This is a song. I warn you: It's a long song, and it whoops and wails and washes all over the place. It's a song about a boy with a dream: to escape a war and to play in the NBA. The dream has legs as long as his, and it carries him across an ocean, across a city, through a school gate, up a flight of stairs and into a corridor. It might have been any ordinary school, with a decent coach who would give the boy a safe, solid place to land and hold on, amid all the upheaval and confusion of his life. But instead he has come to this school, this corridor and these two doors: a gray door and a blue door. Behind the doors gust entirely different forces—forces of will and yearning and pain waiting to surge out and sweep him to a place even farther away than the place from which he has come. Behind one door stands a three-time Olympian. Behind the other, a two-time convict. Behind both doors, somehow, lies what the song is really about.
The boy looks at the doors. If he opens them, his war will only be starting. If he opens them, the song will begin. . . .
The boy's eyes rise. Above the gray door, in large letters, is a sign: TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IS ALL WE HAVE. On the door, in small letters, another sign: ADVANCED PHYSICAL TRAINING. Thumps—ba-boom, ba-boom. Faintly, the song is beginning. Heartbeat is music too.
The boy opens the gray door. Inside is a workout room, but it's not like any he's ever known. Dreamy music blown through wooden pipes wafts from speakers. A shiver runs through the boy's bare arms and legs. A window is open, and it's freezing, but none of his new teammates moves to shut it.
August 9, 1998
His eyes rove. Large, heavy balls lie in one corner, a thick tree stump in another. Ba-boom, ba-boom. Just above the shoulder-high gray padding, the walls are covered by sayings unlike any he has ever seen:
I SEE NO VIRTUE WHERE I SMELL NO SWEAT.
NEVER GIVE A SWORD TO A MAN WHO CAN'T DANCE.
IGNORANCE IS THE ROOT OF ALL HUMAN SUFFERING.
ACHIEVEMENT IS THE STORY OF A FLAMING HEART.
A man appears. No, not a man—a land formation of flesh, Appalachian shoulders and neck sloping up to a massive boulder of a head. His whistle blasts. His voice booms off the walls: "Let's go forward!" Suddenly the basketball players at The Dwight School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are scurrying to a dozen workout stations. One boy squats with a barbell behind his neck, leaps and spins 360 degrees before landing. Another pushes himself into a handstand as his feet spider-walk up the padded wall. Another shadowboxes with dumbbells in his hands. Two boys, the sides of their right feet pressed together, grasp each other's right hand and pull with all their might.
"Cold!" the giant booms. "Who says it is cold? Man is free when cold is not cold and hot is not hot! The window stays open!" The giant speaks in a Slavic accent. The giant speaks in italics and exclamation points. Thunder is music too.
The new boy? His life's over. The giant rears back and, from a few paces away, hurls a hard, heavy ball at him, thundering toward him, eyes blazing, jaw jutting, and roars into his face, "I'll kill you!"
The boy is a Bosnian Muslim. The man is a Bosnian Serb. The boy knows he's supposed to forget the old song in his head because he's in America now, and that's what America is, the place of forgetting, the place of starting over. He knows he's supposed to forget the piccolo whine of Serb mortar shells that sliced the air and sent him racing off a playground that afternoon two years earlier to hide in the basement of a gym. Forget the thud of the Serb bullet that went through the brain of one of his relatives, and the crash of the Serb shell that killed another relative in his sleep. Forget the Serbs who strip-searched his mother and those who pounded on her door one night, overturned the furniture and ordered her to vacate in one week—or risk being found floating down the river at dawn, like so many of their neighbors were. Forget the family home that Serbs took, and the nearly three years of separation from his parents that he endured because they wanted to spare him from Serbs.
He knows he's supposed to forget it all, accept this trick of fate that has washed a Bosnian Muslim boy into the hands of a massive Bosnian Serb 4,400 miles from home, and look right past this Serb's flaming eyes and his roar, and clamp down on the trembling inside his stomach and chest, and catch the heavy ball, all of which Vedad Osmanovic somehow does . . . with just one small backward step. "Never take a step back!" the giant shouts. "What is this? Life blinks at you and you s---?" His whistle blasts; the players rush to the next station.
"Why is your left foot there?" Radomir Kovacevic booms as Vedad starts to explode out of a squat under 100 pounds of weights. Vedad blinks.
"Didn't I tell you to put it here?"
"But I was thinking—" says Vedad.
"Do not bring your thought into this room!"
"But if I—"
"But and if equal b-------!" Whistle blast. "Change! Let's go, let's go, let's go! Give me your opinion after a year of 100 push-ups a day! You have not earned it. Deprivation creates imagination! The more you suffer, the more you get to fly with your own wings!"
It's autumn 1996. Vedad is a junior. Two years of this . . . is it possible? The time between blasts of Radomir's whistle dwindles down to 30 seconds . . . 20 . . . 15. . . . "Whoever has a system must be successful!" Radomir roars. "Not for one year, not five years, not 10 years or 25. A lifetime!"
