Chapter 1: The View from the Top of the Rainbow
Michael Jordan is beating my brains in.
The best basketball player there has ever been is putting the torch to my team and I'm sitting here not knowing which I want to do most -- applaud him or strangle him. I'm in awe of his skills, but the competitor in me wants to rush out there and reach my hand inside his chest, rip out his heart, and stuff it in his face.
And then something else hits me. I look around here in the owner's suite of the CoreStates Center -- one of those plush Nero boxes appointed in leather and chrome, and lavishly stocked with food and drink -- and I see all my friends and my family shouting their lungs out, and suddenly this thought whooshes at me like a freight train:
When are the guards gonna come and throw me out?
You see, part of me feels like a man sitting on top of the rainbow, and part of me feels like an imposter. I own a professional basketball team. Me! And not only that, but I own the Philadelphia 76ers -- my home team -- the team I grew up with and eventually worked for. It's like the janitor suddenly owns Disney World!
How can this be? I'm the guy who used to tape the players' ankles. Now I sign their paychecks. I'm the guy who used to sneak into stadiums and outrun ballpark security. Now I get in through the front door, with the red carpet and the primo parking. It's an evolution that Darwin himself might not have imagined. So no wonder I'm expecting that tap on the shoulder, that stern look, that familiar jerk of the thumb, and that uniquely warm and cordial Philadelphia salutation: "Yo, pal, you're outta here."
But no...there is no tap, there is no ejection. Just more noise from the owner's suite. They're all here this night, all the skeletons from my closet. My biker buddies, karate sparring partners, college cronies, guys from the street corner, dudes from down-the-shore, business associates, my wife, our two children, my mom, and my Aunt Corinne, the nun.
And I know someone else is watching too, from a seat even higher up than the top of the rainbow: my Pop. He's the one wearing the T-shirt that says: "I'M THE REAL PAT CROCE."
Pasquale Croce gave me my name and my drive. He'd box my ears one minute and crush me with a hug the next. Like all sons, all I ever wanted to do was make my father proud. So here I sit, humbled and grateful and more than a little overwhelmed, and wish he were here. And, oh yes, still wondering when that tap on the shoulder is coming...
Instead, Michael Jordan taps my arousal button again. He goes slashing toward the basket, and you know this is going to be special because his tongue is lolling down around his knees. He elevates and levitates and detonates one of those dunks that makes the rim quiver like a tuning fork. The crowd is in a frenzy. I hear someone screaming, "Are you shitting me?" Then I recognize the voice. It's mine.
Now Jordan is at the free throw line. My gaze drifts from him to the baseline. The 76ers fans in the seats behind the basket are especially rabid. They're on their feet, yelling and waving their arms and doing everything they can to distract Jordan. He's used to this, of course. (That's another thing I admire about him -- his composure in the midst of chaos, the way he can focus. He would probably be very good at the martial arts.)
Right in the middle of the clamoring crowd that's testing Jordan, right there in front, grinning at all the excitement, is one of my oldest and best friends, Jerry McElhenney. He works game nights helping with the crowd and game operations. His full-time job is as a roofer, so he knows what it's like to work without a net. We go way back, and for as long as I've known him I've called him Jakester. The "Jake" comes from Jerry, and the "ster" comes from gangster. He's got the walk and the talk straight out of an old James Cagney movie -- that cock-in-the-walk strut and that side-of-the-mouth delivery -- mixed with the DeNiro are-you-talkin'-to-me? attitude. Also, if you tried to cross him or me, Jakester would probably have you rubbed out. He'd prefer to do it himself.
Jordan makes the free throw, of course. And then he looks directly at the Jakester, and right into that howling mob that's taunting him, and he gives them this huge smile and holds up his right hand and spreads his fingers apart to show them, ever so lovingly, where it is that he wears each of his world championship rings. But it's not an act of arrogance; it's just a man who knows he's good at interacting with the people who have paid to see him perform. When you're Michael Jordan, you're never allowed to take a night off because somebody may be in the audience who's never seen you before and never will get to see you again. That's a philosophy worth imitating.
Jordan starts back down the court and the baseline fans continue to scream at him and at each other, slapping high-fives and trading forearm smashes. They're having fun, and that, after all, is the whole point of being here. Jakester is still smiling as he exchanges slaps and forearms with some of the customers and then walks over behind the Sixers bench. On his way past Allen Iverson, he taps the eventual rookie-of-the-year on the shoulder for luck, and then turns toward the tunnel through which the players enter and exit. Here he does a belly-bump and a high-five with Joe Masters, our director of fan relations.
