My grandmother always said Memories are a tricky thing. They can wrap you up like a warm, velvety blanket or scratch your nerves raw. And sometimes, your Memory will play tricks on you.
There I was at Christian’s Newburgh Panthers basketball practice at the Armory. First, you have to understand that growing up, we all agreed that there was no one who could basketball the way that my childhood friend, “Satin,” played. The coach always said if there was such a thing as basketball IQ, Satin would be considered a genius. There was something innate about the way he touched the ball. He had THE Touch. That’s why they called him Satin.
But that was a long time ago, right now, I was standing at the Newburgh Armory, with my jaw hanging open, watching a kid handle the ball in a way that reminded me so much of Satin. Not the way he looked but the way he held the ball, controlled the ball, could go from Zero to explosive in no time. With Satin, it was like you could blindfold him and he would make the same shot over and over. And that’s when I thought I saw him. Out of the corner of my eye. Satin -- driving the ball down court. But of course, it wasn’t him. It was just my very vivid Imagination. Satin died, officially, 3 years ago. But we lost him long before that.
Satin was our next door neighbor growing up in Fishkill. His dad and Lolo both worked at IBM. My brother Michael and Satin were best friends, from the time he moved in next door at about the age of 5 until, well, until he disappeared. They were inseparable, those two. Always walking to the basketball court at the elementary school across the street to shoot hoops. Sometimes Lolo went with them or Satin’s Dad. He was the most amiable, good natured kid, always with a smile on his face. But as he grew into a young man, and really focused on basketball, it seemed he was insatiable in his quest for perfection. He was relentless when it came to academics and sports. Maybe we should have seen he was too driven. Maybe we should have said, Perfection is not a realistic goal, that is a quest that will burn you out.
My brother and Satin started to part ways a little bit in Middle school and High school. My brother immediately went out for wrestling, and was on the JV team, then the Varsity team at John Jay from 7th grade to senior year, ending as Co-Captain of the Varsity wrestling team. Satin was the Senior Class president, and played baseball, soccer, football and was the Captain of the Champion Varsity Basketball Team, and a bona fide basketball all star by the time they graduated. He was the one they trusted to take the game-winning shot over and over again. He was the one who made the magic happen on the court. If he was out sick, we lost, if he was healthy, we most likely were going to win.
He had made every basketball all star team possible, was selected for every honor known, and was inducted into the Dutchess County Basketball Hall of Fame. He made the Poughkeepsie Journal all star team, the Conference A North All Sections all star team, and the Exceptional Seniors All Star basketball team.
After practice, he would stay in the gym and keep practicing, for hours on end, he would just never want to leave the court.
I remember coming back from NYU for my brother’s graduation, in 1986, it was right before I was scheduled to go to NYU in Spain. I remember looking at my brother and Roger, the two of them so impossibly perfect, in that way that only two graduating seniors with the world at their feet could be. Scholar athletes, handsome, brilliant, talented, joking and laughing in the way only two best friends since kindergarten could do. They were everything a parent could hope for in a son, it was the 80’s, with big hair, muscle cars, and Brat Pack movies. Before there was Black Tuesday, before 9/11; our generation had grown up only knowing peace, we had never experienced wartime. When people said the sky is the limit, it really was.
My brother was headed off to college at SUNY Purchase, and Satin would go on to Auburn University, where he would play basketball for 2 years. For me, that was the last time I would see him alive. But I didn’t know that then. I spoke to Satin briefly, but I was itching to get on with my big journey to study in Spain. I really regret that I didn’t spend more time with him. Of course, had I known it would be the last time I would see him, I would have dropped everything and made as much time as possible for my childhood friend. I would have told him to take it easy, not to put so much pressure on himself, because a pressure cooker that’s not relieved is going to implode.
What happened after Auburn is sketchy. After 2 years, Satin transferred to St. John’s University in Queens. No one is totally clear why, Auburn had been a pretty good gig. He played some basketball but not at the level he was capable of, because he had other things going on. He was involved in some kinds of substances that were keeping him from thinking clearly. And then, he just disappeared. Literally. Many people went to look for him. He had been sighted somewhere in Florida but he wouldn’t come back to reach back or accept help. God knows, we all tried, especially his family. He has two brothers. I can’t imagine the pain his parents went through all those years.
So they say it was, in a sense, a relief when they finally got the call. Around the holidays in 2010. Satin’s remains has been identified on a beach in Florida, through dental records. There’s no need to speculate as to what happened, because it just won’t do any good or bring him back.
When we went to the Memorial service in January of 2011, it was brutal. What a way to see your high school friends again. He had been 42, but there were no current pictures of him. So at the Memorial service, the church was covered in pictures of him from high school: childhood moments capured; his senior class picture, so handsome; his many basketball team pictures and newspaper clippings. The light in his eyes was so bright. His older brother, God Bless Him, was able to speak at the Memorial. And what he said to everyone was, Roger’s bright burning star was the same thing that kept him from coming back and asking for help. Had he been more of an ordinary guy, maybe he could have asked for help. Asking for help, as his brother said, is the hardest thing that a person can do. In a way, the same extreme willpower that allowed Satin to practice for hours in the pouring rain, is what must have allowed him to stop his hand, everytime he wanted to reach for the phone and ask for help.
Oh, that would never be me, never be my kid, I hear some people saying. Listen, Satin was my friend, and he could have been anybody’s kid. There but for the grace of God go I. And my children. I take nothing for granted. Nothing.
As I shook myself back to the present, at Christian’s AAU basketball practice, I looked around at all the talented athletes. They are the best that Newburgh has to offer and Newburgh is the basketball capital of the Hudson Valley. Boy, Satin would have loved this place.
“MOM!” my son yells at me, cutting through decades of thoughts and foggy memories to bring me front and center “… what’s wrong, Mom?”
I know I have a vivid imagination. It’s what drives me to write all the time. And for just a minute, I allow myself to imagine a young Satin, taking one last shot, flashing me the peace sign, his signature move, and walking off the court, dribbling slowly.
“Nothing, my boy, everything is just right,” I say, and give him one last hug. And it is. Somehow, by coming here and seeing all these very much alive and well and healthy basketball players, I am at peace. Maybe some part of him lives on in all of us, his friends, in the way we see the world, the way we raise our kids. I know that I was in the presence of greatness. I am sorry that Satin’s meteoric rise was so tragically cut down. But I know I will never, ever forget him. I know that I will always encourage my kids to do their best. And most importantly, I know that if my kids ever come to me for help or forgiveness, I will be quick to extend it. Whatever the reason may be. And so I thank you Roger, for that, for all that you have given us, your friends. You absolutely enriched our lives. But as for any guilt or regret any of us are carrying around, it is time to let that go. And remember the best in you, the best in all of us, and forgive you. And it’s time to forgive ourselves. Rest in peace, my brother <3 Julie