Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A lesson in the importance of foot care

As far as I know, the coach had just two pairs of street shoes. One was a pair of worn light brown oxfords, with some kind of rippled composition sole that looked very soft and comfy; the other was a pointy-toed pair of shiny cowboy boots: genuine shit-kickers, you know, the real thing.

The throngs attending Alexandria high school basketball games in the late 50s and 60s knew exactly the purpose of those sturdy boots. On occasions deemed appropriate, perhaps when a referee blew a call, Mr. Connor would turn about and lay into the nearest bleacher plank, and with a single stroke deliver a sonic wave of shock and awe throughout the building . . . stunning our visiting guests as well, who were understandably unaccustomed to such expressions of displeasure.
Coaches Connor and Gustafson
On game nights they wore sport coats and street shoes.

Listeners reported hearing these seismic events broadcast over the play-by-play coverage on KXRA.

Older hands would nod and wink at this occasional dramatic gesture, but we simpler folk thought it to be quite sincere and heartfelt, and it scared us.

We always called him Mister Connor. He was a qualified member of what became known as the Greatest Generation. A proud ex-Marine who’d seen action in the Pacific, he watched the TV series “Combat,” because it was pretty realistic, he said, with everybody getting down in the mud and all. “That’s what it was really like,” he remarked once on a team bus ride to somewhere. A short, muscular man with a buzz cut, he had excelled playing basketball for Hamline, at a time when the two-handed push shot from far away was popular.

Years later, now wearing his coach’s whistle and Converse All-Stars, he could still hit that shot consistently from mid-court.

I think he liked being thought of as one tough son-of-a-bitch. I respected his stern authority, speaking only after being recognized, but I knew much of his gentle, kind side as well. Every night before practice and on game nights too, Coach Connor carefully taped my wobbly sprain-prone ankles. He had a caring, sensitive touch, and better taping skills than his assistant, who might tape a bit too tight, cutting circulation. Mr. Connor took good care of my feet.

It was mid-season one cold Friday night in 1964 and the mighty Alexandria Cardinals had just finished off yet another worthy opponent. But this night there were vague and hushed rumors in the showers, something about an incident that night on the bench, an injury to Mr. Connor or something, somebody said, but nothing for certain.

The next day, Saturday, the team had boarded for a road trip to Detroit Lakes. No one spoke as Mr. Connor hobbled toward the bus on a cane, his right foot trussed into an over-sized slipper. He did not smile as he limped aboard and took his usual place beside his assistant in the front seat. No one said nothin'.

But I sat within earshot and eventually, as we progressed down the road, was able to piece it all together from my perch behind him.

“I heard that hall clock go off at one and at two and three this morning,” he remarked to his assistant, Mr. Gustafson, as he described the excruciating pain that had kept him awake all night.

In a moment of pique the previous evening, Mr. Connor had laid into the bench. Hard. Unfortunately, this time, Mr. Connor was improperly shod. “I forgot,” he sheepishly confided to his seat mate, “that I was wearing my other shoes.”

The foot now swollen and bound, the trusted cowboy boots remained in the closet for the rest of the season, and a chastened Mr. Connor had to just holler at the refs like everybody else.

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