Enjoying a Different Kind of ‘Ball + Chain’

 

Rebecca Lobo, Steve Rushin and family. (Photo courtesy of masslive.com)

I have two new best friends. I’ve known who they were for many, many years, but only recently I have let them into my life on a personal level.

Well, truth be told, they’re letting me—and thousands upon thousands of others; especially those in St. Petersburg—into their lives on a personal level, and it’s absolutely priceless.

Former UConn women’s basketball star and present-day ESPN talking head Rebecca Lobo and Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin have a podcast called “Ball + Chain.”

They’ve put together 35 episodes, so far. I’m about 26 episodes in as I’m still playing catch up, but I’m enjoying the ride. So much so, in fact, that I’ll sit in the car for a few extra minutes, or drive around the block, just to finish listening to a segment … or perhaps the entire remaining minutes of a podcast.

It’s a home run. Or, in Robo-speak, it’s a pure swish.

First, let me say this: A big part of this podcast is right in my wheel house.

A former college basketball star that I once saw play joining forces with an SI writer, who I’ve spent a lot of my life reading?

What’s not to like, right?

But it’s more than the sports talk that keeps me hooked. It’s the people … well, the family, really .. that’s involved.

It’s like sitting on a back deck with friends, listening to them play off each other to much amusement. It’s like being invited to their breakfast nook the morning after spending the night and listening to husband and wife discuss their day in absolutely entertaining fashion. It’s like being in a car, with your friends in the back seat, gabbing about their family, their world, their lives.

And it’s so much fun. Yet it almost wasn’t.

When I first gave “Ball + Chain” a try, I didn’t even make it through the first episode.

There were some major sound quality issues that made listening to it almost impossible.

Many months later, on a recent road trip to New Jersey, though, when I was stuck in a car, driving through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey traffic, I gave it another try.

SI writer Steve Rushin, half of the “Ball + Chain” podcast. (Photo courtesy of jeffpearlman.com)

They fixed the sound issues, making the podcast much easier on the ears, and by the time my trip to and fro was over, I must have been eight episodes in.

I was hooked.

I was a fan.

I had two new friends to keep me company on pretty much every journey I’ve taken since.

If my drive is more than 30 minutes, I switch off my Sirius XM and tune in to the “Ball + Chain” podcast.

And, I repeat, it is so much more than the just the sports that keeps me tuned in and coming back for more.

First some background: Rushin is going to be turning 52 years old soon, while Lobo is soon to be 45.

As such, both are from my generation and for the most part grew up watching the same sports teams, sports moments, television shows and commercials and listening to the same music as I did.

They are my generation and they relish in their memories of growing up during the same era, and as they reflect on such moments, so do I.

Lobo grew up in Massachusetts, Rushin in Minnesota.

Fate, however, brought them together in a New York City bar. It’s a topic that is frequently brought up on the podcast, and it’s as a great of a first-meeting story as there is out there.

Rushin had once written, “Although Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with 20,000 women in his lifetime, I had once slept with 7,138 women in a single night: We were all snoring in the stands at a WNBA game.”

Lobo happened to be a WNBA star at that time and confronted Rushin at the bar during a chance meeting.

Rebecca Lobo, half of the “Ball + Chain” podcast.

“She asked if I was the scribe who once mocked, in Sports Illustrated, women’s professional basketball,” Rushin later wrote. “Reluctantly, I said that I was. She asked how many games I’d actually attended. I hung my head and said, ‘None.’ And so Rebecca Lobo invited me to watch her team, the New York Liberty play at Madison Square Garden. We both reeked of secondhand Camels (and, quite possibly, of secondhand camels: It was that kind of a dive.) But my insult had been forgiven. It was—for me, anyway—love at first slight. She had the longest legs, the whitest teeth, the best-sown cornrows I had ever seen, and I imagined us to have much in common. I ate Frosted Flakes right out of the box, and she was on boxes of Frosted Flakes. I am ludicrous, and she was name-dropped in a rap by Ludacris. We were, I thought, made for each other.”

Give them a listen and you realize, they really are made for each other.

That’s why it works so well, I think.

I have this little fantasy in my head: Rushin makes Lobo laugh a lot and every time he does I can almost picture him smiling with the knowledge, “Yup, she still loves me.”

Their connection to each other radiates through their words and mannerisms. I don’t recognize true love when I see it. In this case, though, I hear it.

The two married and have four children—three girls, one boy—all of whom come up from time to time in the podcast.

I told you it was about more than sports.

The ball and chain—“Who’s the ball, who’s the chain? is a key line in the podcast’s opening ditty sung by Tom, Dick and Harry (Tom is Steve’s brother, by the way)—talk about their lives and everything that happens in it. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters … even grandparents, uncles, aunts and neighbors.

As often as they trade good-natured jabs at one another, they also obviously keep their hearts open for each other, as well.

It’s funny. It’s interesting. It’s touching. It’s just a great listen, from start to finish.

It doesn’t matter if they’re reflecting on Larry Bird, Geno Auriemma, the Minnesota Vikings (or Twins), changing their car oil, or Steve’s inability to cook anything other than microwavable White Castle, they will keep you entertained.

While many podcasts have tunnel vision (i.e., I listen to The West Wing Podcast, too, which is focused just on the hit television show), you never know where “Ball + Chain” will take you.

