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705: Time Out

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

There's a scene in the film I Am Legend where, OK, civilization is over. The only person left alive in New York is Will Smith, and he is not able to find traces of anyone else alive anywhere on Earth. And every morning, he wakes up and makes himself breakfast, and puts on videos of The Today Show from back before the Earth was destroyed just to make the morning seem normal.

One of the sports fans on our staff, Matt, was saying the other day that that is exactly what it's like today, watching the constant replays of old sports on television. He's watched the 2018 Stanley Cup, the NBA Finals Game 7 from 2013, an old Yankees game from 1978, the Masters last year that Tiger Woods won, all that glory from back when life was normal and sports was part of it. Part of the thrill of the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance was it wasn't just sports, but a primetime Sunday night sports event that you could look forward to and you could watch, knowing other fans were watching and talk about, and share memes just like the world used to be.

These two guys who write about college football, Jason Kirk and Spencer Hall, wrote this thing that I love about the lack of sports in our world today. These are guys who normally spend over 50 hours a week on a slow week watching games and thinking about sports, who these days, like hungry men raiding an empty kitchen pantry for any scrap of food, have resorted to watching old college games that they've seen before and live Korean baseball in the middle of the night, and the German soccer league, Bundesliga.

Jason Kirk

Saturday morning, the choice was between Bundesliga and cornhole, the American tailgate game where people throw sandbags at a wooden plank.

Ira Glass

That's Jason. Here's Spencer, explaining what he's come to.

Spencer Hall

I, yesterday, put on for the edification of my kids and their larger education, Ricky Steamboat versus Macho Man Randy Savage at WrestleMania 3. And it's largely considered the greatest wrestling match of all time. And I realized that since I'm homeschooling my kids, they had to see the important classics of my culture.

Ira Glass

The canon.

Spencer Hall

The canon, yeah. No, I mean, it really-- we're joking, but we're not. Like canonically, there's a lot of controversy about what is in the canon, wrestling-wise. No one disputes this.

Ira Glass

Spencer's watching way fewer games under lockdown, and sometimes he says he thought this actually might be better for him, in some way, to devote fewer hours to sports, maybe.

Spencer Hall

Maybe. But it also makes me realize that the things I fill them with aren't much better. There's a lot of empty--

[LAUGHTER]

There's a lot of empty space out there, man. There's a lot of empty space in life. And when somebody says, well, now you can fill it with something really meaningful, will you? Or is that even an option?

I think there's only so much meaning you can pack into the hours of a week. I think there's only so much productivity within one person. I think that's something, by the way, this has forced me to confront.

Ira Glass

Anyway, the essay these guys wrote about sports during these sportsless months is called "What Were Sports?" And the tone of it is like people who live in tents surrounded by rubble after a war, remembering what it was like to live in houses, looking back on their old lives, which only now they appreciate for what they were. The essay starts this way.

Spencer Hall

I remember there were expensive commercials. I definitely remember expensive commercials being a part of live sports. I only noticed this when sports on replay happened. The ads for replay games are cheap and very sad-- home generators, car warranties, bootleg tactical gear for things that shouldn't be tactical, like car visors and hearing aids.

Jason Kirk

Do you remember how, back when there were sports, each person had a list of teams they strongly preferred to win? Like if the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies squared off, you and I would be a little bit happier about life if the Grizzlies were the team that won. What was that all about?

Ira Glass

Other things they miss-- Phillies fans doing things that were not normal for anybody but Phillies fans; spreadsheets of sports statistics for each game, whose results then went into a spreadsheet for the whole season, which then went into a historical archives spreadsheet. "Watching a four-hour game and walking away with one GIF-worthy moment," they write, "felt like a version of sifting for gold, but a version in which the dirt itself was valuable."

Jason Kirk

One cool thing I remember about sports is watching people run fast in one direction. It was fun to watch someone do this when unimpeded, such as when Usain Bolt walked into a mall in church shoes or whatever and ran as fast as the fastest NFL player ever had. But it was 10 times as fun when someone was able to run really far while other people were trying to stop that person from running far.

Ira Glass

Also fun, watching big people try to stop fast people from running. They write, "Sports were little chemistry labs designed to run for hours, months, and centuries, along the way producing countless things nobody could have predicted from the onset-- a cool, otherworldly space place where people could completely depressurize for several hours and sometimes succumb to space madness along the way when things went haywire."

Spencer Hall

Do you remember that part? That part was like Apollo 13. Like when your team's starting safety went out with an injury and they had to figure out how to play with 10 defenders and one guy who should have been going to law school instead of covering the other team's best receiver. That part was a problem, but a fun one to solve.

Jason Kirk

These problems very much belong to someone else, despite us getting to invest feelings in whether they solved these problems or not. Caring about whether a mediocre general manager could finally figure out how to do sports budgets, this was kind of like politics, but in a fake world in which we didn't have to acknowledge politics can kill us. That was nice.

Ira Glass

There's a whole passage in the essay where Spencer reminisces about the last live game he went to, LSU and Clemson in New Orleans, and got oysters before the game, and met a friend at a restaurant the next day to eat and talk football for hours. He writes, "Do you hear all the beats of an impossible world playing there? I do. I feel every little ping of a world that I've only missed for 45 days at this point, like cactus needles just pressing into the skin of a hovering hand." Jason sums it all up neatly with this.

Jason Kirk

For me, the thing that mattered most about sports is how they, by design, did not matter. We built industrial complexes around them, but at heart they were about discovering which side had earned the right to shout the cooler obscenities on any given day. And then the following day, we would rediscover.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, for everybody who is yearning for sports right now in our sportsless world, we try to help with radio methadone for your sports addiction. Is that metaphor too negative? We have sports stories from back before the lockdown, back when professional sports were still a vital daily living force. We relive the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Friday Night Floodlights

Ira Glass

Act One, Friday Night Floodlights. OK, so let's begin with this story of people yearning for sports to begin again in a moment a few years back, when nothing was normal at all. Businesses were shut down. School was canceled. Kids were stuck home. This story happened right after Hurricane Katrina, in two towns in Mississippi that sit right on the Gulf of Mexico, Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

Waveland was pretty much wiped out in the hurricane. Most homes and businesses there were destroyed or severely damaged. Bay St. Louis only did a little better.

A month after the hurricane, when we broadcast our story about them, most people still didn't have electricity. You couldn't drink water from the faucet. One of the first things they decided to bring back, even before that other stuff-- football, high school football. One of our producers back then, Lisa Pollak, went down there in 2005 during those early weeks after Katrina and put together this story.

