They say never trust a guy with two first names. What about two last names? Smith Jones walked in just in time to hear Cleveland State tip off against Butler. It was two days before Christmas, 2011.
“What’ll it be, Mac?” asked the barkeep.
“It’s Smith Jones, not Mac. Give me a pint of your finest milk.”
An unusual request, but this stranger was a paying customer so his wish was granted.
“One whole milk coming up,” said the barkeep.
He eyed Smith Jones for a couple seconds. He was 6 feet tall and weighed around two hundred pounds. Smith Jones, not the barkeep whose name was Mike Malloy. He weighed 197.
“That’ll be two dollars, Mac.”
“What’d I say about calling me Mac? Do I look like a computer?”
Mike felt embarrassed.
“Sorry, uh, Smith Jones,” he apologized. “I call everyone Mac. I mean no disrespect, okay, Mac?”
That last slip curdled the milk in Smith Jones’ throat. He spat it on the floor and smashed his glass over Mike’s head. Milk sprayed everywhere, but mainly down Mike’s face. Mike’s blood boiled, his fists clenched at his sides.
Jenkins for THREEEEEE! rang out Mel Laskowski’s voice from the radio. CSU jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
Mike loosened his fists, felt the oxygen return to his lungs. The voice in his head had already pardoned Smith Jones. A few seconds ago he was ready to trounce all over the man for his unsportsmanlike behavior. But his beloved Vikings getting the best of Butler brought about a change of heart.
Smith Jones squared off like Johnny Kilbane, his fists raised high and ready. “Whatcha gonna do about it, barkeep?”
Mike stayed put. Keeping his eyes on Jones, he kissed the palm of his right hand and placed it on the CSU pennant behind the bar, a technique he uses to stay cool under fire. The eyes of his patrons were on him like stripes on a referee, waiting to see what he was going to do. After what seemed like a full timeout, Mike shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “no use crying over spilt milk.” He wiped his face with a bar towel and pulled out a broom to sweep the broken glass.
Smith Jones knew that Mike had gotten the best of him. He tossed a couple of bucks on the counter and left.
“Must be a Butler fan!” yelled Johnny Milnic, perhaps the biggest fan of Cleveland State basketball around; on Sundays he asks parishioners at St. Vitus to pray for the Vikings and to wear something green on gameday.
Everyone in the bar erupted in laughter. Then all ears returned to the radio. Butler 8 Cleveland State 7.
A few minutes later Butler was up 14-7. Smith Jones walked back into Viking Tavern with a smug grin on his face. A hush draped the room.
“I don’t want any more trouble, Mac,” said Mike, realizing he had just called him Mac again. He waited for Smith Jones to leap over the bar and beat him senseless.
“No trouble, friend. May I have another glass of milk,” asked Smith Jones.
Mike poured another glass of milk, this time 2%, and slid it to him.
“What’s with the good mood?” asked Mike.
“My team’s winning,” said Smith Jones.
Mike laughed. “I knew there was something off about you. You’ve got a lot of nerve waltzing into Viking Tavern. Folks around here don’t take too kindly to Butler fans. Especially ones who break glasses of milk over their heads.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I get ugly when we lose. Doctor in Indianapolis calls it Butler Rage. It gets really bad when we play you guys.”
Mike leaned back on the bar and scratched his chin. “So you’re telling me that as long as Butler is winning you can sit here, drink your milk and act like an upstanding member of the Horizon League?”
“You got it,” said Smith Jones.
“That’s messed up, Mac. Oops, sorry!”
“You can call me Mac all the way to the Final Four. As long as Butler is winning I’m okay.”
A minute went by without another word. Smith Jones broke the silence. “So tell me, what’s it like being a Vikings fan? I mean, you are a Vikings fan, right?”
“Yeah, we’re all Vikings fans. Things have been very good for us the past several years. Coach is doing an amazing job for the basketball program, the entire school.”
Smith Jones panned the walls of Viking Tavern. The place was dripping in CSU memorabilia, sweating CSU history. There were photos of basketball greats dating back to 1929 when Cleveland State was called Fenn College. Pictures of Franklin Edwards, Dave Kyle, Norris Cole and Mouse McFadden. There were newspaper clippings under glass that commemorated Cleveland State’s magical run in 1986, when the school upset Indiana and St. Joes and nearly sunk Navy in the Sweet 16. There were even pictures of coaches in the order they coached. Homer Woodling, Ray Dieringer, Kevin Mackey. Even the bad ones, Rollie Massimino and Mike Garland. And there was a shrine in one corner with green and white candles under a giant painting of Coach Waters. It looked like a Rembrandt. Or a Norman Rockwell.
