Tom Meschery: Bard of the Backboards, 1969

[And now, for something completely different. At least for this blog. What follows are 13 poems penned by the great player-bard Tom Meschery when he was pounding the backboards (and opposing forwards) with the Seattle SuperSonics. The poems appeared in the magazine Fast Break: 1969 All-Pro Basketball Annual.

Meschery said of the poems, all penned during the late 1960s, “I think they will be of some value to the physical types who think poetry is for queers, that poetry is an effeminate form of art. Poetry is a very masculine form of communication.” Fifty-plus years later, I like what I read. And I think you will, too.]

To A Boyhood Friend

You were all of Notre Dame

and I was all of Army.

We were every player

that ever played.

Hour after hour

with ball in hand

we soared our dreams.

Phantom crowds applauded

from the stands of our playground world.

We were surrounded by rain puddles;

guarded by cement cracks.

We stole the ball from the “blind side.”

We fought the final game

in its final seconds

down to the wire.

Dear friend, 

do you remember when

a loss would make us cry;

but then how cockily

we smiled with victory?

Some passersby would glance

at us

weary from our bouncing 

ball game

and smile knowing smiles.

I wonder if

they ever were

Notre Dame or Army.

Lowell High

Our red brick square gymnasium was an anachronism

Among the steel-ribbed, concrete muscled ellipses

And angles of the day; it was full of shadows—

The floor corduroy, the backboards wood

And the rims were bent with age

            (the relentless ricochet of basketballs)

It had none of the embellishments

Found in more modern gyms.

It was simply a no-nonsense structure

Built to house players not spectators.

Surrounded by its gray walls and wrinkled floor

We practiced two-to-six, six days a week.

And throughout that time—four years—

Our coach, who was as old as the building,

Taunted and inspired us, swore and cajoled us.

He taught us to play without frills.

We became red brick and corduroy

And learned to see through shadows.

The Market Place

They’re dealing in talent, not men.

In winning and losing, not men.

Emotions were fine

When the contract was signed.

But now let’s live with facts.

They’re working with bodies, not men.

With forwards and guards, not men.

The better passer or shooter

Can change the mind of an owner

When the team is going aback.

They’re working with cash, not men. 

With dollars and cents, not men.

If the gate is decreasing, 

Instead of increasing

They’ll look for a trade to make.

But dealing in cash, not men

Is not only the owner’s end.

For we who are players

Are just as well traders

As we play for money’s sake.

The Rookies

Athletes filled with hope and vigor

Try and fail and leave,

Beggared, not enriched.

What they gave was not enough.

No longer does life seem as glorious

As it did a year ago

When stronger and bolder,

Each strode the campus hero.

Now in three short weeks

Their bodies beat by hands of tradesmen,

(less delicate but in their eyes more fortunate)

They must go to build their hopes anew.

The agony is not returning

For hearts that beat this brand of sport.

The agony is not discerning

What is the end and what is not.

To Elgin Baylor

You’ll be hung up to dry

Painted on some hall of fame wall

Given a perfunctory smile

A trophy and a fond farewell

            Then legend will seep in like arthritis

            And bend minds in other directions

            And you will become a gnarled oak

            And be chopped down for conversation fuel

            And your ashes will blow across the land

            And having once been you will disappear.

To Wilt Chamberlain

He appears from afar

A giant Cimmerian statue

Contested for a goal

He shivers great strong ebony beads

Of sweat from his body

Turns suddenly

From inanimate to animal

Coils and springs

Sending men like ripples

Into inevitable nonexistence.

Off the court

He is enigma

Tropical and dense as the jungle

Of his forebears

White men fear

Black men genuflect

And once long ago

We argued

Over a fallen tear.

To Bill Russell

I have never seen

an eagle with a beard

but if there is

in some strange

corner of the world

and the Hindu

belief is true

you will return

and bear your wings

violently 

over my grave.

To Alex Hannum

As a boy I walked

Between the solemn pillars

Gazing with awe

At the paintings

Of mighty buckskin men.

Their steely eyes

Stared back at me

And I dreamed that someday

I might also stand

As straight and firm

Within the painter’s frame.

I dreamed that I might grow

To be a mighty buckskin man

And conquer some expansive plain.

There were idols

To be worshipped as a boy

And every year I grew

I sought them out

One by one

All in the image

Of my buckskin men.

Last year I traced my steps

Back to the gallery

Where I had dreamed as a boy

And found to my dismay

The paintings had been taken down

And in their place

Hung paintings of a newer day.

Basketball: A Love Song Because It Is

I will always remember:

the din of Madison Square Garden

filled with Saturday night people

the sadness of the loss

or the gaiety of a victory

that tomorrow could change,

traveling the early hour jets

cards shuffling

endless insomnia,

tired muscles,

bawdy conversations,

pointless anxiety

over yesterday’s statistics,

the tunneled echoes

of airports at four A.M.

and the moment when

with absolute certainty

the ball slipped soundlessly from my fingers

backspinning beauty through the net.

The Bull Session

We talked about

a ballplayer this

a ballplayer that.

Into the night

our conversation

rose and fell:

            a pick and roll

            a lousy call

            a stolen ball

The three of us

Would commiserate

until the light of dawn

crept stealthily through

the drawn hotel curtains.

As It Should Be

A black hand supports

the white body of a falling teammate.

The ball that scored the winning goal

was placed in motion by a grey hand.

The sweat pouring from our bodies

is neither black nor white.

After the Game

The tension and strain have ended

Forty-eight minutes in our lives

Have passed into recollection

We are exhausted.

As I gaze around the black and white of men

Through the rows of hurriedly hung clothes

And knots of inquiring reporters.

I can smell my sport:

Bland soap steam

Newly lit cigarettes. 

Drying sweat.

The damp starch odor

Of wet cloth and towel.

I return slowly

Like the passing of seasons

In the murmuring world of voices

And grasp congratulatory hands

Back to the reality of victory.

I don’t think we truly comprehend 

What we won today could be lost tomorrow

Yet we are joyous.

Tired hands and feet

And muscles strained

(Beyond the definition of sport)

Were not in vain.

I get up and stumble to the shower.

I wash away the past hours

With floods of water

And massage my aching limbs

With thoughts of cold beer and a night’s rest

As I leave the arena

Dressed in grey, blue or black

Like any normal businessman.

I glance back on my day.

On the now shadowed hardwood

Of the basketball court

And the empty seats where,

Not long before,

The crowd yelled on and on and on

And a smile creeps slowly past my mouth.

The Last Poem

When

            the game has ended

            and the roar of the crowd

            has faded into the past

            and only the cleaning brooms

            click-clack echoes

            on the empty rows of seats

            drumming through

            the dim lit concrete corridors

            of the stadium what

then?

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