When I was in 9th grade I was crazy about basketball so I took a gym class that was entirely basketball. Unlike other gym classes ("Weight Training" or "Team Sports") which involved a variety of physical activities, "Basketball" was pretty much a full-court 5-on-5 pick-up game every class. I remember the first day changing into my high tops, pulling up my knee socks, and heading out of the girls' locker room, excited to play. As the class came together, my enthusiasm was quickly replaced with intimidation. I was the shortest. I was the youngest. I was certainly the slowest. And I was the only girl in a room full of boys. Why oh why didn't I take one of the other gym classes? I thought.
But I loved basketball too much to chicken out, and we took the court and started playing. I was jostled, elbowed, stepped on, and ignored. I couldn't grab any rebounds and no one passed to me. Pretty soon I took to hanging outside, near the top of the key, alone. No one paid attention to me out there except a lanky sophomore who'd drive the lane and at the last second dish the ball out to me. I had a knack for hitting that outside jumper, especially when I was wide-open.
Soon we developed a nice routine: Manny would drive towards the basket and then, at the last second, pass it back out to me for an easy two. He'd always smile, a great big wide smile, even when I missed. And give me a high-five. And unlike some other people, who share a class with you but pretend not to know you when you pass each other later in the hall, Manny always said "hi" and grinned when we saw each other on campus.
I stopped playing basketball after my freshman year and joined the ski team. Because I was a varsity athlete, I didn't have to take gym, and soon Manny and I drifted down different paths. But I've never forgotten how welcome he made me feel in that class, how he made a fourteen year old girl feel like she had what it takes to be a great ball player.
I wasn't surprised to hear that Manny DelValle moved to New York after college. And I wasn't surprised to hear he became a firefighter. But I didn't hear that until September 12, 2001.
I can still see his smile.