Ten seconds . . . five . . . three . . . a roomful of boys racing from exercise to exercise, eyes crazed with fatigue. "Head up and smile when you're tired!" Radomir shouts. "Bounce on your feet! Be merciless to yourself, because your enemy will be! Look like a warrior! You are fighting for a place in life, for a woman, for food! Elevate yourselves! I am dying for you to let out what's inside, to become yourselves!"
But who are these boys? The son of Kenya's ambassador to the United Nations is on the basketball team. There's a Nigerian, a Jamaican, a kid from France, two kids (including Vedad) from Bosnia, a kid who's half Puerto Rican, a kid who's half Indian, a kid from Los Angeles and a half-dozen kids from New York City. Rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, Muslim kids, Christian kids, Jewish kids. Vedad exchanges a glance with Emir Delic, the other Muslim war refugee from Bosnia, one whose father was killed by a Serb mortar. What will drop next from the sky?
Radomir seizes the tree stump. He squats, shifts it from shoulder to shoulder and explodes upward. "You don't need equipment!" he yells. "Nature gives us everything we need! You don't even need a tree!" He seizes Vedad. Oh, my Allah! The world goes upside down. Vedad is now the log bouncing on the Serb's shoulders!
Now half of the Dwight Tigers are jumping on the backs of the other half, each player hanging from his partner's neck, trying to claw his way around him. Now Radomir is blindfolding them and ordering them to shoot jump shots. Now he's telling them about the Zen Buddhist monks who blindfolded him to develop his other senses during the two months he lived in a Japanese monastery. Now he's rolling a basketball across the floor, and the boys are racing after it, fighting for it in a free-for-all. "This is life! This is what made you! Hundreds of millions of sperms, all equals, all swimming to see which will reach the egg first, and only one will see the sun, the light of the moon, only one can make you! To be born is the biggest victory against the biggest odds in the biggest competition anywhere, ever—ohhhhh, what a champion! But a champion for what? To watch television, drink Coca-Cola and eat McDonald's? No! We must continue with the same effort we achieved by outswimming millions! We must keep proving we are worthy of that victory!" Now he has the boys sitting down, each with a basketball in his hand, feeling and studying every scratch and pimple on the ball, emptying their minds of all thought, pulling air into their chests and chanting, Ommmmm. Now it's over, and they're all blinking at each other—but it's not over. Vedad and his teammates exit the gray door. They walk toward the blue one. . . .
Awright, now, bring it. No instructions, no "team goals" talks, no sheet music—this is jazz, son. Woop-wop-bee-bop-dee-doop-dop -dee-woddly-woddly-woop. Grab a ball, stroke a few to get your feel, and then you five match up with you five and let's roll, brotha. Practice jerseys, team regulations, introductions? Dear Jesus, don't you know who Pee Wee Kirkland is? Don't you know the playground legend, the prison stories—didn't those old Nike commercials play in that country you come from? Tiny Archibald'll tell ya—Pee Wee's the toughest guy he ever faced. Stretching exercises? Hell, Pee Wee used to pop out of a white Rolls for a Rucker League game in Harlem wearing a sombrero with little balls danglin' from the brim and long foxes danglin' from each arm, sit the ladies on each knee while the other chumps warmed up, then stroll on the court and cook Charlie Scott for 40. Passing drills? What passing drills? Set plays? How many set plays you think Pee Wee ran the day he won the high school all-star MVP award at one playground, hustled over to watch the pro all-star game at 115th and Lenox, was invited onto the court to play with Wilt Chamberlain and Happy Hairston . . . and scored 30 to win that MVP award too? System? At 16, Pee Wee Kirkland was rolling in dough he'd made working outside the system. Whistle, clipboard, practice schedule? You crazy, man?
Bring it, brotha. You teach the game by lettin' 'em play the game, waitin' for the teachin' moment to pop and pouncin' on it. You teach mentality and appetite and cold blood, not mechanics and foot placement and drop steps. You show a kid a killer move and let him make the intuitive leap. You head-fake or stutter-step or crossover and get a half step on your man, you create, Vedad, and take it to the hole, y'hear me? Either shoot it if you're open or draw somebody else's man to you and dish—got it?
Vedad blinks. In Yugoslavia every facet of the game was broken down and rehearsed.
"Systems?" cries Pee Wee in the basketball gym behind the blue door. "Some people, like Radomir, believe in systems. I believe in stayin' open to God's design. If you try to own greatness, you won't. Just let it come out. I give 'em the green light. I give 'em the freedom to fly. Sure, some kids might not fly, but who are you or I to determine that? Nobody knows when the light's gonna turn on with a kid. Give a kid a system, all these repetitions and fundamentals, and you're tryin' to force the light to come on. Why you wanna teach great players the norm? Great players go outside the norm."