Lisa Pollak

The Bay High Tigers played their first game of the season on the Friday before Katrina. They beat Hancock High, 30-14. After the storm, the joke was that they'd gone undefeated. Everyone figured the season was over. Players were homeless. The high school was closed.

But just days after the hurricane, the Bay High coach, Brenan Compretta, started hearing from his players. They wanted to play football. They called his cell and sent text messages. They stopped him on the street. They wanted to play football. They wanted something that reminded them of what life was before.

Brenan Compretta

The thing that a lot of them were saying is it only takes 11 to play, and that no matter how many they had, they wanted to do this. That was the only thing that they had to look forward to.

Lisa Pollak

You wouldn't stage a school play without a school, but football's different-- here, anyway. In Bay St. Louis, game day starts at 6:30 AM with a team breakfast at a church. Newspaper stories about the game are posted on the wall at school. In the afternoon, drummers from the band march through the hallways just before the pep rally. Strangers in town stop players to talk about that week's game.

So even though school won't start again until November, the coach called a meeting to try to restart the team. There were some challenges. Only 19 players showed up of the 70 who are on the team. They couldn't use their practice field since National Guardsmen were camping there. Their field house was destroyed and most of their equipment. And as for their uniforms--

Brenan Compretta

We pulled up a few days after the storm. They had people running around in our jerseys and cleats, and throwing balls around. And I guess it was fathers and sons or whatever.

Lisa Pollak

Wait, you saw people wearing your guys' football jerseys just as, like, replacement clothes?

Brenan Compretta

Right, exactly. And considering the circumstances, I didn't get really upset about it. I just was like, well, I guess if they need some clothes, they can go ahead and take them.

Tyler Brush

They're saying that there's a possibility-- they're saying it's probably going to be one of the most packed games we've played ever.

Lisa Pollak

It's game day, the Tigers' very first game since Hurricane Katrina, one month after the storm. And I had flown to Mississippi, where Tyler Brush, the team's quarterback, is showing me around. There's not a lot to see, just huge piles of wreckage, and near the beach, mile after mile of empty spaces where houses and buildings used to be.

After the hurricane, Tyler's family left for a while, moved to Florida, to a town where they used to live. They got a nice house, and Tyler began high school there. He was practicing with their football squad, and he was going to be a starter there too. But then Coach Compretta called. Tyler says coming back here was a hard choice.

Tyler Brush

My dad, he originally didn't want me to come back. I mean, he was pretty much against it, but he decided-- I mean, he said that it was my decision. I mean, I had to think about it a lot.

I was nervous about coming back. I mean, I recognized the situation. I knew I was taking a chance if I came back here. College teams might not see me playing. But I felt that I still needed to come back, though, for whoever did come back.

Lisa Pollak

As quarterback, he didn't want to let the team down. So now his family's living 15 miles away in Diamond Head, and two of the team's other players whose families didn't return are living with them too. This is a strange place to be a kid right now.

With no school, they spend their days doing cleanup work, hauling out sheet rock, and moving trees and debris. It's bleak and boring. Their favorite hangouts are gone. Football is one of the few things they have left.

Tyler Brush

We're actually pulling up to my house now. Yeah, this is-- pretty much nothing left of my house. There's stairs right here-- were right here, leading up to the house. They're completely gone.

Lisa Pollak

Literally all we are looking at are the wooden stilts that held up the house and the foundation, which looks like it was lifted up from the ground.

Tyler Brush

Yeah.

Lisa Pollak

And I mean, there isn't even stuff around, like furniture, or clothes. Where did all the stuff go?

Tyler Brush

I guess the water just washed them up that way-- wiped out. There's nothing left.

Brenan Compretta

Does anybody in here need pants? You need pants, come with me.

Lisa Pollak

Over at the football field, the new uniforms arrive just in time, a gift from a man in North Carolina. And the kids line up while the coaches open the boxes.

Brenan Compretta

2, 3, 4, 5.

Lisa Pollak

The new jerseys are blue and white, not blue and gold, the school colors, but no one seems to care.

Brenan Compretta

Hold on. Hey, man. We're not getting picky here. Just relax, buddy. What do you need?

Lisa Pollak

This isn't the team it used to be. Over half the Tigers still haven't come back, so the coaches have filled out the roster with some new recruits-- a few seniors who've never played football, some freshmen from the school's ninth grade team, two guys from the Tigers' archrival, St. Stanislaus-- they canceled their season-- and to cap it all off Bad News Bears style, some scared looking seventh and eighth graders from the junior high. In all, it's still just 29 players, a long way from 70.

Some of these kids are all but homeless, sleeping on other families' couches and floors. One linebacker is living in a camper alone, his parents hours away, all so he can play football. With everything these kids have been dealing with and everything they've seen, they seem genuinely relieved and excited to be here today, putting on jerseys and lacing up cleats.

Trevor Adam

Everybody's just anxious to play again, to get things back to normal.

Lisa Pollak

That's Trevor Adam, a senior tight end. And for him, getting things back to normal means pretty much one thing.

Trevor Adam

I love hitting people. I mean, there is no better feeling in the world just unloading on somebody. I mean, even now, dealing with all this, you have an extra feel of warmth. You get just that exciting feeling about hitting somebody. There's no-- you can't explain it.

Lisa Pollak

Equally excited is Brandt, a tenth grader. I think Brandt might be one of the happiest kids I've ever met. He doesn't stop beaming, even when he's talking about swimming through his flooded kitchen or living for weeks without plumbing or power. He moved to Texas to stay with a relative for a while, but didn't stay long.

Brandt

Texas was great. Everybody was real kind, like scary kind. It was just like-- have you ever seen The Stepford Wives, how everything's perfect? That's how it was. They were all like, hi, how are you doing? Oh, can I get you anything-- clothes, food? And I'm like, I'm fine, ma'am.

Lisa Pollak

Does this feel like a normal couple hours before a game, or does it feel different?

Player

Way different.

Brandt

One thing I'm going to miss before the games, the pregame meals. And we don't have that here.

[LAUGHTER]

Them pregame meals were good, all you can eat.

Lisa Pollak

What kind of food?

Brandt

Oh, baked chicken with all these spices on it. It was so good.

Lisa Pollak

You're making me hungry.

Brandt

That was like a month ago.

Lisa Pollak

So you've stayed here this whole time. What's there been to eat for you?

Brandt

Oh, three meals a day, MREs.

Lisa Pollak

So what's an MRE taste like?

Brandt

I'll tell you what. Meal number 20 and meal number 22-- 20 is spaghetti, and 22 is jambalaya-- the best. I told my mama she should step it up, because that stuff is-- I'm going to start getting MREs just regular.