PAT CROCE POINTER
When you're Michael Jordan, you're never allowed to take a night off because somebody may be in the audience who's never seen you before and never will get to see you again. That's a philosophy worth imitating.
Joe is a Saint Bernard in human form -- big and shambling and very friendly. He has just the right personality and temperament for this job, which basically consists of listening to the moans and complaints of disgruntled customers, and then turning their frowns upside down. (Well, at least sideways.) Unfortunately, the satisfaction of fans at a professional sports event is usually in direct proportion to how the team is doing. And here, in 1997, my first year as the president and part-owner, we were struggling. The losses were running ahead of the wins by about 3 to 1, so Joe needed to muster a mountain of charm and charisma. And I knew he was good for it.
Joe's been watching my back since the ninth grade. We went to college together. He was best man at my wedding. And my nickname for him -- "Bator" -- goes all the way back to our adolescence. As you'll see, I have a habit of giving everyone nicknames. In Joe Masters' case, his nickname was inevitable. Put it all together and you get: Joe Masters-Bator. It's a rather crude shorthand for the act of male stimulation. But the only thing Bator likes better than having a good time is making sure that everyone else has a good time.
As I watch Bator in the tunnel behind the Sixers' bench, still kind of expecting the security guards to come and throw me out (and half expecting to see guards walk up and throw out Bator and Jakester, too), it crosses my mind that I might not be sitting here now, on top of the rainbow, if I hadn't first found myself in the seat next to Bator in our high school English class. That was twenty-five years ago. Oh, not that Bator was of any particular help in improving my writing skills. No, his impact on my life was due mainly to his powers of persuasion. Bator can not only talk you into something you don't think you want to do, but he can make you think it was all your idea in the first place.
* * *
So there we are in the spring term of our senior year at Lansdowne-Aldan High School, just outside of Philadelphia. Nineteen-seventy-two. We're supposed to be writing a composition. Bator is instead writing me a note inviting me to join him in applying to West Chester State College. (It is now West Chester University.) The invitation puzzles me because Bator knows I have already applied -- and have been accepted -- to Drexel University, in Philadelphia. I plan on being an accountant. So I write Bator a reply that, in effect, questions his mental capacity. He writes back: "But you'll love it there." And I write back to him: "Why?"
His answer is too important to waste time writing down. Instead, he breaks the silence of the classroom by shouting: "There's three girls to every guy! We'll play on the freshman football team! And you get to live away from home!" In all honesty, he could have stopped after the first reason. I was convinced. Bator always has had a knack for knowing exactly which buttons to push.
The next day we were on our way to West Chester. It was spring; the bees were buzzing and so was the testosterone. I was revved in anticipation. This was going to be my first visit to an out-of-town college campus, and it was shaping up as a grand adventure. Then again, every trip when Bator drove was an adventure.
The registration papers in the glove compartment identified the thing we were in as, indeed, a moving vehicle. And technically, it did move, though it felt like it had an incurable case of the hiccups. It was a Ford station wagon, built like a tank and just about as responsive as one. Ah, but it was transportation. And when you're a teenager, wheels represent freedom, and nothing else matters quite so much, not even the color -- in our case a bilious seaweed-green mottled with polka-dot rust spots. The tires were rumored to be whitewalls, though there was no white visible anywhere. Then again, there was no tread visible, either. And only one headlight worked, so at night we looked and sounded like a bedraggled Cyclops.
What really gave this vehicle its personality, however, were the floorboards. They didn't exist in the back. So at a stop you could rest your feet on the pavement, and then when Bator would -- you'll pardon the expression -- accelerate, you could run in place like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. To Bator, though, the clincher was how much time you could save because you never had to make that annoying stop to take a leak. We irrigated as we went.
Bator's Flintstonemobile had replaced a Rambler that looked like the first contestant eliminated in a demolition derby. The Rambler had started out white, and then Bator decided to paint it black. This was his own personal homage to the Rolling Stones and their hit song, "Midnight Rambler." Remember, when you're a teenager, that kind of allegiance and loyalty seem important. Bator painted that car with unbridled gusto. He painted everything -- door handles, bumpers, and even parts of the windows. The end product was the color of midnight in a graveyard. But it moved.
