Despite the many, many, many mistakes I’ve made in my life, I don’t live with regret. My disappointing college basketball career hurt me, but it also humbled me; failed businesses have broken me, but they’ve made me hungrier; and fumbled relationships have made me reflect on the value that someone else can bring to my life, how important it is for me to hold out until I find Her, and what I have to do to make that relationship work. I’d do it all over again. I wouldn’t change a thing.
With two exceptions.
Jack was my trainer on the basketball court when I was growing up. He’s a black dude with a shiny bald head, about six feet tall with a bodybuilder’s physique—even now as he approaches fifty—and a gold front tooth inscribed with the letter J. He looks thirty, maybe thirty-two when he lets the dark stubble fill in on his jaw. I walked into the Garner Road YMCA just after my twelfth birthday, and the weight room attendant quickly instructed me that if I wanted to maximize my potential on the basketball court, I needed to go talk to “that fella” at the corner hoop who was putting “that other white kid” through grueling shooting drills. Jack and I shook hands, my small digits swallowed up by his. He squinted down at me, unimpressed with yet another fledgling kid who went to a Carolina game and decided that he wanted to be a basketball player when he grew up. He must have smiled on the inside, certain that I wouldn’t last two weeks in his program. “Anybody can last a week if they’ve got any heart at all,” he told me years later. “I haven’t had a lot of kids make it past two weeks, though.”
For six years, he put Jordan, my new best friend, and me through drill after drill after drill in the gym. Set after set after set in the weight room. He threw us on the treadmill, in the pool, and at the stairs, anything to ensure that we would outlast our opponents. Once, when Jordan and I were fourteen, Jack set us up on the stationary bikes, told us to keep it above seventy RPMs, left to eat dinner and make some phone calls to the various women he was dating at the time, and returned an hour later to retrieve our spent young legs to go play pickup. Well aware of our limited talent, he’d be damned if he ever saw us winded out there during a game.
It never occurred to us what fun our friends might be getting into after school, that we didn’t have to be doing all of this conditioning. “Where did this dude go?” Jordan and I asked each other as we panted through that hour on those stationary bikes, sweat dripping to the ground off our hair. “Did he leave? I bet he left. Naw, that’s craziness. He wouldn’t just leave like that. Would he?” But we never thought to get off and go look for him. Jack told us to ride the bike until he got back, so Jordan and I kept our fannies on those bikes until Jack got back. We would have pedaled into a coma before we’d have been caught defying Jack’s orders. We had to. No choice. Jack, the best trainer in town, offered our ticket to college, and it was inconceivable that we would do anything to disobey him.
He didn’t need us, but we needed him.
Five days a week—more in the summer—Jack ran my life and he ran it ragged. Everyone else saw me as the corny white boy I was; Jack saw me as the son he never had. He taught me how to shoot, how to pass, how to be tough, how to hate losing, and how to swagger for the ladies when I was on top of my game. He knew when to cheer me on and when to cuss me out and when a simple frown and a shake of his head would do. There’s no way for me to know exactly how many hours Jack put in for me. Thousands. All of the games he attended; the summer road trips he made to Charlotte or Wilmington, where he would make sure I wasn’t having a milkshake or anything else heavy on game day; the time he took to sit down with me and review what I could do better the next game; and all those hours training at the Y. Thousands of hours. Thousands. And he never asked for a dime. I just reconfirmed this with my pops, certain that he must have shot Jack some cash behind my back. He. Never. Took. A. Dime.
Think about that. Here’s a dude without a college diploma, constantly hustling up some second-rate day job. But after our schools let out, there he was at the Y—every day—building Jordan and me into the basketball players we would become. That’s outrageous to me. I think I’ve done some good for society when I raise a hundred bucks to run a 5K for hunger, but this guy poured thousands of hours into training us and never received compensation. Never asked for it. Never hinted at it. Always bought his own lunch on the road in the summer.
Jordan played at Brown, and I got a scholarship to a small school in Massachusetts. I often wonder what would have happened if we had never met Jack, if I had never walked into the Garner Road Y that day. I know I wouldn’t have graduated from college debt-free, that’s for certain.
