I've always liked my son. He's a super kid; a bright, sensitive, good-natured person whom I respect a lot. When, at the age of 14, he passed me in height—I'm six feet—and kept going to 6'9", I maintained my admiration, albeit with some degree of intimidation.
The breach in our relationship came last year when he was discovered by college basketball recruiters. While they pulled him in one direction, I pulled him in another. Family life went to pieces. The adjustments that had been made to divorce, remarriage, a working mother and frequent economic insecurity were pieces of cake compared with the trauma brought upon our house by basketball recruiting.
My 15-year-old daughter Karen developed a case of sibling jealousy unrivaled in family history. My husband and I battled constantly about one another's ignorance or arrogance, feminism or chauvinism and other issues that had lain dormant for most of our five-year marriage. Friends, relatives, co-workers, teachers, schoolmates, teammates—everybody got into the act as recruiting became the main issue in our lives. Even the dog was remembered in a letter from one coach.
This story does have a happy ending, however. My son, Tom Leifsen, is now a center at a major university. He's happy. His coaches are happy. I'm happy. For nearly a year it wasn't that way. Recruiting turned our household upside down.
March 5, 1979
You see, nobody in our family had ever been recruited for anything except the Army. We were accustomed to rejection and to struggling with our bootstraps. When colleges began competing for one of ours, we were naturally quite thrilled.
According to Bob O'Neill, Tom's coach at Longwood High School on Long Island, approximately 200 letters of inquiry about Tom came from schools in the East, South and Midwest. A college was rejected early in the game unless Tom was interested in its basketball and academic programs. About two dozen schools received serious thought, and when Tom was ready to make his decision, he was considering six colleges. I considered only two.
When recruiters began visiting our house, I was polite and objective, determined to be a good reflection on Tom. I offered coffee and cookies and listened attentively. I was aware that the object of the home visit was to win the parents, especially the mother.
I remember the first visit vividly because Fred Barakat of Fairfield University sat in a flea-market chair I had just repainted; when he left, there were blue stripes on the back of his blazer. He later told me he'd had to discard the jacket. I offered to pay for it, but he laughed and said, "Just send me your kid."
Barakat and his associate coach, Brendan Suhr, used a routine popular with cops who interrogate witnesses: one played the heavy, while the other followed up with gentle persuasion. Barakat frequently banged his fist on the table for emphasis. He asked us to turn off the stereo. Suhr mopped his sweaty brow and smiled while drinking Cokes. The Fair-field team is nicknamed the Stags, and it was often said to us that season, "The campus is in the grip of Stagmania."
Coaches' visits soon became routine. Recruiters sat on the couch. The coffee tray was placed on the table in front of them in an effort to protect the table from too much emphasis. Our Old English sheepdog, Sasha, a respected member of the household, sniffed the visitors and then sat at their feet until the talk put her to sleep. She sometimes snored.
Recruiters arrived with briefcases full of brochures, clippings, schedules and four-color printed material. While we sipped coffee, they made their pitch. As they droned on, I began to see them as the Willy Lomans of the sports world: on the road much of the time, living in motels, hawking their product to strangers. I asked a few of them about this aspect of their jobs, but they never complained. "I enjoy it," was all they would say.
Few recruiters could hide their insecurity about the competition, and after asking Tom about the other schools that were recruiting him, they would invariably ask, "Did they tell you that you would play as a freshman?" Nobody had promised that, but most implied it.
The recruiters didn't attack the competition, but they wanted to be sure Tom knew all that was negative about the other schools. For example, Rollie Massimino of Villanova described the dreariness of trekking up to Cornell in the winter, a required stop in the Ivy League. And the big-city coaches all made it sound as if Tom would disappear if he chose Davidson in North Carolina. "No one will hear of you again," one recruiter told Tom, "because The New York Times doesn't cover Davidson's games."
Recruiters seemed to get special delight out of telling tales about unscrupulous colleagues who offer new cars, television sets, vacations, even cash to boys and their families. Three times we heard the story of a Western university using Frank Sinatra to call up a prospect's mother and invite her out to dinner. Either because Tom wasn't quite a big enough catch or because the recruiters sensed we'd be incensed by illegal offers, he never received any. Or maybe we were just lucky enough to be dealing only with scrupulous men.
The only celebrities Tom heard from were politicians and professional basketball players boosting Davidson and Brown. J. Joseph Garrahy, Rhode Island's governor, wrote: "...your matriculation would be of great benefit to the Brown community, as well as the state of Rhode Island."
"I wonder how he knows that?" Tom asked as he ducked through the doorway and swaggered from the room.