Right after he finished his paint job, Bator drove to the high school to show it off. The corner hangout was crowded with teenagers. You know how teenagers feel more comfortable in groups; there's nothing more important than that sense of belonging. We called this "Hangin' at the High," where the main order of business was to generate laughter.
And the laughs were big that day when Bator pulled up and, with his customary disregard for conventional parking techniques, banged the bumper of Jakester's blue Chevy. Bator was notorious for "nudging" while parking, and he was so adept at mugging that you were never certain whether the nudge was intentional or the brakes really had failed. We all figured he had gotten his driver's license on the bumper car ride on the Wildwood Boardwalk at the Jersey shore. Whenever you were sitting in a car and found yourself suddenly being propelled forward against your will, you knew when you turned around you'd see Bator...
It became his signature line. To this day, if I look up and find Bator in my rear-view mirror, I instinctively flinch.
The minor dent that Bator had put in Jakester's car was no more meaningful than one more pimple when you're fourteen. But of course at that age you take everything as a challenge. So Jakester needed to retaliate. He jumped in his Chevy, backed up a couple of car lengths, shot forward, and jolted Bator's Rambler with enough force to put it over the curb and into a telephone pole. Jakester leaned out the window and, with just the right Cheshire cat grin, perfectly mimicked Bator: "Oooops!"
Everyone whooped, and immediately began instigating. It's what guys at that age do best. Egg 'em on! Anything to get the juices stirred. All it took was two minutes of everyone challenging everyone else's developing manhood, and we had a motorized joust going. A bunch of guys piled into Jakester's Chevy, and others got into Bator's Rambler, where I had the shotgun seat. The two cars faced each other, a block apart, like a couple of bull moose ready to duel over a female. They gunned their engines. About this time, it dawned on us that this was not going to be another casual game of "Ooops." It also dawned on me that where I was sitting is known in the insurance trade as the "death seat," so I dove into the back. Fortunately, there were enough bodies back there to cushion my fall.
The cars started toward each other. It was a classic game of "chicken." Not especially smart. And definitely incredibly dangerous. But by now everyone had an adrenalin buzz and no one wanted to be the first to wimp out, especially not Bator or Jakester. The cars growled toward each other, picking up speed, and neither driver showed any signs of flinching. We braced ourselves against the back of the front seat, and screamed!
Just as they were about to collide, Bator dodged in, swerved out, and clipped the left rear bumper of Jakester's Chevy. It spun 90 degrees, screeched, and skidded to a stop at the corner. Bator stuck a fist of triumph out the window and tried to get Jakester in his cross hairs for another go. Meanwhile the rest of us had a sudden attack of sanity. The back doors of both cars flew open and we bailed out so frantically that it looked like a mass parachute jump. Such outbreaks of common sense were rare, but they were what kept us all alive.
But Bator and Jakester weren't done. Neither one wanted to be the one who quit. If you quit, you couldn't live with all the razzing and verbal abuse, and for sure you couldn't live with yourself. So they lined up to do it again, and no one could stop them. No one even tried, because it would have been pointless.
Neither one feinted the next time. Neither one faked. Neither one chickened out. Jakester came in like a pile driver square into the Midnight Rambler's left front fender, collapsing the tire and leaving Bator tilting to one side, like the Titanic going under. Jakester pulled away, parked in the middle of the street, got out and climbed on the hood and struck a Rocky pose in triumph. We all cheered him. And then we remembered the vanquished. What had happened to Bator? Was he just a grease spot?
Bator emerged dramatically then, climbing out the driver's side window. He surveyed what was left of his car, turned to us with that grin, and said: "Ooops!"
All these years later and I can still see that. That's what's so nice about making memories. You have fun at the time, and then you get to have the fun all over again reliving them. There's only one thing I like more than laughing. That's sharing it.
* * *
Bator and I arrived at West Chester with four items on our to-do list: (1) apply for admission, and get accepted; (2) introduce ourselves to the head football coach; (3) eat; and (4) find a place to live. Not necessarily in that order.
We found the office of the head football coach, John Furlow. The door was open. He was talking with one of his players. At first we thought he was using a bullhorn but we would come to learn that this was just his usual decibel level when he was chewing out a sinner. Conversation over, the player left; he looked to be about eight axe handles wide at the shoulders. We swallowed and introduced ourselves. Coach Furlow recognized Bator's name from his reputation. Fortunately for us, it was Bator's football reputation the coach recognized.