Junior year of high school, I really came into my own on the court, attracting interest from small colleges lining the Southeast Coast. Poised to take my game to the next level, I worked harder than ever with Jack. After dinner each night, I snuck outside and put up extra shots on my own, dribbling the ball up and down our cracked driveway when I was supposed to be studying world history. I added eight pounds of muscle to my frame. I changed my diet.
One afternoon in the weight room, I told Jack I needed a minute break. Sweat rolled down my brow, down my back, and dripped off my nose as I took a long, gulp from my water bottle. Jack stared at me for a moment before telling me he’d made an important contact. He asked, dark eyes glinting at me with pride, whether I’d like to play in the Chavis Summer League.
I said it was four hundred and fifty dollars, kind of expensive. He said he didn’t care.
The Chavis Summer League, before it ran into trouble with the NCAA, was known in hoops circles nationwide for the talent it attracted. With the hotbed of basketball in the triangle area, players would come from NC State, Duke, and Carolina in the evening to battle one another, the local rising talent, and yesterday’s legends who still had a jumper but not the step. Youngsters remained long after bedtime, calling for an autograph from Jerry Stackhouse or Johnny Dawkins or a handshake from Rasheed Wallace or Vince Carter. Poobie Chapman, whom you’ve never heard of, was more nightmarish to defend than Chris Corchiani, the second-leading assist man in college history. John Wall shone as one of the brightest stars in the Chavis League before ESPN knew about him, and Chucky Brown—who shares the record for playing on the most NBA teams in a career—is probably still playing in that league. Guys who you often saw only on TV in the winter—Luol Deng, David West, Flip Murray—would pop in for a random appearance at the Chavis League in the summer, and within ten minutes, you found yourself crawling over people in search of a seat.
“Yeah, I’m down,” I told Jack.
“Smooth,” he said. He always said “smooth.” “Give me two months to get the four-fifty.”
Two months later, he showed up to the gym and, grinning, announced that he had the money for the entry fee. He led me outside to his van and pulled out five rolls, bound by rubber bands—mostly fives, tens, and twenties. My throat swelled; I struggled to speak, my mouth opening and closing without producing a single word. I hugged him, holding the embrace for ten seconds. For six years he’d trained me, and for two months he’d saved all of his extra cash from delivering water jugs just so that he and I could reach our dream to play in the Chavis Summer League. He didn’t go out to dinner, no fancy dates with any of his dazzling women, and now, there lay our dream in his hands, rolled up from two months in the top drawer of his dresser. “Now, we gotta find a little talent to play with us,” he declared, smiling, gold tooth sparkling. “I’m not trying to go out there and get dogged.”
But get dogged we did. Every night, losses. Not blowouts, just losses. We eked out one win when the other team had only five players, but other than that, we drove our way home in silence, heads hanging after every brutal game. And the natural frustration that comes with losing soon materialized: the barking at each other; the finger pointing; the ball hogging; guys showing up late for games and then not answering their phones to talk about what we could do better.
So I quit. I told Jack that I wasn’t getting enough touches on offense, that we didn’t have a lick of chemistry. “I hate to do this,” I told him, “but I think it’s best.”
Silence. He didn’t know what to say. He just stared at me, and eventually I had to look away.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I . . . I took the one that the assholes take. I spit at all of those thousands of Jack’s volunteer hours, and I left his team to play for another.
My second regret:
On my first full night in Antigua, Jan convinced Anki and me to head to the bar to sing karaoke in Spanish. In a stroke of monumentally poor decision making, we chose “Te Llorré un Rio,” a famous song by Maná, one of Latin America’s most famous musical groups. Of all time. People have been singing along to their songs for more than twenty years. Sure, it’s true that you want to select a song that the crowd knows, that they can sing along with if you’re absolutely horrible, but you also don’t want to absolutely ruin this song—forever—for the people in the audience. I just wanted something slow. Somebody suggested “Te Lloré un Río.” It sounded harmless.
