Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 1)
Chapter 2: The Coming
“Hoppo to the heights now!” Swoop roared that afternoon when he walked into our locker room for the first time.
He swaggered through the door and slung his purple gym bag to the floor. All eyes followed as it skidded to a halt, then his laughter echoed through the lockers.
“Going to take this squad to the top!”
In the quiet that followed, the only sound was the sharp intake of someone’s breath. Nobody spoke — it’s possible that for several seconds nobody even breathed.
I couldn’t see. I stood in the rear of the trainer’s room, behind the table, away from the door opening onto the lockers. I stood transfixed, because of his proud boast unable to move nearer, but because of his brash vitality unwilling to turn away. Though I couldn’t see, I could hear, and my mind somehow held a clearer picture than it ever had before.
He punctuated his words by thrusting his finger at the team, and several players backed off. He ignored it. He advanced upon them until he had several pinned against the lockers, then he swiveled to face the team. There was no laughter now and his voice sounded like he pronounced the elemental truths of arithmetic.
“I will change your lives,” he said.
Nobody moved and everybody, even Coach, was speechless. I shifted uncomfortably behind the trainer’s table. When I moved, the congenital ailment that afflicted my right leg since birth caused a sharp jolt of pain. It seemed stronger than usual. But the players neither knew nor cared what occurred in the trainer’s room, because for now they all stood gaping at Swoop. After the ensuing scrimmage, such gaping became habitual.
Because of the team’s long string of losing seasons, it was the butt of endless jokes in hoops-mad Iowa. Everybody–the players, the town, people throughout the Valley–hungered to see Swoop play, to see if this hotshot New York import could live up to his advance PR. He’d been the country’s high school player of the year several years ago but, despite heavy recruiting from the major programs, had refused all offers and dropped out of sight. Rumor had it that he’d been playing invitation-only private games against pros. Nobody knew why he’d finally chosen a nowhere school barely on the map — but people’s ignorance only fueled their imagination. One of the school janitors, not known for his sobriety, told me that Swoop had been incarcerated and, in a prison league season, had averaged 100 points per game. Speculation in bars downtown was that he’d been rejected from Duke and Kentucky for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs — and a passing stranger swore Swoop barn-stormed the east coast, playing high-stakes pick-up games and never losing. In the days leading to his arrival, the stories whispered grew taller and the town’s mood more feverish.
The players themselves were divided. Some expected to find a washed-up loser who had squandered his talent. But others had followed his high school career and remembered the state championships he had won. Nobody knew what to expect and the buzz was undeniable.
Coach didn’t disappoint, playing him with the scrubs to see what he could do against the starters. The reserves had never beaten the starters, though they practiced against them daily, and Swoop grinned when Bobby Stenaker told him so.
“The last are about to become first!” he boomed, then added modestly. “Under Swoop’s tutelage, of course.”
On the game’s first possession, he stole the entry pass to Freddie Zender and then rocketed upcourt. When defenders swarmed at him, he zipped a no-look, one-hop dart to Raif Lockett for a lay-up. On the next play, he swatted E.J.’s jumper off the glass, grabbed the carom while still airborne and hit the deck with both feet moving. He found Bobby Stenaker racing upcourt and fired a court-length strike like a quarterback to a streaking receiver. On play after play he sliced to the rim, breaking down defenders with breath-catching quickness, then skying over them for slams or dishing off for easy lay-ups. When he took point guard Drew Doherty incessantly off the dribble, Doherty–a barbell-hefting, beer-swilling safety on the football team–cursed in his face. When Swoop stated, his voice earnest, that “The gods prize deeds, not vulgar words,” Doherty–certain now to lose his starting spot–fired a whistling elbow at his face. As the games wore on, and Doherty and the other defenders backed off, leery of Swoop’s slashing thrusts, Swoop drilled jumper after jumper, singing “Make it rain!” as his high-arcing shot dropped softly from the sky. After two hours, a glassy-eyed Coach called a halt: the scrubs had whacked the starters five straight, spanking them worse with each game. Players on both sides just stared, and fans who had shown up for Swoop’s debut scurried from the gym to report what they had seen.
