I used to know a professional basketball player named, "Goose."
He was in prison twice.
For Christmas one year, his wife gave him a butcher knife. She gave it to him in his shoting hand. Goose told everybody he had cut his hand on his wife's new can opener.
Goose and I used to talk about what it was like being a basketball star as a kid.
"Taking tests in school, all I did was write 'Goose' at the top of the paper and leave the room" Goose said. "Got me a B every time. They liked my hook shot."
Earl Jones isn't the first kid, and won't be the last, whose life bounces in silly tune with a basketball. He is only this week's example of how rotten sports can get.
And none of it is Earl's fault. It was the grownups, of course, who first allowed Goose to write his name for a B and then threw him in prison for being nothing but a ball player. Same thing's happening with Earl Jones; the grownups have screwed up his life.
It's a terrible thing to say that Earl Jones is a basketball player. Better to say he's a teen-ager dreaming dreams, even to say he's a kid who wants to play pro ball when he growns up.
But to identify him as "Earl Jones, basketball player," is to get him to believing that he's nothing else. And why sould he think otherwise? If everyone has told you, from age 13 on, that you were, say a piece of lettuce, by 18 you'd want to take showers in Thousand Island Dressing.
Jones' name is in the Washington headlines this week because The Next Great Big Man now is a senior at Spingarn High School. He made his high school debut here under protection of a judge's restraining order. The order was issued after the D.C. School Board ruled Jones ineligible for first-semester basketball. The board said Jones had missed too much school the previous semester.
Picky-picky. All he missed were 63 days off the second semester at Mount Hope (W. Va.) High School. By then, the Mount Hope High School people had declared Earl Jones a basketball player, not a real person. $"The world would be full of 7-foot bellhops," an old pro coach said. Without pro basketball, the coach meant, being not so much racist as realist, lots of men like my buddy Goose can't get a real job.
And that's not Goose's fault. Grownups let him down by saying he was a basketball star and so didn't have to be a real person who knew there was a world without a freethrow line drawn on it.
As an eighth-grader, Earl Jones was so good at basketball that he was nationally known.
And what does that say about the way America works?
College recruiters visited with Jones when he was 14. Like very few of us, Earl Jones knew his future before he started high school. None of this identity-crisis stuff. He knew who he was because everybody told him who he was: Earl Jones, basketball player.
Mount Hope High School treated him with the deference due and tall young American able to drop a ball in a hole. If Earl Jones wanted to stay in bed all day long -- and he did 63 days -- Mount Hope said: Fine, Earl, we'll set the alarm in time for you to get to basketball practice.
It is often the case that a basketball player's guides improve in proportion to his scoring average, especially when it comes time to maintain eligibility or qualify for a college scholarship. Mount Hope's principal has said he wanted Earl to stay eligible because basketball was Jones' future. Sign your name at the top of the paper, Goose.
So when Jones missed 63 days, it didn't much matter. Basketball season, by then, was over. And if Earl would just take the final tests, everything would be all right for his senior season. He passed three courses receiving a "satisfactory," a C and a D. He failed three others. He was, by West Virginia law, eligible to play basketball his senior year.
Everything would have been fine except that Jones left Mount Hope.
He moved to Washington and enrolled at Spingarn High, where the level of basketball was much higher.
It was a smart move for Jones. It was a career move. The competition here is so good that Jones would learn more in one year here than in four in an Appalachian ghetto.
But when spingarn began its basketball practice two months ago, the D.C. School Board ruled Jones ineligible.
Jones was bewildered.
He didn't know why the school board hadn't told him last summer this would happen. The board had his Mount Hope records then.
What must have been most puzzling, though, was something Jones never brought up.
Here, at last, someone was treating him as a student, not a basketball player.
Under terms of the current restraining order, Jones has played for Springarn twice this week.
The first game was on the road Monday.
In Portland, Maine.
The team traveled by plane.
Goose would have loved it.