Sutherlands versus Gluttons Michael Don
“Glutton,” I greet Simon as he climbs out of his rental car. I give him a crisp bounce pass and the basketball makes that nice smacking sound when he catches it.
“Glutton!” he replies, palming the ball and reaching for the sky.
We hold back smiles until we can’t at which point we allow ourselves a little laugh, topped off by a high-five and then a one-armed hug.
He’s driven four hours from New York to central Pennsylvania to hang out for the weekend, meet my six-week-old daughter, and play as many rounds of Sutherlands versus Gluttons as time and weather permit.
We’ve been friends since the first hour of kindergarten.
We’ve been Simon and Michael, a two-person clique, since elementary school.
We’ve been the Sutherlands and Gluttons since senior year of high school.
We enter my rental town house a few miles from Penn State where I’m teaching a million first-year writing classes for $33,000 a year. We rented the place sight unseen, so the day we moved in, peering out one of the bedroom windows, I was delighted to feast my eyes on a full-length basketball court attached to the nearby middle school.
Simon gives my daughter a warm greeting and she immediately smiles.
Out on the court we warm up. We start with layups and take increasingly longer shots. We catch up on life, referring to each other as Sutherland, and then we make a certain exaggerated eye-contact with a raised brow that means we’re ready to prepare the stopwatch and migrate to half court.
* * *
As freshmen at our affluent high school in suburban St. Louis in the late nineties, Simon and I avoided the cafeteria. We had an open campus policy, which meant during lunch we could walk a half-mile to Subway, smoke under the smoking tree, or shoot around at the gym. We never smoked and only occasionally went for a spicy Italian sub.
When we showed up Freshman year, lunchtime was different. The friends with whom Simon and I sat in middle school were part of the Desegregation Program, which bussed city kids to our white suburban school district. I don’t remember being told by these friends that they wouldn’t make the transition to high school with us. Perhaps I chose to forget this reality over summer break.
Even after we had access to a car, we still mostly stayed on campus. Perhaps we were just horsing around, trying all kinds of funny trick shots like we were the Globetrotters and then maybe Simon made a half-court shot. And then maybe I made a half-court shot and we got excited and decided to make a game of it. Then came the rules. In high school we’d become rule breakers; we pulled all kinds of harmless pranks, but when it came to the many games we invented, our games, we loved rules. Our rules were not just necessary but sacred:
- Fifteen minutes on the clock.
- We alternate shots.
- All shots must be taken from behind half court.
- When we announce how many shots we’ve made before taking a new shot, we must give credit for all made shots to both Sutherlands. “Sutherlands have five. Five a piece for the Sutherlands.” We never keep track of how many shots each individual Sutherland makes. If one makes eight and the other makes two, during our postgame debriefing, we will agree that we just didn’t have it that day, even though eight made shots by an individual is an above average performance.
Because we weren’t competing against each other, the Sutherlands needed competition, so at some point we gave birth to the Gluttons. I imagine we liked the way the word glutton sounded. We amused ourselves with language. Before we invented Sutherlands versus Gluttons, we would dribble the ball around the basketball court addressing an imagined audience as “folks,” spewing jokes about the mundanity of our lives, occasionally stopping to take an actual shot. We may have also enjoyed the irony of the name, as we were skipping lunch to be the Gluttons.
When I ask Simon about how we arrived at the Gluttons—his memory records and retains everything—it turns out there was a concrete event attached to the Gluttons’ origin story. We had been at a Chinese buffet stuffing our faces with sesame chicken and egg rolls and Mongolian beef for two hours. Then, we came up with the most sensible idea: take the seven plates of greasy food sloshing around in our stomachs and go run around a basketball court. Thus, the Gluttons were born.
What allured us to Jason Sutherland is a more difficult question to answer. Jason Sutherland was not a national star. He wasn’t even a star at the University of Missouri. He was known for his hustle and gritty play, a far cry from the nonsense game we made of taking uncontested half-court shots. We had always been drawn to underdog players and underdog teams, those a little more on the margins, perhaps similar to our idiosyncratic two-person clique.
* * *
Over the years I’ve moved many times and we’ve played on many courts, inside and out, full courts and half, almost always in street clothes. The court we play on in Pennsylvania is sloping, the backboard rattles and the double rim doesn’t give an ounce of love. Yet, the Sutherlands manage to make 10 shots and the Gluttons rally for 13, only 5 shy of tying the all-time record.
Chasing down long rebounds and air balls then firing the ball to Simon as rapidly as possible so we can maximize the number of shots we take, is more tiring than it used to be. The next day we go at it again, but our arms are sore, and a brisk wind is whipping around, stinging our cheeks. Despite a poor performance, I want to keep playing the game. I half-jokingly suggest we do another round the next morning before Simon hits the road. We both chuckle a little, a wouldn’t-that-be-nice chuckle, knowing that Simon needs to get back for work and I need to get back to parenting and grading hundreds of papers.
* * *
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been shot through space and time, unable to take a moment to take stock of what’s happened over the last year or two or ten—unable to reflect, mourn, appreciate—because time keeps shooting me forward. Sutherlands versus Gluttons, perhaps more than anything, helps me slow down and feel connected to a previous self. A self that could create such a playful and whimsical game. A self that could sleep without grinding his teeth. My daughter, now four-years-old, creates new games almost every day. There’s the one where she pretends her toy horse is a delivery truck and she delivers diapers and formula to babies. The one where she’s a stuffy who comes alive in the middle of the night and flails about, waking up her human family members. There’s Tickle Monster and Scratchy Bear and General Store and everything else. All her games feature their own absurd rules and logic. Parents with older children always tell me: enjoy it now, it goes so fast, these are the best times. I don’t actually want to freeze time, but I do want to freeze my daughter’s uninhibited style of play, her reckless abandon.