Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Story by William Snyder

Adventures with the East Valley Screaming Eagles 
  
by William Snyder © 2008
The Gila River Indian Community - 1993 

I drove the white school district van to the headquarters of the Gila River Indian Community. The building reminded me of an old Elks Lodge. It was tattered and worn, with large chunks of paint peeling from the trim. Ominous black clouds loomed over the Estrella Mountains.

“You guys wait here while for a minute while I find out where the heck we are,” I shouted to the boys in the back.

“Hey coach, did it ever cross your mind to get directions before we left the school?” David bellyached.

The kid was squeezed into the back row of the van. At six-five, he didn’t have a whole lot of leg room.
“I did get directions, David. We’re there and I don’t see a gym. Do you see a gym? Let me know if I’m missing something here, Dave.”
The kid wasn’t even listening. He was wearing headphones and bouncing his head up and down to the beat. I walked through the front door of the tribal headquarters. The place smelled of old wood, pipe tobacco and coffee grounds. An old Indian man was reading the sports page with his feet propped up on a gigantic empty desk. Garth Brooks was playing on Camel Country Radio. The Indian was wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses, Wrangler jeans, a blue flannel shirt and an expensive pair of snake-skin cowboy boots. The man did not react when the wooden screen door crashed shut behind me.

“Excuse me,” I said.
“Oh hey,” he folded and tossed the newspaper on the desk and stood. “You’re the coach.”

“Yes I am. Bill Snyder,” I said, extending my hand.

He took my hand softly, barely gripping it with the tips of his fingers. I had encountered that soft handshake with other Indian guys I’d come across since moving to Arizona. I don’t know if it was a sign of disrespect or respect or just the way Indians shake hands. Never thought to ask.

“Hello young man. I’m Ned, and I’m the tribal chairman.”

“It’s an honor,” I said.

I had never met a tribal chairman before.

“Hey…a Bill, the gym’s undergoing some repairs. You and your boys wouldn’t mind playing the game outside would you?”

“I guess not. Can’t be much worse than our gym.”

“Yeah, I was at your gym for the last game. You’re right Bill, our gym’s not anywhere near as bad as yours.”

The East Valley Gym was a disgrace. Students were allowed to use the gym during breaks. Hundreds of them crowded in each day leaving cigarette butts, chewing tobacco, spilled soda, and gooey candy squished and scattered across the badly warped wooden floor. There were dozens of holes in the roof. When it rained, and it rained a lot that year, there were puddles from one end of the court to the other. I talked to the maintenance guy, who was the second laziest person at the school, about fixing the roof.

“Can’t do it,” he told me.

“Why’s that, Brad?”

“It was built wrong.”

“The gym was built wrong?”

“Yep.”

“And that’s why the roof leaks?”

“That’s right, Bill.”

“And you’re not going to fix any of the holes in the roof.”

“Nope.”

“Someone could get hurt.”

“Want some advice, Bill?”

“Why not, Brad?”

“December, January and February are excellent months to schedule away games.”

“That covers the whole season.”
“Yes it does, Bill,” Brad said, seething with sarcasm.

The tribal chairman snatched his keys from a nail on the wall and sauntered over to the door.

“You and your boys follow me.”

The chairman climbed into his expensive looking pickup and we followed him along a dirt road and over a couple of hills to a basketball court in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The court was naked. There were no buildings in sight, just sage brush, tumble weeds and a few ghostly mesquite trees. On one side of the cracked and worn basketball court was a scorer’s table with a flip-card score board. On the other side were three benches for the two dozen or so Indian spectators. Many of the people were overweight, some morbidly obese. They gave us a friendly round of applause when we climbed out of the van.

“Hope you boys don’t mind playing outside,” one of the men shouted to us.

There was laughter from the crowd.

“You boys’ll want to adjust your shots ‘cause there’s a wind comin’ in from the west, eh,” added a man with long hair and a t-shirt that read Fry Bread Power.

More laughter.

“Where do we sit coach?” One of my players asked.

“On the dirt - or stand, I guess.”

