The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
You knew this chapter had to be in here. Doctor Frank owes the world an epic story on the twenty-seven-year-old German transplant, recruited by Husky basketball coach Marv Harshman to come rescue his hoops team. They brought him here as a freshman, and for some baffling reason lost in the twisted brains of some long-retired athletic department bureaucrats, they thought the welcoming, nurturing environment of Conibear Shellhouse would be the best place for this hoops gruntie to live.
This may not have been an inspired move. Granted, you could see Hec Edmundsen Pavilion from where we lived. He wouldn’t have to walk far to get to practice. And he wouldn’t need a car. Campus was up the hill and classes would be easy to get to.
They sent him to us on the first day of fall quarter. It was to be a brief yet passionate and intense romance between Uli and his new environment. A torrid love affair, if you will. He was the only hoops player living there that quarter. Across the hall were four football guys but they were all surrounded by crew jocks. And we crew guys spent more time in Hec Ed running stairs than Uli spent on the practice court. We never saw him on campus. He may have scared his professors.
Uli must have been used to the first impression he created. Even for a house full of tall guys, it was holy shit, what is that walking into my boathouse? He was over seven feet tall. And he was what Sports Illustrated would later call a “monument to immobility.” We could have told them that before he hit the court. It was a major chore for him just to get out of bed. That little foam mattress in Uli’s room got way more playing time than he did. Not that he was lazy – a body that massive just needs a ton of energy to get it in upright and in motion and keep it going.
He was a grown man among boys. Still, Uli was thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country where nobody spoke his language except for a couple basketball teammates who were taking German 101 and knew three words. Der, die, and das. Which all mean “the.” German is funny that way, three ways to say one word. So his hoopmates committed themselves to teaching him English.
Chet the Jet was his English instructor. Uli got as far as “motherfokker” and Chet decided he was good to go. So he mixed it into every sentence with the handful of words he already knew, just throwing it out there as noun, adjective, preposition, conjunction, wherever it felt good. Which is about how motherfucker is supposed to be used. But coming from Uli it carried a unique Teutonic power and grandeur that just impressed the hell out of us.
Like all freshmen, Uli was a target the moment he walked in. But this guy was special. Not just a gruntie, but a basketball gruntie, a 27-year-old gruntie, a seven foot tall gruntie. And he had no idea what to make of a crewhouse full of nut job jocks who worked out twice a day all year long and teased him relentlessly.
“Fock you, you focking piece of shit motherfokking crew guys.” We wondered sometimes if that was all he had for us. It seemed to work for him. He always said it with a smile.
We taught Uli he could say whatever he wanted to us, but if he wanted to eat he needed to respect Pat, Vera, and Francis. When he went back for seconds, thirds, just trying to fill that yearning belly, they were always good to him. They gave him a little extra, he was grateful. They smiled at him, he smiled kindly back. They looked way up at him, got to know him a little bit so far from home. He returned the favor by not saying motherfucker around them.
We were tall, and a lot of us had played hoops in high school. So we asked him for advice on the game. How to box out, how to get position. We got one piece of guidance from him.
“I stand under basket, I step on other guy’s foot when time to rebound. Referee never sees.” That’s it? “That is it.” Uli, can’t you jump? “Come to game, you watch.”
The football team was rough on him. Someone decided his name was Schtoolie. So he got that from all of them, tall, short, wide, skinny, first string or benchwarmer. The whole football team ate at the crewhouse during fall quarter, whether they lived there or not. Hey Schtoolie, leave some spuds for me. Hey Schtoolie, I hear your mother’s as tall as you. Hey Schtoolie, how’s it feel being the only white guy on the court? Hey Schtoolie, how’s it feel when Chet the Jet dunks on you in practice?
This busted the crew guys up too. And all the football guys got back was the same old shit.
“Focking futball motherfokkers, you don’t even play real focking futball. You play five seconds, stop, rest, bend over, take it in ass, do again. Real futball, players go forty-five minutes, take break, don’t take it in ass, do one more time. I hope you lose every focking game. You lose this weekend. I loff my focking oss off.” Unfortunately for Schtoolie, this was the season Warren Moon would shock the football world and lead the Huskies to a string of underdog wins, a conference championship, and a Rose Bowl victory.
