1962. Beaufort, S.C. Eighteen-year-old Pat Conroy boards a Greyhound bus for his first year at the Citadel. In the seat next to him is a pretty girl in a paisley dress. She’s reading The Feminine Mystique, bound for Berkeley.
The bus pulls into the Greyhound station on Wentworth Street. Pat looks out the window. The basketball coach is there, as are a row of fellow knobs sweating in the August sun. Red-faced upperclassmen are screaming their heads off at them.
Pat sits back down, the girl passes him a cigarette, they head out for the West Coast.
With his big recruit gone AWOL, Citadel basketball coach Mel Thompson is facing a hole at point guard. A walk-on from Walterboro named Baynard Kendrick, 5’9″ and 135 pounds sopping wet, is handed the reins.
Kendrick is a sensation. Fueled by prescription weight-gain milkshakes of bananas, peanut butter, and buttloads of high-grade Colombian cocaine, he sets school records for assists, points per game, and longest post-game interview.
The only thing Kendrick seems to struggle with is filling Conroy’s shorts. With a 28-inch waist, his baggy uniform sags low on his hips, the hem reaching his knees. Kendrick goes on to a successful NBA career with the Boston Celtics, and low-hanging shorts become a huge trend among fans of fundamental basketball.
Scrappy point guards at private schools from Charlotte Latin to Birmingham Country Day wear “Kendrick Kulottes.” Young players everywhere copy his pasty gym-rat complexion, his buzz cut, and his floor-slapping, charge-drawing style of play. The rosters of Princeton and Duke are filled with low-pantsed McDonald’s All-Americans — driving Volkswagens, rocking Kingston Trio LPs, and screening Woody Allen films in the locker room
In urban centers like Detroit, New York, and Chicago, young black athletes flock to hockey.
Those that play basketball make sure to wear their shorts short and high on the waist.
Black men in county jails, their belts taken away, protest having to wear low-hanging pants as an indignity, since the style is associated with lily-white America.
Pat Conroy, spending a summer back in South Carolina as an intern in Armand Derfner’s Civil Rights law firm, works on the prison-belt lawsuit of the penal system. The case drags out until a foolish but lucky man named Charles Schmendiman, inventor of an inflexible but brittle building material called Schmendimite, begins selling Schmendimite prison-issue belts, able to sort-of hold up your pants but useless as a noose or weapon.
The ramifications in this alternate universe where low-hanging pants are not cool are widespread. As the war on drugs escalates, police cruise the projects, on the lookout for young men in well-fitted slacks who might be holding.
Remember when Jimmy Fallon sang “Pants on the Ground” as Neil Young? If you haven’t seen it, well you should. It’s probably on YouTube. Anyway, that never happened. Fallon’s career as a late-night talk show host is short-lived, and he’s remembered only for the film Fever Pitch, which let’s face it, really is an underrated romantic comedy.*
Meanwhile, after dabbling in law, Conroy graduates from Cal-Berkeley with a degree in women’s studies and marketing. He hangs out at Cody’s Books, helps to write the Port Huron Statement (albeit the much-compromised third draft), and makes his own hummus. After school he gets a job on Madison Avenue, part of a freewheeling groovy young set of new copywriters. While at Woodstock he is photographed by Life magazine, swimming in his tighty-whiteys. The shot becomes an iconic photo.
In a “Woodstock: Twenty Years After” edition of Life, Conroy is quoted about the picture:
“Not long after this picture was taken, the underwear came off too. A month later I came up with the ‘I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing’ campaign for Alka-Seltzer, and my life was changed forever.”
Conroy and Kendrick cross paths only once. Conroy is taking his kids to an LL Cool J concert at Madison Square Garden when Kendrick steals his cab. Conroy is wearing a black, red, and green New York Islanders hockey jersey. Kendrick is wearing the uniform of the ruling class, his underwear showing above his waist line. Conroy mutters under his breath: “Pull your pants up, you freakin’ square.”
*Perfect date night flick — a little baseball for the fellas, a little romance for the ladies. I mean, the scene with Drew Barrymore running across center field at Fenway, come on!
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