On the academic side, recruiters might have done well to bring along a professor or two. Few knew how many of their graduates are accepted by graduate schools. They knew less about what courses of study were available. Tom, who is interested in marketing in general and consumer psychology in particular, was told by one recruiter, "CPAs are in demand now, and our accounting program is tops." Another thought Tom might like to be an engineer.
Three recruiters brought color slide shows with them but in each case had trouble with the equipment. During one show the sound system didn't work; during the second, the projector wouldn't focus. A third slide presentation was hopelessly out of sequence.
When a recruiter talked about his school's career opportunities or about business contacts that could be made through alumni, he addressed my husband Allan. When he described his school's housing or food, he talked to me. Brian Mahoney of nearby Manhattan assured me that my son would come home often because he'd need a good meal and someone to do his laundry.
"Do you give scholarships for women's basketball?" I asked one unsuspecting recruiter, curious to know how colleges were complying with Title IX regulations. "Why?" he asked, looking startled. "Do you want to play basketball?" We were in a high school gym at the time, and a girls' team was warming up. I thought it remarkable that he missed the connection.
"Why must you reduce every issue to sexism?" Allan asked impatiently one evening following a recruiting visit. "You can't get these guys to change the world."
"Well, they could certainly keep up with it," I snapped. Allan—who is not Tom's father; I was divorced from Leonard Leifsen when Tom was eight years old—had developed a level of tolerance during our marriage, but it was straining. I knew he wished he could tip off the recruiters before they arrived. He retreated to the basement before I could get on my soap box. Tom already had his headphones plugged in. Later we heard a rumor that coaches had warned each other that I was "a tough mother."
Karen suffered a severe identity crisis during the recruiting siege. She was tired of being known as "Leifsen's sister" at school. She refused to sit in on any of the recruiting visits because, she said, "I can't stand everyone telling him how wonderful he is." The worst identity problem, however, was Allan's. He was called "Mr. Leifsen" by recruiters, though he was always introduced as Allan Eddy. He strongly favored Fairfield and Penn, and I think it's because they called him by his correct name.
My initial contact with Davidson occurred after a game at Tom's high school. The first thing Assistant Coach Tom Abatemarco said to me after introducing himself was, "We're going to pick Tom up in a helicopter." He was referring to Tom's upcoming visit to Davidson. I found myself staring at the fringe of hair around Abatemarco's forehead and wondering if he had cut it himself. I don't remember why I thought about that. Maybe it was because I didn't know what to say about the helicopter. I considered Davidson's recruiting style exploitative and silly, so I just walked away.
When Tom visited Davidson, he was, as promised, picked up by helicopter at the Charlotte airport. After a whirlywind tour, he was given a ground-level look at things in a white Rolls-Royce owned by Eddie Biedenbach, who had recently been named Davidson's head coach. Tom was ensconced in a campus guest house—he stayed in dorms at other colleges—and when he visited the locker room, he found two Davidson uniforms with his name on them. He was wined and dined at a restaurant called Big Daddy's and sent home with a head full of the glories of Southern living and color pictures of himself with the Rolls and the uniforms.
Shortly after Tom returned, Abatemarco and Biedenbach visited our house. Earlier, they had sent Tom a copy of the Charlotte News, from which I learned there had been six coaches at Davidson in the past seven years. I later heard that one of the coaches had entered the hospital with a nervous disorder, and another was fired. Biedenbach assured me that his job was secure and that he and his wife were planning to buy a house near the school. Biedenbach had earned a reputation as a high-pressure recruiter during his nine years as an assistant coach at North Carolina State.
All told, 42 letters, notes and Mail-grams poured in to Tom from Davidson. They contained such messages as: "It is the staff and people that care and love you that I think will make the final decision"; and "You will probably be driving that Rolls before it's over, because you will be in a position to do so."
If Davidson's recruiting was heavy-handed, Princeton's was invisible. Assistant Coach Bob Dukiet called a few times, and I spotted him at a game one night as I scanned the audience looking for people wearing brown penny-loafers, the trademark of the Ivy League.
When Pete Carril, Princeton's head coach, came to our house with Dukiet and a former basketball player, they brought no briefcase, no propaganda, no slide show. Dukiet wore pinstripes with his pennies this time, and Carril looked rumpled, which is his trademark. He handed us a four-inch newspaper article citing Princeton's undergraduate program as tops in the country. The trio sat stiffly on the couch and smiled. No thanks, they didn't care for any coffee.
"Do you have any questions?" Carril finally asked. We couldn't think of one right off. We were pretty well informed about Princeton. A conversation about basketball eventually got started, but the session didn't go well.
