Today is 9/11. September 11, 2016. 16 years ago there was no significance to September 11. But that all changed 15 years ago when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and changed American history forever. My heart and prayers go out to all the brave men and women who ever served or is currently serving our country. And to all the families who were affected by the 9/11 tragedy.
Below is a detailed experience of my weeks leading up to September 11, 2001, the day itself, and the day after. In short, it could be summed up by the following:
Some days you’ll always remember.
Some teachers you never forget.
2001 was a thrilling and pivotal year for me. The first half saw the final days of my high school career. Senior Prom, Picnic, Mosh Pit, Grad Night, Graduation, etc. Exciting times. Meanwhile, I was awaiting college with bated breath. The second half of 2001 I began my freshmen year at University, ecstatic to break away from the chains of my high school past, ready to turn the page and start a new chapter.
I’ll never forget freshmen year, but in particular, I’ll never forget that first semester.
One day changed that semester for the worse.
But one man changed it for the better.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 28, 2001
My brother Kevin is two years my senior. We carpooled, arriving on campus bright and early at 7:30. He showed me around — the buildings my classes were in, the library, and all the other ‘hot spots.’
The buzz in the air on campus that morning was incredibly palpable. To THIS day I can still feel it rattling in my bones. The frat boys were out in full force already scanning the masses for new recruits. A sea of humanity stretched on as far as the eye could see. The freshmen were easily discernible from the others. I was not the exception to the rule. We were fresh meat; wide-eyed newbies either anxious or eager, maybe both, to get the ball rolling.
My very first class was Beginning Acting 8:30 sharp. My four other classes were Beginning Basketball, Public Speaking, English and Math.
I loved all my classes, but one rose above the rest: Beginning Basketball. Mondays and Wednesdays 10:30 to 11:45.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 29, 2001
First day of basketball class I showed up 15 minutes early. Two guys were already chilling up in the bleachers, one of whom I hadn’t seen since junior high — 5+ years! Alex introduced me to his buddy Jon, and while Alex and I caught up on the past half decade of our lives, more bodies started filling the bleachers.
It wasn’t long before everyone was settled in, talking excitedly about getting our game on, about how we would take the other to school. Break ankles with the killer crossover. The tallest guy in the class joked about how he’d dunk on each of us before the semester was over. Michael Jordan, on the verge of his second NBA comeback, was also the talk of the town. We were simply a bunch of basketball-loving 18, 19 year old puppies. Other than two girls, it was a total sausage fest. Everyone was living the moment up, except for this mysterious guy off in the corner — hood draped over his head, ball in hand. You could tell ballin’ was his life. For some reason, it was an image that stuck.
Everyone was talking about what an easy class this would be. Oh how wrong were we…
Then, at 10:30 sharp, the double doors swung open violently. A tall, lanky fella-in-a-suit with a whistle wrapped around his neck, made his way to the center of the court. He walked with a hardened purpose and swagger, conveying the thought that this was one bad apple not to be messed with. Although most of us had piped down, a few guys were still yappin’.
The clamor was interrupted by a loud, sharp, sudden whistle sound that cut through the entire gymnasium. You could hear a pin drop as a thunderous silence fell over the entire gym.
He froze us with his icy stare, scanning each of us as if to make quick mental notes. His eyes looked like burning coals, darting from student to student like a thief running in the night. We sat there quietly anticipating his next course of action, like wounded animals astutely watching the voracious lion’s every move.
And his first proclamation came as swiftly as the whistle went.
I almost shot up out of my seat! Some were slow to get down, as if to play it cool. When we all finally congregated at the center of the basketball court, with us on one side, him on the other, I figured it must have looked like a scene out of a hoops film.
My imagination had already ran away, y’see.
Alex shot me a glance as if to say, “Is this fool for real?”
None of us had any idea what we got ourselves into.
“So gentleman,” Coach paused in recognition of the two girls obscured in the crowd. “And ladies…”
He paused and waited. Those 10 seconds felt like 10 weeks. Coach had completely marked his territory. This guy was unlike any professor I’d ever had, ever.
Finally he glanced at his watch.
“10:35,” he announced. “Leave your bags here, the gym will be locked. Let’s take a little stroll outside.”
As he led the way, we quietly shuffled along. After that crazy speech, who knew what was in store for today, or the rest of the semester for that matter.
And on that chilly Wednesday morning, Coach ordered us to start running. Who does this guy think he is? But I knew better, so I kept my trap shut. But not Alex’s friend Jon, who had the nerve and gall to ask “For how long?”
