(Note: Check out pages 46-53 in the March issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine for a must-read excerpt. )
MELVIN SCOTT--THE HAS-BEENS VERSUS THE NEVER-WASES
Northwestern High School
On the way into the gym, we bumped into Juan Dixon, the extraordinary blade of a shooting guard who'd grown up in Baltimore, late of the Maryland Terrapins, currently of the Washington Wizards. We all shook hands, bumped fists, and continued on. "Juan Dixon's cool, man" Melvin said.
Like Karcher, many of the guys here had enjoyed bigger reputations in college than Melvin currently did. And yet here they were on a hot Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, back home in a high school gym, competing against each other with a ferocity that belied the utter lack of monetary reward for playing well. In fact, the guys were playing for the only thing they still had, which was their reputations, which had to be made over and over again, instant by instant.
Melvin's mood changed abruptly as we entered the court from the wide school hallways. "Has-beens, wanna-be's, never-wases," he muttered. A game was in progress. On the bench, several players were eating hot dogs.
Marcus Hatten [of St. John's fame] was already there, sitting in the stands, waiting for a game, holding his little boy. The boy slept on Mo's shoulder. Many of the guys here, in the bleachers and on the court, had brought their sons to the games: babies, toddlers, little boys dribbling in the corners. During time-outs, the boys ran onto the court with their balls and began hoisting shots toward the rim. Some kids were so small, it seemed that the ball was going to carry them along into the basket, like a hot air balloon.
Melvin entered the game already in progress as a member of the Hit Men, a Baltimore team name if there ever was. The leader of his five was Mark Karcher, the former Temple hotshot whose style as a player was reminiscent of the former Notre Dame and professional star from D.C., Adrian Dantley. Karcher stood about six-five, and played like a muscular refrigerator. He wasn't especially fast, nor a great leaper, but it would have taken a crew of deliverymen to dolly him out of the lane. He'd been highly recruited, a high-school All-American before signing with Temple, and had enjoyed a fair degree of success in the ultimate fighting competition that was eastern basketball.
"Let's go Melvin Scott," yelled his nephew, Little Charles. Melvin was being guarded by a guy with a bandana. He head-faked bandana-man, went by him, and missed a fifteen footer. On the next offensive series, Melvin grabbed a rebound inside and was fouled hard. He smoothly canned two free throws.
In the stands, I was sitting with Charles and Little Charles. Just in front of us the former Syracuse point guard Michael Lloyd was reclining, smirking and laughing with his buddies about the action on the court. He looked back at me and looked at Charles. "Where he from?" he asked Charles.
Charles told him I was a writer.
Lloyd looked at me with disbelief and said, "What you doing here?" As if I'd descended into the windowless basement of basketball, where players were condemned to play the game for all eternity. This ain't real ball and (by extension), you ain't a real writer, he seemed to be saying. You must have come to a sorry pass if you're down here in this cauldron with us.
"He's writing about Melvin," Charles said with pride.
Michael Lloyd laughed. "You're kidding me," he said.
Out on the court, Melvin was doing his best to defy Michael Lloyd's condescension. He faked bandana-man and stepped back for the shot. A smooth move but once again he missed, the ball burbling out of the basket. Little Charles looked crushed. He slapped his knees.
After Melvin missed another three from long-range, his teammate Mark Karcher started lecturing him right out in the middle of the court. It sounded like he said, "Hey, if you don‘t want to win, go out." Now Karcher himself had decided to advance the ball up-court by himself. As if in rebuke, he ignored the wide-open Melvin and fired a pass to another Hit Man on the other side of the court. The Hit Man skip-passed to Melvin, who instead of shooting, bounced the ball inside to Karcher. Who missed. But an order of dominance had been clearly established.
The lower the pay, the higher the stakes. These guys were spending psychic capital in a Saturday afternoon pick-up game. And some didn't have much left to spend. This may have accounted for the sour and premature air of midlife disappointment pervading a gym full of players in their twenties. Their hopes were so recent, their disappointments so fresh, the futures they dreamed of suddenly so dim.
And Melvin could feel it, that was clear, but at least he has another year or so before his own reckoning arrived. He drove to the basket and got fouled hard. He missed both of the free throws. Despite coming up on the playgrounds of Baltimore, his game was best suited to a more structured offense, where players set picks, and where the ball went inside and back out as Melvin rotated to find space to launch his outside shot. He also believed in playing the game the way his coaches had taught him. He was a most assiduous student who wanted to believe that those in authority knew best. In the speedy flow of this Saturday afternoon contest, he often lagged a step behind the action, fated to be a bit player rather than a leading man. When his team called a time-out, Melvin stayed on the court, taking and missing free throws. When half-time arrived, rather than hanging out with the other players, he stretched out on the floor by himself and seemed to be taking a nap.
Meanwhile, Little Charles raced around, firing ten-footers. The other little boys were back out there, too, doing their best to imitate their fathers and older brothers and cousins. That was the cycle, one basketball generation following another at warp speed, the new one eventually strong enough to evict its predecessors from the very floor they fought to stay on.
Melvin remained on the floor, eyes shut, the boys careering around him.
The second half got under way and Melvin suddenly experienced a flurry of success. He banged in a lay-up on the break, then snared a three pointer from deep. He followed those by slipping a great pass inside to Karcher, then on the next possession, executed a nimble step-back move to clear room for his three, and even though he missed, he immediately stole the ball on the next series and fired the ball to a teammate for a lay-up.
Mark Karcher, however, had decided apparently to make this game a personal quest for redemption. He kept driving and forcing shots. Finally wide-open on a fast-break, he chose not to dunk but to casually bank the ball in, as in a pre-game drill. This drew criticism from the stands. "That's a lazy [expletive deleted]," Michael Lloyd said. "Kobe woulda done a 720 on that one."
All of Karcher's hammering away inside, selfish though it might have been, had helped the Hit Men tie the score. Their opponents called a time-out. In the bleachers, Charles stood up, waved his hands and yelled to his brother: "Melvin, Melvin! When you got a lane, all day!" Melvin acknowledged Charles, shaking his head, yes, yes. I hear you.
With 54 seconds left to play, Melvin, who had been mostly missing the outside shot this afternoon, dropped a three from the corner, cutting the deficit to three at 51-48. The score was low because contrary to popular belief, defense was played in these games and played hard. No one let a player enjoy an open shot, and if anyone messed up on D, he heard about it from a teammate.
With time running out, the Hit Men started fouling to stop the clock and put their opponents on the free throw line, just like in a big-time college game. But for all their effort, Melvin's team still trailed by three with only three seconds left. They did have the ball.
From the top of the circle, Melvin faked a three and passed to Karcher who launched a long three from the wing. The ball bounded high. No good. Melvin fouled his man with 2.5 seconds left. The other team nailed both free throws for a 61-56 win. In the stands, Charles looked disgusted. On the court, so did Mark Karcher. He trudged to the sideline, soaked with sweat, head down, wearing his missed shot like a badge of shame.
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