Brenan Compretta

All right. Hey, guys. Everybody right here where these guys are. Get down. Y'all can take a knee or something. Let's go, real quick. You can sit down or take a knee, either one.

Lisa Pollak

It's late afternoon now, about an hour before the game. Everybody gathers around Coach Compretta, and he urges them to think about the past month when they get on the field tonight.

Brenan Compretta

Everything you have inside of you, let it out. All the aggravation, the frustration, having to get up and do all the junk you do every day because of this hurricane, let it all out right here. Play for your community, OK? That's why you're here, OK?

Some people can't be here. Play for the guys who can't be here too. Play for Bay St. Louis and Waveland. Does anybody have any questions about anything-- offense, defense, special teams block? What?

Cal

I love everybody.

Player

We love you too, Cal.

Brenan Compretta

Love you too, Cal.

Lisa Pollak

Of course, there's only so much love one football team can take. An hour later, as the team gets ready to run out onto the field, the coach has this to say.

Brenan Compretta

So forget all the kindness and niceness right now, all that junk. Go out there, and get after their behinds. Do you understand me?

Players

Yes, sir.

Brenan Compretta

OK, guys. Now, we do want to win the football game, OK? Everybody touch somebody. Let's go.

Players

Break it down! One time win!

[SHOUTING AND CHEERING]

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, your Bay High Tigers.

Lisa Pollak

It's kind of hard to believe that out of the ruins of this town just down the street from gutted houses and buildings, this thing has appeared, this movie-set-perfect football game. It's dusk now, with a pinkish sky, and under the stadium lights, everything's kind of glowing. And everyone showed up to play their part-- the cheerleaders, the PA announcer, the marching band or what's left of it, a single kid with a snare drum standing in the bleachers.

Announcer

Please join me in singing the national anthem.

Lisa Pollak

The opposing team, the Long Beach Bearcats, line up on the other side of the field. The moment I see them, my heart sinks a little. Not only are there twice as many of them, they just look so determined. Assistant Coach Keith sizes them up this way.

Coach Keith

[LAUGHS] Oh, big. They came here on three buses. We need a minivan. [LAUGHS] Big difference. And they don't have junior kids out there. We do.

Lisa Pollak

Not even the quarterback's father expects the Tigers to win tonight. They're missing so many guys that they'll have to play their good players twice as much. Their starters will play offense and defense. Guys will wear out.

Announcer

Doing the kicking for the Bearcats, Chip Vonderbruegge.

Coach

Right there.

Lisa Pollak

The Tigers get off to a great start. The first time they get the ball, they go on a drive that lasts half the first quarter and ends with a touchdown on a six-yard run by Robert Labat.

Brenan Compretta

Let's go Tigers! Let's go Tigers!

Lisa Pollak

I watch Tyler pass the ball off to Robert, knowing that Tyler pretty much moved back to town for this moment, and that Robert-- who's living with him, separated from his own family-- did too.

Brenan Compretta

Get out there. Go, go, go.

Man

Watch your man! Yeah, yeah!

Brenan Compretta

Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run.

[SHOUTING AND CHEERING]

Man

Watch your play!

Announcer

Tiger touchdown.

Man

Let's go, D! Let's go, D!

Announcer

Tigers on the board.

Cheerleaders

Hey, hey, here we go.

Lisa Pollak

On the sidelines, eight Tiger cheerleaders are jumping around. It's more than half the squad. One tells me her uniform was the first thing she packed when her family evacuated. When the girls aren't cheering, they're consulting this big, elaborate chart they've set up in front of bleachers. Celeste, the captain, explains.

Celeste

This is our cheer list, and we have 63 cheers on it. And every year, we just take it and we add more to it.

Lisa Pollak

OK, so like, what's 36?

Celeste

36 is G-O, go, Tigers, go.

Lisa Pollak

And then what's 37?

Celeste

37 is G-O, go, go, G-O, go.

Lisa Pollak

And what's 28?

Celeste

Go, go, G-O. Go, Tigers, go.

Lisa Pollak

There's some similarity.

Celeste

Yes, they're very.

Lisa Pollak

The coaches are scurrying up and down the field, improvising to fill in for the key players they don't have, swapping kids in and out. Brandt, the MRE kid, is getting trounced out there, so the coach pulls him aside.

Brenan Compretta

Hey, Brandt. Not bad, baby. Not bad, baby. Make a change. Put somebody in there with a little more behind on him, OK?

Brandt

Yeah, I got manhandled right there.

Brenan Compretta

I know. We saw that.

Lisa Pollak

But the rookie players come through with some surprises. For instance, at the very same moment that the coaches are grumbling to themselves about where exactly freshman Allan Vallalta is heading on the field, Vallalta recovers a fumble.

Brenan Compretta

Oh, god. Vallalta's on the way. [BLEEP]. Oh, damn. He just made a play. He just made a damn play.

[CHEERING]

Lisa Pollak

By the end of the first half, it's Tigers 7, Bearcats 6.

Brenan Compretta

Good job, Walt. That a boy. Good job.

Lisa Pollak

The home bleachers are pretty packed by now. And the thing I realized when I start talking to people is that this is the first time this town has gotten together since the hurricane. One of the first people I meet, Gary Yarborough, doesn't even have a kid on the team.

Gary Yarborough

I'm just out here just trying to see who's still here, and who's still in town, and visit with the other folks, and kind of see how everybody's handling everything and dealing with everything.

Lisa Pollak

Is this the first time you're seeing a lot of folks in a while?

Gary Yarborough

Yeah, some of them. Yeah. Because with the curfews and nothing open in town, there's really no place to go to see anybody.

Lisa Pollak

As I walk through the stands, the one thing people keep telling me is what a normal night this is, what a relief it is to do something normal again. You talk to anyone for more than a couple minutes, and what you hear next is just how far from normal everything is. They're worried about flood insurance, and FEMA trailers, and whether they'll have jobs. I ask one man, the booster club president, what the highlight of the game is so far, and he nearly starts to cry.

Brenan Compretta

Turn it up!

Lisa Pollak

Down on the field, the Tigers are playing better than anyone had expected. Going into the fourth quarter, the score is 21-6, Tigers comfortably leading. But then in the last five minutes of the game, everything falls apart. The Bearcats' star player, Tramaine Brock, rushes for a touchdown. They miss the extra point, so it's 21-12. Two minutes later, with just three minutes left in the game, Brock sprints 55 yards to the end zone as the Tiger coaches watch helplessly.

Brenan Compretta

That's it. He's gone. [BLEEP]. He's gone.

Announcer

They catch another and run. They score.

Brenan Compretta

Ah! Dang it.