The crew guys that hung out with Uli eventually realized he was a decent human being. He was smart. He was kind. He was also lonely, far from home and had his walls up. Hence everyone was a motherfokker. When everyone is motherfokker, nobody gets into brain. The guys that got inside his head and gained some mutual admiration were the guys who had cars. Cars that were big enough that they could drive a seven-footer around to get food.
I rode along one night to a weekend dorm dinner. It might have been in Mikey’s Pontiac. That was one of just a few cars that could fit Uli. The dorm dining room had food rules, unlike the crewhouse. Entrees, like a hamburger or a piece of chicken, were limited to one per student, regardless of the size of the student. When Uli wanted more, the little lady behind the counter offered him salad or a bowl of rice. I will forever have this picture in my mind of what happened next, seeing Uli from across the room, glaring wildly down at this woman who may have weighed a hundred pounds and should have retired ten years earlier, waving his arms in that insanely huge wingspan and stomping his feet. When we could hear him, voice rising, using Chet’s English classes to tell her what he thought of the dorm rules, we ran to rescue him. Or maybe we rescued her.
“Fock this place,” he shouted as we escorted him back to the table with a pile of fresh greens. “Fock this. We go to McDonalds now. I order three Big Motherfokkers.”
We tried to explain that the girl taking his order at Mcd’s would be sixteen years old, sweet, innocent and just trying to do her job. That as a minor, she had extra protection under the law and that he might not just get kicked out by the manager, he may get arrested for saying motherfucker to her, which would be a unique and unforgettable experience and a terrific addition to his international resume but might not exactly impress Coach Harshman.
He stared at us, confused. “What? What is wrong with motherfokker?”
We had an idea. “Tell ya what, Uli. How do you say motherfucker in German? Just tell her you want three of those, tell her it means Big Mac. Then while she’s ringing you up, have her repeat it back to you three times so she learns it. You could even have her write it down. Then tell her to go to German class at school and share how to say Big Mac in German.” By the time the shit hit the fan on that one, Uli would be long gone.
It worked. Everyone went home happy, especially the excited little high school girl with a new word she got from a real German. Ahhh, cultural boundaries. We all grow when we stretch them a little.
The last straw for Uli may have been the ladder bung. They say he left school and went back to the homeland because he wasn’t getting any playing time. We know better.
Knock knock. “Uli. Phone call.” Uli steps out of his room and two grunties immediately attack the legs and take him to the floor. As he struggles, the ladder is brought into position. Crouching like a panther on the top rung, the next gruntie drops onto the pile. And another and another, until guys were just crawling from the ladder onto the top of the stack and there was no room between last guy and the ceiling. An eight foot bung pile under an eight foot ceiling, and at the bottom, a huge German with no breath remaining to call them all motherfokkers.
It was an act of love, of respect. Those grunties would never have pulled that on someone they couldn’t stand. Despite barriers of culture and distance and language, he was still their classmate. A basketball gruntie. They adored him. He might not have understood it quite that way.
Uli was gone by the end of fall quarter, as the hoops season was still in early nonconference play. His career line: six games, six points as a Husky. Plus a whole new English vocabulary. Thank you Chet the Jet and his fellow grunties.
The good news for our beloved flash in the pan? He’s made a damn fine career of the sport. He’s gotta be about sixty-five years old and he’s still working, training basketball referees in Europe. I mean, he’s running huge top level clinics and herding refs through their paces as they work basketball training camps and tournaments.
Wherever you are today, Uli, Doctor Frank sends his respect. You may think we treated you like shit, and you’d be right. But believe it or not, we loved you. I bet you haven’t spent the last four decades talking about us the way we have about you. You were larger than life, and not just because you were a fricking giant of a human being. Simply put, you did way more for us than we did for you, and we’re in your debt.
One thing you can count on in European ball, with Uli training the refs: Nobody gets away with stepping on feet.