Each episode is a different adventure, but is filled with enough memories and running jokes that Lobo and Rushin make it feel like you’re part of their larger extended family.

Sometimes, literally, it’s an adventure, too, as Lobo and Rushin discuss their different travels and travails, from airports to hotels to Uber (or Lyft) rides. Or maybe just a mini-van ride to an AAU basketball tournament in Massachusetts, or the local grocery store.

They’ve had some special guests—Lobo’s sister, former NFL player and current ESPN personality Mike Golic and his wife, and the podcast’s producer Deny (With one N!) Gallagher– to name a few. Even when others enter the podcast, it doesn’t throw off the enjoyment.

Semi-spoiler alert: The ending of the podcast with Deny (With one N!) is one of the best endings in podcast history.

The author, a Minnesota Vikings fan despite hailing from Maine, with his old friend, Charlie.

In closing, I remember the moment I realized “Ball + Chain” and I had a special connection.

It came when Lobo talked about a ventriloquism dummy she had received as a gift when she was younger. And, Rushin reflected on what it was like to work as a 14-year-old during a Minnesota Vikings game.

It took me back to a picture of myself when I was younger. Of me, wearing a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt, holding on to a ventriloquist dummy I was given as a child.

Basketball. Sports. A Sportswriter. UConn basketball. A dummy. The Vikings.

How’s that for a fate?

In a different time and in different places, I could have been friends with Lobo and Rushin. We would have shared a lot of laughs.

Instead, I’m just a loyal listener, taking my new friends—one a ball, the other a chain–with me on countless rides to keep me company.

 

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A Family’s Tragic Loss Felt From Afar

I don’t know where the tears came from; from a faraway collection of broken hearts, I suppose.

But they came this morning, uninvited, when I learned Deven Lee Scott had passed away.

She was beautiful. She was 27. She was family. And now she’s gone.

Like I said, broken hearts feeling the pain of losing a daughter, a mother, a friend; it travels over time and space and, if you let it, it’ll hit you hard.

This morning it hit me as a few tears rolled down my face as I learned the news.

If I’m being honest, though, I never had the pleasure of meeting Deven.

She is my cousin’s husband’s brother’s daughter, so technically there is no direct connection to me, no shared bloodlines that run from me to her.

I never had the chance to meet her, to talk to her, or learn about her, though she is, no doubt, somebody who seemed so special to those who loved her.

I never had the chance to look directly into those sky blue eyes, or see her infectious, radiating smile.

And, I never had the chance to meet her children—Aleigha, Jayce, Natalie—just another limb off a branch on the other side of the extended family tree.

Deven was my cousin’s niece, my second cousins’ cousin. So, as far as I’m concerned, she is part of my family and I mourn her death along with all of them.

Growing up, my cousins were my first closest friends.

So many weeks we would travel from our home in the small town of Orrington, Maine, driving 30 miles over hill and dale, to an even smaller town called Garland.

It was there where my cousin Debbie, the oldest sibling in her family of four children, fell in love with Mike Scott.

Mike Scott had a bevy of brothers—Brent, Reggie, Cecil.

Cecil Scott is Deven’s father.

I don’t remember how old I was when I was asked to be the ring bearer at Mike and Debbie’s wedding. As such, I was in the wedding party along with the Scott brothers.

What I do remember, though, is the band of brothers the Scott family had; many of whom would always be around every time we visited over the years.

Cecil’s pain is immense, unfathomable. To lose a child? As parents, we can’t even think of it.

I know this week, those brothers stand beside him, strong for him, as he buries his daughter.

I haven’t seen Cecil in probably 25 years, perhaps at my aunt’s funeral, but I can’t honestly remember if he was there that day.

But, as distant family members are apt to do, we follow each other on Facebook, so we both know what is going on in each other’s lives.

It wasn’t too long ago that Cecil lost the love of his life, his wife, Bonnie. October 2, 2016, to be exact.

And now Deven, gone at 27, far too soon.

Perhaps the only comfort in this, as many people have pointed out, is that Deven is back in the loving arms of her mother.

We can only hope so.

So who was Deven Lee Scott, my cousin’s husband’s brother’s daughter?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you, though I wish I could.

Instead, I have to let other’s speak for her.

Deven was “a thrill seeker and loved the excitement of life. There was never a dull moment when she was around. She loved her family and children endlessly. She had an enormous heart with so much love to give.”

Those are just some of the words that appeared in her obituary this morning.

But those words are not enough.

Online, the place where so many of us are connected, the tributes began rolling in.

“RIP Deven Lee you will be greatly missed,” wrote one friend, in a Facebook post. “You were a wonderful kind hearted person that would do anything for anyone….You are a mother to three beautiful children. I just can’t believe you are gone. Gone but never forgotten.”

“May you rest at peace Deven Lee Scott and may a smile on your face and peace in your heart be with you always,” wrote another. “What a beautiful smile you had and the biggest heart.”

“I can’t believe my best friend Deven Lee Scott passed away,” was yet one more. “My heart is breaking in millions of pieces.”

Many hearts are broken this week, and as of this morning so is mine.

