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The Good Sport

At a time when we are getting daily reminders of men abusing and harassing women, I think it is worthwhile to give thanks and take note of men behaving well. One example is my father, Arny Markbreiter, who celebrates his 89th birthday this Thanksgiving.

My father's source of greatest pleasure and sustained interest has been through sports. As a youngster growing up in Astoria, he would play on the street every day with a multi-ethnic group of friends. They would improvise games that kids today would have a hard time replicating--dodge ball, stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball, kick the can, freeze tag, and ringolevio. If they could have played through the night, they probably would have done so, but their games were stopped at dinner time with the call of my grandmother up the street.

When the group got older, they would go to the schoolyard to play baseball, softball, football, and basketball. Other kids in the neighborhood from that same generation were also making a name for themselves, including Whitey Ford and Billy Loes (who would later pitch for the Yankees and Dodgers, respectively). Another kid from a few blocks away, Anthony Benedetto, became famous in another field, as the singer Tony Bennett.

By the time my father went to Long Island City High School, he had gotten to be good at basketball and tried out for the team. As he explains it, a group of players on the team controlled who else were picked to round out the roster. My father wasn't part of this clique and got rejected from the team. After the team won three early games during his senior year, the Public School Athletic League found out that one of the players had signed a minor league contract to play professional baseball. This made him ineligible to play for LIC High School, and the team had to forfeit those three wins. It also sent the coach on the lookout for a replacement player. In gym class one day, he found my father and, seeing him play, asked him to join the team.

"But I don't have a uniform," my father said.

"We can get you one," said the coach.

My father thus became part of the team for the rest of his senior season, and within just a couple of games was a key part of the rotation. His skill set was passing, defense, and tenacious rebounding, even though he was just 6 feet tall. He provided necessary scoring as well, with the two-handed set shot that was used at the time. The team garnered several wins and ended its season playing at Madison Square Garden against Andrew Jackson High School and the legendary guard Bob Cousy.

Upon graduating, my father joined the Queens College basketball team. He built upon the skills he had developed successfully in high school, and in his senior year became co-captain. Once, my grandparents went to see him play, a game in which my father performed well. Afterward, he asked them what they thought.

"My, how you sweat," declared my grandmother.

In the first game of his senior year, his team was matched against City College, a national powerhouse which the previous year had won both the NCAA and NIT tournaments. Their renowned coach, Nat Holman, thought so little of Queens College that he missed the game, going out west to scout an upcoming opponent. I'd like to say that Queens College prevailed, but they did keep it close until the final two minutes, and my father was his team's high scorer.

My father went on to a career as a middle school social studies teacher and assistant principal with the NYC Board of Education. Using techniques such as debates to spark up his classes, he ensured that students learned citizenship and critical thinking. Once, when I was young, he showed me a world map and pointed to Egypt and the Mediterranean. He asked me in which direction I thought the Nile flowed. He explained that he had to disabuse his students of the assumption that the Nile flowed downward on the map, teaching me the concept of how rivers lead out to larger bodies of water.

As I got older, my dad became my coach in local baseball and basketball leagues. The two most important things he taught were not about winning, but rather about sportsmanship and fundamentals. In our local Little League, there were a few coaches who led teams every year and were known for their win-at-all-costs attitude, pushing their players hard and driving the umpires even harder. My father went for none of these tactics. He also ensured that all players, even struggling ones, got equal chances to play. It did pay off when I was in 7th grade, and our team made the basketball league finals for our age group. Somehow, we blew a nine point lead in the fourth quarter and lost, but my father did what he could to get our spirits up. He didn't dwell on that defeat, and went on to coach many of the same players on a team the next year.

Perhaps motivated by his own experience as an outsider going out for the basketball team, as well as being the son of immigrants, my father (along with my mother) always took a stand for folks who found themselves on the marginalized end of the system. My parents both taught at city schools that were at first racially mixed and then experienced white flight in the 1970s. They were members of a local human rights group in my hometown of Baldwin, NY, that fought for the rights of African Americans and other minorities. In 1967, the only Black teacher in Baldwin High School, Maurice McNeill, was accused of molesting a white student. My parents attended meetings as members of a group that fought on his behalf, and after two months of disciplinary hearings, McNeill was exonerated of all charges and awarded back pay. This was the kind of environment in which my parents were active; at the time, there were only a few Black families in town, so it wasn't always easy going against the established structures.

One morning, in 1968, my father told me who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, informing me he had been assassinated the night before. At eight years old, I hadn't yet heard of the great civil rights leader, but my father educated me. Later that day, he and I marched in Baldwin in support of Dr. King's message and legacy.

My own knowledge and interest in the world has been greatly inspired by my father. I later became a social studies teacher in my own right and continue to work in education. His attitude of calm patience, fairness, decency to others, and ongoing learning finds its way, in bits and pieces, into the blog posts I write.

Or take my sister Leesa, who took it upon herself to befriend Black and gay students back when it was unpopular to do so. Without her support, these friends would have found tough going in 1970s Baldwin, and to this day these remain her longest lasting and most devoted relationships. Leesa is one of the most unbiased people I know, a trait that certainly traces back to my father and mother.

And see how my father's influence winds its way into the characteristics of his three grandchildren. For example, my son Ben carries the same interest in the world and in history that their grandfather does. My niece Zoe is a passionate learner, like her grandfather. My son Tim takes time to talk politics and sports with Arny every day as he walks home from the train station. All three have diverse interests, are wholly non-judgmental about people’s backgrounds, and are eager and consistent political advocates.

Following the news this week and hearing about the misdeeds of Al Franken, Charlie Rose, and John Conyers felt like a one-two-three punch to the gut. I’m convinced there will be more coming out, and I’m concerned both about the immorality of these liberal icons and the fact that those on the other side seem to be getting away with it (for now) simply by denying their actions.

I won't go so far as to say that men who were doing the right thing simply by behaving as they should are heroes. The real heroes are the women who deal with this and those who speak out. Still, I’m grateful to have an example in my life whom I and my children can admire. And I’m glad to know that there are examples like my father who neither condescended to women nor resorted to artificial and constricting “Pence rules”. My father may not be a hero just for acting properly all these years. But he is our hero.

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