HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?
ADVENTURES WITH THE SCREAMING EAGLES
I parked the battered school district van in the dirt parking lot of the Gila River Indian Community headquarters. The building had the feel of an old Elks Lodge. It was tattered and weather-beaten; chunks of paint peeled up from the trim. Ominous black clouds loomed above, casting complex shadows against the Estrella Mountains.
“You guys stay put here for a minute while I find out where the hell we are,” I shouted over my shoulder.
“Hey Coach, did it ever cross your mind to get directions before we left the school?” David bellyached.
The kid was compressed into the back row of the van. At six-five, he didn’t have much legroom.
“I did get directions, David. And we’re here. This is the address and I don’t see a gym. Do you see a gym? Let me know if I’m missing something here, Dave.”
David wasn’t even listening. His eyes were closed, and his head was bouncing up and down to the beat of his gigantic headphones. I pulled open the rickety screen door and walked into the tribal headquarters. The place smelled of damp wood, pipe tobacco, and coffee grounds. An old Indian man was reading the sports page with his feet propped up on a massive empty desk. He was whistle breathing through his nose. A Garth Brooks tune played on Camel Country Radio. The man wore thick, black-rimmed glasses, Wrangler jeans, a blue flannel shirt, and an expensive pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. He betrayed no reaction when the wooden screen door slammed shut behind me.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Oh, hey,” he tossed the newspaper on the desk and stood up. “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 calloused fingers. I had come across that soft handshake with other Indian guys I’d met since moving to Arizona. I didn’t know if it was a sign of disrespect or respect or just the way Indians shook hands. It was a personal enigma.
“Hello, young man. I’m Ned, and I’m the tribal chairman.”
His brown face was cracked and weathered.
“It’s an honor,” I said.
I wasn’t kidding. I’d never met a tribal chairman before.
“He, eh…Bill, our 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 that bad,” he flashed a politician’s smile. “Your gym is the worst gym I’ve ever seen.”
The old chairman’s assessment was right on the money. The East Side Gym was a downright disgrace. Hundreds of students crowded into the building during school breaks, leaving cigarette butts, chewing tobacco, spilled soda, and soft 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, more than twenty buckets had to be strategically placed from one end of the court to the other.
I talked to the maintenance guy, a man who worked to avoid doing any work harder than anyone I’d ever known, about fixing the roof.
“Can’t do it,” he told me.
“Why’s that, Brian?”
“It was built wrong.”
“The gym was built wrong?”
“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?”
“Someone could get hurt.”
“Want some advice, Bill?”
“Why not, Brian?”
“December, January, and February are excellent months to schedule away games,” he said, checking his watch.
“January, February, and March. That’s the whole basketball season.”
“Sure is, Bill.”
The tribal chairman snatched his keys from a nail on the wall and sauntered over to the door, the floorboards creaking beneath his cowboy boots.
“You and your boys follow me.”
The chairman climbed into his expensive 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 sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and a few ghostly mesquite trees. On one side of the court was a scorer’s table with a flip-card scoreboard. On the other side were three benches for a couple dozen Indian spectators. Many of them 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.
“Where do we sit, coach?” one of my players asked.
“On the dirt—or stand, I guess.”
Sitting during the game would not be an issue for our opponents. Estrella Mountain had just five players, and I don’t think those guys 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. Looking to be in his forties, he was a tall white guy with thinning hair and too many broken blood vessels on his nose.
“How you doing, Coach?” I asked
Nothing. He looked at me and then at 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 witty, fire up a little pre game 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 asked the coach’s back.
Nothing. I thought it was funny.
We won the opening tip, and David Thomas got things started when he soared across the murky desert sky to throw down a monster 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 kick out of David’s dunk. Then the rez boys shifted into high gear, and, baby, they 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 onto the court. My players ran from the court, allowing one of the Estrella Mountain boys to score an uncontested layup. The crowd erupted with laughter. During the third quarter, the ball bounced into the sagebrush. It was our ball, but my players were afraid of the possibility of being attacked by snakes or rez dogs. An argument broke out over who should go after the ball. One of the Estrella Mountain 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, letting 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 game dunk of his life. It was a beautiful play. The crowd cheered with appreciation of sheer athleticism. The ref blew his whistle and signaled Gary for traveling.
“That’s bullshit!” 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. A half 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 player was supposed to go, taking into account that we were in the middle of the desert. He 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 rumbled off in the distance and lightning exploded across the mysterious gray skies. The sweet, clean fragrance of desert rain overtook my senses.
“That was f----d up, coach,” Gary said through his tears.
“Yeah it was Gary, but that was a helluva dunk you threw down.”
“It was my first game dunk.”
“I know. How’d it feel?”
“I don’t know. I guess I felt like I was 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 gave him all I had. The game had resumed without me. I let my JV players finish out the last few minutes. After the game, the opposing players shook hands and walked my guys to the van. Raindrops began to spit against the pale desert floor. I looked for the opposing coach. He was already in his jeep and making a beeline for Phoenix. We were definitely not meeting for beers.
I spent the next three hours navigating the rain-soaked streets of the East Valley to drop each player off at his respective doorstep. My shooting guard complained the whole way because he was last. When I finally dropped him off, I reminded him that it was me who would be going home last. After driving back to the school at the old Air Force base, I parked the old van and drove my car home. I was tired and beaten. As I climbed out of the car, my three-year-old daughter sprinted out into the rain and leapt into my arms.
I pulled my little girl in close and let the rain fall—and everything was good.
HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? is collection of stories from my 29 years in the teaching biz.
The book will release in August.