At 4:30 a.m. my severely tone-deaf clock radio reminds me that I am employed. I scamper from my tiered bunk to the cold floor, noting that my bed has eaten my socks once again. Too early for lights, I dress, pack books and fumble for keys in the dark. A cold car and an empty coffee shop are waiting for me to awaken. By 5:30 a.m. shots of espresso are distributed, like Gatorade cups along a marathon, to the steady stream of coffee junkies who pass by; arms stretched out, money waving, each needing their morning fix. The sun is slowly sitting up on the horizon with an animated stretch and I am already spinning in my caffeine-soaked routine.
By 10 a.m. sharp, the hunt for campus parking is on. I ditch the car and am now on foot. Classes follow, pieced so carefully together that each minute is sacred. The peanut butter and banana sandwich in my pocket helps keep the urge to nod off at bay, even during the endless hours of lecture. Three o’clock sneaks up on me and I’m in a race against Coach Hill’s watch. Dressed, taped and stretched for practice by 3:30 p.m. was the law and no one dared break it. Frantically pulling on practice gear and lacing up high tops, I scoot sock-footed through the basement of Gill Coliseum. I arrive in a heap, already sweating, to the training room where my ankles are taped into little white mummies. A final dash up the musty stairwell to the court, I devour a Power Bar, almost without chewing. The last quiet moments of the stretching circle give way to a flurry of whistles as the coaches make their grand entrance. Moments later, the dreaded “four-step” drill commences.
I am a walk-on. Barely over five feet tall with only a small high school team on my resume, I was unable to shake the dream of playing Division 1 basketball. As a walk-on I am present at every team meeting, practice, weights and film session by choice, under my own provision; surviving only on the burning desire to be there. The reversible jersey and playbook were free. The early morning job, weight sessions, school work and team dinners comes at a huge price: my time, and there is so little of it. My life and the pace I keep is one click above crazy.
I stepped onto the Oregon State campus in the fall of 1992, behind the eighth ranked women’s basketball recruiting class in the nation. It was apparent before the programs were printed that I would be hard to find in this haystack of talent. I had dreamed when I was younger that one day I’d become the scrappy point guard who handed the starting five their best look at the Pac-10 rival offenses. Turns out, the only thing I might hope to be handing out this season are little green Gatorade cups. All around me stand these prize thoroughbreds on their red carpet, coaches scrambling at their feet to fill their oat bags to brimming with free textbooks, room and board checks and shoes, lots of shoes. I have to do more before 11 a.m. than any other person on this team does all day just to stay enrolled in school and keep myself afloat. The stallions around me seem to find ways to complain about the golden carrots in their oat bag. I long to have an oat bag; even an empty oat bag would be reward enough in my mind. My heart is heavy with envy and disbelief at how easily opportunity gives way to entitlement.
I am summoned to Coach Hill’s office often. Her four foot eleven inch Asian frame is so out of place against the shelves and shelves of basketball paraphernalia. A native of Japan, Aki Hill came to America three decades prior, though her English suggests her visa stamp is still wet. She learned to coach under the direction of John Wooden, a qualification in the basketball world which is the equivalent of listing God as a reference on your resume.
As a child I watched her in action on television and at live games. She stood along the sideline, arms crossed carefully so as not to disturb her perfectly coordinated corsage; the players, the officials, even the cheerleaders towered over her. With a little imagination, I pictured her being raised among a family of lions, quickly becoming the commanding presence of the pride, the natural leader of the pack. In these meetings at her office, sitting across from someone so powerful and yet pocket-sized, I often found it hard to concentrate. Aki’s quiet confidence could be so intimidating. Something about looking directly into her eyes made me vow to abstain from sleep and begin all night push-up vigils. From time to time, her broken English made her seem mortal. Her speech was frequently peppered with a brand new word or phrase. We called these Aki-isms referring to her knack for almost using the right slang, but not quite. There was the one practice when we couldn’t seem to do anything right, (truly, it only happened once) and her shrill voice broke through angrily, “Why joo run like chicken-heads?” It was close enough for us to know she was sick of watching us play like chickens with our heads cut off; but the hilarity of her delivery sentenced us to running lines.