In the locker room after, Swoop held court.
“No way this team’s going to have a losing record again. Three-and twenty-four? That’s bulls__t! Twenty-four-and-three this year–at least!”
He paced the room as he spoke. It was a small room befitting a low-budget team from a bush-league conference. It held only three rows of lockers, the small trainer’s room and shower stalls in the rear. As its only adornment, a large wooden cross had been hung by Coach and Freddie Zender on the front wall next to the door.
He turned at the room’s far end and strutted back, pointing at his teammates as he moved. Some of our farmboys were built like tractors–their girth should have dwarfed Swoop–but the room suddenly seemed smaller than it ever had before. He was lean, barely over six foot, with a litheness of motion that more resembled ballet than athletics. His hair was not quite blond, but a light brown, worn wavy and long in a style that contrasted with the buzz cuts of his new teammates. He had green eyes that, when he spoke, cut into his listeners more sharply than his words. He spat words like commands–this stranger and mere player assuming authority like a conquering general–and yet, what mesmerized me, holding my focus like a trap, was the gliding flow of his movement. But I woke in time to hear his final prediction.
“Next year,” Swoop concluded, his voice low. “We’re going to win the national championship.”
Coach wrapped one of his paws around his shoulder and introduced him to each team member individually. I was last.
“Swoop, this is our trainer, Duggan Claveen.”
He grabbed my hand and jerked me to him, so that our chests were inches apart. I was too startled to move and his eyes held me even more than his grip.
“Digs,” he said, “I like you. I’m going to let you carry my bags.”
I was aware in the abnormal silence that followed that his teammates stared with eyes too big for their faces. Freddie Zender’s look was more a scowl than a stare. He frowned, this strong man who made time for hours of charity work in the midst of his duties as medical student and team captain–frowned at an overbearing creep who would treat as a porter a man suffering from a crippling birth defect.
But it wasn’t clear in that first instant Swoop grinned at me–with current pouring from his hand and eyes like conduits–whether I wanted to swing at him or stand transfixed and bathe in the energy. I did neither. I stared at him — at the supple hips and ease of motion — and felt a hard resentment pulse somewhere in my gut. Who the hell was he to have so much when I struggled to heft up a flight of stairs an armful of hardcover texts? I jerked away, bristling at his arrogance, and sensed the soft glance of Freddie Zender on me, solicitous now as he turned from Swoop. After all, it was for me that they carried equipment, for me that they opened doors even when my hands were empty. Freddie’s eyes told the story: I was the scrawny crip to be bullied by the cruel and coddled by the kind. Brusquely, I turned from him and returned to my work.
Although Swoop said nothing else, neither to me nor the team, his promise regarding the national title seemed a good bet in those first months following his arrival.
He dominated our daily intra-squad pick-up games, treating every practice like a playoff game. He rose hours before dawn to run, lift weights and shoot thousands of jump shots. When the pre-season games started, he single-handedly buried opposing teams, then bristled when Coach pulled him out, though we led by thirty.
The reaction, in this basketball-crazed state, was predictable. When we routed tough Bethel College at their gym, getting them down twenty before half and not letting up, the townspeople welcomed us home, meeting the team bus on Main Street, waving the school colors and pictures of Swoop. When Bobby Stenaker approached him seeking help, Swoop coached him regarding both conditioning and specific basketball skills. When several of the other reserves, weeks later, noticing Bobby’s improvement, asked for the same, he formed them into a unit, dubbed it “The Swoop Troop” and demanded of its members the same exhausting regimen as his own. When townspeople saw them running in the pre-dawn darkness, some smiled, some waved, some called “National champs!”
They ran through the heart of town at the crack of dawn, Swoop leading some of the time, but more often dropping back, insisting that one of the others set the pace. But whoever led, they ran the same five mile course every day, Swoop pushing them along the town’s busiest and most affluent streets.
