Acid Heroes

February 18, 2014

1986 to 1993

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1986 to 1993 was a pretty good period for me. I got a big break in 1986 when the Daily Californian hired me to do 20 comic strips a month, at $200 a month. And I was already doing a monthly sex comic for a San Francisco porn tabloid for $100 a month. So that gave me a steady $300 every month, so I was able to quit my bike messenger job and work full-time as a cartoonist.  Which had always been a dream of mine.  At the end of every month I’d xerox off a big batch of my month’s worth of comics — about 50 sets — and send them out in the mail to any newspaper, magazine or comicbook that might buy them. And for the next 8 years, my career (so-called) as a freelance cartoonist kept building.

At first I couldn’t believe my luck. I was almost gleeful every night as I sat down at my drawingboard (actually it was just a cheap table in my kitchen). I actually got paid money to spew forth whatever madness came out of my pointy li’l head, and then it was disseminated to the public at large. I often thought; “I should be paying them!”  It was like printing up money.  Every time I drew a goofy picture on a piece of paper I got another 20 dollar bill!

To counter-balance the overly mental and head-tripping aspect of cartooning (basically you just sit on your ass by yourself for hours at a stretch) I got into the habit of going over to the basketball courts at Ohlone Park every afternoon.  Often we’d play non-stop,  late into the night.  When it got dark we just turned the main streetlight on and played for hours more, often until 9 or 10 o’clock at night.  I became a well-known neighborhood figure as  The Guy Who Was Always Out There On the Courts Playing Basketball.

Most of the hoopers were black guys.  But there were always a couple of white guys and hispanic guys and mixed-race-guys-of-no-particular-race guys, too.  And those were some of the best days of my life.  Running up and down those courts for hours and hours every afternoon.  I was in my 30s and in the best shape of my life.  I thought it would never stop.

Over the years I picked up a series of nicknames from the other guys.  First they started calling me “Jesus.”  Then “John Lennon.”  Then “Charles Manson.”  And even “Willie Nelson.” What the hell, I guess I looked like any white guy with long hair and a beard.  But finally they settled on calling me “Kurt Rambis,” after the token white guy with glasses that played for the Los Angeles Lakers (this was during the period of Magic and Bird, and Michael was just coming up).  (Speaking of which, I always considered Magic Johnson the best basketball I’ve ever seen.  At least one notch ahead of Michael Jordan.  Its true Michael has 6 rings to Magic’s 5.  But Magic missed some of his prime years because of the AIDS thing.).

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Oddly (or maybe not) the “race” thing was rarely mentioned during all those years of running with the brothers.  We rarely talked about it directly.  I mean, every now and then somebody would make the obligatory “white guys can’t jump” crack.  And I’d respond by saying “Yeah, but I sho’ can dance!”  Tit for tat.  But that was about it.   And I don’t think it was specifically because of the race thing.  But because we rarely talked about ANYTHING about our backgrounds.  Our adult jobs and marriages and rent-situations and all that (this one guy, Lester, who was famous for calling ticky-tack fouls, I didn’t find out until years later he was actually a cop — figures!) I think because there was something almost sacred about the basketball court.  It was one of our few respites from the adult world, and we treasured it for that reason.  It was the one place where we could be kids again.  After all, most of us had been playing hoops since we were little  kids.  And basketball was one of our few links to the golden innocence of our youth.  In a way it reminded me of the Marlon Brando movie “Last Tango in Paris.”  Brando meets this woman, this total stranger, and they embark on this feverish sex affair.  They rent out this seedy apartment and they make a pact  to never tell each other anything about the rest of their lives — their real names, their real jobs, etc.  And that seedy apartment becomes this little bubble  — this little fantasy land  —  where they can escape from their adult responsibilities (of course Brando blows it in the end by falling in love with the chick and telling her his real name and spoiling the whole fantasy gig, and so the chick had no choice but to shoot Brando dead: the end).   I think that’s why we guarded from keeping the adult world separate from our lives on the b-ball courts.  The playground was a magical, fantasy realm.

