If I stuck to the adage “write what you know” I would have had a hard time justifying my protagonist’s name, The Beast. I’m a 6-1 (with Jordans on) lanky guy with a scraggly beard. I started varsity for Carolina Friends School, which had 35 kids in its 2006 graduating class (go CFS!). We were good considering none of us could dunk. Looks can be deceiving. There were rumors about some of us playing DIII—we made it to States a few times and even won a game or two.
More importantly, we loved the game in spite of our stature, which goes with the theme of my debut novel, Slim and The Beast. The novel is about brotherhood. It is also about a stalker and bathtub whiskey. But mostly, it’s about the pursuit of passion versus career, about the challenge for post-grads to search for and find meaning.
Hugh Dawton-Fields, aka The Beast—UNC superstar, National Player of the Year, NBA lottery pick, 7-footer with a violent streak—finds himself banned from the Dean Dome after punching a coach in the face. His past has seen tragedy and his future is guaranteed: upon graduation, he will enter the NBA Draft. But like all of us, just because he’s good at something doesn’t mean he’s passionate. And so when The Beast is assigned community service at a burger joint called The Skillet, Hugh meets Slim, and everything begins to change.
There is more to the novel than basketball. For one, there are two other protagonists (Slim, an Iraq War veteran and The Beast’s best friend, and Sgt. Dykes, an alcoholic stalker). The reason I wrote about a basketball player, though, is because it was the first place I found passion. Hugh Dawton-Fields grew up as a loner. Kids made fun of him for his height. He played all day in the backyard, alone. But once he reached puberty, scouts began to take notice. All of a sudden, this young kid was no longer called Hugh. Everyone knew him as his on-court presence, The Beast, except for a disillusioned war hero who went by the name Slim.
And so the novel is really set once Slim and The Beast leave North Carolina for the 2010 NBA Draft. The excerpt below is about Hugh Dawton-Fields’ transformation from a quiet kid with a love for the game to an older kid with a celebrity nickname. Athletes—especially talented ones—don’t really have a chance to give us the real story. We see them on the court, in a state of grace, and think of them as transcendent. But they play XBox. They drink beer. They sometimes have trouble sleeping. It’s natural for us to regard sports stars as heroic, admirable faces…but when the buzzer sounds, when the TV is off, who are the real people behind the mask?
It’s a shame college athletes don’t have a right to their own name, and the All-American Hugh Dawton-Fields, aka The Beast, was of course no exception. One look at the young man and you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better nickname. He was 7-2 on his tippy-toes—size 19 feet, the biggest in the NCAA—and 290 pounds after a full meal. His hands were the size of frying pans, his wingspan about 7-6. Standing under the 10-foot hoop, The Beast could touch the rim without even straining. He had bulging biceps, massive forearms, and a chest that often got in the way. He entered most rooms sideways. One player described him as a 7-foot freight train. But as our man Slim would soon learn, the expression “appearances can be deceiving,” though trite and overused, was particularly true when it came to The Beast.
Hugh Dawton-Fields’ portrait was painted by secondary acquaintances, sports writers who thought they knew him and fans who believed they knew why he played basketball. They thought they understood why he didn’t like the spotlight; but even if he was shy, reasons aren’t the same as explanations. As a kid he was taunted for being tall, lanky, and quiet. When he went through puberty in early high school, he was made fun of just the same. He was a dominant, forceful player, but a frustrated one, too. Not used to his newfound size of a staggering 6-8 at 16, in high school he had trouble controlling his strength, breaking more than a few noses and wrists along the way. On account of his playing style, he usually ended up on the bench at the end of the game. He didn’t mind it though, hearing the final horn from the sidelines. According to one scout he had the size but lacked a passion; still, his averages spoke for themselves: 35.3 points, 21.5 rebounds, and 8.4 blocks, all while playing a little over half of the game. After a high school career that eclipsed even Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain’s, The Beast entered UNC destined to become a legend. In his first year he won ACC Freshman of The Year. During his sophomore year he was a top-five All-American. Forever the quiet one who distrusted the business side of things, Hugh Dawton-Fields was a soft-spoken superstar, refusing all interviews, hiding in the locker room after the game.
