She worked all day at a dry cleaners in New York, carrying clothes, putting up with customers, and then, when the work was done, she came home to her son. One day he told her he wanted to play basketball.
“You’ll go through too many shoes playing basketball,” she sighed. “I’ll have to buy you a new pair every week.”
“Nah, Ma. I’ll run real light-footed.”
She laughed. He could always make her laugh.
She gave in.
Today he is a professional in the NBA, his name is John Salley, and Friday night he had the best playoff game of his life. Scored 23 points against Milwaukee, slammed the ball, shot jumpers, even banked one in backward — light-footed. The Pistons won. Reporters mobbed him. And hours later, in his apartment, with the sun coming up, the phone rang.
“Hey, I was waiting for your call, Ma. Did you see the game? . . . “
They are out there, millions of them, all over this sports- crazed American landscape. They buy the shoes and wash the sweatpants and bandage the scarred knees and elbows. They cook double portions, and drive to games, and deliver forgotten catcher’s masks in the middle of the afternoon. Year after year, they are there when the last free throw misses, when the third strike is called, when nobody loves you — nobody but your mother.
Did you ever wonder how your favorite athletes got that way? Where Isiah Thomas got his sweetness, where Joe Dumars got his quiet calm? Where John Salley got his flair for . . . commercials? “I know where,” says Salley’s mother, Mazie, 65, who now lives in Atlanta. “When Johnny was in grade school, he and I used to invent commercials after school. We’d sit around and make up songs about breakfast cereals, or cleaning fluid. He had a little drum set, so he would bang on the drums for a beat.
“I still remember one. It was kind of silly. It was for those things you use to clean up after your dog? It went like this:
“Pooooo-per scooper, poooo-per scooper. . . . “
Mother’s Day. Ma Salley there to listen
It is no easy task, this mother- of-athletes stuff. Not when they come home with broken bones and missing teeth. Not when they need kneepads and a new hoop above the garage. Not when the phone never stops and the recruiters are knocking, promising glory, smelling like rats.
Not when he calls to say he’s moving across the country — traded again. Or when he says, “Ma, I don’t get it. They’re not giving me a chance to play.”
The Salleys had that conversation not too long ago. John was in the Pistons’ doghouse, he wasn’t getting the minutes, coach Chuck Daly was disenchanted with his attitude. There were whispers of trades. He was falling off the rainbow.
“We talked about that,” says Mazie Salley. “He was worried about being traded. I told him, John, just concentrate on your basketball. Don’t worry about that other stuff. Play the best you can. And then I told him something my mother used to tell me: ‘Let the hair go with the hide.’ “
Let the hair go with the hide. Be yourself. Don’t worry. Isn’t that every mother’s soothing advice? Once relaxed and given a chance, Salley’s game began to rumble, it shook during the Boston series, and has roared against the Bucks.
And down in Atlanta, alongside her husband, Mazie Salley watches on TV and answers the phone after the game and says, “Oh, thank you. Yes. He sure played well tonight. We’re so proud of him.” Patience, sacrifice pay off
There was a time when little John Salley was growing so fast, and aching because of it, that his mother rushed him to doctors, certain he was suffering from arthritis. There was a time when Mazie Salley learned that John’s high school in Brooklyn was plagued with drugs, so she cut her work hours to be there when her children came home from school.
There was the time when John Salley received his first paycheck from the Pistons, and he hired a builder to construct a new home for his mother and father, a nice place, grass and trees, no more apartments.
“John, you don’t have to do this,” she said.
“I want to,” he said.
It is almost a cliche, athletes who credit their mothers, who wave at the camera and yell, “Hi, Mom!” But there is a reason. It takes a certain patience to raise an athlete, to pay the bills, to carpool the players. Sure, there can be nice fringe benefits — if your son makes it, and if he decides to share the wealth. But most mothers will tell you they have no idea whether their children will pass the professional test. They just want them to be happy.
“You know,” says Mazie Salley, “when I watched John play basketball in high school, he was always such a clown out there that I never thought basketball was really a serious thing.”
And now he wins an NBA playoff game, and late at night, he still waits for her phone call. So here’s to all the women who stitched up the jerseys and pasted the scrapbooks and sat in the doctor’s office while the broken leg was set. May your sons never forget all you did for them.
Or the pooper-scooper song.
Mitch Albom’s talk show, the Sunday Sports Albom, airs tonight from 9 to 11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7).