“The year was 1957. Columbia High was played Union High for the District title and the chance to go to the state tournament. There were twelve seconds left and the score was tied 65 all. Bucky Richardson passes me the ball. I run toward the hoop and leap in the air. The ball dances around the rim and then, whoosh! It falls in! Columbia high wins! I am mobbed by my teammates as they rush from the bench and soon Columbia fans are rushing from the bleachers.”
I had heard my grandpa tell this tale every Thanksgiving since I could remember. There were often variations in this story. In one version a Columbia cheerleader fights through the mob and plants a fat, wet kiss square on his lips. In another, she jumps into his arms while her cheerleading skirt flies everywhere.
When I was kid we would all go outside to the driveway and play a simulated reenactment of the famous game. Grandpa and all the kids would participate. I was a klutz, so I didn’t do much more than stand around. One year I did get to be pretend to be Bucky Richardson, the teammate who passed the ball to Grandpa for that winning shot.
When I was about fourteen, I asked my dad during the car ride home why making that winning shot in a high school basketball game so many years ago meant so much to my grandpa.
“I really don’t know, Son. Maybe because he feels like that was a highlight and his life afterward was a disappointment.”
My dad didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask any more questions. To me, my grandpa was not a disappointment at all. He was a really cool guy who liked Marvel movies and watching Rockies games. The grandkids all loved him. He made time for all of us when other adults did not.
“Okay, yeah. Sure Dad,” was all I could say.
I was in high school when my grandpa’s health began to fail. By the time I finished college his dementia had progressed and he was in an assisted living residence.
He would tell the Winning Shot story to his nurses over and over. Sometimes he would add details about going to the championship game in Philly but losing in the last minutes to Overbrook High.
I was twenty-three the last time I saw my grandpa. I had just gotten a new job in Chicago and was moving there with my girlfriend, Brooke. By this time, Grandpa’s mind was throughly entrenched in the past.
“After I made that shot, all the colleges wanted me you know. I was offered a scholarship to Notre Dame. But the folks needed the money so I went to
work in the mill. Then Mimi and I
moved out here to Colorado when the mill closed in ‘78.”
He went on like that for a while and then started to get agitated. Brooke went to find a nurse who kindly asked us to leave. Apparently something I’d said or done had upset him.
“It should have been me, Bucky not you. I should have been the one to make that shot. Instead, you had to be a selfish ball-hog. You were never a team player, Bucky Richardson.”
My grandfather was looking at me with fury.
He thought I was his old teammate, Bucky Richardson.
My grandpa passed only weeks later. Brooke and I were settling to our new place, eating take out Sushi while sitting on the floor. We didn’t have a stick of furniture yet.
When my phone rang I was tempted to ignore it. I knew the news about Grandpa was coming, and I was trying to prolong as long as possible.
It turned out to be my mom with the news. He had gone peacefully and without pain. It was funny how death can be expected yet is always unexpected. I cried with Brooke that night and we downed several bottles of cheap wine.
Brooke went on line the next morning and booked our flights to Colorado. I was in no shape to do it.
On the flight, an idea began to germinate in my head. Maybe we could find something to commemorate my grandpa’s famous shot. There had to be a trophy, a plaque or a photo somewhere.
Brooke and I went to the attic while the rest of the family was at the funeral home making grandpa’s arrangement. My dad had said there was a trunk up there with a lot of my grandpa’s stuff.
We found wedding photos in the trunk and photos of my dad and his siblings when they were babies. There a few high school yearbooks too. My grandpa was in a few pictures. He’d been a skinny nerd like me. He had been on the basketball team. But he’d played Junior Varsity most of the time.
Then I found the faded newspaper. The Columbia Cryer from March 12, 1957
Columbia High Wins District Title
Richardson Makes Winning Shot
I was torn when my father asked me to give my grandpa’s eulogy. I wanted to tell everyone that he was a damn liar and he’d been lying for years. He’d played in the game as a sub, but hadn’t scored a point. Bucky Richardson had been the hero. It had been Bucky who got mobbed by teammates and fans. Bucky was the one who had the girl jumping into his arms and kissing him.
My grandfather hadn’t been offered a scholarship to Notre Dame or anywhere else. My grandfather was a complete fraud.
Then I remembered how much that story meant to him. Somewhere along the way, he’d started to believe it had actually happened.
So, when I eulogized my grandpa I talked about what a great guy he was. Then I launched into the story.
“The year was 1957. Columbia High was playing Union High for the District title and the chance to go to the state tournament in Philadelphia. There were twelve seconds left and the score was tied 65 all....“