“Umm … what’s your grandfather doing?” Bella asked as they stood in the front hallway
of the college gymnasium.
The tall gentleman who must have been at least eighty stood looking into a display case along one wall. Khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt hung from his long, lean, slightly slouching frame. He was lifting his right arm over his head, pushing his wrist forward repeatedly.
“That’s not …” the father began.
“He’s not with us,” the mother continued. ”We don’t know him.”
The old man had been standing about twenty feet behind the parents and their daughter when Bella arrived at 10 a.m. on that late-September Saturday morning to lead the family on a standard tour of the Northwood College campus. She made $20 for each hour-long walk-and-talk. Five tours per week helped her avoid begging her parents for spending money as she struggled to pay the rent on a tiny apartment for her final year at Northwood.
The prospective student was Debbie, a high school senior from three states to the west.
The admission director had told Bella that the college had one more basketball scholarship, and Debbie had an outside shot at earning it. The teenager was half a foot taller than her parents and seemed only mildly interested in the college’s dorms and academic buildings, barely listening as Bella recited her memorized tour script. But Debbie perked up when they arrived at the gym.
The old man had followed along quietly for more than half an hour, keeping his twenty
feet of distance, listening politely as he took in the campus sights. He walked stiffly and swung his left arm more than his right, recalling a sleepy afternoon video in Bella’s therapeutic kinesiology course when they studied the effects of a stroke. She tried not to stare. Bella hadn’t even considered the idea that he might not be a family member participating in the tour. The family hadn’t paid much attention to the old man, only glancing his way now and then, but Bella knew from her gerontology course that some families merely tolerated older relatives. She had naturally assumed this man was Debbie’s grandfather. Why else would he be here?
“Is everything okay, sir?” Bella said, raising her voice to get the old man’s attention.
He turned, smiled, squared his shoulders, and made an effort to stand straighter. “Me,” he said. “This, me.” He shifted his weight side to side and lowered his arm to point at the display case, pronouncing each word carefully: “This. Is. Me.”
Debbie walked toward the old man.
“Debbie,” her mother said, an edge of caution in her voice.
Debbie didn’t heed her mother. She approached and looked where the man pointed. Even slightly stooped, he was still noticeably taller than the young girl who must have been an inch over six feet.
“Whoa,” Debbie said as she looked closely at a faded, photocopied newspaper article
framed and resting off to the side of a shelf in the display case. The headline read, “Stewart
Becomes All-Time Scoring King.” In a grainy black-and-white photo, a youthful, floppy-haired player released a free throw, snapping his wrist with textbook form. “That’s you!” Debbie said, pointing.
“Me!” the man said, his smile broadening. “64. Me. 1964.”
Bella recognized his speech pattern from discussions in her neuroscience course.
Definitely the result of some neurological event.
“Mom, Dad, come look at this!” Debbie twirled a wrist to wave her parents closer.
“Debbie,” her father said, not moving toward the unlikely pair.
Debbie looked from the photo to the old man. “You were the men’s all-time leading
“Am,” he said, nodding. “Am. Still. Men and women.”
“Damn!” Debbie said.
“Language, Debbie,” her parents said in unison.
Debbie ignored her parents and put a hand beneath the old man’s elbow. “Hey, come in here,” she said, leading him through a nearby doorway. Her parents and Bella followed them.
They stepped directly into a small practice gym with baskets at either end and a short set of risers along one long wall. The modest court resembled the setting of the photo with the young version of the old man. This must have been the main gym long ago before the facility was renovated.
As her parents and Bella scurried through the door, Debbie scooped up a ball and led the old man to the nearest free-throw line. The man looked around the small gym as if recalling a cheering crowd. “I’ll bet you still got it!” she said, handing him the ball. He reflexively gathered it in his two big hands and held it in front of his right hip bone, just as he must have done several million times in his earlier years. He flexed his knees and bent slightly forward from the waist as well as his age would allow.
“Triple-threat position!” Debbie said with enthusiasm.
The old man nodded. “Shoot. Da-drive. Pass,” he said.
“Keep the defense on its toes,” Debbie said.
“Toes!” he replied with a head-tilted laugh. “Keep. Keep them on. Keep them on their
“Oh, snap!” Debbie said. “You must’ve been a firecracker back in the day!”
“Am!” He said with a wink. “Still.”
Debbie made a sound like hot metal being immersed in cold water. She laughed and said,
“I’m going to invite you to the game when I break your scoring record!”
“Sn-snap!” The man said. “Snap right back at you!”
From the sideline, Bella chuckled and checked her watch. She had another tour that
afternoon, but they had a few minutes before she needed to keep them moving. This was more interesting than returning to her dorm to start on that lab report due midweek.
Debbie’s parents stared, mouths wide, feet glued to their spots.
“Show us something,” Debbie said. She lifted her arm and snapped her wrist forward in a smoother, younger imitation of the motion the old man had made a few minutes earlier. “Let’s see your form.”
Daniel “Danny” Stewart, Northwood College’s all-time leading scorer, stepped to the
free-throw line. He took three skilled dribbles, paused, sighted the rim, took another dribble, and then sent the ball toward the basket. His elbow didn’t straighten fully, and the forward snap of his wrist wasn’t quite as crisp as it must have been in 1964. But the basketball player in Debbie reached across the gulf of years and recognized the basketball player in Danny.
Later that month, Debbie wrote her college application essay in response to the prompt, “Describe an experience when you learned something unexpected.” She finished the last paragraph without letting her readers know if Danny’s free throw swished through the net or clanked off the rim. She had learned that life is full of swishes and clangs, scholarships and rejections, youth and age. But if we just keep the ball moving toward the basket, Debbie wrote, we’ll be okay.
John Sheirer. 62 (still young at heart). Northampton, MA. Teacher. Writer. JohnSheirer.com.