites.

I think of him like that Carthaginian dude, Hannibal. He joined up with all these different cats from varied kingdoms and races, and tried the impossible. He didn’t win, but he had stones and he didn’t back down, even when shit kept falling apart around him and his own people sold him out. He fucking took on Rome, which was the Man back then. But in the end it did fall apart, his dream died, and Hannibal drank the poison.

What I remember about Coach most was that he never seemed happy. I mean, he could get real satisfied, like joyful or some shit, almost tear up, but he was depressed most of the time. One of the twins said he chucked that ugly ass yellow trench coat on the court one day and a flask slid out on the floor. Coach stowed it quick and the twins never said a word, but I guess we should have known he was an alcoholic.

Then one day, on a Thursday, Rasheed – “Big Shee”, this six-five badass OG who played for coach like a decade before, is waiting outside the gym, lurking behind the tinted glass of his car. We could see him through the window, understood why he was there. Jerry starts going fucking nuts, alternating between talking shit and crying, and Coach tells him to sit on the bleachers, tells us all to sit down and shut the fuck up. He knows Big Shee, is gonna go talk to him, but we beg him to stay inside. We were scared, man. Coach thought he could change the scenario, but we all knew Jerry had it coming. He’d fucked up one of Big Shee’s homeboys, and there ain’t no escaping street justice, but Coach goes out and tries. Hopeful bastard.

Big Shee gets out, and we can see he’s packing, got his finger on the grip, safety off. He tells Coach to stay the fuck out of it, he always respected him and all, doesn’t want to see him hurt. Then Coach blows all of our minds, tells Big Shee (mind you – this is the baddest motherfucker on the north side) to shut the fuck up! Would he still respect him if he let Big Shee ruin lives – his own and Jerry’s, not to mention sisters, brothers, mommas, you know, the whole community. I never seen someone talk to Big Shee that way, but I guess Coach got used to talking to all his players like we were his sons.

“Do you think everything I taught you was just happy bullshit? How courageous would I be if all I cared about was saving my own ass? You are important to me, Rasheed. And so is Jerry. He reminds me of you. So much strength, won’t back down from anybody for nothing. Please, Rasheed. He’s good, and so are you.”

Then they both just stared at one another for a long time and I knew Coach was weeping. He just couldn’t accept us devouring one another every day, wasting everything noble for vanity. But then Big Shee got in his car and drove away, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Coach was quiet when he drove us home in the Trickster that night. But his eyes were full of words he didn’t say, and he squeezed each of us on the shoulder a little tighter when he dropped us off. He took Jerry home last, and I understood. Jerry called me later, told me that the Trickster was parked out front of his place all night. Jerry’s grandma couldn’t believe it, made Coach come in for breakfast, and though there were baggy grey circles around his eyes, they still smiled.

Then, on Sunday night, Big Shee and his boys pulled Jerry out onto his front lawn and, with is screaming family watching, stabbed him thirty-nine times.

I guess it was too much for Coach. I been wondering if he did it on purpose of if he just lost control, got dragged under by the disease. And it does piss me off, cause, you know, we kind of needed him here. But I also lost count of how many dudes I seen flame out, and he hung on longer than most. We could have done something, should have seen it coming. Coach was frayed, man. His soul was too grand, he believed in the good, and I guess he couldn’t take the front row seat at the Coliseum any longer.

Coach never mentioned his namesake. But I researched it. Seneca was a fucking genius, a stoic philosopher who wrote all this deep shit on living a whole and righteous life. But his main student – Nero – didn’t learn, went fucking crazy, killing everyone in sight, and eventually, forced his teacher to commit suicide.

Some might say Seneca was the loser. I heard people say that about my coach, too.

“Fucking coward, so broke he killed himself on Old Crow, couldn’t even go out in style, Woodford Reserve or some fancy shit like that. Died alone, slumped on his raggedy couch in that horrible yellow trench, washed out and tattered, just like he was.”

But I want to check those assholes, because they didn’t know my coach. So I’ll read the words of the other Seneca, the philosopher we still learn from two thousand years after his fucked up death. The words describe the life our Coach fought for, even if he came up short. And if he was still here, I think this would be what he’d say to those of us he left behind:

“Have faith in yourself and believe that you are traveling the right road and not being led astray by the zigzag tracks of wayfarers, many of which go astray at the very roadside. What you desire is something great and lofty and of a nighness to a god – to endure.”

Terrance had nodded; I think he understood. Kedron just looked at the ground. The other bitches were chuckling, never heard me talk that way. But really, they were just running away from heartbreak. I love my homeboys, but then I understood why Coach made me captain, why he had bored me with all of those talks in the Trickster. He prayed that all of us would learn, rise above, conquer the shit that drowns you in a city. Hell, it was his love for Jerry, or maybe Big Shee, or probably both, that killed him. But he understood odds, and he played them, thought I had the best chance to open my eyes, see the path.

Sometimes on a cloudy day, I look at the sky, see the sun getting held down by the cold and the rain. But every now and again, a thin ray of light breaks through, and there ain’t nothing quite as beautiful. And then I wonder at all the love we hold, all the hope and sorrow that wrestle inside our chests, all the tenderness and mercy that ends up getting jacked by pride or shame or ignorance. And I thank God for Coach, because even though he was sick, alone and broke down, he loved us for as long as he could.

——————–

Half Texan, half Okie – Blake Kilgore fell for a Jersey girl. He teaches history, coaches basketball, and performs original folk music. He is grateful for his wife and four sons. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic.

 


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