Estrella Mountain had just the five players and I don’t think those boys ever sat down. They had already gone through their warm up drills and they were engaged in a game of twenty-one. I approached the coach. Appearing to be in his forties, he was a tall white guy who with too many broken blood vessels on his nose.

“How you doin’, coach?” I asked

Nothing. He looked at me and then my team. The five rez boys had beaten us by two points three weeks earlier.

“The old outdoor court on the rez trick. Nice move coach.”

There was no outdoor court on the rez trick. I was trying to be funny, make conversation. This guy was having none of it.

“You better get your boys warmed up,” he said before literally turning his back on me.

“Does this mean we’re not meeting for beers after the game?” I said to the coach’s back.

Nothing.

I thought it was funny.

We won the opening tip and David Thomas got things started as he soared across the murky desert sky to throw down a monster of a dunk. Everyone out there responded with cheers and celebration. One of the opposing players patted David on the back as he ran by. The Indian boys really got a thrill out of David’s dunk. Then the rez boys kicked it into fifth gear and never looked back. We were down by twenty at the end of the first quarter. During the second quarter a couple of crooked-walking, half-bald rez dogs wandered over to assess the situation. My entire team retreated from the court as the Estrella Mountain boys scored an uncontested lay up. The crowd erupted with laughter. During the third quarter, the ball bounced into the sage brush. It was our ball but my players were afraid of the possibility of being attacked by snakes or the rez dogs. They started arguing over who was going after the ball. One of the Indian players disappeared into the brush and reappeared with the ball. He dropped it in front of my five bickering players and got back on defense. The crowd loved that one and let loose with more laughter, slapping their knees and wiping tears from their eyes. We were down by fifty when Josh Rogan threw up a fake, blew past his defender and flipped the ball over to Gary Smith. Gary took the ball in for the first dunk of his life. It was a beautiful play. The crowd cheered with appreciation of the sheer athleticism. The ref blew his whistle and signaled Gary for traveling.
“That’s bull s---!” Gary shouted at the ref.

The ref whistled Gary for a technical foul.
“Oh my God!” Gary shouted, throwing his arms into the air.

Members of the crowd mocked Gary, throwing their arms into the air, collectively shouting, “Oh my God!”

At that moment Gary lost it, turning to the crowd and shouting, “F--- all of you!”

They loved it. Half a dozen people were still throwing their arms in the air, looking at each other and shouting, “Oh my God.”
The ref whistled Gary for a second technical and tossed him from the game.

“I walked over to the referee and asked exactly where my kid was supposed to go, taking into account that we were in the middle of the desert. The ref said that Gary would have to stand over by the van. I looked at Gary and tears were streaming down his face. He had been totally humiliated. I put my arm around his shoulder and led him over to the rear end of the van where he was cut off from the vision of the merciless spectators. Thunder began to rumble in the distance and lightening exploded across the mysterious gray skies.

“That was f---ed up coach,” Gary said through his tears.

“Yeah it was, Gary, but your dunk was nothin’ less than magnificent.”

“It was my first dunk.”
“I know. How’d it feel?”

“I don’t know, I guess I felt like I was really flying for a minute there.”

“That’s good Gary. Just wait here for ten minutes and we’ll get the hell out of here.”

I felt like I should have said something inspirational, but I had given him everything I had. The game had resumed without me. I threw in my JV players and let them finish out the last few minutes. After the game, the opposing players offered handshakes and walked my guys to the van. Rain drops began to spit against the pale desert floor. I looked for the opposing coach. He was already in his jeep and driving away. We were definitely not meeting for beers.

After the game I spent three hours navigating the rain soaked streets of the East Valley to drop every single player off at their respective door steps. One kid complained the whole time because he was last. When I finally dropped him off I reminded him that I was last. After driving back to the school at the old Air Force base, I parked the van and drove my car home. I was tired and beaten. As I emerged from the car, my three year-old daughter Macaulay ran out into the rain and leapt into my arms.

I held my girl and let the rain fall and everything was good.

2 comments:

Bryan Frank said...

Always liked this story. It's got heart enough to see an average man through the average day.

Go, Buzz!

JJ said...

Another great story, my friend.