by Paul Perilli
The appearance of an email in my Inbox on the morning of January 9th brought news of the death of Thomas M, a.k.a. The Bomb. Reading it, the flood of images of him playing hoop on the asphalt court in our eastern Massachusetts hometown was immediate. I smiled at the thought of the five-ten floppy-haired Bomb dribbling in a kind of sideways crouch, his butt leading the way and his torso protecting the ball from hands that might desire it for themselves. I felt the heat of a blazing July sun and saw The Bomb lift off the ground in his white Cons with the pumpkin cocked over his right shoulder in a demonstration of perfect athletic balance and control. I silently applauded the quick flick of the wrist, the high arc, and the ho-hum look in The Bomb’s steely eyes after another sweet sfooshing snap of the net.
Then I remembered something The Bomb said one sultry summer afternoon when a few thousand games later it seemed we blinked our eyes to discover we were twenty-one. I have no idea what had preceded it, or if it was extemporaneous input, but he sent it out there and it stuck: “You’re only allowed so many baskets in a lifetime.”
It was a prescient and profound declarative statement and I wondered about The Bomb’s last basket. If it came during a winter league game when he was forty-one or forty-two and long past his best days. The Bomb now relegated to one of those hack leagues we used to ridicule, leagues with bad refs played in ratty junior high school gyms; a strained shot he just managed to get off over a younger defender that clunked the front of the rim and barely had enough forward spin on it to roll over the iron and fall through. Maybe those were his only points of the game and later, changing into his civvies in a locker room that stank of stale sweat, he decided his time might be better spent on the Treadmill or Stairmaster.
I saw him raise his eyes and give his head a little shake at the almost unbearable memory of the magic ease he used to pop in five or six baskets in a row just a few years earlier, long jumpers from deep in the corner or out beyond the top of the key, soft little hooks down low over taller defenders. Free throws were a reach for the coffee cup. Packing his sneakers and shorts into his gym bag that night I believe he knew there was no avoiding it. In The Bomb’s view of the world, even he was only allowed so many baskets, and after them that was it, he was all done.
Back in those early days The Bomb was known for having certain idiosyncrasies. He’d never play a game on a hoop without a net. He’d never be a skin in a game of shirts against skins. He also had an aversion for formal leagues. The Bomb never played for our high school. He understood his game was incompatible with the control-freak program implemented by the coach, who never warmed up to The Bomb’s hectic, run-and-gun style. The hours and hours of drills that were intended to set up a “good” shot in a game situation were a huge snore to The Bomb. When he had the ball he’d look to shoot, and it went in plenty often. And The Bomb knew as well as the rest of us that when it came time to pick sides out on the blacktop you wouldn’t choose the lettered boys over him. And if you did, The Bomb would pay you back with a succession of facials while at the same time illuminating the severity of your sin in a mocking voice.
But was that the real Bomb who would try to break you by draining basket after basket while uttering a string of personal insults? I swear that was a contradiction in him because off the court he was quiet. He never bragged, he never offended, he didn’t act like a tough guy. He was a kid from a poor family. He was a bad student with a limited vocabulary and range of knowledge. He had an inferiority complex that made him feel out of place in most social activities. But on the court, with the rock in his hands, some substitute personality came off the bench and overtook him. A rush of blood that induced an almost unstoppable onslaught and had him pounding the ball on the asphalt as if he feared it might stick to it and deny him a move to the basket.
I was a teammate on the one organized team The Bomb played on for the Boys Club. We were fourteen and fifteen traveling once or twice a week to Worcester, New Bedford, Lowell, Boston, and other places. Our coach, a twenty-five-year-old grad student who also drove the team van, named me captain, but in the games I deferred to The Bomb, and he applied his dazzling freestyle playground skills with an inexhaustible drive to score points. The result was an average of twenty-plus per in games that might end up 51 to 42 or 44 to 38. If assists had been kept, I’ve no doubt I would have led the league on The Bomb’s production alone.
I recall one game, a home game in the small gym on Exchange Street, when he filled it up for forty-three points. It was one of the few times I didn’t give a second thought to dish and deal the pill to The Bomb on almost every offensive set and suppress my own desire to score. I watched with awe as, without the slightest change of demeanor, The Bomb bobbed and spun and bumped and sprung in a delirious frenzy that overwhelmed the skinny white boys trying to defend him. Forty-three points seemed like a million to us in those days, a performance worthy of a mention on Sports Center. But at that time there was no Sports Center. Not even a headline to be read on the sports page of The News Tribune that might have raved THE BOMB GOES FOR FORTY-THREE, BOYS CLUB ROMPS. After the game, in the locker room that smelled of chlorine, The Bomb was cool about it. We slapped him on the back, impressed and giddy by what we’d witnessed. He smiled, but not a word came out of him that might be described as conceit. It was as if he too was surprised by his effort even though we all knew better. He’d had a good night. He’d have others.
And yet in all of that in all those years I don’t ever remember dialing The Bomb’s number to find out how he was and what he might want to do that night. Off the court I didn’t hang out with him much, if ever. When we were eighteen I went to college and The Bomb went to work lumping rubbish barrels for the Department of Public Works. It was a job, I understood without condescension, that suited The Bomb, that he didn’t mind going to nor being seen around town hanging off the back of a scarred-gray packer.
One of the last times I saw The Bomb remains quite clear in my memory. I was home for summer vacation before my senior year and went to the court that first afternoon. Sure as the round-ball’s a sphere, The Bomb was there with a questioning look in his eyes that wondered if this was the time I’d come back with a self-important air that would exclude him and compel a defensive response. It wasn’t. The hoops had nets on them and there were still some games to play together. Not a lot, but some, before I moved on from South Street for good. But by then The Bomb was a legend and I wasn’t and when I thought of him again I was struck frozen by his prophetic words, “You’re only allowed so many baskets in a lifetime,” knowing all of mine, like his, were already in the past.
Paul Perilli's words of the day appear in Volume 3 of The Transnational and The Satirist. “Trumped!” is forthcoming in The Transnational.