Basketball, Unconditional Love, and Freedom

At the end of the football season, I joined the freshman basketball team. I had shown up late for “tryouts”. Football season did not end until two weeks into the basketball season. Coach Harvey, a man I immediately liked and respected, gave me a shot. He first discussed it with the team and, through consensus, I was then allowed to participate in drills with the otherplayers. After a week of practice, Coach Harvey called us all together and announced that I had made the team. The rest of the guys cheered; it felt good to belong to something, it felt good to belong to a team. That was something my football experience had taken from me, a feeling of belonging; it had distanced me from everyone else.

I wasn’t particularly good; at least I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t a basketball player. I was an athlete, but not a basketball player. I didn’t look like one; I didn’t carry myself like one; and despite the fact that I was a better athlete, I didn’t play like one. I was a football player, period.I hadn’t played basketball in high school, and I lacked a smoothness that signified a level of comfort with the game, a smoothness I imagined all the “real” basketball players had. I played the whole year as a swingman and was assigned to guard the other team’s best scorer. I was certainly quick enough, and determined enough, to play good defense. I  was never going to be a scorer.

In the winter of 1972, an article written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan appeared in the New York Times magazine. It was a commentary on campus life at Harvard. In particular, the liberal Senator, through a photo taken in the Freshman Union during lunch time, had commented on the self-imposed segregation on the part of Black students. Many of the
upper-class black students took offense to the implications, and rightly so.
The photo showed a group of students who were black eating lunch together, but
didn’t show the climate throughout the rest of the cafeteria. It was a snapshot
taken out of context. And so a meeting was held at the Harvard-Radcliffe
African-American Cultural Center to discuss strategy and to submit a
response. No one wanted to be portrayed as not embracing the Harvard experience;
too many people across America had fought to get us there.

I was standing on the front porch of the building prior to the meeting. Coming our way, walking on the side walk as if she owned it, was her, the girl I was going to marry. She was about five foot-five inches tall, with olive skin and black hair cropped very short. She was wearing a blue dress with white polka dots. Her legs were curved and strong and she
sort of skipped along. There was a confidence in her stride, and an air of
aristocracy about her. Everything about her said sassy. “Is this the Harvard-Radcliffe
Afro-American Cultural Center?” she asked matter-of- factly. Her voice was
strong, full of life, with a kind of hoarse squeak that suggested she would
break out into laughter at any moment. (She was mocking us I was sure.)

One of the upper-classmen on the porch answered “yes”.

I, for my part, just couldn’t stop looking at her. She bounced up on the porch pretty much ignoring us all. Someone, and it wasn’t me, got up enough courage to speak directly to her, “Hi, I’m Keith; what’s your name?

“Laura… Laura Murphy”.

“Oh my God”, I thought. It is the girl I’m going to marry.

“You’re Laura Murphy” I said. “Steve told me I should look you up. I’m
Jan”. We shook hands. I was gone. (Prior to coming to Harvard, as I had noted earlier, I had spent part of the summer in New York City at Columbia in a preparatory program for minority students entering “Ivy League” colleges. It was designed to get you up-to-snuff in physics, calculus, and chemistry prior to throwing you to the dogs. Steve was a guy from Baltimore, Maryland, in the program who I had befriended, and he had told me all about this girl he knew, who would be going to Wellesley College, and more importantly, that I should look her up. I always suspected that he somehow was in love with her-and it was easy to see why-but that it never worked out for him. Right then, this
Laura Murphy, seemed so much more mature than I remembered Steve, or me for
that matter.)

“So you’re Jan” she said almost slyly. “I knew I’d run into you sooner or later”.

“Oh… really?” I responded somewhat tongue in cheek, somewhat flirtatious, but clearly interested in anything this woman had to say. It’s true, “she had me from hello”.

That meeting may, or may not, have been successful in arriving at a plan to confront the Senator’s take. To be honest I don’t remember. All I could see-mostly out of the corner of my eye- and all I could hear, was Laura Murphy. I walked her to the bus in Harvard Square that evening after the meeting. I had never connected to another human being as completely as I did then. It was beyond chemistry. There was a complete collapse of any ego boundary I might have had and literally we, Laura Murphy and I, were one.

