My parents had no interest in sports, but my grandfather, V.A. Sr., decided that they were vital for a growing young man. He forced me to go to the YMCA for swimming lessons, and, when he learned in my sixth grade year that my school had a basketball team, he insisted that I join. I was resistant to the point of screaming and crying, but my grandfather simply took me by the hand to the first practice.
Washington had a powerhouse team. Dick J., our center, was the second tallest sixth-grader in Menominee. Bobby G. and Tommy H. were forwards. Bobby was tall and strong, and Tommy was an excellent outside shooter. Jimmy B. and Bobby H. were the starting guards, both speedy and good ball-handlers. The second string included Kenny S., Roger D., Bob C., Dicky M., and myself. I was the shortest kid and judged myself to be the worst player on the team. I always sat at the end of the bench and prayed that the coach wouldn’t send me into the game. Usually he didn’t, or, at worst, I would only have to play for a minute or two.
Our guys thought we had a good chance of winning the city championship. Only two other teams were serious contenders. Roosevelt had Arthur (“Woz”) Woznicki, who seemed about eight feet tall and who could take on any other team in the city all by himself. Fortunately, his supporting cast was terrible, and we felt we could assign three players to guard Woz and consequently limit that team’s scoring. In fact, we did beat Roosevelt handily.
Our scarier nemesis was St. John’s parochial school whose star player was Dermot Finnegan. Dermot was already a legend in Menominee. He was not only the best grade school athlete in town, but he was the meanest and toughest kid as well. He headed up a gang of poor kids – the Rudden’s, the O’Connor’s, and others – who were known for stealing, smoking, drinking, and fighting. Dermot, it was rumored, could destroy people with his fists, and we all believed it was only a matter of time before he would wind up on Death Row. His team had a couple of other good players as well, and we had serious questions about whether we could defeat them.
St. John’s was our last game of the season, and, as the game approached, both teams were undefeated. A week before the game, a couple of our first-string players took me aside on the playground. They wanted to talk about a plan they had which would guarantee our victory. Dermot, it turned out, had a history of hernias. One good knee to the groin, they said, and he would be finished. The team, they said, had gotten together and decided that I should go into the game, guard Dermot, and “accidentally” knee him in his vulnerable area. They showed me how to do it.
I couldn’t believe what they were asking. I totally rejected it, of course, but they brought it up over and over, sometimes with an accompanying threat of physical harm. “Dermot would kill me” was my primary retort. “We’ll protect you,” they replied. “Dermot’s gang isn’t that big.” I argued, pretty logically I thought, that any of our main players could injure Dermot because, once he was out, we were certain to win. My teammates rejected this. They wanted to run up the score as high as possible, they said, and they needed all the first-stringers in the game to do that.
The game day came, but unfortunately I can’t report the end of the story. The game was filled with so much danger and anxiety that I’ve completely blotted the whole event from my mind. I considered later that my teammates might have been putting me on, but I don’t think so. Anyway, the coach never did put me into the St. John’s game. Maybe they won, maybe we won. The main thing of importance is that both Dermot and I were spared catastrophes of different sorts.
*Pseudoynms used in this story
-Phyllis SS (12-17): Dave, I'm so glad you wouldn't do it. You were so right - he would have FOUND YOU. Plus, it was wrong. Even though teams do play that way. Have a merry xmas. Phyllis