The fall corn harvest has come early this year due to the California drought. I’ve spent the last week in the cab of a tractor, which has given me plenty of time to listen to talk radio in an attempt to stay up to date on current events. It’s the easiest way to hatch a plan of attack for this here column.
Well it’s 5 a.m. and I haven’t the slightest clue what to write about. The last seven days were spent staring at the windshield in a blank haze. The cab of a tractor is in many ways like a cubicle at any random day job. I couldn’t tell you a single solitary thought from the last week – but I know those days happened because my time card says so. It is in moments of panic like this, when I need to type out 800 to 1,000 words that I rely on 2 things: Coffee and the words of advice from former teacher, mentor, and friend Mark Condit.
It was some time this last year that I confided in Mark that the column had indeed taken on a life of its own as the responsibility of penning something topical and thought provoking each week and the desire to be socially relevant had indeed become a chore. The stress of this weekly endeavor was getting the best of me. It was in the midst of me explaining this to him, that he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Dude calm down. Let’s be honest. Nobody in this town cares one bit about your thoughts on world politics — nor our own town’s — just write your stories about the dumb things you’ve done, and give us something to laugh about on a Friday morning”
Sage advice Sir.
IT WAS MY JUNIOR YEAR OF AT MANTECA HIGH. I’d decided to take the year off from sports, focusing instead on wearing denim jackets with band patches and growing my hair long. I was hanging with a crowd of people that would often induce my coaches to say things like, “Why are you hanging with that crowd of people?!”
We were mid basketball season, and what a team it was. The likes of Dave Foehringer and Jason Van de Pol were leading us to victory after victory. However, the buzz in the hallway was much less about the starters as it was the Scrubs. “Scrubs” is a term used for bench riders – the guys that made up the team but never saw the court.
These were no ordinary scrubs. This was U.S.A. (The United Scrubs of America). That was the nickname the 4-5 of them had given themselves adorning their shoes with their U.S.A. Logo. That’s right folks, they embraced the moment. I think it speaks volumes to a generation of kids that weren’t raised in this current PC doctrine of “everybody gets to play – everybody gets a trophy” mentality. We had grown up learning that, if you weren’t good enough, you sat the bench. To say that this group wasn’t a fantastic group of hoopsters is a bit unfair. They just happened to be on a stacked team.
My 3rd period English was being taught by Coach Jeff Tilton. (He is now an education doctor – but will always just be “Coach” to the Class of 91’). The class had my two favorite “Scrubs” in it — Jim Karp and Sean Elder. It was midway through the season when Coach Tilton and the rest of us realized one thing. Karp and Elder were the only two on the team that hadn’t scored. Our team was blowing people out, so the “Scrubs” in fact saw the court quite often. So Coach took it upon himself to create the greatest bet in the history of MHS.
The Bet: Choose which of these 2 would score first, and receive 100 English Bonus points towards your grade.
This was a no brainer in most people’s eyes. Karp was a part time starter as a sophomore, and saw the court much sooner than Elder. The betting line tilted as most people went with the favorite Karp. The underdog Elder however was the fashionable pick amongst two completely different types – straight “A” students and stoners. One of those groups didn’t need the bonus points, and the other just didn’t care. I was close friends with them both and had no problem letting Elder know that he was not my choice. In truth, I needed the bonus points, baseball was around the corner, and I needed the grade.
A few games went by and neither saw the hardwood. The tension began to mount. During this time many of the student body that weren’t even in Tilton’s class jumped on the betting bandwagon. Some students even made their own U.S.A. Tee shirts. It became “the thing” that season. Other schools must have thought we were nuts. Chanting “USA USA, USA,” the entire game hoping to will head basketball coach Mike Henry to put a scrub in.
Karp finally got in a game with a few minutes left. Clank! Misses a 12 foot jumper...Clank!..Misses an 8 foot jumper. The audible gasps and moans from us students got the attention of both parents and faculty...and soon word was out. The entire school was in on this bet!
I vividly remember classmates like Jake Weien yelling at the top of his lungs towards Coach Henry during Scrub time, “This is BS! Put Elder in!. You’re cheating the bet Coach!”
That bet was had not only begun to grow hair – it was parting it down the middle and feathering the sides!
We were on the road in Los Banos when a kind old lady approached a group of us wearing USA shirts after the game. “It’s so wonderful to see a group of young men show such patriotism”. She was obviously impressed with our USA chant. The moment was short lived however, as friend John Romito piped in with, “Whatever lady, I got my money on the Palestinian!” (Referring to Elder’s nationality). We cackled like idiots – it’s still one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard.
Weeks went by. Karp must’ve had 10 looks at the bucket, and hadn’t hit a one. Elder would always be the last Scrub inserted. He’d huck and chuck from anywhere on the court. He had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. He had a 30-foot jumper rim out at one point. He’d become the dark horse in this race. It was much cooler to be on Team Elder. It was anti-establishment and as I mentioned earlier, I was deep in my “denim days” but I lied and told everyone that I had voted for Elder. I had to outwardly root for him during the game. When in truth, I’d pulled Karp aside on several occasions to plead with him. “Please just make a friggin’ lay up!”
Did I mention that Karp and Elder were best friends. Normally a bet this divisive would’ve torn people apart. Not these two – they loved their growing celebrity status. Like a modern day Lenny and Squiggy. They garnered pats on the back, and were the focal point of ear shattering chants inside Winter Gym: “Karp ,Karp, Karp!” or the slow drawn out chant “Elllllder, Elllllder, Ellllllder!”
We were halfway done with league and neither had scored. I recall there being a palpable disappointment if the varsity didn’t blow out their opponent. Not because people wanted a decisive win – but because Karp and Elder didn’t see any action.
It was at least a month and half into the bet when it happened. A home blowout versus Los Banos put them both in the game with about 6 minutes left. They both put up a shot – and of course both missed. The student body was losing its collective mind. People were getting angry when their choice would pass the ball. “Shoot!!” was all you heard. It was theater playing out on a grand scale. They both would gawk and rib each other each time down the court. The tension was killing everybody!
I don’t recall who put up the shot, but Elder and Karp both crashed the boards. And the rebound landed in the hands of underdog Elder. The crowd went silent. He was 5-foot-nothing and was directly under the basket. He initiated a pump fake just to clear any would be shot blockers —but when he looked over his shoulder, he realized he had only one defender to beat – Karp. They locked eyes. Winter gym became frozen in time. The moment lasted 2 seconds, but hung in the air for an eternity.
Elder even managed to crack a smile at Karp – he responded with an “Oh No!” look of terror.
As a writer, I wish at this point I could reinvent history. And tell you that Karp blocked Elder’s shot, took the rebound, and dunked it in his face.
Elder put the ball in the bucket. The Straight A students and Stoners went wild. Karp added insult to injury, by coming down the court the next possession, and popping an 18 foot jumper. He had a pure stroke. It was why he was the betting line favorite.
“Where was that shot last month you d**k!” was yelled by many.
It was like the end of the Bad News Bears. Half of us had lost the bonus points – but we’d all won something much greater.
It is a moment in time that both I and the Class of 91 look back upon fondly.
The moral of the story: Don’t rely on your buddy’s jump shot for your grades because I didn’t get the bonus. And I didn’t play baseball that year. But man my denim jacket looked sweet.
“It’s not Where ya do, It’s What ya do.”