The town of Hoppo Valley, though rural, did not lack for cultural life, for the state college on its western outskirts had an enrollment of 4,000 with several accomplished faculty members, especially in music and religious studies/philosophy. Music faculty members regularly gave recitals on campus and a small art museum had recently been established in one wing of the Humanities Building. The town itself, lying near the center of the valley, had the largest population for over one hundred square miles, and the rural hamlets surrounding it added a thousand more. The community was able to support a major newspaper and a small radio station.
The Troop ran the half-mile along Highway 40 to the business district, a well-maintained four-block stretch of Main Street lined with thriving shops on both sides. They continued past the stores, then made a left up Broadway and ran the “Salvation Mile,” the roughly one-mile distance between Main and Walnut that was home to the Catholic and several major Protestant churches. At Walnut Street they turned right and ran the block to Douglas Avenue, the exclusive, tree-lined, north-south boulevard where resided the Valley’s wealthiest citizens in a series of stately homes. At the corner of Walnut and Douglas stood the imposing stone structure of the First Episcopal Church, a sentinel guarding the elite’s cherished values. Its extensive lawn curved gracefully down to the street on both Walnut and Douglas.
Although they conceded the benefits of such training, The Troop members still indulged extra-curricular activities that Swoop insisted hampered their development. Raif Lockett, the six-seven Nebraska plow-boy, a reserve forward, had a taste for a wide range of alcoholic beverages. Ricky Crockett, a willowy eighteen-year old freshman, immediately dubbed “Davy” by Swoop, idled hours in the rec room, hustling pool and pin-ball. Where others saw only that Davy was a skinny six-three, too small for the forward position he played, Swoop saw his smooth moves and soft medium-range jumper, and did everything he could to encourage his development. Dandy Halliday, Freddie’s back-up at center, a self-styled homeboy from Lenox Avenue in Harlem, had cultivated, despite his strict Baptist upbringing, a refined fondness for certain illicit, though non-toxic substances. Bobby Stenaker, the lithe, sandy-haired Montana cowboy, a five-eleven shooting guard, characteristically kept late hours — and with a variety of female companions. Swoop didn’t preach to them; he merely lived clean and dragged their rumps through the streets at five AM. Slowly, imperceptibly, and not without back-sliding, their hedonic tendencies began to wane. Coach, who fully agreed with his friend College President Robert MacPherson’s frequent denunciations of vice-filled campus life, smiled warmly when Swoop was near, and gave him, without prompting, a key to the gym.
One Saturday morning in late October, Raif was severely hung over, and Swoop struggled to wake him up. When several minutes of lusty pounding at his door succeeded in waking half the floor but not Raif, Swoop added a song to his onslaught. I lived near the end of the third-floor hall that housed many team members, six doors down and across the corridor from Raif. I’d been up till 3 AM reading, and had fallen asleep with the Ross translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics on my chest. When Swoop’s clamor woke me, the reading lamp by my bed still burned. Swoop’s voice sang jauntily, though off-key, as the wood of Raif’s door vibrated under his attack.
“Oh, it’s great to get up in the morning when the sun begins begin to shine! Four and five and — ”
“Shut the hell up, you sick bastard!” croaked a surprisingly firm voice from next door to Raif’s room, giving vent to a generally negative evaluation of Swoop’s serenade. But Swoop ignored the catcalls and continued his concert.
” — six o’clock in the good old summertime! Even when the day is rainy — ”
I groaned and rolled over, wrapping the pillow around my head. But it couldn’t deaden the harsh sound of a door banging open at the other end of the hall near the stairs.
“I got a shotgun in the truck, boy!” shouted a voice with a distinct redneck twang. “Just for assholes like you!”
By the time Raif finally opened the door, Swoop had half the floor threatening his future and the other half cursing his genesis. Raif didn’t sound pleased either.
“Damn, Swoop,” he groaned. Bystanders said he was white as he clapped his hand to his head. “Run five miles now? I think I’d die.”
Swoop paused, and his words were so soft that I couldn’t hear them, and was told only later.