Pee Wee's standing at half-court, watching his new team scrimmage for two straight hours, sniffing for fear. When he smells it, he changes. All the sly and the subtle and the smooth go out of him. He goes nuts, man, because fear's the thing that gets in the way of the gift, and the only way he knows to get rid of fear is to blowtorch it, make 'em more fearful of being afraid than of just letting go. Uh-oh. He just got a whiff. "You scared? What's wrong, scaredy boy? Jesus Christ, admit you're scared or git off the court. Say it."
"Uh . . . "
"Say it! You're scared!"
"But Pee Wee, I was just—"
"I'm . . . I'm scared."
"'Course you're scared! I'm not coachin' to coach basketball! I'm coachin' to change lives! If you break the fear here, you can break the fear in life. I know what fear can do. I've seen it paralyze men in jail. That's why I ain't blowin' no whistles. Life has no referee! Somebody gotta push you into the fire, till fire is what you all about."
He calls the Dwight Tigers together. What's coming next? Pee Wee's never in one place you can put your finger on; he's liquid, he's seeping all over the place. How else do you come out the other end of 40 years on the streets and 11 years in the hole with skin as smooth as honey on an apple? Now he's telling the boys that grades come first, so they won't be practicing much during the season, and even when they do, if they've got a test the next day or a paper due, just give him the word and slide, no matter how nuts that makes Radomir. Anytime they need him, he tells them, just call him. Midnight, 3 a.m., girl trouble, father trouble, school trouble, street trouble—he's there, ready to roll out of bed and talk all night, to feed them the wisdom burned into him by 4,000 nights of loneliness in a prison cell, to save anyone who needs saving—and it's true, he really will. He invites them all to School of Skillz, the three-hour basketball-and-life clinic he holds each week year-round for free for about 300 inner-city kids. He's so sweet now, as he talks, so quiet and charming and vulnerable that you almost forget that he just humiliated you on the floor, and you want to hug him.
We're a team with no home, he tells the boys. Ceiling's so low in Dwight's tiny gym that a 20-foot jump shot scrapes it, which means that for most practices they'll have to walk five blocks to the little gym in the basement of Central Baptist Church, where there are no locker rooms or bleachers. It means they'll have to take the bus across town to play their home games on a banana-peel-slippery court inside a funky dome converted from an asphalt plant into a gym 22 years ago.
We've got no home, Pee Wee preaches, so we've got to be each other's home. He pulls the players into a huddle around him and has them place one hand over his hand, one arm over a teammate's shoulder, until they're all one African-European-Caribbean- American knot. He makes it up on the spot, the chant they'll chant together all season: We come together! We win together! We lose together! We stay together! We pray together! We love each other! We love each other! WE LOVE EACH OTHER!
Pee Wee and Radomir both sense it right off. Vedad's a gifted shooter, but he's holding back. Vedad's eyes don't smolder when everyone else is hugging and screaming, We love each other! Vedad's hands don't ball up when someone drives the lane and splatters him on the padding of the church basement walls. Vedad's wrist hesitates when there's a 20-foot jump shot waiting to be hammered home. He's still the outsider, hiding in the choir and humming the refrain, not letting out the song. They'll pull it out of him, Radomir and Pee Wee will—that's their job, that's their life—if only the boy will let them.
But will he? Vedad yearns to win a college basketball scholarship, to lift the burden off his mother and father, who are struggling to learn English, starting their lives from scratch. He was brave enough to get on an airplane with his brother and fly to America as part of a refugee program, to force his stubborn parents to abandon the apartment and house they were trying to keep from the clutches of the Serbs and to join their sons a few months later in a new land . . . but is he large enough inside, is there room there for two men like these? Vedad steals glances at them. There's Radomir Kovacevic: the 6'4 1/2", 300-pound judo heavyweight who represented Yugoslavia in three Olympics and won a bronze medal in 1980. He is the only foreigner to have won Japan's university national championship four times, for which he was awarded a samurai sword. On weekend nights he's the bouncer guarding the doors of a fashionable Manhattan bar. On weekdays he's the chairman of the athletic department at the Dwight School, training its teams and transforming boys into men. Vedad's eyes swing to Pee Wee Kirkland, the varsity basketball coach: all that street rep, but never played a minute in the NBA, opting instead to be Superfly and ending up doing four- and seven-year shifts in the pen before he finally changed. Can't help but believe a guy who says, "I'd rather pluck s--- from a dog's ass with a toothpick than go back to a life of crime."
