Chapter 2: The Coming
“Hoppo to the heights now!” Swoop roared that afternoon when he walked into our locker room for the first time.
He swaggered through the door and slung his purple gym bag to the floor. All eyes followed as it skidded to a halt, then his laughter echoed through the lockers.
“Going to take this squad to the top!”
In the quiet that followed, the only sound was the sharp intake of someone’s breath. Nobody spoke – it’s possible that for several seconds nobody even breathed.
I couldn’t see. I stood in the rear of the trainer’s room, behind the table, away from the door opening onto the lockers. I stood transfixed, because of his proud boast unable to move nearer, but because of his brash vitality unwilling to turn away. Though I couldn’t see, I could hear, and my mind somehow held a clearer picture than it ever had before.
He punctuated his words by thrusting his finger at the team, and several players backed off. He ignored it. He advanced upon them until he had several pinned against the lockers, then he swiveled to face the team. There was no laughter now and his voice sounded like he pronounced the elemental truths of arithmetic.
“I will change your lives,” he said.
Nobody moved and everybody, even Coach, was speechless. I shifted uncomfortably behind the trainer’s table. When I moved, the congenital ailment that afflicted my right leg since birth caused a sharp jolt of pain. It seemed stronger than usual. But the players neither knew nor cared what occurred in the trainer’s room, because for now they all stood gaping at Swoop. After the ensuing scrimmage, such gaping became habitual.
Because of the team’s long string of losing seasons, it was the butt of endless jokes in hoops-mad Iowa. Everybody—the players, the town, people throughout the Valley—hungered to see Swoop play, to see if this hotshot New York import could live up to his advance PR. He’d been the country’s high school player of the year several years ago but, despite heavy recruiting from the major programs, had refused all offers and dropped out of sight. Rumor had it that he’d been playing invitation-only private games against pros. Nobody knew why he’d finally chosen a nowhere school barely on the map – but people’s ignorance only fueled their imagination. One of the school janitors, not known for his sobriety, told me that Swoop had been incarcerated and, in a prison league season, had averaged 100 points per game. Speculation in bars downtown was that he’d been rejected from Duke and Kentucky for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs – and a passing stranger swore Swoop barn-stormed the east coast, playing high-stakes pick-up games and never losing. In the days leading to his arrival, the stories whispered grew taller and the town’s mood more feverish.
The players themselves were divided. Some expected to find a washed-up loser who had squandered his talent. But others had followed his high school career and remembered the state championships he had won. Nobody knew what to expect and the buzz was undeniable.
Coach didn’t disappoint, playing him with the scrubs to see what he could do against the starters. The reserves had never beaten the starters, though they practiced against them daily, and Swoop grinned when Bobby Stenaker told him so.
“The last are about to become first!” he boomed, then added modestly. “Under Swoop’s tutelage, of course.”
On the game’s first possession, he stole the entry pass to Freddie Zender and then rocketed upcourt. When defenders swarmed at him, he zipped a no-look, one-hop dart to Raif Lockett for a lay-up. On the next play, he swatted E.J.’s jumper off the glass, grabbed the carom while still airborne and hit the deck with both feet moving. He found Bobby Stenaker racing upcourt and fired a court-length strike like a quarterback to a streaking receiver. On play after play he sliced to the rim, breaking down defenders with breath-catching quickness, then skying over them for slams or dishing off for easy lay-ups. When he took point guard Drew Doherty incessantly off the dribble, Doherty—a barbell-hefting, beer-swilling safety on the football team—cursed in his face. When Swoop stated, his voice earnest, that “The gods prize deeds, not vulgar words,” Doherty—certain now to lose his starting spot—fired a whistling elbow at his face. As the games wore on, and Doherty and the other defenders backed off, leery of Swoop’s slashing thrusts, Swoop drilled jumper after jumper, singing “Make it rain!” as his high-arcing shot dropped softly from the sky. After two hours, a glassy-eyed Coach called a halt: the scrubs had whacked the starters five straight, spanking them worse with each game. Players on both sides just stared, and fans who had shown up for Swoop’s debut scurried from the gym to report what they had seen.
In the locker room after, Swoop held court.
“No way this team’s going to have a losing record again. Three-and twenty-four? That’s bulls__t! Twenty-four-and-three this year—at least!”
He paced the room as he spoke. It was a small room befitting a low-budget team from a bush-league conference. It held only three rows of lockers, the small trainer’s room and shower stalls in the rear. As its only adornment, a large wooden cross had been hung by Coach and Freddie Zender on the front wall next to the door.
He turned at the room’s far end and strutted back, pointing at his teammates as he moved. Some of our farmboys were built like tractors—their girth should have dwarfed Swoop—but the room suddenly seemed smaller than it ever had before. He was lean, barely over six foot, with a litheness of motion that more resembled ballet than athletics. His hair was not quite blond, but a light brown, worn wavy and long in a style that contrasted with the buzz cuts of his new teammates. He had green eyes that, when he spoke, cut into his listeners more sharply than his words. He spat words like commands—this stranger and mere player assuming authority like a conquering general—and yet, what mesmerized me, holding my focus like a trap, was the gliding flow of his movement. But I woke in time to hear his final prediction.
“Next year,” Swoop concluded, his voice low. “We’re going to win the national championship.”
Coach wrapped one of his paws around his shoulder and introduced him to each team member individually. I was last.
“Swoop, this is our trainer, Duggan Claveen.”
He grabbed my hand and jerked me to him, so that our chests were inches apart. I was too startled to move and his eyes held me even more than his grip.
“Digs,” he said, “I like you. I’m going to let you carry my bags.”
I was aware in the abnormal silence that followed that his teammates stared with eyes too big for their faces. Freddie Zender’s look was more a scowl than a stare. He frowned, this strong man who made time for hours of charity work in the midst of his duties as medical student and team captain—frowned at an overbearing creep who would treat as a porter a man suffering from a crippling birth defect.
But it wasn’t clear in that first instant Swoop grinned at me—with current pouring from his hand and eyes like conduits—whether I wanted to swing at him or stand transfixed and bathe in the energy. I did neither. I stared at him – at the supple hips and ease of motion – and felt a hard resentment pulse somewhere in my gut. Who the hell was he to have so much when I struggled to heft up a flight of stairs an armful of hardcover texts? I jerked away, bristling at his arrogance, and sensed the soft glance of Freddie Zender on me, solicitous now as he turned from Swoop. After all, it was for me that they carried equipment, for me that they opened doors even when my hands were empty. Freddie’s eyes told the story: I was the scrawny crip to be bullied by the cruel and coddled by the kind. Brusquely, I turned from him and returned to my work.
Although Swoop said nothing else, neither to me nor the team, his promise regarding the national title seemed a good bet in those first months following his arrival.
He dominated our daily intra-squad pick-up games, treating every practice like a playoff game. He rose hours before dawn to run, lift weights and shoot thousands of jump shots. When the pre-season games started, he single-handedly buried opposing teams, then bristled when Coach pulled him out, though we led by thirty.
