The dreaded n-word

As I continue to post various vignettes from my upcoming immigrant’s memoir, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE, here is an excerpt from a chapter about playing basketball at Oklahoma State University:

     It was my first practice and my first opportunity to show Mr. Henry Iba, one of the nation’s most famous college coaches, that a kid from Prague by way of New Jersey would be his next star.

The rumor was that each year Mr. Iba came to evaluate the incoming crop of freshmen on the first day. I had heard that his entrance into the arena would signal the start of a brutal two-on-two full-court drill: two players on offense would attempt to score while two defensive players would work to stop them.

An hour into our practice, it happened. A tall, elegant man with his thin hair parted in the center and a stern look, marched in and sat down in the tenth row near center court. Immediately, freshman coach Sam Aubrey called for the two-on-two drill. I was paired with an Oklahoma farm boy named Chuck, and we were third in line to play offense.

As we approached the front of the line, my confidence disappeared. I had been a prolific scorer in various leagues in New Jersey–but this was the big time. I don’t belong here, I thought. I’ll just make an ass of myself. I wish I could escape! Then, suddenly, it was our turn.

     Chuck took the ball out under our basket, and I dribbled to center court. I hit him with a chest pass. He dribbled to the left of the key, and I took off for the basket. But Chuck’s man covered him closely, and he had trouble getting off his pass in time. Finally, he threw the ball to me and took off for the basket in case I missed. The ball hit my hands perfectly, chest-high. But it came too late. I was in the air and too far under the basket to shoot. I pulled the ball away from my defensive man and whipped it around my body, a perfect behind-the-back pass to Chuck, who laid it in for a score.

     I raised my arms in triumph and trotted away feeling on top of the world. Then that world came crashing down around me.

     The silence of the arena was broken by a deep, guttural, groan that seemed to come from the sky, but really came from the great man in row 10: 

     “Stop playing like a goddamn nigger!”

      Dead silence in the arena. But shortly, things returned to normal—for the other players. I had heard the n-word many times since coming to America, usually uttered by white kids telling racist jokes. Because I had experienced bigotry and racism under the Nazis, I found such language offensive. Now I heard the word called out in public, aimed at me, and by a man whom I had worshipped from afar. They say you should never meet your heroes; maybe this was proof. My initial reaction was to walk out of the arena, pack my belongings, and head east and as far away from racist Oklahoma as I could.

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