But what are they doing in a private school overlooking Central Park? Only God and Mr. Spahn know. That's Stephen Spahn, the school's chancellor, the Ivy League basketball scoring champ for Dartmouth in 1961-62, the man who later worked in the Far East and met the Dalai Lama and who kept looking for ways to bring East and West together at his school. In walked Radomir, a bubbling stew of Balkan and Oriental philosophy, to give a judo demonstration at a school assembly in 1985, just one month after he had arrived in America. With wet eyes Radomir spoke of freedom's preciousness, then closed his eyes and sang in three languages in his deep, hoarse, powerful voice. "It was like George Washington had come alive again," remembers Rusty Kanokogi, the judo instructor who brought the new immigrant to school that day. "For some kids, it went over their heads. Some, it went through their heads. Some, it went through their hearts, and some, it went right up their behinds. That's Radomir. That's always Radomir."
Spahn hired him in a heartbeat, and he offered his own child to Radomir's furnace. His eldest son, Blake, a cartoon-watching dreamer who had grown up on Park Avenue surrounded by maids and chefs, moved into Radomir's basement, to awaken each morning at 4:30 for relentless exercises and drills, to run in the snow in a T-shirt, to ponder the 67 aphorisms Radomir had written for him, to draw and to sing and to speak in front of a mirror, to meditate for hours in painful positions until all pain and all thought vanished. To become the young man who would be captain of Columbia's tennis team, the Ivy League champions in 1994, and an Oxford tennis captain, judo champion and scholar today.
In 1995, when Stephen Spahn was searching for a basketball coach, the minister at Central Baptist, where Pee Wee was conducting School for Skillz, called to tout this man who was blowing basketball jazz inside the church's basement gym. Wouldn't Pee Wee, with his ear to the streets, his clinic full of kids and his Nike commercials, attract the players and the media attention that could make Dwight a power? Spahn again could not resist.
So two events came to pass in April 1996. First, a small private school with about 400 kids in kindergarten through grade 12, where parents pay an average of $17,000 a year to send their children—an institution founded in 1880 that graduated former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, writer Truman Capote, artist Roy Lichtenstein and members of the Ochs family, the founders of The New York Times—hired a 51-year-old felon as the basketball coach. And second, the colossal Serb in Dwight's athletic department, sickened by the ethnic butchery in his homeland, was introduced, through a friend, to a Muslim teenager. Hmmm. The boy's name, Vedad, means lovable in Arabic. Tall, yes, already nearly 6'5", but ooof, too thin, too deferential, too much like his name . . . a lamb from the land where wolves were howling. He wanted to play in the NBA? Fine. A chance to demonstrate their motherland's folly, to make nectar out of poison.
In no time Radomir was inside Vedad's second-floor apartment in Astoria, Queens, booming his plans to bring the boy to Dwight on scholarship, asking a mother and father whose lives had just been gutted by Serbs to entrust their boy to a Serb—to forget, and to make their wager on America. They took a deep breath and said yes.
And so the strange medley begins to roar in the skinny boy's ears. Superfly and Samurai. Blacktop and Mountaintop. Liquid and Stone. "It's the dynamic of the country!" says Spahn. "It's what makes America great! I can't say for sure where all this is going or where it'll end up. Let's let it unfold."
Drumming. Can you hear it? That's what comes next in the song: drumming and grunting. Radomir pulls aside Emir, the Dwight team's other Bosnian Muslim, one of Vedad's best buddies—and asks him to drum Vedad in practice. Bang him, beat him, trip him, shove him, sometimes when they're just standing on the sidelines. Vedad keeps reeling away, turning the other cheek, pretending it didn't happen, pretending not to see the look in Radomir's eyes. This is what war has done to Vedad, the scar from those years when he was sent to relatives' and friends' homes in Macedonia and Turkey and Croatia, dependent on their mercy, afraid to stand his ground. He's playing basketball like a refugee, like a guest! Radomir's determined to sharpen the teeth and shear the fleece of the lamb.
One day, when Vedad again shies away, the master's eyes fill with tears. "Ohhh, a disaster!" Radomir cries later. "It is like he spits on my head! He needs to make a statement: He is not just there as a hanger for his uniform! He must knock over whatever is in front of him!"
It's not just a basketball player Radomir is trying to bring forth now. It's a man, a whole human being, and the labor pains grow fiercer still. He has Vedad awaken in darkness each morning and drop to his bedroom floor—50 push-ups, 100 squats—then go outside and lash around his waist the rope that's attached to the tire Radomir has given him. Five-pound weights in each hand, the tire dragging on him, Vedad runs three miles through the streets of Queens, even one dawn when there are three feet of snow. Then he returns to his apartment, hits the floor for another half hour of push-ups and sit-ups, jumps into the shower, shampoos the sweat and dew from his skull. It's buzzed down to the bristle now, like Radomir's. Then Vedad takes the subway to school, where he endures 35 minutes of station-hopping in Radomir's punishing phys-ed class and another hour and a half of conditioning, the endless repetition of motions Radomir has created to mimic the movements of basketball, to burn the responses into Vedad's neural circuitry. Then on to Pee Wee for an hour or two of free-flow scrimmaging, Vedad's fourth workout of the day, and home for four or five hours of homework to maintain his 92.5 average.