The reaction, in this basketball-crazed state, was predictable. When we routed tough Bethel College at their gym, getting them down twenty before half and not letting up, the townspeople welcomed us home, meeting the team bus on Main Street, waving the school colors and pictures of Swoop. When Bobby Stenaker approached him seeking help, Swoop coached him regarding both conditioning and specific basketball skills. When several of the other reserves, weeks later, noticing Bobby’s improvement, asked for the same, he formed them into a unit, dubbed it “The Swoop Troop” and demanded of its members the same exhausting regimen as his own. When townspeople saw them running in the pre-dawn darkness, some smiled, some waved, some called “National champs!”
They ran through the heart of town at the crack of dawn, Swoop leading some of the time, but more often dropping back, insisting that one of the others set the pace. But whoever led, they ran the same five mile course every day, Swoop pushing them along the town’s busiest and most affluent streets.
The town of Hoppo Valley, though rural, did not lack for cultural life, for the state college on its western outskirts had an enrollment of 4,000 with several accomplished faculty members, especially in music and religious studies/philosophy. Music faculty members regularly gave recitals on campus and a small art museum had recently been established in one wing of the Humanities Building. The town itself, lying near the center of the valley, had the largest population for over one hundred square miles, and the rural hamlets surrounding it added a thousand more. The community was able to support a major newspaper and a small radio station.
The Troop ran the half-mile along Highway 40 to the business district, a well-maintained four-block stretch of Main Street lined with thriving shops on both sides. They continued past the stores, then made a left up Broadway and ran the “Salvation Mile,” the roughly one-mile distance between Main and Walnut that was home to the Catholic and several major Protestant churches. At Walnut Street they turned right and ran the block to Douglas Avenue, the exclusive, tree-lined, north-south boulevard where resided the Valley’s wealthiest citizens in a series of stately homes. At the corner of Walnut and Douglas stood the imposing stone structure of the First Episcopal Church, a sentinel guarding the elite’s cherished values. Its extensive lawn curved gracefully down to the street on both Walnut and Douglas.
Although they conceded the benefits of such training, The Troop members still indulged extra-curricular activities that Swoop insisted hampered their development. Raif Lockett, the six-seven Nebraska plow-boy, a reserve forward, had a taste for a wide range of alcoholic beverages. Ricky Crockett, a willowy eighteen-year old freshman, immediately dubbed “Davy” by Swoop, idled hours in the rec room, hustling pool and pin-ball. Where others saw only that Davy was a skinny six-three, too small for the forward position he played, Swoop saw his smooth moves and soft medium-range jumper, and did everything he could to encourage his development. Dandy Halliday, Freddie’s back-up at center, a self-styled homeboy from Lenox Avenue in Harlem, had cultivated, despite his strict Baptist upbringing, a refined fondness for certain illicit, though non-toxic substances. Bobby Stenaker, the lithe, sandy-haired Montana cowboy, a five-eleven shooting guard, characteristically kept late hours – and with a variety of female companions. Swoop didn’t preach to them; he merely lived clean and dragged their rumps through the streets at five AM. Slowly, imperceptibly, and not without back-sliding, their hedonic tendencies began to wane. Coach, who fully agreed with his friend College President Robert MacPherson’s frequent denunciations of vice-filled campus life, smiled warmly when Swoop was near, and gave him, without prompting, a key to the gym.
One Saturday morning in late October, Raif was severely hung over, and Swoop struggled to wake him up. When several minutes of lusty pounding at his door succeeded in waking half the floor but not Raif, Swoop added a song to his onslaught. I lived near the end of the third-floor hall that housed many team members, six doors down and across the corridor from Raif. I’d been up till 3 AM reading, and had fallen asleep with the Ross translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics on my chest. When Swoop’s clamor woke me, the reading lamp by my bed still burned. Swoop’s voice sang jauntily, though off-key, as the wood of Raif’s door vibrated under his attack.
“Oh, it’s great to get up in the morning when the sun begins begin to shine! Four and five and – ”
“Shut the hell up, you sick bastard!” croaked a surprisingly firm voice from next door to Raif’s room, giving vent to a generally negative evaluation of Swoop’s serenade. But Swoop ignored the catcalls and continued his concert.
“ – six o’clock in the good old summertime! Even when the day is rainy – “
I groaned and rolled over, wrapping the pillow around my head. But it couldn’t deaden the harsh sound of a door banging open at the other end of the hall near the stairs.
“I got a shotgun in the truck, boy!” shouted a voice with a distinct redneck twang. “Just for assholes like you!”
By the time Raif finally opened the door, Swoop had half the floor threatening his future and the other half cursing his genesis. Raif didn’t sound pleased either.
“Damn, Swoop,” he groaned. Bystanders said he was white as he clapped his hand to his head. “Run five miles now? I think I’d die.”
Swoop paused, and his words were so soft that I couldn’t hear them, and was told only later.
“You just might, Raif,” he said.
But the groans were louder and more widespread when Swoop turned to admonish the on-lookers.
“You should be striving for achievement,” he said. “Not sleeping your lives away.”
While Raif staggered back inside to get dressed, Swoop shooed away the crowd, ignoring their complaints about being awakened before six. Several minutes later, they set out from the dorm’s side entrance for their five mile run. Raif, unable to keep up, limped along painfully in the rear. I, as I often did, sat at my desk by the window and watched.
Word soon got around that, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, The Troop worked out every day. Dozens of locals started attending team practices, some even watched the extra-curricular workouts of The Swoop Troop, and the sports editor of the local paper predicted in his pre-season preview that we’d climb from the cellar to the penthouse of the Iowa Valley Conference. Several merchants downtown displayed the team’s picture in their windows, conversation in the local bars centered on basketball, and pre-season ticket sales were the strongest in school history. Local interest in Hoppo Valley basketball, high even when we lost, was rising.
The Dean of Student Life, J.T. Pearsall, caught the scent in the wind. He had long sought recognition for Hoppo Valley among the member schools of the Iowa state university system, and he immediately paid more attention to the basketball program. He had his picture taken with Swoop and Troop members, attended all exhibition games, traveled to road games on a school bus decked out with “Hoppo to the heights” banners, and increased funding for advertisement of team games. The result was that school administrators, leading merchants and even town council members began attending all home games.
But the ascent was not without struggle.
It was in the pre-season, during a pick-up game one Saturday afternoon, that Swoop challenged the starters. They still refused to work out with The Troop, and I had heard them criticize the newcomer’s arrogance on more than one occasion. After soaring over the much taller E.J. and pinning his lay-up from behind, Swoop jerked down the rebound, darted up the far sideline and smashed home the game winner. He turned to his beaten foes.
“You got to go stronger around the rim, guys, go up and slam it. Work out tonight with The Swoop Troop and I’ll show you.”
“Listen, Hotshot—” E.J. began, but Freddie cut him off.
“We’ve got a prayer meeting tonight,” he said.
Swoop’s patience was limited.
“Forget the prayer meeting!” he exploded. “We’ll make our own miracles.”
