On Thanksgiving of my sophomore year, Coach invited me to his daughter’s house for a traditional dinner.

I was too broke to go home to New York, so a couple friends of mine, Ray and Julian, came down to visit me. We had grown up together in New York, but they were now playing basketball at a junior college in Wyoming. Coach was kind enough to invite them to come to dinner with me. The day was a little cool for southern California because it had just rained for a few days before. We drove to Coach’s daughter’s house in the San Fernando Valley, getting lost a couple times on the way and having to call the house for directions. We showed up late, but no one minded. It was that kind of family. That kind of day.

The house was modest. Nan, his daughter, welcomed us with enthusiasm as if we were cousins she hadn’t seen in ages. Coach’s son, James, was also there, and just as warm and hospitable. Nan’s little children were playing on the living room floor with the TV showing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I felt a twinge of homesickness when I saw that because my father used to take me to watch the parade. Because of that, I continued to watch it every year far into adulthood. I carried the children around on my back, which delighted them to no end. They had never been lifted that high in the air before. “Look, Mommy, I’m flying,” they squealed as I zoomed them around the room.

Coach was more relaxed than I’d ever seen him. Today he was just Grandpa and Dad and Friend. Not Coach. He had to adjust himself in the easy chair every few minutes because of his bad back. In the navy he’d gotten knocked into a steel post during a game of basketball, and it had done serious injury to his spine, requiring several surgeries. That was why he walked a little hunched over, which became more pronounced as he got older.

Dinner was traditional as advertised. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing. If it was a dish featured in a Hallmark card for Thanksgiving, it was on this table. And I was glad for it.

Dinner conversation was light. Nan poked fun at Coach’s superstitious rituals. I knew about his pregame habit of pulling up his socks, spitting on the floor, rubbing the spit with his shoe, rubbing his hands, and patting his assistant on the leg.

“Did you know about the hairpins?” Nan asked.

If Coach was embarrassed, he didn’t show it. He seemed pleased by the attention of his family.

“No,” I said. “Hairpins?”

“Every time he finds a hairpin, he has to stick it into the nearest piece of wood. Tree, table, porch, doesn’t matter.”

“I read that the St. Louis Cardinals used to do that,” Coach said as if that were the most reasonable explanation in the world.

“Sometimes on game day,” Nell chimed in, “I deliberately leave a hairpin lying around just so he can do that.”

They described how whenever he would find a coin on the ground, he would stick it in his left shoe and walk around with it all day.

And so on for over an hour. I hadn’t felt so at home, so comfortable just sitting around with people, in the two years since I’d left home.

After dinner, Coach and I sat in the living room. Julian and Ray were taking their turn playing with the kids. James, Nell, and Nan were in the kitchen, having refused our offer of help cleaning up.

“Give thanks for your blessings every day,” he said. It was half of number seven of the list his father had given him. “You know why I give thanks every day and not just Thanksgiving?”

“Your family?” I guessed. It seemed to be the kind of sappy thing older people always said.

He squirmed in his chair again. “You know about how I missed my ship during the war because I was ill. How my college friend who took my place died?”

I nodded. I’d heard about it somewhere.

“I also heard you used to cut practice short on Tuesday nights so you could hurry home to watch a TV show.”

He nodded. “Yup. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. That was before your time.”

“Not really. I used to watch that show all the time.” “Hugh O’Brian played Wyatt Earp. Did you know he was in the Marines in World War II? At seventeen, he was their youngest drill instructor ever.”

Where does he come up with this stuff? I wondered. “You still love the Westerns, though. You’re always reading them on the bus.”

He smiled at me. “You know why I like Westerns, Lewis?”

“Lots of action?” That’s why I liked them.

“That doesn’t hurt. But mostly I like them because there’s a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. The good guy knows what the right thing to do is if he wants to defeat the bad guy.” His smile broadened. “And he always does the right thing.”

“That’s not realistic,” I said, my political ire seeping in. “It’s not that kind of world.” 

“No, it’s not,” he said. “But it could be. It could be.” That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned from Coach, and he taught it to me over and over again. It wasn’t enough to just focus on how bad things were; we also needed to have a dream of what could be. And we had to have faith in ourselves that we could make that dream come true. Or, as he often said, quoting poet Robert Browning, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”

Adapted from COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURT by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, published on May 16, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Used by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

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