I climbed up the stairs to the stage and faced the dozens of eyes staring back at me. For the next four minutes and fifty-five seconds, I wailed “Te Llorré un Río,” complete with off-key notes and many mispronunciations. I survived the episode, and so did the group crowded in the bar, despite their winces and laughter.
A week later, Maná announced that they would be coming to nearby Guatemala City for one show—their only show in Guatemala—on November 2. People started talking, chirping on street corners and in travel agencies and on the radio about what a blowout event this was going to be. Ricky Martin comes to the city and he sells out the arena; Maná comes through and the entire region takes the night off.
When I mentioned their name to my dad’s wife, Sharon, on the phone one evening, she lit up. “Oh, my,” she said from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I love Maná.”
I did a little more research to find out what all of this commotion was about. Originating in Guadalajara, Mexico, Maná’s career has spanned four decades, and they’ve sold over twenty-five million albums worldwide. Their music draws inspiration from rock, Latin pop, calypso, reggae, and ska. They have won three Grammy Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, nine Billboard Latin Music Awards, and on and on. Beatríz sang Maná’s songs whether the radio was on or not. She was short and she was plump and she was always prancing around that house with a broad smile that just might have cracked her entire face open at any moment. And she loved Maná.
“Meh,” I said. “I’ll pass for now. Save my money for something else.”
For our last night in Guatemala, Jan, our two new housemates, and I met up with a mob of Swiss girls to go to El Gato Negro. The next morning I would move on to the next leg of my journey in Honduras, and Jan would hop on a bus north.
El Gato Negro was closed, so we, the whole laughing herd of us, headed across the street, back to Personajes, the bar where my journey had begun. On my first night in Guatemala, nearly my first words in Spanish had been to welcome the crowd to hear me sing. “Bienvenidos a Personajes,” I said with a sweeping bow. “Somos Los Gringos.” Later, after ruining one of their favorite songs forever, I implored them not to forget to tip their server. Nary had such a conceited white man ever stepped into that bar. At that point in my trip’s early days, I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever have the opportunity to bungee jump or raft or skydive, but I quickly learned that you haven’t lived until you’ve stepped foot in a foreign country, grabbed one of their microphones, and attempted to sing one of their songs in their native tongue. My heart raced that night nearly as much as it did months later when I was in the bullring making passes with a red cape.
Dim white lights lined the ceiling of the bar, an expansive and modern place in contrast to the cobblestone streets and colonial design on the outside. During this second visit, people jammed the place, maybe a hundred and fifty or two hundred, but a hostess showed us to a table in the back. There we cramped together, shoulders upon shoulders and chuckling in spite of it all. We ordered twenty-two beers, the special. Gallo Girls, clad in the same skimpy outfits as Bud Light Girls in the States, strutted by with swag and raffle tickets. At first I didn’t understand what we were signing up to win, but I didn’t care. I’d take it.
“One!” the dude yelled five minutes later into the microphone from the very stage where I’d sung a month before.
“Nine!” he roared. I looked down. Still in it.
“Three!” Yes, yes. My gaze rippled over the faces packed inside. I had the first three numbers, but it looked like many others did as well.
“Zero!” he said, and the majority dropped out with deflated sighs. Ten possibilities left.
“Four!” he hollered into the microphone with feigned enthusiasm.
I walked the most arrogant walk any gringo ever made in Guatemala. I was already a pariah, the underdog by a hundred to one—this foreigner waltzes into our town, into our bar, signs up for our raffle, and wins?—and I pranced through that bar with my hands raised as if I’d actually earned something. I figured early on that that’s what I was supposed to be doing and realized too late that I was wrong. I guess I never really understood the magnitude of what I’d won. Worse, based on our blatant entrance just five minutes before, everyone knew I was the last one to toss my name in. Dude had drawn my ticket off the top of a pile that clearly didn’t get shuffled right.
Each of the two VIP concert tickets I won translated into exactly the same monthly price of a furnished room I’d seen advertised for rent at the Internet café. I don’t know what VIP means in Guatemala, but for the price of two months’ rent, I know they would have treated me right.
