Tuesday, June 17, 2008

19 Years Later, This is the Best I Can Do...

Congratulations Dad. Your Celtics sure knocked the snot out of my Lakers.

Celtic Lift

You would have loved it. But just wait until next year...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lakers Memories of My Father

This post is dedicated to my father, Aron, who passed away two-and-a-half years ago. With the Lakers meeting the Celtics for all the marbles this week his absence is another reminder that we lost him at too early of an age.

I grew up in my father’s hardware stores. As a boy I would go to work with him on Sundays and spend the half-day that he was open at his first hardware store. Ironically, it was called Furst Hardware and was located down the hill from Dodgers Stadium in Echo Park. For years I thought it was called Furst hardware because it was his first store. Later I learned that the previous owner was Mr. Furst. I was four or five so what did you expect. Dad closed that store when I was seven and bought H & H Lumber & Hardware when I was 10 or 11. H & H was located in South Los Angeles at the corner of 112th and Vermont. For those not familiar with this part of LA, let’s just say that it is Watts adjacent. This area was predominantly Black and Latino in the early 1980’s when I started working there on weekends and after school. It scared the shit out of my Mom that I was working down there, but I had grown up around people of different colors, ethnicities and religions my whole life so it did not necessarily faze me. I knew how to keep my nose clean and being 6’7” and scrawny back then most folks figured or hoped that I was a ballplayer. The looks of disappointment on their face of wasted height when I told them that I suffered from a severe case of white man’s disease always amused me. It was also a good icebreaker and the self-deprecating humor did not hurt in getting people to know you…or at least not kill you! In all my years down there I only felt unsafe twice. Once was when as I was driving back to the store and about to make the turn to drive onto the lot there was a running fist fight in the center median on Vermont involving 3 black youths chasing a Latino youth. They were throwing rocks, bottles and fists and I remember wanting to break it up and save the out numbered kid. Courage quickly turned to fear as I realized that it was not my place to get involved and possibly suffer the same fate. The other time I felt unsafe was when Boston beat the Lakers at the end of the 1983 – 1984 season to win the title in 7 games.

Back story time. Dad came to this country after World War II as a 10-year old boy that spoke little to no English. This was around 1950. He grew up here in Los Angeles with his parents in the Adams district. Somehow, he became a fan of the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees and the San Francisco 49ers. Celtics and Yankees I could understand as they were the big boys of their leagues in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. I, on the other hand, have been a die hard Lakers fan as far back as I can remember…which would be 1971 against the Knicks in the finals. More than any other sport, league or team, the Lakers are the one team that I have never wavered from supporting…even through the likes of Nick Van Exel, Benoit Benjamin and Kwame Brown.

Before the Lakers moved into the Staples Center they played their home games at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. The Forum was a 15-minute drive down Manchester from H & H, which means our business was in prime Lakers country. My Dad was one of the nicest and friendliest people you could ever hope to meet when you walked into his store. Out in public (meaning, not on his stage) he was quite a bit shyer, much as in the same way I am. Anyone that would walk into our business got a big hello and probably some teasing from my Dad. He knew everyone by name and our customers really loved him and his sense of humor. Everyone also knew that he was a Celtics fan and would not hesitate to proclaim their greatness. He would call the Lakers “the Fakers” and remind everyone how many times the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in the Finals. Seven up to that point. We would all remind him that Boston had not won a title in 15 years and that Magic and the Lakers had just hung a banner after the 1982 season. Plus Magic had beaten Bird for the NCAA title earlier in the decade. Needless to say we were all caught up in the rivalry and hype of the Lakers and Celtics in the 80s. It was a glorious time to be young and competitive with a stubborn father.

As the Finals began in 1984 Dad and I made a bet on the series. The loser would wear the other teams colors the day after the title was secured. Of course my team would win we would both say to each other. Bet on. As history reminds us, the Lakers lost that series to the Celtics 4-3. This was the Kurt Rambis being close lined by Kevin McHale series. This was easily one of the best and most exciting series I can remember. And of course the most disappointing. Losing I could accept. Remember, we could not repeat and had just lost to the 76ers a year earlier. But, what the heck, Dr. J got his title. But to lose to those thugs from Beantown…that ugly Larry Bird…the uglier McHale, that little SOB Danny Ainge…UGH! NO!