"I was glad when they got involved," Tom said, "but I was disappointed at their visit. I never got a sense they wanted me." Tom's stopover at Princeton was equally disappointing. On his last three college visits, he went straight from Villanova to Penn to Princeton, where Allan and I picked him up. Carril was annoyed that Tom had stayed an extra day at Penn, shortening his Princeton visit. "Tom couldn't look me in the eye when he got here," Carril told me, sensing Tom's disinterest in Princeton.
"I used to fantasize about going to Princeton and being another Bill Bradley," Tom said on the way home. The past tense dashed my hopes. Princeton had been my No. 1 choice.
Not that there was anything wrong with Penn. It's a fine school; it had been my second pick all along; and its coach, Bob Weinhauer, and his assistants not only remembered Allan's last name, but they also dealt with me as someone with genuine concern for my son's education. There was no frothy conversation specially designed for the old lady.
The recruiting efforts of Brown, another Ivy League school, were even more quickly doomed than Princeton's. Gerry Alaimo, the Brown coach, drove down from Providence in a blizzard without benefit of galoshes or snow tires. While the storm raged, we ate tuna-fish sandwiches and talked about what a nice kid Tom was. Later, Alaimo dug his way out of our driveway and drove away. A few weeks later Alaimo quit Brown and disappeared. We suspected he was headed for the Caribbean.
When coaches were not visiting us, they were telephoning, the calls increasing in frequency as the April signing date neared.
"It's for me," Tom bellowed happily during the fall.
"Tell them I'm not home," he pleaded as the school year wore on. Sunday nights became especially tedious. Recruiters know it is the time families are usually home, relaxing with supper, watching television or perhaps reading. If Tom didn't happen to be around, they never failed to give their pitch to whoever answered the phone. If someone other than a recruiter did manage to get through, it usually turned out that the caller had phoned to find out how the recruiting was going.
By March and April signs of paranoia were evident. George Blaney of Holy Cross allegedly told New Hampshire's Gerry Friel that he knew for a fact Tom was not going to New Hampshire. Friel, justifiably upset, made a lot of phone calls. Somebody told Hofstra that Tom was going to Manhattan, so Hofstra dropped out of the race. Villanova's Massimino told Tom he was recruiting Clarence Tillman, a star forward from West Philadelphia High, as well as Tom, and whichever kid made up his mind first had the scholarship. Tillman ended up going to Kentucky. So much for ultimatums.
The pressure at home was worse. Each day I unearthed a new, favorable bit of data about the Ivies or a fresh horror about the South or a knock on Biedenbach. The more I pushed, the more Tom rebelled. "I'm tired of having the Ivy League shoved down my throat," he said.
"But, Tom, you have such potential. You deserve the best there is," I said. If Karen was in a reasonably stable state, Tom sought her help to "get Mom off my back." He often complained of his confusion about the choices confronting him. "They all sound so good," he said, "and I like so many of the coaches."
"I like New Hampshire," Karen said. "I'd be outdoors all the time, skiing."
We listed the advantages and disadvantages of each school's location, basketball program, courses of study, campus environment, publicity and record for getting its students into graduate school. When we ran out of things to compare, I said, "What about road trips? Isn't Princeton going to Hawaii?"
"I think in two years," Tom said. "Penn is going to New Orleans and San Diego."
"Ah," I replied, "you'll see a Pacific sunset. Where is Davidson going?"
"Indiana and New Mexico, I think."
"New Mexico! Yuck," I said. "It's full of rattlesnakes."
The pressure at school was nearly as bad. A social studies teacher was so convinced that Tom should go to Penn that he badgered him as much as I did. Tom developed a hostility for the teacher, and his marks began to drop. A mathematics teacher had a daughter at Davidson, and the school principal was a Manhattan alumnus.
Tom set Saturday, April 8 as the deadline for making his decision, so he could "get it over with" and allow the losers a chance to recruit someone else. The suspense was killing. So consumed were we as D day approached that we completely forgot my husband's birthday, which was April 6.
Penn's Weinhauer made a last-ditch attempt to nail Tom on April 7. He felt so confident when he left our house that he later admitted, "I was sure I had him." Manhattan made another try on Saturday morning; at noon, Tom left for a lunch date with Abatemarco.
"What'll I do if he picks Davidson?" I asked Bob O'Neill, who had come over to lend moral support. In addition to coaching, O'Neill also teaches psychology, and I thought I might get a 50-minute session on coping. "I think he'll pick Davidson," O'Neill said. "I got that feeling when he came back from his visit there. I'd like to see him go to Penn, but he'll be O.K. wherever he goes."
