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The Missed Free Throws

Donal Mahoney | Hannah Nolan

Tim Murnane was born to parents who lived in a small brick bungalow in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Chicago. His father worked as an electrician for Commonwealth Edison Company and his mother stayed home, a not uncommon calling for a housewife and mother following the end of World War II.

After a peaceful childhood, life for Tim as a teen-ager became more complicated. His father loved all sports, even those he didn’t fully understand, and he encouraged Tim to play all of them, even the sports he himself had been unable to play due to an injury as a child.

In high school, Tim played baseball and basketball. It was basketball, however, that he really enjoyed. His father understood baseball because he followed the Chicago White Sox and used to take Tim to games. Basketball was another matter. His father didn’t understand much about the game. But he always showed up for games that Tim played even though he never said anything after a game, win or lose. One particular game, however, sticks out in Tim’s mind even to this day, many decades later.

In Chicago at that time, there were park leagues to play in and if your team won its park league championship, your team advanced to the play-offs against teams from other park leagues. It was a very competitive environment.

In 1954, Tim’s team won its league and advanced to the playoffs. Their first game was far from their South Side neighborhood. It involved playing in a gym on the West Side and their opponents were a team of black teen-agers. Tim and his teammates had never been out of their neighborhood before and had never played against black kids. This was a time before black athletes began to make their definitive mark in sports.

It was a very close game, with the score going back and forth. There were no racial overtones—just two good teams trying to win. And the referees called a fair game.

At halftime Tim happened to look up in the stands and he saw his father. Tim knew that he must have ridden three buses for an hour-and-half to get to the game. As usual, he sat quietly in the stands, minding his own business and being careful not to “embarrass” his son by shouting or waving.

This was before Little League gave birth to parents who today take an active interest in their child’s athletic achievements. Today, some parents coach their kids’ coaches during and after games. Tim’s team had a coach who wouldn’t have brooked parental interference. Besides, it wasn’t his father’s style to interfere. He just wanted to watch the game and see how well his son would do.

The second half of the game was as tight as the first half, both teams racing up and down the court and scoring. Defense wasn’t a big deal back then. The team with the best shooters usually won.

Tim was having a good night, scoring and rebounding. So were his teammates. But the other team was doing well also.

With 15 seconds left in the game, Tim was fouled and went to the free throw line. His team was down by one point and Tim had two free throws coming. He missed both of them and his team lost by one point. Tim was the high scorer for his team, scoring more than 26 points at a time when that was considered a lot of points.

After the game, the coach talked with the team in the locker room and did his best to make the kids feel better. Losing was not something they were used to. That night they had almost beaten a better team. The coach was proud of them.

Tim was sitting on a folding chair by his locker when his father walked into the room. His father commiserated briefly with the coach. And he also said a few nice words to some of Tim’s teammates as he made his way over to his son.

Tim had no idea what his father wanted because he had never talked to him after a game before, whether the team had won or lost. Maybe he had been impressed by how many points Tim had scored although other aspects of the game would have been a mystery to him.

Finally his father was standing in front of him with a mystified look on his face. He bent over to whisper what he had to say. Tim can still hear his words today.

“Why did you miss those free throws?”

Tim had no idea what to say. Some free throws go in, others bounce away. The tone in his father’s voice, however, left no doubt that he thought Tim should have made them.

This was a major moment in Tim’s relationship with his father. He knew now that his father would always expect the best from him. So a few years later when Tim came home from college with semester grades that were all A’s and one B, he thought his father would be happy. College was tough back then—no cheap A’s were handed out.

“Why did you get the B?” Tim’s father asked after looking at his grades. He gave Tim the same mystified look he had given him when he had asked him about the missed free throws.

Tim thought for a moment and then offered the best answer he could muster.

“I guess I didn’t study hard enough, Dad. I’ll do better next semester. Just wait and see.”

About Donal Mahoney

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had poetry and fiction published in print and web publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

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