Vedad's mother shudders. "Sometimes," Azra says, "he looks so tired I have to go into the kitchen so I cannot see him. So many times I have wanted to call Radomir and say, 'Stop!' I am so afraid something will happen to my son, but Vedad will not listen to me."
"It is necessary," her son keeps telling her. But one evening, on the walk home from the subway, he's so overwhelmed that tears stream down his cheeks. "Sometimes I wonder," he admits, "if Radomir wants more for me than I do."
But where are those tears when Dwight follows that '96-97 season-opening victory with a loss to rival Collegiate? Now Pee Wee's all over Vedad too. "What's wrong with you?" Pee Wee shrieks. "Look at everyone else! Why can't you cry? You scared to show your emotions? You scared to let anyone think this is important to you?"
The Tigers lose to Woodmere Academy, tumble to 1-2. They're humbling their playground legend, their Nike spokesman. Vedad passes up an open shot in practice, and Pee Wee snaps. "You're stupid, Vedad! Idiot!" From a few feet away, he fires the ball like a missile at the boy. "You got a God-given gift—get outta the way of the gift or get on the bench! Shoot the ball, Vedad! You're the go-to guy, stop looking for other solutions. To make the pros, you gotta take. Pros are animals. It's search and destroy. This is America! Good guys finish last!"
Him? The go-to guy, the taker? Get outta the way of his gift? No one has ever spoken like that to Vedad. Two weeks into the season, Pee Wee ups the ante, names Vedad co-captain. Keeps loading freight on the skinny boy's shoulders and giving him no place to hide.
But wait. How can this be? The skinny boy's getting skinnier, growing weaker! Radomir's eyes narrow. Never has this happened to a human being following his regimen. "What is this, Vedad?" he demands.
The boy's eyes drop to the floor. "I am fasting," he says softly.
The boy's eyes dart. He's trying to go forward, to a new place, but how can he do that without betraying those he left behind, in the old place? "It is Ramadan," the Muslim boy says. "Our month of fasting. I do not eat or drink between sunrise and sundown."
On this regimen? Radomir's eyes bulge. "Impossible!" he roars. "Becoming strong, healthy and happy—that is how you honor God!" Vedad says nothing. He continues fasting. Pee Wee must reduce his minutes on the court. "Talk to him, Mr. Kirkland!" Radomir says. "This is lunacy!"
For an instant, Pee Wee's eyes flash. For years, in cell blocks often dominated by Black Muslims, he taught Islam and fasted 12 months a year—just a cup of granola and apple juice after sundown, he says—though unbeknownst to those around him, he had never converted. "Wasn't gonna be part of no system," he says. But to talk Vedad out of an act of spiritual sacrifice to which Pee Wee once committed his life?
The flame leaves Pee Wee's eyes as they drop from Radomir's burning gaze to the floor, and he stares at the tiles as if he's considering all the paths water might take to reach the other side. Then he does what he does nearly every time he and Radomir collide. Pee Wee looks up at his supervisor with a little smile and agrees with him—then walks off and keeps right on going where he was going. "I admire your conviction," he confides to Vedad. "By fasting you become a stronger person, and you can't separate a man's commitment to basketball from his commitment to God. Just start with hot liquids when you finally eat after sundown. It'll cut down on gas."
Ramadan takes 10 pounds. Ramadan finally ends. Vedad begins to regain his strength, and the effect of Liquid and Stone begins to show. Vedad's becoming the sniper, the destroyer. From 20 feet, without a pang of conscience. Twenty-five. Straight through the heart.
Vedad is puzzled when his coach pops rap cassettes into the tape player on road trips; he's bewildered by the short, long walk each day from Radomir's world into Pee Wee's. "Hey, who we playin' today?" Pee Wee blurts two hours before a game. "Hey, what time's the game start? Anybody know how to get there?" If none of the players knows, the Dwight Tigers sometimes end up lost, fumbling for quarters to call their opponents from a subway platform and get directions, arriving in the nick of time and starting the game without warming up. But what can Vedad say when the team goes on a tear, taking five straight . . . 10 straight . . . 15? What can he say when he reels off 22- and 23-point scoring nights in routs in which he plays just more than a half, scores 39 against Woodmere and sees letters from Division I college coaches pour in?
It's working, the clanging song, the wild hammering hip-hop song, but how long can it work? Spahn's rubbing his hands, Spahn's wringing his hands: Do you have any idea how much damage control a chancellor must do with Radomir and Pee Wee at the helm? Can you imagine the explanations Spahn has to invent when Radomir curses and looks a doctor or a lawyer or a film producer dead in the eye and tells him that his child is lazy, fat, lying, cheating—and that it is the parent's fault? Can you imagine Spahn's trepidation when Radomir devises homemade gadgets and exotic exercises to straighten the back of a boy from Moscow, a Dwight student named Sergei Polischuk whose curvature of the spine Russian doctors called incurable? And Spahn's astonishment when it works, and the boy's father drops to the floor and hugs Radomir's legs?
