A Memoir by Mo, a former player nobody knows
THROWBACK THURSDAY Here’s the first chapter of an unpublished memoir about how hard it was to end my career. It starts in Evanston, IL, during the final days of summer 1995. At that time, I sold almost everything I owned, including my car and bed. I slept on the floor by the phone waiting for the call to play ball overseas. It’s only the first chapter in what ends up being a long, glorious story about failure. I seriously could not have tried and failed any harder. The upside is that I don’t think I ever was the same after getting on that plane. The trip to nowhere changed my life so much that I only became comfortable when I was taking on risk and entering a challenging situation filled with discomfort.
In the distance, over the sound of engines decelerating, halting and passing through the stop sign about 50 feet away from my parking spot, I heard a prolonged clatter, a sharp screech, the distinct thunder of the City of Chicago’s elevated train. I wiped my brow with the back of my left hand, then stuffed my collection of soiled rags, paper towels and cleaning agents into my bucket. I looked down at my black and gray sports watch, a purchase I’d made at the pharmacy earlier that spring. From under its scratched frame and a tiny cloud of humidity, my watch indicated that I had five minutes to spare.
I took my last clean paper towel and gave the dashboard of my tan 1990 Honda Hatchback one final swipe. I climbed out of the car, slammed the door shut, and stepped onto the curb of the quiet, tree-lined intersection of Main Street and Michigan Avenue in south Evanston, IL. My eyes turned once, twice again at a mother and daughter—maybe the girl was eight or nine. Both were lanky and blue-eyed. I exhaled, relieved to see that I’d mistaken the pair for the wife and younger daughter of my landlord, whom I had been trying to avoid. I watched mother and daughter walk along the sidewalk, white dresses covering their bathing suits, tan legs in flip-flops, eyes hidden under wide-brimmed hats, extra protection on a sweltering summer afternoon at Lake Michigan, its sandy shores only one block away.
While scrubbing the car, my mind was on my mother, wishing she wasn’t 800 miles away. I’d endure her flak about cleanliness, personal hygiene, and take the blame for something I was not directly responsible for in my mind, as long as I could watch her go to work. She would slip on her yellow plastic gloves, fill a bucket with a potent cleansing cocktail, haul it downstairs. Her 5-foot-10-inch-180 lb. body would swing open the passenger’s side door, hone in on the tan seat, and drown the dead animal out of it.
“I told you, Ma,” I would repeat, as I had during her last brief trip to Evanston when she sat in my car and almost gagged. “It’s not my stink.”
Three months prior—in June 1995—I had signed up to play on a men’s summer league team at the Broadway Armory on Chicago’s North Side. To get on a roster as a newcomer, you had to ask a credible reference—typically a college or high school coach—to call the director of the league on your behalf; if you were accepted, you were expected to show up on open-scrimmage night so that the director could assess your talent and put you on a team. Based on what I’d heard about the league, I was fairly certain I’d be the only female applicant. Knowing that gender may be an issue in spite of having played against men and boys all my life, I filled out the form as Mo Holohan. On the college hoops line, I wrote: Northwestern University. For clarity, I added, “full scholarship”—completely accurate information that would get me past any assumption that I was on an intramural or fraternity team. I faxed it in, and then immediately went to our good-natured assistant men’s basketball coach, Shawn Parrish. Parrish brought me into his office, picked up the phone and called the Armory league director John Hart. Parrish tilted back in his chair and raved about my game, grinning throughout a conversation where pronouns were the equivalent of landmines.
“Let me tell you, John, Mo can really shoot the ball. Mo is a great team player. ShhheeMo…Mo is no shhmo. Mo is tough.”
I showed up at the Armory for the first open-scrimmage dressed in basketball attire and carrying my gym bag. My nerves tight, I went up to Hart and introduced myself as Maureen Holohan.
He cocked his head back and winced.
“Tough?” Hart said. “Let’s see how tough.”
After about an hour of play, Hart approached me. “Well, you are serious about making yourself a better player,” he said. “How ‘bout bringing a little foot speed with you next time?”
