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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Follow the bouncing ball

By Dick Hirsch

George looked a little odd on the basketball court, with his unkempt thatch of pure white hair, his skinny arms protruding from the sleeves of his New York Yankees T-shirt and his baggy cotton sweat pants. He didn’t look like much of a player, and, the truth was, he wasn’t interested in playing. At the age of 59, he knew his limitations, his strengths and his weaknesses.

His strength was in shooting a basketball. He had a wonderful eye for the basket and a soft, arching shot from virtually anywhere inside half court. Often he’d play with Howard, a man he met at the gym. They didn’t say much as they played their favorite game of HORSE. Their relationship existed for HORSE.

If you ever set foot on a playground, you surely remember HORSE. It’s an ageless contest. Two players are all you need. The first player chooses any spot on the court and tries a shot. If he makes it, his competitor must go to that very spot and try a shot. If player number two misses, he would be charged with an “H.” If he makes the shot, then he chooses his spot and shoots. It’s a simple game of you against me, and the game continues until one of the players has missed five shots and been marked with five letters, spelling out H-O-R-S-E. He is the loser.

George and Howard had plenty of time to play, so when one game ended, often another immediately began. It didn’t matter who won or who lost, it was just a friendly game with the goal of seeing that ball drop through the hoop. George appeared a little ungainly bouncing the ball on the court, but he had an unerring eye. Sometimes I would just stand and watch him as he moved slowly around to his favorite spots, bouncing the ball as he walked. Swish. Swish. Swish. It was a treat to see.

There was something different about George. I don’t know what it was. He never told me and I never asked him. I just knew he wasn’t normal, although as I have grown older it has become more difficult for me to define exactly what normal is supposed to mean. George wasn’t a really outgoing person; if he didn’t know you well, he’d speak only when spoken to. That’s sometimes the case with persons with disabilities. He took the bus to the gym, changed to his workout clothes, shot baskets, rode the exercise bike, took a shower and went back to his apartment. He enjoyed the easygoing camaraderie he found there.

George was sports fan. He loved baseball, followed the game closely, and talked often about the fortunes of his favorite team, the New York Yankees. He would often buy a copy of The New York Post to read the columnists and study the box scores. Baseball in general and the Yankees in particular were favorite topics, and I suppose that was the subject we discussed most often. I would frequently drive him home from the gym. In those brief trips, the talk would occasionally deal with semantics. George enjoyed trying to solve the Jumble word game published in the daily paper. When he was stumped, he sought my advice.

“Have you heard of the word forego, f-o-r-e-g-o?” he would ask. “What does it mean?”

He liked to test me.

“Years ago the Yankees had a great catcher. Have you ever heard of Thurman Munson?” Or, on another occasion: “The Yankees once had a famous manager from Buffalo. Have you heard of Joe McCarthy?”

George became ill last summer. Although he never discussed sickness, it was obvious he was growing weaker as the disease progressed. He missed some days at the gym because of the treatments, but still maintained a very regular schedule.

One Monday he said to me, grinning broadly: “I saw the Yankees play. I went to Yankee Stadium.”

Knowing how sick he was, I was very happy for him. He explained how he flew to New York, his first visit to the big city, stayed in a hotel, took a limo to the legendary stadium, all made possible by another person who knew George only from the gym.

“Ronnie took me,” he said. “He went with me.”

The Yankees lost that day, but that didn’t detract from the joy of the trip for George. It didn’t spoil the trip for Ronnie, either, since, like the rest of us, he realized that time was short. Last week they buried George in his navy blue satin Yankees jacket.



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