CHICAGO — Pressure is a funny word. There is the pressure a sports team feels when it needs to win a playoff game, like the pressure the Pistons are feeling, celebrated, famous pressure that inspires big stories on the 11 o’clock news.
And then there is another kind of pressure. More subtle. More powerful. It affects athletes every day, but it never makes the news, never makes headlines. You might not know about it at all unless you go to see it, unless you drive down the streets where Mark Aguirre is driving now, past the boarded-up houses and the old churches and the weeds that poke up wild amid the asphalt.
“Right there is the first place I became aware of Isiah as a basketball player,” Aguirre says, pointing out the car window at a cream-colored recreation building. “We played in the ‘Bitty’ league together. We were maybe 9 years old. You see that brown door right there? That’s where we would sneak out to get away from the gangs. They wanted our money. They knew we had to have 25 cents for the bus, so they came after us.”
“Did you get away?” he is asked.
“And when they caught you?”
“We gave them the money.”
“Then what did you do?”
He laughs softly.
“Then, you walked home.”
He turns the car and continues on. Past corner groceries where the windows are taped shut. Past row houses with seven or eight children sitting on each stoop. Past deserted playgrounds where the fences are torn and the basketball rims are bent and the nets are not even a memory.
“See that playground there?” Aguirre says, pointing to a small area behind a building. “That’s where I learned to play. Bryant Park. Me and my cousin got this spotlight — actually, he stole it from the back of a store — and we rigged it with wire on the side of that building. We pointed it up so it would shine on the court. We played all night, man. That spotlight was great. We’d unhook it when we went home, then hook it up when we wanted to play.”
He nods silently, as if seeing himself there right now, shooting baskets on a hot summer night. He steps on the accelerator. He drives on.
“Yeah, that spotlight was fun,” he sighs, “but we should have taken it down when we were finished.”
“One night, someone stole it back.”
Home. A different pressure here
Most fans don’t really know Aguirre, the Pistons’ star forward. But then, most fans don’t really know any pro athlete. They see the gravy — the money, the fame, the endorsement contracts, the pretty women. They don’t see what each man had to rise above to reach all that.
Here, on the West Side of Chicago — or in 1,000 places just like it across the country, places where poverty is a blanket, where liquor is medicine, where jobs come and jobs go and fathers and mothers interchange with aunts, uncles, grandmothers, friends, so you may have three different homes and you may sleep four or five to a room, you may have gangs chasing you for a quarter and friends who are alive one day and dead the next. In places like this, there is a pressure that has nothing to do with NBA trophies and playoff wins, a pressure that comes before all that. This is the pressure: to hold on tight to a basketball, tight enough to pull you high above your life, high enough to escape.
Many try. Few succeed.
“This,” Aguirre says, pointing to the streets, “is who I am. This is where I come from. I’ve seen everything here. A friend of mine was shot point-blank in the face. Another friend was pushed from a third-story window. I had an uncle who was stabbed 27 times.
“But in a way, I’m glad I had this. You can survive this, you can survive anything. Sometimes I think about where I am now . . . like, we’re staying downtown at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, right? When I was a kid, I never saw that part of town. I didn’t know what a Ritz Carlton was!”
He laughs, and waves his hands for emphasis. “Ritz? Shoot, I thought Ritz was a cracker!”
Aguirre, 31, comes back to the West Side each spring during the Pistons’ seemingly inevitable playoff series against the Bulls. He rents a car after practice and drives out to visit the people who raised him. Aunts. Uncles. Neighbors.
Even teachers. As he turns past Westinghouse Area Vocational High School, his alma mater, he notices hundreds of students lounging on the sidewalks and the front grass.
“What the hell is going on here?” Aguirre says.
He spins the car around and pulls up near the front door. A group of teachers, wearing security identification badges, peers inside the vehicle, shielding their eyes from the sun. When they make out the driver, their faces go from annoyance to delight.
“What are you doing in that car? Come on out here, man!”
“Look who’s back!”
“It’s Mark Aguirre!”
He steps outside slowly, and he is all smiles. He remembers every name. Mrs. Nelson. Mr. Lamont. The shop teacher. The history teacher. The English teacher. They hug him. They slap him. They tease him about the playoff series.
“Why is everybody outside?” Aguirre asks.
“Hey, Mark, we saw you and Michael Jordan doing some talking. You two gonna fight or what?”
“Nah, we were having a little conversation.”
“Don’t hurt Jordan, Mark. He wants a ring.”
“He can have a ring. Not this one, though.”
“Oh, Mark. Listen to you, man!”
“Yeah, listen to you, man!”
A warm breeze blows. A small crowd begins to gather. Above the entrance to Westinghouse hangs a fading sign that reads: “Our Children, Our Future.”
Listen to him.