No, you cannot envision how carefully Spahn must craft his letter of apology when Pee Wee, with a 40-point lead, keeps all his starters on the floor full-court pressing Dalton School's subs right up to the final buzzer, poleaxing the century-old gentleman's code of private-school sports, prompting Dalton's coach to cry to Spahn, "How dare you do this!" and its athletic director to remove Dwight from the following year's basketball schedule—all because Pee Wee wants his boys to learn how it feels to play with killer instinct for an entire game. Or Spahn's wince when Pee Wee screams, loud enough for Horace Mann's players, coach and crowd to hear, "It's time to run these bums off the court!" And then Spahn's private groan when Stone comes to him with a list of grievances against Liquid, demanding discipline! and justice!
Vedad, caught between rockslide and tidal wave, grows more curious about the two forces. Over lunch in the coaches' office, he calls Radomir chika ("uncle" in Serbo-Croatian), and Radomir calls Vedad moj dragi ("my dear"), and they share muffins and fruit, talk of life and death and of what makes a man walk away from his home. Vedad begins to learn of Radomir's father, a man who had been riddled by bullets and awarded Yugoslavia's highest medal for bravery during World War II, only to have Tito's Communist government turn on him and conduct random searches of his home in the postwar years. Sickened by what he found above ground, the old man searched for purity below: He began burrowing a tunnel—ostensibly for mushrooms—that ended up half a block long, seven feet tall and 15 feet wide.
The same cry for purity, the same disillusionment, welled inside his massive son, but Radomir turned his cry outward. At 18, already Yugoslavia's junior heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling champion, he left home and traveled to Japan. In Ashikaga he attached himself to a martial-arts master, whose jaw he later splintered with a single punch after the man humiliated him in front of others. Then, with $20 to his name, he headed to Tokyo and survived by playing the parts of intimidating Americans in Japanese war movies. So ferocious was he in local dojos that he was offered a scholarship to Tokai University, one of Japan's crown jewels of judo, where he would lose just once in 158 matches. He awoke before dawn each day and thundered up 250 monastery steps. At the top he always watched a man clap five times to greet the rising sun. He also watched priests apologize to trees before they permitted workmen to chop them down to build a house, and he read mountains of books and kept exhaustive diaries and made hard judgments on how life should be lived, and he made himself hard enough to live by them.
He went home, but he was too honor-bound and overwhelming a man for a Communist country. Officials suspended him three times from the Yugoslavian national judo team and fired him from his job as police self-defense instructor for his outspoken opposition to the government and his insistence on exposing corruption. They even tried to frame him for rape, he says, just before his competition at the Los Angeles Olympics, until the alleged victim confessed that she had never seen Radomir in her life. He astonished his countrymen a few months after his fifth-place finish in L.A. by turning to Yugoslavia's highest sports officials in a live, nationally televised discussion and declaring, "You are liars, cheaters, destroyers of morality and dignity and human potential!" Friends feared he would vanish, as so many others before him had. One night shortly afterward, he was lying in bed when he saw a figure, a shadow, at the door to his room. It was Death, he was sure. Chills coursed through him—rise, run, fight!—but the samurai, for once, was frozen. "A nervous breakdown," he says. "Yugoslavia raped my innocence." It was time to go again. Time to go forever.
From age eight he had declared his wish to become a teacher or a doctor, and at Dwight he found a way to be both. He gave everything of himself, even inviting his hungriest disciples to live in his house with his wife and their three small children; he gave so much that he sometimes fell asleep standing up. It was as if he was trying, child by child, to create a world that he could bear to live in. "If I don't keep believing that people are better than they are," he would say, "then why live?"
Prison. Is it mere coincidence that both Radomir and Pee Wee came from prisons? As they roar beneath the city, riding the number 9 subway and their long winning streak to an away game, Vedad can only shake his head in wonder that he's playing for a man who says he once handcuffed the door handles of the jewelry stores they're flying under, so the proprietors couldn't pursue him when Pee Wee hurled a garbage can through the window and snatched tens of thousands of dollars' worth of diamonds and rubies and pearls. "What made me great in basketball," says Pee Wee, "made me great in crime. I could visualize things, adjust, see options that other guys couldn't see." Money-lending was next. At 14, he says. Lend a drug dealer $100,000 to buy a shipment, get $150,000 back a month later. Then banking swindles, as part of a ring embezzling bonds, he says, at 15. By 19, he was strolling around Harlem with 20 grand in a shopping bag and banking in the Caymans under a false name.
"What people used to say," says Michael Holloman, an elementary school principal who knew Pee Wee back in those days, "is that crime does pay for Pee Wee Kirkland. He didn't need to join a gang. He had gangs that would let no one touch him. Even the guys that everyone feared paid homage to Pee Wee Kirkland."
