Bottle Cap Thieves: An Arkansas Basketball Story

vector4dzCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2008

"In ancient times cats were worshiped as gods;
 they have not forgotten this."
 -Terry Pratchett-

Years ago, I had two cats.  I don't have them anymore.  They went away one at a time. 

Cats are like that sometimes.  They don't do something so dramatic as die.  Things such as that are beneath them.  They just go away and leave their legacy open ended.
I got them as kittens when I started med school in '91.  We lived together in a tiny apartment in Little Rock.  They never went outside because there was too much traffic in the neighborhood.  As far as they knew the whole world was air conditioned.
They were brothers (litter mates) and best friends.  They were my companions during med school.  Hanging around my Big Chair as I studied.  Purring in my lap as I napped.  Shredding my curtains for no apparent reason, pooping and urinating in various corners in clear violation of the "Litter Box Doctrine". 

Standing at the door whenever I got home, pretending to greet me but actually making a break for the outdoors and FREEDOM!  Scrambling in fear from my squirt gun. Knocking things off my tables because it was always important to take off from a sitting position really, really fast.  Shedding hair 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Coughing up strange things from the depths of their intestines. 

Scaring me as they jumped on top of my shower to watch with amazement as I covered myself with the water they themselves so feared.  Making me feel kinda weird because they were seeing me naked.  Possibly engaging between themselves in the love that dare not speak its name.  Staring at me with that singular look of big-eyed cat disdain every time I tried to explain that they needed to "Get Down".  And stealing my bottle caps.
That's right, stealing my bottle caps.
I used to drink quite a bit.  I don't drink at all anymore but that is another story.  Back in those days I liked to sit in my really big chair and sip beer and smoke cigarettes and study and watch basketball.  It was all very sophisticated.  And since it was sophisticated I drank imported beer and I drank it from bottles.  That's just how I rolled.  (I think if I met my 1993 self today I probably wouldn't like him very much but that is also another story.  I think he would also wear much smaller pants than I do.)
When I twisted or popped the caps off of these bottles of beer I would just drop them next to my Big Chair, with the idea that I would pick them up later.  But I never had to pick them up.  They just disappeared.  I didn't question this.  I didn't think it was magic or anything like that.  I just thought they were falling into whatever vortex or wormhole ate my socks and remote controls.  This made sense to me at the time.
So my cats and I watched the '92-'93 Razorback Basketball season together.  This was the season prior to the National Title team and it remains my favorite Arkansas sports team of all time.  It was Che and Goo's favorite basketball team as well, though they both preferred tennis due to the rhythmic ball movement.  Che and Goo were the cats' names.  Actually their full names were Che Guevara and Augusto Sandino.  Che and Goo for short.
You might ask why I named my cats after dead Latin American communist revolutionaries.  You could just as easily ask why I had a ponytail, an earring and wore flannel all the time.  Some questions have no adequate answers.
The team that season was everything that a Nolan Richardson team could be. They were smothering on defense and streaky on offense, unbeatable one night and horrible the next.  They had a budding superstar in Corliss but the rest of the team was a weird amalgamation of juco talent and lightly recruited "finds". 

People always talked about Nolan having the best "athletes".  I always thought this was a way of belittling the accomplishments of his teams because they were rarely "athletic" in the true sense of the word. 

Scotty was too slow, as was Corey Beck.  Clint McDaniel could barely dunk.  I'm not sure I EVER saw Dwight Stewart get over the rim.  Roger Crawford was a pretty good athlete but barely average for the SEC.  Darrell Hawkins was a great leaper out of high school but injuries slowed him down before he ever got any real playing time.  Robert Shepard was extraordinarily quick with his hands.  Warren Linn and Davor Rimac were two of the best athletes on the team in terms of quickness and jumping but nobody ever wanted to notice because they were white. 

