May 132012
 


Got an email some time ago from a guy I played high school basketball with. Nice to hear from him. Those were glory days. We had one of the best teams in the city. I wrote back and finished off my email with this: "We had a great team, didn't we? A bunch of hard working, normal guys . . . and Jim Caruso."

Caruso. He was a year ahead of me and clearly not wired the same as I was. I was dedicated to being an athlete. I didn't smoke, drink, party or stay up late. Caruso was the exact opposite. 

To give you a picture, we were once playing in a winter league at another high school. We drove over to Pacific Palisades on Wednesday nights, played, drove home. To get there and back we had to take twisty Sunset Boulevard. 


So I was driving back once after a game. It was a cold night in the canyon, and I carefully guided my Ford Maverick along Sunset. Suddenly, a convertible comes tearing by me. I don't remember who was driving, but I do remember who was in the passenger seat: Caruso, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, his sweaty blond hair blowing in the wind. I remember he was laughing. 

The thing was, Caruso had all this natural athletic talent. He was about six feet tall and built like a bull. And that's how he played basketball. He had one speed, full, and I don't think he ever took a shot that looked the same as any other. He was at his best when driving the lane and jumping in the air...then figuring out what to do once he was up there. Which was usually something very cool that either ended up with the ball going through the hoop or off the wall.

This drove our coach, John Furlong, absolutely crazy. Furlong was a strict disciplinarian and team-oriented coach. He yelled a lot. He got red faced mad at you if you messed up too badly. None of us wanted to be on the wrong side of Coach Furlong.

Except Caruso. He just didn't seem to care. No matter how mad Furlong got at him, Caruso would take it silently, then go out on the floor and pretty soon do the same thing again. Which was why Furlong wouldn't start him. But he couldn't keep him on the bench for long because, despite everything, Caruso was too good not to be in the game, scoring points and grabbing rebounds. 

It was impossible not to like him. He had this infectious smile and he seemed to go through life with a certain damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead kind of joy. In pickup games he'd always be laughing, joking, talking smack and slapping you on the butt when you did something good.  

Jim Caruso graduated in my junior year. The next year we had another great team at Taft High, this one disciplined and predictable, much to the relief of Coach Furlong. Still, I couldn't help feeling our team lacked a certain, what's the word, exuberance? I missed seeing Caruso cutting through the key, doing his thing, a thing uniquely his own.

Then one Saturday I was in the gym shooting around and a fellow teammate came in.

"Hey," he said, "did you hear about Caruso?"

I stopped shooting. "No, what?" I figured maybe he'd been picked up on a DUI or something.

"He's dead," my friend said.

I just stared at him, stunned. 

"Killed in a car accident," he said. 

And I immediately remembered that night I saw Caruso in the convertible, and thought maybe this wasn't such a shock after all. In fact, looking back, it was both sad and oddly predictable. That year, in our high school yearbook, there was one of those "In Memory Of" pages for students who'd died. It was the last any of us would ever see of Caruso, and that was hard to believe.

I don't know what was going on in Jim Caruso's life. The only thing we had in common was basketball. It was enough. I didn't want to emulate his off the court antics. What I did want to do, when the situation was right, was go for the wild shot, the totally improvised move, just to see what happened. I knew you couldn't play a whole game that way, but you at least needed to have that kind of fearlessness in your arsenal. 

I draw an analogy to writing here. Discipline, fundamentals and hard work are still the keys, but you have to be willing to "go for it" sometimes. You have to jump in the air and figure out what to do when you're up there. Fearless.

I still have this indelible picture of Jim Caruso. It was in a pickup game, the first time I'd ever played with him, just before I started at Taft. His name had been whispered to me. Everybody knew about Caruso. I was a little bit intimidated at the prospect of playing with him. But then we started the game and I remember just watching him, marveling at his raw ability. Crunch time came and the game was tied. Caruso did his thing, driving toward the hoop and jumping up with a taller guy all over him. He seemed to hang in the air for a full minute. His legs were splayed and his left elbow (he was a lefty) stuck out like divining rod. And then somehow, some way, he got off a hook shot (it was the only shot available to him) and it banked off the backboard and through the net.

And he came down laughing and turned around and looked at me as if to say, "See? That's how it's done, son."

And sometimes, it is.