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Lingering Cheers for a Magic Child

A schoolboy hoops legend like Travis Best won't soon be forgotten

Travis best's mother says he sometimes slept with his basketball. That was when she knew he might be something special. He seemed to have that ball with him everywhere he went, sort of an inanimate pet dog, sort of an inarticulate best friend. Then again, sometimes Travis almost made that ball talk. He certainly made it move. He would come dribbling through the house as if he were being pursued by all of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"You'd better become an All-American," his mother says she would shout as he rolled past Magic Johnson and outwitted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and bounced into the kitchen, "because if you're not going to be an All-American, I don't want to put up with all this."

I laugh. I write down the information.

His coach says there was no plan to have Travis score 81 points that night against Putnam Vocational. Everything somehow seemed to be working. Travis made his first eight three-pointers. He was in the "high 20's" after only five minutes of the 32-minute high school game had been played. There had always been the temptation to just "let him go." Just once. Just to see what the numbers would be at the end. This wasn't some pituitary case playing against helpless schoolchildren. Travis was a 5'11" guard. Just let him go. Just once.

"He finished with 31 of 47 from the floor, 10 of 12 three-pointers," the coach says. "He was nine of 13 from the foul line. He also had nine assists, which easily could have been 15 if other kids had finished off the plays. I took him out with 51 seconds left, for the ovation. He was exhausted. He was running the offense, playing defense and scoring 81 points. His shirt was so wet at the end, it looked as if someone had poured a bucket of water over him."

I nod. I write down the information.

His mother says Travis is the youngest of five children. Her baby. She says she was seven months pregnant and had no particular name planned for him. One night she went to a movie that starred Sidney Poitier. He played a character named Travis who was involved in a scam. In the end Poitier escaped with millions. There was a good feel to that movie. There was a good sound to the name. Travis. Travis Best.

"That's my son," the mother says, "the boy who escaped with millions."

I smile. I write down the information.

His coach says Travis has brought attention to Springfield Central High and to basketball in Massachusetts that cannot be believed. A former coach at nearby Holyoke High asked if Travis was going to receive half the gate receipts for the Holyoke-Central game, because he really should. At Westfield High the officials had to open up the second set of wooden bleachers—something they rarely do—when Travis visited. In Springfield two weeks ago, Travis filled the Civic Center for the Massachusetts semifinals—7,457 people, doors closed, people sent home, first sellout there ever for a high school game. It has been a ride.

"I watched Georgia Tech defeat Louisville on national television," Travis's coach says. "The next day [Georgia Tech coach] Bobby Cremins is sitting in our gym, watching us practice. How'd he get here so fast? Travis is going to Tech. They didn't promise him he'd replace Kenny Anderson, but they did say Anderson was probably going to leave and would have to be replaced. Here's Travis, another lefthanded guard."

I write down the information.

The process is simple. I fill in the blanks of the story of this magic basketball child of this specific year and this specific time in this specific place. It is an old story that does not grow old. There are, for sure, other magic basketball children in other years and at other times and in other places. They knock your eyes out, these kids. They come through the local high school, and for a few seasons they stretch neon around the old, gray gymnasiums in the area. Their deeds become a grand fable that will be told and retold as the state championship trophies tarnish and the people grow older. Remember the year? Remember? Remember the kid? Travis?

There is an oral tradition here that has somehow withstood the great gaga rush of television and money and attention that washes over most of American sport. Travis is a rumor and a reality. He is a memory and a hope. He is greatness found next door. Who would have expected it? Greatness next door.

Travis says he wanted to stay on the court last Saturday night as long as possible. He left with 39 seconds remaining in a 70-51 win over the Eastern Massachusetts champ, Everett High, that earned Central the state Division I Boys' Championship and completed an unbeaten season. He had 22 points in the game. His mother was cheering. His father was cheering. The good folks of Springfield were cheering. His teammates lifted him into the air as if he were the trophy. Everyone cheered some more.

"I'm going to miss these guys," says Travis, a little choke in his voice. "I'm not going to see 'em so much. Because I'm going far away."

I write down the information. I wish the magic child good luck.