His Last Game

Author: Brian Doyle ’78

Editor’s note: Brian Doyle ’78 died early Saturday morning, May 27, having been diagnosed with a brain tumor last November. Editor of the University of Portland’s quarterly magazine for more than 25 years and author of countless novels, short stories, essays and poems, Brian has been a regular contributor to this magazine since 1987, writing stories and essays about herons, naps, life and death, his undergraduate laundry bag, heartbreak, a kindly scoutmaster, the scent of dogwoods and the memories and gratitudes they carry, that time he met Jorge Luis Borges, flinty women, “the order by which people are admitted to heaven,” the Coherent Mercy. And, about basketball — apparently his favorite window into the rhythms and mysteries of humanity and the world. Brian wrote about basketball just as often as we gave him the chance. Remembering him now along with so many of his colleagues, fans, friends and family all over the country, we reprint here one of our favorites, which Brian wrote about his brother, Kevin Doyle ’69, himself dying of cancer in 2012.

We were supposed to be driving to the pharmacy for his prescriptions, but he said just drive around for a while, my prescriptions aren’t going anywhere without me, so we just drove around. We drove around the edges of the college where he had worked and we saw a blue heron in a field of stubble, which is not something you see every day, and we stopped for a while to see if the heron was fishing for mice or snakes, on which we bet a dollar, me taking mice and him taking snakes, but the heron glared at us and refused to work under scrutiny, so we drove on. We drove through the arboretum checking on the groves of ash and oak and willow trees, which were still where they were last time we looked, and then we checked on the wood duck boxes in the pond, which still seemed sturdy and did not feature ravenous weasels that we noticed, and then we saw a kestrel hanging in the crisp air like a tiny helicopter, but as soon as we bet mouse or snake the kestrel vanished, probably for religious reasons, said my brother, probably a lot of kestrels are adamant that gambling is immoral, but we are just not as informed as we should be about kestrels.

We drove deeper into the city and I asked him why we were driving this direction, and he said I am looking for something that when I see it you will know what I am looking for, which made me grin, because he knew and I knew that I would indeed know, because we have been brothers for 50 years, and brothers have many languages, some of which are physical, like broken noses and fingers and teeth and punching each other when you want to say I love you but don’t know how to say that right, and some of them are laughter, and some of them are roaring and spitting, and some of them are weeping in the bathroom, and some of them we don’t have words for yet. By now it was almost evening, and just as I turned on the car’s running lights I saw what it was he was looking for, which was a basketball game in a park. I laughed and he laughed and I parked the car. There were six guys on the court, and to their credit they were playing full court. Five of the guys looked to be in their twenties, and they were fit and muscled, and one of them wore a porkpie hat. The sixth guy was much older, but he was that kind of older ballplayer who is comfortable with his age and he knew where to be and what not to try. We watched for a while and didn’t say anything but both of us noticed that one of the young guys was not as good as he thought he was, and one was better than he knew he was, and one was flashy but essentially useless, and the guy with the porkpie hat was a worker, setting picks, boxing out, whipping outlet passes, banging the boards not only on defense but on offense, which is much harder. The fifth young guy was one of those guys who ran up and down yelling and waving for the ball, which he never got. This guy was supposed to be covering the older guy but he didn’t bother, and the older guy gently made him pay for his inattention, scoring occasionally on backdoor cuts and shots from the corners on which he was so alone he could have opened a circus and sold tickets, as my brother said. The older man grew visibly weary as we watched, and my brother said he’s got one last basket in him, and I said I bet a dollar it’s a shot from the corner, and my brother said no, he doesn’t even have the gas for that, he’ll snake the kid somehow, you watch, and just then the older man, who was bent over holding the hems of his shorts like he was exhausted, suddenly cut to the basket, caught a bounce pass, and scored, and the game ended, maybe because the park lights didn’t go on even though the street lights did. On the way home my brother and I passed the heron in the field of stubble again, and the heron stopped work again and glared at us until we turned the corner. That is one withering glare, said my brother. That’s a ballplayer glare if ever I saw one. That’s the glare a guy gives another guy when the guy you were supposed to be covering scores on a backdoor cut and you thought your guy was ancient and near death but it turns out he snaked you good and you are an idiot. I know that glare. You owe me a dollar. We better go get my prescriptions. They are not going to do any good but we better get them anyway so they don’t go to waste. One less thing for my family to do afterwards. That game was good but the heron was even better. I think the prescriptions are pointless now but we already paid for them so we might as well get them. They’ll just get thrown out if we don’t pick them up. That was a good last game, though. I’ll remember the old guy, sure, but the kid with the hat banging the boards, that was cool. You hardly ever see a guy with a porkpie hat hammering the boards. There’s so much to love, my brother added. All the little things. Remember shooting baskets at night and the only way you could tell if the shot went in was the sound of the net? Remember the time we cut the fingertips off our gloves so we could shoot on icy days and dad was so angry he lost his voice and he was supposed to give a speech and had to gargle and mom laughed so hard we thought she was going to pee? Remember that? I remember that. What happens to what I remember? You remember it for me, okay? You remember the way that heron glared at us like he would kick our ass except he was working. And you remember that old man snaking that kid. Stupid kid, you could say, but that’s the obvious thing. The beautiful thing is the little thing that the old guy knew full well he wasn’t going to cut around picks and drift out into the corner again, that would burn his last gallon of gas, not to mention he would have to hoist up a shot from way out there, so he snakes the kid beautiful, he knows the kid thinks he’s old, and the guy with the hat sees him cut, and gets him the ball on a dime, that’s a beautiful thing because it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me. You owe me a dollar.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of a novel, Mink River. His brother, Kevin Doyle ’69, died in June of 2012.