IF YOU couldunbreak the bones and erase the scars, recall the bullets and sever the chains,recap the bottles and catch all the smoke, if you could swim 16 years up theriver of time and find a town called Stevenson, you just might see somethingglorious.
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue
Stevenson liesbetween two ridges in north Alabama, by the Tennessee River, a dark blue veinon the earth. There, on Valentine's Day 1992, the North Jackson Chiefs hostedthe Fort Payne Wildcats in high school basketball. It was not a playoff game,not even a conference game, and neither team was especially good. But in the117-year history of organized basketball, it was one of the few times a teamwith only two remaining players beat a team that still had five.
If this were amovie, the story would end at the final buzzer. The winners would always bewinners, fists in the air and black jerseys glistening, and the losers wouldalways hang their heads. This is not a movie. Morning came and they all wokeup.
These officials canbe blamed for this. They let this thing get out of hand completely.
That's the voice ofGeorge Guess, apothecary and Chiefs radio announcer, with 2:53 left in thefourth quarter. He's perched on a stage at the end of the court, next to acolossal painting of an American Indian with a headdress of blood-redfeathers.
Until a few daysbefore the game, North Jackson had 10 players. Then the leading scorer quitbecause the coach wouldn't let him play every minute. Now, as the game windsdown, the Chiefs' best all-around player, point guard Chris Stewart, has fouledout. Eight Chiefs standing. Already the referees have called about 70fouls.
The Chiefs lead58--55. Their best remaining player has the ball, facing the basket.
Robert Collierpulls up from fifteeeeen—
Robert is thelargest Chief, 6'1", 245 pounds, the only true post player on a roster fullof guards. He has been playing with four fouls since the first half. He livesin the projects. He can't afford a varsity jacket or a class ring. He owns onepair of pants, which his mother washes every night and dries on the heaterbecause she has no clothes dryer. On warm days he wears his mother's shorts toschool and hopes no one can tell.
Tonight Robert'smother is in the bleachers, as always, and his father is on Death Row.
—no good. MurphyThompson with the rebound. We've got a whistle and a foul.... Did they call iton Murphy Thompson? If so, he's gone.
Seven Chiefsstanding. Their school is on the north side of Stevenson, a rusty old town of2,000 where goats graze in meadows above the vacant redbrick buildings of MainStreet and a farmer hands out free yellow squash from the bed of his pickuptruck.
Fort Payne is aboutsix times larger than Stevenson and 40 miles to the south. It has mansions onthe eastern ridge and enough cotton mills to justify the self-proclaimed titleOfficial Sock Capital of the World.
Fort Payne scores,cutting North Jackson's lead to one. Both teams turn the ball over. The Chiefsget it back on the baseline with about two minutes left.
Collier willtrigger the ball inside.
His father has beenon Death Row since 1978. They used to be Big Robert and Little Robert, and theyrode in Big Robert's Chevy Chevelle convertible to go fishing and to footballgames. Then Big Robert lost his job and the money dwindled, and he was tooproud to ask for help. He drove the Chevelle to Georgia and put his .32revolver in a grocery bag and walked into a flower shop and pulled the gun andgot the cash and sped off. Two deputy sheriffs caught up to him and pulled himover, but he wrestled a gun away from one of them and shot both men. One died.Big Robert drove home and gave his wife $70 from the flower shop. The policecaught him the next day. Little Robert was two months from his fifthbirthday.
We've got aturnover against North Jackson. Collier moved along the baseline. And you can'tdo that [after] a turnover, which is what it was. You can do it after ascore.
Little Robertbecame the man of the house. When his mother got tired on the 205-mile drive tothe prison in Georgia, he dropped chips of ice down her back to keep her awake.By 13 or 14 he was taking turns behind the wheel. He always said he would growup and get rich so he could bust his daddy out of jail.
The Wildcats turnthe ball over with about 90 seconds left. Chiefs by one. Now they turn itover.
So here comes FortPayne with an opportunity to take their first lead of the game. And theydo!
Fort Payne leads59--58 with about 1:15 to go. Another whistle, like fingernails on ablackboard.
And we've got afoul called. They're gonna call it on Chad Cobb.
