My January project was the reenforcement of our old windows, so a sea of plastic covered the kitchen floor of the old adobe rental house. The desert gets colder than people think, and my December heating bill had convinced me to take action. I had to cut the roll of almost-clear insulation wrap with a straight razor and affix it over the single pane glass with heavy tape, then repeat the process a dozen times. Since the semester hadn’t yet started, I wasn’t hurrying around campus to make sure our players were in class. State had floundered through the first half of the season and there wasn’t much reason to be optimistic.
Astrid walked right through the mess into the kitchen, a towel wrapped around her head. “Ernie, sealing windows on a property that’s not yours is a bad investment,” she said after she’d nearly tripped on a roll of plastic. She puttered around the kitchen, humming softly to herself, then paused to read the obituary I had taped to the refrigerator.
“Who was this Booker Robinson?” she asked.
I followed her back to the bedroom and explained that
Booker Robinson had been both a great ballplayer and my roommate in college. Although it was dark while she dressed, I could see her creamy skin, which had a spooky luminescence. Astrid was into ballet, not basketball. She didn’t ask any more about Booker; she wasn’t the inquisitive type, didn’t know much about my past. I trailed her from bedroom to bathroom, back to the kitchen, and recalled some of the old stories. She raised her eyebrows but didn’t ask many questions. That was her way, and I didn’t mind.
For me, it’s important to ask questions, be a student of something. As an assistant coach at a state university, I learned more than I taught, that was certain. I read a dozen newspapers online, and not just the sports section. That’s how I came across Booker Robinson’s obituary. Ten years had passed since Booker and I roomed together. He had been playing professionally in Amsterdam, where an incident occurred that involved a Dutch policeman. But the story was inconclusive—all you could take away was that Booker had died under mysterious circumstances.
After Astrid left, I exhumed my old photo album and picked out an action shot—Booker, with a serene expression as he ascended over a desperately-reaching white guy from St. Mary’s College for an easy basket. I taped the photo of Booker next to his obituary.
Astrid had danced in the Chicago City Ballet, but put her career on hold to pursue a degree in Classical Dance. She was a bit older than your typical undergrad. Her goal was to be selected some day for the Joffrey Ballet, to make it big. Astrid didn’t have to go to practice—she called it rehearsal—until the afternoon, but she liked to get out of the house early to get a coffee and run errands. Although we were still on holiday break, the dancers continued to practice, just like the basketball team.
I’d met her at the espresso café where she worked. We had Chicago in common, and we’d dated for half a year before she moved in. I told her she didn’t have to pay rent until she could. She’d been bounced out of her last place due to money problems and planned to split our rent as soon as she got her equilibrium. The place was a little cramped for two, she said. I thought it was cozy, although our first month required some patience.
That evening she checked out that photo of Booker and read the obituary again while she peeled an orange. “How does someone go,” she asked with her back to me, “from playground legend when you’re living with him to results of the autopsy are still pending? Do you have that kind of effect on people?”
How could I answer that? It had been my idea to room with Booker, I said, when he needed a roommate after our freshman year. I was too short and slow for the game, even by small college standards—a bench warmer was the nicest way to put it—and the idea of rooming with a player of Booker Robinson’s stature had great appeal. He was anxious not to get stuck with a religious kid or some other dud.
We were at a small church-affiliated college near Chicago, but Booker was already receiving a bit of media attention. He’d grown four inches since high school and was our league’s best player as a freshman. He could have transferred to a big state university, but I think he liked the big fish/small pond thing.
Booker made great improvement playing in the off-season. The holy land for Chicago summer basketball was the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club on the west side, where I was often the only white spectator. The tournament featured guys back home from playing pro in Europe, a sprinkling of NBA players, plus a lot of current college standouts. Music throbbed constantly, even during the games.
The public address announcer was the first to call Booker “The Jesus of Cool.” He would shout, “A soul-slam by the Jesus of Cool! Can I get an Amen?” And the whole gym would answer. Booker never changed expression and sometimes even looked bored, as if there was nothing unusual about a player from a small religious college taking the big boys to Sunday School. If you didn’t know basketball—really appreciate it, I told Astrid—
you would not understand what a graceful player Booker was. He had an innate feel for the game, as if it was all a movie he’d seen twice. Although he was 6’6″, he had the body control of a guard. Booker would hardly perspire, and his cool demeanor wasn’t just on the court. The way he strolled across campus was graceful. In the time it took him to get to class, I could practically complete both of our homework assignments. Even the way he salted his food was cool, never frantic, just tapping a forefinger at the top
of the saltshaker.