I snatched the microphone from the MC and blurted out in Spanish to the crowd: “I leave. Go Honduras Tuesday. You want buy tickets, no? Three hundred quetzales.” My battered Spanish, meant to be endearing, often came off as demeaning. Even when I started to develop a firmer vocabulary and sentence structure, my gentility somehow never translated. In Honduras a month later, the cab driver quoted us three hundred lempiras; I pointed my finger at him and snarled, “No. The thing is, man, that we will pay two hundred and fifty, and that is it.” Bullied, he relented with a polite, forced smile, and we rode the whole way in silence. I had negotiated—nay, strong-armed—this sweet Honduran guy out of $2.50 without a simple por favor.
My pitch to sell the tickets amused nobody at Personajes. A guy pressed through the crowd and offered me two hundred quetzales, and I took it.
We finished the beers. Jan and the Swiss girls headed two blocks up to go dancing, but the new housemates and I returned home to crash.
The next day, I was pumped to tell Beatríz, Maná’s number-one fan, what had happened. She’d just prepared tea and pancakes for me (with sliced bananas in the batter). Every day she cooked these fresh, healthy, authentic Guatemalan meals for us, and cleaned our floors and our shower, and did our dishes, and washed her children’s clothes, and shopped and carted her son, Bruno, to school and to dentist appointments, and weeded the garden, and arranged flowers for her nephew’s wedding, and . . . Then, she found time to socialize with her friends. This was an inspirational woman.
“You won what?” she asked, reckoning that I must have translated incorrectly. She squinted and slanted her head to the right.
“Tickets, for Maná. VIP!” I beamed.
She just about exploded. After the relationship we’d established—joking at meals, going out to dinner, squirting each other with water in the garden—she knew I was going to take her as my date. She was my girl. When I remember Antigua, the memory of her—her round face and laughing eyes—leap out at me. The Indian’s Nose? Learning Spanish? The soccer game? The illuminated fountain in Central Park, the colonial buildings, and the cobblestone streets? Of course I’ll remember these things, and I’ll look fondly on those photos in thirty years. But in my memory, Beatríz, and that smile she brought to breakfast every morning, is Guatemala.
She ran, shaking her hips—sashaying mostly—around the garden, the central area of her rented house, which was surrounded by three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. For the first time around us strangers, she released her hair from its coil. She shouted and hooted, but I didn’t give her a chance to start singing. “I sold them,” I interrupted as she came to a stop. “I couldn’t go, so I sold them.”
I instantly wished I hadn’t told her about the tickets. She would have shined at that concert. I pictured her getting dressed up, maybe buying some new shoes from the market, spraying on some perfume, her face radiating, her arms swaying in the air. Her children and her friends and her adorable little dog made her life great, but VIP tickets to Maná would have been once-in-a-lifetime for her. She would have cherished that memory forever.
Her face dropped, and my stomach dropped with it as she ducked into the kitchen. Delusion had allowed me to think that she’d be excited for me. To her, I’ll always be that sweet kid who was friendly, returned home by curfew, cleaned my plate after every meal, and kept my room neat. And I sold out to the first bidder.
I tell my friends that I live my life without regret. I’ve made a thousand blunders in my life—cheated on tests, driven after too many cocktails, tugged my checking account out of the ATM and delivered it to the blackjack table—and I’m certain that the repercussions of those experiences have made me more judicious. I vow that I won’t repeat my mistakes, and I move along to unearth new ones.
But these two instances with Jack and Beatríz are different. For years, in the prime of my youth, Jack made a significant impact on my future, and for one month in the fall, Beatríz showed me that happiness can be found in simplicity. Two powerful people in my life; two different corners of the world. And I let them both down.
I thought only about myself during that summer with Jack, and I thought only about myself that night when my number came up at Personajes. Jack will never field a team in the summer league again; he did that for me. And Beatríz would have had to drop thirty days’ wages to go see Maná in the VIP booth.
I stole something from Jack’s spirit that summer, and in Guatemala, I denied Beatríz her opportunity to do something special.