5 minutes in, Coach had put his iron-clad stamp on the semester.
A few groans broke out as we reluctantly began a light jog. All around us students were walking to class, grabbing a bite to eat, or chilling on the benches by the trees. I initially felt like a victim. But then I came to realize, running around campus on just my second day of college, what a SURREAL experience this was. I always try to see the glass half-full, y’see. But my side started to ache not before long, and just as soon, my epiphany began to fade.
Finally, thankfully, mercifully, he whistled us in. We walked over, many of us panting and gasping for air. “I see it’s gonna be a long semester,” Coach said despondingly. “Get used to this. We’re gonna run run run RUN RUN. And then we’re gonna… by God, run some more! Alright, everyone back to the gym!”
Back inside, he passed out the course sheets. “In your hands you now hold the ten commandments of Beginning Basketball. If you cannot meet these standards, I suggest you drop my course pronto. Starting Monday, the REAL class begins. You thought today was tough?” He shook his head. “Get some rest, boys and girls.”
And just like that, he walked out of the gym. POOF.
We were left stranded, holding his “contract” in a state of both exhaustion and trepidation. And that’s when the quote of the year was uttered by the tallest player in the class:
I laughed. And then thought to myself: “Yeah, and we’re the Brown Shirts.”
Suddenly, I was no longer laughing.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2001
10:20 AM. Sitting in the bleachers waiting for Hit, er, Coach, I noticed class was smaller today. It turned out six people dropped, including one of the two girls.
At precisely 10:30, Coach Butler came power walking in the gym. This time he had with him a clipboard. And not one soul was yappin’.
Coach blew his whistle.
Coach had us start out on defense, explaining the proper defensive stance, ball and body whistle drills and the like.
“Move your feet! Bend those knees! One hand guards the passing lane, the other protects the crossover dribble!”
After a grueling workout, he lined us up against the wall. I knew this could only mean one thing and one thing only…
Run up to each marker one at a time, bend over and touch the line with your finger, run back, touch that line again, and progress to the next marker. Repeat until the entire gym is covered.
We never touched a basketball that morning. After class in the locker room, a few of the guys were bitchin’.
“What the fuck, I didn’t sign up for aerobics!”
“How long is he gonna keep this up? When are we gonna play some games?”
“This shit ain’t funny. We suppose to be playing BASKETBALL, not fucking run!”
Deep down I respected Coach for his toughness. In a way, I even admired him. But you pick your battles, and I didn’t see any good to play devil’s advocate for Coach, so I quietly changed as they jawed back and forth. I left to English class on two very sore legs.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 2001
Today we ran and practiced our defense again. Then, Coach added in some teamwork drills. We formed four teams of six. The objective? Repeatedly throw a basketball off the backboard and never let it touch the ground. The catch? Everyone had to be constantly running in motion. The jumping, the running, and the TIMING — the ability of your teammates to give you a good bounce, as well as vice versa, plays a huge role in how much success your team will have.
Then we ran a “weaving motion pass” system. Four lines with one person in each row weaving in their two lanes, passing the rock back and forth. Relatively easy, right? Sure… ’til Coach demanded it be done at breakneck speed! MADNESS.
One full week in the semester, we hadn’t played one lousy game yet, let alone take one stinkin’ shot. Even I was starting to wonder when could we get some games going. Before we left the gym that day Coach seemed to have read our minds.
“Starting Monday, we will begin playing basketball games.”
We let out a semi-mock celebratory cheer.
And once again he left the gym, leaving us alone to chew over the magnitude of another infamous proclamation.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2001
We started the day off with suicides, did a motion-weave pass drill, and then the games were finally on. 24 players in all, four teams of six. 5-on-5 games, so each team had a sub. The schedule was simple: run and work on drills for the first half hour. The final 45 minutes were spent playing three games 15 minutes a piece.
Remember that mysterious hooded baller? Coach selected random captains today — of which I was one. I had the 1st “draft pick” and selected Denny, “the mysterious baller.” He was one of the top three overall players in the class. He dribbled like a Globetrotter, passed like Magic Johnson and was quick like Allen Iverson.
Alex was my 3rd round pick. Bros before hos! Actually, that one girl was pretty damn good. I mean, FOR A GIRL.
[Oh no you dih-ent! -Ed.]
Seriously, she had game. She was taken before Alex!
