All this started about a year and a half ago. Back then I was a junior at Redwood High in Redwood City, a suburb twenty-five miles south of San Francisco. In those days, before Hartwell, before Levi, I took things as they came, without thinking a whole lot about them. Maybe that’s because most of the things that came my way were good.
Take school. I didn’t much like my classes at Redwood High, but I did like being the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team. And I loved seeing my name, Jonas Dolan, in print in the sports section of the Redwood City Tribune.
The main reason school never seemed to matter too much had to do with my father’s job. He made good money working for a sand and gravel company down at the Redwood City harbor. I liked visiting him at work—liked the noise of the cement mixers, the shouts of the men, the nonstop activity of the plant. I figured that once I graduated from high school, my dad would get me a job there. He thought so too; lots of times we talked about working together.
Not that I was a total slacker in the classroom. You can’t play if you don’t earn your credits, so I studied enough to stay eligible.
Halfway into my sophomore season, I’d cracked the starting lineup on the varsity basketball team. For the rest of that season, I averaged eight points and three assists per game. During the first half of my junior year, I’d pushed those numbers up to eleven and six, making me one of the top four point guards in a decent league.
Then I had my breakout game.
It came in mid-January against Carlmont, a middle-of-the-pack team like us. Everyone expected the game to be a nail-biter, with one team winning by a few points. Instead, we trounced them. I scored fourteen points, pulled down five rebounds, and had nine assists, while turning the ball over only once. It was the best game of my life, but I didn’t feel as if I was playing out of my mind. Instead, it was like everybody else on the court was wearing lead shoes, while I was lighter than air.
That Carlmont game had been on a Wednesday night. I floated through school the next day and through practice after school. As I was leaving the gym, I heard Coach Russell’s voice. “Jonas Dolan, come to my office.”
He sat me down across from him, pulled on his big ears a couple of times, scratched his gray hair, and finally asked me what I planned to do when I finished high school.
“My dad works at the sand and gravel. He can get me a job there.”
“No plans for college?”
I didn’t like the way Coach Russell said that, as if there was something wrong with people who didn’t go to college. “Neither of my parents went to college, and they’ve done okay.”
Coach Russell started waving his hands around, his face reddening. “Completely true, Jonas. I know your dad; I know Robert. He’s a hard-working man. And I’ve met your mom, though I can’t say I know her. There’s nothing wrong with working with your hands. But you’ve got your whole life to work. If you go to college, you can be a kid for a while longer. That sand and gravel plant isn’t going anywhere.”
As he spoke, I thought about what it would be like to work eight hours every single day. Was I ready to do that? Still, I shook my head when he finished. “I’m lucky to get Cs, Coach. I’m no student.”
“But you could be a good student, Jonas. I talked to your teachers; they all say that.”
After he said this we both sat, the seconds ticking away. Then he leaned forward, a glint in his eyes. “If you could play basketball in college, would that make a difference?”
I was so startled by the thought that I laughed. “Sure it would, but there’s no college that wants a six-foot white guy who can’t dunk. The worst player on a crappy team like Oregon State is way better than I am.”
Coach Russell put his big hands flat on his desk and leaned back. “Jonas, Oregon State is a Division One school. I’m not saying you’re D-One material. However, there are three hundred Division Two schools that have basketball teams. Many are top-notch private colleges—great places to get an education. You’re a hard-nosed ballplayer; you’re the most coachable kid I’ve had in years; your game is coming on like gangbusters. Those are all qualities that D-Two coaches look for.”
As he spoke, a strange thrill raced through me. I was a step slower than the black guys from Oakland and San Francisco I’d played against, but Coach Russell was right—those guys were headed to major colleges. Some of them might even end up in the NBA. They wouldn’t even consider Division II ball.
Then reality hit: college costs big bucks.
“Coach, my parents don’t have money for something like that.” He smiled. “Ever heard of a scholarship, Jonas? And I mean a full ride—room and board. If you’re not interested, then that’s that. But if you are, I’ll help. Division Two coaches don’t come looking for players. I’ll need to get some game film of you and write you a letter of recommendation. You’ll need to request a copy of your official transcript. If we send all that out to fifty schools, you might get a call or two.” He looked at me from under his bushy eyebrows. “You’ll never know unless you try.”