Poster Bill Morelock high school basketball
Bill Morelock (#35) plays for Amador Valley H.S. in a game against San Francisco's Woodrow Wilson High School, circa 1972.
courtesy Bill Morelock

Hoops and Hearts: an essay by Bill Morelock

Deep in December our hearts will remember,
And follow.

     Tom Jones (no, not that one)
     "Try to Remember"

This month our hearts turn to the remembrance of traditional rituals. Depending on our bents, these involve candles, food, family, shopping, singing, giving, praying, skiing, fishing, slant routes, hat tricks and corner threes. Not an indecorous mix, really. Decorum and reality (we need to face it) have separated on grounds of incompatibility. The spiritual goods you find in Advent or Chanukah, I may find in the gym.

I remember, more than 40 Decembers ago, I had a glimpse of heaven when, after a grueling practice with the Washington State University JV basketball team — during which I earned subcutaneous abrasions on both knees and took an elbow to the sternum (because these represented a more reliable service to the team than my drive to the rim) — six-foot, nine-inch John Baptiste of Hammond, La., called me Blood.

Now even if he meant it, and no irony twinkled behind his large square eyes, this was an honorific of the moment, a grunt exemption. Nevertheless, I cherished the sentiment and the glimpse into an elite Fraternal Order.

Basketball players, white and black, knew all about this. The average capable white kid could play the notes, with plodding, practiced consistency. The black kids composed. They made music.

In high school, in a mostly white East Bay Area suburb near San Francisco, I played for Skip Mohatt at Amador Valley H.S.; Mohatt insisted on 1) playing hard-nosed man-to-man defense (requiring a boot-camp level conditioning); and 2) sharing the stage with Oakland's and San Francisco's greatest virtuosos. Most often they blew us out of the gym, but we learned to hold our own, and sometimes even managed to win.

Amador Valley High School Basketball Team 1972-73
Amador Valley High School Varsity Basketball Team, 1972-73. Bill Morelock is in the back row, number 35.
courtesy Bill Morelock

Our respect, bordering on idolatry, for these teams — Balboa, Wilson and Washington of SF; Oakland Tech, McClymonds (where Bill Russell played), and most of all, Castlemont of Oakland — contained a large irony of which we were mostly innocent. Castlemont, for instance, we considered basketball nobility. They awed us. An all-black team coached by a diminutive Oakland legend named Dave Shigematsu, their home uniforms had "Knights" in flowing purple script on a white jersey with sleeves. They represented, in basketball terms, the apotheosis of Beauty. But when these nobles took off those uniforms and left their court, they confronted starkly faded realms. One year, in a time of troubles, the Oakland Athletic League banned spectators from some league games. Just over the East Bay hills, my teammates and I had comforts so basic we took them for granted. The players from Castlemont had the unpredictability of East Oakland.

In my senior year, Shigematsu and crew came to our place for a pre-season scrimmage. Not quite a game, it was an unofficial but still serious contest. And, since it was Castlemont, it was for us an acid test. What were we made of? I had the task — or the privilege — of guarding their star, a 6-7 forward named Jeff Randall. One of the best players in the state, Randall later went to the University of San Francisco (again, where Russell played). I tried to bang him around a bit (a fool's errand?) and deny him the ball, my best hope of slowing him down. Because once he got it, well …

They scored a few more points than we did, and Randall was Randall, but we played without fear and gave them a respectable run. At least we didn't bore the exalted Knights. Not bad for a bunch of basketball commoners. We called it a success.

A couple years later, a teammate of mine went to USF and ran into Randall. He asked him if he remembered going out to the suburbs to play that scrimmage. "Oh, yeah," Randall said. "And I was scared to death. I had my piece in my locker."

Morelock goes for loose ball
Bill Morelock (#35) scrambles for a rebound against opponents from Bishop O'Dowd High School during a 1972 - 1973 basketball game.
courtesy Bill Morelock

There was, and still is, pleasure in that sense of awe when I'd think about the beauties of teams like Castlemont and talents like Jeff Randall and hundreds more like them. But right then, the irony grew to proportions where it couldn't be ignored, more or less crowding out the innocence. A moment of growth, surely. Yet, to this day, what kind of grasp do I really have on all its implications? Decades of historic changes and real progress exist, alongside realities that remain, it seems, irreparably rancid. It's simply maddening. Myriad threads and wounds I can't presume to track or fully appreciate.

What I can do is remember Jeff Randall, a gifted athlete, a 17-year-old kid who, traveling a mere 30 miles to play a basketball game in an utterly foreign place which I, and you, would call perfectly safe — bordering on idyllic — was seriously prepared to defend himself if necessary.

This exercise represents a dissonant music for December, but this year other things deeply intrude (and if we chose to notice, other things would always intrude on our peace), and I'll remember what seems meaningful — a valid ritual — and try to understand, even if understanding remains a phantom.

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