He is home. Humble beginnings
Mark Aguirre was nearly born on a train. His mother, Mary, was only 16 years old, living in Arkansas, when she became pregnant. In her ninth month, she rode north to Chicago, where some of her family lived, thinking perhaps she would give this baby to her sister, Daisy, who wanted a child and was better prepared to raise it. By the time Mary arrived in Chicago, however, she was in labor. Her family rushed her from the train station to the hospital. A few hours later, Mark was born.
“It’s too bad,” his Uncle Frank, a middle-aged man in a bright-colored sweat suit, is saying now. “If you’da been born on that train, you’da been able to ride free for the rest of your life. You know that, Mark? You could take a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles right now if you wanted! Free of charge. Yes, sir. They do that for babies born on trains, you know.”
Aguirre laughs. He is slumped in the sofa in the front room of his Aunt Daisy’s home, a row house on a street full of row houses, where the door is open and children race in and out, squealing and chasing each other, crawling into Aguirre’s lap and wrapping themselves in his long arms. The room is warm; there is no air-conditioning. The pale walls are dotted with photos of the family. There is a picture of Mark and his wife, Angela, on one. In the corner, above the wooden-cased TV set, is a certificate. “The James Naismith Trophy . . . Mark Aguirre, De Paul University . . . as the most outstanding college basketball player in the U.S.”
Aguirre was raised, at least a little bit, by everyone in the room and on the picture walls. His grandmother, who died in the 1970s, took care of him for years. He also shuffled between aunts’ houses and his mother’s place. His father figures were his uncles and his cousins. “The first time I met my real father was when I was 6 years old,” he says. “I don’t even remember where it was. It was like, ‘I know who you are, and I know you are not living with my mother.’ After that, I didn’t see him for a while.”
Mark Aguirre has taken a lot of criticism over the years. In Dallas, for whatever reasons, the press hated him so much, that when he was traded to Detroit, one Dallas columnist declared it “the greatest day in Mavericks history.” Aguirre was seen as moody, rude, aloof and lazy — although he has not taken those traits to Detroit. Still, if you are being fair, you must wonder about the people criticizing; you wonder if those people had one mother and one father and one nice roof over their heads when they grew up. It is a difference. It is a problem in sports. It is the gap that separates the American Season-Ticket Holders from so many of their American Sports Heroes. They come together as adults, but they were so different as children, so different in the part of life that forms all the things we are to be.
Home. Living with death
“Right there,” says Aguirre, slowing the car and pointing to a wood-faced building called the Pleasant Green Trinity Church. “See that? The preacher there had a daughter that I was so in love with. Oh, man! I was 11 years old and I’m telling you, this girl was on my mind from the minute I got up in the morning. Her name was Yolanda, and I used to pick dandelions and give them to her. I mean, I was crazy about that girl.
“And then one day, she died. She got sick and died. I snuck down to the funeral, and I went in the church. And I saw her inside the coffin, they had it open, and it just really messed me up. I realized that she was never coming
back. That was it. She was gone forever. With all the stuff that happened in my neighborhood, I never really understood about death until then. It screwed me up for a long time.”
It would not be Aguirre’s only loss. His grandmother, whom he adored, would die a few years later. His mother, Mary, would die of cancer in the mid-’80s. “They taught me so much,” he says now. “My mom really tried to keep me straight. And my grandmother used to tell me, ‘Don’t run to trouble. Run away from trouble.’ “
He stops at a corner grocery on Karlov Street in K-Town, another part of the West Side. The windows are old and the merchandise behind the counter, candy and chips and cold cuts, is protected by glass. This is another place where Aguirre grew up, in the house behind the small grocery, and another group of family is waiting here for him: his Aunt Tiny — “She raised me, too”
— his sister Angela, more uncles, more cousins, more nieces and nephews. Some kids passing by stare at the tall man in the fancy car who is hugging and kissing all these neighbors.
“Hey, Mark Aguirre!” one yells.
Aguirre looks up and smiles.
“Y’all gonna lose to the Bulls!”
Memories are important
Ah, yes. The Bulls. Basketball. The pressure to win Game 3. It is all fans will talk about between now and Saturday, and many will marvel at where the Pistons get their resilience, their will, how they can keep coming back against the odds.
You drive out to an athlete’s roots one day, and you may find an easy answer. You could find it on the streets in Brooklyn, where John Salley and Vinnie Johnson grew up, or in the dusty heat of Natchitoches, La., where Joe Dumars grew up, or here in Chicago, the West Side, where Aguirre and Isiah Thomas used to sneak into Chicago Stadium with the concessions workers to watch the Bulls, the same team — and the same building — they must now defeat to reach their dream of a third NBA title.
“Memories are really important,” Aguirre says, holding two nephews and a niece on his lap. “No one who watches me play will ever know about this. You can take pictures. You can tell stories. But you’ll never know what it was like to grow up here unless you did it. Never.”
He shrugs and we leave him, in the midst of family, all of whom are still here, basking in the glow of their “famous” relative and dreaming of a way out for themselves. Aguirre is right. You never know unless you live it. But you think about growing up and you think about survival and you realize maybe winning a basketball game isn’t really such pressure after all.