I send out my love and prayers to my cousins for the loss of their cousin and niece, and to Cecil and his other children, Stephanie and Cecil, two others I also haven’t had the pleasure of meeting.

At least, not yet.

May you forever rest in peace, Deven Lee Scott.

A Return To The Links: Giving the Game Another Go

The author captured this photo of a golfer hitting an approach shot earlier this spring.

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the game of golf.

It has given me many great memories; yet it has cost me dearly, both physically and emotionally.

Today, just two weeks past my 52nd birthday, I’ve made a decision to take the game up again.

I’m Tiger Woods Redux, only paler and fatter and older and nowhere near as good as he is … left-handed.

 

I went out and low balled the heck out of second golf career, spending $300 for clubs, a bag, a glove, 36 balls, 100 tees, and a pair of Nike Golf Shoes.

Less than a mile from house, there is a nine-hole Par 3 course. The Short Beach Golf Course, it’s called.

It’s only $10 a round, so that’s where I’ll start my comeback.

Hole by hole, I’ll play to the future. Getting better, I hope, while both my weight and my score drop lower and lower.

As I sit here thinking about my next first round, I can’t help but dance with the ghosts of my foursome as I tee off on this thought and making it become a reality.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

I was just a boy that day my dad and I went to the golf course in Eddington. Watchoverya, is what I called. Even today, I don’t know how to spell it.

It’s where I first swung a club and even though it’s long gone now–closed, defunct, overgrown, no doubt–it still holds a special place in my heart for that reason.

Father. Son. Bonding over a sport.

Golf is one of my favorite memories with my dad. And that’s where it all started.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

In middle school, eighth grade to be exact, I had a student teacher named Mr. Blodgett.

Donald Blodgett from Penobscot, Maine.

Growing up in a small town like Orrington, Maine, most of my teachers were wily and cagey veterans. Too damn old to be cool or to be able to reach students on a certain level. It was there way or the highway.

They wouldn’t put up with much bullshit and—as good old Robert Bradford, a science teacher, showed me that same year—if you dished out you’d get a punch straight to the forehead.

But, I digress. Mr. Blodgett was probably my first “favorite teacher”, even if he was just a student teacher who would be gone by the end of the year. He was cool and it was fun to be in his class.

Once the school year was over, I was saddened to see Mr. Blodgett go. But one of my favorite middle school memories was playing a round of golf with him that following summer at the Pine Hill Golf Club.

I also made one of my all-time great golf shots that day: A long, winding, twisting putt from one end of the green to the other that found nothing but the bottom of the cup.

I knew where my golf had gone after that. I never knew what happened to Mr. Blodgett.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, though, I found out for this post.

Mr. Blodgett lives in Scarborough and retired from the Old Orchard Beach school system.

I wonder how his golf game is. Chances are when I’m out on the course later this week, he’ll surely cross my mind.

And thanks, Mr. Blodgett, for having such an effect on a student before your career truly got off the ground.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

I was 19 going on 20 and it was at a time when I loved three things.

My new job as a sports assistant at the Bangor Daily News; my new girlfriend, Jennifer; and the game of golf.

Any chance I got I would tee it up and play. Bangor Muni, Pine Hill, Woodland Terrace. My friends and I would even trek to Portland to play when we could.

That summer I got pretty good, or at least I thought I did.

I shot an 84 at Woodland Terrace, a Par 60 course – my lowest score ever for 18 holes. And I shot a 93 at Bangor Muni, my best-ever score on a real par 72-course.

One day, playing the sixth hole at Bangor Muni, a 169-yard par 3, I struck the ball perfectly. Seven iron, if I remember right.

I watched my shot sail into the sky, reach an apex and fall back to earth.

It was a pinseeker if there ever was one and for the only time in my life I thought I might get a hole-in-one.

The ball landed and skipped slightly left, winding up four inches wide of the hole.

I tapped in for birdie. So close and yet so far.

That’s the thing about golf.

You can stink it up for 17 holes and then hit three perfect shots on the 18th and walk off with a birdie.

And that’s what keeps you coming back.

If you can do it once, why can’t you do it all the time.

And doing it all the time is what cost me my relationship with Jennifer. Instead of walking back, I walked away.

Golf got in the way, she got angry and the eyes of another caught my attention.

That led me down a path where I got away from golf a little bit, playing only from time to time.

Did golf remind me of what I lost too much? Hard to say, even all these years later.

But I never forgave the game for what it cost me.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

The last time I played golf was in Somersworth, N.H. The year was 2000? Maybe 2001.

I don’t even remember the name of the course.

I just remember taking a shot, hearing a pop and feeling a burning sensation in my right shoulder blade.

Just like that, the golf clubs were put in a closet for good.

I haven’t played a round since.

How much will I play in the future?

Who knows?

Will my shoulder handle the wear or tear again?

Who knows?

Will I find the sport a bore, a bad walk spoiled and thus have wasted all this money giving it a go?

Again, I ask, Who knows?

But I’m going to try to comeback. Just like Tiger did.

He has the whole world watching.

I have nobody.

So let’s tee it up, let it fly (in whatever direction it heads) and we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, “Fore!”

Oh Danny Boy: Hoping an old friend finally finds peace

Danny Paul Carroll. (1963-2017)

He was sitting in a hot tub, buck naked with two women, dressed like-wise, or so he said, and even though Danny Paul Carroll was all about having fun, something was missing.

