A New Appreciation for Mountain Climbers

By Edward M. Goodell

Sierra Leone was the last place Sugar Magee had lived before coming to San Diego, although it certainly wasn’t the only place. He and his parents, Baptist missionaries, had moved around a lot, never spending more than a couple of years at any one posting. Most of what I learned about Sugar’s past, I learned in connection with basketball. For example, he once told me that he’d developed his high shooting arc while playing ball in southern Sudan, on the communal farm of a pastoral people known as Dinkas. Apparently the Dinkas are an unusually tall bunch. Sugar was in his pre-teen years then, but he said a lot of the kids he played against were already scraping six feet tall. He said he’d developed his quick shot and high release by having to shoot over them.

Sugar had also spent time in Liberia, where he described his school’s basketball court as a dirt surface so impacted by heat and humidity that it had been weather-baked into a flat, glass-like surface permanently covered by a thin layer of fine red dust. He said playing there was like playing on a giant slab of ancient pottery. Each day, one of the younger players would be called upon to sweep the dirt off of the dirt before play could begin.

“Sweeping dirt off of dirt, how would you know when to stop?” I asked him, confused by what I took to be a contradiction in terms.

“You just knew,” he answered.

Sugar had also spent time in Nepal, Vietnam and God only knows where else. He often told the curious that he lived in San Diego now, had left those other places behind. He explained he wasn’t much of a traveler – he just lived where he happened to be.

I asked him once if his father had first interested him in basketball; Sugar said, no, Mr. Magee hadn’t been one for sports. As an expatriate living overseas, Sugar had spent a lot of time by himself. Basketball, he said, was the one sport that allowed him the chance to play alone. I said I found his explanation ironic, given that basketball is a team sport, but Sugar said he never saw it that way. It was the solitary aspect of basketball, the long hours spent refining one’s shooting and dribbling, that appealed to him most.

Sugar once confided in me that if he ever wanted to remember his past, he wouldn’t even bother looking at postcards from abroad – he’d just head over to his Laurel Street court and practice jump shots by moonlight. 

Oddly enough, Sugar’s first day of high school was like a postcard from abroad. We were in the same math class, freshman Algebra with Mr. Erickson. Erickson had paired up all of the students; we were supposed to interview our partners and they were supposed to interview us, and then everyone was supposed to share aloud all of the information gathered therein. Strictly for the birds! The teachers call these first-day activities ice-breakers. I call them back-breakers, but what do I know?

Anyway, I was sitting next to Simy, who by chance had been paired with Sugar. I was curious to find out about Sugar, his reputation on the basketball court having preceded him. So between asking my partner follow-up questions about her pet goldfish and summer road trip to Mount Rushmore, I eavesdropped on Simy’s interview. He asked Sugar all of the usual questions.

“What’s your favorite TV show?”

“I don’t watch TV.”

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”


“Any hobbies?”

“I don’t collect stamps or anything.”

“But you play basketball. I mean, I heard you play ball.”

“I do.”

“When did you start?”

“A long time ago.”

“A specific age?”

“I can’t remember ever not playing.”

“By the way, what are you?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Sugar answered, “A basketball player.”

“No, not that,” Simy said, “I mean what are you?”

“Oh that,” Sugar said. “Guard, shooting or point, doesn’t matter.”

“No, I mean, what are you, as in, I’m of Mexican descent and Palchevski over there is of Russian descent. You know, what’s your background?”

Sugar seemed to grope for an explanation, to stretch for verbal complexities beyond his reach, then simply answered, “I was adopted.”

Since then, I’ve heard many people refer to Sugar in ethnic or racial terms. He has the kind of looks that aren’t easy to categorize, yet people are always trying to do exactly that. I know for a fact that the white kids consider him white, the black kids consider him black and the Hispanic kids consider him Hispanic. If a Martian enrolled in this idiotic school, he’d probably think Sugar was his next of kin. I’ve heard Sugar variously described as Asian, Italian, Indian, Middle Eastern and North African. A friend of mine once told him he looked exactly like this Algerian guy she used to know at a school for the performing arts. She said the guy couldn’t play basketball to save his life but that he was a helluva dancer.

