The sky above the Bay Bridge was
a gunmetal gray, and in the distance I could hear the low rumble of
freight trains that ran along the Eastshore Highway. I loved the sound,
and hadn't realized how much I missed it until it echoed down the early
morning streets. The wheels on the tracks, the whistle of the train,
the foghorns on the Bay were all part of the soundtrack of my life in
Oakland; sounds, like smells, that gave me definition.
just the streets and people that claimed me, but the city itself. As I
took it all in I realized just how much I was stamped by the place that
I'd fled after Billy's murder in 1989. I was only hours back-a
newborn-having rolled in with the mist off the Bay, quiet, and under
the cover of night. I hadn't planned to come back, but an ominous phone
call triggered my speedy return. During my travels I found that the
open road suited me so I stayed away as long as I could. I grew
accustomed to living a nomad's existence, and I found kinship rather
than family with men and women who were not at all interested in who I
claimed to be.
I liked being a person without a name; I relished
the blank looks I got when I introduced myself as Maceo Albert
Bouchaund Redfield. At home any one of those names would have elicited
some sort of response, but on the road it hadn't meant shit. Not a
single thing. So I convinced myself that the disinterest translated
The delusion worked until a single phone call from
my aunt Cissy shattered the fragile sense of peace I'd built for
myself. The plea on the other end of the phone line was riddled with
urgency-Holly's in trouble, Maceo-and it meant my days of wandering
It was time to make amends.
After two years of
drifting I finally knew there was only one place that could offer me a
shot at peace, and that was my hometown. The city was my crossroads,
the crooked man with the slanted grin, my temptation, and I wanted to
beat it. I wanted to win, and yet I still had expectations, because
when the Oakland skyline came into focus, a part of me expected to see
grave dust hanging above the city, or a mourner's shroud of black
clouds, to acknowledge all that had been lost with Billy's death.
Yet the world hadn't stopped, neither had I, and I'd learned the truest, if not the hardest, lesson of my friend's murder.
Life goes on.
The wind was high as the sun broke over the bay, bending trees and fences and moving the chilly fog of early January out into
the Bay. Nature had conspired to give her wayward son a fitting welcome-home party, and the theatrics matched my dark mood.
for a reprieve I turned up the heater in my car, then scanned the
boulevard until my eyes landed on a Flight Athletic billboard towering
over the intersection. During my travels from South Texas through New
Mexico and finally California, my way had been shadowed by billboards
that featured Cotton, and now a new one loomed above me, barely visible
in the mist that blanketed San Pablo Avenue. It featured a bare-chested
Cotton, hawking his gray-and-white basketball shoes with his full name-
Knox-written above his head. His matching Anaheim Vanguards shorts were
pulled down low enough to reveal the elastic band of his underwear and
the stitching that read: let me fly. The shoes were christened Fort
Knox in his honor, with the famous taglines guard 'em with your life
and worth their weight in gold scattered along the edge.
looked like a king, and I wasn't the only one who thought so. In pure
Oakland style, a fan had climbed the scaffolding to add what they
thought was missing from the picture. The tagger had used black spray
paint to draw a crown above Cotton's head, then red to give him a long,
flowing robe. Beneath the additions in bold, block letters the piece
was finished with the rallying cry from Scarface: the world is mine.
had to smile. It made me proud. I understood the fan worship and I knew
where it came from. Cotton was a warrior-king to the brigade of lost
boys who littered the Oakland streets. The raw aggression he used on
the court was an emotion they recognized, and they loved him for that.
Loved him because he hadn't been spit-shined into respectability or
polished to the point of forgetting who he was, and more important,
forgetting who they were.
The friends of his youth remained his
friends, and Vanguard games were often filled with guests of the
superstar who had rap sheets longer than his stats for college and pro
combined. He'd said more than once that he didn't consider the other
players to be a part of his family. His teammates were coworkers. The
only family he had was in Oakland.
The management's frustration
with Cotton's stance was obvious in their vaguely coded public comments
about "synergy" and "team dynamics," but they couldn't fault his play.
He might not smile and clown for the camera or refer to his coach as a
"second father," but he delivered on the court by averaging twenty-nine
points a game and making the All-Star team three years in a row. At the
end of the day it didn't matter that he was quick with his fists or
barely contained his contempt for authority, because he filled seats,
which filled the pockets of the people in the front office. The phrase
role model was never used to describe him, but he was featured in three
different commercials promoting a soft drink, his athletic shoes, and a
I was proud of Cotton's triumphs, and I
cheered his success from the sidelines, but I also knew that the
campaign was a fašade, and now, because of recent events, so did the
rest of the world. While the advertisement celebrated all that was
golden in the ballplayer's life, the discarded USA Today on my car seat
exposed the darker side to his tale. The newspaper also filled in the
details Cissy left out, and more simply, it clarified the reasons for
Shooting Guard Questioned
in Murder Investigation
San Francisco (AP)-Jan. 14, 1992-
woman was found bludgeoned to death in a San Francisco hotel room
registered to Anaheim Vanguard star Cornelius "Cotton" Knox. The former
Oakland resident missed Tuesday's game against the Sacramento Kings in
Anaheim after he was detained by the San Francisco District Attorney's
Office for questioning. Police are seeking information about an
unidentified man seen fleeing the hotel room on the night of the
A dead body.
An unidentified man.
The words flashed at me like Morse code.
the first year Cotton had entered the league, he'd spent every NBA
All-Pro weekend with his boys from Oakland, a gangsta's ball in
whichever city hosted the game; Houston, Philly, Denver, and finally
Oakland in 1992. Sometimes his guest list for the All-Pro included as
many as twenty people, expanding and deflating from year to year to
allow for arrests, marriages, illnesses, and murders. But no matter how
many people came and went, there was always one name that never changed.