A man struggling with alcoholism finds the motivation to change from his hero, Bob Cousy.
Bob Cousy was my hero.
As a kid in Massachusetts I loved watching the “Houdini of the Hardwood” burn up the court with the Boston Celtics. He led the NBA in assists for eight seasons running and created his own dazzling brand of ball-handling and passing that put him in the NBA Hall of Fame.
The greatest moment of my childhood was meeting him in person when I was 13. Now, 27 years later, I was determined to meet him again. “Cooz” was announcing a game at the Hartford Civic Center and I had tickets.
It was a long drive from Massachusetts to Hartford. Long enough for me to get good and drunk in the passenger seat of my friend’s car. By the time we got to the arena I was pretty gone. After 27 years of heavy drinking I was an expert at assuring myself I could handle the booze.
I spotted Cooz in his sharp sport coat and tie, crossing the court toward the announcer booth. Teetering on my feet, I pulled an old photo out of my pocket. “Hey, Cooz!” I bellowed. “Remember this!”
A consummate gentleman, he checked out the picture: Cooz himself presenting 13-year-old me with a captain’s jacket at my youth center. “Sure I remember,” he said, probably just being kind.
“I thought I could get another picture,” I said. I waved my friend over and handed him my camera. “It’ll be a before and after shot!”
Cooz agreed to a photo and even signed my old one before he went back to work. I climbed into the bleachers feeling on top of the world. “Peace, Bob Cousy,” he’d written on the back of my old picture. Looking at my 13-year-old self I recognized the same pride and excitement I felt right now. There was nothing like meeting your hero!
When I got the second picture developed, I showed it to my buddy. He took one look at it and laughed. “What is it?” I asked.
“Boy, Ken,” he said, handing it back to me. “You sure look wasted.”
I looked at myself in the picture: bleary-eyed, disheveled and definitely wasted. Anyone looking at that picture would have seen a wreck of a person. The same wreck of a person Cooz had seen. Bob Cousy, my hero. I was so ashamed I wanted to rip up the picture or burn it—destroy it the way I was destroying myself.
But I didn’t. That night I took it out again. I laid it next to the first shot from all those years before. “Before and after” I’d called it, and that was exactly what it was. I was 13 the first time I met Cooz—the same year I’d gotten drunk the first time. As an alter boy I had access to the port wine we used for mass. One night I stole a bottle. Me and my buddies passed it around behind the school along with a pack of Camel cigarettes I’d swiped from my dad.
I’d never been so sick as I was the next morning. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Kenny!” my mother cried when she found me in the bathroom.
You might think getting that sick would put me off drinking. Unfortunately it only put me off port wine. Beer became my drink of choice. I loved the devil-may-care way I felt when I was drunk. Alcohol made me feel like a tough guy. I was no longer afraid to ask girls to dance or pick a fight with a guy bigger than I was. When I was drunk I felt at least a foot taller. As long as I had alcohol, I was invincible.
But those good feelings didn’t last long. By the time I was in my twenties drinking wasn’t any fun at all, yet I couldn’t stop. Even after I had children of my own. When I wasn’t at my job teaching middle school I was drinking.
Oh, I tried to quit. Sometimes I’d even go weeks without a drink. But eventually I always started up again. Invincible? I was anything but. It got to where I felt so bad about my failure to quit that I stopped trying to quit altogether. I accepted that I was doomed to die a drunk.
Now, staring at myself with my hero I wished things had been different. I put the photos away, but I could still see them in my mind. The shame they inspired stayed with me all the time.
Of all the people to see me in that state, I thought, opening another can of beer one evening, Bob Cousy was the worst. My hero, the man who had inspired me when my life was just beginning had seen the mess my life had become because of alcohol.
Nothing, not my shame or my love for my wife and kids, gave me the strength to stop drinking. It was hopeless. I was hopeless. The pictures with Bob Cousy proved it.
One Sunday morning I dragged myself, hungover, down to the riverbank. My favorite place to feel sorry for myself, write in my journal and drink. I wrote about the remorse I felt over how I was living. I’d written the words a hundred times before. It didn’t change anything.
When I got up to leave, I realized I hadn’t opened the beer I’d brought with me. I put it back in the fridge at home. For some reason, I didn’t drink all day. The next morning I got a new idea, one I had never tried before: Ask someone for help. I called up an old friend who’d had struggles of her own in the past. “There’s an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting right in your neighborhood tonight,” Martha said. “Go to it.”
So I went that night. And the next night. And the next. A few weeks later I was still going to meetings and managing to stay away from alcohol. I’d always thought asking others for help was weak, but I’d never felt so strong as I did in the group.
“You’d think Bob Cousy would have taught me the value of a good assist,” I wrote in my journal one evening. I flipped back through the pages to that Sunday by the river, the day before I’d called Martha. The day that—for reasons I couldn’t explain—something changed. And I was starting to believe my change for the better wasn’t temporary this time, but lasting. I couldn’t remember anything I’d written that day—I’d been too hungover to recall anything but the pounding in my head.
I looked at that page in my journal now, expecting my usual mixture of poetry and philosophical pondering about why I was killing myself on the installment plan. But instead I discovered I’d written something that didn’t sound like me at all: “God, please help free me from the booze so I can start leading the life you want me to live!”
I stared at the words. The prayer was written in my handwriting, but I had no recollection of writing it. I didn’t remember praying by the river that day—I hadn’t prayed since my days as an altar boy. Yet here was proof that I had prayed. What’s more, I had proof that God answered. Who else could have given me the strength to change for good?
It’s been over 27 years since I quit. When I was 10 years sober I wrote Cooz a letter telling him about all that had happened since that night in Hartford. I didn’t expect a reply. I just wanted him to know how much he had helped me. How the “before and after” pictures with him had crystallized everything for me. Within a week my hero wrote back: “Glad I was able to ‘assist.’”
This story first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Angels on Earth magazine.