It didn’t take me long to see that the league was loaded with a fair number of current or former college ballplayers, all men. Hart put me on a team with a core of Northwestern alums, a jovial, hard-working, and respectful group that had accepted the fact that we, like our Northwestern varsity men’s basketball team, were no powerhouse. I looked at the other end of the court before every game, feeling great relief when I saw at least one scrub within my size range, just under 6-feet, 150 lbs. A rookie point guard on our men’s team at Northwestern found out about our team and joined us for a game, which we thought would be a great boost. Point Guard was a sweet guy, a physically gifted athlete, with a statuesque build and turbo engines attached to his feet. Yet he made lousy shot selections; he sunk about five percent of his attempts from behind the 3-point line; and he smelled like road kill. After our first game, a losing effort, a few of our teammates and I walked out of the gym in a group. Point Guard had done what some young college boys with muscles and good looks do at that age—he took his shirt off after the game. Bare-chested and greasy, he and another Northwestern athlete—a football player who had played on our team that night—asked me for a lift back to campus. I couldn’t say no, nor could I ask him to put on his shirt. In my mind, I was sure that he and his friend would think I was uncomfortable driving through Evanston with two bare-chested, sweaty and ripped black men in my car.
And they would have been absolutely correct. It had nothing to do with the black part. It was the fact that I was simply not that cool. Not even close.
“All you should have told them,” my mother advised me later, “was ‘Hey, Boys, you’re not getting into my car until you show some decency and put your clothes on.’”
Despite my numerous and albeit belated attempts to wipe down and spray the seat, Jack and I were left to suffer. (My comedic high school teammate, Monique “Nickie” Hilton had named my car Jack, back when it was my mother’s car and we drove around our high school in Troy, N.Y. Nickie and my teammates had heard me talk to the other drivers in the same tone as my parents. Easy, Jack. Come on, Jack, let me in. Atta boy, Jack.)
In June 1991, at the end of my freshman year in college, my father had picked me up in our station wagon at the airport in Albany, N.Y. When we got back home to my family’s two-story home in our small village of Wynantskill, neighborhood kids were in the driveway, running and skipping around Jack, a shining used car parked on a perfect angle on our front lawn, big red bow on top. My mother, a red-headed nurse who’d just ended one of her many shifts—this one at the local community college infirmary—stood next to it, wearing a patterned black, pink and blue dress, panty hose hiding the veins in her legs, tan sandals strapped to her size-11 feet.
Hand on her full hip, she beamed. “Look at the plates!” she said.
I looked down and saw, in red lettering: “MOE 33.”
One groan or complaint from me and I knew my mother would storm off, complaining she could never do anything right. Starting around nine years old, when my addiction to sports began, my mother and I often differed in our opinion as to what constituted normal workout and training behavior. She would see me lifting weights in the basement or sprinting in the backyard—my sore knees covered in black and blues from playing all summer—and call out the window, “You’re a masochist” or “You’re going to pay for this someday!”
One of our most memorable clashes occurred that summer, just weeks after my mother gave me her car. At the end of a day of basketball camp, where I’d worked as a counselor, a legendary local high school coach named George Mardigan gave me what he referred to as “the Vest.” If I wanted to dominate on the court, Mardigan told me, I’d train with his special vest, which he threw into my hatchback.
Later, I pulled up at home and parked my car in the driveway, looking over my shoulder to check that no one was out in the neighborhood. I lugged the vest out of my trunk, hauling on it as if it was a dead body. I put it on and started a slow jog in front of our house, a flat, gravel-covered surface. Sand started leaking out of a hole, and running down the inside of my right leg. A leak sprung up on my backside, and I felt a trickle of gravel ran over my left butt cheek and down my side. About 20 minutes later, my mother came whipping up the street in front of me in her new car. She slammed on the brakes and stopped the car in front of me. I continued to wince and pant while stuck in my forward lean, as if I were a horse pulling a cart.
With her clenched, voice low and stern, my mother stuck her head out of the window and said, “Take it off now and get in the house.”
I ran around her car, determined to finish my workout, having no time or energy to speak let alone argue.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
“It’s called exercise, Ma.”
“No, it’s called scaring the neighbors.”
