Defending a Friend

He broke away from his Basketball teammates who had been restraining him and rushed towards Joanna. His face and eyes were full of distemper and total confidence.   A little history on Joanna and the situation leading up to this event is in order first.

It was now the fourth day of a mega snowstorm which had paralyzed not just the town Athens, Ohio, but most of the county and southern Ohio river valley.  It was 1979.  There was no internet. There was barely cable TV.  No one had cell phones.  The snow was beautiful and abominable at the same time.  The campus radio weatherman predicted more of the same Sunday.  Everyone on campus that Saturday morning had varying degrees of cabin fever and depression.  Misanthropy ruled the morning.  It was a “real drag, man” as everyone said back in that time.

The weekend cafeteria chefs could not make it in to get the breakfast brunch buffet prepared.  The best anyone got was milk, orange juice, coffee, muffins, donuts, bananas, Cheerios, toast and jelly.  No bacon, sausage, blueberry pancakes, eggs to order, biscuits, gravy, cheese grits, roasted potatoes, and creme brulee french toast.  The kids were bitching loudly and they were very spoiled.

Most of the students, professors and townies were staring out their windows, their faces mashed against the glass, pondering what they could do for some stress relief.  They could only drink so much beer.  The drool from the corners of their mouths stained their shirts.  Their hand-prints could be seen on the windows by anyone walking/sliding by the building from the sidewalk.  Big trucks spreading salt and plowing snow were buzzing the streets.

Joanna had just finished cleaning the 9-story College Inn, a co-ed independently owned dormitory for junior and senior University students only.  She had her own key to lock out the elevator and a master-key to every room in the building.  The manager trusted her completely.  It did have some worthwhile perks: a free parking space 50 yards from the front door, for instance.

This Saturday, she found the TV rooms located on each floor unnecessarily messy.  She started at 7am and this day it took the full 4 hours to get the job done. Most times it took 1-2 hours. This time though the regular cleaning staff of the Inn were stranded at home due to the inclement weather and had not cleaned the place since Wednesday.

The temperatures outside were dropping even more, which meant more tortuous ice on the streets and sidewalks and even more salt tracked indoors.  “Shit!” she grumbled.

Down the hill and across the bridge, the indoor intramural sports facility offered shelter from the storm via physical exercise classes and sports competitions of endless choices.  You could just show up and pick your game.  In so doing, the facility was instrumental in adding another memorable chapter to the archives of Ohio University lore.  This story would be recounted at future alumni reunion gatherings for decades to come.  There would someday be a statue of Joanna in front of the new intramural facility the University had recently built.  She was legend.  A hero of sorts.  Even past Alums like Mike Schmidt, the famous third baseman that made it to the Major leagues with Philly;  Matt Lauer, the Today Show host; or Maya Lin, the architect that designed the Vietnam war memorial in DC had nothing on her.

Here’s what happened…

Joanna and her basketball posse had left the College Inn after eating Saturday brunch, shivering under their coats and scarves, as they shuffled down the frozen icy sidewalk to the intramural sports gym.  Once there, they proceeded to do what they did on most weekends: play pickup basketball games.

(An interesting and relevant side note about Joanna was none of the other teams ever realized they were playing against a girl.  Joanna had always preferred it this way. She was handsome and thought of as a pretty boy at first glance.  Joanna had strong, long legs and defined shoulders. She was tall, skinny, muscle toned, and flat-chested.  Joanna’s calf muscles were sleek and her ankles were small sporting size nine feet. She never wore makeup and did not need it.)

Gym rules had it as full court, no time clock, the winning team stayed on the court and played the next five players waiting.  Games were played to 15 points, had to be won by 2 points or more, and all made baskets counted as only 1 point.  There were no refs, no shooting fouls, no three-point line and no one could foul out of the game.  Joanna’s team was on their fourth game with no defeats.

The group of players Joanna’s team was competing with had a hot-headed, alpha male bull on their team that appeared to be a wrestler, bodybuilder or weight-lifter type.  Who knew, who cared.  He called every cheap picky foul, cheated on out-of-bounds calls, and whatever else he could dream up to get an edge.  Due to his physique, aggressive manner and loud mouth, he was a little intimidating to say the least.  He was not very tall.  A Napoleon complex maybe?  Regardless of that, he was obviously accustomed to having things his own way.

As the game progressed, Joanna kept telling her team not to argue his plays or calls.  It took some restraint though, because they were beginning to verge on malevolent.  On one lay-up, he stood under the rim so her teammate had no place to land safely.  On a breakaway, he called time out to stop play so the easy basket would not count.  When Joanna’s team blocked him out for a rebound, he would literally lift a player off the floor and sling him to the side.  Even so, she kept saying to let them have it, we will win anyway.

