When I left Chinatown that morning, I never expected to be running for my life.
I'd like to blame the trouble on my pal Barney Young, but the con had been my idea in the first place.
When I was a kid, I'd listened to Grandpa Joe, Barney's grandfather. He said study hard and I'd get ahead. So I got straight As.
My good-for-nothing dad said I was a chump for doing that. But I told him to take a hike. Who listens to a rummy anyway?
It turned out, though, that he was right. The whole world had been deep in the Depression for years--I don't mean the emotional kind. There were no jobs, no money, and stores and factories had closed everywhere. When I graduated from high school in '38, the newspapers were all bragging America was coming out of it, but you could have fooled me. In Chinatown there were fifty guys lined up for any one job.
About the only other thing that Barney and I were good at was basketball, and our teams had torn up the Chinatown tournaments. However, no one knew us outside of Chinatown. Barney's grades had been lousy in Galileo High School, and I'd been kicked off the basketball team in high school after the "incident"--which was fine by me. Who needed some coach telling me how to play basketball? Basketball just is. It's in your guts, not your head.
I figured we could go to playgrounds outside of Chinatown and con some guys into playing for money.
Barney thought it was pretty harebrained--and a little scary too because when Chinese left Chinatown, they never knew what might happen.
So Barney wasn't too crazy about leaving Chinatown, but he was just as desperate as me. We gathered up all the medals and trophies from the Chinatown tournaments and pawned them. Three shelf-loads of honors only got us two bucks, but that was all we needed. Barney cut up some newspaper, and we slapped a dollar on the top and the bottom. That gave us a money roll to tempt the marks into a game.
Then we scooted up to the Italian area above Chinatown called North Beach. Chinese could expect a fight there about 50 percent of the time. But we set up in a school playground anyway. We missed baskets. We lost dribbles.
When these Italian guys came in, they tried to drive us off the court. But we challenged them to a game. On an inspiration, I began to talk in broken English, and Barney picked up his cue and fractured his English too. And we hammed it up like the way Americans thought Chinese acted.
Oh, and that was the beauty of the scam. We couldn't have fooled them if they hadn't already fooled themselves about Chinese in general.
They figured they'd teach us a lesson, so we started to play. We pretended to be awful, so when the money roll "accidentally" fell out of my pocket, the chumps licked their chops and suggested we play for cash.
We took them for five bucks, and once the bet was down, they licked their chops like the cat that ate the canary. One of the jokers even began to hum "China Boy," which had been a popular tune a few years before.
So it was a real pleasure to turn the tables on them. They stuck their arms up high but didn't move them around--which was their idea of defense. Up until that moment, we'd been shooting just like them and like most everyone who played basketball. To do a standard shot, shooters came to a stop, set up, and took their sweet time throwing the ball at the basket. It was a slow, methodical--and boring--process.
"Now?" Barney asked me with a wink.
"Now," I agreed. There was this Italian kid Hank Luisetti, also from North Beach, who had invented a running one-handed shot. His Stanford team had stormed through the big college tournament back east, the Basketball Writers Association Tournament. I'd snuck into a game down on the Farm, as the Stanford campus was called, and fallen in love with that shot at first sight. I'd never seen anyone shoot so fast. It caught most everyone by surprise.
I started to dribble on the run around the boneheads. That sent them scooting backward to take new positions. Then I gave a little jump into the air and whipped the ball up by my right ear, thrusting the ball with my right hand upward and outward. As I rose almost to their height, I could see the ball arcing smoothly toward the basket.
As the ball swished through the net, their jaws dropped open. I guess they never expected me to know or use Hank's shot.
It was a sweet moment when they got this funny look in their eyes and realized they'd been wrong about us. But that only made them madder, because they figured they were taller and could still take us. Height, though, is a disadvantage when you're just plain clumsy, so it was easy to snatch the ball from them.
Barney and I scooted in and out and all around them, like they were mannequins, while we hit basket after basket. Barney could hit Hank's shot too, but he was more accurate with the traditional shooting methods; and that was fine because he could always get into the clear to take his time.
So they starting calling us sly slit-eyes and other rotten names, so I guess we'd moved from one stereotype to another: from bumbling immigrants to cunning Fu Man Chus.
Barney looked worried and whispered to me not to blow my top. When we were little kids, it had been stiffs just like them who had made fun of us in school--pulling up the corners of their eyes so they slanted and making funny singsong noises and then saying rotten things.
Excerpted from Dragon Road by Laurence Yep Copyright © 2008 by Laurence Yep. Excerpted by permission.
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