It's funny how friendships begin.
One day on a basketball court in Philly I was chasing after a loose ball, and the opponent going after it with me swung an elbow that caught my lip.
I wiped away the blood with the shirt-tail of my jersey, but I wanted payback. With 15 seconds remaining in the game and the score tied at 78, I had the ball in my hands. The same guy bellied up hard on defense. I went up for the game-winning jump shot. As he leaped to block my shot, I fended him off with my left forearm and released the ball at the buzzer. Swish. Walking off the court, he came up to me, and introduced himself.
"Smooth game you got," he said.
"Can't say the same," I said.
"Sorry about the lip."
"Forget about it."
We went for a Coke.
Other than basketball, Flash Gordon and I had nothing else in common.
Flash grew up in a home for boys – his father had run off when he was 4 or 5 and his mother was too sick to rear him. The boys' home wasn't the cleanest or quietest place. The food didn't put a warm, fuzzy feeling in his belly. But there was a tiny gym on the third floor. Basketball became his best friend. On the other hand, I had it middle-class comfortable: concerned parents, a hot dinner every night, a car at my beckoning. Any problems were illusions.
Basketball was my passion, too. So, for Flash and me, there was never any reason to fuss with metaphysics when a game could be had. Basketball became an overarching theology that seemed to order things in our lives.
The court was the one place where we were both flawlessly at ease, where we could define ourselves in a reverse spin dribble past a defender, or in a high-arching, freewheeling spinning jump shot that dropped through the basket as if some geometric justice were being carried out.
We played together everywhere: All around Philly, in the Poconos, at the Jersey Shore, up on Cape Cod bay, even in Quebec in Canada. We became well-known as Flash Gordon and Billy the Kid. Especially the game this particular March night when we would write our basketball oeuvre as teammates.
The team on which we were playing was vying for the championship in a semi-pro league in Philly. In warm-ups, Flash said to me, "Shoot the lights out as only you can and we'll whip these hotshots. I'll take care of the rest." That meant Flash would hustle after every loose ball, bang bodies under the boards for rebounds, and play Velcro-like defense. We were the decisive underdogs, not only because we were both 36 years old, as was the rest of our team, but also because we were going up against a bunch of young, former college stars – 20-somethings – who had gone unbeaten in winning the regular-season championship.
The referee's shrill whistle signaled game time.
Flash, fired up, uncoiled his lithe 5-foot, 8-inch frame and hustled hard to track down the tip. He grabbed the ball, whirled, and whipped a pass to me at the top of the key. Swish. I hit my first eight shots and we jumped to a 32-20 lead.
"Keep shooting," he hollered to me. Flash has always been my biggest booster. He had come to almost every game I had played as a starting point guard for Temple University, including the game I played in the NCAA Tournament, aka "March Madness."
I kept shooting and he kept "doing the rest," and we went on to collect the gold and glory that night. At the final buzzer, Flash raced over, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, "See, buddy, I told you we'd win." His lips peeled back into a huge smile. It was his first-ever championship – there were no championships growing up in that boys' home.
In that giddy blush of triumph we promised like some Philadelphia Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to play the game side by side forever, to remain, as the poet Schiller wrote, "true to the dreams of thy youth."