My Mother Was My Entourage
The greatest trait a boy’s mom can have
The father-son bond gets a lot of ink. That male-web of anger and devotion has inspired legends from the Bible to Star Wars. But somehow Moms, who often do most of the real work of raising boys up, get short shrift in the story department. The epics rarely feature mother and son. Somehow, “Luke, I am your mother” doesn’t cut it.
Time to put an end to this. Submitted for your consideration, a salute to my mother, Anne Haran O’Neill, and to a particular maternal skill for which millions of now fully-grown men are forever grateful.
About a half-century ago, I was the smallest 14-year-old boy in America when an under-reported miracle occurred. I made the freshman basketball team at John F. Kennedy High School.
Make no mistake. I was not one of those compact quick ball-handlers. No, I was slow, clumsy, and, for good measure, had no clue about the rhythms or energies of the game. I made the team for one reason only — I was the most enthusiastic person to ever put on sneakers. Coach Farrell couldn’t bring himself to cut Jiminy Cricket — he probably feared he’d go to hell if he did. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know this. I thought I was a player.
My mother was my entourage. She picked me up from practice every day. She somehow contrived to tailor my jerseys so that the lower half of my number — #3 in your programs — did not disappear into my trunks. I remember peering around high-school parking lots — my hair wet in the cold — to find my mother standing by her Country Squire station wagon, waving in here-I-am.
I was the ultimate scrubeenie on a championship team. I often got 43 seconds of garbage time at the end of blow-outs. Still, I loved being part of the team. I loved the lay-up drills. I loved the chatter. I loved tightening my laces. I loved the cheerleaders, their little skirts, their creamy legs….but I digress.
In the interest of sharing the workload, each cheerleader was assigned the names of two players. And when either of their players scored, they would jump up, whip off a cartwheel and shout the hero’s name. A goddess named Laura was the designated cheerleader for our leading scorer and for me. By the time we arrived at the last game of the season, I had yet to hear the name O’Neill bounce off the gym walls. I had exactly zero baskets. The closest I had come to scoring was a rebound that had caromed off my head into the underside of the rim.
Until the final 1:17 seconds of the last game, everything went according to form. I had played my bench-jockey role to perfection. The score stood at 63–31 when coach went to O’Neill down the stretch.
After committing a quick turnover, I resorted to cherry-picking. I camped out under our basket while my teammates played four-against-five on defense. Just as coach shouted, “O’Neill, get back on D,” the ball came floating out of the chaos at the other end toward me. I grabbed it, took four or five steps without dribbling — no whistle — and raised my arms to shoot. Just as I did, the Falcons’ #50, the largest freshman in the country, body-checked me and sent me crashing into the wrestling mats on the wall under the basket.
My only shot of the year wasn’t one of those nifty little caroms off the backboard and into the hole. No. This was a lay-up for the ages, a Newtonian marvel, a somehow spin-less knuckleball that was a physical impossibility — in this universe, at least. As I picked myself up, a little woozy off the floor, the ball reached its zenith near the gym ceiling. First, it stopped there for a minute or so, then started downward, a slow-motion, still-spinless, orange globe, the word “Spalding” legible, God help me, on its pebbled surface.
When it hit the rim, it seemed to stick. Then, it hung there for a couple of days, uncertain of whether it wanted to be dissected into a scoring average. But finally, as if in surrender, the ball tumbled meekly through the net.
There was a moment of stunned silence.
Then the gymnasium exploded.
A tremendous ovation rocked the bleachers. The fans jumped to their feet. God was in his heaven, and I was Jerry West. When I glanced over by the gym door, I saw my Mom, then about 40, bouncing on her toes, clapping like a cheerleader. As I trotted back on defense, I glanced over at the dreamy Laura in the cheerleader section. But she hadn’t moved. She just sat there, as though I hadn’t just schooled #50. Then, when one of her colleagues nudged her — they had to figure out who was assigned O’Neill — she jumped up, tore off a cart-wheel and yelled “Kayser, Kayser, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, no one can!” Kayser, you see, was our leading scorer, whose name she had previously shouted fourteen thousand times that season. He was in her muscle memory. I was, well….not.
Then, I suddenly heard the truth behind the spectators’ explosion. Those cheers weren’t plain old basketball exultations. No, this was a first in the history of of the game — a standing ovation for a basket that made the score 65–31. The crowd wasn’t cheering an athlete; they were cheering the fact that an elf had scored. They were celebrating the fact that the world had room for the preposterous, that the impossible could actually happen. This was an ironic round of applause. I wasn’t just a bad player; I was no player at all. .
I got out of the locker room in record time. Mom was waiting in the parking lot. “O’Neill, O’Neill, he’s our man,” she shouted through the icy evening. “If he can’t do it, no one can.” She, God bless her, had taken the crowd at its word. Mom wasn’t well-versed in derision, you see. In her eyes, I had earned my cheers. In her eyes, I wasn’t just a player, I was a good player. I had made a basket, or in her words, “scored” a basket.
I slammed my way into the car.
“What’s wrong, Hugh?” she said, beaming, but now confused.
“I’m never playing basketball again,” I said, as though she had no right to be so naïve. “They were making fun of me, Mom.”
Looking back, I regret telling her the truth. I should have let her live in her fantasy world of nurturance, where people don’t mock each other with insincere cheers. But I was fourteen and didn’t know much about kindness.
My mother, and millions of women like her, had plenty of boy-building skills. But more important than all of things my mother actually did for me was the one thing she didn’t do — she didn’t see me clearly. She actually didn’t see that I was slow and awkward. When she looked at me, somehow she just saw her boy, always good enough, now and then, terrific. Dad could be depended on to see your shortcomings. But Mom, she knew only one thing — you were her hero. She was all for you. It’s impossible to describe how much that blindness means to a boy.
Until she died, my mother always saw me through home-court eyes. Not long ago, my family was trading tales from the shining childhood she had concocted for us, when somebody referred to the fact that I was a minuscule teenager.
“Why does everybody say that?” Mom said, “You weren’t small.”
My brothers and sisters laughed. I got up, walked over to Mom and stood — now a towering 5’ 10” — behind her. I put my arms around her and said, as though talking a patient whose medication needed adjustment, “Mom, I was a leprechaun.”
She spanked me on the arm. My brothers and sisters, as though by reflex, hugged each other, secure in the knowledge that they too could depend on her to not see them clearly, to be far less objective than the world.
Oh, by the way, twenty-five years after the death of my hoops career, when my first book was published, my mother made a habit of standing in book stores, pretending she was flipping through a copy of it, and saying to passing, confused strangers, that she’d heard it was really good. No, really. Really, really good. Hmmmm…wonder who this author is? He sounds tall.
So, on behalf of every boy who ever needed a champion, and with gratitude to every cheerleader/mother who somehow always managed to only see the titan inside her son: “Happy Mothers’ Day.”