Aki called me in to face her often. You could have scripted these meetings. She’d open with her usual concerns. How I am missing college life by chasing this dream. How I will probably never play a single minute. How she cannot red shirt me with so many strong high school recruits coming in the next season. She actually, on one occasion, begged me to give up, to focus on school and social life, suggested perhaps I go out for the crew team. It translated to: face it you’re not going to be an OSU basketball player. Each time my posture was the same, I’d smile like a little lamb, listen and half-bow while pledging to work harder and promising to get my grades up. But in my heart I stood defiant, Peter Pan-like: arms folded tightly across my chest, shoulders lifted, feet entrenched in the carpet. I certainly am not going anywhere. Sure something must give, but it’s not going to be my dream. Doesn’t she know I’m Irish?
I keep showing up to practice, sometimes unsure if I am welcome there. I keep slinging coffee in the mornings and cranking out English papers in the evenings. Try-outs before my sophomore year come around and I’m enlisted again, a walk-on for the second year in a row. I am back to square one on the basketball court as a few new prize ponies have been brought to the fold. I’m pretty sure I can detect the smell of coffee leaking from my pores during practices. I am as bruised as forgotten produce and quite frequently missing toe nails. My housemates find me sleeping in strange places around our home, like someone with a case of narcolepsy. I believe unswervingly that I want to play basketball more than anyone else in this program, quite possibly more than anyone else who ever lived. My ears itch to be called into drills, to be noticed. I am more than a starving college student; I am hungry to taste my dreams.
Christmas break arrives mercifully. The team packs goose-down coats and jets to Michigan for a tournament. I head home to Eugene, to be with my family and to wash my jersey. One evening my Dad returns from the video store, a stack of plastic video cases under his arm. One of the movies is simply titled, Rudy. According to the tape jacket, this is a true story of a young man from Illinois who willingly fought overwhelming odds to realize his dream of becoming a Notre Dame football player. As the story unfolds on our wood paneled television (the one with the remote the size of the laptop computer) I find myself leaning forward on the edge of our deep blue couch. My hands folded in front of me, my body prone forward, as if I am interceding on Rudy’s behalf, willing his dream to come to fruition. As I drift off to sleep that night, Rudy’s voice hangs in the air above my pillow, “Is there any more I can do?” I listen hard for an answer to that very question, but a response doesn’t come. But as surely as the sun rises, the next day a fight arises in me. I awake to the familiar pang of my dream in my belly. One more time, the bags, the clean practice jersey and the smelly shoes make the trek up Interstate 5, back to Corvallis, back in the saddle. I walk on to Ralph Miller Court only to find my teammates huddled together, stretching in a circle, swapping stories. They have pictures, souvenirs and battle cries. I feel like cling wrap, flimsy and transparent.
The rest of that season brings more of the same. I am still handing out towels at practice and filling teammates’ water bottles, still running ragged trying to keep pace with my life. Somehow lately the snorts of the stallions at the watering trough don’t smart as much. Perhaps I have grown an extra layer of skin. Perhaps my coffee intake has finally escalated to a level where I can no longer feel anything at all. Testing this theory I poke at a fresh bruise; nope, definitely felt that. But something is clearly different. I begin to suspect that by placing my teams’ needs above my own I might play an important role. I find myself smiling at requests that used to seem petty. I no longer harumph and sigh at a request for water or a towel. I am beginning to see myself surrounded by self-serving athletes and championship hungry coaches, these raw humans each hungry in their own way. Perhaps I am not against them. Perhaps I am for them? Could it be that I am a gift, an offering to be poured out into little green Gatorade cups? I am hanging on by my well-chewed fingernails to the hope that what I do in the shadows for this team matters. Mine is a humble attempt to communicate only with my hands. All the while hoping that in the grand scheme of things, nothing gets overlooked. A healthy dose of tolerance comes like a shot in the arm; tolerance for my teammates, for my coaches, for my roommates, and even my pitchy alarm clock and sock-sucking bed.
Parallels to edify my new role begin to pop up everywhere. Stories of David from the Bible seem to be around every corner. Dave was a shepherd; which, for the record, is a position just a sliver above dirt on the Biblical totem pole. Though it is this lowly dirt dweller in whom God placed unmatched favor. Like David, I’m still underestimated often. I’m still considered last in line for an upgrade. But somewhere, breaking through the cobwebs in my feeler, there is a spark, a nudge, a fresh energy. A hunger to do more than just water my teammates; to perhaps even pray for them.