The cool metal inside his shoulder holster, beneath his full-length chinchilla? He almost never had to resort to it. Pee Wee used his warmth, his charm, his basketball sorcery, his rep as Harlem's Robin Hood. People on the edge of eviction, people with no prayer of sending their sons to college, people standing in the snow with their feet busting out of their shoes—he would peel off four or five thousand bucks and save their lives. When Muhammad Ali fought Jerry Quarry in October 1970, Pee Wee purchased 500 tickets at $500 a pop, he says, dispensed them to his closest friends, booked two entire floors of an Atlanta hotel . . . and then showed up with his full-length mink coat and a $300,000 crown studded with diamonds and rubies, having led a convoy of 27 cars, 22 of which were his.
He owned something honest, beneath all the Gucci and the gaudy. He froze black college teams across the Southeast with his flurries of moves at Norfolk State in 1967-68 and then signed with the Chicago Bulls. But when he found himself playing behind Norm Van Lier in training camp, do you think he was going to sit around and take a pay cut to 40 grand a year? "Pee Wee Kirkland was always on top, never in the middle, no matter what state, what coast," Pee Wee says, "and you gonna tell me they're gonna sit me behind someone who can't even go to his left, which in the ghetto is like a guy who can't walk and chew gum at the same time, and ruin my reality?"
Three years later he was standing in the pouring rain at the gates of the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., with a steel collar around his neck, his legs shackled and his hands manacled behind his back, the first night of his four years there for conspiracy to violate drug laws. Lord, the fear he learned to control there. Half the joint was carrying shanks—metal bed slats sharpened into knives— and if you wandered down the wrong hallway or dozed off in your cell at the wrong time, God have mercy on your soul.
He made national headlines by scoring 135 points in a game, one game, playing for the prison team against a team from Lithuania, not only improving his chance of survival but elevating his status at Lewisburg. He became the judge who mediated when turf wars erupted, once more the Robin Hood who was sometimes able to intervene when the strong tried to prey upon the weak. The day he walked out in a mink coat, in 1975, the prisoners hung out the windows shouting goodbye, a fellow inmate named Sonny Lemont recalls. "God, he looked like a million bucks," Lemont said. "He made prison life easy for me. Jail was fabulous while he was there, but the day he left, the thrill was gone."
It took seven more years in prison on a 1981 tax-evasion conviction—he was wheeling and dealing again, buying and selling fleets of exotic cars in California under a buddy's name—for Pee Wee to change. It took a shower drain in a Texas jail, a drain that was so chronically clogged that he wore four pairs of socks before wading into the skin-rotting slosh, a communal bathroom so smeared with feces that he didn't actually sit on the toilet seat for a year and a half. But no, it wasn't really that. It took three years of fasting, just the granola and juice after sundown, and then six years of just one meal a day, starving out his slavery to the material world, purging himself so resolutely that the stomach acids finally doubled him in pain and a doctor ordered him to desist. But no, it wasn't really that. It was the agony of 11 years of thinking about all the people he had hurt: his dad, whose cirrhosis killed him within weeks of Pee Wee's first imprisonment, and his widowed mother, and his little girl, Rana, who screamed hysterically the first time she visited him in prison and realized that she had to leave and he had to stay. But no, it wasn't really that. It was the recurring nightmare about the terrified newcomer at Lewisburg whom Pee Wee had promised to protect, only to discover, an hour after his vow, that the man had been gang-raped . . . and then the gagging sound Pee Wee heard that night when the newcomer hanged himself a few cells away.
Then one day in 1991, a simple man living in Las Vegas who wore no jewelry and called himself Mr. K, three years clear of his second prison term—"a hermit waiting for a sign from God," Pee Wee says—got a call from old friends in New York City asking him to return for the first time in 15 years. They needed someone to draw crowds to greet members of Ethiopia's dethroned royal family who were about to make an unofficial visit to the city, and the friends didn't know of anyone better at that than Pee Wee Kirkland used to be. Would he?
Pee Wee couldn't sleep. Something potent was compelling him to accept, but how could he go back as an ordinary man? He took a deep breath and did it, finally, and was astounded to discover that children of people he had awed or saved a quarter century before knew of his myth, and that they were begging him to stay and, somehow, help them too. So at 46 he moved back to New York City, to live it all over again in a completely different way: with his new wife, KleoPatra, and soon with his new baby boy, Pee Wee, and his two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment and his '84 van that kept stalling out and his Nike-sponsored School of Skillz, where he presents seven-foot trophies to the kids who make the biggest life leaps, where he lures kids with deep problems and saves himself over and over again by saving them. How swiftly the gagging sound stopped, and Pee Wee was released from the recurring nightmare of the young prisoner he had failed to save.