“You just might, Raif,” he said.
But the groans were louder and more widespread when Swoop turned to admonish the on-lookers.
“You should be striving for achievement,” he said. “Not sleeping your lives away.”
While Raif staggered back inside to get dressed, Swoop shooed away the crowd, ignoring their complaints about being awakened before six. Several minutes later, they set out from the dorm’s side entrance for their five mile run. Raif, unable to keep up, limped along painfully in the rear. I, as I often did, sat at my desk by the window and watched.
Word soon got around that, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, The Troop worked out every day. Dozens of locals started attending team practices, some even watched the extra-curricular workouts of The Swoop Troop, and the sports editor of the local paper predicted in his pre-season preview that we’d climb from the cellar to the penthouse of the Iowa Valley Conference. Several merchants downtown displayed the team’s picture in their windows, conversation in the local bars centered on basketball, and pre-season ticket sales were the strongest in school history. Local interest in Hoppo Valley basketball, high even when we lost, was rising.
The Dean of Student Life, J.T. Pearsall, caught the scent in the wind. He had long sought recognition for Hoppo Valley among the member schools of the Iowa state university system, and he immediately paid more attention to the basketball program. He had his picture taken with Swoop and Troop members, attended all exhibition games, traveled to road games on a school bus decked out with “Hoppo to the heights” banners, and increased funding for advertisement of team games. The result was that school administrators, leading merchants and even town council members began attending all home games.
But the ascent was not without struggle.
It was in the pre-season, during a pick-up game one Saturday afternoon, that Swoop challenged the starters. They still refused to work out with The Troop, and I had heard them criticize the newcomer’s arrogance on more than one occasion. After soaring over the much taller E.J. and pinning his lay-up from behind, Swoop jerked down the rebound, darted up the far sideline and smashed home the game winner. He turned to his beaten foes.
“You got to go stronger around the rim, guys, go up and slam it. Work out tonight with The Swoop Troop and I’ll show you.”
“Listen, Hotshot–” E.J. began, but Freddie cut him off.
“We’ve got a prayer meeting tonight,” he said.
Swoop’s patience was limited.
“Forget the prayer meeting!” he exploded. “We’ll make our own miracles.”
E.J.’s face turned red and he glared. The others watched calmly, silent, looking to Freddie for their cue.
“We’ll pray for you, Swoop,” the captain said.
He motioned the others to leave, and when they turned and walked away we all thought that was the end.
But when Swoop strode that night into the First Commandment Missionary Church–Judas Bittner’s home base–he found them on their knees.
“On your feet!” he roared.
He strutted down the aisle in long, gliding strides, clutching a basketball in his left hand. There were four of them, not just Freddie and E.J., but the core of the team. They rose as Swoop approached, the same question in eight eyes, but Swoop answered it before any of them could speak.
“You’re searching for God,” he said. “But He’s not here.”
When one of them retorted, “How would you know?” Swoop replied, “Because I know God better than you do.” When they stared blankly, he pointed out the door, which he had left open.
“He’s in the gym,” he said. “It’s where we’re going. Now.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He turned on his heel and started down the aisle.
“Maybe we don’t want to practice with you,” one of them protested.
“Good,” Swoop said, whirling to face them. “Because this isn’t practice.”
“No? What is it?”
“Worship,” he said, then resumed his march to the door.
He stopped at the last pew at the rear of the chapel, where a lone figure sat, observing, taking notes, doing field research for his Comparative Religion class.
“Big Brain,” he said to me. “Philosophy major, student extraordinaire, IQ near genius.” He paused. “But a sad, pathetic little wannabe.”
I put down my pen and carefully laid my notebook on the empty pew next to me. I looked into the green eyes staring at me.
“What do you know about me?”
Swoop laughed. But he didn’t smile.
“You’re not the only one who does research. You, too. To the gym now.”
I sat in my pew, feeling the way a raccoon must after being flattened by a car. But the guys, though bewildered, didn’t hesitate. They knelt again, re-opened their Bibles, and led by Freddie, read: “