E.J.’s face turned red and he glared. The others watched calmly, silent, looking to Freddie for their cue.
“We’ll pray for you, Swoop,” the captain said.
He motioned the others to leave, and when they turned and walked away we all thought that was the end.
But when Swoop strode that night into the First Commandment Missionary Church—Judas Bittner’s home base—he found them on their knees.
“On your feet!” he roared.
He strutted down the aisle in long, gliding strides, clutching a basketball in his left hand. There were four of them, not just Freddie and E.J., but the core of the team. They rose as Swoop approached, the same question in eight eyes, but Swoop answered it before any of them could speak.
“You’re searching for God,” he said. “But He’s not here.”
When one of them retorted, “How would you know?” Swoop replied, “Because I know God better than you do.” When they stared blankly, he pointed out the door, which he had left open.
“He’s in the gym,” he said. “It’s where we’re going. Now.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He turned on his heel and started down the aisle.
“Maybe we don’t want to practice with you,” one of them protested.
“Good,” Swoop said, whirling to face them. “Because this isn’t practice.”
“No? What is it?”
“Worship,” he said, then resumed his march to the door.
He stopped at the last pew at the rear of the chapel, where a lone figure sat, observing, taking notes, doing field research for his Comparative Religion class.
“Big Brain,” he said to me. “Philosophy major, student extraordinaire, IQ near genius.” He paused. “But a sad, pathetic little wannabe.”
I put down my pen and carefully laid my notebook on the empty pew next to me. I looked into the green eyes staring at me.
“What do you know about me?”
Swoop laughed. But he didn’t smile.
“You’re not the only one who does research. You, too. To the gym now.”
I sat in my pew, feeling the way a raccoon must after being flattened by a car. But the guys, though bewildered, didn’t hesitate. They knelt again, re-opened their Bibles, and led by Freddie, read: “‘Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree—’” outside the noise of the dribbling basketball exploded through the clapboard chapel like tremors of the earth rather than sound waves.
The four worshippers stared as Swoop surrounded the chapel like a marauder, chanting his battle cry, “Hoppo to the heights!” But when they confronted him outside— four giants towering over his slender frame—they didn’t get the resolution for which they hoped.
“God doesn’t favor insolent boasters who strut into the chapel,” they said.
“They’re the only ones He favors,” he replied.
“You shouldn’t disrupt a man’s worship.”
“You shouldn’t worship false gods.”
“You speak blasphemy.”
They had no answer, only three blank stares and a scowl, and when E.J. started for him, Freddie wrapped his arms around his teammate and jerked him back.
“That’s an end,” the captain said.
“It’s a beginning,” Swoop said. “The end is when your souls are saved.”
He took one look at me standing in the door, then walked away. The five of us stood in silence and watched his back.
But though his sauntering gait took him out of sight in moments, it was not that easy to forget him. His departing glance had lingered on me. But why? I was not one of the players. I couldn’t work out with him and contribute to his grandiose quest. It made no sense that he had asked me to follow. I told myself that it also made no difference, that I desired no part of either him or his pretensions, but for several days I couldn’t shake images of him from my mind. Though I bridled at his insult, it was neither his words nor his final glance that stuck in my mind. It was only the gliding motion of his departure.
Although the starters refused to work out with The Troop—then or ever—the story of Swoop breaking up the prayer meeting was soon all over town. What the town didn’t know, what its residents had no way of knowing, was the meaning behind his departing words that day.
Two days later, when the players walked into the locker room after their last classes, they found the wooden cross gone, taken down and replaced by a huge poster of Hermes, the wing-footed lord of the wind, depicted in soaring flight, sword drawn, head high. “The patron god of athletes,” Swoop said. “He’ll stand by us throughout our championship run.”
When he held workouts at Healey Park—replete with appeals to Athena for wisdom and to Zeus for strength, alternated with the pounding practice sessions of The Swoop Troop— dozens of townspeople showed up to watch.
And when he spoke before hundreds of thronging fans at Homecoming, a crowd including several Religion majors and a pair of ministers, proclaiming that “the gods demand of champions the two ‘Ps,’ Prowess and Pride,” he got several raised eyebrows but more than a little applause.
Any objections on campus were referred directly to Dean Pearsall’s office, whose trained staff smiled and told protesters to set aside their convictions in the interest of solidarity of spirit. There were mutterings of dissatisfaction expressed during Religion classes and, especially, at the Bible study sessions led by Freddie Zender. But nobody directly confronted Swoop until an evening in late November just before the season started.
I left the library that night after three hours of research for a paper on the contrasting evaluations of pride held by the Greeks and the Christians. When I saw Swoop coming up the stairs, I realized that this was the one place I had not seen him – and had not expected to. I started to hurry as best I could down the steps, but when several of the students talking outside the door pointedly raised their voices I slowed down.
In the dark I couldn’t make out faces, but when the light glinted off of several metal crosses worn outside their sweaters I guessed they were members of the Campus March for Redemption.
“Guess there’s no prayer meeting tonight to break up, huh?” one voice said loud enough to be heard.
“Maybe he got Dean Pearsall’s office to do it for him.”
“Hide your crosses, gents,” said a third student, grabbing his in mock alarm. “I hear he sacrifices Christians in the Coliseum.”
Swoop had been angling toward me, cutting off my escape, but turned away, veering straight toward the dissidents at the first sound of protest. As they snickered, he sauntered up to them.
“This must be the inaugural meeting of the Swoop fan club,” he said mildly. “Why don’t we meet indoors, where it’s warmer? The gym’s a good place.” As I peered closely, I noticed that his smile had never been friendlier.
They stood silently staring at him, and as I inched closer I could make out their faces. I knew a few by sight, but having scrupulously avoided such groups that combined sanctimonious proselytizing with turn-the-other-cheek humility, none by name. Though I counted five of them, nobody spoke and a few shifted their weight uneasily as Swoop calmly watched. Finally, someone said in a heavy tone, “Nobody’s talking to you.”
Swoop’s reply was immediate. “Talking about me’s talking to me. You got complaints, let’s hear them.”
“Wait a – ” somebody started, but was waved to silence. A tall boy in a sweater that bore the navy and white school colors stepped forward. He looked no more than sixteen, but his expression and tone were earnest.
“It’s wrong to talk about someone,” he acknowledged, speaking more to his friends. But turning to Swoop, he added, “God doesn’t make complaints. And He doesn’t make out personalized warnings to those who sin.”
“No?” Swoop responded, with a perplexed look. “Does He at least make house calls?”
Involuntarily, I suppressed a laugh. If Swoop heard me, he didn’t turn, but when they stirred angrily at what must to them have seemed mockery, he quickly moved into their midst. “Because I do,” he said, swiveling to face each individual in turn. “And we will go to places never dreamed of in your Bible.”
Though the words “he’s mad,” flashed through my mind, I couldn’t hold them because the racing of my heart made thinking difficult. The raptness of his tone was unmistakable to anyone searching for religious fulfillment, but his audience couldn’t correlate his tone with his content.