I will say that Sugar looks like a ballplayer – tall, lean and wiry with big hands and size 14 feet. You can tell he’s an athlete just by looking at him. That’s not the easiest thing to describe, but if you saw him walking down the hallway at school, you’d know exactly what I mean. Let’s just say that if Sugar walked up to you at a public basketball court and you’d never seen him before in your life and he challenged you, on the spot, to a game of one-on-one for a thousand dollars, you’d turn him down without a second thought. You’d know in an instant, just from looking at him, that you couldn’t beat him in a million years. You’d save yourself a thousand bucks, too.

Sugar was unusual in other respects, and I hope you don’t think I’m being unkind for saying so. His freakish athleticism, after all, was an oddity in itself, and no one ever accused me of being critical for pointing that out. If he was peculiar in other ways, so be it. We can’t all pick and choose in which areas our personal quirks will present themselves.

The fact is Sugar was not acculturated to America or, for that matter, to American high school life. How could he be? He’d grown up overseas, had never watched television a day in his life. Given those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a little strange?

I’ll share one story with you that kind of captures the essence of Sugar’s quirkiness; I could relate several similar tales, but they’d all be more or less of a kind. For the record, I accept all of Sugar’s idiosyncrasies and not just the ones that win ballgames. He’s a great player and friend, oddities included.

It was during Christmas vacation that year, a Tuesday in late December, and the weather was steaming. As winter days go, this one was an oven in Hell. Because we were on vacation and in no mood to be cooked, we broke out the old swim trunks and headed north to Solana Beach. We figured that our usual haunt, Mission Beach by the old roller coaster, would be mobbed. South Mission and the basketball courts would be hopping too.

We were walking along the tide-damp sand, parallel to the shore, when for no apparent reason Sugar turned serious. I knew he was being serious because his diction grew suddenly stilted, the words stepping forth in top hats and tails.

“Excuse me, Eric, may I ask you a question?” He never called me Eric.

“What is it, my good man?” I answered.

When he hedged by adding, “You won’t mind if it’s slightly embarrassing?” I thought for sure he was going to ask me about sexual maneuvers. It’s not that I’m not extremely well versed on the subject, it’s just that I can’t discuss that sort of thing with someone who begins a sentence, “Excuse me, Eric.”

I pitched my response somewhere between father confessor and James Bond and hoped for the best. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Well, the other day, Jantzen and Dingo were talking, and Jantzen said that Margaret Carruthers had a great ass.”

He stopped right there, as if this particular statement required no further explanation, as if the promised embarrassment were already apparent and the question that so urgently needed answering had already been asked. Margaret Carruthers, by the way, was on the gymnastics team and was a lying-leg-curl fanatic. She performed on the dance team and climbed mountains. If you ever saw her in dance tights and positioned in profile, you’d swear that from the waist down she looked like Africa. And you’d never again wonder, not for an instant, why men once risked their lives setting sail for the Gold Coast. Margaret Carruthers stood 5-foot-7, weighed 110 pounds and if you don’t get the picture, I couldn’t even begin to draw it for you.

“So what’s the question?” I asked, and his words raced out like the thoroughbreds at Del Mar.

“How do you tell a great ass from a bad one or even a mediocre one?”

You have to understand that Sugar, whether on the basketball court or off, was never anything but poised. It helped that at this particular moment he looked absolutely lost and in need of help – if he hadn’t, I might not have addressed his question with the solemnity it deserved. I certainly wouldn’t have answered it the way I did.

“Well, you do know it has to do with form and not function, don’t you?”

He looked confused at first and then by degrees relieved, but he didn’t utter a word.

A pleasant and I think instructive conversation ensued. I won’t recreate the details here. Let me just say that a beach in North County on a hot winter’s day provided several object lessons in the subject at hand. And even though we were on vacation, we did our homework. At the very least, Sugar gained a new appreciation for mountain climbers, leg curls and his long-lost coast of Africa.