After serving as Phil Jackson’s assistant for three seasons in Albany, my first job as a head coach in the CBA (Continental Basketball Association, the low-rent top tier pro minor league of the late 20th century) was with the Savannah Spirits. So I left my family in Woodstock and moved into an apartment that the team supplied for me in one of Savannah’s outlying islands — only a twenty-minute drive (in a stripped down but new Chevy that the team also supplied) to the arena.
Going about my business in Savannah always brought a tear to my eye and a tickle to my throat. That’s because there was a factory near the airport that produced cardboard boxes and paper bags, and whenever the wind was wrong, the stench was reminiscent of cockroach spray with musky overtones of boiled cabbage. The aroma was particularly overpowering when the factory cranked up on Monday mornings, and was strong enough to literally cause birds to fall dead from the sky.
When questioned, the locals took deep, defiant breaths and claimed that everything smelled just fine. When pressed further, Savannians declared that the factory employed four thousand workers and lowered real estate taxes all over town. Okay, but I spent the first two months there clearing my throat and coughing, constantly on the verge of bronchitis.
On the upside, the seafood was always fresh, and wonderful restaurants abounded. The recently renovated waterfront area was quaint and thronged with tourists who marveled at the charm of the Southland eateries and clothing stores, while studiously ignoring the airborne smell, as well as the oil slicks and dead fish floating on the Savannah River.
The downtown area was dotted with restored colonial houses and lush pocket gardens, bracketed with wrought-iron fencing and gold-lettered historical markers. The oldest synagogue in America was over on Elm Street. A Revolutionary War cannon sat on Bay Street, aimed inland at the Stars and Bars Bar. There was even an oldies station on the radio, WREB. Savannah’s main traffic artery was shaded by gracefully drooping cypress trees and was called Victory Drive, presumably to celebrate Sherman’s decision not to torch the city. The air was always wet, and even the trees seemed mildewed.
Savannah’s metro population of 150,000 was 52 percent black, yet people of color felt compelled to cast their gaze to their shoes whenever they passed a white. The crime rate was high — assaults, rape, burglaries — but the average cracker was thrilled that most crimes were black-on-black. At the grand opening of a Popeye’s chicken emporium downtown, I shared a meal with the chief of police who said this: “We never investigate crimes in n***er neighborhoods, because what could be better than having the n***er killing each other?”
Nor did the yokels think twice about casually referring to my ballplayers as “n***ers” to their faces.
But the brothers got their revenge during the renowned St. Patrick’s Day celebration on the waterfront. That’s when an estimated 600,000 college kids from all over Georgia jammed the one-mile strip to drink green beer and get mindlessly drunk. However, since the strip bordered the river, the only available parking spaces were inland — and latecomers were obliged to park as much as a mile from the festivities. Their wobbling, weaving walk back to their cars was fraught with danger, since dozens of black males would hide in doorways and alleys, then attack the drunken undergrads and steal their wallets, watches, and rings.
The cops tried to cover as much ground as possible, but the brothers employed a sophisticated system of scouts to insure that they always were where the cops weren’t.
My players — eight blacks and two white — were housed in an old but clean motel on the outskirts of town, adjacent to a long aqueduct that, after even minor rainfalls, contained the overflow of the Savannah River.
There was (and I hope still is) a fantastic restaurant in downtown Savannah simply called Mizz Wilkes. The place had no identifying signage and never advertised. Yet all the locals knew about it, so there were always lines around the block for the only two meals they served, breakfast ($4.95) and lunch ($6.95).
It was an all-you-can-eat establishment and the customers sat at long picnic tables, usually in the company of strangers. Waitresses brought heaping platters of choice southern chow — fried chicken, catfish, and okra. Collard greens, black-eyed peas, mashed this, stewed that. Everything was absolutely scrumptious and there was no way to avoid overeating.
Well, one fine day my good buddy Gerald Oliver brought his Charleston Gunners to town for a night-time game against my Spirits. A native of Tennessee, Gerald just loved to eat down-home food.
So on the afternoon before we were scheduled to play, I told Gerald about Mizz Wilkes: great food in unlimited quantities at an incredibly low price. And seeing as how he’d never be able to find it for himself, I offered to join him and his players for a midday repast. Naturally, Gerald and his team ate much more than they usually did for a game-day lunch. No surprise that his guys were bloated and lethargic come game time. Nor that the home team coasted to an easy win.
Afterward, Gerald could only laugh at my ploy. “You know something, Charley? Having a meal like that reminds me of how my mother used to cook when I was growing up. You know something else, Charley? Losing the game was almost worth it. Almost.”
The Spirits’ disappointing season (20-26) concluded with a lopsided loss in Tampa Bay. We would be flying out in the morning, but after the game there was still some celebrating to do.
Our rooms were all on the second tier of a rather seedy motel, and after imbibing our traditional, and final, communal postgame take-out meal of beer and pizza, our point guard — Bo Dukes — instigated a team-wide water fight. Everybody (including me) was running around carrying buckets of water and looking for somebody (anybody) to douse. The shouts, the laughter — and the moisture — were ubiquitous.
It was just after midnight when the police arrived on the scene.
I quickly identified myself as being presumably in charge of the mayhem, and I prevailed upon the police to give me chance to calm things down. But even as I was trying to be imminently reasonable and mature, Bo burst from his room and drenched me with a full pail.
“You’re disturbing the peace,” one of the cops informed Bo.
“Fuck the peace,” was Bo’s response as he hurried back into his room to refill his bucket. “There ain’t no peace in the CBA.”
To their undying credit — and my considerable relief — the cops only laughed at Bo’s madcap audacity.
After the cops left, I finally convinced my players to calm down. The only repercussions were each of us being docked $200 from our final paychecks to pay for the damages.
Imagine how thankful I was that our last game hadn’t been played in any other southern city that had a CBA team — like Biloxi, Mississippi; Jacksonville, Florida; or Birmingham, Alabama.
Or even, heaven forbid, in Savannah.
Author, professional basketball coach, columnist Charley Rosen, of Stone Ridge, has had nearly two dozen books published, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest book, Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Horrendous and Hilarious 1972-1973 Season is on sale at The Golden Notebook, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.