Remember I said I only felt unsafe twice while working at H & H? The day after the Lakers lost I had to make good on our bet. Dad brought in a green Robert Parish double zero T-shirt for me to wear for the day. Most of our customers knew I bled purple and gold and was paying off the bet…I had their sympathies and we all just had to eat it, while Dad served up some of the finest smack talk I have ever heard. The problem came after lunch when I had to make the regular bank run. As we were predominantly a cash business we’d always make a deposit before closing time. Since I loved to get out of the store for a while I would go to Bank America on the days I was working. This would be the Bank of America at the corner of Manchester and Western…10 minutes from the Forum…The day after Los Angeles’ heart was broken by the Celtics…Here I am, tall, dorky, scrawny and WHITE, walking into a bank wearing a green Celtics T-shirt. I may have as well have been wearing a James Earl Ray for President shirt the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I now know how the Christians felt walking into the Coliseum to meet the Lions. Back then, most employees and many customers knew who I was. After all, how many tall white boys are walking around the ‘hood? When carrying large amounts of cash I was always aware of my surroundings and never lingered about until the cash was safely deposited. On this day, I walked as humbly and quickly as possible to the merchant line…the merchant line at the front of the bank. I’d parked behind the bank and come in the back door. And on this day, I think time stopped for an instance as I walked in. Tall white boy in Celtic’s green. Mid-way through, a rather large gentlemen of color waiting in line looked at me and said in a very deep voice, “that’s cold-blooded, Holmes.” I looked at him and as sheepishly and forgivingly as possible I said, “I know, I lost a bet to my Pops and this is the payoff.” He looked at me and said, “Aw, man, I feel for you.” Needless to say the laughter that this story generated when I got back to the store was priceless. I really knew that I was never in any real danger, but it did feel like I was wearing a big target that said “beat me to death, please.” Just to be safe, I stayed in the store the rest of the day and took a fair amount of abuse about being a sell-out and a traitor from the customers that were not in the know about our bet.

Now, lest you think that this story does not have a happy ending, it does. The following season the Lakers and the Celtics met again in the Finals with the Lakers prevailing in 6 games. Somehow Dad and I had not made a bet on the series. It may have been because Dad and my stepmother had gone on a vacation before the pairings were finalized. I do know that Dad was out of the country when the Lakers won their first Finals meeting over the Celtics and exorcised all of those basketball demons. By this time my older brother Scott was working at the store with us and we knew that we had to do something special to commemorate the milestone. Ideas were bandied about with our store manager Pete. Should we fly banners; rename the store; stop carrying green paint? Being a lumberyard we had a big, old forklift. Most forklifts you see today could fit into the bed of a full sized pickup truck. But ours was the size of a farm tractor with big fenders and sidewalls and a singe seat eight feet up in the air. It was big enough that another 4 people could hang onto the sides and ride along. I loved learning to drive this behemoth and unloading trucks. Long before Leonard DiCaprio in Titanic, it really was like being on top of the world. The sun in your face, your scrawny arms straining against the steering wheel (no power assist), riding high in the saddle. It was some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done and I took ownership of the forklift and its duties under the tutelage of Pete. Because this ancient forklift was the biggest, loudest and ugliest piece of equipment we had we decided that it was time to paint over the horrible rust brown color it had and honor our World Champion Lakers.

Scott and Pete went to mixing the worst looking purple industrial paint ever seen by the naked eye. Fortunately, the manufacturer made yellow safety paint so at least one of our colors was spot on. Scott, Pete and I went to work to the delight of our employees and customers and after two days we had the only purple and yellow forklift in South Central LA. We parked it as close to the front fence as we could for all to see…including Dad.

Dad came home from his vacation a few days later and when he saw what we had done to his forklift he was less than amused. Angry? Not really. Just not impressed. We reminded him about the previous year’s bet and promised him that as soon as the Celtics beat the Lakers we would repaint the forklift Green and White for him. When we closed the business in 1989 and sold the forklift, it drove off our property still proudly flying Lakers’ purple and gold. The Lakers and Celtics did meet once more in 1987 with the Lakers winning again in 6 games. The Celtics last won a title in 1986 but it was against Houston. The Lakers have since won titles in 1987, 1988, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

As I prepare for another Lakers Celtics battle, I pause to remember my father and hope that wherever he is, he enjoys this renewal of a rivalry. I know that I will even though it just won’t be the same without him here.