It was a great day. Our conditioning was improving, and now we were finally playing some ball. My legs were adjusting to the rigorous routine and no longer ached after a class as they did before.
I loved all my classes, especially Beginning Acting and Basketball. So far, college was sweet. I broke away from my high school crowd. I made new friends. Classes were cool. Girls were cute. Life was good.
But less than 24 hours later, that would all change in the blink of an eye.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
Just a mere two weeks after I started college, the joy and excitement of a new beginning took a backseat to the most horrific tragedy to hit the US in recent memory.
I remember waking up, going downstairs and turning on the TV. The Twin Towers were engulfed in flames. Endless billows of smoke devoured the morning sky. At first I thought it was a movie, but then I spotted the news logo on the screen. This was no movie. This was real.
That morning Kevin and I drove solemnly to school, listening to the radio. We heard the cries and the chaos unravel. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
We arrived on campus around 8 and went straight to the University library; to the floor where they had a television playing the morning news. Everyone was watching the horrific tragedy unfold. I remember just looking around the room and seeing the horrified faces, sad ones and angry ones… images you can’t ever forget.
My first class that fateful morning was Beginning Acting with Laura Smith at 8:30. We didn’t act that day.
It was a small class (only 13 students). One of them was missing. It was Becky, who moved from New York the previous summer. Amber, a close friend of Becky’s, informed us that her family was directly affected. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It reminded how our small problems are really just that: small. While we’re fussing over a bad date last Friday night, or how we were sniped on eBay, the Becky Slaters of the world had family dying in New York.
Laura sat in front of us staring at the ground in dead silence… we waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she looked up at us, shook her head and we spent the entire period talking about 9/11.
Math was next, and it was more of the same. We didn’t work, we talked.
Around noon, the entire University cancelled all classes for the remainder of that day. It was sheer chaos as suddenly the campus was ransack with students all rushing to the parking lots. Some acted as though our campus was next in line for terrorist attack. It was surreal as hell… an unforgettable scene… the kind you wake up to on certain mornings.
2 weeks into college, things were going about as well as you could hope for. But in one morning, the world was turned upside down.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2001
When I entered the gym that morning, I found the bleachers already filled with my classmates. It was a somber scene. Some were reading the paper, others were talking in a very subdued manner. We were still confused, still angry, and still trying to cope in our own ways. I went over to Alex and Jon, who were both silently staring down at the gym below them. I looked over at Denny. No basketball in hand. No one was in the mood to play ball at a time like this, not even him.
I remember sitting the 3rd row up, seat number 130. It was now 10:31. No sign of Coach yet. I couldn’t help but stare at the entrance, waiting for Coach to come through. He’s ALWAYS on time — 10:30 sharp. Maybe 10:29. But right now, no one knew where he was.
We waited and waited. 10 minutes went by. Still no Coach. I kept staring at the double doors, waiting… hoping… for Coach to walk through.
Now it was 10:42. No sign of Coach. Uncharacteristic of the man, we started speculating. I pondered whether or not Coach had any family in New York. For that matter, did he have a family at all? What did I know about Coach, anyway? I realized: Nothing. Coach was like a robot. We knew nothing of his personal life, and only knew of him as the black Adolf Hitler.
I was lost in my thoughts until the doors flung open at 10:45. A hush fell over the crowd. Coach came in with a whistle tied around his neck and clipboard in hand. He showed no emotion other than his usual stern self. He walked over to the cabinet, removed a set of keys from his pocket, unlocked the cabinet and brought out a rack of basketballs. Then he walked to the center of the court, looked up at his players sitting high in the bleachers above him, and waited.
10 very tense seconds of silence commenced…
Up in the bleachers we looked at each other, all curious what Coach would say first. How would he address the tragedy? Why was he 15 minutes late? I remember thinking, “We’re about to finally see a human side to Coach.”
All eyes were on him. We waited for him to say something… anything. But he only stared back at us, a blank slate devoid of any emotion.
Finally, Coach broke the silence.
And like the voice of God raining down on us, all twenty four Beginning Basketball players stood up and lumbered on down. Descending the stairway, my mind was racing. What’s going to happen? By the time I reached the court I decided on one thing:
Hey, cut Coach some slack.
He just wants us face-to-face, coz he’s a straight shooter like that.
He’s going to address the 9/11 tragedy right here, right now.
He never did.
“Rios, Westbrook, Adams and Myers — you’re leaders,” he bellowed. He jotted some notes on his clipboard. His expression didn’t change from the stoic look that he always wore.