[WHISTLE BLOWING]

Lisa Pollak

It's a two-point game now, 21-19. The Tigers are still leading, but Long Beach has the momentum, and they only need a field goal to win. The Tigers are completely exhausted. Many have been on the field the entire game, the kickers limping. Alan Vallalta, the ninth grader who made that great play, is on the sidelines with an injured knee. The Tigers get the ball back, their last possession, but they can't even manage a first down. They punt it away, and there's still plenty of time for Long Beach to score.

[SHOUTING]

Brenan Compretta

Don't let him behind. Don't worry about the first.

Coach

Everything you've got right now!

Brenan Compretta

Be ready to drop.

Lisa Pollak

The Bearcats start to drive again. They cross the 50-yard line into Bay High territory. The clock is running down. Coaches are screaming.

Brenan Compretta

Jason, be ready to drop. Here we go. Here we go.

Lisa Pollak

The place is going nuts.

[CHANTING]

I can honestly say this is the only football game I've ever been to where it really did seem to matter who won. Earlier, I felt bad taking sides against the Bearcats. Their town was hit by the hurricane too.

But now I don't know what I'll do if the Tigers lose. Their town was hit harder. They're the underdogs. They have to win.

And then they do. They stop the Bearcats. It's over.

[SHOUTING AND CHEERING]

Announcer

Tiger defense.

Brenan Compretta

Shake it up. Shake it up. Shake it up.

Lisa Pollak

The clock runs out, and the place explodes. 21-19 Tigers. It's every corny sports movie come to life-- people streaming on the field, hugging, players sprawled on the ground, all these people in this wrecked town ecstatic over a football game. Assistant Coach Jeremy Turcotte.

Jeremy Turcotte

I think next to getting married and having my baby, that's about the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life.

Brenan Compretta

Hey, guys. Listen up. I'm going to let you go. I know we got to get home.

Lisa Pollak

Coach Compretta.

Brenan Compretta

Never been more proud, OK, in my coaching career, never been more proud of a group of guys in my life than right now. Love you guys. I love you guys.

Take tomorrow off. See you on Wednesday, 3:30. Be here for 3:30, OK? Everybody touch somebody. Great job, fellas. Great job, fellas.

Players

Break it down! One time win!

Announcer

Bay St. Louis and Hancock County is still under a curfew, ladies and gentlemen. After the game, you'll need to go home as soon as possible.

Lisa Pollak

And just like that, the place clears out. A half hour later, the only people left are the coaches, still reliving the game. Luke, one of the assistants, is on the cell phone with his brother in Alabama.

Luke

They had the ball with about a minute and a half left, driving with no time outs. And we sacked them with no time left. But I just wanted to call and tell you that, man. I'll call you tomorrow sometime. I just wanted to holler at you real quick. I love you, brother. Bye. Bye.

Lisa Pollak

Of all the coaches I met here, Luke seemed the most discouraged about everything. He'd lost his house. He sounded disheartened. In the morning, he told me that when his contract is up in May, he'll probably leave here. But now his mood is different.

Luke

We play next Friday night here. And it's not like the town's going to be back to normal next Friday night. So I mean, they're still going to not have anything to do. There's still going to be a curfew.

And I mean, this just starts it. I mean, if you lose tonight, it's like, you know what? You go home, and you're sitting in a trailer, and you have no AC, and you lost a football game. But it's a little easier to go home and sit in a trailer with no AC when you just won a football game that nobody gave you a chance to win.

Lisa Pollak

Before coming to Bay St. Louis, I felt the way I think a lot of us feel when we see these places on TV. I didn't understand how you go back to a town like that, to all that loss, and live there in the middle of it. What are you going back there for, and how do you even begin to get over it? Watching the Tigers win 21-19, completely outmatched, everyone together cheering them on, I knew the answer.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak. So we checked in this week with Tigers Coach Brenan Compretta. He is not the coach anymore, but is still very involved with the team. He told us that, in some ways, the pandemic has been harder on the high school kids in town than Katrina was. The kids facing Katrina, he said, could at least still hang out together.

Right now, the school plans to be open in the fall. The team is supposed to start summer workouts in about a week, June 1, with the first game scheduled for August. That's the plan for now anyway.

[MUSIC - "BACKFIELD IN MOTION" BY MEL AND TIM]

Act Two: Dunk and Go Nuts

Ira Glass

Act Two, Dunk and Go Nuts. So back in 1996, when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were at the height of their power on the way to winning the fourth of the six championships that they won back in the '90s, we did an episode of our show on the Bulls and just about loving basketball. It included the story of a barber named Tommy, who was the one person rooting against the Bulls in a barber shop on the South Side full of Bulls fanatics, as they all watched the playoff game on television, the Bulls against Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic.

Tommy

I like Shaq.

Man

Yeah.

Tommy

And they're having a rough time at the moment.

Man

Yeah.

Tommy

But can't give up the shift yet. That's right. Can't give up the shift.

Ira Glass

Even at halftime, the Bulls up by 10, Tommy did not let up. Scissors in hand, a toothpick dangling from his lip, he declared--

Tommy

Orlando's coming back, win by five. It ain't over till the fat lady sings.

Ira Glass

I think it was just funny to him to calmly say no to a room full of hyped-up fans. Later, when the game ended and the Bulls won by 15, Tommy insisted, no biggie. The Bulls would lose the coming series against Seattle. And then-- OK, this is the scene I narrated back then in that show.

Then we all looked up. And through the plate glass window in front of the barber shop, we saw a car pull up. A guy climbs out with a brand new broom in his hand and strides towards the barber shop.

Man

He's bringing the broom to Tommy.

Ira Glass

The guy walks in and stands, broom in hand, near the door.

Tommy

What's the problem?

[LAUGHTER]

I told y'all I was going to come back up here now.

Man

Hey, Tommy. You didn't think that was going to sweep, huh? [LAUGHS]

Tommy

It ain't no sweep.

[LAUGHTER]

Derek

Tommy, I can't hear you, man. Did you see the bull run down the street? Was Shaquille on it?

Ira Glass

The guy's name is Derek, a regular at Coleman's.

Derek

Tell him I got to go home and celebrate, man. Me and all my Bull friend buddies, we finna go celebrate. You're going to jump on the bandwagon sooner or later, Tommy. We're going to make a believer out of you.

Ira Glass

Tommy's unnerved.