After a game at the Boys Club, I broached the roommate idea with Booker and flipped him my keys. After I got in on the passenger side, he said, “Man, fuck no.” But he smiled
and I could tell he liked the idea. “I can’t be listening to that weird music you listen to,” he said, “and don’t be leaving your shit all over the room and using my stuff,” he said. Soon we were both laughing.
Booker loved to drive. He’d lean into the middle, supported by his right elbow so that his head was almost dead center, to keep the headlights of oncoming traffic out of his eyes, he said. I couldn’t see over the dashboard the time I tried that.
“What are you going to do when I have LaTonya over?” he asked. “Or Patti?”
Booker had two girlfriends he juggled, trying to keep them happy but separate. Patti was aware of LaTonya, that’s partly what made the arrangement so strange. Patti was married and white. LaTonya was single and black.
I lived in the dorms that summer of 1994 and was somewhat of a mystery to the gym’s janitor—he’d peer through the doorway at me, wondering if there was a rule about practicing basketball alone at midnight or if the campus cops should be called. I set up our dorm room for the fall by stealing some matching bedspreads and drapes from the hotel rooms in the Campus Union. Just for fun, I hung a photograph of Booker I’d gotten from the yearbook office.
“The same picture,” Astrid guessed correctly, “that’s up on the refrigerator.”
One night, just as the season had started, Booker forgot to leave his “keep out” signal on the door: Scotch tape over the keyhole. I burst in on him and somebody scrambling for cover. I backed out, apologizing, but he insisted I stay. My eyes leveled off and I could make out their forms in the pinkish-green streetlights that poured in through the drapes. The air was dense, soupy, and smelled of sandalwood incense and sex.
“We straight anyway, Ernie.” It was LaTonya, which I figured, but I wasn’t going to say hello until I heard her voice. “It only took Booker an hour,” she added. He must have tickled her because she squealed and they squirmed around, the sheet flapping. LaTonya’s leg fell off the side of the bed, her foot flat on the rug. As black as she was, I could still see her because of the sharp contrast with the sheets.
They whispered for a minute. She wanted to get dressed and go. I untied my sneakers and tossed my shirt into our wash basket. After more whispering, she got quiet for a minute and lifted her leg back onto the bed. Booker announced that LaTonya would stay the night. This was a first.
I stripped all the way down to my boxers and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I returned, they both made fun of my shorts because the glow-in-the-dark
smiley faces were now lit up. Booker clicked on his desk lamp, reached under the bed, and backhanded something into my chest—an official uniform pair of shorts from DePaul University, from a pal who played at the Boys Club summer league and was now a pro. I gave an extra yank to the drawstring so they wouldn’t droop so much.
“Now you look like a player,” Booker said. “Keep them.” “Wow,” I said. I lofted a couple jumpshots at the ceiling and made a swish sound.
“Elbow in, baby,” he said.
Our mattresses were set up in an “L” shape, meaning when we slept our heads were close. After I got in bed, LaTonya said in a singsong voice, “When you going to hook Ernie up with a sister? You ever been with a sister, Ernie?”
“He ain’t ready for that,” Booker said.
“Maybe you ain’t ready, Booker,” she said. More squealing.
I was in the midst of another dating slump, which LaTonya was aware of. She offered me odd tidbits of advice on how to impress girls. After each suggestion Booker would mutter, “That shit don’t work,” and there’d be more laughing. Booker often joked that he was going to “loan” me Patti soon––but of course he couldn’t say that in front of LaTonya.
From then on it was cool for me, Booker, and LaTonya to all stay together. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep while LaTonya was still whispering advice.
The window-sealing project was nearly complete and the house already felt warmer. After practice, I’d spent the late afternoon going from window to window with Astrid’s hairdryer, shrinking the plastic to an exact fit. The doors continued to leak cold air. They’d be the next project.
I had the linguini and mushrooms ready when Astrid got home that evening. I did the cooking, mostly pastas, and she was fine with that because dancers of her caliber burned carbs by the bowlful. She had a relaxation period after rehearsals, that was
her rule. She went to the bedroom and didn’t say a word until she’d had her quiet time. That allowed me to coordinate things in the kitchen—finish the sauce, open the wine, light candles.
“Smooth isn’t coming over to eat again, is he?” she said when she reappeared. Our players weren’t interested in socializing with the coaches, but Smooth Wilkerson was different. He appreciated the meals and usually left with a grocery bag of goodies and loaner DVDs to take back to his apartment.
