My father and I forged a relationship through basketball. He had tried fishing, hunting, and gardening—the things he liked to do—but I took to none of them. We faced the added burden that from the age of 7 on I was afraid of him. Daddy was the enforcer in the family and he had switched my legs lightly throughout my early childhood mostly for my talents as an escape artist. I was never where they left me, it seems. But when I was 7, I did something that shocked him. I was spied through a window in an old shed behind our house playing doctor in the buff with a little neighbor girl. My father made me kneel on the floor in front of him and he whipped me very hard with his belt. It was the last time he ever laid a hand on me. He scared himself that day, my sister would tell me years later. He frightened me too and it lasted for years.
Though he was generally gentle and kind to me, I clung to my mother throughout grade school. He could be irritable, but not just with me. When teaching my sister to drive, he took her for one lesson and made her stop the car and he got out. She got the rest of her lessons from someone else. Still, both my sister and I loved and respected him very much. For me, it was mostly from afar until I started playing basketball.
Basketball gave us something to talk about. I was an overweight kid with flat feet so I didn’t have a lot to recommend me. I managed to start on the seventh grade team when I was in the eighth grade, mostly because I worked so hard and had gotten to play so little the previous year. By the ninth grade, though, I started to look like a player.
That year, we moved to Newbern, TN, a small town famous for a football team that played and beat much bigger schools and traveled outside the state for games as well. As for basketball, well, no one even kept track of the seasons much. I was lucky though. The year we moved there, Newbern hired a basketball coach. I got to play a lot for a freshman and started the next three years. I didn’t have an ideal body for basketball even in the slimmed down version. I was a step too slow to play guard and a few inches too show short to be a forward. I was a “tweener,” and I found my place in the lineup because I could shoot the ball well from distance, something a lot of guys, large and small, couldn’t do back then. I also had good ball-handling skills, and I understood the game well. I developed my shot from endless hours of solitary shooting on a goal outside my house and the other stuff from being a gym rat and playing in any pickup game I could find.
After every home game, I would walk up the stairs from the dressing rooms to find my Dad and Coach standing in the corner of the empty gym talking about the game. They respected each other, and Coach, in many ways, became the legs of my father, taking me to games all over West Tennessee, to the state tournament one year and to see Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain play an exhibition game another. We played countless hours of pickup ball. Coach even taught me how to drive a car. After the game, my Dad and I would go home and analyze the night, focusing on defenses, good plays, lapses. Daddy knew the game well. He had assisted a good coach at one of the small towns in Kentucky where the family lived before I was born, and he had gone to games every season since.
He and I didn’t have much to celebrate most of the time. The only good team I played on before my senior year was in the tenth grade. It was probably the best collection of talent I played with, and we were in every game. We just didn’t know how to win them in the last two or three minutes. It was a hard year to bear. You have to win some games to know what winning is about, and despite our athleticism, skill, and coaching, we just couldn’t beat both the other team and the losing tradition of Newbern. I could see it in the opposing players. In the last two minutes of the game, their eyes always said, “Come on, this is Newbern. We aren’t going to let these guys beat us.” We played Kenton in the tournament and should have won the game, but our two big men couldn’t pull the trigger on wide open shots under the rim. It was disheartening. I played well as a junior, but one of our key players didn’t make his grades and we were a doormat all season. My Dad, perhaps more than Coach, kept my spirits up through the worst of it.
From basketball, my father and I went on to other topics, particularly my leadership skills. I was president of my class at school two years and held important positions in Methodist youth organizations at the local church, district and conference levels. My Dad gave me a lot of advice on how to talk to groups, large and small, how to motivate people, how to react when someone let you down. In a way, he was teaching me to be a pastor, though I never thought about it like that, and I don’t think he did either. He was just teaching me what he knew.
No one was as important to me as he was, and I nursed him as best I could when he became sick. I took him everywhere he went after his amputation. My mother was psychologically fragile, and I tried to be the house watchdog. When he was taken back to the hospital for his final stay, I stayed with him a week to relieve her. When he died, I took care of all the arrangements for the ambulance and our ride home. At home, there was a lot to attend to with all the church people helping out. After greeting everyone, I took my Mom to the funeral home to pick out the casket. The next day I was at the funeral home all day by myself greeting visitors and stayed on into the evening when she came. I had assumed so much responsibility it made getting along with my mother very difficult later.
I had prayed one prayer for months: to have strength to face what happened. And I felt that prayer was answered. As the year went on, I learned that I also should have prayed for compassion. The year would demand more of that than I had.
Everything that had been easy before became harder that year, getting along with my teachers, even Coach. I was particularly hard on people I didn’t respect. I put a good face on it all, but for the first time my life, I started to feel like a performance rather than a reflection of who I was. The Beatles arrived with a lot of happy tunes that provided some distraction but not much solace for my problems. I didn’t find that in popular music until a year later when I heard these lines in a tune by the Animals,
Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong, you see some bad.
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
Basketball was my greatest diversion from all the problems at home. Our first game of the 1963-64 season was about a month after my father’s death. As it always was, the game was with Kenton, this year in our gym. We lost by four points but it was a wonderful game to play in. For four years, I had played on teams that no matter what the level of skill just didn’t have much heart. This year was different. We had never started the season with so much fire. For me, it was the greatest game of my life up to that point. I scored 27 points and made about 50% of the shots I took. Most of them were from long range. As a team, we played together and rooted for each other.
Still, during warm-up and from time to time throughout the game, I found myself looking toward my father’s seat. It was empty. And when I left the gym after the game, so was I. I would carry the weight of this emptiness into every game that season. During the heat of competition, I would push the feeling aside, but it would always be waiting for me when the game was over.
What I didn’t know until I saw that empty seat was that I played basketball to shine in my father’s eyes. No amount of praise from anyone else in the stands or from my coach or teammates could ever make up for not having that. This turned out to be true not just for basketball and not just true for a year or two either. This was to be the pattern of my life—always aspiring to be a major player at whatever I put my mind to, but never really able to take much satisfaction from the success. I have been a fortunate person. Many people tried to fill that empty seat. I have had many good mentors, a wife who worked tirelessly at it, and close friends who supported me with much encouragement. It took me a long time to understand that the empty seat was not out there in the world to be filled by one success or another, one person or another. The empty seat was in me.