It wasn’t as if my mother was ever actually opposed to her daughters playing sports. She changed her shifts around just so she could make as many games as she could, where she sat in the stands and screamed, “Gooooo! That’s it, that’s it! NOOOOOOO! Come on, girls! Get it together!” My sister and I both agreed our least favorite cheer was when our mother hollered her most passionate war-cry: “WHOOOOO-HOOOOO!” My mother was the daughter of a quiet, simple farmer who’d been responsible for raising his brothers and sisters when both of his Ukranian parents died when he was 13. Her mother, Grace, was a department store clerk, a tough Irish woman who took pride in her ability to consume and hold more alcohol than most men. Their eldest daughter was allowed to play basketball when she was in school, but it was back when girls played a restricted version of the full-court game. Girls at St. Bridget’s School in Watervliet, N.Y., like those at most schools up until the 1970s, played three-on-three on each side, and were not allowed to cross half court during a game. My mother said she played mostly defense, up until eighth grade, when school officials said that the gym was only for the boys’ basketball team. I was shocked and angry when I found out that nuns and teachers at the time believed that they believed participating in such rigorous activity would cause a girl to blow a lung or drop a reproductive organ.
And there I was in June of 1991, having completed my first year of college on a full athletic scholarship, with my basketball nickname and jersey number on the license plate of my first car, standing with my smiling mother, who never had a chance to wear a sports uniform. Instead of being thankful for all the shifts she would have to work to pay my payments and insurance, I was worrying about what people would think when they saw my custom plates. I was sure they would believe that I had bought them myself, that I was one of those athletes who talks about himself in the third person.
“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” I said, forcing myself to smile. “Thank you, Ma.”
Our hug lasted no more than two seconds, and ended with my mother’s quick peck on my cheek.
As a final, necessary touch, I opened a new deodorizer, a yellow tree, French vanilla scent, hung it from my rear-view mirror. I looked up Main Street and saw an Asian couple walking toward me.
Xiou, a new graduate student who stood about five-foot-seven, wore a plain white T-shirt and baggy dark brown shorts. He gave me a warm smile and shook my hand. His girlfriend, a petite willowy woman, dressed in a white-T-shirt and long navy dress, stood five feet behind him. I peeked around his shoulder and smiled at her, and her eyes acknowledged mine, but she did not smile. Xiou circled the car, staring pensively at my sparkling hatchback.
“Why are you selling it?” he asked.
“I’m going overseas,” I said.
“What do you do?”
“I’m going to play professional basketball.”
His girlfriend turned toward me.
“Where?” Xiou asked.
“When are you leaving?” John asked.
“Well, the agent called two days ago and told me to be ready to go any day.”
“Do you get paid to play basketball?”
“Yes,” I said, mildly offended.
“Well, I am not sure,” I said. “I think it can range from $1,000-$4,000 per month, tax-free. I’ve been told teams usually pay for your apartment and meals and sometimes give you a car to use.”
“Why is there no league in the United States?”
“There have been a bunch in the past, but they’ve folded. I was just in one this past summer, but it was semi-pro. We won the national championship.”
“Wow,” he said with a smile. “How much did you get paid?”
“Fifty dollars a game.”
Xiou looked at me, then back at the car, probably thinking that all he would have to do was throw a few bills on the lawn, and while I was diving to get them, he and his girlfriend could jump into the car and drive away.
I was still talking basketball, however. When anyone asked about the women’s game—from the ardent supporters to the snickering souls—almost always men—I’d always insisted that a professional league seemed likely.
“There are rumors about a pro league starting here soon,” I told Xiou, “but until it does, women have to go overseas to play.”
He reached for the handle, opened the door and sat on the driver’s side. He said he wanted to give the car a try, so I squeezed into the backseat. Girlfriend got into the front seat and snapped on her seatbelt.
“Are you sure you know how to drive a stick?” I asked Xiou.
Xiou laughed and turned the ignition.
Jack bucked, then quit.
“Try the clutch this time,” I said.
He chuckled, pressed the clutch, and started the engine. He yanked on the stick shift, grinding the gears once, then twice, before he somehow he managed to rock his way onto the street. The car stalled. I tipped my head back, stared at the ceiling and reviewed how I’d gotten to this point in my life. I’d graduated from college in May, but I refused to put any effort into a job as a print journalist, despite my degree, connections and Hearst Journalism award from arguably the best school of journalism in the country. Four weeks prior, when I’d gone home to say goodbye, headed to a country that was still undetermined, I received a message from Natalie Perrino, one of my teammates from the semi-pro Chicago Twisters. She told my mother over the phone that the new head coach at Loyola University was going to offer me the job of second assistant.