So sometime after midnight – the drinks having flowed freely all evening, no doubt – he picked up the telephone and made a call.

I answered almost immediately.

When you’re single and living in party mode, phone calls after midnight are either really bad news, or truly great opportunities.

Plus, they didn’t sell home safety systems via telemarketers after the sun went down in the early ought’s of the 21st century, so I knew answering wouldn’t be a waste of time.

And when Danny called it was never a waste of time.

I won’t lie. I entertained the idea of driving the 20-or-so minutes down to the New Hampshire seacoast to frolic the night away with my roommate and his two new friends in a Portsmouth hotel room.

But, in the end, after working all night, and finding the couch simply a little too inviting and far too comfortable, I never left the house.

An hour later, Danny walked through the door, a devilish grin on his face and a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. He made himself another drink, sat down and finished his story.

One of the women’s husbands had figured out where she was, he explained. He showed up, obviously upset, pounding on the door, demanding to see her.

Danny barely escaped with his boxers and socks on, the rest of his clothes in his arms and a story for the ages.

And that, in just one brief story, was Danny in a nutshell.

A man for the ages, full of stories for the ages. He lived them (probably embellished a few for comic effect), loved them, told them and retold them to anybody who would listen.

Sadly, on Wednesday afternoon, one last story was told.

The headline simply read: “Dead Man Found In Cocheco River.”

As they pulled his lifeless body from the Cocheco’s cold, unforgiving waters, Danny’s story was over.

He was 52 years old.

The end.

• • •

I met Danny sometime in 1998, shortly after I moved from Maine to Dover, New Hampshire.

He wound up dating my first New Hampshire roommate, Monique, when the two of us started being regular customers at the pub where Danny worked.

As I often joked back in the day, when the two of them finally broke up, he got me in the divorce.

I moved in with him and we were roommates for close to three years, living in a house just off Route 108 in Somersworth.

Living with a bartender meant one thing.

The parties didn’t stop at last call, and I can’t tell you how many times I would be rustled from sleep by the noise of an after-hours party going on in the pool room, the living room and the kitchen.

And I never got mad, angry or frustrated.

How could I?

Circling around us during this time – at the pub, at our home, at other houses and apartments – was a tight circle of friends who cared about each other despite our eclectic idiosyncrasies.

We were all vastly different people from vastly different places with vastly different backgrounds, but we were tight-knit and loved each other dearly.

I’ll never forget any of those people which is why I’ll never forget Danny, the man who in a way helped bring us all together beer by beer, story by story.

He was a bartender to many, but a friend it seemed to many more. For a while, when we lived as roommates, he was one of my best friends.

Even as his demons started to rise up from inside him, you could still count on him.

Until you couldn’t.

More and more nights he would disappear into his room and I wouldn’t see him again.

One night I was finally invited in and immediately felt the draw of the slide he knew all too well.

In the end, that’s the reason I moved out of the house, taking a step to distance myself from him. I had to get away from Danny and his demons and in a heart-felt and brutally honest face-to-face I explained that to him.

He never held my decision against me and we remained friends even as he continued his struggles, as he switched jobs, changed apartments.

His world was being snatched away from him one small bag of white powder at a time, but Danny was Danny and it seemed as though he could charm the devil himself to find a way out of it.

Until he couldn’t, I suppose.

• • •

When I left New Hampshire, I left a lot of people and the past behind me. I cut the cord as a way to survive, or at least that’s what I told myself.

That slide – the one Danny couldn’t control, or stop – was too scary for me, no matter how great it felt. Getting away from all of it was my only option to escape.

I relocated and came out the other side.

I don’t know if Danny ever did.

I’ve reconnected with many of my friends from my New Hampshire days through the magic of Facebook, and I’m grateful.

In times like this we can mourn together and remember what was great in all of us, as individual people and as a group.

Jennifer England, who worked as a bartender with Danny and is now a school teacher, changing lives for the better wrote, “I loved Danny. I hated his addiction, but I always loved him.”

Her husband, Marty – who had made such beautiful music his whole life, including for a time with Danny – wrote, “Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Danny in at least 8 years. It doesn’t lessen the love at all.”

Both statements are so true.

Danny was a guy who once he tugged at your heart, you could never let him go. Even when you had to.

It’s been more than 13 years since I’ve seen Danny, but I’ve thought of him a lot over that time.

Memories would pop up out of nowhere. Songs would trigger a smile (I can’t listen to Alice in Chains without thinking of him and his Jeep.) Dreams would make a life lived long ago seem so current.

On random trips back to New Hampshire, I’ve reached out to people who knew him, looking for updates on my old friend.

But nobody seemed to know anything.

I heard things had gotten so bad for him that he was homeless for a while, really struggling with the demons that dragged him down.

But, the most recent messages popping up on Facebook, following Danny’s death, paint a less bleak picture.

He was doing better, it seemed. Somebody had seen him out in the last year and wrote, “We had a good hang.”

It’s what makes the news so much harder.

What happened on the shores of the Cocheco earlier this week? Nobody knows for sure. Two people walking along a path saw a body floating in the water and called police.

According to Foster’s Daily Democrat, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has said the cause of death was drowning.

