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A few days after Ken’s call, another former teammate, Dave Lorimer, contacted Rick. “I emailed him plenty of times,” Dave, a financial advisor, said. “He never replied.”
“I’m sure he meant to,” Rick said. He didn’t mention that in recent years Tommy hadn’t replied to his emails either.
“You missed your calling, LeFlore,” said Dave. “You should have been his publicist.”
The service was held at the Portland family home, just a few blocks from the school. Rick, Ken and Dave decided to drive over together. For old time’s sake they agreed to wear their championship rings. “I’ll have to get mine resized,” Dave said. “Again.”
In the first decade or so after graduation some of the old gang occasionally met for drinks at Jimbo’s. A photo of the winning basketball team was displayed on a redbrick wall backstopping the billiards table. Rick partook enthusiastically in these get-togethers, peeking frequently at his slight, self-conscious self in the back row, far left. He’d always felt that he looked like an afterthought recruited to fill out the frame.
His attendance at the alumni socials fell off after he married Jill Schilling. She’d been a cheerleader with the team, they’d hooked up the night of the championship game. They guzzled a bottle of rye in the back seat of his father’s Pontiac Acadian. Jill initiated, shedding her pantyhose and whispering into his ear, “Love, always” — sappy lyrics from a sappy Top-Ten tune. It was over, his first time, in a memorable but frenetic few minutes. She straightened her clothes and applied a dab of inexpensive perfume, Evening in Paris, behind each ear. “Hurry up,” she said, “I want to get back to the party.”
Earlier that night, hoping to inspire a trailing team, the cheerleaders had removed their kerchiefs, shaking them like pompoms in the humid, perspiration-rank air of the Browning gymnasium. According to school lore, the gesture inspired the Bucs to turn things around. They beat their cross-town rivals by a single Hail Mary shot lobbed by who else but Tommy.
Though he never scored a point in his brief basketball career, Rick frequently wore his team ring. Why wouldn’t he? Whenever former teammates met up, even years after the big win, they’d slap palms and growl in affectionate imitation of Coach Tillman, “On the floor, Buc, give me a dirty dozen.”
Rick’s insurance career took off just as the first of their three kids arrived. Time zoomed by in a blur of soccer games, swimming lessons, and music recitals. Once he made manager, there wasn’t much time for drinks at Jimbo’s. His contact with former schoolmates shrank to those he’d converted to policyholders. He didn’t mind: running into old chums always reminded him of the follower and second-string athlete he’d once been, the unfinished Rick LeFlore, back row, far left.
Most former classmates were unaware that a few years previous Rick had been named the Arnold P. Smedley Insurance Man of the Year (Western Region). There’s a scan of the plaque on his Facebook page. It was presented at the annual industry conference. The theme that year was pirates. He wore an eye patch. The sword was cardboard.
When asked about the championship ring, a brass loop topped with a garish imitation stone, he sometimes embellished his importance to the Bucs. If he’d been drinking and attending an out-of-town meeting with people he’d never see again, he might declare, as he had more than once, “I took the pass and glanced up at the clock. We had time for one last play...” In his line of work, bullshit came easy.
He and Jill began having problems the year their youngest moved east to attend university. They saw a marriage counsellor. “It’s not the same,” Jill said. “We’re not the same.”
“Love always,” he said. That and a bottle of Evening in Paris used to work. They’d inscribe the sentiment on Valentine’s Day cards: his tight, anal cursive; her insouciant swirls, the unoriginal bubble-dot above the i in her name. Just uttering the words ended fights, smoothing things over till next time.