When the Jackson Five first released “I’ll Be There,” a tender pop ballad with the teenaged Michael Jackson singing lead in that distinctive falsetto of his, I was playing basketball for Hayward High School. Our team mascot was the Farmers but we weren’t farm boys; we could play. We had big guys who could muscle and jump and quick little guys who could harass the man with the ball and one of the best schoolboy drivers I’ve ever seen and outside shooters who could sink shots when the other team started collapsing on our big guys. League champions and ranked tenth in the state at the end of the 1971 season, we finished with 23 wins against only three losses. Our final loss came in the finals of the Tournament of Champions, then the biggest prep basketball tournament in Northern California, and we were beaten by a Berkeley High team that featured two future professional athletes (6-11 center John Lambert of the Cleveland Cavaliers) and guard Rupert Jones, who played outfield for the Oakland Athletics and other major league baseball teams.
We didn’t have any future pros in our lineup (although current Giants broadcaster Jon Miller graduated from Hayward two years before me), but when you played us, you knew you’d been in a game. We got after people, using a trapping defense similar to a full court press in which we picked up the other team’s guards as soon as they got the ball inbounds after one of our frequent scores. I played guard for the Farmers along with Dave Falkowski, who grew up on Minnie Street in Hayward up the block from me. The Falkowskis were a popular neighborhood hang-out because they had a ping-pong table in their garage. It was a one-car garage but instead of a car they had the table set up for us kids. Mr. Falkowski was an electrician, and crowded along both walls were his tools, sports gear of all kinds, and lots of other stuff. As I recall there may have even been things hanging from the ceiling.
If the ball went off the table to one side or the other, it’d likely hit the wall or something attached to the wall. And if the ball bounced too high, it might hit one of the things on the ceiling. We played with the garage door open, and sometimes during our games the ball would fly outside, down the driveway and roll into the street as if it were trying to make a getaway from the crowded confines of the garage.
Anyhow Dave was a small, quick guy and a terrific athlete (I think he’s a psychiatric nurse now, though I could be wrong) who teamed with me in our trapping half court defense. We played man to man, and it was my job to pick up the other team’s playmaker, the man who handled the ball, and drive him toward the sideline either just before or just after the half court line. You do this by overplaying his dribbling hand, forcing him to go left when he’d really rather go right, or subtly shading his body so that when he goes right, the way he wants to, he thinks he’s in control of his destiny but really he’s running into a trap.
The trap comes when he hits “the corner,” the point where the half court line meets the sideline, and this is when my ping-pong buddy Dave joins me in our mutual harassment society. Dave leaves the man he is guarding so we can double-team the ball. And we’re all over this poor guy, waving our arms, slapping at the ball, trying to get him to do something panicky like throw the ball out of bounds or pull his pivot foot and be whistled for a travel. Many a time we would strip the ball from his hands and take it back to our basket for an easy lay-up (well, supposedly easy. I blew plenty of breakaway lay-ups in my day.)
This was the way it had to happen: me driving the guy into the corner and Dave coming up fast behind us to work the trap. So in the locker room at halftime during a game we’re sitting next to each other talking over this strategy and I’m saying, “Look, I’ll do it. I’ll get him into the corner where he’s supposed to go but you’ve got to be there.”
And Dave looks at me and in the words of Michael, sings: “I’ll be there, I’ll be there. Just call my name, and I’ll be there.”
We walked onto the floor for the second half humming and singing Michael. It was our theme song for the game and as far as I’m concerned it was the theme song for the vaunted Hayward High trapping defense that struck terror in the hearts of every team we faced during that mostly glorious season. And, for the record, Dave Falkowski always was there.
Here is Dave Falkowski in the middle of some defenders, passing to me on the right. Pictured at top, the 1971 Hayward High Farmers Varsity Basketball Team: From left standing, Jay Hughes, Kevin Nelson, Joe Rucker, Jim Langenstein, Frank Volasqis, Mark Cooley, Mark Jackson. Kneeling from left: Calvin Goward, Dave Falkowski, team star Donnie Schroer, Craig Frye, John Forbes. Missing from this picture is the captain of our ship and the architect of the trap, Coach Joe Fuccy.