“At this time, there does not appear to be any indication that Carroll’s death was the result of a crime,” the release stated.

Danny’s obituary reads simply he had passed away “after losing a long battle with addiction.”

Just like that Danny’s last story was told.

Another of my closest friends talked about all the positive messages and wondered aloud if Danny knew so many people loved him.

I hope so. Because I did. He was a good guy, so good-hearted to the people who knew him the best.

Rest in peace, Danny.

And I truly hope you have found the peace you so deserve.

Remembering Walter: A long-lost weekend’s lesson remains true

Walter Crabtree, left, touched the author’s life more than 30 years ago. It hasn’t been forgotten. (Photo stolen from Walter Crabtree’s Facebook Page.)

I didn’t know Walter Crabtree well, but it’s safe to say he taught me one of life’s most important athletic lessons.

Play your role 100 percent and you’ll be successful.

After a life full of teaching those around him, Walter passed away two days after Thanksgiving Day at the age of 60.

Personally, I’m thankful I got to know Walter over a couple of weekends, far too many moons ago.

I actually knew of Walter before I met him.

As a young cub sports writer at the Bangor Daily News, his athletic prowess in his native Maine was larger than life.

A graduate of tiny Sumner High School, in an even tinier town of East Sullivan, Walter was one hell of an athlete; or so said those who knew him.

I never saw Walter play in person, at least not to my knowledge.

My life-changing run-in with Walter came in Act 2 of our athletic careers.

I had just turned 21, was living in Bangor, and I was hand-picked (read invited) to play in a regional softball tournament with a team that was based out of the Ellsworth.

Walter Crabtree was a member of the team and, perhaps, the one closest to my age, though he was likely pushing 30 at the time.

Being 21, I had a cockiness about me – probably one not as deserved as I thought. I thought I was pretty good.

In truth, looking back on it with hindsight, I wasn’t that good.

I was average, which in slow-pitch softball isn’t saying much.

But I digress.

During that regional tournament, I mostly played catcher – which, to be honest, I didn’t mind doing.

Sure, at the end of a long six-game weekend, my knees would be worn out, but I was playing and plays at the plate were always fun.

If my mind, I believe we finished as regional runners-up, which meant we qualified for the state tournament in division.

That meant an overnight weekend in Lewiston, playing softball.

Good times, right?

Not really.

It was one of the worst weekends of my athletic life.

I was no longer catching. Somebody else was added on to the roster from a team that didn’t qualify, so I was relegated to the bench.

Once a game, I might get an opportunity to pinch run for some fat guy in his 50s.

Life is funny, you know.

Today, I am one of those fat 50-something guys wishing I had a pinch runner that could run to the bathroom for me at two in the morning.

Walter knew I was having a miserable weekend, though.

I’ll admit it. I was pissed. I drove two hours to Lewiston to play softball, not collect splinters on my ass.

As Saturday became Sunday and we kept winning, I remember Walter sitting next to me before a game and it was then he gave me sage advice.

I might not have been the best softball player in the world – even though my 21-year-old mind would have fought that – but in those days I was fast.

“Why do you think you were picked for this team?” Walter asked me. “We all know how fast you are and we’re going to need that speed in one of these games.”

The message was obvious: Play your role. It’s going to help the team.

I had always heard coaches talking about playing your role through 13-plus years of my sports career.

It never truly sunk in until Walter Crabtree sat down next to me and taught me that important lesson.

In our last win of that tournament, late in the game, I was called on to pitch run during a rally. I was one of the runners who scored, helping to send us to the next round.

We would get blown out in that next game and the running joke on the bench during the final inning was whoever made the last out would buy a case of beer for everybody to indulge in.

With two outs, I was finally given an opportunity to pinch hit.

I laced a single into the outfield.

I got stranded on the bases, but after the final out was recorded, the first person to shake my hand was Walter Crabtree.

In his obituary, printed in the Bangor Daily News, it was written, “Walter dedicated his life to using his talents, abilities, and skills to help others succeed. Over the years, Walter filled a number of roles as he touched literally thousands of lives; teacher, coach, referee, mentor, colleague and friend.

“He was a role model for both his students and his peers. His wisdom, common sense, kindness, compassion and humor will be greatly missed.”

That sums him up quite nicely. I should know. I was one of those people whose life was touched just by knowing him.

Rest in Peace, Walter.

And, thank you.

Remembering my 13-mile long classroom

Many of my friends and former classmates are mourning the loss of a former teacher today.

The news of Jeffrey Johnson’s passing takes many of us back to our high school days, to our interactions with him and how he changed our lives.

I never had Mr. Johnson as a teacher, however.

Instead, he changed my world as a friend, and I realize now – suddenly, now that he’s gone — what a debt of gratitude I owe the man.

As the crow flies, my family home in Orrington, Maine, was just about two miles or so from Hampden Academy, the school from which I graduated.

It was directly across the Penobscot River and from certain points in Orrington you could look across the river and the see the school.

By car, however, it was 13 miles away … six-plus miles to Brewer, across the bridge to Bangor, and six-plus miles to Hampden on the other side of the river.

When I made the decision to transfer from John Bapst Memorial High School to Hampden Academy for my senior year, transportation was my biggest hurdle.