“Smooth has lost his appetite since we started losing,” I said. Although it was only January, we’d already lost more games than we had the previous year. Things were getting ugly, and Smooth caught a lot of the blame around the office. The newspapers and call-in radio shows blamed Jack Hood.
“He cleaned us out of breakfast cereal last visit,” she said. “Let’s not give him free rein of our pantry when he comes.”
After dinner, Astrid put her bare feet up across my knees. If you haven’t ever had a world-class dancer prop her legs on your lap, it’s something to see. I’d learned the basics of Korean foot massage from her, and I worked away on her callused feet. She was deep into Eastern philosophy and had me reading Lao Tzu each morning after she left at sunrise. Studying it became part of my own breakfast routine. It wasn’t exactly that she asked me to read it, but she often quoted him and left the book out on the coffee table. She explained a lot of Buddhist ideas to me about non-attachment and desire as the cause of human suffering.
I had became a novice ballet aficionado, sitting in the last row at our university’s auditorium each month with a bouquet stashed at my feet. “The Flower Man,” one of the other dancers called me. Who knew our university had one of the top classical dance programs? I even checked out an educational DVD called Fall in Love with Ballet from our library. Artifice plays an important role in ballet, it said, and I was intrigued by the theory that you never really dance as yourself, but rather as another character.
Anyway, I was supposed to keep quiet during the foot massage. When she opened her eyes, she said, “Did LaTonya ever find you one?”
“Find me one what?” I asked as I shook my hands out.
“A sister,” she said. “Listen, the thing about Booker Robinson is this. If he was such a great player, why isn’t he in the NBA? You make it sound like he was Michael Jordan but he seems like a jerk. And what’s the deal with these women? How did he keep them straight?” She pulled her legs back and crossed her arms.
Booker got named “Little All-American,” an honor for a small college player, just before Easter weekend. I remember because an all-day party in his honor was on Good Friday at an off- campus apartment. Booker left the celebration around midnight, and I returned to the dorms even later.
I was surprised to find Patti’s long blond hair cascading off the edge of his bed. Patti rarely came to the dorm, so her husband must have been out of town. Booker usually visited her at home during what he called “business hours.” Patti was kind to me, just like LaTonya, and I was the only one who knew their secret. She was an older woman, twenty-seven or so.
A stick of incense burned again in the ashtray, and this time a joint and a candle. Booker offered me some smoke, although he knew I wouldn’t unless it was New Year’s Eve or a birthday. This was his habit out of politeness, I think, and wanting me to feel a part of things. I undressed and pulled on those too-big DePaul shorts.
Patti mumbled a hello and pointed over Booker’s shoulder. A tray of brownies was on the windowsill, which served as our refrigerator.
Booker leaned back in the bed and barred his arm, blocking my path to the brownies. “Now that you’re looking like a player,” he said, “let’s see my Step Back.”
This was his signature move to free himself, and he was teaching it to me. With a couple of dribbles, I rolled my shoulder over the imaginary ball, feinted with my left foot, stepped back, and popped a jump shot.
“Why are you fading away?” Booker asked.
I repeated the move, but tried not to fade.
“Sweet,” he said. “Do a few more.”
Patti rolled off Booker’s shoulder to watch in the flickering light.
“That’s my paycheck,” he told Patti. “That’s cold cash money.”
To me: “Now go left. Do ten more.”
After I did, Booker said to begin with the behind-the-back dribble to get into the same Step Back move. I slid a chair over to make more room on the rug. He grew silent, propped up on his elbow, nodding his approval, but Patti began to call out, “Just like that!” after each shot, an encouragement she’d likely heard our players on the bench yell. I was ready to quit, but her enthusiasm kept me going.
A sudden whomp on the door shook us. It sounded like a horse was kicking the damn thing. More kicks followed, and just when it seemed the door might burst open, a woman’s voice called for Booker, using all sorts of horrible names.
I felt a panic in my gut. My bare feet were frozen to the K-Mart carpet. Booker wasn’t phased—he shook his head in disgust, mumbled something to Patti and patted her ass. They crawled out of his bed, naked as the absolute truth. Patti stepped past me with a soft smile, not embarrassed at all, mouthing an excuse me. She had a thin gold chain slung around her waist.
Patti slipped into my bed.
Booker wrapped an arm around my shoulder and calmly whispered to take five deep breaths and open the door for LaTonya. He blew out the candle and disappeared behind the sliding panel into his own closet.
My throat tightened, but I followed his instructions. LaTonya was about to take a running start when I popped open the dormitory door. She had fire in her eyes, but when she saw I wasn’t Booker the meanness left her. She marched in and asked where the hell Booker was. Patti’s shape in the darkness, face down, blond hair splashed on my pillow, stopped her. LaTonya whispered, “I’m sorry, Ernie,” as though at a funeral. “I smelled my incense and I guess I went a little crazy.”