“It pays forty-thousand dollars plus benefits!” my mother told me.
“No, Ma, I can’t,” I said. “I’m not going to coach, I’m not going to work in an office. I’m not going to stop playing basketball, not yet.”
She thought I was being ridiculous. My paycheck in my first year of coaching would exceed hers, after working double shifts as a nurse. I was sorry that when she was a teenager, it was assumed that girls would spin the wheel and pick one of three occupations: school teacher, nurse, housewife. I was sorry that her alcoholic mother was so bitter and cold, and that my mother did not have basketball as her refuge. But I wasn’t going to change my mind. I went up to her bedroom so that I could call the head coach back in private, and respectfully decline.
Staring back at her as if I’d bite off her ear, I watched her soft, Irish blue eyes lower, then with a sigh, a shake of her head, she turned, stepped outside the ring and left the room.
Later that evening, when I went to my room to change for my second workout of the day, I saw two packs of underwear and five boxes of tampons on my bed.
“Ma,” I said. “There are enough tampons here for an entire team.”
“They don’t make them over there.”
“Ma…They make tampons in Europe.”
“No, they don’t!”
“How would you know?”
There was a pause.
“Well, if they do, don’t use theirs.”
Pack bags, sell car, be ready to go. These were the words spoke to me over the phone by a Greek sports agent named Andreas Popodopolous. One other agent had contacted me earlier that summer. The agent, based out of somewhere in Pennsylvania, told me he found the perfect spot for me on a team in Belgium. He called back the next day to say, “Sorry, they gave it to a Russian because they can get them for real cheap.”
Popodopolous represented two players I’d known, including Bolivia Thompson, our starting center on the Chicago Twisters, which was one of nine teams in the Women’s Basketball League. Bo and her husband, Bobby, were the people who put me in touch with Popodopolous. I sent him my game tapes and resume per his request, but apparently they were lost in the mail, so I had to send them later in the summer, after most coaches had already made their decisions. My savings were down to maybe $700 or so, and I still had bills to pay before I left. Popodopolous’s instructions to sell my car and get ready to jump on a plane came at the end of the first week of August. I thought it was perfect timing because I had to be out of my apartment by September 1, and playing basketball was my only plan. If it fell through, I had no back-up.
Within minutes, having taken the check and run it up to my apartment, I was out on the street, signing over the title while Xiou removed the plates. After a little haggling, Xiou agreed to pay me $1,000 for my car. I stood on the street in front of the home of my landlords, Dean and Nancy Dickie. Mr. Dickie, a former Northwestern football player turned prolific litigation attorney, took great pride in their 11,000 square foot turn-of-the-century gothic home, its exterior covered in a mix of brick and stone, its interior comprised of four floors, seven bedrooms, six working fire places, an orchestra stage and ball room. I looked up at it and all its windows, hoping that no one was inside, witnessing what was going on out front. In my mind, Mr. Dickie, a firm believer in getting a real job and doing time as an apprentice, could not find out that I’d sold my car for a pursuit he considered nothing but a waste of time and energy.
“Are you going to keep the plates?” I asked Xiou.
I shook my head. “I talked to someone at DMV,” I explained, “and they told me that there was a fee if you don’t mail them in or drop them off.”
We exchanged the plates for the paperwork and shook hands. Just before Xiou pulled out of the parking spot, his girlfriend pointed up to the visor over his head on the driver’s side. I walked over to the car and Xiou handed me a tarnished silver medallion though the window.
It was my mother’s St. Christopher’s Medal. Her father had given it her when she started driving, and she told me to never drive my car without it. I held the medal in my left hand, my MO 33 license plates in my right. I looked at the plates, and for the first time in my life, I was grateful for my mother’s gift.
Meanwhile, Xiou and his girlfriend, had stalled at the stop sign, and were trying to get started again. My car cried out one last time to be saved, but I could not look. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my Jack, my old Honda Civic Hatchback, kick into gear, turn right, zip up Main Street, and then out of my life for good.
I sighed, mourning my loss for one breath. In the next, I told myself move on. In two, three days tops, I’d be out of the country and on my way to play pro ball in Greece. I’d be leaving right around the time that Xiou and his girlfriend would open their car doors, wave their hands in front of their noses, and realize they had no other option but to get into the car they’d purchased, even if it smelled like a dead skunk.