The only reason the game was even close was due to this one guy taking full advantage.  No matter how flagrant his foul was or ridiculous his call was, Joanna insisted on letting his team have the ball.  Joanna was letting him get away with everything.  She was that confident in her and the team’s play.

Now, Joanna seldom shot the ball, but she was the maestro play maker on offense. She could see the game unfolding somehow.  She just had the knack for seeing a pass before it happened.  She would take a shot now and again, just to keep her defender honest. The rest of the team aggressively moved around without the ball, knowing if they got open, Joanna would always spot their every nuance and make the pass.

To be on Joanna’s team, players committed to block out on both offensive and defensive boards for rebounds and to always take the open shot, no regrets.  It didn’t matter if they missed, because they always seemed to get the second or even third opportunity due to their superior rebounding.  They played under absolutely no stress, knowing everyone had each others’ back. It was so much fun.  On any questionable call, they always offered to let the other team have it. They believed they would win anyway.  Seldom, if ever, did they sit down because of a loss.  They just got tired after 2 or 3 hours.

The game was dragging on.  (A little like this story.) After 30 minutes or so, the score was 23 to 22 and Joanna was getting annoyed.  Most games ended 15-11  plus or minus.  This guy was pushing just a little too far.  Secretly, she was thinking he needed his butt kicked.  Just as she finished the thought, he sent her flying across the floor for the fourth time. She was taking her sweet time getting up.  “Watch it, you son of a bitch!” is what Joanna heard as she glanced up in time to see one of her teammates shove the guy in her defense.  The jerk immediately perked up, leaned forward menacingly and her friend backed down.  Joanna didn’t hold it against her friend.  This teammate was mouthy, smaller and not a fighter, and extremely frustrated by this hot head, who was powerful-looking and ready to rumble at the slightest provocation.

Instinctively, in less than a nanosecond, Joanna’s adrenaline surged.  She could feel herself about to red-line.  Ever since she was little girl, she could always deal with someone bullying herself just fine, but her friends (and even complete strangers) were another story.  A rage emerged from somewhere deep inside and would take over, and she lost all sense of fear or self-preservation.  In the blink of an eye,  Joanna had hopped up and thrown the basketball 30 feet overhand,  hitting the guy perfectly in the side of the head.  Stunned and rubbing his aching head, he turned away from her cowering teammate.  He saw a blur approaching quickly.

He immediately zeroed in on Joanna through his dazed eyes as she sprinted cat-like smooth and without any reservation to meet him face to face.  Slap!  Joanna unloaded a humiliating open hand across the guy’s face and at the same time firmly growled “Show me yours and I will show you mine!  She was totally out of her mind.  “We may not see eye to eye but you are getting ready to hit me in the fist with your face!”  The guy was startled and didn’t immediately comprehend what was happening.  She kept on without pause, “Go stand over there at the foul line and practice falling down while I go put my glasses in a safe place.”  The guy began to move back from the verbal assault.  Joanna began to throw in some fake punches with the rant, making the guy instinctively flinch.  “Grab ME and you might not be able to let go!  You’re going to wish you had stayed in bed today!  Somebody go ahead and call a doctor.  This guy is going to need a DOCTOR, YOU HEAR ME!”  Joanna’s face was beet red and spittle was flying from her lips.  Her teammates had never seen Joanna like this but had heard stories and gathered to pull her back.  “Let me go!” she snarled.  Joanna was virtually levitating off the court as she struggled forward.  “You better ask yourself if you feel lucky PUNK!” she continued, freeing herself and now squaring up to him intending to actually fight.  “I am going to knock you into next week!” “Come on!!” she pleaded.

Before Joanna could make good on her threat, teammates from both sides had joined in to break it up. Joanna’s team succeeded in pulling her back, and the others were pleading with their knucklehead partner to let it go and just finish the game.  No one wanted to give up the court this early in the day.  Joanna begrudgingly agreed, “That’s fine.  You’re too SHORT for me to fight anyway, sissy”.  She knew what she was about to say was wrong, but she was still livid and couldn’t help herself.  She really wanted a piece of this guy, bad. “You’re short, just like your temper and your PECKER.” The whole place heard it and moaned.

He took the bait.  Tearing through his t-shirt, he broke away from the teammates that were holding him back and rushed Joanna.  When he was within reach, he launched a huge roundhouse aimed for her head. Perfect, she thought.  He was surprised when Joanna swayed backwards and slipped his round house punch. He was sure that it would be the only punch he would have to throw.  As his bare knuckles grazed her neck, Joanna could feel his knuckles unclasp the 24-karat gold chain that held her beloved St. Christopher medallion.  It was a cherished gift from her older sister. The jewelry slid across the floor and under the bleachers.  You could’ve heard a pin drop after that.  Joanna noticed the quiet hush that had fallen over the gym and could suddenly feel the eyes of all the gym on her.  Let’s do this she thought.