I sat down on my bed and rubbed Patti’s back. LaTonya clasped her hands like a kid saying grace, and leaned toward Patti. “Forgive me, ma’am,” she said and backed toward the hallway. I jumped up, happy to escort her out. A goofy grin spread across LaTonya’s face as I reached for the door. She put two fingers to her lips and inhaled before she wagged a finger to scold me. The dope was still flowering up from the ashtray next to the incense.
“You forgot to put the tape on the lock,” she hissed. I grabbed the tape dispenser and followed LaTonya out. She startled me by slapping me hard on the butt. “You’re sweating, Ernie,” she said. “You must be gettin’ it on. You don’t need my advice after all.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek, told me to have Booker call her, and clacked down the hallway in her heels.
I was stupidly putting the tape over the lock on the open door when the campus police officers appeared from the other direction.
“Where’s the party?” one of the cops asked as he badged me.
Astrid’s mother came to visit the next week from Chicago on a cheap post-holiday ticket. Her mother had been telling Astrid that she wanted to meet me. We went to pick her up for a late dinner at the Hilton. I was conscious of making a good first impression, and okay, I was agitated because I waited for an hour at the barber that afternoon despite having an appointment.
Also this: while cleaning up around our bedroom I found an old article about Astrid’s potential as a dancer. It was actually from her high school newspaper, and I used a magnet to put it up right next to Booker. She tore it down the instant she saw it, didn’t think it was funny at all. So Astrid wasn’t exactly sunshiney to begin with either.
When we arrived at the hotel, Astrid grabbed my wrist before I could shut the ignition off. She said wait here a minute, she’d be right back. She hustled up the driveway and vanished into the lobby.
I must have misunderstood—I assumed we were eating at the hotel. The car hummed blindly in the cold January night while I twirled the radio dial. She’d brought along part of the newspaper, but it was only the classifieds. After ten minutes, still no Astrid. When she finally reappeared, she was alone.
“Let’s go,” she said, and added that it wasn’t a good night for her mom. I gave her an annoyed look because this wasn’t my idea in the first place. Also, I’d traded duties with another assistant coach to cover our study hall that evening.
“What do you mean, not a good night? She doesn’t want to meet me?”
Astrid didn’t want to talk about it. So I sulked a while, until I got the idea to do her peaceful visualization technique, relaxing each muscle from head to foot. A rare snowfall began, so I slowed the car.
I must have been thinking of Booker again, because I knew exactly what she meant when she said, “So that’s why it took you six years to finish college?” At least she’d finally started to take an interest in Booker’s story. I could feel her eyes on me as I drove.
“The coach booted me off the basketball team immediately,”
I said. The next week I faced a student trial in the administration building, where one of the jurors wanted to know how often I “took pot.” They asked me twice if I had anything to say on my own behalf, but I declined. I admitted I was guilty and was expelled from school.
“For Booker’s sins,” Astrid said.
In a strange way, I was proud to tell her this part. It gave me a history, some scars, some character. The rumors were out of control after my arrest. Here I was, Mister Dedicated, caught with dope and this exotic blonde. Patti stayed in my bed the whole time the cops questioned me, our door wide open, every light in the room on, the sheet clinched in her fist at her chin. Evidently having a naked blonde in the room was enough of a
distraction to keep the cops from searching the closet and finding Booker. I had to dig out Patti’s ID from her purse which was under Booker’s bed. One of the cops held her license up to her cheek for a lot longer than he needed to, then handed it back to me. They made me place the joint into a plastic bag and took me away by the scruff of the neck.
Patti said, “Bye Ernie!” as if I was boarding a bus to summer camp. Just outside the room, the cop who’d studied Patti’s ID bopped me on the back of the head. “You didn’t even kiss her good-bye.”
In the hallway stood three loser stoners, checking out Patti and the drama, offering me silent support like brothers I didn’t know I had.
Astrid and I were almost home. When snow falls in the desert, the moisture mixes with the sandy streets, so you have to be careful not to spin the wheels. I stopped in front of our house but left the engine running. She was quiet for a long minute, letting my story sink in.
“I can’t believe they nailed you,” she said. “Why didn’t Booker come forward and say it was his dope and his fault? Who cares if those bimbos found out about each other?”
“He had a possible pro career to worry about,” I said. “We did what we had to do.”