This is where Jeff Johnson changed my life.

I had known Jeff prior to my year at Hampden Academy. In fact, looking back on it, I had known him when I was in middle school.

He lived in Bucksport, the town south of my hometown, and was a regular visitor to the convenience store my mother and step-father owned.

As one of my stomping ground places where I spent much of my time, I got to know Jeff and his wife, Pam, also a teacher, enough to ask them a big-time question leading into my senior year.

Could I hitch a ride to school every day?

As far as I know, they never gave it a second thought.

So pretty much every morning from Labor Day of 1983 to graduation in 1984, I would walk a half mile from my house to the Main Road where Jeff and Pam would pick me up and allow me to attend Hampden Academy.

Every morning, we would talk about life and love, family and education.

(As an athlete who always stayed after school for practices, I rarely if ever got a ride home. Instead, I hitchhiked the journey home … though that, too, became a regular journey of regulars who would pick me up and drop me off at certain spots).

The Johnson family decision to allow me to ride with them to school changed my life.

First and foremost it allowed me to avoid attending Brewer High School, a thought I dreaded.

It gave me a new set of friends I still care about to this day.

And, it opened my door to two new English courses, one of which was journalism, pushing me further down the path that would become my life’s career.

I’m sure I thanked Mr. Johnson for the rides back then, but only today – after hearing of his passing – did the magnitude of them hit me.

My heart hurts knowing he’s gone, but what an effect he had on so many lives, as a teacher … and as a friend.

Thanks again, JJ.

May you rest in peace.

Leaving Las Vegas … Looking back on four days in the desert

As the Airbus 320, flying as Jet Blue Flight 611, made its way over the Utah mountains, banking towards lower Nevada, the lights down below finally came into view.

With every drop in descent, they grew brighter and brighter until right before landing when the city below became clear as day, even in the darkness of the hot desert night.

Las Vegas.

When the wheels touched down at McCarran International Airport, I had no idea what to expect from the next four days.

I was at the whim of myself, which is exactly what started this journey almost two weeks prior to landing.

• • •

It all began with a tweet, believe it or not.

“Taking a loaded squad out to Las Vegas July 20-23 for the BigFoot Live event,” read the words of @douglasrscott, boys basketball coach at Greens Farms Academy. “This crew = me being popular w/ scouting horde there #ctbb”

I quickly shot Coach Scott a text message asking why I wasn’t invited.

A tongue-in-cheek follow-up tweet asking if anybody had room in their carry on for me got me thinking.

Why couldn’t I go to Las Vegas?

To be honest, Vegas had never been a bucket list item for me.

If Kenny Rogers is “The Gambler” … If Darrell from Storage Wars is “The Gambler” … then I am the antithesis of that.

I lose money playing solitaire, so wasting money at any casino has never been high on my list of fun nights out.

But the more I thought about it – Las Vegas – the more I thought, “Why not?”

It might not be a bucket list moment, I figured, but as a full-blooded American male I should visit Sin City at least once, right?

I hopped online and booked my trip within minutes.

I was going to Las Vegas.

• • •

The Luxor, where I stayed for four days.

The first thing you notice is the heat. Sure, it’s a dry heat, but even at 11:36 p.m., PST, it was toasty hot.

I was staying at The Luxor, which is located on the south end of the infamous Las Vegas Strip – a stretch of land I would get to know very well a few nights later.

The second thing I noticed is taxis are expensive. More expensive than New York City, believe it or not.

Trying to make the trip as inexpensive as possible, I wasn’t renting a car until the final day. Uber, I found, was much cheaper and would be a key mode of transportation for me.

Checking into the hotel shortly before midnight was another big key to enjoying Las Vegas.

The team, its parents and its coach were all staying at The Luxor, so that’s where I chose to stay.

For those of you who don’t know Vegas, it’s the big pyramid hotel/casino nestled between Mandalay Bay and The Excalibur.

During day light hours, there was a long, twisting line of people waiting to check in and, sometimes, eight to 10 workers waiting to check them in.

At midnight, I was able to walk right up to the clerk and get pointed to my room.

Considering it was 3 a.m., Eastern Time, my body was ready for bed and nothing more.

• • •

Four members of the Greens Farms Academy boys basketball team joined forces for a summer AAU basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

Those who know me know I love basketball, especially at the high school and college level.

After all, four boys – four members of the GFA basketball team who joining forces to play on a make-shift AAU basketball team – were the big reason I flew almost coast to coast.

They had already played one game against an opponent from Houston while I was flying west on Thursday.

On Friday, at 8 a.m., they were to tip-off against a team from Montana and I would be there. After all, since my body was still on East Coast time, it was closer to 11 a.m.

And, they won again.

The game on Friday afternoon should have provided a different ending. After all, the “Dragons” as the team dubbed itself was squaring off against a team called the Las Vegas Prospects.

To put it simply, the Prospects are sponsored by Nike. They play in the EYBL, which stands for Elite Youth Basketball League.

This is big time AAU basketball, but our eight players – seven Connecticut bred and one out of New York – were more than worthy.

In fact, they were victorious, 57-53.

It gave them the No. 1 seed from their pool and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the tournament, where they would face a team from Chicago on Saturday.

