I put the equipment away from my fitness class in the old gym, seldom used now except for my class. I spied a lone basketball under the bleachers. I bounced it across the silent hardwood and imagined what it was like when this gym was full of people, cheering themselves hoarse. I closed my eyes and called up a time when the crowd shouted for one player in particular, a brown skinned boy who ran faster than a rabbit.
Manny was born to run. He ran everywhere, down caliche roads, through pastures, to school, home from school- it didn't matter. The boy was built for speed. He earned the nickname El Conejo, the rabbit, from the older folks, who wondered why in the world he had to be in such a hurry.
Manny's school was small. There was one school for the brown skinned, Mexican American kids like him, and another school for the white kids who lived nearby. Those schools stood on the same lot, but Manny's school ended at the 8th grade. Most Mexican American kids didn't go to school beyond that. There was just one high school for the district, but the school officials made it clear they didn't want Mexican American boys and girls going there. There was another high school, 30 miles distant, for students of color. They could go there, but they'd have to find their own transportation or a family to board with. For most of the kids like Manny, it was easier just to get a job and start working.
One day towards the end of his 8th grade year the new high school coach saw Manny zip past after school and literally rubbed his eyes to make sure this kid was actually as fast as what his brain told him. Manny's speed filled the coach with a vision of a winning basketball team, something the district hadn't had in many years.
In Manny and in some of his athletic, brown skinned friends, the coach saw a chance to bring the glory days of sports back to the district, bring some pride back to the community.
It was a hard sell, but the school board eventually agreed, for the sake of the sports program, to allow those students in, IF they upheld high grades, didn't pose any moral problems, and actually helped the basketball team win. Manny's father had his private concerns about how his son would be treated, as did the fathers of the other two boys, but they kept them to themselves when they saw how excited their sons were to play ball.
A few of the teachers were rough on the boys, thinly disguising their contempt that these boys were now in the classrooms that had been the domain of the white kids. On the basketball court, though, Manny reigned. Barely 5'6", his speed, agility, and dexterity made him a point guard other schools longed for when he ripped their defenses to shreds. His two brown skinned friends also proved their worth on the court, and soon skin color was not even thought of anymore.
Manny's senior year saw his team claw their way to the district championship game. The gym was packed and even more people stood outside the tall gym windows, some stretching up on chairs, trying to get a view. It came down to the final 22 seconds. The other team was ahead by one when the ball was inbounded to Manny. His coach had already warned him the other team would try to foul him.
Mexican Americans and whites alike chanted, "El Conejo, El Conejo" as he he worked to take the ball the length of the court. He twirled, sidestepped, and feinted to avoid the reaching hands that slapped desperately to strip him of the ball, to foul him. His speed was too much and he was alone at his end of the court when he gently laid the ball in. It circled the rim once and dropped through. The crowd was only quiet for a split second before it exploded in a frenzy of noise and celebration.
Manny graduated from high school the same year the U.S. entered into war in Korea. He was quick to enlist. A few short months removed from the dusty fields of South Texas found Manny with a squad of seasoned soldiers. They had orders to take a hill held by the insurgents.
It wasn't long before the squad leader and the men knew they'd been lured into a crafty trap, an ambush. Their small force was no match against the larger numbers of the entrenched Communists. Manny's squad was pinned down in a small outcropping of rocks halfway up the hill. If they could take out the enemy machine gunner's nest that stood between them and the top of the hill, they might stand a chance. One thing was sure. To stay where they were would mean certain death or capture.
The squad leader ached inside as he outlined his plan to the men. One man would make a run for the top, under the covering fire of his fellow soldiers. He would lob a grenade into the nest, keep running to a stand of trees for cover, and when the grenade did its work, the squad would move forward and take the top of the hill.
Who would that one man be, for it was almost surely a suicide mission. The squad leader didn't have to make the choice. Manny volunteered. The squad leader later said he'd never met a braver man.
With a deep breath, Manny was off. His buddies worked feverishly, providing cover fire and more than one prayer for him.
The North Korean machine gunner got him in his sights almost immediately, but try as he might, he couldn't keep him there. This American was like a crazed person, darting first this way, and then ducking that way.
Manny zigged and zagged just like his days on the courts, only now it was a grenade he was handling instead of a basketball. One of his squad members, invigorated at Manny's show of speed and agility, yelled at the top of his lungs, "El Conejo!" The others took up the cry as they struggled to keep their buddy safe.
Manny neared the machine gunner's nest, bullets ripping the ground around him. His powerful legs pumped like pistons as he pulled the pin on the grenade. He laid it almost gently into the nest as he sped past. It dropped through and for a split second all the noise on the hillside quieted. It erupted again in a fury as the grenade did its work.
Manny was already sprinting for the trees. He was just 20 yards from them when a bullet tore through his spine.
He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart posthumously. His family took some consolation that in his death, he saved the lives of his squad members.
With my eyes still closed, I took a deep breath on that basketball court. Those long ago voices still roared. "El Conejo, El Conejo!"