Sitting in a den in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the dead cold of a Midwestern winter, I was surrounded by a warm group of fellows — men and women. We were journalists from news organizations across the U.S. and beyond, and the last class of the fading millennium for the Knight-Wallace Fellows at the University of Michigan.
The fireplace inside Wallace House on Oxford Road crackled. We retrieved slices of oak wood from the garage and sat conversing in a place far removed from our own real worlds, drifting on our temporary beds of leisure, like embers over a bed of dancing flames.
That winter afternoon was one of our many non-academic, carefree moments at Wallace House, where the scent of sherry and burning oak was not uncommon. We would soon be traveling to Buenos Aires as part of our fellowship. And I — ghetto-born black boy — was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Feeling perhaps a little like Forrest Gump, I too began sharing some of my journalism experiences: covering Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign for a spell, meeting Muhammad Ali, among others, including Princess Diana. Now this.
“Yeah, right,” one male fellow interjected. “YOU met Princess Diana? Pleazzz. Where does this guy get off? You gotta be kiddin’ me,” he continued, huffing and puffing. “How do you come up with these stories?”
“I did meet her,” I said, stunned. “We even had a conversation…”
“Come on, John,” he scolded. “In your dreams… And I suppose you have pictures to prove it?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I do,” I responded, though quickly deciding that I would never produce a picture to prove anything, and surmising that his disbelief likely had to do with the fact that I am black.
I continued sharing about my time in England. About a season spent looking for work there and stumbling upon a group of mostly thirty-something British men in a town called Uckfield, in East Sussex County. Of our friendship bonded over basketball and more than a few pints of lager. Of nights traveling to one small English countryside town after another in pursuit of a league championship and of our mutual love for an American game.
I told them about Mark, our team captain — balding and using half-time to puff on a cigarette. About Paul, Liam and Dave-the-(dairy) farmer. About the other Dave I called “Shooting-Dave” despite his penchant for inaccuracy.
About Darren, whose face, 25 years later, I can still see, smiling widely beneath his black-frame spectacles as he rolls to the basket, or wearing a hint of foam on his upper lip after sipping a warm pint of Guinness.
I told the fellows about nights amid cobblestone streets and the glow of the castle in Lewes, England, that my new bride and my two adolescent sons came for a season to call home. About how a reserved team of Englishmen, by season’s end, were fast-breaking and slapping high fives American-style. Of the highs and lows over a season.
About how the Uckfield Paragons became more than a motley crew. How we became “press mates.”
Most of the fellows laughed aloud, as if they were seeing the season unfold before their eyes.
“Come on, John, you kill-ll-ll me with your stories…” the doubting fellow piped up again.
“It’s true, man, it’s true,” I said.
“Have you ever thought about writing a book?” another fellow chimed in.
“A book?” quipped another. “I think it would make a great movie.”
I think so too. And I know just where to start: Inside a warm den in Ann Arbor, in the cold dead of a Midwestern winter, staring into a fireplace.
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