Finally, after Friday’s second game, I was able to experience a little bit of Vegas.

I had made plans for Friday, to go see Hall & Oates and Tears for Fears in concert at the T. Mobile Arena.

The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

It would be my 103rd concert, albeit first west of the Mississippi River.

Tears for Fears didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed them.

Hall & Oates, however, was the opposite. They sounded like a bad karaoke band trying to sing Hall & Oates.

I left early.

The highlight of Friday night, though, was the fact T-Mobile Arena wasn’t that far from The Luxor so I was able to go on foot patrol to get there.

I made a dry run in the early afternoon, picking up my ticket from the will call window.

I only had to be outside for about 200-meters of time.

The Luxor and The Excalibur are connected through a series of hallways and conveyor belts. From The Excalibur, I only needed to walk 50 yards across a bridge – and below a rollercoaster – to get into New York, New York, which literally looks like New York, New York.

The T-Mobile Arena was located just behind New York, New York.

Before the show, I decided to grab a bite to eat at a little Irish Pub located within New York, New York.

The great thing about each and every casino in Las Vegas is each one is a city onto itself.

In addition to the slots and table games there are a bevy of restaurants, bars, stores and other things to fill a day.

This particular bar had one of the best chicken pot pies I’ve ever had.

Thankfully, I didn’t vomit it up after Hall & Oates’ yak-job.

On the way back to The Luxor, I took my time checking out the different casinos.

The time change was catching up with me, though, and I was in bed before midnight – which I later found is when Las Vegas is really picking up.

• • •

Saturday meant another basketball game, against a team from Chicago.

It was the Round of 16, which meant if the boys lost their Las Vegas run would come to an end.

Instead, they again stepped up and won, advancing to Sunday’s final day of games.

I used most of Saturday – which was the hottest day of the trip — to stay local and explore the connected hotels.

First, I explored the rest of The Luxor before making my way over the Mandalay Bay.

Next door to The Luxor.

On the way I found a Guinness Store, complete with a Guinness bar. I was told it was one of just two in the entire world, with the other being located in Ireland.

I bought a t-shirt, saving myself $25 in lost gambling money.

After returning to The Luxor, I also decided to put my money where my devotion is.

I stopped by the Sports Book and put $20 down on the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. If they win, I get $120 (plus by original $20) back.

I also decided to pick a National League team, opting for the Washington Nationals. They matched the Sox at 6-to-1 odds, meaning $120 would be coming my way.

Needless to say I’m rooting for a Red Sox-Nationals World Series.

I made it past midnight on Saturday, but not by much.

An 8 a.m. quarterfinal game awaited us the next morning.

• • •

Spring Valley High School, Las Vegas, Nev.

I didn’t get up early with the team and parents and arrived at Spring Valley High School by the end of the first half.

The boys were play a team based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and with two 6-foot-9 players they were the tallest team we had faced.

Again, it proved not to matter as the eight-man Dragons slayed another opponent, running their record to 5-0 in four days.

Not to switch sports terminology to those who got this far, but a curve ball was thrown into the tournament at this point.

AAU basketball being what it is – let’s face it, it’s about making money for the tournament organizers – the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games are sometimes held in one day.

Anybody who has played basketball knows three high-tempo games is a lot and injuries are more apt to happen on such days.

With departing flights scheduled to start at 1:40 that afternoon, Coach Scott decided to pull his team out of the tournament.

He brought his team to Vegas so players could be seen by college scouts and that mission had been accomplished. Two of the eight players would be heading off to college soon and Coach Scott wasn’t going to send them off injured.

With that final buzzer, so ended my basketball duties.

My final 36 hours in Vegas were all about me.

During a nap back at the hotel, I received a text from some parents saying they were going to visiting the Red Rock Canyon and go out for some Thai food.

I paused and opted not to answer, but it would be something different. After days of basketball and casinos, nature would be a nice break.

And I’d never had Thai food before.

Red Rock was beautiful. Not to be confused with Colorado’s Red Rocks musical venue, Vegas’ Red Rock is on the western side of town and was clearly visible from Spring Valley High School, which is why a journey there appealed to us.

A 13-mile loop gave us views we simply don’t get here on the East Coast.

I’m glad I went.

As for the Thai food, I was cautiously optimistic.

The restaurant itself – Lotus of Siam – didn’t look like much.

Located inside of a strip mall, it opened at 5 p.m., and by 5:15 it was packed.

And oh my was it good.

We sampled each other’s appetizers and wolfed down our meals.

From Duck to seafood to some sort of spaghetti-esque meal with seafood and chicken on my plate, we gobbled down nearly $200 worth of food which was worth every penny.

I even had a Thai beer.

That night I decided I was going to walk part of the Las Vegas Strip.

Around 9 p.m., I left the Luxor took a Uber up to The Venetian.

I got out and began my journey back, step by step, under the lights and sounds of the Las Vegas night.

• • •

I walked through the Venetian and into The Palazzo, which I must admit I’d never heard of.

Entering The Venetian Casino.

I found a bar and ordered a margarita. When I got the tab, it was $16.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and thank goodness that goes from the prices of alcohol.

I paid because … well what the hell, it’s Vegas … and once it was gone I was on the move again, back through the Venetian and outside to the strip where I had options galore.