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A couple of the guys I became really fond of. One was named Reggie, this young guy with a square, flat-top hairdo, shaved at the sides and one earring and a gold tooth.  Reggie was incredibly fiery and passionate about basketball. And he screamed and argued about every call.  He HATED to lose.  Sometimes he’d get so pissed at a bad call, he’d kick the basketball straight in the air, 50 feet high.  But playing with Reggie made the games more exciting because he played so hard and competitively.  It amped up the intensity.  Reggie was a point guard/shooting guard.  And I loved to run the fastbreak with him, with me on the wing.  “LETS PUSH IT, RAMBIS!”  Reggie would shout, and we were off and running and gunning. Always plenty of high-fives.

Another guy I really liked was Chet.  Chet was in his mid-40s, usually the oldest guy out there.  He was a house-painter by trade, and usually came to the court in his white overalls splattered with paint.  Chet just liked to trot up and down the courts and break a sweat and try to burn off the first signs of middle-aged paunch.  Chet was a sad-eyed guy with a soft-spoken baritone.  He’d come up during the Civil Rights period.  And he often looked at the younger black guys with sort of a distainful, but loving, bemusement.  He’d look at them out of the corner of his eye with a look that said:  “These youngsters nowadays!  Sheesh!  Whattaya’ gonna’ do?”      Most of the other guys were of what I guess you could call the beginning of the Hip Hop generation.  And me and Chet (as the two oldsters) often found we had more in common with each other than with the other hoopers.  We talked the same language and had the same references (Rick Barry, Bill Russell, Motown, Beatles, etc).  Chet and I had a running joke between us, spoken with mock-horror:  “These kids nowadays have never heard of Oscar Robertson, the Big O!”

One odd thing, after years of hanging on the basketball courts, I’d find myself start talking like the black guys.  Using the same rhythms and slangs.  I made a conscious effort to try to not do that.  Because I was afraid it sounded phony.  Ya’ know?  The white guy trying to act black.  But it was almost impossible to resist.  And to this day I can instantly tell a white person who was raised in a black neighborhood because they have the same speech patterns.

Often the games got heated.  But only once or twice did it break out into real violence.  This guy said something to this other guy, something like “Your mother’s a trick!”  And I never saw anything like it.  The guy jumped on the other guy and he was like a whirling dervish, this relentless stinging bee.  They were bouncing and buzzing all over the court until we finally separated them.

But mostly it was just pure basketball. The greatest game in the world.   Basketball is sort of like macho ballet.  Its the perfect combination of brute power mixed with agility.  A very physical thing.  Bodies pounding up against each other, drenched in sweat.  And the teamwork aspect makes it a thing of beauty.  Nothing thrills me more than a beautiful pass.  The great coach  Phil Jackson used to hold up his hand and say:  “Five fingers.”  Then he’d clench his hand.  “But together we’re a fist!”    As great as one player is, even Michael Jordan couldn’t win a championship until he perfectly melded with his teammates.  “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM,”  Jackson used to tell him.  (To which wise-ass Jordan always responded “But there is an  ‘I’ in WIN.”)

Anyways, after running on the courts for 4 or 5 hours, I’d stagger home, soaked with sweat.  Take a quick shower, dinner, and then turn on the TV and start firing up the coffee. Trying to come up with comic strip ideas.  Usually I wouldn’t sit down at the drawingboard (excuse me, kitchen table) until around midnight.  And I’d sit there drawing away late into the night, usually with Letterman on for background noise, or some other late-night TV fare.  It wasn’t a bad life, really.  Basketball during the day, and cartooning during the night.

But alas, after about 7 or 8 years even my dream job as a cartoonist started to become a drag.  I guess its like anything.  You do it long enough and it becomes work.  A chore.  I found it harder and hard to force myself to sit at the drawingboard.  I’d find every excuse to avoid it.