O'Neill had never told Tom of his own preference, and I admired his professionalism. I remembered how antagonistic I had once been toward O'Neill. When Tom was a sophomore and not yet an aggressive player, O'Neill had hollered from the bench, "Stop playing like a girl." A reformed smoker, O'Neill would chew up as many as five packs of gum during a game. He chewed with such frenzy as the tension mounted that I watched in fascination as he shouted at the referees without choking. Gum wrappers littered the gym. I wondered if I'd ever learn to like or admire Biedenbach, as I now liked and admired O'Neill.
I started pacing when he left. The day was shot. The house was too quiet. I called my friend Linda Williams, who rushed right over with a quart of Amaretto and some heavy cream that we heated and poured into our coffee. We rehashed the probabilities. Linda reminisced about her college days when she struggled to win one of the few academic scholarships available and still had to work at two jobs to get through. She recalled the football jocks who were given scholarships and brand new red convertibles, even though they couldn't read.
Karen came home. "Well, has he made up his silly mind yet?" she asked, and then she sat and drummed her fingers on the table while the dog sniffed around hoping somebody would drop a buttered muffin. By the time Tom arrived with his friend Gifford, Linda and I had polished off two pots of coffee and most of the Amaretto.
"Well, I've made my decision," Tom said. He was grinning. He allowed a long pause here so we could absorb the drama of the moment.
"Well, Mom...it's Davidson." Linda, who is barely five feet tall and always craning her neck in our house, jumped up when she saw my face and ran for the Amaretto. Except for the clatter at the stove, the room was silent. Karen reached over and slapped Tom's palm. Giff shuffled from one foot to the other. My face hurt, and a hard lump in my throat was working its way to my jugular. When I could utter no words, Tom added quietly, "I'll be able to come home for Christmas." I put my head down on the table and cried. Linda poured the rest of the booze into my cup.
"Well, I still love you, Tom," I croaked. The dog started licking my toes. Tom and Giff went out to celebrate. When Allan got home from work, he looked at me and said, "Oh, no."
Most of the recruiters were already burning O'Neill's wires, hoping he would let the cat out of the bag. As Penn Assistant Bob Staak later told O'Neill, "We were trying to read your voice." When we finally let out the news later in the day, the losers were good sports about it, offering congratulations, expressing pleasure at having known Tom and asking calmly why they hadn't been chosen. Several let him know that he was still welcome at their school if he changed his mind. Dukiet was flabbergasted. Princeton, I believe, had considered Penn its only real competition. "Let me talk to your mother," Dukiet said after hearing Tom's decision.
"I can't believe it," he sputtered. "Davidson! I'm really surprised." He later asked me, "Where did Coach Carril go wrong?" I had no answers.
I cried that night. My "big bird," as Karen put it, was leaving the nest. I thought about this handsome kid who had lived with me every day for nearly 18 years. Life would indeed be different. My own rites of passage demanded recognition. I cried some more.
By Sunday the tears had stopped, and I was looking forward to normaley. I apologized to Tom for my unreasonable behavior. I wouldn't be a sore loser. I told Tom that he was like a fine antique to me—the older he got the more valuable he became—and so I worried over him more. He forgave me.
Allan and I dragged out the atlas and traced a motor route to North Carolina. We would drive Tom and his worldly possessions to Davidson in September. I was determined to see with my own eyes this place where my son would live four years of his life.
The next morning we went to the high school to meet Biedenbach and Abate-marco and sign the scholarship letter. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, Biedenbach rushed over to pump our hands. I looked at him stonily, but he kept on bubbling. Abatemarco steered him into the building.
Most of Tom's friends squeezed into the principal's office for the big event, and Karen got out of class. Tom puffed up to his full height, the biggest man on campus. O'Neill was there, and one of the kids took pictures. Biedenbach seemed impressed by the show. After the signing, we went to the cafeteria for coffee. I was mumbling and not making much sense. Biedenbach asked me if I'd like to talk with his mother in Pittsburgh. I was confused but realized later that he thought his mother might be able to offer advice on easing the separation between mother and son. It was kind of him to offer. Tom went to class and O'Neill left, too. He said he had a class. I knew he needed a chewing-gum fix.
Biedenbach offered to get a summer job for Tom selling vacuum cleaners door to door. His father-in-law, he said, was an executive with Electrolux. "I think it's good experience for a young man," he said earnestly. Allan dragged me to the car before I could open my mouth.
