Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Basketball Strangler: Part One

"You're that guy!  You're him!"  I exclaimed to the man.

The man's eyes grew huge as he realized what I was talking about.  "I didn't do anything!" he said adamantly.  "For years everyone has blamed me for what happened, but I didn't do anything!"  And he claimed to have evidence to prove it.  I couldn't believe it.

25 years earlier . . .

I was eight years old in 1982.  I was sitting with my parents in the visitor's bleachers at Kirtland High School gymnasium watching our Cardinal Huskies do battle with a far superior Kirtland squad.  My older brother was playing on the team and we weren't expected to even compete.

The Kirtland Hornets had a gym that felt like a penitentiary: drab, dark and crawling with convicts.  Their star player was a senior named Ron Z*****, and he could shoot the lights out.  He was a trash-talking, arrogant player and had the skills to back it up.  He was also known around the league for playing dirty.

It was just before the half when Ron Z***** broke open and launched a moon shot right in front of where I was sitting.  When he came down he was boxed out by Robert Soltis, one of Cardinal's defenders.  They both fell down out of bounds and hit the first row of bleachers.  Things happened quickly after that:

Everyone's attention followed the ball across the court, so Ron took the opportunity to give a hard kick to Robert's testicles.  The visitor's bleachers erupted with angry boos and shouts, because we all had seen Ron's attack on Robert's balls.  We also watched as Robert slowly rocked back on forth, trying to slake the overwhelming pain in his gut by cradling his junk in his hands.  Then Z***** stood up, turned his back to us and walked away.  It was right then that everything began to move in slow motion.

From behind me a small man began descending the bleachers two at a time.  He slid quickly past my dad, jumped to the floor and started running toward Ron Z*****.  Instantly my dad popped out of his seat to try and stop him, but was too late to prevent what happened next.  As Ron slowly walked away from where Robert lay groaning on the hardwood, the crazed fan tackled him violently from behind, driving his head into the court floor.  The court filled instantly with punching, kicking, and screaming players and fans.  Everyone was fighting in one big, angry mass.  It was a melee.

I have several intense, vivid memories from that night.  The first is my mother's screams.  Once my dad jumped out of his seat, my mother grabbed my arm and held me down, screaming at the top of her lungs.  Another is seeing my angry brother in a wrestling match with another Kirtland player.  Another is my dad kneeling down trying to help Robert, who just lay on the floor holding himself.  And then there was the announcer's panicked voice over the PA, making a futile attempt to take control of the mob.

After several minutes the coaches and on duty police officers were finally able to get things under control.  They were eventually able to finish the game, and Cardinal suffered another defeat, made worse by the sight of one of our fans being arrested for assaulting a minor.  The crazed fan was the dad of one of our players and at the time was a member of the school board.  He got cuffed and stuffed.

Over the years the events of that night were retold dozens of times and quickly became part of our family's oral history.  And of course Ron Z***** became increasingly more evil with each telling until he'd almost become the devil himself.  At least, that's the caricature my family had created of him.  Little did I know that the story wasn't finished being written.

More later . . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did the person being strangled die?