Here’s To A Happy Thanksgiving, Even If You Didn’t Call Or Play Defense

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Thanksgiving has always been a time of reflection on things of the past, so with the holiday being tomorrow, I thought now would be a good time to share a story about the day before Thanksgiving 43 years ago.

I was a mere 24 years old in 1980 as I started out that day to work at the Roanoke Times. With it being a morning newspaper, you headed in right after lunch if you had to write something, then if assigned to work one of the copy desk positions (which was about all the time) you started focusing on that around 4 PM.

Four different editions would be put out. The earliest – called the 4-star – went out around 9 PM. The 3-star went around 10:30, the 2-star at 11:30 and the final – which went to the good citizens in Roanoke and Salem – closed around 12:30. This was done to allow the trucks to get out to their destinations, as the newspaper had a rather large geological footprint. You could tell the difference in the editions by the number of stars under the masthead on the front page.

Then we were free to go home. For us younger folk, that rarely happened, as we all wanted a bite to eat and a chance to sit down for a few minutes. The Little Chef on Williamson Road was one of the gathering places, but the main watering hole was just off the Raleigh Court neighborhood on Memorial, right around the corner from the Grandin Theater.

It was called “Spike’s.”

If you worked for a newspaper, any of the Roanoke television stations or even coached local teams with night games, odds are you were at Spikes enjoying a sandwich and beverage before heading home. As a local sportswriter who focused on high school sports, I had become friends with many coaches, and on this evening, a very personable and excellent basketball coach from Northside named Jerry English was there.

Jerry was telling us all that he had to get up early because his teams always practiced Thanksgiving mornings before calling it a day for a big meal and watching football. He also mentioned the practice was going to be tough because due to players still participating with the football team, he only had 9 who could play. You can’t have a full 5-on-5 scrimmage unless you have at least 10.

It was during this conversation Jerry decided it would be an excellent time to say “hey, didn’t you play basketball?” I was only 24, and not in terrible shape, and as the food and beverage flowed, and the questions became more of an attack on my manhood instead of a quest for information, I ended up saying “fine, I’ll be there tomorrow.”

Being young and male – a powerful combination for doing dumb things – I failed to recognize a few bits of information important to the deal. This was to be my final Thanksgiving as a single man, as I would be getting married the following March. There were no cell phones then and it was almost 2 in the morning, so it’s not like I could easily contact my fiancé to say “hey I’m going to play basketball early in the morning.”  

Plus, I didn’t think it mattered.

Early the next morning I headed to Northside. Coach English welcomed me, I said hi to the team as they knew me from the newspaper, and we started to scrimmage. At 6-4 I had been given decent height and a reasonable long-range jumper, but had been overlooked when it came to speed, quickness and the ability to jump.

In the first minute I found myself open for a shot at the head of the key that I hit, and then noticed all the players mercilessly needling the guy defending me, as if he had allowed a senior citizen to beat him to the basket. This resulted in my facing a bit more defensive intensity from everyone, lest they too be mocked for being scored on by old man river.

My intentions were good in defending different Northside players, but it soon became apparent that the conditioning one maintains playing at the Y every other week, while sitting in a press box eating snacks on the other days, is different from high school aged kids running the bleachers in practice. So while the effort was valiant, at one point my man got loose on a fast break and I couldn’t keep up.

When it happened again, Jerry blew his whistle. He’s always been known as such a gentle and compassionate coach, so he came over, put his arm around me, and quietly said “do you even know how to play defense?”

I eventually caught my breath, went back in, and we had a fantastic time that morning. I then drove to the small house I had bought a year prior, opened the front door and noticed a woman and her mother, arms crossed, giving me the same look you give a dog that got off the leash and was now returning three days later. She had called that morning and I was no where to be found.

I would go on to learn of the international law that says you always tell your significant other where you are at all times, or the assumption is you have been absconded by a space alien who has now sucked all the brain matter from your head. I also learned if you look pitiful and don’t argue, the transgression is quickly forgotten.

In the end, it all turned out OK. She still crosses her arms and gives me that “what is wrong with you?” look, much as she has during the last 43 years of being married. Jerry English has noted my lack of defense at least 3.2 gazillion times since that day on social media, and still does. The memories of that day are still just as warm today as they were then.

Plus, I’m lucky to still have them in my life after all these years.

So on this day before Thanksgiving, may you too be blessed with similar warm memories from the next 24 hours, and have people in your life that will forever forgive you when you forget to call to say where you are. Or play defense on a fast break.

Even if they never let you forget it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

6 COMMENTS

  1. “Plus, I didn’t think it mattered.”
    Lesson learned. It always matters.
    What a great look back. Is that you with hair??
    We’ve all faced the folded arms, but we never really learn for long.
    Thanks for the thoughts that we may be blessed with memories. And thanks for sharing one of yours.

  2. I would love to get the RT 2,3 star delivered to my doorstop again. Instead I get a digital, almost unedited version that recently expanded from 25 to 34 pages. Many of those last 9 pages are duplicates of the original 25 and no one has noticed. I would love to have the cigar smoking sports editor back so I could see his face in 2021 when VT did what he predicted would never happen……Win the ACC MBB title.

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