“Someone please pray for him,” one of them pleaded in honest pain.”Because I don’t think I can.”
Slowly, with newfound dignity and without another word, they walked down the steps and away from the library. Nobody else was present.
When I started away, my motion must have awakened Swoop from his reverie, for he turned quickly to me. Though it took me a while to get down the stairs, I felt his eyes on me the entire time, watching the difficulty with which I navigated the steps. He said nothing, and he didn’t laugh, but it was only hours later, after a long bout with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that I was able to shake the feeling that his glance was like a line with a hook at the end – and I was a fish with it fastened in my gills.
But real dissent didn’t start until the season got under way.
We won our first two games at home, no-contests before screaming thousands in which Swoop averaged fifty and shut off the opponents’ leading scorers like turning a faucet. Our first challenge came on the road against Jabez College.
Jabez was fifty miles south of us in a rural, redneck community, a fierce little place full of liquored-up hellraisers. They had a decrepit rathole of a gym with dim lighting and a narrow court; they sardined twenty-five hundred sweating farm boys into their bandbox stands, raising the air temperature to a sweltering level; and their gym’s low ceiling pounded that hooting mob’s cacophony into the skulls of opposing teams. Typically, their xenophobic mentality welcomed visitors like outland invaders come to rape their women.
The Jabez fans howled as soon as our players—with their names stitched across the back of their jerseys—came onto the floor. The second they saw number 12 with the bold red letters proclaiming S W O O P, they became a jeering mob, starting a chanting drone that lasted all night.
“S-W-O-O-P! D-O-O-P!” they screamed.
The player introductions began, and when Swoop’s name was announced the crash of the loudspeaker was drowned by that frenetic howling.
“Doop! Doop!” washed down from the stands. A rubber bone bounced onto the floor, the universal symbol of a “choke.”
“Hey Swoop,” I hollered from the sidelines. “Your fan club’s here!”
He smiled a face-splitting smile, laughing purely, gaily at the din. He looked up at the teeming stands, childlike fervor lighting his face, and with both hands to his mouth blew kisses to the crowd. He was in his element now, charging lines of energy held back, poised on the brink of explosion.
It didn’t take long. The opposing center outjumped E.J. for the tip, but Swoop anticipated like a jungle huntress. He cut in front of their guard and swiped the ball like a carnival pickpocket. But when he whipped it behind his back to Freddie streaking down the lane, the captain’s lay-up attempt was snuffed in a tangle of hands and arms belonging to Jabez’s hulking swat team, setting off a fresh roar from the crowd.
“Little pukes,” they sneered at our players, and later, after their brontosaurus-sized center established low-post dominance, they screamed “Snack time!” holding gum drops to their mouths and raining jelly beans on our heads.
Their front line averaged six-feet-ten—a trio of plodding Clydesdales—and their grazing ground was under the basket, where they banged the boards all night. They muscled aside our smaller guys and played volleyball off the offensive glass.
On one possession right before half, Swoop dropped low and soared, swatting their center’s shot from behind. The ball ricocheted off the rim and was snatched by their six-nine power forward on the other side. Leaning in, his bulk drove E.J. back, and for one instant he had an open look. But Swoop sprang from the other side of the rim, hovering high over the basket, and smashed the shot downward. It crashed off the shooter’s head, bouncing high, and when several of our fans shouted “Eat it!” they were silenced by menacing looks from the crowd. Their other forward, six-ten with the wingspan of a South American condor, grabbed the ball in the lane and went right up over our guys for two.
“Box him out!” Swoop cried, but his words could barely be heard above the hellish screaming.
The place was overflowing, and the fans spilled out of their seats, milling onto the sidelines, screaming, hooting derision, gesticulating at our players. Their big guys fed on the frenzy and charged the glass like bellicose dinosaurs, grabbing rebound after rebound, tossing aside smaller men like stuffed dolls. At one point, after the brontosaurus jammed home an offensive rebound, three of their fans raced onto the court to mouth obscenities and jab their fingers in the faces of our players. Swoop opened his arms for a hug, but our other guys backed away before security hustled the fans off.
Coach called time-out three times trying to bolster morale, but it was hopeless. Our guys’ heads were down under the barrage and the crowd was getting to them. They feared for their safety—it was in their eyes as they clung together—and they were getting whipped at both ends of the floor.
But not Swoop. He rose above the fracas like a flying artist on the trapeze. On fire now, he threw in shots from every spot on the floor—or rather, from every spot six feet above the floor, from every angle imaginable. He broke the Jabez press single-handedly, racing the ball upcourt, a whirlwind of motion that shed defenders like storm-tossed debris. He ignored their jump shooters and dropped into the paint, swatting shots and clutching precious rebounds. He clapped backs, pumped his fist, roared encouragement. He leaped into the passing lanes, stole the ball repeatedly and slashed upcourt for bone-jarring slams. He didn’t sit the entire game. At half, he had twenty-nine and we only trailed by three.
In the locker room at half, Coach bawled them out. Swoop sat by himself in back, eating oranges and shooting the peels into the trash. He leaned way back, his legs hanging easily over the bench in front, and looked at me. He smacked his lips in satisfaction, though he didn’t smile.
“Ambrosia,” he said.
For one second I ignored Coach to glance at this sneaker-clad Caesar. I almost went to him then. After the second half, nobody could refuse to.
Coach pulled him aside right before start of play.
“Get them involved. Everyone’s got to get involved!”
On our first possession, Swoop brought it up the middle of the floor, then cut for the right sideline. The Jabez defenders had given up trying to trap him, so when he beat his man with a whistling spin, he was wide open at the line. But instead of drilling the shot, he flashed down the lane, drawing defenders like rats to cheese. Bobby was open on the wing, and Swoop zipped a no-look strike through traffic that hit him in the chest.
But Bobby was nervous. He hesitated and his shot, when it came, hit the back iron and arced outward toward the hungry carnivores below. Swoop set his jaw, took one stride down the lane and exploded into the air. He soared cleanly over the carnivores’ backs, got his fingertips on the ball but, instead of tapping it rimward, flicked it toward Bobby on the wing.
This time Bobby went straight up and drilled it clean.
Swoop whacked his butt and chattered at him all the way downcourt. At the other end, the ball squirted free from their two-guard, was scooped by Bobby, who whipped it to Swoop. Swoop knifed to the hoop, eyes seeing only rim but, with the all-court command of a field general, left it for a trailing E.J., who crammed it.
“Great pass!” the scrubs on our bench sang, but Swoop was back across halfcourt, exhorting his teammates to play defense.
Swoop slashed to the basket from every spot on the floor—from the baseline, from the wing, from the key—on the break, against the press, in the half-court sets—from the opening seconds of the half to the buzz of the horn at game’s end. Nobody was quick enough to stop him. They could only gang-guard him, leaving guys open, teammates found unerringly by Swoop’s passes, which flashed through the melee to their targets as if laser-guided.