He didn't recognize me from my reputation, probably because I didn't have one to speak of. But I had brass. And I was blessed with confidence and a positive attitude. I have never doubted that things would get done, that dreams would be realized. And why not expect good things? There's a lot of truth to that saying, "If you expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed." But I think you can reverse that, too. I think our efforts tend to match our expectations. So I try to go through life like the little kid who comes down the stairs on Christmas morning, sees a steaming pile of manure, and instantly thinks: "Oh boy, oh boy, there's just got to be a pony around here somewhere!"
PAT CROCE POINTER
It never hurts to ask. The worst thing they can do is say "no." And as my Pop said, "If you don't ask, then the answer is always 'no'."
I told Coach Furlow there were no lengths I would not go to in order to play for the Golden Rams. And then I asked if, by the way, could I use him as a reference when I applied for admission to West Chester?
Now the application was a little matter that should have been taken care of, oh, a year or so ago. But Coach Furlow just laughed at my boldness. He must have thought (and I wanted him to think this) that if I had the nerve to ask to use him as a reference after just meeting him, then I must be crazy enough to catch flaming spears for his football team, too.
Sure, he'd be my reference.
See? It never hurts to ask. The worst thing they can do is say "no." And as my Pop said, "If you don't ask, then the answer is always 'no'."
Bator and I left the coach's office giddy. Hungry, too -- as usual. We jumped into Bator's bomb, filled out our applications, and went looking for grub.
The cafeteria wasn't hard to find. Neither were the two old women standing guard at each of the entrances. They recognized only two forms of eligibility for eating: cash or a meal card. We had neither. What we did have were appetites and a talent for improvisation. So we passed ourselves off as recruits, a couple of football studs whom Coach Furlow was lusting after. It sounded convincing to us. Not to them. They had invisible antennae that seemed to pick up on scams. (After all, they dealt with college kids every day.)
We went around to the back of the building. A produce truck was being unloaded. We identified ourselves as students who worked part time in the cafeteria, and, by the way, where would you like us to take those heavy-looking produce boxes while you catch your breath?
It worked. We made four convincing trips from the truck to the cooler, then detoured through the kitchen, past the serving line and into the main seating area. There was food everywhere. And at just the right price -- free. In the middle of the room was a large round table occupied by a salad bowl the size and shape of a Jacuzzi. Bator and I looked at each other like a couple of hogs called to the trough.
(A couple of years later, we would be forced to quit eating from that salad bowl. That was about the time, during a Saturday evening food raid, that a 300-pound lineman named Bomber shed his clothes, climbed into the bowl, and rolled around in the greens while we rained condiments on him, giving a horrible new meaning to the term "tossed salad.")
Well-fed, we set out looking for lodging. We had heard of an off-campus rooming house that had quite a reputation. It was called the Yoder House, and was named after Dick Yoder, the owner of the house and an assistant football coach. A more accurate name would have been the "Odor House."
The place was in no danger of being seen in Better Homes & Gardens. Eight bedrooms. Two bathrooms. No kitchen. Capacity: twenty. Most of them football players. There was stuff growing in that house that they wouldn't have been able to identify in the chem lab. The basement turned into a beer-soaked party room every single weekend. What went on there was the stuff of legend. Naturally, Bator and I thought it was the Taj Mahal.
Guys were lifting weights, playing cards, watching TV, and girl-watching from the front porch. The occasional textbook could be found -- some of them actually open, too. The place reminded me of Hangin' at the High with a roof. Mostly, there was laughter, my favorite sound. It felt like home to me.
Bator knew two of the occupants, both senior physical education majors. We talked with these guys for a while, and by the time we were on our way home, the compulsive list-maker and obsessive goal-setter in me had my immediate future planned:
(1) Attend West Chester, (2) play football, (3) major in physical education, (4) room with Bator, (5) buy a meal card, and (6) live in the Yoder House.
I wrote down all those goals. I'm a fanatic about that because there's something about setting down on paper your hopes and aspirations that make them attainable. You write them and study them, and then they don't seem so overwhelming, so daunting.
Plus, when they're on paper staring back at you, it's harder to ignore them.
Copyright © 2000 Pat Croce