So, literally hundreds of people had frozen speechless for what was about to ensue.  Most couldn’t believe the balls of this tall skinny kid taking on this Goliath.  They were sure Joanna was going to be murdered, but some would say after the fight that they saw a strange twinkle in her eye that made them think twice and watch anyway.  At first most watched with one eye only. Their faces slightly grimaced.

There was never a doubt in her mind that she would win the fight.  She knew she could beat this guy.  She only had to keep her feet and not let him get a hold of her.  If he did, she knew he’d over power her in that type of fight.  That couldn’t happen.  She decided that boxing and an occasional strategically placed kick would be the best plan of action.  There was plenty of room to maneuver, and she took full advantage of that by constantly backing up as he rushed in with flurries of punches and jabbing him with her left when he left an opening.  Joanna dodged, weaved, and bobbed over all 6 regulation size basketball courts.  In a close boxing ring, he may have stood a better chance she thought, but not here.  She knew it would take some time this way, but it would be easy, and she was in great shape.

The fight lasted 10-12 minutes easily. Maybe more.  The bull would blindly rush in, trying to take Joanna out with a strong hay maker and Joanna would keep herself just out of reach, peppering him in the face with her lightning fast left.  Each hit left tiny, stinging cuts; blood began to trickle down the guy’s face halfway through.  Joanna would only throw head shots.  That was her specialty: straight jabs with a twist of the wrist exactly upon impact, so quick the naked eye could hardly see it happen.   She learned this from watching her hero Cassius Clay fight larger opponents on TV as a middle school kid.

Towards the end of the fight, the bully developed a steady bleed from the nose and lip and had a couple of loose teeth.  His right eye was beginning to swell and it was affecting his vision.  Joanna was barely sweating.  He never landed one punch on Joanna.  Joanna did not like pain.  God knows he tried; he probably threw over a 100 powerful punches, all striking air.  Had he kept his eyes open instead of squinting them during each swing, he may have had a better chance of connecting.

Joanna continued to backpedal, backpedal, and backpedal, waiting for him to tire and drop his guard so she could finish the fight.  He dropped his fists for a split second to gasp for air and survey the situation, and she got her chance.  Joanna, as fast or faster than a high-speed shutter camera, took the opening and kicked him sharp and hard above the belt into his gut.  She just could not make herself kick below the belt no matter how mad she got.  She heard the wind rush out of his lungs.  He flexed his stomach and tried to hide his grimace with gritted teeth, but she knew, (and he knew she knew,) he was injured.  Injured bad!

Even so, he kept advancing.  Joanna  couldn’t believe this guy was still standing, let alone coming back for more.  She wondered whether this monster would ever quit, but quickly shook that idea out of her head. He started it and she would finish it.  This was her fight and she had already dealt him a lot of punishment.  Patience, she told herself.

She employed the same technical stratagem for another few minutes, and waited for another opening to present itself.  When it did, she left nothing to chance and gathered her left hook all the way from the floor and powered it precisely under his chin.  She saw his head jerk back violently; sweat flew from his deformed, pained face.  Not wanting this to go any longer, she leaned in to finish him with a quick, hard straight right cross, but stopped herself, pulling her punch at the last second.  He had collapsed on one knee.  She showed him Mercy. It was just her nature.  Joanna almost laughed out loud.  Had she known he had a glass jaw earlier, she would have jacked him up sooner.

Joanna steadied her eyes and took a deep breath, tingly  from the rush of winning the fight.  As she focused, she was quickly reminded that she had an audience. The entire gym’s occupants: basketball players, swimmers, weightlifters, ping-pong players, gymnasts, janitors, gym rats, had watched the fight and were amazed.  One by one, they slowly began to clap and cheer.  By the time the bully had stood up, the gym was a roar of applause and loud chatter. Joanna could feel the goosebumps and the euphoric rush throughout her body.

The bully shook out the cobwebs and stood up.  Embarrassed and apparently humbled, he mumbled,  “Let’s just finish the game.”  Joanna had had enough activity for one day, and told her teammates she was leaving. She had laundry to do, a paper to write that was due on Monday, and she had to work the early Sunday cleaning shift at the Inn.  Her blood pressure rose again momentarily when she thought of that 6’9” guy that lived on the 7th floor. He better not spit on the elevator wall again or he will be next!

The storm passed.  For many weeks after the fight, Joanna could not walk on the campus to class, the library, the cafeteria, the College Inn, her favorite bar, without this person or that person telling her what a fantastic fight he had fought.  They would say they were so sure when it first started that he was going to get his butt TOTALLY handed to him.

She always grinned and said thanks in her lowest soprano voice.  Joanna loved to watch them walk away shaking their heads smiling, then stop in shock as it dawned on them that HE was actually a SHE.  Holy Crap!! Wow, no way!

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