Somehow this isChad's first foul. He is Robert Collier's distant cousin, a grinning coil ofmuscle and fist, the quickest Chief and probably the shortest. He is only5'8", but his vertical leap is so good that the coach sometimes puts him atcenter court for the opening tip.
Chad rides hisYamaha along the ridges above town, daring the hillbillies to chase him, and hedrag-races in the streets, leaving long black rubber trails. Robert sometimesrides on the back, big man on a little bike, one arm around Chad's midsectionat 100 mph, popping wheelies, jumping hills, leaning together on sharp curves,running from their enemies. Chad has Robert's trust. They never crash and neverget caught.
Fort Payne makesboth free throws to lead by three. Aftear a Chiefs turnover a Wildcat is fouledbut misses the front end of a one-and-one. The Chiefs rebound with 45 secondsleft.
Still got a chance.Sixty-one to 58.... Out to Chad Cobb. Needs to crank up for three!
Chad was asmall-boned kid who took his share of whippings growing up. Lately he has beendoing the whipping, especially on the white boys who hurl rocks and the n-wordin his general direction.
He puts it up fromthree—
Chad is astreetballer: fast and reckless, prone to turnovers and wild shots, feetsometimes kicking to the side on his jumper.
—it's no good.
Two years after thegame, a car will run Chad's motorcycle off the road, sending him hurtling intoa fence post. His right leg will bend upward till the foot is past hisshoulder, leaving the kneecap hanging by the skin and blood vessels, but hewill walk again nine months later and then climb back on his bike and twist thethrottle and go.
Fort Payne with 28seconds. And the ball stolen away by Travis Smith! He puts it up. It's good!One-point game.
Clinging to thelead, Fort Payne milks the clock to five seconds. Another foul, another Chiefgone. Six left now. Fort Payne makes the first free throw, increasing the leadto two.
They've pretty wellsealed the fate of the North Jackson Chiefs.
Fate goes by manynames. Sixteen years later, on Aug. 24, 2008, Little Robert Collier will tell astranger that God still has a plan for him. But he won't blame God, or anyoneelse, for the way his life has turned out.
"We make ourown choices," he'll say.
Thirty-two minutesof basketball, 74 fouls. That's over two fouls per minute of playing time. Ithink you'd have to check a long way to find very many games that would evencome close to such.
George Guess isright, although a 75th foul is called as time expires. That's one foul every25.6 seconds. The NBA record for total fouls in regulation since the 24-secondclock was installed, 84, was set by the Indiana Pacers and the Kansas CityKings in 1977. That game lasted 48 minutes: one foul every 34.3 seconds.
Fort Payne is onthe foul line, up by two with five seconds left. The team has made only 10 ofits 30 free throws. A man yells from the bleachers, long and low, to distractthe shooter.
I don't knowwhether there's anybody made a film of this game or not, but this willcertainly be one for study by the officials' association.
A film of thisgame. Near the end of the following decade, the people of Stevenson will stillbe searching. At dusk one summer day Chad's father will sit at home, thinkingabout it. "I'd give anything to get that tape," he'll say. "If Ihad the money, I'd put out a reward."
Frank Cobb lugs hiscamcorder to most of his son's games. But tonight, late in a mediocre season,he decides the Chiefs are a waste of tape. Later he will look back on themistakes in his life and conclude this was the biggest.
Nevertheless, Frankand others will swear they saw camcorders in the bleachers that night, at leastone and as many as three, over on the Fort Payne side. They'll conclude thatwhoever made those tapes must have set them on fire.
The shot is missed.Chiefs with the rebound.
Five seconds. Four.Three. Chiefs still down by two.
Travis Smith down,he pulls it up—
Travis will thinkback on this game 16 years later, and it will give him chills. He grew up withRobert and Chad in Stevenson, playing backyard ball on the iron-rich clay. Oneday in agricultural-science class when the teacher wasn't looking, he and Chadconspired to climb through the suspended ceiling and liberate Little Debbiesfrom the snack room.
—we've got awhistle.... Wai-ait a minute. It's not over yet.... No time shows on theclock.... Travis Smith goes to the line.... And he will get three because hewas shooting from three-point range when he was fouled.
