Booze & Basketball

Posted on May 27, 2013

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‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.’ – Hunter S. Thompson

After years of Mamaw Kat’s church school everyday, I took to cigarettes, drugs and alcohol like a fish to a bottle of Evian.

Cigarettes were my first vice. It was an easy choice, I’d never been around alcohol or drugs as a kid, but my mother and my stepfather smoked like fiends. Mother, despite two heart attacks, still smokes today but Dad’s habit was fatal, he died of smoking related illnesses at the age of 57 in 2006. One quick note though; he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and doctors said this contributed to his death as well.

But Glen was a 3-pack a day-er, so no doubt, cigarettes played a part too. He smoked right up to the end, they killed him but he stayed faithful to his smokes. Near the end he’d pull off his oxygen mask and light one up, oblivious to the obvious explosive possibilities of flicking his Bic while sitting next to a tank of pure oxygen.

I was an avid anti-smoker till my teen years, I used to hide my mother’s smokes and berated her constantly for the smell and the ashtrays and everything associated with cancer sticks.

Then I started smoking. Not much, a stolen butt or two behind the house, maybe share a smoke with my younger brothers. They weren’t cigarette fuddy-duddies like their older sibling, by the time I’d started they were veteran smokers and could inhale and even blow the occasional smoke ring.

I was a pack-a-day Marlboro man till a hospital stay in 2011 helped me break the habit. But I’m hardly the picture of health as I still smoke one and sometimes two cheap cigars every day.

Winston, not Marlboro’s, were my smokes of choice when I started. My grandfather James quit smoking several years before I was born, in the early 1960’s when science revealed cigarettes to be, literally, sticks of cancer. He used to joke about wearing out the breast pockets on his shirts reaching for a Winston, years after he’d smoked his last.

So when I started smoking, when I bought my first actual pack of cigarettes, it was a pack of Winston Reds, in homage to my grandfather. I wasn’t all that crazy about cigarettes truth to tell, I hated the way my fingers stank right after crushing out a butt, how an overflowing ashtray resembled a swimming hole in Hell, used yellowed filters sticking up from a pool of gray ash. But I felt cooler when lit up a smoke, and for a kid like me that made the smell, the repulsive sight of full ashtrays, and all other concerns secondary.

My grandmother hated cigarettes of course, but she was far more tolerant of cancer sticks than alcohol.

A drunkard was about as low on my grandma’s moral totem pole as a pedophile or a Nazi, slightly, barely, better than a Catholic.

She was more tolerant of others when I was kid, we had a neighbor, her name was Ms Sherry and her husband Rocky was a welder and pipe fitter who worked with my grandfather, she’d visit my grandmother and smoke at the kitchen table. Sherry’s husband drank beer, never at our house of course, but he’d crack open a cold one when it was our turn to visit. She had another friend, a transplanted Cajun named Virginia who, coincidentally, smoked Virginia Slims.

She wasn’t as tolerant when it came to our own family, I think my Aunt’s husband was to blame. He’d drink beer by the barge full and beat my grandmother’s older sister, did it for decades till finally she had enough, packed up the three grandkids she was raising into a little Datsun station wagon and moved to Oregon. This particular sister was my Mamaw’s best friend, they were very close and she never got over losing her to Oregon and she never forgot a drunkard was to blame.

The first time I tied one on led to the greatest athletic achievement of my scholastic career, 15 points scored in a freshman basketball game. After years of public humiliation on football fields and basketball courts and baseball diamonds, I finally learned the secret to success in sports; I got drunk.

I was 14 years old, attending a little private school called Monroe Christian. Our game that night was out of town, some little burg several miles from Monroe. Now as I said, MCS was a small school and in order to play schools like us, we had to travel to tiny towns with equally small schools.

During football season away games were a big deal, lots of parents showed up, we’d caravan to various burgs near and far, some of the older kids took their own cars and of course, all the school ‘buses’. I say ‘buses’ because they weren’t yellow school buses, they were passenger vans.

These vans ran routes and picked up students and I called Mrs Crenshaw my bus driver, but MCS was such a small school, a real bus would have taken up half the parking lot. So, instead we used passenger vans.

Those same vans took us to away basketball games as well, and I pulled my first real drunk while waiting to board one. I’ve no idea who we played that night, or what kinda beer we drank. Truthfully, I don’t remember the names of my teammates, my very first drinkin’ buddies, but one of them managed to get a six-pack from somewhere, a six-pack of beer the three of us split, shotgunning two apiece as we hunkered down in the tall grass of an empty lot that fronted the school grounds.

It was love at first sip. My head felt delightfully fuzzy and I got my first head-rush when I stood up too fast, instead of scaring me as it should have, the slightly out-body dizzying sensation enhanced the experience. I liked it.

I’d spent the first 14 years of my life wound up like a slinky in an atomic clock and when the first drops of booze seeped into my brain I felt that terribly tight spring begin to loosen it’s grip. For the first time in my young life, I relaxed.

Now here is another part of my tale where I wish I could relate some redemption, some sense that I learned my lesson. I’d like to tell you I was violently ill, puking and retching, that I went home stinking like a hobo coming off an 2-week bender to receive a well deserved ass-kicking.

I could tell you how my first drunk caused me to be an embarrassment to my school, my team, my coaches, parents etc, how I made a fool of myself, but in the end the humiliation helped me learn a valuable lesson about the evils of alcohol.

Except it didn’t.

Oh, there were plenty of booze-inspired shame, embarrassment, humiliation, broken promises, broken hearts, handcuffed in police cars, bail money and court-ordered experiences ahead of me alright. But not that night.  That night, I was charming, I was witty, I floated along a few feet off the ground, everything was beautifully fuzzy and warm. I achieved a sublime Zen, a state of being ancient mystics refer to as ‘ten foot tall and bullet proof’.

And I was Larry Bird on the basketball court.

I may not be able to recall the names of my drinking buddies and teammates or where we played that night, but I remember scoring fifteen-by-Gawd points and pulling down a butt-load of rebounds that glorious night in 1984.

For me, this was astounding as I sucked at sports.

I played, had to, being a gigantic child (I was almost 6 feet tall and wore a size 11 shoe at the age of 10) I had no choice really. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I played sports in school, nobody forced me. But until I reached 6th grade, I’d only participated in little league baseball. When I started playing football, then basketball, I was a giant rookie playing with smaller, but older kids, and not just older kids but more experienced players as well. 

So the totality of my scholastic athletic career is pretty sad. 

But not that night, the night I got my first buzz. I wasn’t even sick on the bus ride home, I guess my adrenaline, from my unexpected performance in the game and equally unexpected praise from stunned teammates and coaches must have negated the effects of the alcohol in my system.

Next year I smoked my first joint…

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