JESSE BALL, or MR. B
ONCE upon a time there was a celebrated high school baseball-basketball-soccer coach, special ed teacher and all around mentor to thousands of young men and women in the Albany, New York region by the name of Jesse Braverman, also known to his admiring players and fans as Mr. B.
As it happens Jesse, or Mr. B., as he is also known, is also an old elementary school chum of mine. Both of us attended Public School 131 in Jamaica Estates, Queens, as well as Van Wyck Junior High School and the late great Jamaica High School in the same environs—although we basically lost touch after sixth grade. My most vivid memory of Jesse from those bygone early 60s days was, basically, facing him in stickball in the schoolyard of 131, where the precocious pitcher, who would later be the star pitcher of the Jamaica High School varsity, kept firing those Pensy-Pinkies past me. And that preternaturally coruscating smile. How could I mind losing to someone with a smile like that? (The smile concealed the fact that Jesse was also a ferocious competitor, a trait that was reinforced by all the weekends he spent playing hardball with his mentor, the fabled Jamaica area coach, Joe Austin; see attached chapter about Austin).
Anyway, back in 2002, when I returned to the U.S. after my five year tour in London to be artist in residence at Cornell’s Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts, I had an emotional, and, it turned out, fateful reunion with my old schoolyard buddy, with whom I had gotten back in touch via Classmates.com., our first in over thirty years.
In the event (as the Brits say, my old classmate and schoolyard buddy was not his usual cheerful self. Reason being: as a result of a Kafkaesque chain of circumstances, including a questionable Suburban Council rule forbidding coaches—at least in Jesse’s athletic jurisdiction—from working with the same players during the summer (on his homegrown Mickey Mantle league team) as he did during the school year, and an obdurate county school superintendent, Jesse had been summarily stripped of his post as coach of the Bethlehem High School baseball team, a job he had held and excelled at for five years and had been waiting for twenty years before that.
To say that Jesse was shattered by his firing is to understate the matter. Although he kept a brave smile on, it was clear to me, as he and I and his lovely devoted wife, Debbie, dined at the Station Restaurant (the same star-crossed eatery where I had met, or rather, interrupted my college hero and future subject, Rod Serling when he was dining there some twenty odd years before), that Jess was in trouble. Childless—except for his myriad surrogate children (a considerable number of whom have gone on to great things in the sports world and other worlds)—coaching the Bethlehem Varsity had been everything to Jess, or close to it. In losing the team, he had lost a part of his reason to live.
Trying to be make something positive of the situation, as well as provide Jesse an outlet for his angst, I suggested that he write a book about his coaching career, including both the upside and the downside, as well as the devastating way it had ended. Or seemed to have ended. “Get it out of your system,” I said (or words to that effect). And don’t forget all the cool stuff that preceded it. I even offered to help work it into something publishable if the result warranted it
And so Jesse began writing.
In the event (there’s that phrase again) as he, and the diamond-loving residents of the Capital Region soon discovered, Coach Braverman had another act left in him, perhaps his finest, certainly his most inspiring. Shortly after our fateful dinner, Jesse was hired to be coach of the varsity baseball team of the LaSalle Military Academy, the Cadets, in near by Rensselaer. Again the circumstances were star-crossed: the previous coach, a beloved fixture at the Catholic school, and a friend of Jess’s, had been killed in a car accident. Difficult mantle to take up; painful circumstances.
Still, Jess had a chance, and he ran with it, quickly shaking up the team and imbuing it with his personal winning baseball philosophy, Jesse Ball, and in the process transmuting what had been a respectable team into a regional powerhouse, while at the same time powering Jesse out of his post-Bethlehem depression. A local baseball writer who observed the mutual transformation dubbed it “The Braverman Redemption” (after “The Shawshank Redemption.”), a journey that reached its peak—or at least one of its peaks—in 2008 when Jesse coached the Cadets to an incredible 27 and 0 record, and took them to the state championship game in Binghamton, which they lost (barely).
In the meantime, Jesse had finished writing his book, or at least the first draft of it.
Actually he had finished writing it fairly quickly, as I had advised, for therapeutic reasons, and it had worked well for those reasons. The question was would it work as a book, i.e., a book that people would want to buy.
The original draft was actually quite good, given the circumstances under which it was written and the fact that this was the first time he had essayed writing a manuscript of this length, with lots of great material and anecdotes about Jesse’s legendary coaching and teaching career, leavened with not a little enduring wisdom of both the athletic, pedagogical and spiritual kind–for Jesse, in his own way, is a very wise man (and a very good guy, I should add).
There was only one basic problem (besides the jumbled, stream of consciousness order in which it was written): it didn’t have an ending. Or at least an ending that was not incredibly depressing.
Now it did. Indeed, you could say it had a Hollywood ending. It also had an enthusiastic co-author: me. Working with Jesse on JESSE BALL (as we have tentatively entitled it), watching him work with his players and students, as well as his former students, including both the success stories, and not—including one former special ed student who tragically wound up in Attica, the infamous maximum security state penitentiary (Jesse never gives up!), has been one of the great experiences and privileges of my career, with the additional dividend being that Jesse is now one of my closest and dearest friends.
We even play stickball once in a while. Of course he beats me. With a smile. Just like old times.
I believe that the end result of our collaboration, several chapters of which are attached here, will be a great, inspiring, entertaining, educational, and un-put-downable book.
Look for same at your local bookstore, or on this site, this fall.
In the meantime, the article I wrote about Jesse and his miracle Cadets I wrote for Hudson Valley Magazine, “The Comeback Kid,” also attached, gives you an idea of why I gladly signed on as Jesse’s literary sidecar man.
–Though of course we know who’s the daddy…