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When Rod was 13, he switched his sports focus from baseball to basketball because he could perfect his skills on his own. He practiced for hours at a time, even in the dead of winter. He wanted to be the next “Pistol Pete” Maravich, a fellow Serb known for his shooting and flashy play in college and the National Basketball Association. The theatrics of basketball were important to Rod. “He wanted to look great on the court,” recalls Angarola. “He practiced his form in the mirror, especially those outside shots.”
The concern for his appearance went beyond jump shots, Angarola says. Blagojevich had a distinct sense of fashion. As a boy, he “would look in the mirror and make sure his hat was on correctly.” Mike Ascaridis recalls Blagojevich dragging him outside the neighborhood to shop for clothes. He and Ascaridis had their hair cut by a stylist, not a barber.
Although Rade and Millie had one goal for their sons-that they go to college-Rod was a mediocre student. “I used to go to the library a lot,” Blagojevich recalls. “I was reading books I shouldn’t have been reading. I should have been reading my homework.” Angarola was stunned to discover the 15-year-old Rod’s stash of three-by-five index cards, carefully arranged in cigar boxes. On each card he recorded a quote that he wanted to remember and use. “I think he didn’t want to ever forget a lesson that he learned.”
Watching Bears football on television that same year, Rod was transported by a half-time film of the game’s best running backs moving to the words of Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem “If.” Rod had never heard of Kipling. “The very next day, the first thing I did when I got to school, I went to the library, found it, and I memorized it. I discovered Rudyard Kipling through the NFL.” (He can still recite the long poem from memory.)
He followed his brother to Lane Tech, not because of the school’s high academic standards but because Lane fielded a better basketball team than the neighborhood school, Foreman. But Rod did not make the team and, after his sophomore year, transferred to Foreman, where he figured he stood a better chance of shining on the court. He broke his wrist during practice in his junior year, and decided to give up basketball and, he says, “devote myself to my studies and my future.”
He undertook one last endeavor in competitive sports after reading how a sickly, asthmatic Teddy Roosevelt remade his body through boxing. As a high school senior, Blagojevich trained in a park district program and fought two Golden Gloves matches. He won the first, although he and his opponent ended up in the infirmary, Blagojevich with bruises and black eyes. He lost the next.
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The Blagojevich neighborhood was gritty and mostly white ethnic, with the beginnings of a Latino population. Gangs would later make an incursion into Blackhawk Park, where Blagojevich and his friends played basketball, but mostly they were blissfully unaware. Mike Ascaridis recalls that when they would go to shoot hoops at Lloyd School, “you’d come up to the park dribbling and you could smell the marijuana smoke. Hippies just hanging around smoking pot and drinking beer-that never appealed to us at all.” (Blagojevich would later appear silly when he claimed not to remember if he inhaled when he twice tried marijuana in college.)
“We were straight, serious-minded guys, sports driven,” recalls his older brother, Rob. “There were temptations, but we never succumbed.”
By the time Blagojevich finished high school in June 1975, Rade had gone to Fairbanks to work on the Alaska Pipeline, chasing high wages to send his sons to school. That summer and the next, Rod went to Alaska, too, and mostly washed pots and pans ten hours a day, seven days a week, for a janitorial outfit that serviced Bechtel Corporation, the engineering company. At one point, he had the night shift job cleaning Bechtel’s trailer office. The air inside was dusty, so Blagojevich opened two doors, then left to do his chores elsewhere, knowing he would be back later. Not long afterward, a man ran up and asked if he had seen the security guard. “I said, ‘No, why?’” Blagojevich recalls. “‘Because some fucking idiot left the doors open at the Bechtel offices and there are two bears in there.’ I walked in and the two bears are just wreaking havoc in the office. The security guard is throwing pebbles to get them to go out the other door, and [he] says to me, ‘You didn’t leave these doors open, did you?’ I said, ‘No, not me.’”