Tommy

I've already talked to Gary Payton. And boy, we're going to do it in 4-2-- Gary Payton, Seattle. [CHUCKLES]

Ira Glass

That episode of the show wasn't just about being a basketball fan. It was also about playing basketball and what it can mean to you-- and not incidentally, all the trophies that you collect along the way if you're serious about the game. Further you get, the bigger the trophy. Of course, some trophies do not age very well. Get old enough and, at some point, they can just start to look like dusty, aging clutter. One of our producers, Nancy Updike, talked to a friend of hers who played a lot of basketball all about this.

Nancy Updike

When I met up with my friend Mary to talk about basketball, she was having some trouble with her trophies. She just moved to a new apartment. And her new place was small, so small that a bunch of high school trophies would just dominate any room they were in.

She had the trophies in a box in the living room. And we sat on the floor, pulling out fake silver statuettes of girls in culottes reaching ever upward, hopeful and fit, like in Soviet propaganda posters.

Mary Conway

See, can't you see feeling really tough walking home with something this big, especially if you hold it like this?

Nancy Updike

Sure. Grab that baby by the base.

Mary Conway

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

Then she found one that was not like the others, sort of hard to understand, actually. Picture this, a thick slice of wood, sanded and shellacked, and mounted with a miniature rim and backboard, and then leaping across the front a stick figure made of roofing nails going in for a slam dunk. Mary identified this as her 1978 girls varsity team trophy from Cardinal Dougherty High School. And the girls, she said, had not been pleased with the trophy at all.

Mary Conway

It's ugly, isn't it?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, it is truly-- it's so damned--

Mary Conway

We were all really unhappy. We wanted a traditional--

Nancy Updike

Will you give it to me?

Mary Conway

Yes. [LAUGHS]

Nancy Updike

I want it. I want it.

Mary Conway

We would rather have had the also ugly, but much more acceptable, old version of trophies then than those trophies.

Nancy Updike

Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I mean, if you're a 13-year-old girl, you don't want to be walking home with that. You want that.

Mary Conway

No. Right, right.

Nancy Updike

That's a trophy.

Mary Conway

You want something that goes up high in the sky, not something that is a slice of a tree.

[LAUGHTER]

Nancy Updike

You don't want a tree slice.

Mary Conway

A slice of a tree with a nail stick figure soldered together, doing the one thing that you know you'll never be able to do-- dunk.

Nancy Updike

Was that something that you all discussed?

Mary Conway

Oh, yeah. And we also thought that that was the only reason we'd never be in the NBA. Luckily for us, we all thought, well, we're really some of the best players on the face of the Earth. When you're a 16-year-old girl who's playing at a tough Catholic league school, you think, yeah, we're good enough. I'm just as good as Maurice Cheeks, and the Doctor would like to play with me, Dr. J. And we could attribute our lack of success in the NBA to the fact that we were girls, soon to be women, who had never dunked. And that's all that was keeping us from it.

Nancy Updike

Mary handed me the wood slice trophy. And when I reached to touch the stick figure, I realized that one of its feet was on a pivot. So I could actually make it go in for the dunk. Once I discovered this, it was impossible not to do it over, and over, and over. The trophy was completely hypnotizing, a disturbing artifact from an artistic period best forgotten.

Mary Conway

The art of the late '70s, especially like in Catholic religion textbooks and churches and stuff, was so ugly.

Nancy Updike

Who knew there was even a genre, the late '70s Catholic textbook art world, that whole scene?

Mary Conway

I'm afraid I've been so influenced by it. It's like, you know--

Nancy Updike

I need to walk away.

Mary Conway

--those little ink drawings that are just a little bit off on purpose. You know what I mean? And the unpurposeness of it is just like, you know--

Nancy Updike

It makes you want to grit your teeth.

Mary Conway

Oh, help me. Yeah, right, right. You can always hear a Cat Stevens song playing in the background.

Nancy Updike

As a kid, Mary played basketball mostly with her older brother, Daniel. The two of them roamed around the city together, looking for pickup games whenever they could, all summer, every weekend-- even at night, because the court down the street had lights. It was a way to get out of the house, to escape the chaos of 11 kids in a working class Irish family in a too-small house on the edge of Northeast Philadelphia. Basketball was a place of clear rules and gestures that always made sense. And home was a place where you could get hit for no reason or find yourself still hungry at the end of a meal. Mary remembered being hungry a lot growing up, a fact always cheerfully denied by the nuns at school.

Mary Conway

The message was you couldn't be hungry, because your parents are saints. And they especially directed it to our family and to all the other families that had a lot of kids in them, that our parents were saints because they worked so hard to provide for us. So I thought that I was just extraordinarily greedy that I would want to eat when I was hungry.

I think that playing basketball was a way to say, like, if I could use my body in this way that got me status and attention and a certain amount of prestige, then my body was OK in a way, even though it was-- I mean, I was way too skinny when I was a kid. And it was cause for concern for the school nurse a couple times. And playing basketball was a way to say you're not going to have neural damage from being malnourished. You're just going to have these other minor malnourished problems.

Nancy Updike

Another good thing about basketball was that it was cheap. Mary bought the family a rim and a basketball for their backyard when she was only seven or eight, using her first communion money, $65 in $5 increments from everyone in her huge family. The only equipment she really needed and could never afford were good shoes. She always had those supermarket checkout line shoes with the hard plastic soles that were completely embarrassing, of course, but also had no gripability. So she would be running down the court and go sliding, and be called for traveling. So one year, she got up the courage to ask a girl down the block for her old shoes.

Mary Conway

Her name was Karen. And she had really nice Beta Bullets, high tops, white. And I wanted her sneakers because I knew she was getting new ones. And in our neighborhood, there is the practice of throwing your old sneakers up over the telephone wires when you're done with them. And most of them were hardly worn out at all. I mean, a lot of them you could see that there was tread missing, but it's not like you had ripped through the top of them.

And I'd asked her for them. And she said, yeah, that she would give them to me when she got her new ones. I thought that it was a little bit weird that I would ask somebody for their used shoes, but we had other clothes that were used from other people.

And she was tough, and she kind of had this like, you know-- she seemed like she'd be the kind of person that could keep something like that to her and would know what it meant. And she did. She never told anybody, except, of course, the most important person that she shouldn't have told, her mother. And her mother got really upset and told her that she couldn't give them to me. And there they were, hanging up on the telephone wire, my sneakers.

And I'm sure that her mom did that because she was afraid that if I came home with a pair of used sneakers that it would be insulting to my mother. I'm sure that they all had this understanding of themselves. Like, you don't insult someone else's-- you don't insult one of your peers by giving their kids your crappy shoes, even though they're better than the crappy shoes that you bought for them. [CHUCKLES]

But there were always really beautiful sneakers hanging up on the wires. And there was no way to get them, no way at all. They just floated up there. And you know what? I think that's when I decided that platonic idealism was true.