Travis bounces theWilson Jet-Pro on the hardwood. Every day at the end of practice he shoots freethrows and doesn't stop until he's made 10 in a row.
He hits the first.It's a one-point game.
Travis wants toplay for the Detroit Pistons, like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
Next one is up.It's good!
Instead he willpour concrete and drive a truck. He will have six children by three women.
Travis Smith. Allthe pressure on his shoulders. Does he make it? No. We've got overtime.
Travis fouls out 59seconds into overtime. Five Chiefs standing.
One night fiveyears later, on Jan. 26, 1997, he will quarrel with one of his formerteammates. Travis will borrow a pistol and find the man in a drugstore parkinglot and raise the gun and pull the trigger.
Robert Collier getsthe ball. Robert may have to be the guard. He takes it down the floor.
Sixteen years laterRobert's name will still come up in conversation at Friday's, a restaurant inStevenson, especially at the table known as the Liars' Table, where retired mengather to tell tall tales over biscuits and gravy. The memory of this game willbe one of the few things that can stop them from talking football. David Smith,the boys' old ag-science teacher, will stop by occasionally.
"Youhope," Smith will say, referring to Robert and the magical game, "thatwill be a turning point in his life. You hope and pray." He'll think aboutRobert for a moment. "I don't know where Robert's at right now," he'llsay.
It's a two-pointgame in favor of Fort Payne, 64--62. Comes in to Stafford Henry, off to ChadCobb.
After high schoolChad will attend motorcycle mechanics' school in Florida, working part time topay his way, just scraping by. One night he will go to the gas station to put agallon in the tank. The price will be 92 cents, and he'll scrounge up exactly92 cents. He'll go inside and try to pay and the clerk will tell him he can'tpay with that much small change, and Chad will see other customers staring.Finally he'll slap the pennies on the counter.
"Here itis," he'll say. "I paid for it. I'm leaving." He will drive awaywith tears in his eyes.
A moment laterhe'll stop for a homeless man with no legs. He'll let the man cross the road,wheeling his wheelchair with one hand, pulling a cart with the other. The manwill look Chad in the eye and smile.
From then on,whenever he feels a twinge of self-pity, Chad will remember that smile.
We've got awhistle and a foul.
Stafford is gonewith 1:41 left. Four Chiefs standing.
Two seconds later,another whistle.
And ThomasHutchins is gone now. Hutchins is out of the game with 1:39 to go.
Thomas is bestfriends with Travis and Chad. They play secret games of Rook in the back of Mr.Smith's ag-science class. One day nine years later, on Feb. 26, 2001, Thomaswill drive through a stop sign and hit a man playing basketball in the street.The man will fly toward the power lines and land in a field, cracking hisvertebrae and puncturing a lung.
Three Chiefsstanding: Robert, Chad and Chris Shelby, who comes from deep on the bench andfouls very hard.
And coach JaySanders has elected to use his only remaining timeout.
Sanders knows whatit's like to be poor. His first bed was a dresser drawer, and he played in thesnow wearing socks wrapped in bread bags. He lent Robert a tie to wear on gamedays and never asked him to give it back. He spent all season trying topersuade Robert to use the pump fake. "The kids'll go flying," he toldRobert, "and you're wide open."
No one couldremember Robert using it in a game.
This is an uglything, folks, for a high school basketball game, and it's all a result, in myopinion, of the officiating.... I don't know the names of any official that'sworking this game and don't really care to know. But I certainly think thatgames of this nature should certainly be evaluated by whoever is in charge ofthe officials' association.
The referees'names will be forgotten. One will be rumored to live down the road in the townof Hollywood, but when reached by telephone he will swear he was not inStevenson that night.
Both teams aregiven to slap-happy defense, and the storm of whistles may simply be the refs'best attempt to stop the boys from knocking each other around. They willultimately call 84 personal fouls; Guess counts 40 on North Jackson, 44 on FortPayne. The Wildcats had more players to begin with and so will have more at theend.
And we've got afoul called now on Fort Payne.... Chad Cobb goes to the line.
The game will endand the years will pass and sometimes Chad will still hear this crowdroaring.
