For basketball fans my age, the words “he’s on fire” carry a special meaning. NBA Jam came out 20 years ago, in 1993, when I was twelve years old. The arcade game quickly became a cultural touchstone, and by far its most memorable contribution to the American lexicon were those three words, spoken in the canned electronic voice of the announcer when a player had hit three shots in a row. From that point, until the other team scored, that player’s shots never missed, literally leaving behind them a wake of fire and smoke.
“He’s on fire” became what we said anytime someone we played with or watched got the hot hand. I’ve played a lot of basketball since 1993, and have said those words many times, but today I want to talk about the most “on fire” I ever saw someone on a basketball court. It wasn’t one of my beloved Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson; it wasn’t one of the all time great three-point marksmen, Ray Allen or Reggie Miller; it wasn’t even an all time great like Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. It was a guy named Irish Mike.
You’re probably asking, Who? Is that a legend of the Rucker Park or West 4th Street courts? A great high school player whose career was cut short by tragedy? Nope.
Irish Mike. was a guy I knew back in college. Freshman year he lived in the same dorm hall as me, and he became one of my cohort of drinking buddies (hence the name). He also occasionally joined my buddy Josh and I for games of pickup basketball, which was a relief, given that when it was just Josh and I on the court, we played these games of one-on-one that were essentially battles of mutually assured destruction that really deserve their own post. Anyway, Mike was a little better than Josh or I; he was taller, around 6’1″, and built pretty solid, and he had a real smooth jump shot that always had us joking he had “Indiana game.” He was a pretty athletic dude, and had apparently been a decent player for his high school team, but you wouldn’t look at him and think he was going to light up the scoreboard–especially given his pale, freckly complexion and reddish hair (the other reason he was “Irish” Mike).
Now, another thing about Mike: You know how a lot of people go off to college and say they’re going to stay with their high school boyfriend or girlfriend, and then when they come home for the first Thanksgiving break freshman year they immediately break up with said significant other? Well, Mike was one of the rare ones that didn’t do that. He maintained the relationship with his high school girlfriend, who lived in San Diego, a four hour drive from Santa Barbara, where we went to school. As such, he’d only see her once or twice a quarter.
On one such weekend, I believe it was during spring quarter of our freshman year, his girlfriend came up on Friday night–and they immediately disappeared. No one in our group of drunken wastrels saw him all weekend–I wouldn’t be surprised if they never left his room–until after she left on Sunday.
That Sunday evening, after his girlfriend had left, Mike happened to walk by the basketball court where we often played. Josh and I were on the court with three other guys, and we needed one more to run three-on-three. Mike was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, looking very relaxed, all smiles, but he shrugged and, “Sure, I’ll play. Me, Josh, and Justin vs. you guys.”
Now, this seemed like a bad idea, because the three guys we were going up against were all really good at basketball, and they were all really athletic dudes. Any one of their three could take any one of our three in strength, speed, leaping ability, or general basketball skills.
“I’ll shoot for ball,” Mike said. And he stepped up and casually knocked down a shot from the top of the key, as if he had extended a Go-Go-Gadget Arm and gently placed the ball in the basket. Our ball.
Mike inbounded the ball to me. I dribbled a couple of times and passed it back. Without hesitation, he fired, and the ball passed perfectly through the hoop, not even grazing the rim, the net flipping in upon itself, swish, a sound that’s sweeter than any almost any other in sports.
This time I inbounded. Mike juked his defender and I passed the ball. In one motion he caught it and rose up. Swish. Josh and I set screens for Mike, clearing him the tiniest bits of room, just enough space for the ball to make it to his hands, for him to shoot. For the ball to pass through the net. His defender kept pushing him farther and farther out past the three-point line, and it didn’t matter. Mike would catch, and shoot, and hit. I don’t think he dribbled the ball even once the whole game.
I remember one particular possession best: Josh inbounded, and I set a screen for Mike. He had told me before the play to slip the screen (meaning set it just slightly and then slide toward the hoop). As expected, my man ran at Mike; so did Josh’s. We both stood inside the three-point line, no one within ten feet of us, an easy layup if either of us got the ball. Mike caught the inbound pass, at least five feet beyond the arc, NBA three-point distance, all three of the other team’s guys running at him, and fading away, he launched a high-arcing trey that dropped right through the net. Josh and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We’ve all had brief streaks on a basketball court where it felt like we couldn’t miss, but Mike really couldn’t miss. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. A weekend of getting his pipes cleaned had turned our drinking buddy into the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Mike and I ended up living in a couple of the same houses during college, but I haven’t talked to him in years, since college graduation. To be honest, we kinda stopped getting along, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into. But twenty years from now, when I think of him, what will I remember? That day on the court next to Anacapa Hall when he couldn’t miss. When Irish Mike was on fire.