Nobody had seen such a display of point-guard play, not even in professional games on television. As the game wore towards its climax people forgot the score, the clock, the rivalry and other irrelevancies, all they could do was watch Swoop play. With no will and no choice they sat on their hands and stared, silent, motionless, all derision forgotten, and when the buzzer sounded they sighed audibly, not because they’d lost, but because their glimpse into something sublime was ended and they had to go home and exist in its absence.
We surrounded him in the locker room. Nobody spoke, but all gathered at his locker as he undressed. When he had stripped off his sweaty clothes and stood naked before us, he looked up. All he wore was a gold basketball and chain around his neck.
“Converts?” he asked simply.
Though I looked around, noticing that many turned away and only Coach, standing alone in the doorway of the visiting staff’s office, stared with eyes gleaming, I couldn’t escape the realization that he looked at me. He was still looking as I moved to the trainer’s table.
We received a hero’s welcome when the school’s bus returned to Hoppo Valley. The small Hoppo Valley radio station had always broadcast the school’s games, but now virtually the entire population, not just a sizable segment, was listening. Close to one hundred met us on our arrival. Within a week, after two more convincing wins, Swoop and Coach had been interviewed on local radio, and the town’s newspaper, The Daily Independent, had run a feature story on the team. In Iowa, where every basketball success is news, the former sad-sack team in Hoppo Valley was becoming closely watched. The high water mark of media attention was Swoop’s interview on KBUZ, “The Buzz,” the area’s most powerful station, located an hour-and-a-half away in Des Moines.
Ron Zatechka had an aggressive, in-your-face talk show on week day mornings. His style was simple and non-sectarian: he insulted everybody. “Get up, farm boys, and milk the damn cows!” he boomed before dawn. He condemned Hollywood, Washington, Moscow and the Vatican. He hated politicians, journalists and Presbyterians. He brought ministers on only to abuse religion. He scorned all causes but one—Zatechka—and knew only one god: more volume. He was short and hard and spent hours pumping iron. He chain-smoked cigarettes, talked through the smoke and blew it in environmentalists’ faces. He hated bankers and clergymen. He lived alone, had no friends and called his fans “imbeciles.” He denounced liberals, Christianity and Wall Street with equal zeal. He refused the governor an interview and berated the mayor daily. He hated movie stars and professors. He called local militias “fascists.” He swore, told sexually offensive stories and insulted homosexuals. He was damned at cocktail parties, charity functions, Sunday services and Republican fund raisers.
He had the most popular radio show in the state.
“What you going to do, kid!” he roared. “Turn the town on its ear?”
“Or stand it upright.”
“Take these pig-farming clods to the top and be a hero?”
“When they get to the top they won’t be clods.”
“Yeah, touché. Pretty sharp for a dumb jock.” He fired a butt from the stub in his mouth and leaned forward, breathing smoke.
“How long?” he asked.
Experienced listeners followed his sharp transitions, novices floundered. Swoop didn’t bat an eye.
“Next season,” he said.
“And the year after that?”
“We win the title again.”
“You’re a cocky bastard. How you going to take these Iowa sod-humpers to the top?”
“Practice. Every day. Week-ends too.”
“Uh huh. Got the gym reserved. Saturday and Sunday mornings. Some week-days too. We scrimmage and play teams from town. The public’s invited.”
Zatechka snorted. “Think these hen-house yo-yos want to see you? They’re in church on Sunday morning.”
Swoop’s voice came soft next to Zatechka’s.
“So are we.”
Zatechka was silent for the first moment of his radio life.
“God help you,” he said.
The following Sunday thirty people showed up at the gym. The next week, after two more Hoppo Valley wins, the number surpassed fifty. After a month we were eight and zero, held first place in the Iowa Valley Conference and the gym was crammed with a hundred lunatics waving banners and action shots of Swoop.
But not all the attention was positive. Until this point, the town’s clergymen had ignored the growing hoopla, but with church attendance starting to dwindle, some began to notice. Though none yet openly denounced the Swoopmania growing in the Valley, the talk around town was that more than a few had expressed misgivings privately to parishioners. Beyond that, the pastors of the established churches did nothing at first.
But when Swoop held a “Celebrate Self” party several days before Christmas, they regarded it as a declaration of war.
He announced it to teammates, fans, students and townspeople at Sunday morning practice three days before the event. Though I avoided Swoop’s practice sessions, and was at the library at the time, dozens of students were there, and their description of Swoop’s words was soon all over campus.
“It’s the Saturnalia,” he told them. “The Roman festival of the sun, the triumph of light over darkness, of Spring over Winter, and of fertility.”
He walked the length of the gym as he spoke, dripping sweat from more than an hour of hard practice. Troop members lay sprawled in the middle of the floor, sucking huge draughts of air during the break, and fans crowded both sidelines and the baseline nearest the door, standing two and three deep against the walls. There must have been a hundred of them and Swoop monitored their faces as he spoke.
When they stared blankly, he was among them, laying hands on their shoulders, swatting their butts, working the crowd like some politician demented on earnestness. “In your lives,” he stressed. “Not just in your team. It’s a quest for excellence.”
They didn’t understand what he was getting at, it was in their eyes, they had only the vaguest inkling what they were in for. But Swoop had his gym bag with him on the stage beyond the baseline farthest from the door. In a heartbeat he grabbed it, rummaging among spare sweatsocks, a clean tee shirt and a towel until he found what he was looking for. Brandishing a paperback copy of The Iliad, thrusting it like Achilles might a dagger, he stalked the center of the gym floor.
“Hector,” he said. “Odysseus, Diomedes, Achilles – heroes. We can be like them in our lives – not warriors, but brave enough to go full bore after what we want.” Though he swung around 360 degrees to face them all, his eyes urging them as much as his words, he still received as many perplexed glances as excited ones But by this time there were some who’d follow him on a second Crusade to wrest back the Holy Land. And a few understood. They contributed money and they came.
He held it at the Sacred Assembly of the Father Evangelical Church, a poor denomination on the edge of town from whom he’d rented space. He approached me that day before practice.
“It begins for you tonight.”
I’d ignored his cryptic comments and hints for months, but now I had a scissors in my hands, tape in my mouth, half a dozen behemoths lined up at the trainer’s table and no need of a religious crank trying to save my soul. I spat tape and whirled on him.
“I’m at the library tonight—studying! I’m not going to some sacred shrine.”
I turned back but there was no escaping his words.
It was several seconds before I caught his meaning and then it was too late to face him, for though I’d heard no sound I knew he was no longer there.
The party began at eight. I skipped dinner and arrived at the library before six. I pored over Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, taking careful notes, immersed in my world, in the essence of what was me and when, at seven-forty, I glanced at my watch, observing the antsy feeling starting to sprout within, watching it with the clinical detachment of a trained logician, there was one element of the bastard’s character that couldn’t be dispelled. Not the arrogance, the prodding words, the cocky laugh, not even the athletic gifts or unquenchable drive that could not be denied. These could be, if not scorned, at least set aside, held in abeyance, viewed as part of another man’s world. But the eyes, the eyes that never laughed, never smiled, but only burned, even as his raucous laughter rang across a room, the eyes that saw nothing but what he wanted out of the world and a path that cut through obstacles—those damn eyes could haunt a man. But only if he shared the same soul.