Chad Cobb missesthe free throw, and Fort Payne claims the rebound. They're playing five againstthree. They'll just back it out and wind [down] the clock.... 67 to 62. Allover but the crying.
Nothing in themanual could prepare a coach for this. In retrospect it will be easy to saywhat Fort Payne coach Phillip Collie should have done with 1:38 to play. Pouredit on. Pressed his two-man advantage. Widened the lead until it wasinsurmountable. But Collie does what seems to make sense at the time. He bleedsthe clock. Sixteen years later, in an e-mail to a reporter, he will write,"I want to ask that if in your story there is blame concerning the NorthJackson game, that you put it all on me." Fine. But he is a better coachthan his players think. He came to Fort Payne to be near his only relatives andhis in-laws after his wife, Dixie, died in childbirth, leaving him with anewborn and a toddler to raise alone. The North Jackson game will drive him towork even harder. After the next season he will leave Fort Payne for BuckhornHigh in New Market, Ala., and two years later he will win a Class 5A statetitle.
Another whistle,another foul on Chris Shelby (his fourth), another missed free throw by FortPayne.
Chiefs get therebound. Chad Cobb, just take it on in. Pull up from three, he is fouled andwill go to the line with 54 seconds to go. So now Chad Cobb will have thepressure on his back. And Chad Cobb drops it in.
Chad will finishmechanics' school and become service manager at a motorcycle and ATV shopacross the Tennessee line. His marriage will fall apart and his wife will leavefor Texas, but he'll go to court and win primary custody of his daughter,Shanele, and his son, Chad Jr. He'll coach Chad Jr. in football and teach himto fix motorcycles and tell him he can be anything he wants, even a doctor.
Chad hits. So it's67 to 64.
Chad will decidehe should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for this game. He'll want tomake a movie about it. He'll say it's something not even Michael Jordan everdid. He'll remind his children about it, especially at their sporting eventswhen he thinks they might give up. He will put them in a room with the audiorecording of this game and close the door so they can't walk out.
"Oh,Daddy," they'll say. "Again?"
Chad's third freethrow is no good. Rebound, Fort Payne... 39 seconds to go. Somebody's gottafoul.... HE WALKED WITH THE BALL! And the Chiefs get it.
A month or twoafter the game Guess will hand Sanders a cassette tape of his broadcast.Fourteen years later, when he is 66, George Foster Guess Jr. will die of aheart attack. They will lay his bones in the clay on the side of a hill, nextto his ancestors, between the river and Russell Cave. On his headstone they'llcarve a five-word epitaph: THE VOICE OF THE CHIEFS.
Two years afterthat Sanders will have the tape transferred to compact disc. He will gather theold Chiefs at Western Sizzlin' and give them copies. Robert will not bethere.
Thirty-two secondsleft. Still got a chance. Three against five.... Robert Collier in to ChadCobb, gotta take it down the floor. Chad's gotta do his stuff tonight. Pulls upfor three—
After high schoolChad and Travis will run together, ride together, raise hell together. Theywill always be linked by this game. Travis's steal, basket and two free throwssent the game into overtime and set the stage for Chad's singular achievement.They will vow to protect each other.
—AND HE HITS ITAND WE'RE TIED AT 67!
One night fiveyears later, on Jan. 26, 1997, they will quarrel about whether or not Travishas been two-timing Chad's female cousin and whether or not Chad told on him.Chad will still be on crutches from the motorcycle crash. "Chad, you can'tfight me," Travis will say.
"I've gotother ways of handling you," Chad will say.
Travis will borrowa pistol and find Chad in the drugstore parking lot. He'll raise the gun andpull the trigger.
We've got a foulcalled on Chris Shelby.... Shelby's out of the game.
He's gotta missthis. The Chiefs need the rebound.
Travis will say hewas only shooting at the ground. He'll swear the bullets bounced.
We don't have anytimeouts. It's Robert Collier and Chad Cobb against five.
One bullet willpierce Chad's left thigh and another will smash his fibula. He'll look up andsee Travis aiming the gun with his eyes closed.
He missed the freethrow and—
With 17 secondsleft Fort Payne gets the rebound and scores. Another whistle.
—there's acharging foul called against Fort Payne! No goal. And it'll be Chiefbasketball!