[LAUGHTER]

There really was a perfect thing that I would never experience, at least while I played in that Catholic league. [LAUGHS]

And only I could see them for what they were. They only saw worn-out tread. I saw a season of unforeseen high statistics.

[LAUGHTER]

Nancy Updike

We talked for two hours about basketball, and we kept returning to the dunk and the cruelty of the dunk on that wood slice trophy, a dunk by a stick figure made of nails, driving home their 18-year-old sense of frustration. They could be the best ball handlers, the best guards, and it didn't matter worth a damn because they couldn't dunk, all of that captured forever in the last trophy most of them would ever receive.

Mary Conway

I think it was really kind of thoughtless in the way that thoughtless things can sometimes have a really nasty edge to them. And we had a woman on our team who was like 6' 3", and she couldn't dunk the ball. You know what I mean? It was like, there was no one that we knew who could dunk the ball, not a single woman that we knew. And we knew some tall women. We knew women who were in college. I mean, I used to have a dream, a recurring dream that I dunked the ball.

Nancy Updike

What were the circumstances?

Mary Conway

I was on the baseline. [LAUGHS]

Nancy Updike

I'm so glad you asked.

Mary Conway

I mean, it was the same-- I was in the same position all the time. And it wasn't like the kinds of dunks that you see in real life that even the best players can do. This was a spectacular dunk because I didn't just get my hands up over the rim, I sailed over the rim with my feet and got above the basket, and just slammed the ball down through the thing. My whole body was above the rim.

Nancy Updike

Wow.

Mary Conway

It stayed in bounds the whole time.

Ira Glass

Mary Conway talking with our own Nancy Updike. Coming up, a kid who's not great at soccer invents a way to be a star. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: Those Who Can’t Play

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Time Out." In this kind of unprecedented moment when sports have been put on pause, like when has that ever happened? We had favorite stories from back before the lockdown to fill in the void, the sports void. We have arrived at Act Three of our program-- Act Three, Those Who Can't Play.

OK. So, so far on our show, we've done football and basketball. Let's turn to soccer. This is from Daniel Alarcon, the executive producer and host of Radio Ambulante. And it's about his dad. Growing up in Peru, Daniel's dad, Renato, played soccer around the neighborhood like all the kids did, but he was never anything special.

Daniel Alarcon

So it was certain, like, he was never thought of as being an athlete.

Ira Glass

But he was thought of, from a young age, as being beyond unusually bright.

Daniel Alarcon

When I've gone back, I was introduced as, oh, this is Renato's son. And then just heard, like, a-- just, oh, your dad was so smart. Your dad was so smart. When he was a kid, he won this-- he was, like, 14. He won this national quiz show for kids on TV.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Daniel Alarcon

Flew from the city where he lived in, flew to Lima. He was the only kid from the provinces who was a finalist, only kid from a public school-- front page of the newspaper.

Ira Glass

He was incredibly verbal kid, loved poetry and words, great talker. But again, soccer.

Daniel Alarcon

There's two things that happen when you aren't one of the better players. They put you in goal, to be a goalkeeper. Maybe they might make you ref, but that's really, like, low, you know?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Daniel Alarcon

But my dad turned that around and wasn't goalie or ref. And I'm sure he played. I'm not saying that he didn't play. But he started calling the neighborhood games.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. So he was calling the games. Did he have gear?

Daniel Alarcon

He had a microphone and a little speaker.

Ira Glass

He could make his voice louder--

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah. He could make it, when he's--

Ira Glass

--when he's outside.

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

And so basically he's just taking equipment down, and he's announcing kids' actual games--

Daniel Alarcon

Yes.

Ira Glass

--as they're playing?

Daniel Alarcon

Yes.

Ira Glass

Like, kids he knows?

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah, kids in his neighborhood.

Ira Glass

I would just imagine, like, if I were a kid playing in that game, to have somebody calling the game and I could hear them calling the game as I was doing it, it would make me so much more competitive. You know what I mean? It makes it so much more epic.

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah, absolutely. My picture of it is like, how glamorous. Are you kidding me? Like, suddenly their game is elevated, and it's not just a neighborhood game now. It's like, look, this is just like we're on the radio, which is just like-- that's the same they do for the World Cup.

Ira Glass

Daniel's dad would also make up games-- like whole professional games, like all the players, both sides, all the action-- starting, Daniel says, when he was 10 or 11. He would do it just kind of for himself as, like, a thing to do, though the whole family knew he could do this.

Daniel Alarcon

And if-- for example, on a Sunday afternoon after everyone's had lunch, my father would start to be the entertainment for the adults. Hey, Renato. Can you make up a game for us? Make it a good one. And he would just describe a game.

And it's a completely made up game, but when a goal would be scored inevitably, the adults would cheer, and like, oh, that was great. That was a great game. And he got really good at this.

One of my great uncles had a little theater in a town called Mollendo on the beach, a beach town in southern Peru. And they were doing sort of, like, a night of arts and poetry or whatever-- a talent show essentially, yeah. And my Great-Uncle Juan Castor signed up my dad and was like, you're going to do it just like you do for us.

Ira Glass

Around the house.

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Daniel Alarcon

On Sunday afternoons. And I think at that point, he was, like, 12 or 13. He goes out on stage, 300 people in the theater. And he's nervous, but what he does is essentially make up a game. So Melgar is the club from Arequipa.

Ira Glass

They're the local favorite from the province. And in this game that he made up on stage, they played the big, fancy team from the capital, Lima.

Daniel Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

They're like the Yankees.

Daniel Alarcon

They're like the Yankees, yeah. We don't like them. In his telling of it, everyone plays the game with their life. Everyone does it exactly right as if controlled by a marionette-- which, of course, they were.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah.

Daniel Alarcon

I find it very easy to believe that people could have been really moved by the sport. It wasn't like a fake game. It was the game.

Ira Glass

And so in his game, the hometown team gets it up to the edge and scores?

Daniel Alarcon

Yes. Melgar scores. People exploded, like you were cheering something that had actually happened. And the detail that he tells me that I'm always struck by is that when the lights came off and he went off stage, his uncle was crying, just weeping with joy and with, I guess, pride.

Ira Glass

There's a video of you online with your dad on stage, and you tell this story. And then your dad comes up on stage, and then he calls a game.

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah. He hadn't done this in like 50 years. But we threw a jersey on him, and he took the mic.

Ira Glass

And you threw in some stadium sound underneath for realism.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

What's he saying?

Daniel Alarcon

So he's-- a minute 40, I believe he said. A Peruvian team against a Brazilian team, and the Brazilian team is bringing the ball out of the back.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

Nilton Santos, who was a Brazilian defender, kicking it out towards the right.

