My Fabulous Sports Career on the Mean Streets of Philadelphia
The new show "Parenthood" presents a disturbing view of family life
Posted Mar 08, 2010
The inaugural episode of the TV series "Parenthood," based on the film of the same name Ron Howard directed 20 years ago, debuted on NBC Saturday. It reveals that parenthood and growing up have come a long way since I was a kid.
The show depicts the lives of four siblings, their families, and their parents. In the first episode, the son of one of the siblings (played by Peter Krause) is diagnosed with Asperger's. His own father, portrayed by Craig T. Nelson, has some rough edges - he bloodies the nose of his preteen grandson while going for a basketball (this is before the boy is diagnosed).
The family patriarch has a hard time comprehending his grandson's problem. When the boy shies away from a hallway illuminated by candles, he says to the boy's father, "I would just make you kids parade right by the candles." All right - he's a brute. But why did none of his four children - who all have their hang-ups - end up with a diagnosable mental disorder?
One subplot of the first episode is the boy's involvement with Little League baseball, which he is not particularly good at and dislikes. However, at a family dinner he announces he wants to play in his team's game, and immediately the ENTIRE family, a dozen-strong, shuts down dinner and marches together to the ball field.
Which reminded me that my parents never attended a single game of Sandlot League baseball or high school basketball I played in Philadelphia. Nobody's parents did. On the other hand, nobody had to push me to play ball (as the boy's father and grandfather do in "Parenthood"). I and my friends would rush out of our homes to play games like "stoop ball," which involved throwing a "pinky" or "pimple" rubber ball against the concrete steps in front of our houses, and wall ball, which consisted of throwing balls off the brick walls of our homes. We thought that was fun.
Not that "Parenthood" depicts the adults' attendance at these games as fun. The grandfather hectors his grandson, and the father gets ejected as a coach - and banned from attending future games - when he kicks dirt on the umpire. He does this, clearly concerned with his son's vulnerability, after his son is called "out" on a close play. Meanwhile, the womenfolk look on anxiously from the stands - whether because of the boy's misgivings or the men's antics it's hard to know. (And, no, I'm not saying this made him autistic.)
My life in sports on the mean streets of Philly had dark patches - although it all seemed perfectly normal at the time. In school I was proud to be on our 12-man basketball squad, selected from 1500 male Northeast High School students. The Public High School League we played in was tough - like the time I guarded all-time NBA star Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. Okay, he scored a few points off me - but only 20 or so! (He also passed for quite a few assists.)
ln the summers, we played in "rec(reation)" leagues on outdoor courts around Northeast Philly. We would travel with 7-8 guys, and play whatever team we encountered. One of our eight guys, Lenny, was about 5'8" tall, and 220 pounds. He was a lousy basketball player - as befit his dimensions, he was actually on the football team. He was - I think the statute of limitations has expired as I admit this - our enforcer.
In one game the guy I was defending took umbrage at my style, saying I was crowding him (I was having PTSD from covering the Pearl). He told me, "If you do that one more time, I'm going to flatten you." I signaled to Lenny to come in for me (we played without a coach). As I left, I told the kid I was playing - I thought helpfully - "I wouldn't threaten the guy replacing me." I saw the guy look Lenny over, then sure enough, within a couple of minutes, he shoved Lenny with both hands. Lenny leveled him. (There was an ethnic subtext to all of this - our team were all Jewish, and sometimes guys on the other teams called us "dirty Jews.")
Lenny was booted from the game, the guy got up and continued to play, I returned, and he didn't speak to me for the rest of the game.
The moral of this story is, "Where is Lenny now that I need him when people attack my views on addiction?" No, that's not it. I realize we - all of us - were antisocial ruffians. I'm glad people don't threaten me with physical violence and call me a dirty Jew nowadays (and I hope and expect they don't do so on ball courts any more).
What is the moral, anyhow? I don't now - childhood, playing ball, and family life have changed, with good and bad consequences.