Forty years is an eternity to carry a stab wound through the heart. It was a Saturday night in March 1970 and Johnny Taylor could recall every excruciating detail of the last seconds of the state basketball championship game.
Taylor was one of five kids from a small village in western Pennsylvania and that night would be their “Redemption Saturday”. They called themselves the Haff Brothers, borrowed from their hangout near Haff’s Delicatessen, a local eatery long since closed. As sophomores they had mostly watched as a senior laden team had overachieved until a thirty point humiliation in the state final. The following season, all five would eventually start. A special camaraderie that only athletes can understand had inspired them to another state final but, though closer, the team lost by thirteen.
That misty night in ‘70 would be different, though. It was until a hot-shot sophomore from Heartbreak High broke free for a layup with twelve ticks left. Down by one, Taylor’s jumper missed but the rebound was batted back to his sweaty palms. For an instant, Johnny was open. “Why didn’t I shoot it?”, he asked the question that he was afraid to answer. Flustered, his desperation pass to Ricky Rizinski was tipped moments before the final buzzer affirmed their triple crown of anguish.
No one remembers who finishes second except for those who lose, a malady that inflicts us all.
Darkness fell as Taylor wandered the empty streets of his hometown that had died along with the local steel mill. It had been three years since his last visit. He could have owned this town had he made that shot but he was just a kid who went to college and never returned.
He thought of his “brothers”, especially Ricky, who might have been the hero. Johnny’s jaw tightened. Riz was a hero; killed by a sniper in ‘Nam after trading places with a friend as they boarded a deuce-and-a-half. That friend would become a fireman and save two kids from an inferno. Nineteen is an obscene age to die but those lives are Ricky’s legacy.
Joey Bonner was the leading scorer that year. Unemployment and debt had wrecked his marriage but he was working again and he loved to talk about the time his little granddaughter played a prank on him.
Ethan and Nathan Kriss, the mop-haired twins, were as different as up and down. Nate was the team cut-up who became pastor of a nearby church; Ethan, quiet and introspective, farmed. His work was hard but his sons were there to help and folks insisted that he grew the tastiest sweet corn around.
Taylor’s reverie was interrupted by the tickle of snowflakes against his cheeks … a white Thanksgiving, perhaps. He thought of the game, again. Three times his cup had come up empty but he had the cup and good memories, too.
The warm porch light in the distance invited him to his childhood castle.
It was good to be home.
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