Ira Glass

So these are teams from the '50s?

Daniel Alarcon

Yeah.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

Oh, OK. So [? Aguerea ?] was a midfielder, a Peruvian midfielder. He intercepts the ball here. So this is where things start shifting.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

So [? Aguerea ?] intercepts the ball and passes towards the right. This is actually a stroke of genius that's coming up.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

Short pass to Navarrete.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

He passes to [? Brandosino. ?]

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

Chino Rivera heads it.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

OK. So this is the part where I was like, Dad, you're really playing with our emotions here. In his telling, the ball hits the post. Chino Rivera heads the ball, and it hits off the post.

Ira Glass

So bounces back out.

Daniel Alarcon

Right.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

Back in the field. [? Terry-- ?] [? Terry ?] scores.

Renato Alarcon

Goal!

Ira Glass

People are so excited.

Renato Alarcon

Goal!

Daniel Alarcon

So many chills, man.

Renato Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Daniel Alarcon

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Renato Alarcon

Peru uno, Brazil zero!

Ira Glass

I feel excited.

[LAUGHTER]

Renato Alarcon

Goal!

Ira Glass

That's great. That's great.

Daniel Alarcon

See? It works.

Ira Glass

It's funny to think that if he had actually been great at soccer, that moment on stage never would have happened.

Daniel Alarcon

Right, right. Yeah, yeah. I mean, they might have been singing songs about him.

Ira Glass

Oh, somebody else would be.

[LAUGHTER]

Daniel Alarcon

Some other kid would have been on stage.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Daniel Alarcon. He first told this story on his show, Radio Ambulante. He's launched a new weekly podcast with news from Latin America called El Hilo. It's available wherever you get your podcasts.

Act Four: The Girl With the Golden Gloves

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Girl With the Golden Gloves. So now we travel back in time to a sweaty gym in 1998. That's when this was first broadcast. It's about somebody with a complicated relationship with the sport she loves from Meema Spadola.

Meema Spadola

Maritza was an accountant, a financial analyst at a huge insurance company. She was living day-to-day like anybody else. Then she heard about this boxing class that was being offered at the company gym. Some guy named Milton was teaching.

Maritza liked sports. She'd even taken an aerobic boxing class before. So she decided to go down and check it out.

Maritza Arroyo

Here I am in a suit, coming in. It was the first time. I didn't have a chance to change. So I'm walking in all suited up.

Milton

So Maritza comes up, and she's so short. She goes, I want to get rid of my stomach. I want to get rid of my gut.

She was so short. I look at her. And I go, honey, I teach boxing. This ain't boxing aerobics, aero boxing. If you want to come and dance around, jump around, I said, I'm not the guy for you. So this ain't what you want.

Maritza Arroyo

He wasn't even thinking about me. There's another girl who thinks this is aero-- I mean-- so I threw a punch. He goes, oh, you got a pretty good punch there. He goes, let me see what you got. Bam, bam.

You got a pretty good punch there, he goes. But who taught you how to box? Two steps. Then he's, like, trying to fix me.

I'm going to teach you how to weave. I'm going to shine you up like an old shoe and polish you up. He made me laugh. I thought it was amusing. I found it amusing.

It reminded me of watching the old movies. And this guy's telling me I'm like an old shoe. He's going to polish me. This guy's got an act.

Milton

So I started working with her every day, come down with the pads, giving her combinations. And she started falling into place. So I was like, whoa.

I said, you know something? I said, if I could bring you to my gym in Brooklyn, I said, you could win the New York City Golden Gloves. She goes, I can? I go, honey, what I got you doing right now, no girl fights the way you do right now.

Maritza Arroyo

So that's how it all started.

Meema Spadola

Every day after work in Manhattan, Maritza would take the subway all the way out to Brooklyn to train for three or four hours at Milton's gym and then go all the way back home to Queens. She spent her weekends at the gym. No one in her old life understood what she was doing. She'd grown up in the projects, put herself through college, gotten an MBA, held a good paying job, and here she was, back so close to the streets.

When she got a broken nose and black eyes in the ring, she lied to her coworkers about it, didn't tell them she was boxing. Her parents didn't approve of women fighting. They were conservative, born in Puerto Rico. Her friends were suspicious of her weight loss. They accused her of being anorexic, infected with HIV, or addicted to drugs. But at the gym, everyone believed in her. Maritza was the only girl at Milton's, his first girl. So she'd spar with the men there.

Milton

She took Joey one day, and she was throwing nonstop combinations and punches repetitiously. There was an old man sitting down in a chair, and he goes, god damn, that boy can throw some punches. She had the head gear on. So when she finished, he came over and he goes, that's going to be one good damn fighter. That boy is going to be great.

I go, I hate to tell you this. That's no guy. He goes, what do you mean that's no guy? Looked like a guy. I go, that's a girl. He goes, get out of here.

So I said, Maritza, come here. So she came over to me, and I took off her head gear. I go, does she look like a girl now? He goes, oh.

Meema Spadola

Looking at Maritza, you probably wouldn't think boxer. She's small, just over 5 feet tall, and only 106 pounds. Her features are fine and delicate. But when she talks about her love for boxing, you can see her in the ring. She's radiant. It's like speaking to someone who's had a religious conversion.

Maritza Arroyo

Boxing has shed a light on me. It's like my vision. It's like I just obtained a vision. It's like-- this is what I was put here for.

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's next bout is the women's 106 pound class. The referee is Pete Santiago. In the gold corner, Maritza Arroyo from the Supreme Team Boxing Club. Arroyo is a financial analyst and a part-time personal trainer.

Meema Spadola

With Milton's training, Maritza was unbeatable. Within a year, she had taken all the amateur titles in New York. She won the Metros, the Empire States, and in '96 she won the biggest of all, the Golden Gloves in Madison Square Garden, a fight televised around the world, held in a ring where some of the greatest boxers in history have fought.

Announcer

Two straight left hands by Arroyo. And another straight left. Four straight left hands by Arroyo.

Meema Spadola

Maritza and I get together to watch the video of her '96 Golden Gloves win. The garden's packed. The crowd's going wild. Maritza's incredibly fast and beautiful in the ring. Watching her, you understand what it means to be a smart fighter. She's calculated.

The woman she's fighting is taller than she is, with longer arms. So Maritza ducks down low and jabs up to the body, choosing where she lands her punches-- to the ribs, then to the chest. And when her opponent can barely catch her breath, Maritza's up, giving her a fierce combination to the face and head.

Maritza Arroyo

There goes the uppercuts. There goes another one to the body.