“It should be in a museum, or a church,” said Mike pointing at the painting of Coach Waters. “It gets pretty loud in here sometimes. I had to reinforce it with special nails to keep it from falling,” he added.
Davis drains a three and CSU pulls to within two. Butler 28 Cleveland State 26. Forty-eight seconds remain in the half.
Smith Jones slammed his fist down on the bar. Peanuts flew everywhere.
“Take it easy Mac, it’s just a game!” said Mike.
“What did I say about calling me Mac? And it’s more than just a game. Give me another milk!”
“Okay, but one more outburst and I’m cutting you off,” yelled Mike.
Mike slid another glass of milk over to Smith Jones. He gulped it and slammed the glass down on the bar. A Magnus bobblehead five feet over shook and trembled from the force.
“What’s with the milk, you do realize this is a bar?” said Mike.
“I never mix alcohol and Butler-CSU basketball. Not since the 2008-09 season,” explained Smith Jones.
Mike remembered that season like it was yesterday. Most CSU fans do.
“How many did we play that season, was it 3 games against each other? I believe it was 50-48 Butler, 58-56 Butler, and 57-54 CSU in the championship game. Great year for college basketball but terrible for my nerves!”
“Your nerves? The morning after you guys beat us on our home floor to clinch the title I woke up next to a drain pipe in Gary, Indiana. I still don’t know how I ended up in Gary. I just remember having a terrible headache and finding out that someone had placed one of these on my…oh, never mind!”
“No, tell me. Someone placed one of what on – “
Smith Jones turned around and as discreetly as one could in a place like Viking Tavern pulled one side of his pants down to reveal a Viking logo plastered in green and white on his left butt cheek.
Cleveland State ties it on a Brown layup with 13 seconds left in the half.
But no one was listening to the radio anymore. Everyone was staring at Smith Jones and his tattoo. Whoever did this to him did a pretty good job. Johnny snickered at the other end of the bar.
“You think this is funny?” Smith Jones shot back.
Johnny remained seated. “I was just wondering if it has a twin.”
“You better watch your mouth!” warned Smith Jones.
Mike stepped in. “Alright you two, take it easy. We’re all friends here and it’s two days before Christmas for crying out loud!”
Smith Jones pushed ahead. “Just keep him away from me!”
Cleveland State and Butler are unable to score in the final seconds and take a 28-28 tie into halftime.
“Johnny, why don’t you buy our friend here another milk. You, Smith Jones, pull up a stool. Let’s talk.”
Smith Jones sat down and took a sip. He grimaced and rubbed his stomach. He looked at Mike who was putting a clean glass away.
Mike asked, “So you stay clear of the booze and wash your worries away with milk because you don’t want something like that to happen to you again?”
Smith Jones scratched his head. “That and because milk’s supposed to be good for you. I want to build up my muscles so when I find the guy who did this I can give him something much worse than a tattoo.”
Mike said, “You know, it’s not a bad tattoo and nobody needs to know about it unless you show them.”
Smith Jones wouldn’t hear of it. “You don’t understand. I have a bachelor’s from Butler, and I’ve been a season ticket holder for as long as I can remember. Having a Viking on my ass is not a good thing!”
“You can always get your masters here,” quipped Johnny.
Smith Jones glared at Johnny but remained calm.
“You gotta admit that was pretty funny,” said Mike.
“Yeah, that wasn’t half bad,” said Smith Jones.
Mike thought long and hard about how to put a positive spin on it. “Look, it’s almost Christmas and your team is playing good ball and our team is playing good ball. What happened to you a few years ago is tragic, but things happen. Can’t you just enjoy an evening of college basketball on the radio?”
Smith Jones appreciated the sentiment but was still not buying it. “What would you do if a busload of Butler fans came here and trashed your bar?” he asked.
“He’d probably turn the other cheek,” laughed Johnny.
Mike glared at Johnny. Johnny apologized. “I’d be sore for sure,” said Mike. “But I’d find a way to get over it. I’d find a way to rebuild this place.”
“Well you’re a better man than me. If a busload of CSU students came to my place and trashed it I’d kill every last one of them,” said Smith Jones.
