By Cal Freeman
The night Larry Bird famously stole Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass
I was with my mother at Circa 1890s Saloon
across Cass Avenue from Wayne State University
where my father was teaching The Tempest
to a group of bored undergrads in State Hall.
It was 1987, or circa 1890 if one takes the long view of history.
Adrian Dantley (AD) was my favorite Pistons player that year.
My mother was bantering with a drunk Boston fan
who, as she put it, “was looking to get his teeth knocked out
rooting for Boston in a Cass Corridor bar.”
My father let his class out early to catch the end of the game.
We had them down one with three seconds to go
and possession of the ball. It looked like
we were coming back to Detroit with a 3-2 series lead
and were finally going to vanquish the Celtics.
“Larry Bird sucks eggs on Saturday night,”
my mother taunted the guy. It was Tuesday.
My parents shared an ’85 Ford Escort back then,
and we picked my father up from work
Tuesday nights so he didn’t have to ride
the Warren Avenue bus after dark.
My father laughed at my mother’s trash talking
as he sipped his Newcastle Ale. Gone now
circa 2020 is Circa 1890s, its façade of curved
white pillars that never blocked the rain
and faded to the color of cigarette ash
as the paint leached and decades passed,
known as “the teeth” to Wayne State students, gone.
All bars circa 1890 get loud with animated talk
about little matters that matter little alone
but creep up in aggregate at the end of a stanza.
Basketball is a series of meticulous little matters.
AD and Bill Laimbeer setting brutal, off-the-ball
screens out of bounds. Barroom histrionics
around cathode ray tube televisions, full fathom five
into which the ghost of Boston Garden stowed
our hopes (in the deciding game seven AD
would knock himself unconscious diving
for a loose ball). Wondrous and strange,
my mother’s invective, the beer foam in my father’s beard,
Larry Bird stepping before that fated pass
like an interference beam (the holomovement
that holds them there in their spectral dimensions)
his quick toss to Dennis Johnson for a lay-up
with a second left. AD dropped 25 in game five.
His right leg was two inches shorter than his left,
but he had a such a quick first step (Kevin McHale
was a wicket jammed in wet cement
when he tried to guard him) and a deadly flat-footed shot.
Isiah never liked him, though, and Dennis Rodman
got too many minutes for his taste. When they traded AD in 1989,
I sobbed on my mother’s shoulder in our living room
(yellow light on rough-hewn mahogany paneling,
all that never happens in the interior of a place
happens to us, directly, there. The secret
mind of a university swimming in imported tap beer
and popcorn, free popcorn. Circa 1890,
a joke that was easy to miss but would define
an epoch in a public university’s life)
like we were saying goodbye forever to somebody
we loved. It’s the first time I remember feeling that way.
Cal Freeman is the author of the books Fight Songs (Eyewear, 2017) and Poolside at the
Dearborn Inn (R&R Press, 2022). His writing has appeared in many journals including The
Oxford American, The Poetry Review, River Styx, Southword, Passages North, and
Hippocampus. He lives in Dearborn, MI and teaches at Oakland University. He also serves as
music editor of The Museum of Americana: A Literary Review and as Writer-In-Residence with
InsideOut Literary Arts Detroit.