He had never considered coaching, but one final step remained in the redemption of Pee Wee Kirkland, a step the Dwight job offer could allow him to take. If he could survive there, as a representative of an institution, within the system for the first time in his life (but no, not of a system), well, then it would be official: He'd be legitimate. He'd be whole. He could look his mother in the eye. That's what Vedad and his teammates don't quite grasp—what they are giving him as they keep piling up victories in Pee Wee's first year as a coach.
Their 16-game winning streak is snapped, at last, in the final 1996-97 regular-season game, against Adelphi Academy, leaving the two teams tied for first in the Athletic Conference of Independent Schools. But the loss just sharpens Dwight's knives. The Tigers win the conference playoff title, then gird for their final goal: the New York State Association of Independent Athletic Schools tournament.
They win three straight games to take it, Vedad nailing critical three-pointers down the stretch in the final. When the buzzer sounds, the Muslim war refugee kisses the black ex-convict's cheek, and later leaps into the massive Serb's arms, and the melody is so sweet that it brings tears to Pee Wee's eyes.
You've figured it out by now, no doubt. This isn't really a song about Vedad and Radomir and Pee Wee. It's a song about the land where all three of them are a possibility, where they can sweat and scream and cry and argue and fail and overcome.
But if the song, now that they have won a championship, sounds all sweetness and harmony to you, you haven't heard it right. Because the next season, Vedad's senior year, Pee Wee's refusal to organize, to run drills, to hold regular practices and to keep his cool during games becomes more than Radomir can bear. Pee Wee, on the other hand, keeps wishing Radomir would stop wearing Vedad out, stop demanding so much from his players. There's division among the Tigers, even though they go on another tear after a 5-4 start and win 14 of their next 16 games: Some think Pee Wee's the madman, others believe it's Radomir. In the midst of postseason play Pee Wee decides to resign, effective at the end of the school year, then changes his mind as the Tigers win both their conference tournament and the state private-school tournament for the second straight year and reach the semifinals of the state open tournament for the first time in school history. In the end, it's decided that Alex Kiprovski, the jayvee coach, will share varsity coaching duties with Pee Wee and take charge of organization, structure and practices in '98-99. Yes, that's the nature of our song, the reason so many can't bear it: It's always so near to lapsing into noise.
Vedad's senior year? Instead of preparing for it with a summer spent playing AAU ball or showing up at Five Star camps, he perplexes the scouts and goes underground . . . to train at dawn at Radomir's house in Forest Hills, Queens. The first morning he vomits in a bucket. In the driveway behind Radomir's house, he does exercises that no one else does. Then he goes to the nearby woods to heave boulders, to leap and duck and spin over and under and around fallen trees that Radomir has gathered so that his student can imagine them as defenders as he pantomimes his feints and jump shots—and becomes closer to nature and to himself. He listens as Radomir inhales the silence and new light and booms, "Ahhhh, morning! The power of morning! You and me, Vedad. We are making our own religion."
In their two years together, Vedad's strength nearly doubles, his dunking leap increases by the length of half a forearm, and his stomach muscles grow so hard that he does 2,000 sit-ups in a row, till his buttocks bleed. More and more, during Vedad's senior year, tears of happiness fill Radomir's eyes as he watches the boy, and he whispers, "Bravo!" and gives Vedad a meaty kiss. Like the day during soccer season when Vedad, a forward on the Dwight varsity, has his legs cut out from under him, and Radomir's protégé is suspended for a game for hitting the kid who did it in the mouth. And the month and a half when Vedad plays with a fractured right thumb, never making excuses, drawing double- and triple-team defenses and still averaging 22 points. Miami and Tulsa pursue him, but Vedad opts for Dartmouth, and he offers himself to Radomir this summer again.
"I have gone to a whole new level now," Vedad says. "I believe I can go anywhere now and achieve anything with hard work. From Pee Wee I have learned to play with heart and to be the shooter: He gave me that trust, that role and the space to master it. Sometimes he frustrated me with all his yelling: He knows the game, but he can't always express it. But from him and Radomir I gained my identity as a player and as a human being. I'm not afraid anymore to voice my opinions in class or to carry myself like a king. Some of my classmates may resent that, but I feel so much more honest . . . and that is freedom. That's the gift they gave me. Every day I become more aware what incredible experience and knowledge I've gained from two completely different worlds."
It is said that the first generation makes, the second generation keeps and the third destroys. America—does it know its good fortune?—is the land that keeps getting infusions of the first, of the makers, of the ones who rise before dawn. Perhaps you don't wake up early enough or get about enough to hear it, but the rich and raggedy song is playing everywhere, maybe even on a field or a court not far from you.
Here's what could be heard on one of them, just this morning: A deep, barrel voice and a softer, weary one at the end of a workout, doing what they couldn't do together back where they are from—singing old, quivering Bosnian love songs.
Do you hear it? That's a song to America.