Wednesday, October 7, 2009
In Pesaro, Italy
This is out of order, but....Im trying to post whatever I can. This is from late August/Early September.
Charlie Yelverton, one of the best players to ever emerge from the legendary New York City street basketball scene of the ‘late 60s and early ’70s, a gleaming star in a select galaxy, was hanging around the bench as the Portland Trail Blazers got ready to face the Phoenix Suns on their home court.
Charlie was 25, a former high school All-American, and leader of the city Catholic school championship team at Ignatius Edmund Rice. At Fordham University, he had been All-American, all-everything, and in his senior year, had led the team to victory over the feared Austin Carr and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. (Carr had just scorched UCLA—the nation’s number one team at that time—for 61 points and that team’s only loss that year.)
He was selected early in the 1970 draft and was looking forward to a long pro basketball career. A jazz aficionado, Charlie bought his saxophone with a new hundred-dollar bill wrapped around a little glob of hashish, from former Power Memorial High School center Lew Alcindor—the man who would become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was that kind of life.
The Trailblazers began their warm-ups, slowly, maybe halfheartedly.
They had no real stars and no real hope. It was a mid-season game, and their season had already fizzled fast. Sure, they gave the LA Lakers a scare at the Forum in Inglewood, but the Lakers were on their way to a world championship that year. The Trailblazers, metaphorically speaking, were stopping for milk and Ding-Dongs© on their way home on a rainy night, with the team bus’ failing alternator sporadically dimming the headlights, and the cheap radio sifting through the airwaves searching for a signal.
At Portland, Willie McCarter had been cut from the team a few days before, and maybe he deserved it, but the black players on the team were having none of it, though they couldn’t really agree on what kind of action to take. Charlie left a black players’ meeting that afternoon in frustration.
This was 1972, and thousands of young American men—boys, really—were dying in a crappy little strip of sweltering rice paddy called Viet Nam, a place few had ever heard of, and none could locate on a map with two hands. The protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by John Carlos and Tommy Smith was still a fresh wound to the American sports establishment’s psyche.
Charlie wasn’t high that night in Portland, though he’d tripped on mescaline the day before. During warmups, instead of joining the two-man shooting drills, he wandered over near the center court line, sat down and assumed a yoga position. Center Dale Schleuter, a man who had no business playing in the National Basketball Association, jumped on his case from go.
“Charlie, come on, man. What are you doing? Let’s go....get your partner, shooting drills, come on!” Idiotic shit like that. You could expect that kind of behavior from a suck-up like Dale.
“I don’t have a partner,” Charlie said. McCarter had been his drill partner.
Charlie went back to the bench and waited for the game to start. He was looking forward to a little more game action that he’d been getting recently, anyway.
The National Anthem began. The players rose. The audience rose. Charlie stood, and then he just sat back down.
Most of the audience couldn’t really see him sitting down there at the end of that long bench. All across the nation, a lot of Americans in Charlie’s demographic were sitting down for the Anthem. For many of them, it would be quite a number of years before they would stand again. But not in the NBA.
Few players actually noticed what Charlie had done. But right around “And the rocket’s red glare...,” some fans noticed Charlie sitting down. Just sitting there.
And they started to boo. They booed until the song was over. Charlie didn’t really react.
When the coach put him in in the second quarter, the boo-birds started up again. Charlie took a pass just to the right of the key, feigned left, went right, drove past his man like back in high school, double-clutched, and banked in a shot so sweet it would make you and your stupid friends cry, and the fans roared.
Typically fickle motherfuckers, Charlie thought.
The next day his story was in the Portland Oregonian. The Blazers cut him like Willie a few days later.
In 1982, Teresa Fiorentini, an intense young blonde medical student, was in her last year at Bologna University, studying medicine. Charlie, now a former player for the famed Italian Varése team, was in Bologna working a youth basketball camp, and playing jazz here and there.