The sex comic for the porno paper was a particular drag.  I’d been hacking it out for nearly 15 years and I’d completely exhausted just about everything I had to say on the subject of sex (you know you’re in trouble when even sex becomes boring).   Usually I’d procrastinate until the last day before the deadline.  Then I’d pull an all-nighter, drinking endless cups of coffee, finally finishing it at around 6 in the morning.  Then I’d hop on BART and hand-deliver it to the offices of the porn paper in San Francisco, minutes before they were talking the paper to the printer.  The strip was a porno parody of Ripley’s Believe It or Not” that I called “Sexley’s Believe It or Nuts!” (oh the cleverness).  But finally I had to quit doing it because the lawyers at Ripley’s were threatening to sue me for violating their copyrighted trademark or some legal shit.  But for once I was almost grateful to the bastard lawyers for putting the thing out of its misery because, frankly, I was sick to death of the thing. (Though I felt bad for the guys at High Times magazine.  They had just printed up a whole bunch of comicbooks which prominently featured my Sexley’s comic and they had to shit-can the whole press run.)

I was also starting to get heavily into drugs around 1993. One of my Achille’s Heels, alas.  I remember one of the last times I made the scene at the b-ball courts. I was tripping on acid at the time.  And I remember that game distinctly.  Usually we played to 11 — first one to 11 points wins, but you got to win by 2 points.  This game was one of those quadruple-overtime classics.  It kept going back and forth.  The final score was something like 21 to 19.  And when somebody on the other team finally hit the winning basket I broke out into tears.   It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen and I was crying tears of joy right there in the middle of the court.    I didn’t even care that my team had lost the game.  Drugs really do turn you into an idiot.

And then around that time the Rodney King riots broke out.  And the O. J. Simpson tragedy would follow shortly after.  And it was like things were never quite the same after that.  I remember the night of the Rodney King riots.  I was walking up Bancroft near Telegraph.  And I spotted James — one of my longtime hooper buddies — and a bunch of his  friends walking towards me real fast.  I called out hello to James as he approached me, but he passed by me without saying anything, with a hard look on his face.  And his friends rushed off to do whatever they were gonna do that night;  voice their disapproval over the Rodney King verdict, and etc.   And it was like symbolic in a way.  Symbolic of the end of that period of my life.

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4 Comments »

  1. That was beautiful Ace. I never knew you shared my urban basketball experiences. basketball got me through life growing up on the asouth aside of achicsgo and in my post college hears in New a york City 1985-91. I was a rather good outdoor basketball game and was treated fairly and rather well liked by most Blacks, up until urban America basically collapsed in to a black criminal anarchy in the early 1990s under crack cocaine. I used to defend Black Urban American things up through ~ OJ Simpson trial and Rodney King Riots, hell virtually every day in New a york a city 19991 was like the Rodney King riot. Then I just turned against Black criminal, underclass culture – didn’t even follow basketball much after that. I took up tennis. Ace have you ever been good at tennis?

    Comment by Jack ryan — March 8, 2014 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

    • Never played tennis much. Was only average at basketball. Never developed a consistent outside shot. But I was a good passer. Always played “team ball” so I was always in demand (me on the team meant more shots for all the ball-hogs). And I loved to run the fast break. Playing with guys my size (6 foot) I was an excellent rebounder and shot blocker.And I had a good knack for picking up garbage around the basket.

      But yeah, after Rodney King and O.J. it was never the same. I had hopes that Obama’s election might make things better. But things just seem to get worse and worse as far as I can tell.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — March 9, 2014 @ 1:38 am | Reply

  2. I invented basketball along time ago, along with Rodney the king. I invented all sports.

    Comment by Head for the hills — March 31, 2014 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  3. Its embarrassing to admit — since I pride myself on my hoops knowledge. But one of my readers pointed out that Michael and the Bulls beat Magic and the Lakers in the Finals. I believe it was Magic’s last trip to the Finals. I still say Magic was better than Michael.

    Comment by Ace Backwords — August 19, 2014 @ 3:34 am | Reply


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