On a rainy Corvallis weekend in January, while my teammates are in California battling powerhouses Stanford and Cal, the nudge leads me through the basement of the coliseum to the outer door of our locker room. My key in the lock pings an echo through the long, dank hallway. Eager to go where the nudge leads I enter the musty sanctum. The smell from the newly installed carpet is fruitless at concealing that wet towels, old shoes and athletic ointment lie nearby. This smell is home to me, it is the scent of many dreams and countless hours of my childhood. In a dimly lit corner, I sit in front of the first in a long line of foot lockers. The name above the mirror belongs to the one girl who knows me best. Her nickname, and we all had one or two of them, was “Mamma-McGrew,” for her nurturing nature, her ability to scold us into shape as only a good southern mamma could, and on account of her knees having gone into retirement long before her eligibility expired. Mamma-McGrew was rarely seen without large ice bags or heating pads strapped to her badly swollen knees. Her breathless drawl of “Help me, Jesus!” and “Lawrd, have mercy!” were as much the soundtrack of our grueling practices as Coach Hill’s sharp whistle. There, in front of her picture and spare ankle braces, I begin to think about how thankful I am for her. I pray for her health, safety and success. I pray that her heart be encouraged, her mind be steadfast and her Ibuprofen bottle overflowing. It feels like bleeding water from a fire hose. It can be so effortless to pray for someone I love.
The nudge is not satisfied. “What’s this?” I feel the urge to move closer to the stools of those teammates who mock me, bully me and flat out terrify me. I quickly sidestep and busy myself praying my way through the roster, hoping to drown out the nudge and its earlier request. I scoot myself on my knees all the way around that locker room, dodging the two stools that seem to taunt me even without a six foot tall woman seated on them. I nearly escape, but no, I know I am to go before the lockers of those who seem intent on keeping me down, those hardest for me to love. I am to place myself before them with open hands and open heart. I step in front of the first adversary, ever so careful not to touch anything or leave any hard evidence that I’ve been so near. The words push and shove at each other unwilling to walk my tongue’s plank. “There are no words,” I sigh at my defeat, “…well, no nice ones at least.” (God knows I make jokes when I’m nervous.) My choppy attempts at prayer melt into a helpless, needy run-on sentence. I am raising a small white flag of weakness, desperately seeking the words I cannot seem to find. Fearing I may never leave this locker room, I hoist my little white flag high above my hanging head, and I wait. This is what I’m learning prayer is all about: admitting, without shame, where you need help when you need it. Prayer is that little set of training wheels for my spiritual bike so I can spend less time stubbing my face on the pavement and more time taking in the ride.
Deep inside of my heart, I spy some sore spots, steaming hot with bitterness. “Psst,” I say to the nudge, “over here!” (that’s so very me to think the universe needs help locating my ugly spots, as if they’d gone unnoticed until I so graciously drew attention to them.) In silence, I stare down at the hissing cysts. Amazed at how it got this deep. Then, the same healing hands from whose side blood and water flowed, reach down and spread a loving salve across the sores of my heart. A sound no louder than a whisper hints at how in my rash pursuit of my dream I somehow missed the call on my life. I am suddenly mindful that those steamy flesh wounds exist only because somewhere, deep in my uglies, I still believed that my dream, my way would fulfill me. When in truth, only one dream, one call on my life will suit me perfectly. Hope be spared, I don’t have to give up my desire to compete at this level; I don’t have to settle for joining the crew team. I do need to open my hands though, and loosen the death grip I have on my desires; to lift my dreams on my outstretched palms and resist the urge to clasp my hands around them every time the ride gets a little bumpy.
My stutter is miraculously healed, the white flag falls to the floor and the words finally come: obedient, humble, penitent words flow for the last two teammates. Feeling like I’ve just played 40 minutes without rest, I rise to leave. Past the hum of the boiler room, I ascend out of the belly of the building and emerge to an empty parking lot. Escorting me to my car, the nudge whispers in my ear, “I love them just as much as I love you. Show them.”
Weeks pass and not much has changed on the surface. I have not dropped a single ounce of sweat on competition’s floor. I’m still hanging out at the bottom of the heap, looking for new and fashionable ways to incorporate ace bandages into my wardrobe. From the outside it is barely detectable that deep within change is ablaze. I begin reaching out to my teammates, all of them, a whole-hearted attempt to see the woman behind each uniform. I have a car and more often than not it is willing to start up and go places enlisting me as a little red taxi for my team. I am slyly planting little seeds of love into each one of my fares as we ferry about our busy lives. I am invited to travel with the squad every now and again. Away from our lives in Corvallis, my team appears before me as real people with cares, dreams, fears and insecurities of their own.
