Friday, March 4, 2005, 8:26 a.m.
New York, New York
Julius “Swish” Mayfield rubs his eyes after cranking both of the diamond-shaped shower knobs. He lets out a long yawn that makes his body wiggle, and lumbers towards the black bag hanging over the closet door. Unsheathing the blue-shirt-red-tie Perry Ellis ensemble his stylist had chosen for him, he lays it out gingerly on the undisturbed half of the bedspread. While the hissing water heats up enough to start fogging the bathroom mirror, Swish tugs at the sleeves and pant legs to pull them taut, running a hand over any bunched fabric. By the time he jumps in the shower, the suit is so smooth and straight it looks like the wardrobe of an invisible stickman drawing sprawled across his bed.
He hums the Chi-Lites to himself while scrubbing every inch of skin with a soapy washcloth, taking tenfold the time and care he normally did. The prepared remarks that had been re-written and printed out by network interns scrolls across his brain like a cable news ticker. He bobs his head with the beat of the syllables as he mutters the script to himself in an attempt to memorize it. But Swish’s focus keeps getting derailed by something he had left out of the words he was parroting. A memory that never made it more than three or four words into his spiral notebook before being furiously censored with a pen.
Julius was conspicuously absent from the 1987 Sports Illustrated cover. He didn’t subscribe to the feel-good, moral victory aspect of the story when it happened (and still didn’t all these years later). While the photographer was forever preserving the swarm of Swish’s teammates carrying Coach into the locker room, he sat in the robin’s egg blue paint of the NCAA logo at center court, head bowed, elbows resting on his knees, a towel over his head to hide and muffle the crying jags that seemed to echo throughout the Hoosier Dome.
Many details had been lost to time and repression, but the one thing Julius can still remember to this day – with a clarity that can make him shudder in the shower as if it had just happened – was the words ‘it’s over’. He repeated them in his head until they had lost all meaning. Tears ran down his cheeks and hung from the edge of his chin before a plummet that ended with a splat on the hardwood.
‘You alright?’ asked a janitor sweeping the debris of the first row after everyone had filtered out, his voice ringing through the empty cavern that had felt so alive to Swish just a half hour ago. Julius didn’t answer or move, his mind still running the film of that last second shot bouncing around the rim before vomiting out as the buzzer signaled the third-overtime’s end, the dotted bulbs of the scoreboard lit to indicate Indiana by one, all of it set to ‘it’s over’. ‘It’s over’. ‘It’s over.’
‘That’s enough, Mayfield, let’s go.’ He recognized the voice as Jerry’s halfway through the throat-clear preceding Coach’s words, though it was a more vulnerable tone Julius hadn’t heard before, sapped of its usual gruff bite. Pulling the towel off his head, he looked up to see the familiar red sweater over a blue dress shirt as Jerry walked towards center court, hands tucked into the pockets of his khakis. ‘No use crying over spilt milk.’
‘This was it, Coach,’ Julius said with a sniffle. ‘Last game.’
‘Let me tell you something.’ Jerry’s knees crackled as he bent down and clasped a hand over the back of Swish’s neck. ‘Indiana’s gonna wake up tomorrow with their own problems. The point guard, Bobby Knight, the equipment manager, all of ’em. Something will still make them toss and turn at night, even though they’re moving on to round two. Shot goes in, shot is off…either way, life’ll kill ya. But win or lose, you have to learn to live with yourself.’
‘I thought I had it,’ Julius whispered, his words muddied by spittle, a thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of his nose. He wiped at tears pooling in the pink triangles of his eye ducts, smearing glistening slug trails across both cheeks. ‘I let everyone down.’
‘The hell with everyone.’ Jerry rubbed his fingers in circles over the back of Swish’s sweat-soaked neck. ‘You had a good look at the basket, elbow was lined up with the rim, textbook form. They can’t all go in.’
‘I just wish this one did.’
‘We all have wishes, my friend. Most of them won’t happen.’ He slapped a palm against the back of Swish’s soggy jersey and let out a groan as he rose, knees popping again on the way back up. ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’
Julius draped the towel back over his head as the clacks of Jerry’s heels became quieter and quieter. The low buzz of the hot lights came back into focus as silence settled in under the cover of damp linen.
‘Be on that bus in twenty minutes, or you can find your own way back to Custerville,’ Jerry yelled at the mouth of the locker room tunnel, the alien softness that had appeared in his voice reverting back to its familiar angry bark.
It took the hot water running out before Julius tuned back into the present, the sudden spray of cold making him leap out of the shower with a cartoon yelp, sack shrunk and dick turtled. Toweling himself off, he began reciting the script out loud again from the top.
‘Good evening,’ he says, staring at himself in the mirror. ‘What to say about a man like Coach?’ He repeats the second line, this time with a delivery that’s a little less wooden. The third try is more somber, with a deeper voice, like a trusted news anchor. He clears his throat before the fourth take, which puts emphasis on the word ‘man’. Rolling his neck around like a pre-fight boxer, he exhales and droops his shoulders, rubbing his face as he psyches himself up for the fifth attempt, this time switching the emphasis to the word ‘Coach’. His eyes locked in a staring contest with their reflection, Swish takes a half-dozen more cracks at it, each attempt different than the last, though the line itself never changes.
‘What to say about a man like Coach?’