“So you are a basketball coach?”
“Assistant coach, yes. Coming from Texas. And this is salsa from a jar.”
“I think it is good, even if it came from a jar. It goes great with my wooter.”
Lesa, disturbed with the distraction of her attempted conversation, ignored the bait but DJ obliged. “Where are you from, Doug? That pronunciation of water is a little different.”
Doug lit up, smiled ear to ear and announced where he was from. He explained how amazing it is to be an Eagles fan, how certain he was that the Phillies would win the World Series “within the next decade” and he shared, with great detail and obvious passion, how for sure, without a doubt, the Flyers were going to finally, finally claim the Eastern Conference title and win the Stanley Cup.
Lesa relied on her eyes to assure DJ what she was about to say wasn’t a sign of her sports intelligence, flashing a quick look before testing Doug. “I don’t know man. Philadelphia, it’s like, home of Rocky Balboa. They have all these sports and rabid fans, and they hate Pittsburgh, but they just don’t seem genuine.”
“Don’t seem genuine? What does that even mean? We love our sports!”
“Right. I know, I’m not doubting your admiration. I just mean, as a city, in relation to sports, none of their teams even match.”
Lesa again glanced at DJ, begging for her to understand this isn’t her real feelings with a two-second stare.
“Match? What does that,”
Lesa interrupted, “Look at Pittsburgh. The Pirates, the Steelers, the Penguins, all those teams wear black and gold. Heck, even the bridges in Pittsburgh are yellow. Philadelphia, one team is green, the other is red – unless they feel like wearing light blue. Do the Phillies still have those weird light blue uniforms? I had a Mike Schmidt baseball card with him wearing a light blue jersey. Anyhow, then there’s the Flyers. I’m not a big hockey fan, but I’m pretty sure they wear orange. None of the teams in that city are united. They don’t represent. If I see a Flyers game on television I immediately think of the Orioles. Or the Bengals. I can’t even imagine the wardrobe of a true Philadelphia fan.”
Nudging Doug into more confusion, Lesa added, “But I guess all the fans drink the same wooter and eat the same cheesesteaks so there is some unity.”
Doug spent the next five minutes explaining who makes the best cheesesteaks and defined what type of people like Pat’s, Jim’s and Geno’s steaks. “It’s all about the whiz,” a comment that brought the group to silence and opened the door to return to Lesa’s inquiry about the day’s orientation.
“I don’t have expectations. This is my first job, so of course I will easily adjust. But I’m pretty sure, based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m going to work in a building without windows, with two bathrooms – one for men and one for women – and with a water fountain that has a sign hanging on it that says ‘Don’t Drink, Water Contains Lead.’ I was counting on this experience to provide me lessons, to prepare me for my next job. I’m worried I’ll need therapy after working in a closet for 10 hours a day without water. I guess I don’t need to be concerned about the bathroom situation since there isn’t anything to drink, and I know I’m making judgements after just four hours, so please correct me. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“I think it is fine. It’s my first job too,” Doug said. “Just work hard, make some connections and play nice. In nine months you can network your way to another university, maybe even one with bathroom stalls. That’s my plan.”
“I’m just excited we got to eat lunch. My last job, two years as a graduate assistant, two years as a ‘volunteer assistant,’ I never had a lunch break.”
“Was that the norm? Is it like that everywhere, every sport?”
“I imagine it is the norm. Especially at the bigger schools. For me, the first two years, even if I could have gone to lunch, I couldn’t have afforded it. And I needed any free time I had to do class work. The next two years I also couldn’t have afforded it. I got paid some money as a volunteer, but I had my work to do, and every task the other assistants and the head coach didn’t want to do. It was two years of daily reminders that I didn’t matter, as a human being.”
“Did you ever say anything, to anyone?”
“To who? Part of being on a team, allowing synergy and effectiveness to really work, is never saying anything, to anyone. It’s just how the system works. You do your time and one day you land a real assistant job. Then you can go to lunch.”
Doug asked the server for another round of salsa, uninterested in the valuable tips being provided through conversation. Lesa, disturbed and stuffed from the salty chips and jarred salsa added, “My graduate assistantship was pretty easy. I came and went as a I pleased. Even though I had a horrible boss, who regularly threatened me with his ability to ‘prevent me from ever getting a job,’ I always did more than I was asked. When I checked with people on what to expect today, I was led to believe there would be a welcoming of new employees with coffee and donuts, a real meet and greet. Instead I got a tour of closed office doors, an ID badge and paid to park.”
“It will be fine. We all pay a price to do what we love. When people show up to work, find someone to learn from, do more work than anyone else and do like Doug says. Play nice.”
