The spring sun felt good on my back as I walked down the steps of the Wilmington Public Library last week and headed toward Smith Place Park. A group of shirtless young men were playing basketball as several young women were sitting in the grass cheering them on.
I positioned my phone and took a picture of the basketball game and sent it to our son, Greg.
“Remember this place?” I asked Greg.
“Good memories,” Greg texted back.
Greg played basketball every day at Smith Place during the summer between his freshman and sophomore year at Wilmington High School. He would scrimmage for hours with Frank Hale, Royce Lowe, John and Mike Mertz, Greg Powell, Ryan Jobe, Josh Riley, Katrina Butcher, John Kocher, Jerry Butcher, Andy Stern, Billy “Bingo” Ward, “Frog” Williams, Mike Merritt, Serene Cioca, Mike Taylor, Jeff Raymond, and Paul who always wore a t-shirt with a hogshead on it, along with many others.
Greg was determined to play basketball for the Hurricane.
Larry Bird, who was in his prime with the Boston Celtics, was Greg’s idol.
“If you shoot twenty-five shots a day, you will make the team. If you shoot one hundred shots a day, you will be a starter. If you shoot 500 shots a day, you will be a star,” Bird had recently said.
Greg shot hundreds of shots a day. Greg became a starter. He was and still is an excellent three-point shooter.
That fall, Greg and I decided to travel to Boston to watch Larry Bird play.
Greg had his learner’s permit and had been driving on the streets of Wilmington for several months. We were on Interstate 70, just crossed into West Virginia, approaching the Wheeling Tunnel. I asked Greg if he would like to drive on the interstate.
We pulled into a rest area and Greg slid behind the wheel. As we eased back onto Interstate 70, I offered Greg some gentle instructions. We were soon alongside a semi-truck. “Greg, you may want to either accelerate to pass the truck, or slow down and get behind him. You are in the driver’s blind spot,” I cautioned. “You never know. He might have a tire blowout, and we would have nowhere to go.”
Suddenly, the front left tire exploded off the trailer and took off at a high rate of speed spiraling in front of us down the interstate. “Is that what you meant, Dad?” Greg asked his eyes transfixed.
I was speechless. I shivered and shook the rest of the way to Pittsburgh.
The next morning, we boarded Amtrak for the next leg of our trip, from Pittsburgh to Boston. Our first stop was in Philadelphia where we visited the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
Regrettably, on the way back to the hotel I made a wrong turn and we found ourselves within a very rough area of town. Cars were sitting on cement blocks with no tires. People were milling around on street corners, glaring at us. Adding to our misfortune, I pulled into an alley behind a tenement apartment. It was not the smartest thing I had ever done in my life. Just before we reached the end of the alley, we pulled behind a car heading the same direction. Unbelievably, the car had Ohio plates with a Fayette County sticker. They pointed us toward the interstate.
The next morning we were back on the train heading east to New York, and by early afternoon we were in New England. We arrived in Boston and made our way to the Hilton hotel downtown. The bellman took our bags and asked what had brought us to Boston.
“We’re here to watch the Celtics play,” Greg told the man.
A concerned look spread across the bellman’s face. “Do you have tickets?” he asked.
“No, we thought we could buy from scalpers,” I said.
To our dismay, the bellman, Sean O’Connell, said, “Celtic tickets are so difficult to get that even scalpers can’t get them.” Our hearts sank. Sensing our deep disappointment, Sean picked up the telephone and made a call. Within a few minutes he returned. “I checked with my brother. He has two tickets he will give you,” O’Connell said. “These season tickets have been in our family for generations. My grandfather originally bought them, passing them down to our dad, and now we have them.”
“It is my gift from one Irishman to another,” he said.
We soon found ourselves walking up a narrow walkway with hundreds of Celtic fans. Within minutes, we blissfully walked into the bright lights of Boston Garden.
“Greg, let’s go down and walk on the parquet floor,” I said. We told an usher we had traveled from Ohio to see Bird, and asked if we could step onto the floor for a minute. “Sir, I am sorry, but I can’t allow you to do that,” the usher responded.
The name John Keegan was on his name tag. “Mr. Keegan, you sure would make our day if you allowed two Irishman to stand on the floor for just a minute,” I said. “Our names are Haley.”
The big Irishman smiled and said, “Just for a minute. And hurry!”
Greg and I stood on that hallowed floor with the people of Boston. We saw the numbers of Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, and Havlicek hanging from the rafters, and shamrocks and leprechauns and the Boston Celtics.
Boston Garden was truly a place of dreams. It is good to be Irish. Indeed.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.