Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pittsnogle, Run

By Mike Corey * Other Mike Corey Posts

In honor of the recent passing of John Updike, and in honor of the time of year that honors the sport he loved so dearly, I begin with one of his poems, “Ex-Basketball Player.”


Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,

At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty

In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,

Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.

His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.

Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.

Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers

Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.


Updike, along with his contemporary all-star author Philip Roth, have written extensively about small town high school athletes, and the decidedly different paths their lives took after exiting the stage of amateur sport. Of the many intentional and unintentional points to be drawn from their writings, I take this one away: the curtain never closes on those performers, even as their careers veer off course from the one they might have imagined. Some get up and out, of course—-East Bank’s Jerry West, French Lick’s Larry Bird, Wilmington’s Michael Jordan-—but the overwhelming majority do not, mired in memories. That tale, more than any in sport, epitomizes the ravished story of Jefferson’s old dream about an agrarian America.

Youth is defined by uncertainty and uniqueness. No two days are alike. For many Americans, the world after schooling is anything but, one day largely indistinguishable from the next. The awareness of this fact makes it all the more maddening still, a Sisyphean struggle against that which we know is coming, that which we can’t avoid. Our innate need to provide and survive compels us to plug along. It makes looking back and living through others all the more compelling, all the more necessary.

So we turn to that which is the same and different all at once: the games we play, the games we watch. And we turn to one particular game, basketball, every March. In it we see what we once experienced, what we once witnessed, what we can no longer hope to achieve: a spry body, a carelessness, a spirit, and an audience.

How soon we forget those that once captured our attention. There he was, Kevin Pittsnogle, the hometown hero from Martinsburg, West Virginia, clawing against the winds of inevitable change in the New York Times a few months ago.
There is a middle school up the hill from the McDonald’s here, and behind it are several classroom trailers, the type that are added when space gets tight and are never taken away.

Inside one of the trailers last Friday stood a tall man with a familiar face. He wore a Bugs Bunny tie and a gray dress shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows. Tattoos spilled to his wrists. He spoke kindly to two of his special education students, who called him Mr. Pittsnogle.

On the inside of the door was a sign: “You are who you choose to be.”

For now, this is who Kevin Pittsnogle chooses to be.
In those same pages a few years before, he was its Rockwellian hero in leading the Mountaineers to an improbable NCAA run.
Last year the Mountaineers reached the Round of Eight before losing to Louisville in overtime. They did it with a homegrown player, Kevin Pittsnogle, whose homespun details have been well catalogued -- tattoos, trailer park childhood, bowling, early marriage, lanky 6-11 guy with tea-cup ears tossing jumpers from beyond the 3-point line.

It would sound romantic to describe Pittsnogle as representing the ancestry of the state, but he backs off any talk of a mission.

''I didn't really know too much about the basketball legacy, nothing like that,'' Pittsnogle said yesterday, adding, ''I wanted to go somewhere I could play and have fun and somewhere close where my parents would be.''

Pittsnogle displays the same quirky independence that drew people up into the Appalachians in the first place, escaping the rules and regimentation of the cities. He wanted to stay home. Nothing complicated about that. (As a news reporter in the Appalachia coal fields back in the early 70's, I learned the lesson fast. If I knocked on somebody's front door and he told me to get off his property, it was a good idea not to stand around and discuss it. Just go.) Home was special. The renaissance of West Virginia basketball has been a revelation to the players wearing the uniforms. ''We have got a lot of fan mail, a lot of people come up to us and thank us for just coming to school there,'' Pittsnogle said yesterday.
Several years ago, a survey of former Division I college athletes found that they were more likely than their traditional college peers to become obese later in life. The anecdotal answer that was provided by so many of those studied was simple: they had lost their competitiveness in the fires of the games they had once played and could not regain it in the seemingly mundane tasks of typical American life.

The games they had played drive typical America forward through the monotony of work. And yet those games claim the lives of too many of those athletes, too soon, leaving them with hands unfit for the tools they wield away from the court.

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