The way only a child can

I walked out of Tom Parrotta’s house on Tuesday while his son Mikey was shooting hoops in the driveway with a friend.

“Are they done interviewing him?” the friend asked.

“Almost. Just finishing up.”

Then the friend got curious and asked a question in the way only a child can, where he says one thing that means so many others on levels he can’t possibly understand.

“Why do you guys want to talk to him?”

A shooting pain ran up my surgically repaired ankle as I planted my foot into the concrete and stopped dead in my tracks.

My mind raced. What could I tell him? He’s old enough to read the “For Sale” sign on the lawn, but how much explanation does a kid need that his neighbor is moving? I didn’t know how much he had already been told. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to tell him Mikey’s dad lost his job and the family decided to put up the house.

That would only lead the friend to more questions, anyway. If his dad ever got fired, he would probably come home acting a little different, he would tell his wife in private, maybe call his parents, and then in a day or two they would have a little family meeting to try to explain it to the kids in the simplest terms possible.

But Mikey’s dad was the coach at Canisius, a Division I basketball team that lost almost twice as many games as it won over the last six years. When he lost his job, people found out about it. It was on Twitter immediately, because that’s how news gets spread these days, and then Mikey’s dad’s boss sat down in front of news cameras later that night to explain to people why he made the tough decision to take Mikey’s dad’s job away.

Even one of the captains of the team, Chris Manhertz, said this week that he would have liked to hear the news directly from Parrotta himself, instead of finding out over the Internet like everyone else.

But little boys don’t pick up the paper or flip on the news. They may tweet, in this day and age, but I’m fairly certain he isn’t among my followers. Even still, I wouldn’t have been prepared for any of his follow-up questions. No reporters came to his house when his dad lost his job, and good luck explaining to a boy that someone could be more important than his dad.

I thought about lying. I could have convinced myself it was for his own good, that I fibbed to protect him. But I couldn’t do it. Something like, “our bosses made us come here,” probably would have done the trick, but that’s not how it went down and I couldn’t tell him that it was.

Maybe I’d tell him a story. Kids love stories, and I could spin it to leave him with any lesson I wanted. I could tell him the story of Bob Bevilacqua, a walk-on that Parrotta ran into the ground and told he would only be a practice player, there to push the others but not to get in the games.

During a blowout against Rider one day, Parrotta put Bevilacqua into the game, and the team played much better. The walk-on was in there again 12 days later when Niagara came into the Koessler Athletic Center, where “Drinks” – the nickname Parrotta gave him in Italy, knowing, as a fluent Italian speaker, that his last name translates to “drinking water” – connected on a huge three-pointer late in the game to give a struggling team and coach a much-needed victory over its arch rival.

I had some quotes from Drinks in my backpack that would have been great to pull out. He said he feels lucky to have played for Coach Parrotta. “My future is brighter because of him” and “the way he carries himself will always serve as a model for me in my future endeavors,” were his exact words, and they would have been great for me to tell a certain inquisitive young man, but I didn’t have them in front of me.

I tried to remember what former Griff Rob Goldsberry had told me about Parrotta, that “He taught me how to become a man,” but I couldn’t remember that either.

I also wouldn’t feel right giving just one side. I’d need to balance it. For all the players who loved Parrotta and may have even shed tears upon hearing of his dismissal, some were less than warm to him. Tomas Vazquez-Simmons probably hasn’t forgotten about the six minutes he played on Senior Day last year and Rokas Gricius probably doesn’t have a ton of sympathy for a man getting the “it’s a business” speech a year after hearing it himself, when Parrotta informed him he wouldn’t have a scholarship to give Gricius for his senior season.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I had to say something. The game had stopped now, as four little eyes fixed themselves on me and four little ears anxiously awaited my answer.

I probably just should have told him how Parrotta still feels like a winner in big picture, for changing the lives of several men who happen to be better than the rest of us with an orange ball in their hands.

But then I finally knew what to say.

I smiled and tried to sound as adult and as reassuring as I could.

“Well, his dad’s a pretty important guy.”

Satisfied, the boy shrugged his shoulders and the two quickly returned to game, as if what felt like an hour never happened. The friend ran up to the hoop, set to its lowest level, and put up a two-handed shot that bounced off the backboard and went in.