I had Saturday Night At the Basketball Game With Dock.
Pardon me, as I channel my inner Sofia Petrillo:
…Picture it, about 1999, 2000, in the humble village of Davis, California. It’s a basketball game at the vaunted Recreation Hall on the campus of UC – Davis. The home team Aggies, against the Roadrunners of Cal State- Bakersfield. Yours truly, then a hard working, student-athlete with too much gel in his hair, and a rabid obsession with the band 311, was moonlighting as a janitor (illegally, mind you, per NCAA rules regarding student athletes working jobs). The job wasn’t too bad of a gig – the boss was a former football player at UCD, and would tacitly get athletes jobs who weren’t terribly well off financially, in order for them to earn a little coin to do extravagant things, like eat, and buy toilet paper, instead of stealing it from the Rec Hall. He would get us on really early morning, and late night weekend shifts, in order to keep the cops at bay, so to speak. On the night in question, I was tasked with post game cleanup of the bleachers, and mopping down the court, and oiling the ancient and smelly hardwood for the next game, be it NCAA sanctioned, or just indoor dodgeball that some of us athletes would take as course credit.
I would always arrive early, and catch the game, not only as a sign of athletic solidarity towards my hoops brethren, but also to gauge where everyone was going to party after the game, with the hope that I would get everything done before 1am, to catch up with by then heavily inebriated co-eds. Mmm hmm.
I propped up my court sweeper against the bleachers next to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, and proceeded to plop down in front of a couple of gentlemen, obviously fathers of the players, but also men of past athletic glories. Tall, and still looking to only being a few pounds shy of their fighting weights, both men chatted with one another throughout most of the game, with the banter and knowledge that typically only those who have played the game regale themselves with.
By the third quarter, with the game still a battle, the discourse turned to the play and NBA career of former Roadrunner, Kebu Stewart. Apparently, one of the current players on Bakersfield’s team reminded them both of Kebu, and his athletic prowess, which he displayed not only for the Roadrunners, but for the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. Being a Las Vegas native, and having started my athletic career at UNLV, I knew a bit about Kebu, not only for his playing ability, but for some of his transgressions, some of which landed him in Bakersfield to finish his collegiate career, after being kindly asked to leave Vegas due to some ‘minor incidents’, shall we say.
Their conversation turned to Stewart’s off the court issues; what exactly, escapes me. However, I do remember turning to the men behind me, and uttering:
‘Drugs and sports, man, it seems like a great combo at the time, but it never ends up the way you expect it’
…to which both men looked at each other, grinning, as if there was an inside joke that I triggered from the depths of their memories.
‘Drugs and sports, you’d know all about that, now wouldn’t you’, says one to the other. To which he retorts:
‘Yeah, you might say that, but the kid gets it. Good for you kid for figuring that out now. Sounds like you play ball’
‘I’m a pitcher on the baseball team, but in reality, I’m a training room All-Star.’
‘Funny kid too, I like it. I’m Dock Ellis‘
Taking a few seconds for my heart to stop skipping beats, I threw out my hand, and said it was awesome to meet his acquaintance, and muttered something again about drugs and baseball, I don’t really remember what. Probably something about the rampant steroid use that some of us college baseball guys knew about from some of our professional level contemporaries.
I spent the next 30 minutes or so picking his beautifully tortured brain, from his son choosing basketball over the old man’s sport, to his new career as a drug counselor, primarily to inmates around the prisons of California, all the while tiptoeing around the subject of baseball. We talked about it, but keeping it light, mostly talking about pitch grips. I’m pretty sure I asked him his thoughts on growing out those killer sideburns of his again – no dice.
As the buzzer sounded, the Roadrunners prevailed. The crowd shuffled out, and I prepared myself to spend the next three hours by myself pushing that sweeper up, and down, up, and down the court, thinking of ways to block out the monotony of the task at hand. As we all stood up to head to our respective destinations, I turned around to shake Doc’s hand, and I finally got the courage to ask:
‘Is it true?’
‘It sure is, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Stay humble kid, and the game will never eat you alive.’
…and off he went, off to hug his son, who I vaguely remember had himself a respectable game. Off to live the rest of his days in infamous glory. Off to be the counterculture icon that he was, and still is. Off to live his days afflicted, and conflicted, by doing what so few have done in athletic brilliance, but doing so in a way that has made him a pariah in certain circles.
It was a surreal 30 minutes, and while minutiae have long since been forgotten, I will always remember the handshake, the frankness, and the kindness that Dock shared with me.