Teresa and her friend Leonora, an ancient lit major, would cruise the streets of Bologna, dressed in black, dark and cool and mysterious, but that was a liter of milk under Teresa’s arm.
One night, they stood off to themselves, waiting for a table to open up at a jammed local club. John Fultz, a Bologna basketball player, and his buddy Mark, a fellow free spirit with a flowing ponytail, waved them over. They had a bottle of tequila, nowhere to go, and all night to get there. At some point during the long night, John said, “You should meet my friend Charlie.”
Charlie and Teresa met a few summers later, and became fast friends. For the next four years, they would meet whenever Charlie came south for camp. They traveled some, they stayed in some, they met each other’s friends, and the years went by.
Charlie married, had two kids—a boy and a girl—got a divorce and began a life of jazz and basketball—teaching and coaching during the day, and playing his saxophone on the weekends. Teresa moved to New York City, got a punk rock haircut, and took a job at New York Hospital in the department of Internal Medicine. From there she moved to England, to Exeter near London, where she met her husband and eventually became a doctor for Her Majesty’s Prison Service.
One day three years ago, Lorenzo, a friend of Teresa’s, mentioned that he had seen Charlie again, up north in Varese. Back then, Teresa was still living with her husband Clive in England, but by this year, she had bought a hilltop villa in her home town of Pesaro, and was moving back to Italy.
Charlie called Teresa’s sister at her home in Pesaro last fall. Maybe that was safer. Teresa’s sister called her in Exeter. Teresa called Charlie in April.
Fall became winter and winter became spring and spring became summer. Charlie was headed south for something called “Jazz Basket” in Umbria in July.
Teresa would move into her new house in August.
Francesco, the bass player in Caris’ band, called Caris.
“I’m playing a jam session at the Jazz Hotel on Tuesday. Come see the show. We’re playing with some guy who played with the Harlem Globetrotters.”
We motored down the hill to the Jazz Hotel—yes, it’s really called that—and there was Charlie on sax, with a bunch of young Italian jazz guys.
Three hours later, Charley, Caris and I were negotiating the long flights of stairs up to the center of the hilltop medieval town of Perugia, where the yearly Umbria Jazz Festival was in full swing.
We sat in a friend’s restaurant and Charlie was gregarious, open and ebullient, sharing tales of his short life in the NBA, as though we were longtime friends
“Walt Frazier (’70s icon of cool) was gay,” he said. A lot of the guys were.” We laughed in shock. (Later, Caris showed me Frazier’s book, “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Cool” or something like that. I mean, if the guy’s gay, no problem, but I seem to recall that there was a section in the book about getting with the ladies, if you know what I mean. Even today, Frazier does commercials for a men’s hair coloring product, the message of which is “This will get you the ladies, fellas.”)
Much later that night, we drove Charlie back to his hotel.
“This was great. Man, I wish I had a doobie for you guys!” That’s OK, Charlie.
Some two weeks later, Charlie was on the phone. He was coming south to play a fundraiser at a friend’s place in Pesaro. Could we all get together and play there?
Charlie came to Caris’ place, and we rehearsed two or three times. Sort of.
We followed E45 north and turned east on S243 to Pesaro, a small coastal town between Rimini to the north and Ancona to the south, directly across the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia and Croatia.
Teresa met us at the station in her red Alfa-Romeo Spider convertible, and we followed her and Charlie on the long climb up Santa Marina Alta to the top of the “Panoramica,” high above the port of Pesaro.
Sunday evening, the night after the party, Caris, Teresa and I were walking back home from dinner and Teresa mentioned how nervous she was about living alone in the villa. There were two empty and separate apartments on the property...and....
Caris drove back home to Collemincio on Tuesday. A few days after that, Teresa and I were planning meetings for a book about her life in medicine.
And that, gentle readers, is how I came to be sitting here in Pesaro, behind the walled gates of a beautiful villa with fruit trees and five rescued cats.
I’ll be in Spain for a while this fall. I may be in England. But Pesaro, Italy is home this morning.