There was Treasure Island to the right, Casino Royal or Harrah’s to the left.

I opted to cross the road and head to The Mirage, which wasn’t as advertised, but really stood there.

And the air conditioned inside told me I’d be stopping at most of the casinos on the strip to at least cool off.

The $16 margarita.

I had another drink and walk around the casino, checking out the games and those who were playing.

People who go to Las Vegas run the gamut of mankind, that’s for sure.

Old people, young people, families; people both foreign and domestic.

It was the kind of human mash-up that gives New York City it’s unique vibe and energy and you could feel a little of that energy in Vegas.

After leaving The Mirage, I walked to Caesar’s Palace and this is where I became a winner in Vegas.

I had dropped $20 in the slots at The Luxor earlier in the trip.

But sitting and playing black jack I decided to call it quits when I was $13 up.

That way, I figured, I could say I left Las Vegas having lost just $7 in gambling.

Not bad, I figured.

But it was also while walking around Caesar’s that I witnessed another Las Vegas first – the hooker picking up a man at a bar.

She was in her 20s, he was in her 60s and, as odd as it sounds, it was a pleasure to watch them work the back and forth before heading off together.

There were a lot of young woman walking all over Las Vegas, most of them in packs.

This was the only time I saw a pro in her natural habitat, though, going after her prey and successfully taking them down.

With that, it was time to head to the Bellagio.

• • •

The Bellagio.

If I had my druthers – not to mention the money – I would have stayed at The Bellagio. To me, it’s the cream of the Vegas crop and it looks like it.

I wish I had spent more time checking it out, but I could feel myself growing tired and I was just a little over halfway back to The Luxor.

On the way out, though, I was caught up in the crowd standing by the water that sits in front of the facility and once the song “Hey Big Spender” started, I was treated to the infamous Bellagio water show, which was a lot of fun and brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

I continued south, hitting a few more casinos in the process.

The Aria and the Monte Carlo were connected without going outdoors and once I realized New York, New York was on the horizon I got my second wind for the finishing lick to The Luxor.

I got turned around in The Excalibur for the second time (casinos are made to confuse people, thus keeping them inside, you know?) but before long I was back on the conveyor belts heading home.

Once I got into The Luxor I found a bar and ordered a rum and coke and some water.

I glanced at the pedometer app on my cell phone and realized I had walked more than 20,000 steps that day.

That’s more than 10 miles to you and me.

It was after two in the morning – which meant people back home in the east would be waking up soon.

I drunk texted a friend back home in Maine who I knew would be asleep, but would laugh when she woke up. (She later responded with “Yay”).

Then, hooker-free (not even hit on … am I that old and ugly?) I made my way back to my room.

I ordered a late check out for $30 more and found myself falling asleep with sore feet shortly before 3 a.m.

The last day in Vegas would come soon enough.

• • •

Again, to cut cost, I took the cheapest flight home and that would be the infamous red-eye, which was schedule to pull away from the gate at 11:56 p.m., Monday night.

That left me all day to find something to do.

I had budgeted a rent-a-car into my trip for Monday and was fortunate enough to get a Jeep for only $49. (They had no small cars left, but gave me a bigger model for the puny cost).

I returned to the hotel, packed up and checked out, hitting the streets of Vegas with no set schedule and only a mini-plan of what I wanted to do.

The first thing was to swing by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Keeping up with my basketball theme of this trip, I was a huge UNLV fan back in the day when they were good and winning (and losing) an NCAA title.

The Thomas and Mack Center – the place where UNLV played – wasn’t far from The Luxor, so I drove into the parking lot and took a picture of the place Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon once called home.

I then found the school bookstore and bought a t-shirt.

Then I set my GPS for The Hoover Dam.

Why?

Well, why not?

When you have a day to kill in Vegas and not much money left in your pocket or on the credit cards you need free things to do and such a man-made treasure was only 45 minutes away.

Before getting to the damn dam, I was pleased to find out that bridge that runs high over the dam and offers a spectacular view was named after former NFL star Pat Tillman, who left the league to join the armed forces and was killed by friendly in Afghanistan while protecting our country.

I even drove over the dam and into Arizona (technically another state I can cross off my list).

Growing ever more hungry, I decided to find a nice hole-in-the-wall palce instead of a chain restaurant.

I found it in the Boulder Dam Brewing Co. in Boulder City, Nev.

I ordered a Shandy (half-lemonade, half beer) along with some outstanding beer-battered mushrooms and not-so-great Philly Cheesesteak.

Some local talker who had bellied up to the bar proceeded to tell me how he special ordered his Toyota truck (“Cement is the official color,” he said) and was soon to retire from the national park service for which he walks.

With a full belly, I was soon on my way back to Vegas (another $20 poorer since I bought a Boulder City Brewing Company t-shirt), arriving by 7 p.m.

I still had five hours to kill and there was a movie theater on the way to the airport, so I pulled in and shelled out $12 to see Dunkirk.

I give it two thumbs up with the realization that anything that has Kenneth Branagh in it is usually really good.

After returning the rent-a-car, I took the shuttle to the airport and, in my heart, wished I didn’t have to leave.

There was so much more left to see in the valley of Las Vegas.

That means one thing: I’ll have to go back and finish the job.

You can bet on it.