Satisfied with how the new employees got along and appeared to accept the work environment, Rhett pulled her office door to a close and headed home for the evening. She stopped by the bathroom on the way out and was surprised both doors were labeled Occupied. She remembered the time she worked at an office that had bathroom stalls and only three females. That was glorious, never having to wait, never having to share. Just as a smile appeared on her face from bathroom memories, both door labels switched to Vacant and opened hastily.
“I knew I’d beat you!”
“Dude, I had a lot more to take off and put on,” Lesa said, pointing to her chest.
Both of her new hires were dressed in sneakers, long shorts and old t-shirts, done with appropriate work attire and off to tackle the humidity by playing some sport.
Rhett guessed, “Hi, guys. Are you going to play some basketball?”
“Yep. One of the athletic trainers told me about a department pick-up game that happens every Monday, right out back,” Doug explained. “We figured, why not?”
“And you competed to see who could change clothes the fastest.”
“Of course,” Lesa explained. “You know what they say. If winning isn’t everything, it’s just because you’ve never won anything.”
“Alright, well don’t get hurt, unless your parents are paying for your insurance.” Rhett thought it was important to remind the youngsters, in case they didn’t realize, that as adults they might not have the benefits they likely took for granted under the care of loving, working parents. Or parent. She knew her daughter didn’t appreciate the healthcare her job provided, these two likely didn’t know what health insurance was since it wasn’t required learning on one of their sports teams.
“Got it, thanks!”
As she entered the bathroom she thought about how much undoing she needed to do in order to prepare these two for real life. Winning isn’t everything will require unique and consistent effort to break that mindset so they understand most jobs don’t have winners. They just don’t.
Doug worried during his walk to the outdoor court that he would wake up the next day covered in burned freckles, his skin tone being one that demands high SPF coverage. But this was basketball and meeting new people, guys and girls, a bouncing ball and…a metal net? He looked at Lesa to see if she noticed.
“Look at that,” she said. “A chain net. I wonder why they would need a chain net.”
“Who knows. Maybe the wind from hurricane season tears up the traditional nets more than its worth to replace them.”
“Maybe, but if a hurricane blows these nets off, that’s a flying weapon. Chain or cotton makes no difference, as long as there’s a rim and the ball is round, I’ll make it.”
Doug laughed at Lesa’s confidence, knowing he would jump higher and move faster than any girl. She might make all her shots without defense but with him on the court, she’ll change her tune.
The basketball court provides so much opportunity. There’s a chance to shine, a chance to prove oneself, it indicates who’s a team player and points out who puts themselves above others. A simple high-five, pat on the back, or low-five says, without words, how you’ll fit as a teammate. One’s willingness to set a screen, give up a 15-footer with a gentle bounce pass to someone in the paint indicates an offensive nature. The defensive-minded switch when playing man-to-man, calling out loudly and providing a nudge to get the transition to work properly. Whether you think offense or defense wins games, teams win championships. A simple pick-up game is always more than just a game.
Lesa proved she could shoot the ball, but had limited defensive tactics. Doug was quick, naturally defensive and could jump higher than anyone else on the court. DJ, who declared this was the first and last pick-up game she’d play because her playing days were over, was the epitome of a complete player. Every shot she took went in, every screen she set was perfect, she didn’t give up a rebound, miss a pass or let anyone score on her if they dared drive the lane. Her boss, Kim, showed who she was by setting two illegal screens, one that nearly caused a fight between her and the women’s soccer coach, Julie, because she set a moving screen and pushed the defender to the ground in the process. Julie’s assistant Karen happened to be the defender who was pummeled so words nearly went to blows before things calmed down. Chris, in charge of compliance, followed all of the rules but expressed more than anything that his game was full of hot air – coming from his trash-talking mouth and the air balls he tossed for DJ to grab, as if picking an apple from a tree. Brian worked in sports information and was a scrapper, chasing down loose balls, encouraging good efforts, high-fiving great plays, setting screens, playing defense and, more than anyone else on the court, driving to the hoop multiple times – unsuccessfully against DJ. Just trying more than once to see if he could score against her showed a tenacity no one else was willing to even attempt.
After a few games the group decided it was time to head home. Some stayed – DJ connected with Kim and found out she was hitting the road tomorrow afternoon; Chris and Doug lined up a one-on-one for the next day; Lesa and Brian talked about Mark off the record.
Walking to their cars, Lesa and DJ said their goodbyes.
“I wasn’t sure what to think of today when we went to lunch,” Lesa said. “But for me, there isn’t much a good game of basketball can’t fix.”
DJ smiled, not agreeing or disagreeing. “Have a great first week. I’ll connect with you when I get off the road.”
At home, Rhett finished her dinner, a fine frozen meal with a side of pistachio nuts and a glass of whisky. Two fingers, just two fingers tonight. She tossed her nut shells in the empty meal container and took her last sip of whisky before prepping her peanut butter sandwich for the next day. She hopped in the shower, put lotion on her feet and went to bed, quickly falling asleep.