I didn’t shut my books but left them open on the table, to be there when I returned, tonight or tomorrow, left them open because what had to be done now was not a halt or even an interruption but only the smooth continuity of an unbroken life-flow.
The church was at the other end of town. Like its rivals it was a small white building made of cheap plasterboard. Swoop had removed all of its religious ornaments and had, in their place, a single adornment hanging above the altar: an artist’s rendition of Odysseus before the mast, driving towards Ithaka despite ten years of struggle against gods and men.
There were close to one hundred people there, students, townspeople, fans from across the area jamming the chapel’s narrow confines. Most didn’t know each other, but many did. People talked in animated clusters, their voices rising with the excitement of the moment. An expectant air filled the room, and many people smiled at strangers, but I stood by myself in the rear and spoke to no one. The crowd hushed when Swoop mounted the pulpit.
He wore jeans, sneakers and a black rugby shirt. His hair was even longer now, reaching almost to his shoulders, its light brown shade contrasting with the shirt. Many of the men wore jackets and most of the women dresses, but tonight there were no thoughts of dress code, hair style or other matters of convention. One hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on Swoop, waiting.
“My life,” he said, “is dedicated to being the best.”
The room was hushed as he spoke, the fans rapt as they stared up at him. Most of those in attendance had seen him play, so they had no difficulty following his meaning.
“We’re done losing,” he stated flatly. “We’ll win now – the conference, the district, the nationals. To carry a losing team to the top – it’s the secondary reason I came here.”
The quiet way he spoke, his eyes alight but not smiling, made the claim a realistic statement of fact, not an outrageous boast. The listeners were with him, so caught up in his drive toward the title that I’m not sure it occurred to them to inquire regarding his primary reason.
“We will learn to expect notable deeds from ourselves – like those of Theseus and Aeneas, like Alexander and Hannibal and Caesar, like all of the mighty heroes, real or fictitious, that I’ve spent my life studying. From them, we’ll draw inspiration – but it is to ourselves that we will dedicate our triumphs. In basketball and in every aspect of our lives.”
He paused, his glance sweeping the room, his voice quiet but clearly audible.
“You see, the purpose tonight is a celebration. We have no music, no food, no drink – but we are here to celebrate. Admission to this party isn’t free, either, even though we’ve charged no money.” He leaned forward, pointing at individuals, sweeping the crowd, and people didn’t back away. Safe in the rear, near the door, I still felt an urge to turn and exit. More shocking was the simultaneous urge to walk to the front and join him. “The price,” Swoop continued, “is to stand – in public but alone in the cathedral of your own soul – and venerate the goals and drives that are the essence of each of you.”
He spoke briefly for several minutes more – of his achievements to come in the pros, and of Literature, of how he had weaned himself on the poems and epics of the great heroes of the past. But his voice broke when he spoke of one person, a girl he had known once in New York, though he mentioned no names. When he concluded, there was no applause, not even a whisper, only the silence of men existing for once with no barrier between them and the sacred truths of their lives.
Slowly, haltingly, one-by-one, they followed his lead, ascending to the altar to stand before the crowd, alone with their dreams, faced by a multitude for once not hostile, but glowing with the spirit of the first speaker and the man in the painting above; liberated for this evening from the shackles of convention, and in this one moment of hushed observance they held forth and whispered their aspirations, speaking of hopes in education, career and love, some weeping, some shaking, but for at least this one instant of their lives all willing to stand revealed. And when it was my turn, I neither backed off nor fled out the door, but walked unhesitatingly to the front where—feeling his eyes on me—I bragged shamelessly of the knowledge I had gained, of earning the straight “A’s” I received, of the interest shown in me by the Princeton and Yale graduate programs, of my future career as philosophy professor and Aristotle scholar, and of the erudite books on the Metaphysics and the De Anima I would write. For five inebriating minutes I spilled my guts and bared my soul. But there was still one aspiration I omitted.
We were at it for hours. And when we were done, nobody left, though it was the wee hours on a work day; we milled around speaking to former strangers who were now intimates, even those who had been shy beaming now amidst the crowd. Nobody was tired, nobody wanted to leave, we only desired to cling to the intoxicating, elusive feeling of freedom to love ourselves.
But not everybody responded in the same way.
One hundred enthusiastic voices quickly spread the word through town—and a number of throats opened to reply with something less than enthusiasm. “He removed the cross from the chapel. Can you imagine?” said one minister appearing as a guest on Ron Zatechka’s show. “Thinking of only yourself on Christmas—and in a church?” asked my Religion professor in class. “Is this an attack on everything held as holy in the heartland?” queried a letter to the editor of the town newspaper.
Swoop’s supporters fired back on all fronts. Fredric Westegaard, editor and publisher of the local paper, The Daily Independent, wrote on the editorial page a fervent defense of the right of every free man to seek passionately after his own personal happiness. Westegaard was a fervent defender of the First Amendment and, more broadly, of an individual’s Constitutional right to pursue his own fulfillment. He was regarded as a pariah, even an apostate by the Valley’s more fanatical residents, because he embraced any cause upholding a man’s right to live as he chose. He made clear in his editiorial that he saw in Swoop’s “Celebrate Self” party a means to advance his own cause. Judging by the increasing crowds at The Troop’s practice sesions, a significant segment of the Valley’s population agreed with him.
I personally felt no compulsion to answer my professor’s criticisms, but Kathryn Gately did not agree.
“Where better to think of yourself?” she asked, her question a challenge to the teacher and the class in general.
Kathy was a Religion major whose red hair flamed only slightly less brightly than her passion for the sublime. Despite her family’s allegiance to the Church, her zeal for God was more catholic than Catholic. She believed that God rewarded only a personal quest for spiritual insight and improvement that questioned every rule mandated by religious authority. More than once I had told her that in the Middle Ages she would have been burned as a heretic – and her impudent smile never sparkled as brightly as when she responded: “But you would have joined me – right? – so I wouldn’t have suffered alone.” Now, I missed the professor’s scholarly response, because my ears still heard only her words, and my eyes saw only the mouth that uttered them.
Swoop ignored all criticism. On Sunday morning he told two hundred championship-crazed fans jammed into the gym that “we are the vanguard of a new faith, the creed worshipping an individual’s own loves,” and that “after we win the title, the members of other churches will see the light.” He proclaimed: “We must recognize that for each of us to embark on a championship crusade in our own lives is to follow the only true religion.” The crowd stamped and whooped throughout The Troop’s ensuing workout.
Others, too, stamped and whooped when The Daily Independent printed Swoop’s words on page two. These included some fellow students on the Hoppo Valley campus. Members of the Campus March for Redemption advertised their Wednesday night meeting, usually reserved for Bible Study, as a response to the threat of what they termed a manic presence in our otherwise Christian community.
