Chapter Twelve

Tuesday, June 28, 1988, 5:44 p.m. 
Custerville, Ohio

Wilma had pried the tin lid off the tea canister she stuck spare money in, and was fishing out the $20 J.R. had asked her for, when Jerry walked in the front door.

‘I see you mowed the lawn like I asked,’ he muttered, bending down to pet Cash, the family’s black cat, who purred like a Harley while slithering around Jerry’s ankles.

‘I was busy,’ J.R. said, snatching the $20 clasped between his mother’s fingers and stuffing it into his pocket. ‘I’ll do it tomo-‘

‘You’ll do it now,’ Jerry growled. ‘There’s enough daylight left. Get to it.’

‘I have plans,’ J.R. said, looking at his mother and widening his eyes in a silent cry for help. ‘Keck will be here to pick me up any minute now.’

‘Keck, there’s a winner,’ he said with a wave of the hand. Jerry’s venom disappeared for a second as he put the file folder tucked under his arm on the linoleum floor, scooping up the cat and cradling it. He smiled as he rubbed Cash’s stomach and kissed his nose, but the calm was short lived, his anger roaring back the second he laid down the cat and picked the folder back up. ‘Plans for what?’

‘Eberly’s Pub is throwing a draft party for me.’

‘Eberly’s,’ Jerry said with an eye roll and a wave of the hand. ‘Lots of winners over there.’

‘Jerry, leave him alone,’ Wilma hissed with gritted teeth.

‘At least they believe in me.’

‘You’re not getting drafted!’ Jerry slapped the folder onto the kitchen island counter, a few pages of scouting notes spilling out and fluttering. ‘The sooner you get that through your head, the better off you’ll be, my friend!’

‘Jerry, stop it!,’ Wilma scolded. ‘Now!’

‘Will, don’t encourage this,’ Jerry plead wearily, reshuffling fallen papers into the jaws of the beige folder as J.R., hearing Keck’s sputtering engine pull up, made a dash for the back door.

‘I believe in you, too!’ his mother called out over the rusty hinge squeaks, just before the metal door rattled shut. ‘Have fun!’

J.R. had figured he’d fall to the third round at worst. Mid-to-late second, most likely. But he had been harboring hopes of being a first round selection in the back of his mind for the last week or so, the notion growing in the darkness like fungi. The Suns had sent scouts to just about all of his playoff games, and owned a stockpile of picks acquired from Cleveland in the Kevin Johnson trade. They had even called the house to do a phone interview with him the week before.

‘Phoenix, I think,’ he kept saying over and over whenever someone at the bar asked. ‘Maybe Sacramento. Who knows? I’ll just be happy to be drafted.’

He tacked the last bit on every time, even though he didn’t believe it. Winding up as the last pick in the last round would still be a ticket out of Custerville, sure. But he needed more validation than that. 14th pick, to the Phoenix Suns. That was his ideal scenario, and for the last week or two he’d drifted off to sleep while crafting rationalizations as to why it wasn’t just a pipe dream.

When Dan Majerle’s name was called at 14, J.R. kept up his smile, and ordered a shot of Jameson. Sacramento had the 18th pick. They needed a shooter, and had shown considerable interest in him. One of their scouts was in attendance for his 47 point effort against Valley Forge. He talked himself into it so much that his heart sank when the Kings passed on him.

They passed on him again at 29, as did every other team in the second round. TBS ended their coverage a few picks into the third, Eberly ordering a doorman to take down the ‘WELCOME TO THE NBA’ sign off the wall the instant J.R. disappeared into the bathroom.

‘You’re gonna get picked,’ Keck reassured as he chopped lines on the toilet lid in the men’s room stall. ‘I read a thing, dude…even Michael Jordan’s high school coach cut him.’

J.R. just rolled a bill against his thigh and snorted the line before unlatching the stall door and heading back out to the bar. Keck joined him a minute or two later, and they both sipped their beers in silence for what felt like an eternity. The whole thing felt like J.R.’s worst nightmare, only too detailed to be a dream. He tried to remain expressionless and not make any eye contact, bargaining with God for someone to sink a dollar in the jukebox. Anything to kill the murmurs and quiet pity fogging the air.

‘Lagerstadt!’ J.R. didn’t need to swivel on his stool to know that it was Donvan Cordero – the point guard for Custerville Catholic High, who stole his girlfriend junior year, and outplayed him all three times they faced each other.

Taking the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 was enough for J.R. to claim victory in the rivalry. Especially after learning that Cordero had lost his scholarship at Dayton State the previous season. Apparently, he had hurled the ball at his coach’s face during a last second time out he didn’t want called. Broke the guy’s nose, and Donovan was expelled. Last J.R. had heard, Cordero was back in town and working at a pretzel place in the mall. But despite the scoreboard of their history, Cordero had him in that moment, and they both knew it.

‘Is this the big draft party?’ Donovan’s friendly tone was as insincere as his game show host smile. ‘Where’d you get picked?’

J.R.’s stool skidded and tipped over as he whirled around to clock Cordero in the jaw. Before the doorman tackled him, he got a few clean punches in – bloodying Donovan’s nose and chipping one of the prick’s bicuspids. When the dust settled, it was an arrest for assault and felony cocaine possession, the latter offense being dropped from the report once the booking officer recognized J.R.’s last name.

‘Good show,’ Jerry said, shaking his head and waving his hand as J.R. staggered from the police station toward the Buick, his path meandering like a Family Circus kid.

‘Leave me alone’, J.R. slurred, taking a few swipes at the passenger side door handle before his impaired coordination caught hold.

‘I don’t know why I bother,’ Jerry muttered, cocking the car into drive and pulling off.

 

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