We had peace at home for one day. Then Tom began having second thoughts about Davidson. "What?" I screamed. "I thought this was settled." I wasn't very helpful. Tom made some calls, and Davidson sent some more letters and a copy of its firmed-up basketball schedule. Eventually, the doubts receded. "I just put the questions out of my mind," Tom admitted later. "I couldn't stand to think about them anymore." Instead, he got caught up in the fun of being a high school senior.
One day a package that rattled arrived from Davidson. The school had framed his scholarship letter and sent it in a plain brown wrapper. Tom managed to open the package without slashing his fingers on the broken glass. "Jeez," he said. I bit my tongue. By the end of June I had adjusted so well that I ordered his graduation cake with DAVIDSON, CLASS OF 1982 piped in icing.
After Tom graduated, we made plans to move from Long Island to New Jersey in the middle of August. Weekends and nights were spent packing and organizing a garage sale. Tom was working in New York City—he wasn't selling vacuum cleaners—three days a week and spending nights with a friend there. In August the doubts about Davidson began again. "I started wondering about life in the South," he said. "I like working in New York, and Davidson is so far away. Who would ever see me play?"
At this time Abatemarco called to tell Tom that he was leaving his post at Davidson for personal reasons. He told Tom that he was too upset to talk about it on the phone, but would explain more when he came to Long Island. He hoped it wouldn't affect Tom's decision to go to Davidson. We found out shortly after the call that Abatemarco had accepted a job as assistant coach at St. John's. Biedenbach refused to divulge the reason for Abatemarco's departure. He called frequently, however, and if I picked up the phone, he tried to question me about Tom's feelings. I refused to discuss them.
Tom's friend Jim Scaffidi called one day. "I can't believe this," Scaffidi said. "Davidson just called and said I was accepted." Scaffidi had applied to Davidson past the application deadline and had been turned down.
"I'm no dummy," he said. "I know what they're trying to pull." He was indignant, and so were we. Biedenbach assured Tom it was merely coincidence, an opening had become available. In an effort to ease Tom's doubts, Biedenbach flew to New York to meet him for lunch. He also asked some New York alums to telephone Tom at work. This drove his employer nuts.
Tom's indecision continued. I couldn't help him. We decided he would be better off talking things out with O'Neill, who could be impartial and rational.
The household was chaos. Allan was working in New Jersey and setting up our new apartment. Tom was away three days a week, but I could never remember which ones. I couldn't find enough boxes, and it had been over 90° for the past 10 days. Being upset about leaving a job I liked didn't help much, nor did the fact that I was breaking in my replacement. Karen couldn't find any of her clothes, and the guts of the coffeepot had gone to New Jersey. Phone messages got hopelessly scrambled.
Another hassle developed when Abatemarco called Tom one night and told him that I had lied to Biedenbach by denying that another college had heard of Tom's indecision and had come around to do some additional recruiting. Abatemarco was probably right—I really don't know what I told Biedenbach. When Tom asked me about it, I wouldn't even talk about it. I told him I couldn't stand to be involved anymore.
"I don't remember being asked," I screamed. "I deny everything. I don't care if you join the Marines!" Tom stormed out of the house, and I burst into tears. Karen knew something was about to hit the fan, so she left, too. They sat out in the car for a while and then went to a neighbor's to call me up before coming home. Tom and I apologized to each other. The packed boxes in his room were still labeled NORTH CAROLINA.
Two days before we moved, I came home from work, slumped into a kitchen chair and leaned my elbows on the table. Tom hovered around the room like a helicopter. His friend Giff sat at the table, eyes wide, wondering why he was going through this again.
"I've decided not to go to Davidson," Tom said.
"O.K.," I said without looking up. There was a pause. Did he think he was announcing an Academy Award?
"I'm going to. the University of Pennsylvania," he said, increasing his volume slightly. I continued to gaze at the checkered tablecloth. I was thinking about the irony of it. I couldn't get glad. It was too late. We'd been through too much. I felt guilty about all the pressure I had imposed in the name of love. Who was I kidding? I was pushy, a stage mother, forcing on my son my own aspirations for the Great American Dream. Without looking at him, really too tired to raise my head that high, I asked, "Are you sure this is what you want and not what you think I want?"
"Yes," he said. This time he answered without the symphony backup. The semester was to begin in less than three weeks. I thought, this has to be the final decision. We got on with the evening's activities, and Tom chatted about Penn.
"You know, Penn's Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the country," he said at one point.
"No kidding," I said with a straight face.
P.S. A few weeks ago Karen got her first notices as a high-scoring forward on the Millburn High team. I shudder to think this may all happen again.