Meema Spadola

Ow.

Maritza Arroyo

Another one to the body, another one, another one.

Meema Spadola

In the last 10 seconds, Manson gets in a good punch, straight to Maritza's face. Maritza stumbles back and then seems to go crazy. She throws nonstop combinations, and the crowd is screaming.

Maritza Arroyo

There, there goes the hook. See that? Whoa. That's it. 10 seconds. Bam. There you go. I threw it all.

Go, go. There you go. There you go. There you go. There you go. Throw it. I missed a lot, but I threw.

[BELL RINGING]

Meema Spadola

Can we just watch the last 10 seconds? That was so cool. Oh my god. You are so good, Maritza. I want to see you fight so badly.

After the fight ends, we're laughing. We keep rewinding to watch Maritza's amazing finale.

Maritza Arroyo

I'm like, really? You got it good, right? Well, OK. All right, all right, all right, all right. OK, OK. Yeah, that was a grin. That was a good grin. That was a good grin.

Meema Spadola

We're both completely high and hysterical. Maritza's face is transformed. This is pure joy. And in a way it's terrible, because we both know she's quitting boxing.

Maritza wants to go pro, but there doesn't seem to be any way she could make a living at boxing. She's only 106 pounds. They don't even have a name for her weight class. If she went pro, no one knows of any women who are good enough to match her.

As it is, there are only two amateur women at her level. In all her title matches, she's always been put up against these same two opponents over and over. And she's beat them every time. In 10 years, there may be enough women that Maritza would be able to make a career of it, but she's already in her 30s. She says she has to be realistic about the future.

Maritza Arroyo

I get mixed feelings. When I go into the gym, I want to do it. But when I come away from the gym and I start looking at reality, it's like, I'm sad. It's like a sadness.

Nobody sees it on the outside. No one sees it. But on the inside, it's like it died. It's like, god, it could have been you. You should be in there, boxing.

Meema Spadola

It's like she's in love with someone she knows she has to leave. So she circles around boxing, quits, comes back for one-night stands. Last year, Milton signed her up for the Metros tournament without telling her. On the night of the fight, he called her from ringside and told her they were holding up the match for her. Maritza got in her car and drove from Queens to Brooklyn while Milton lied to the judges about Maritza being stuck in traffic. She arrived, beat her opponent in three rounds flat, but was so disgusted with herself for fighting when she was trying to retire that she left without even collecting her trophy.

But being back in the game felt too good. And after that win, she just couldn't bring herself to walk away. Despite her reservations, she went on to fight in the 1997 New York Gloves and, of course, won.

Milton

Come right here real quick. There you go. See the difference? Go.

Meema Spadola

In February, just after Maritza misses the deadline for the 1998 Golden Gloves, I go to Milton's gym to see her fight. Even though, these days, Maritza isn't there much anymore, Milton has promised me that Maritza will spar with a new girl he's training. We wait and wait, and no Maritza. An hour passes.

When she finally shows, she looks worn out and tired. She's not dressed to box, and she says she's got the flu. She's not going to fight. Right away, everyone starts pushing her.

Woman

Well, let's just do a little.

Maritza Arroyo

Do you want to?

Woman

Yeah.

Maritza Arroyo

But I got nothing with me.

Woman

What do you need?

Maritza Arroyo

Everything. I don't have nothing.

Meema Spadola

She says she didn't bring her shoes. She doesn't have any of her gear. Milton points to some shoes lying in the corner, says they're her size. Suddenly, Maritza doesn't look so tired.

Maritza Arroyo

But I got to tell you, I have no mouthpiece.

Meema Spadola

Then Maritza drops the pretense. We head down in the elevator to her car. Turns out, she's been carrying her gloves, her mouthpiece, her wraps, all of her equipment in her car for the past year, just in case.

Maritza Arroyo

I knew this was going to happen. That's why I don't want to come around here. That's why I don't want to come.

Meema Spadola

You've got the biggest smile on your face. You look so happy right now.

Maritza Arroyo

Because I love boxing, that's why. It's got me where I'm at today, OK, very happy and very balanced, I guess. We're around Second Avenue, Second Avenue, between Second and Third, and 13th Street. So here I am, with no voice, going in this room to go spar. Is that crazy? That's crazy?

Meema Spadola

She grabs her bag, and we race back to the gym. And as Maritza's getting dressed, I notice she wears tiny golden gloves on a chain around her neck. Milton stands ringside, pumped up, ready to see his favorite in action again.

Howard Kelso

This is Howard Kelso live, right here from Supreme Team Boxing.

[BEEPING]

Man

Box.

Milton

Relax your shoulders, Maritza. Relax your shoulders. Too tight. Ooh, good one.

Meema Spadola

Maritza's stiff at first, then she starts to relax. She's ducking down, dancing around the ring. And in the last 10 seconds of the fight, she has a surge of energy. She's punching hard, moving fast, throwing nonstop combinations.

Milton

Come on, girl.

[BEEPING]

Time.

Meema Spadola

And afterwards, she's pumped up with adrenaline, sweating, laughing with Milton and the guys in the gym. She says she'll be back to spar and train every week. And even though she's missed the deadline for this year's Golden Gloves, she swears she'll take the gloves next year. Stay tuned for 1999, she says. Stay tuned.

But Maritza doesn't show at Milton's the next week or the week after. She breaks two appointments with me. She doesn't return my calls. And when I finally reach her, she's angry-- angry she fought again, scared she's getting sucked back in.

Meema Spadola

And how about the fact that you're still carrying around your gear?

Maritza Arroyo

Well, I guess I can't let go of boxing yet. Maybe it's my security blanket. It's like always knowing that it's always there, that I can always hit that bag. I get in front of the mirror at my house every day, just jab and come around, and do the moves.

It's my connection to boxing. I carry this with me. I sleep with it. I have gloves in my car. I love it. It's me.

Ira Glass

That story from Meema Spadola. Maritza has stopped boxing herself. She's aged out of it. These days, she teaches people to box.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by our production manager Stowe Nelson and our technical director Matt Tierney. Other people who helped put together today's show include Noor Gill, Lina Misitzis, Katherine Rae Mondo, Christopher Swetala, and Julie Whitaker. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Our managing editors are Sarah Abdurrahman and Diane Wu.

Those guys that you heard at the beginning of the show, Jason Kirk and Spencer Hall, their essay about sports was originally published on the website Hazlitt. Their upcoming book is called The Sinful Seven-- Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA. Our website, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. Every Friday at the end of the day, sends out an email to all of us, and it always says the same thing.

Brenan Compretta

Love you guys. I love you guys. Take tomorrow off.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.