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Author: Andrew Bernstein

Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 4)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop. One hundred enthusiastic voices quickly spread the word through town–and a number of throats opened to reply with something less than enthusiasm. “He removed the cross from the chapel. Can you imagine?” said one minister appearing as a guest on Ron Zatechka’s show. “Thinking of only yourself on Christmas–and in a church?” asked my Religion professor in class. “Is this an attack on everything held as holy in the heartland?” queried a letter to the editor of the town newspaper. Swoop’s supporters fired back on all fronts. Fredric Westegaard, editor and publisher of the local paper, The Daily Independent, wrote on the editorial page a fervent defense of the right of every free man to seek passionately after his own personal happiness. Westegaard was a fervent defender of the First Amendment and, more broadly, of an individual’s Constitutional right to pursue his own fulfillment. He was regarded as a pariah, even an apostate by the Valley’s more fanatical residents, because he embraced any cause upholding a man’s right to live as he chose. He made clear in his editiorial that he saw in Swoop’s “Celebrate Self” party a means to advance his own cause. Judging by the increasing crowds at The Troop’s practice sesions, a significant segment of the Valley’s population agreed with him. I personally felt...

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Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 3)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop. We received a hero’s welcome when the school’s bus returned to Hoppo Valley. The small Hoppo Valley radio station had always broadcast the school’s games, but now virtually the entire population, not just a sizable segment, was listening. Close to one hundred met us on our arrival. Within a week, after two more convincing wins, Swoop and Coach had been interviewed on local radio, and the town’s newspaper, The Daily Independent, had run a feature story on the team. In Iowa, where every basketball success is news, the former sad-sack team in Hoppo Valley was becoming closely watched. The high water mark of media attention was Swoop’s interview on KBUZ, “The Buzz,” the area’s most powerful station, located an hour-and-a-half away in Des Moines. Ron Zatechka had an aggressive, in-your-face talk show on week day mornings. His style was simple and non-sectarian: he insulted everybody. “Get up, farm boys, and milk the damn cows!” he boomed before dawn. He condemned Hollywood, Washington, Moscow and the Vatican. He hated politicians, journalists and Presbyterians. He brought ministers on only to abuse religion. He scorned all causes but one–Zatechka–and knew only one god: more volume. He was short and hard and spent hours pumping iron. He chain-smoked cigarettes, talked through the smoke and blew it in environmentalists’ faces. He hated...

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Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 2)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop. But though his sauntering gait took him out of sight in moments, it was not that easy to forget him. His departing glance had lingered on me. But why? I was not one of the players. I couldn’t work out with him and contribute to his grandiose quest. It made no sense that he had asked me to follow. I told myself that it also made no difference, that I desired no part of either him or his pretensions, but for several days I couldn’t shake images of him from my mind. Though I bridled at his insult, it was neither his words nor his final glance that stuck in my mind. It was only the gliding motion of his departure. Although the starters refused to work out with The Troop–then or ever–the story of Swoop breaking up the prayer meeting was soon all over town. What the town didn’t know, what its residents had no way of knowing, was the meaning behind his departing words that day. Two days later, when the players walked into the locker room after their last classes, they found the wooden cross gone, taken down and replaced by a huge poster of Hermes, the wing-footed lord of the wind, depicted in soaring flight, sword drawn, head high. “The patron god of...

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Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 2: The Coming (Part 1)

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop. 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...

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