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Thursday, March 9, 2006

Reggie

When I was young, I wanted to be a basketball player. I grew up on the playground of . It was the hub of my world. Each night hordes of players converged on the rough pea gravel court for round ball games, winner stays on.

We had no prejudges, we saw no color, we saw no age, we did not condemn nor judge. Our members came from all walks of life. From the high school ranks to a local pimp to a security guard at Illinois’s most famous Boy’s Home, St. Charles.

We had our laws and obeyed no others. We were the first to coin the phrase, “What happened at Louise, stayed at Louise.” If someone broke a rule, they were ostracized. Simply they were not picked for anyone’s team. At Louise everyone played unless . . .

I remember my first game at the playground. It was the summer after my sixth grade. I was twelve. Our ages ranged from a youthful twelve to well past thirty. I was scared that first day, scared I couldn’t cut it. I learned quickly that the best players are always captains, two brothers were nominated that day and teams were chosen. I was picked by an Illinois All State Guard to be on his team. And we won. I held my own against a twenty something player, actually scored three baskets. And after all the words were said, I watched as that red, white and blue ball sailed high out of the fences as it was met by the losing captain's foot. From then on, I played regularly.

But in all the years that I played at Louise White, one particular player stood out in my memory. Not because of his athletic prowess but because of his tenacity. You see we didn’t recognize a class. We never saw it nor would we have understood. Reggie was always walking barefoot down the streets. It didn't matter where he was, he was barefooted. The first time I played against him, I was afraid of stepping on his feet. He quickly took his game to me and that was all she wrote. Never in all my life have I ever seen anyone run and jump on rocks and glass with such finesse.

Many many years later, when I had a family of my own and was a member of my town’s Kiwanis Club, we had a project for underprivileged kids of our community. We took ten boys and girls shopping for Christmas presents for their families. Each of us was assigned one youth. Alex was my kid for the day. He was a shy boy of eight. I remember that drive to K-Mart, the car was so silent, it was deafening. I tried to make small talk with the boy but he just remained motionless. I needed him to open about his family, so we could decide what to get each person. Finally he told me, he lived on the East Side. We were fellow East Siders . . .

"Did you ever hear of ."
"Yea sure, doesn’t everyone know it?"
I was shocked the baskets had been cut down years before. Anyway we found a doll for his sister, earrings for his Mom and a wallet for his Dad. We then went to the VFW to wrap the gifts and have a little party for the kids. I was nervous. It was my first time playing Santa Clause. I left Alex wrapping and dressed, returning as SC.

"You were Santa," said Alex, pointing to me when I returned from changing.
"No," I said.
"But you weren't here."
"I was in the back helping with the food." I remember him looking at me intently. Turning his head from side to side, trying to see through my guise. I wasn't sure he believed me, but he had doubts and that was enough. Quickly he lost interest and started to fiddle with the present Santa had brought him in between bites of ice cream and cake. It was a great day, I was feeling pretty proud for Alex had opened up and we had bonded.

While waiting for his parents, he never left my side. He just talked incessantly. Several parents arrived and picked up their children. Alex was the last one. When his Dad came in, I was tongue tied. I stood up and extended my hand.
"Reggie, Dan Hanosh," I said.
"I remember you, Dan," he replied. Suddenly tears filled my eyes. I wanted to hide. But truthfully I wanted to hug him and tell him I was on his side. Many years later, I remembered the letter Alex had sent to our club thanking us for taking the time and I wish I could have done more.

Poverty knows no boundaries; it knows no color, religion, or ideology. Hunger is everywhere. Today I reaffirm my challenge to you. Not for me, but for the future generation. We need to break the cycle and we can do this together.



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