Brian Doyle
Mister Wilson’s Hat

Elsewhere I have written about my Catholic Youth Organization basketball coach Mister Wilson, who had been a major in the United States Army and had a chip on his shoulder about long hair and beards, even the awful earnest scraggly embarrassing first beards of his teenage players, so it was particularly galling to him to have a starting five which featured four ponytails and a beard, although that beard, covering most of the face of our center, was such a dense thicket that you couldn’t see his mouth, which was entertaining to his teammates because he kept up a lewd chatter all game long, and the referees were constantly looking suspiciously at Mister Wilson, who wouldn’t know lewd chatter if it shook him by the hand and asked him to tea, even though he had been an officer in the United States Army, and served in the Korean War.

And elsewhere I have written about how our ponytails flapping as we sprinted up and down the court drove him nuts, and how our wild chaotic style of play drove him nuts, and how our calling timeout once a game to adjust our headbands drove him nuts, and how once a game one of us would deliberately commit an incredibly ridiculous turnover just to hear him make that strangled hopeless sound in his throat, and how we would hide his dapper fedora hat to drive him nuts, and how he kept after us anyway, practice after practice, game after game, even with all these things driving him nuts, because he was actually a good guy and a good coach, although we didn’t see that then, and we called him simply The Man, and fought his ungentle instructions to make the most of our talents, and shape our creative energies, and try to play well, rather than simply play fast, which we preferred to do, for reasons that were clear then but now seem selfish.

But it is a single moment from that season that comes back to me now, and oddly it flooded back on me this evening, as I watched a boy lace up his sneakers for a basketball game. I was superstitious when I played for Mister Wilson, and I ran through pre-game drills in certain set ways, and changed socks and headbands according to how well I played the game before, and many more tiny silly things like that, even in practice; and one evening, before practice, as I laced and relaced my sneakers to get them exactly right, while humming my lacing and relacing song, Mister Wilson sat down next to me and started talking.

This was highly unusual for him, as generally he kept a dignified or annoyed distance from us, and it was doubly unnerving for me because he was messing with my lacing and relacing ritual, but for once I had the wit to stop battling and just listen to him.

I used to do that too, when I was in the army, he said. I used to lace and relace my boots before any kind of event. I got into the habit in boot camp, I think. Probably a way to calm down. One time I remember I was asleep when guys attacked across a river on a bridge they built just below the surface of the water, how smart was that? So we had to hurry. But I laced and relaced my boots. I had to. My guys were screaming at me to hurry up. We laughed about it afterwards. So there you go. Took me years to stop lacing and relacing. What a relief to get into civilian shoes again. Now I know why God invented loafers, so we don’t have to lace and relace, you know what I mean? Well, no, you don’t, but perhaps someday you will. Alright, let’s get going. We only have the gym until eight tonight, there’s a musical rehearsal or something, we don’t want to be here for that, do we? And that’s Sister Agnes, a stickler for time.

I remember sitting there startled for a moment, after he jumped up to go bark at the other players, and I’d like to report that I jumped up and ran after him and said something, anything -- something as piercing as listen, Mister Wilson, thank you for going to war, nobody ever says thanks for that, or as innocuous as hey, Mister Wilson, that’s cool that you are a lacing and relacing nut also. But I didn’t. I sat there for a moment thinking about how creatively devious an underwater bridge would be if you wanted to get across a river at night and murder some unsuspecting guys, and then I got back into my lacing and relacing ritual, and then practice started, and while we were supposed to spend that whole practice focusing on getting the ball inside to the big guys at the start of a possession, so they could dish it back out if they were bottled up and we could spread the floor, pretty soon we lost interest in the theme and started hoisting up silly shots, and trying to run fast breaks off even made shots, and making egregious turnovers just to see if we could get Mister Wilson to make that strangled hopeless sound in his throat, which eventually he did. So we thought it was a pretty good practice, all things considered, made all the better by a guy hiding Mister Wilson’s dapper fedora hat in the men’s room. As I remember Mister Wilson finally found his hat just after Sister Agnes had given him a bitter look because it was after eight o’clock and he was late getting his team out of the gym.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the ‘sprawling serpentine sinuous riverine’ Oregon novel Mink River.