She was looking at me like I was her trig homework and things didn’t add up. She leaned across and cut off the car’s engine. “Listen to me,” she said. “Ernie. You’re a nice guy. I’m not saying you’re not. But you can’t put that kind of faith in someone. You have to investigate people before you start leading their parade. Booker Robinson wasn’t the Jesus of anything, I know that.” Now she sounded like she pitied me, which wasn’t my intention at all. But she didn’t get out of the car. Instead, she waited to hear the rest.
After my expulsion from school, I said, I went back to the dorm to load up my Maverick and say good-bye to Booker. He said he’d be waiting to hear the verdict, but there was a note taped to the door saying to call him at LaTonya’s place. I tried for an hour, but never got through, and she lived way on the south side. I packed up and left Booker my parents’ number.
“That was it? After the sacrifice you made?” Astrid said.
That wasn’t it, I told her. The guys on the team organized a huge party for me that night at the Hollywood Tap, our local bar.
The party was unbelievable. I didn’t tell her the rest, how they’d hired a topless dancer. Or that Booker didn’t show. One of our guys had stolen my game jersey from the equipment room and they presented it to me near the end of the evening in a drunken ceremony. After I put it on, all the guys signed it with a permanent marker. Since I was a substitute and never took off my warm-ups, hardly anybody had seen me wearing the uniform; that was the big joke. I drank until they carried me to the car, where they threw me in the back seat and drove to our dorm room—Booker’s room now. We wanted to get Booker’s signature on the jersey, too, but he still wasn’t around. Instead, we went to the statue outside the student union and pissed at the base of it.
I took a year off school and commuted from home to Northern Illinois for my last three years, where I began my coaching career as their team manager.
I never did see Booker again, but I didn’t tell Astrid that either. Instead I told her what I’d learned that day: that he’d been killed on his bicycle when he swerved to avoid an Amsterdam policeman. And I showed her the Van Gogh postcard I’d found at the bottom of a box. He’d posted it from Holland a few years earlier.
The car was off, but Astrid had her mittens on the dash, elbows locked, as if we were going to crash. The neighbors would have thought someone was being dropped off.
After she tired of her book, Astrid went back to the bedroom to change into the loose-fitting outfit she slept in, old dancing rehearsal gear. She did her twenty-minute stretching routine. While I continued to read, she slowly went through a couple of steps that needed work.
At one point, she executed an impressive penché, the extreme arabesque, with her back leg all the way up and out. I complimented her on her terrific extension.
She said thanks, but froze. “Wait,” she said. “Just how do you know what a perfect penché is?”
“Your hands were nearly touching the floor,” I said. “I could really feel the energy flowing through your fingertips and toes.”
Astrid stood for a second, her hands on her hips. She said, “I’m still not thrilled with it. Anyway, I feel off balance for some reason.” She smiled, just for a second, and went back to working on the penché. But I could tell she was thinking about what I had said—she’d glance over at me from time to time. Her shoulders filled with pride and she repeated the move, and each time she put a bit more effort into the steps until she was really perspiring.
“Thanks, by the way,” she said after a while.
Later that night when she was asleep, I got up to get some water. I nearly broke my toe on the suitcase she’d been living out of since she’d moved in, but I stifled a yelp and hobbled down the hallway. For the first time that winter the house actually felt too warm. I went outside to sit on the back porch and take in the view of St. Jude’s elementary school across the yard. The temperature was below freezing, but no wind at all, just a nativity-like winter calm. That kind of cold can feel like a slap in the face, but it was so peaceful the chill didn’t bother me, even with my bare chest and basketball shorts.
When I came back inside I studied the photo on the refrigerator. Booker was still soaring eternally upward. The stuff Astrid said about Booker—and about me—kept repeating in
my head like a chant. She was right, I had gotten overextended with him and things wound up a little one-sided. But what was the point of being bitter about that now? I’d learned a lot living shoulder-to-shoulder with the best player in school history. Not everything was going to end up the way you hoped. I knew that much, even in college.
Rus Bradburd is making a number of Chicago appearances this weekend to launch his book (and March Madness) in Chicago.
— March 1, 7 p.m., Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-293-2665.)
— March 3, 3 p.m., The Heartland Cafe (7000 N. Glenwood Ave. 773-465-8005.)
— March 3, 7 p.m., Revolution Brewery (2323 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773- 235-2523.)
(All three appearances will be in conjunction with Mike Lenehan, who will be promoting his new book, “Ramblers: Loyola-Chicago 1963-The Team that Changed the Color of College Basketball.”) ChicagoSide Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Eig will interview Bradburd and Lenehan at Revolution Brewery.