And that was that. Fresh off the tragedy of 9/11, how could anyone play basketball at a time like this? Staring blankly at one another in disbelief, none of us budged. Had Coach no heart? Had the man no soul? I looked at him in stony silence. Busy scribbling notes on his clipboard, he carried on as if nothing ever happened. What’s his problem? I was searching desperately for a reason to justify his actions, or lack thereof. The guy I respected, admired and even believed in. Perhaps the others were right. Coach was nothing more than a cold-blooded ruthless power drunk bastard.
Seeing our reluctance to start, Coach applied just the right touch of care and incentive:
And for the next hour we played basketball. No one went full-speed. How could we? Our minds and hearts were elsewhere. A place with more pressing matter than a silly game of a round bouncing ball.
But then… a funny thing happened.
To call it a miracle would be a definite stretch of the imagination. Or maybe not. But it was nothing short of a magical feeling that morning.
About halfway through the games, we started having fun. The simple execution of a give and go. The satisfaction of swishing a 3. The feeling of joy off assisting your teammate with a perfectly timed wrap-around pass.
Suddenly we played harder. We shouted out basketball team terminology like “Screen left!” and “I got ball!” We ran as though our lives depended on it. We shared the rock and switched from zone defense to man-to-man. The games became competitive. Fast. Furious.
And as we ran up and down the court that morning like a bunch of carefree ten-year-olds, I looked up at the bleachers and saw Coach sitting there.
I saw something I would never forget.
And then it hit me.
I understood now.
Everyone deals with tragedy and grief in their own unique way.
Some people eat.
Some focus on material possessions.
Some cry and mourn.
Others play basketball.
Every professor I had that semester took the day after 9/11 off, but not Coach Butler. Rather, he did things his own way.
Looking back… I’d say… it was the right way.
That morning I came to realize playing basketball with your friends can be therapeutic. In the locker room that afternoon (as it came to be), the mood was less somber, despite the reality of the situation being very much the same. You can’t always change the reality, but you can ALWAYS choose how to REACT to it. Indirectly, or maybe directly, Coach taught me that.
It was the first time I saw Coach smile. It was also one of the very few times. He never did bring up 9/11, and I’m sure he had his reasons. The rest of the semester proceeded exactly how we started. He was the boss. We the grasshoppers. He accepted nothing less than max effort, he was rough, and he was tough. And for that I have mad respect for him.
I aced the class and finished with a 3.871 GPA that semester.
A year later, Fall 2002, I returned to the same gym I’d poured buckets of sweat on. It was the first week of school. I was a sophomore now, and although I wasn’t registered for Beginning Basketball, I thought I check it out anyway.
Coach was surprised to see me that morning.
“I thought I got rid of you. You’re coming back for more?”
Coach was friendlier with me than before. I chalked it up to my passing his course, and possibly, in the process earning his respect man to man. I made three “special guest appearances” during that first month. I did the same drills, ran around campus and I played ball with those new guys. Just for fun. But once my school work load piled on, I never went back.
In the Spring of 2003, I was walking through the crowd on campus when I noticed a man on a bicycle quickly coming my way. It was Coach Butler! I figured he wouldn’t notice me, or if he did, that he wouldn’t bother to say hello. Imagine my surprise when he called me out in the crowd. We talked for 5 minutes. It made me proud to know that I had, without a shadow of a doubt, earned his respect.
The next time I ran into Coach it wasn’t long thereafter.
It was the very next semester in fact. Fall 2003. My tradition was every Friday I went to the University gym to play pickup ball. One day who else but Coach Butler and his friends were playing. Coach told me to join in. Next thing I know, I’m in a 5-on-5 game with and against Coach and his friends. His friends were YOKED. Talk about being thrown into the fire!
At the end of a hard fought game, Coach came up to me, shook my hand and told me something I’ll always remember:
“Nice game. You held your own.”
Noting the gleam in his eye, like that of a proud uncle, I simply nodded as we shook hands.
Then, we parted ways.
And that was the last time I ever saw him.
COACH CARTER THE MOVIE
Many years later I caught in theatres COACH CARTER, starring Samuel L. Jackson, with a guest appearance by the lovely Ashanti. It surprised me how eerily similar the movie was to my own experience with Coach Butler.
Beginning Basketball with Coach Butler was one of the best classes I ever took. At the time, I thought he was merely teaching the fundamentals of basketball. Nothing more. It was only later that I realized… all along he was teaching me about life.