The simple fact of the matter was that the players on those teams excelled because they played harder with a better plan than anybody else.
That team beat Penny Hardaway's Memphis team at home.  They beat Missouri and Arizona on the road.  After a mid-season swoon they upset Kentucky in Bud Walton and Darrell Hawkins jumped on the press table and pumped his fist at the crowd.
At its best that team was like crazed dogs.  They would have 10 to 15 steals a game.  Robert Shephard, Clint McDaniel and Corey Beck TERRORIZED opposing guards to the point that they would throw the ball up for grabs because they didn't want it any more.. Shephard in particular went wild that year.  He had a couple of games that he simply took over defensively.  It was beautiful to watch.  His arms were so long it looked like he could tie his shoes without bending over.  And his hands were so quick and strong the guys he was guarding would look violated after games.
Che and Goo would listen to me scream and yell all season long.  Sometimes they would scramble away in fear because of my outbursts but more often they would just look at me with feline disgust and the go back to licking each other.  That was our system.
When the Hogs went to the NCAA tournament they blew out Holy Cross in the first round.  In the second round they played St. Johns and actually played bad most of the game but made a little run to take about a 6 or 8 point lead with about a minute and a half left and St. Johns just quit because they were tired of getting beat on.  They didn't foul or anything.  They just quit. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have seen in college basketball.
And so this completely revamped team of odds and ends and a somewhat injured freshman all-american (Corliss) made it to the Sweet Sixteen to play the #1 team in the country, North Carolina.  That was the team that beat Michigan and the Fab Five in the final game when Webber called the famous timeout they didn't have.  UNC had Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, George Lynch, Donald Williams and a few more.  They were stacked but had actually been an underachieving group so far in their college careers.
The night of that game was one of those nights that just seems to stand out in my life.  It had sharp edges.  Beginnings and endings.
We finished a series of tests that day so I had absolutely no studying to do over the weekend.  I tried to convince the woman I was in love with to stay in town for the weekend and watch the game with me but she decided to go home and try to convince the man she was in love with to leave his wife.  I decided I wasn't drinking nearly enough.
I went to a sports bar with a friend who graduated from Vanderbilt.  Vandy had a fantastic team that year with Billy McCaffery and had won the SEC.  They were in the Sweet 16 as well.  By the time the Hogs tipped off I was urging my buddy to sing a Phil Collins song on Kareoke, I was hitting on an extremely questionable looking and dentally challenged waitress, and Vandy had been upset.  I held out little hope for my beloved Pigs.
I was wrong.  They came out on fire.  Shephard buried deep shots.  Phelps couldn't handle the pressure.  UNC couldn't get into their sets and thus couldn't pound us inside.  We were up double digits before I knew what was happening.  The whole bar was standing and screaming with every possession.  We were also just waiting for UNC to wear the Hogs down.
Eventually they did.  Early in the second half Carolina evened things up and I was sure the Hogs were doomed.  But they bounced right back into the lead and went punch for punch with the best team in the country.  Right down to the last possession when Carolina pulled out to a three point lead and Arkansas got the ball back with a chance to tie.  Shephard panicked for what seemed like the first time all year and got caught in the air and traveled.  Ball Game.
It was a weird feeling after that game (besides the nausea and drunkenness).  I had rarely if ever been that sure before a game that the Hogs would lose so I wasn't crushed.  And I'm not sure if I have ever been as proud to be a fan of a team as I was to be a fan of that group of players.  At the same time they were done.  They had lost.  And I was alone.
A friend dropped me off at my apartment and I went in through the back door.  I went in this way quite a bit as it was closest to the street.  It was actually a patio and then a sliding glass door into the apartment.  On this night the door was WIDE open.  It was so unusual that at first it didn't quite register.  But soon enough it did.  I'd been robbed.
My TV was gone, my computer was gone, my stereo was gone, all my CDs were gone.  Even worse Che and Goo were gone.  I spent an hour looking for them and after the cops left I spent the rest of the night walking around the neighborhood calling their names and whistling (as if they had ever come when I called).  I never found them.  It was that kind of sharp edged day.  One where your favorite team loses, your girl chooses someone else, and your pets run away.  It makes an impression.
The next day I was digging through the closet where I kept their litter box, looking for an old stereo I had stashed away.  I needed something to pierce the silence.  In  the far corner, under a cardboard box, were hundreds and hundreds of bottlecaps, horded like nuts in a tree.
Until I graduated and moved out I would randomly find bottle caps in that apartment.  They would show up under the bed or in the kitchen or near the couch.  Maybe it was magic or a vortex but every time I found one I thought of those cats and those Hogs.