Although it has been longer than twenty years since we last played, my most formidable opponent in one-on-one basketball is down with incurable cancer. Lord we had some amazing games, slightly bloody at times. He was an all-American football player at Florida State and I barely made the starting lineup on the St. Albans High School football team my senior year (although I did make all conference that one year). There was a big difference in our muscularity too. He was naturally muscled, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hips and quick. I was about average.
I was better than Al at basketball but he fouled, pushed, butted and simply wore me down most of the time. He will deny that I am better than him at anything and will also deny that he fouled me to win, but it is true.
I never knew a person who hated to lose like Al. After one of the few times I ever beat him in one-on-one he kicked the ball clear over the large oak tree that the backboard was nailed to. The only time I ever saw him quit was when I accidently poked him in the eye, I was happy to agree to a draw.
He made a competition out of about anything. One time a bunch of us were skipping rocks on a lake in east Tennessee and he proceeded to force the situation into a contest and of course he won with fifteen skips. He would cheat a little to win. I’ve seen him do it in our basketball games and at cards.
Whether it was fighting against racism in the South, opposing the Vietnam War or playing scrabble with his family, winning was maybe the most important value in Al’s life. He saw no reason to ever be satisfied with second place. And with this damned cancer he is going for defeating it, enduring the radiation, chemotherapy and killing off of his bone marrow and starting all over again. He told me that there are people who have been walking around for ten years with the cancer in remission.
The doctors and technicians at the hospital told him they had to get him well because they all had a wall or a fireplace they wanted him to build. His skill as a stonemason speaks for itself in what he has built. How improbable is it that a man who grew up in Florida becomes an artist at New England stonework?
But probability wasn’t something Al ever considered. He went from college football to the Peace Corps where he built basketball and tennis courts, coached the track team and taught biology and just about everything else and even filled in for the principal at his school. I called him “super volunteer.” After the Peace Corps he got involved in the civil rights movement. He had the sad distinction of driving the Unitarian Rev. Reeb to Selma from Atlanta the day before Reeb was hit in the back of the head with a deadly baseball bat.
Al worked for southern farm cooperatives. He showed me a picture of an apparatus for distilling ethanol that he made and fitted on a trailer and pulled it to Georgia from Vermont as a proto-type for farmers in the cooperative he had worked for. Will Campbell told me he tried to get him to take the job of director of the human rights commission in Tennessee.
Al is a renaissance man. He is well read, he writes well, sails, plays soccer, basketball and tennis and loves to drink beer with his friends after a good knock-down drag-out competition of some sort, any sort. I admire him and often made him feel good by coming in second.