I was torn. I wanted to hear what the Bible-thumpers said – wanted to study it as part of my on-going research and because it represented a counterattack against Swoop’s thrust into the Valley. But what did I care about Swoop’s goal to transform the community? I had enough in my life to keep me busy. Sure, I had attended his “Celebrate Self” party – and yes, I had even been temporarily moved – but every time I saw that swaggering creep glance at me with his knowing look – half pitying, half projecting himself as my redeemer – I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kick him in the stomach myself or root for the Bible brigade to sweep him out of town. Or, perhaps, to root for a turn of events very different.
I didn’t go. I stayed in the stacks of the library basement, immersed safely in my studies, determined to ignore the ruckus that his activities had kicked up. But when I overheard Freddie Zender describing it the next day to two of his friends at lunch, I immediately sat down and swamped everybody else out of the conversation with my questions. I realized only later that the creep’s influence extended to me as well.
Freddie’s description was vivid. The meeting was not held in the CMR’s small office in the Student Life Building. Rather, they had received permission to hold it in Marian Auditorium, anticipating a large turnout. In fact, they drew thirty-three students in addition to their fifteen full-time members. The lights were dim in the auditorium, to underscore the somber mood, and the first person to speak was the young leader – whose name turned out to be Rodger Huntford – that had confronted Swoop earlier on the steps of the library.
Huntford was as young as he looked – sixteen to be exact – and had graduated with honors from Christian Calvary Prep in Des Moines. Tall and slender, with light brown hair worn short and close to the ear, he looked like Swoop except for the haircut. Like so many in this burg, he suffered from a severe case of earnestness.
“It’s Christmas,” he said, reaching out past his comrades to the other students who had joined them. “A time to be thinking about love of God and our fellow man, not about ourselves. An all-night reveling in self-indulgence, and in a church, at precisely this time of year is a deliberate and decadent mockery of every principle held dear in our community. We cannot let it go unopposed.”
Huntford’s quiet words were echoed by the message of the other CMR members. Most of the students agreed, and they decided to draft a written statement for College President MacPherson, urging him to look into those extracurricular activities of students that blasphemed against Christian teaching. The school authorities, the group believed, must be a vigilant watchdog regarding the moral character of its student body.
Early Tuesday morning, when dozens of fans lined up outside the gym to attend The Swoop Troop’s extracurricular workouts, they found themselves joined by a silent group of picketers, who filed past them solemnly, hoisting placards that read, “Lost Sheep: Return to the Fold” and “Sin is not an Achievement.” When Swoop approached the gym entrance, they called to him, “The Savior loves you.” He stopped and looked sadly. “But does He love you?”
I tried to ignore the religious hubbub. As a man dedicated to logic, I had no use for the bizarre beliefs and zealous holy wars of those committed to faith. Although I had been raised in rural Iowa, the son of a small-town doctor, I had been frightened by people who talked seriously of burning bushes that spoke and virgins who gave birth. All of the biology, chemistry and physics courses I had excelled in as my high school’s valedictorian, and as a pre-med major my first year at Hoppo Valley, only confirmed my commitment to observation and science, and my rejection of unthinking unbelief. Now the guardians of conventional faith were beginning to stir up the flocks against this brash interloper who preached his own brand of resurrection. I tried to turn away from it, to immerse myself in schoolwork and forget the religious agitation. I succeeded, anyway, in filling my life with the study of secular philosophy.
The turmoil accelerated after the college paper printed a story about the protest, including a photo of the picketers circling the gym. The Daily Independent, which treated Swoop’s attempt to win national gold as the biggest story in recent Hoppo Valley history, picked up the story and ran it in its news section. Dean Pearsall, who had issued a national press release regarding Hoppo Valley’s hold on the conference leadership and its design on the national title, could not be described as happy. His office informed campus groups that picketing would result in the revocation of funding and in their decertification as recognized university organizations.
A pair of irate parents called the Dean’s office, the campus paper printed several letters of protest, and a DJ on college radio labeled the Dean’s act an un-American suppression of free speech. When Pastor Buttle of the First Episcopal Church called for student groups to picket not the basketball team but the Dean of Student Life, an Independent columnist seconded the idea, Zatechka drove to Hoppo Valley to interview both and Pearsall began moving toward the center of the storm swirling into Hoppo Valley.
Then Judas Bittner addressed the faithful. He was a student at Hoppo, though older than most, having spent years as a missionary in Brazil. As the star preacher for the First Commandment Missionary Church, he lived for and by only one thing – the Bible. Some regarded him a saint and others a lunatic, but I avoided him altogether. For several months he had lain low, saying nothing about the heathen presence taking root in his home territory, awaiting the propitious moment. He spoke now, though he still said nothing about Swoop. But then, according to some, he did.
It was at Bible study, in a mid-week sermon delivered before twenty-five members of the flock at the First Commandment Missionary Church. Freddie Zender, E.J. Speed and several of the team’s other starters were there, though none of the reserves. Bittner, a lay preacher and a Religious Studies major at the college, extemporized on his favorite passage in Judges. He was short and slight, though possessed of a powerful voice that often boomed through the narrow confines of the ramshackle church. When he spoke of divine justice, he pulled up to his full height and, with the unconscious pride of a devoted man of God, seemed to speak down to his audience from on high. He spoke of Samson now.
“What this nugget of God’s word shows us,” he said, his voice modulated, barely above a whisper, “is that any weapon, so long as it is employed against an onslaught of the Philistine, is sanctified by that alone.” Witnesses said that a hush fell over the church, as it often did when Judas wrestled with the profundities of revealed truth. An air of expectation filled the room, as if the listeners sensed that an insight of great moment would imminently be unveiled. Judas lowered his voice further, making his listeners work to earn the wisdom he bestowed. “Even so prosaic an instrument as the jawbone of an ass, in the right hands and wielded against the true foe, becomes an instrument of retribution. Jawbones and slingshots,” he concluded, “can fell even the most vainglorious of the heathen.”
Most parishioners remained calm, but several members of the Hoppo Valley basketball team started to rise, shouting “Amen!” Freddie Zender was able to restrain all except E.J. Speed.
But Swoop had unlikely supporters, as well as detractors. One day after practice, as I left the gym, I saw him standing on the stairs leading down to the lawn and the walkway to the cafeteria, engrossed in conversation with a slender woman in a full-length camel’s hair coat. Swoop listened as the woman did most of the talking, emphasizing her points with an occasional touch on his arm. Though uninvited, I approached them with no hesitation.
Janet McMenamin held a Ph.D. in Psychology and was the Valley’s only psycho-therapist. She was a member of the university’s adjunct faculty, and regularly taught an upper division class in Clinical Psychology, which I had taken two years previously, though I was only a freshman at the time. She was also outspoken, challenging many of the community’s beliefs and, predictably, had made enemies. In her quiet way, she stood up to them all. She smiled warmly at my approach.
“Hello, Duggan,” she said. “How’s the star student?”
“Good, Dr. McMenamin. How are you?”