No one was able to crack The Beast’s demeanor. Professional scouts and well-dressed agents were baffled he didn’t leave early for the NBA. He was old school, if that still meant anything. Most believed he loved the college game and the focus on team, but the truth was his main goal was a college degree; and as long as UNC kept selling tickets, only opponents found time to complain. What with all the agents and hype surrounding such a dominant player, no one knew or cared about the kid behind the nickname. He was polite and quiet and always showed up to practice early; but he left on time just the same. Some NBA scouts questioned his intensity. The Beast was a superstar without the fanfare, a celebrity without the tabloids—if the kid known as Hugh Dawton-Fields were ever asked for an interview, that one might be granted; but UNC made too much money off the nickname (fans even petitioned to have it on the back of his jersey). And so he played more aggressively on account of the chants; he fouled more intentionally on account of the jeers; he screamed louder when he dunked on account of the TV and made a habit of fouling out at the end of games. On the court he was a phenom destined for the NBA, but off the court he refused to answer anyone who called him The Beast.
According to Sgt. Dykes, who said he’d done his research, everything came down to punching Assistant Coach Jim Brees. No one knows what Coach Brees said, but it most assuredly had to do with The Beast’s parents’ deaths—the punch came just three months after the family restaurant Chez Moi burned down, when The Beast returned to the hardwood in hopes of moving on. The only thing the media talked about was Jim Brees’ near-death experience—neither Jim Brees nor The Beast ever spoke about what was said. It was as if The Beast’s culpability was a foregone conclusion ’cause, like a NCAA spokesperson suggested, how could a respected Division I coach be in the wrong?One teammate said Coach Brees called The Beast a f—– for crying, for which The Beast picked him up by the armpits and slammed him to the ground before bloodying his face.
A janitor watching from high up in the stadium said The Beast knocked Brees out without warning; but the most likely story is that of Alex Morgan, a curly-haired point guard who spent quite a lot of time on the bench. “I won’t say what was said because I know what you’ll do with it. But trust me when I say it was out of place. I was running suicides, just like the rest of us. Coach Brees got in Hugh’s face for falling behind. Some words were exchanged and Hugh asked Coach Brees to repeat it. Coach did and Hugh backhanded him right across the face […] No, he deserved it. That’s my opinion at least. […] It wasn’t a punch, it was a backhand.” Even if Alex Morgan’s story is to be believed, verbal abuse was no excuse for almost rendering a coach blind. There were plenty of debates on ESPN and talk radio about what could have been said and if it even mattered, and if it did what did he say? and if he did say it, why? But The Beast refused to speak about it and Coach Brees seemed too scared. Whatever the case, The Beast was immediately expelled from the team and potentially the university; though he’d been suspended before, it had been for an in-game ejection (nose breaking), and it’s one thing for the powers that be to pull strings for flagrant fouls or the occasional bloodied face, but putting a staff member in a coma for three weeks? This was a serious offense that no PR expert, boat-shoe wearing donor, or hoity-toity academic could right fix. Lest The Beast’s story end prematurely, the sentencing judge—an adamant basketball fan who had high hopes for The Beast—saved Hugh Dawton-Fields from expulsion by sentencing him to five hundred hours of community service at The Skillet.
‘Slim and The Beast’ is the debut novel for Inkshares, America’s first crowdfunded publishing house. Samuél L. Barrantes is an essayist and novelist from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His work has appeared in Paris Lit Up Magazine, SLAM Magazine, and The International Forum for Logotherapy. Samuél plays streetball in Paris in a neighborhood called The Swamp. He dreams of dunking in game and perfecting the Eurostep. Find more info, fiction, essays and inspiration at www.samuelbarrantes.com and Slim and The Beast at booksellers and at www.slimandthebeast.com