“And what would that accomplish?” asked Mike. “Listen, CSU respects Butler. CSU wants to win like Butler. Up until a few years ago our school couldn’t win 5 games a year. If I was you I would take an act of vandalism like that as a compliment.”
“How are you able to just sit there and take everything that comes at you like it’s some sort of blessing? I mean, you didn’t fight back when I smashed a glass over your head! Aren’t you tired of serving drinks to dirtbags like me? Do you ever just want a better life?”
“When I was in high school my father showed me a picture of these guys sitting on a metal beam high above New York City. You may have seen it, it’s a popular picture. It was taken when they were building the Rockefeller Center in ’32. Anyway, my father was trying to explain to me the value of a buck. He said, ‘Mike, do you know what these guys want more than anything else in life?’ I said ‘no, haven’t a clue.’ He looked at me with eyes that said I thought I raised you better than this. He said, ‘these men, these hardworking men, want to have enough. Enough to feed their wives and children. And if there’s enough left over, the electric bill. Having enough makes your dreams about having more worth dreaming about.’ So, growing up the son of a Depression baby I kinda adopted those as words to live by. I think my father, like those guys in the picture, never thought that sitting on a beam a mile up in the sky was anything extraordinary. It was just something to do, something to keep your mind off something else for a few minutes. Like this basketball game.”
Welcome back to the Wolstein Center. Second half action is about to begin. I’m Mel Laskowski and you’re listening to Cleveland State basketball.
“Stick around for the second half?” asked Mike.
“I may as well. I have no girl and no place to go. I’m stuck here in Cleveland surrounded by Cleveland State fans. And I think I’m going to be sick from all this milk.”
“Bathroom’s down the hall on the right,” said Mike.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Mike didn’t want to pry but asked anyway. “How come no girl, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I had one, up until that dreadful night when you guys marched into Hinkle Fieldhouse and stole the championship from us.”
“Are you telling me that your girlfriend left because Cleveland State beat Butler? Where are people’s priorities these days?”
“No, of course not. Alcohol, fanaticism, and stringing her along for seven years without proposing probably had something to do with it.”
“Was she a Butler fan?”
“No, not my Colleen. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, if you can believe that.”
Mike and the CSU faithful hated Milwaukee. To this day Milwaukee owns CSU whenever CSU visits.
Smith Jones reflected on life since the breakup. “A few Christmases have gone by since Colleen left me and each one gets harder than the last. I just want to see her and tell her I was wrong. She needs to know that I’m sober. Of course I’m hooked on milk now.”
“You should forget about finding the guy who transformed your rear end into a CSU billboard and patch things up with your girlfriend,” said Johnny. He went on to explain. “Maybe your anger is not about the tattoo, but it’s about getting back the important things, you know, the people you love.”
“How would you know? You’re drunk!” said Smith Jones.
“Maybe so, but I was in love with a girl once.”
“Oh really? Do tell us what happened Johnny.”
“Do you really want to hear this?” asked Johnny.
“More than anything in life,” said Smith Jones.
“Are you absolutely positively sure that you want to hear this?” Johnny asked again.
“Tell me already, dammit!”
“She left me when she found a Butler Bulldog on my butt!” squealed Johnny.
The bar exploded in tears and laughter. Even Smith Jones couldn’t hold back.
Cleveland State 40 Butler 28.
Smith Jones wasn’t paying attention to the score anymore.
Butler kept climbing back but the Vikings went on to win that night. Smith Jones stuck around after the game and hung out with his new friends. He felt good for the first time in a long, long time. He called Colleen and they agreed to meet on New Year’s Eve to work things out. He decided he would cut back on milk, it had been giving him an upset stomach anyway, and promised to return to Viking Tavern next year when Butler visits Cleveland State.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if CSU and Butler ended up in the NCAA final in April,” said Mike.
“If that happens I’m taking all of you to Indiana for tattoos. My treat,” laughed Smith Jones.
Viking Tavern enjoyed another round of laughs and giggles before shutting off the lights and emptying onto Euclid Avenue. Snowflakes had just started falling. Mike stuck his tongue out and caught one of them. The Cleveland State tower shined like a beacon high above Cleveland. Over at the House of Blues, Michael Stanley was thanking God for the man who put the white lines on the highway. But most people, including Mike Malloy, were packing it in for the inner belt. For the next day was Christmas Eve and he planned to be at home with his family.
Illustration by Joyce Sajovie