I have been stretched, exposed and forced to see the self-centered, self-serving individual that I can so quickly slip into if left to my own devices. I enter my junior year with a feeling that I am exactly where I need to be, red carpet or not. I am sharing locker room mantras and opening little white per diem envelopes. I sign my name with great precision on game programs for the little seven-year-old girls who shyly hang around the player’s bench. Feeling like the velveteen rabbit, on the brink of becoming a real bunny, I can see the budding tip of my team’s respect breaking through. I barely know it, but I have a small fan club forming in our locker room.
1995: I try out and make the team, again. My position is walk-on, again. The 4:30 a.m. mornings make me think crows are stomping their twiggy feet around my eyes while I sleep. As a junior, I get into a few games. I see a minute or two of playing time here or there. Like kerosene on a Hibachi, the hunger to play intensifies each time. Here I was stripped of any desire for the spotlight and yet the photographer for the local sports column seemed to snap photos of me left and right. I’d awake some mornings to my face on the sports page and I found myself embarrassed. The old Leah would have felt justified and finally vindicated, but not this time. I was in awe, stunned that out of 40 minutes of basketball, of which I played such a small, sometimes only 30-second frame, my moment was the one captured in print. When you realize that you are strategically placed somewhere, to walk a certain path for just that exact moment in time, suddenly it doesn’t matter whether anyone sees you or whether anyone is looking.
Junior year whisks by, each calendar page ripping off the seam faster than the one before. The weeks seem to disappear and yet the days can feel infinitely long. On a day no different than any other, February 12, the cheap plastic phone in my room rings and Aki’s broken English pours through the receiver, “Reah, you come meet today, trhee o’crock? Berry important, okay?” I hang up with a sigh, “Here we go again.” I arrive at her office only to find the stoic face of our Athletic Director, Dutch Baughman, staring back from behind the desk.
“Oh boy,” I shudder to myself. “She’s serious now; she’s got back up. Well, I can’t blame her too much. I am my father’s daughter, proud and persistent. She means well and honestly my grades really could be better if only I could get some sleep. My heels are set, I’m not letting go of this one, not yet. I cannot, my hunger is too deep. Wait a tick. This doesn’t seem to be about me quitting the team. Pardon me? What is that? Why are you asking me to sign this piece of paper? What is this…?”
When my mind finally catches up with their lips, I see that instead of walking papers in my hand, they’ve actually handed me a contract awarding me my very own full-ride athletic scholarship. The girl with hands clenched “ready to try harder” fainted and my disbelieving limbs fell to rest on Aki’s tiny shoulders. This hug sets three years of tears free to fall. In the midst of my heaving, I am thanked for my efforts these past years (You saw that?). I am praised for being the truest team player (I’m valuable?). I am informed that my education will be funded for as long as it takes me to complete my degree, even past my eligibility (Okay, where’s the hidden camera?). Oh, and by the way, NCAA regulations will not let me keep my job, so I have to quit getting up at 4:30 a.m. immediately (Sorry, Paul). My knees go gummy inside. I feel myself shrinking beneath this great goodness until I’m face to my thighs on that black vinyl couch. Sitting there, knee-less, hearing from the mouths of those who once doubted me praises of the role I have played. It was an awakening; like coffee after toothpaste was this tart validation. An unexpected twist, a crazy blessing.
How true is the saying, “A reward gained quickly at the beginning will not be a blessing in the end,”? This scholarship meant so much more to me when it no longer represented something I thought I had earned or deserved. It didn’t come fast and furious on a red carpet my freshman year with flashbulbs and fanfare. It came in time. How much more was this brimming oat bag worth when I finally saw it for what it really was; an appointment to a role I didn’t know I was born to play. My God, like Grinch’s heart on Christmas, grew three sizes that day.
Today whenever I feel my hands closing tightly, grasping for control, and my skin feels too tight for my body, desperate to keep things from getting messy, I remember this chapter of my life. I remember how releasing the choke hold on my dreams left these hands free to serve. I see now that an open hand is where all beautiful stories begin. Years later, the nudge is still here, still whispering, hands open, sweetie, palms up. Dreams need a proper place to land.