I had not loved anything or anyone in my life as much as I came to recognize my love for Laura. She was smart, politically active, beautiful, sophisticated and all those other things
that boys from small Midwestern steel towns hope to find in a woman someday. She
was that princess that every fairy tale assures us is waiting at the end of our desires. At the worst moment in my life, the loss of football to congenital heart disease, she had arrived. There was a GOD.

We became inseparable. Every Friday evening at around six o’clock the bus from Wellesley College would arrive in Harvard Square and I would be there to greet it. I’d also be the last
one to wave good bye to it at 2:00 am when it left.

I know for me at that time, there were two women in my life: Laura Murphy, and everybody else.

Laura, and my relationship with her, taught me what I believe now, some forty years later, to be the most important aspect of my belief system: that fundamental to a man’s life and
mankind’s existence is but two things, love and freedom.

Love is that which connects us to everything else. It is what gives purpose to life. Love builds, creates, molds, and develops. It is what gives us everything we have. Love is “the raw energy that drives the engine of human experience.”

Most of us have experienced “conditional love”, an idea that is based in fear. I’ll love you, but only if you love me back. It began insidiously with our parents. We experienced their
love when we did the things that they believed we should do. We came to want in
ourselves that which they wanted for us. The flip side though was that we feared that love might be taken away if we did not please them. Their love, and our assessment of it, was conditional.

Laura showed me the shear power of unconditional love, that is, love without fear. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that it would ever change. It didn’t, and it hasn’t. But Laura also taught me the importance of freedom.

I am not speaking of freedom in a poetic sense. I am not talking about freedom from want, or freedom from the fears that are present in every life. I am talking about the importance of the freedom from compulsion in the life of a human being: the realization that a
man’s mind can only work effectively when he is free to make decisions based on
rational considerations, and reality; a freedom, where one is not forced to behave, or think, a certain way by circumstances or forces outside himself.

The last game of the freshman basketball season was played against Dartmouth. We played at Harvard’s Indoor Athletic Building, the IAB. Laura attended the game as usual, but much more pertinent was that she had a girlfriend who was one of the trainers for the Dartmouth squad. There were going to be parties after the game and I expected that she
was going to hang out with me. I saw her after the game and she informed me that she was going to spend some time with her girl friend. She did, but that also meant spending time with a group of her girlfriend’s friends, which meant the Dartmouth freshman basketball team and that was all men. I was jealous, period.

We, I and some of my friends from the Harvard basketball team, ran into this group in Harvard square. My eyes went directly to Laura’s eyes. Pain, I am sure registered all over my face. I felt betrayed, or at the very least left out. I didn’t say a word, and a look
of embarrassment was all I got back from her in return.

I returned to my room to examine my feelings.The chaos inside of me was new and the hurt, though real, seemed not to have a cause. I didn’t know what I was hurt about. I didn’t know why I hurt. I just knew that to feel this way had to mean that something, somewhere, was drastically wrong. It was…with me.

My melancholy was interrupted by a knock on the door and as I swung it open there stood Laura. To this day I am still amazed at how a woman can make a pair of jeans, a bulky sweater, and fisherman’s cap look so darn good. Standing there was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She glowed and now it was my turn to feel embarrassed. I
simply hugged her and held on for life.

“Jan”, she said almost apologetically, “ I don’t want you to think I’m not with you, because I am, but I have to be free to make choices, to spend time with my friends if I choose…and
I have to  feel like I am free to do that.” Her message rang loud and clear. “I have to feel like I make the choice to be with you, not that it’s my responsibility or duty.”

She was right you know and I knew it. People often put it in political terms but it all comes down to the same thing. We all know at our core that we don’t function well when forced to do anything. Love and freedom was my message from God carried by Laura Murphy.

My freshman year at Harvard, in retrospect, is still one of the happiest times of my life (although I must confess to not knowing it at the time). The world opened up for me, and I discovered truths that never even occur to kids from small towns like Middletown, Ohio. Laura and I grew stronger as a result of that incident. I got to understand her a great deal better and I learned a lot about myself, and life. I credit her with igniting introspection in me, with starting my real spiritual journey of self discovery.

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