Ray Meyer?#34;the great coach of DePaul’s basketball team of 42 years from the 1940s to the 1980s with 724 victories, and I don’t know how many losses. We don’t talk about loss in Chicago sports. Ray Meyer was a big part of this town as I grew up. He had a gap-tooth smile that beat all others. At his passing, I was reminded how his life met mine way back in 1968.
The old DePaul Academy was such that when somebody disrespected you (in those days we used to say, “He messed with me”) you were duty-bound by some unspoken macho code to say to that person the fateful words, “I’ll meet you behind the Barn.” The Barn was the old gym on Sheffield Avenue and resembled a barn in all respects except no self-respecting cow would have been caught dead in there. Behind the Barn were the elevated tracks of the CTA. You could witness a 5 to 10 minute bare knuckle affair every day after school. Some went as long as 10 seconds.
One day it was my turn. The big tall geeky guy from my freshman class?#34;I think his name was Tom?#34;bumped into me, not a big thing except for all the witnesses who egged him on, and soon we had an afternoon date behind the Barn. When all the hoopla subsided, I do remember how slowly the clock moved toward 3:00.
At 3, my pal, Tony Maier, came as my second. Fights at the Barn had to have a second to make sure things were stopped when they had to be. I’ll never forget Tony saying to me, “Do you still want to do this?” As we looked over at big tall geeky Tom who seemed to loose his geekyness at this particular point in time, I said, “Yeah I got to,” knowing that surrender was a loss of face. Hell, I was hoping that Tom would back down, but he didn’t.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t proud. It never was behind the Barn. You were ringed by 30 to 40 kids calling for his blood or maybe your blood. And inside that ring were two guys trying to figure out how to get out. It might have lasted two minutes but seemed like 30 but at the crucial time of the fight as I was sitting on top of him, I asked “Do you give?” and Tom of the big tall and geeky tribe did not respond. So as my right hand came down he said the words I wanted to hear: “Yes.”
But my fist hit concrete pavement, and I howled in pain, rolling off Tom who was very sorry he gave in. Tony came to my rescue saying, “A give is a give” and bundled me away. My right hand was swollen to twice the size.
Off we went to DePaul’s sports clinic and who should walk in but Mr. Ray Meyer himself. And just as I thought I had gotten small in that room (and never to be accomplished again) Coach Meyer turned to me and said, “What’s your injury?” I said, “My hand.” He said, “You’ve been behind the Barn?” The eyes of Texas were upon me and also the icon of collegiate basketball. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you want to be a neighborhood thug?” I said, “No,” thinking to myself, I’m not from this neighborhood and my chances for thugdom were greatly diminished just recently.
Coach Meyer asked if I played sports, and I explained that I’m a runner not a football player. I was almost tempted to lie and say I want to play basketball. But that would have been quickly disproved.
Well, the gist of it is, Old Ray, who was middle age Ray back then, was in the room with me, and he might of half-listened to the answers of the questions he himself asked. Family, sports, grades. But as he walked out the door of the training room on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving in ’68, he said to me, “Hey, kid, if you do your best, it will all work out. And if I catch you behind the Barn again, I’ll kick your ass.”
In a tough-guy school, that was a “get out of jail free” card.