After the gunfireChad will drive himself to the hospital, thinking hard about permanentvengeance. From time to time after that he will drive around with his blackTec-9 semiautomatic and he will look at Travis from a distance and wonder if hecan line up a shot.
Travis will pleadguilty to second-degree assault and serve five months in prison. On Feb. 26,2001, as he plays basketball in the street, he will see a man barreling towardhim on a motorcycle. It won't be Chad. It will be their former teammate ThomasHutchins, one of Travis's best friends. Thomas will be showing off for a girland coming too fast to stop. He'll plow into Travis, knocking him out of hisshoes, cracking two vertebrae and puncturing a lung.
Seventeen secondsto go. They're gonna surround Cobb. And Chad's gotta break free.
As Fort Paynemakes a substitution, Sanders calls Robert and Chad to the sideline. He triesto sound very calm. He tells Robert to throw the ball in. He tells Chad to walkalong the baseline toward Robert, lulling the defenders, then do a jab step andrun back toward the corner and catch Robert's bounce pass and go.
Sanders figuresCobb will run so fast that he'll overshoot the basket. He tells Robert to runhard for the left block.
So we've got threeor four people around Chad Cobb. So the ball comes in to Cobb. He runs it downthe right sideline. He may take it all the way in. He will. He'll put itup—
Robert is fast fora big man. He reaches the left block. Five on two, and nobody boxes himout.
—No good. RobertCollier on the follow—
Robert grabs therebound and at last he pump-fakes. The kids go flying, and he is wide open.
After high school,Robert will bounce from one coast to the other, doing demolition work here,pouring iron there. He will come home, get married and coach his stepson infootball. His wife will die in 2007 from complications of diabetes andhypertension. Robert will be in rehab at the time, for his addiction to alcoholand cocaine.
—IT'S GOOD! ROBERTCOLLIER MADE THE SHOT!
Years will go byand Robert will think of this game only when someone else brings it up. Eventhen it will feel hazy, dreamlike, as if maybe it never happened.
Robert won't sethis father free from prison. He will follow him in. In 2005 police will sayRobert stole a man's wallet and inhaler and beat him. He will plead guilty tosecond-degree robbery and be put on probation. In June 2008 he will break aman's jaw and steal his cellphone and cigarettes. He will be charged withthird-degree assault and third-degree theft, and his probation will be revoked.Big Robert Collier will win an appeal to change his death sentence to lifewithout parole. Little Robert will be scheduled for release in 2023.
Five seconds.[Fort Payne's] Mosteller down. He missed!
Two old hoops willhang above the jail yard, but basketballs will be scarce. Robert will fashionone from white socks and string.
The Chiefs get theball and—
Chad will have hischance to join Robert in prison. He will not take it. He will look at thesmashing of Travis by their old friend's motorcycle and see a certain cosmicsymmetry. He will consider his children and his personal myth, forged in thisthree-minute overtime, and he will put down his gun.
On July 13, 2008,he will see Travis in the street. He'll pull over and get out and walk towardhim and they will both smile and throw their arms around each other.
—the Chiefs aregonna WIIIIINNN! AND THE CHIEFS HAVE WON, 69 TO 67!
At the sound ofthe buzzer the fans engulf Robert and Chad at midcourt, nearly suffocatingthem, until they hear Chad screaming from the bottom of the pile, "I can'tbreathe!" In the visiting locker room a few boys weep, and Coach Colliesays he wishes they could all float away in a submarine.
And Chad Cobb andRobert Collier the heroes of the night, in a historical game.
After the game,Robert thinks he and Chad will go on TV, talk on talk shows, sign autographs.He will sign one, for a woman in a doctor's office in Birmingham. That will beall.
A few years laterSanders will mail Robert's and Chad's black polyester jerseys to the BasketballHall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. They will not be displayed. In the summer of2008 someone from the Hall will mail them back.
That same summer,on the same wooden floor at North Jackson, the latest crop of Chiefs will comein for a practice. Someone will ask them about the two-on-five game. They willsay they have never heard of it.
What a game, andwhat a night it was—
Time is a darkblue river, and it rolls one way. Outside in the cold it rolls on.