Though not tall, she was an athletic woman in her late thirties with a rich head of hair that flowed gracefully to her shoulders. She spent most of her spare time outdoors, gardening and biking, so that her face and arms were brown from exposure, contrasting with her blue eyes and red hair. Her private sorrow, she often said, was her lack of height. “But then,” she added, “brains and beauty are not bad compensations – are they?” She had a quick smile and was slow to anger, but could be merciless towards those who made the mistake of provoking her. The past year, in an auditorium full of hecklers, she had given a talk on abortion rights. When several of Bittner’s followers accused her of supporting the practice of baby butchering, she responded unhesitatingly that it was unfortunate abortion had not been a legal option in their mothers’ day.
She half-turned so that her glance and conversation included us both.
“Remember what I said,” she stated, reiterating her point to Swoop and filling me in at the same time. “People know what they love. Even those whose lives are floundering. If they’re directionless, it’s not because they lack knowledge of what they want. It’s because they lack the courage to acknowledge that they want it. I see it in my practice all the time. Events like the “Celebrate Self Party” can give them the inspiration they need.” Her hand took Swoop’s arm in a gentle grip, and she smiled self-deprecatingly. “I’m no guru to tell people what to do, but I hope you’ll continue.”
Swoop stood motionless as she held his arm, and if he looked toward town, not at her, it was because the understanding they had established seemed at some level deeper than a glance required.
“Inspiration is what I do,” he said in a tone so devoid of guile or self-consciousness that for one second I wanted to hug him and, shocked, I turned quickly and faced the psychotherapist.
For several moments she was silent, then she released her grip on his arm to wipe her eye.
“Great things are ahead for this town,” she said softly. She shook her head, as if to get back from some vision of her own to the present moment. “Though, to be as honest as you, I must warn you that I will use you to push my own agenda.”
“I’ll trust your agenda, Dr. McMenamin,” Swoop responded immediately. “Anytime.”
“But you just met – ” she began, then stopped. “Yes, I suppose you would.” She smiled wryly. “You also know full well that now I have to live up to that.”
She turned and walked away.
In the midst of the town’s upheaval came our conference showdown against Huntington State.
Their only loss had come against us at their gym, a game in which Swoop poured in twenty-five in the first half and we blew them out. They remembered, and came stomping into Hoppo Valley like gunslingers in a two-horse town.
“We’ll deck him, he gets hot on us,” Tetzel, their power forward, had said in a radio interview. The editors of The Independent plastered that promise all over the paper’s sports pages. Local fans spoke of assaulting the Huntington bus just outside the town line and hundreds arrived at the gym early, drinking beer in the parking lot and waving banners with drawings of Swoop.
But some residents wished secretly for Tetzel’s threat to come true, and others came to the game to cheer Huntington. A dozen picketers ignored Dean Pearsall’s warning and circled the gym, hefting posters that read, “Bittner and the Bible” and “Swoop, Pearsall, Satan: Hoppo Valley’s New Trinity.” A fight broke out with local fans, one shattered a beer bottle on a picketer’s skull, and the Hoppo Valley police sent every available man. Several belligerents were dragged off by the cops, the injured picketer rushed to the hospital, and the Huntington team escorted to the locker room. Campus Security insisted that our players also receive an escort.
“Since when do our guys need protection at home?” a fan asked as the players ducked through the mob. “Since God’s gift got here,” E.J. shot over his shoulder and walked on. Freddie said nothing but walked by his side, eyes staring ahead, the veins of his neck straining like wires.
The day before the game Swoop had approached me in the library. I had an hour between lunch and my three hour intensive in Ancient Greek and I was at my usual table, barricaded behind rows of texts, poring over a volume of Aeschylus, engrossed in translating Prometheus Bound, when a shadow on the page caused me to look up.
“Why don’t you make some noise when you approach people?” I snapped, the sight of him immediately engendering rudeness in me. He was unruffled.
“Would you hear it if I did?”
“I’m not deaf.”
“No, not deaf,” he said.
He stared at me with a solemn look befitting the enterprise in which I engaged, but trespassing, boring holes in some private part of me.
“Why do you badger me? You see I’m busy. What do you want?”
He waited patiently until I finished.
“You know what I want.”
He could have been asking to borrow my watch, he spoke so simply, and it was his very openness that demanded a depth of authenticity to match it.
“You can’t have…” I started, but knew suddenly that I could achieve greater honesty with this man than with any other, and started over, finishing in a whisper, “You have it already.”
He let those words hang in the air, silence as his acknowledgment and tribute, and as he waited—staring at me like we stood in a temple—something cracked inside of me, some wall erected to keep him at a distance, and tears welled in my eyes.
“You’re moving toward a bad end,” I said.
He took that in too, but for him warnings were only open declarations of alliance that represented further opportunities.
“Men on a sacred quest are disparaged by non-believers,” he said. “You belong with The Swoop Troop.”
“I know,” I said, helpless to deny it.
“We work out every morning at five. Weekends too. You’re the trainer.”
He didn’t wait for a nod or even a grunt, but turned and started away. Then he stopped and turned back to me. “No one else will do.”
“Thank you,” I said, so softly that he couldn’t hear it.
As I watched him stroll away, my eyes went to his hands, the hands that surprisingly were too small to palm a basketball but which I had seen many times efficiently tape the ankles of his comrades. Some half-formed thought stirred within, questioning whether The Swoop Troop required a trainer. But when the logic asserted that I needed his ministrations far more than he needed mine, I pushed the thought away before it spawned an anger that threatened the fragile bond just formed. The bastard knows it, a hard voice within me said. True, answered an equally-implacable voice, but he’s not the only one who knows it – is he?
But that evening, when a fellow student in my Comparative Religion class repeated Judas Bittner’s words, several in the class nodded and I looked up from the text to see Kathryn Gately pin the culprit with her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Jawbones and slingshots can be sanctified weapons. And Mr. Bittner is right. Samson is a religious hero – a mighty man showing us God’s will.” She paused, and the insolent derision of her voice was directed at neither the Biblical hero nor her classmates. “Can you think of anybody like that in the community today?”
And though her question silenced them, some quality in the room made me want to cry out.
“Where does Swoop live?” I blurted to her in the hall after class.
“Swoop? I’m not sure.” She laughed, a glittering sound so full of vitality I almost forgot my fears. Standing next to her, the fragrance of her hair filled my nostrils, as her tall, slender shape filled my eyes. Whenever I looked at her, I saw far more than a brilliant student and tireless activist for religious freethinking. I saw her paintings—the sales of which financed her way through the Religious Studies Department—of the most robust, intensely-alive scenes imaginable; especially those depicting Freddie Zender in action, straining, battling, reaching heavenward against taller foes. I looked away, unable to forget those scenes of her fiancé in action.
“I only see him running at the crack of dawn,” she said. “Try the top floor of the highest dorm.” She paused, and when I looked back her eyes as well as her words mocked me. “After all, it’s closest to Olympus.”
I asked around and found that her guess was accurate. Making only a quick stop in my room I went, for the first time, to visit Swoop at home. I rejected the elevator of his ten story dorm and opted instead to hobble to the top floor. In my right hand I carried a copy of The Iliad in its original.