Air Ball

IMG_6499Middle school is awkward enough for just about everyone, but it is a nightmare for any perceived dork, nerd, freak, or weirdo. Fortunately, there were always other dorks to keep me company. However, not all dorks were my friends. There were some I simply didn’t want to be friends with because they were even dorkier than me. I avoided associating myself with them for the same reason jocks avoided me. On the flip side, there were some dorks more popular than me who did the same. In fact, they went out of their way to make fun of me just as much as the jocks did, because they were working so hard at being accepted. There were the unwritten rules of the dork kingdom.

Although I may have avoided the dorks beneath me, I never stooped low enough to taunt them – no matter how desperate I was for acceptance by my “cooler” peers. As a result of the warped sense of social status that middle school affords a mid-level dork like myself, I was pretty much nestled in a thorny no man’s land of social status. Aside from my fellow, equally dork friend Patrick, the pickings were slim. Our mutual association with one another certainly didn’t do a single thing to help the other’s cause. When your only friend tells everyone that he lays eggs, it becomes a matter of guilt by association. Aside from all of this, it was comforting to have at least one friend to navigate through the wilderness of middle school.

Naturally, the ground zero of middle school existence (aside from simply waking up) was gym class – just as it was in elementary school. But now, it was even worse. A daily nightmare. The bane of my existence.

By some divine, almost irrational miracle, it was also at this point when I finally became interested in sports. It were as though my bullied mind figured that demonstrating an interest in sports would somehow normalize me in the eyes of my peers.

The first major step in my sports development was when I got a basketball hoop installed on our backyard driveway for my birthday during the summer before 7th grade. After all five members of my family christened the court by carving our initials into the pole’s concrete base, I was well on my way to NBA superstardom, destined to be the next Larry Bird. However, unlike Larry Bird, I didn’t have teammates who had my back. I only had myself…and my basketball (like Wilson the Volleyball to Tom Hanks). Only instead of being a castaway on a remote, distant island, I was a castaway on the lonely island of middle school – a lone shooter on the island of misfit toys.

With the installation of a hoop, I now had my personal “home-court advantage.” Now, all I needed were opponents. When word got out that I had a brand new hoop, it was amazing how “popular” I suddenly became and how quickly my home-court advantage became an advantage for my opponents.

For the record, I never shot a basketball more consistently than I did in my backyard … but only when shooting baskets by myself. Actual game situations were a whole other story. In my court of my imagination, however, I ruled supreme, firing off a never-ending parade of draining one Game 7 buzzer beater after another.

Like any backyard court, I had no shortage of unique rules, replete with shooting zones divided into one-point, two-points, and three. It was a very quirky court for even the most skilled baller (an edge my small handful of opponents quickly mastered over me). For one thing, the “baseline” ran along the edge of the grass. The problem was, it was more of a curve than a line, making it a challenge to keep the ball inbounds. To compound matters, the “court” itself consisted of several large, uneven concrete slabs, featuring crooked raised ridges that were extremely tricky to navigate. If you dribbled just so, the ball would ricochet into a gazillion different directions, but more often than not, it ricocheted directly into your face or balls. Another challenge offered by my home court included the importance of not losing the ball out of bounds and onto the lawn, where it was quite likely to land into a pile of steaming dog shit. If the ball were to land in dog shit, the hope was that it would land on an old, dusty, dry pile, rather than a steaming fresh one that would get smeared into the small indentations on the ball like water into a sponge. If there was ever a great motivator to develop adept ball-handling skills, it was dog shit.

To compensate for my lack of traditional skills, I somehow managed to develop a bag of elaborate, body-twisting circus trick shots that I could perform expertly when playing by myself, but could never come close to replicating in actual game situations, much akin to the singing-in-the-shower effect. My unorthodox selection of shots is so symbolic of the way I live my life – off the grid of normalcy.

And destined for failure.

To this day, I can still make trick shots much more effectively than conventional lay-ups. Somehow, my trick shots have a higher shooting percentage than traditional shots. The bottom line is, I just don’t make many shots. And the ones I do make are usually more of a matter of luck than of any skill.

Despite my shortcomings, nothing could erode my newly-formed obsession with the sport. A year after my hoop was installed, I became a die-hard Pistons fan during the play-off run that resulted in the second of their back-to-back championships (1989-1990). I regretfully missed out on their first one, only to faithfully latch onto a team that quickly faded into ineptitude through the mid-late 90’, where there were more losing seasons than winning ones. Despite the losing, however, I remained a loyal fan and it paid off almost 15 years later when they returned to championship form. Sometimes, loyalty has its just rewards.

No matter how poorly things were going for my hometown team, there was always my hoop. Sun, rain or snow, my hoop saw action. There was never really an “off-season.” Not even the dead of winter could stop me. As long as I had a shovel, I was good to go, icicle fingers and all. When the climate got too extreme, there was always my bedroom Nerf hoop that my feeble mind decided to hang over a window, which I eventually shattered on a monster jam against myself.

With my newly acquired skills, the time had come to suit up for real, joining a recreational basketball league. My team was the Nuggets. We finished in last place. I once scored two points in a game. They were the only points I scored all season, but they were mine all the same.

Besides that pair of points, what I most remember about playing on the Nuggets was our center, Bronco (the Nuggets/Broncos/Denver connection not realized at the time due to my overall limited sports IQ). Bronco was a beastly, but sweet-natured, dough-faced kid of some undetermined ethnicity who wore thickly-framed Coke-bottle glasses. During games, whenever Bronco got the ball into his hands – his father incessantly screamed out in a thick (as thick as his son’s glasses), indecipherable accent: “Bronco! Shoot the ball! Bronco! Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball, Bronco!” His father’s influence was evident. Whenever Bronco got the ball in his hands, he always shot it. Open or not, it didn’t matter. The dude never passed. And he never really scored, either. He lead the team in offensive fouls, due to both his size and his lumbering, lead-footed klutziness.

I’ll never forget my two points. And I’ll never forget Bronco, nor his father, whose voice is still ringing in my head. I sometimes wonder where Bronco is now and whether he is still shooting the ball. I’ve searched for Bronco on Facebook, but having no knowledge of his last name has made it a futile effort.

As far as the league itself, a couple of years later, its president was sentenced to jail for child molestation and died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Fortunately, I never had any alone time with him. I wasn’t good enough. My lack of skill spared me.

A year later, I left the hell of middle school and entered into the jungle of high school. I decided to give recreational basketball another shot and by joining a YMCA league. Halfway through the season, I somehow managed to score seven points in a game, which raised my season PPG average to 1.6. With each subsequent shot, I could feel something peculiar and unfamiliar growing inside me: hope. My culminating 7th point was a wide-open three pointer drained with a swish – the pinnacle of my basketball career. I felt invincible.

Buoyed by my long-awaited 10th grade growth spurt, my athletic confidence reached a point where I decided to try out for the JV basketball team). Deep down, I knew I had little chance of making it, but even deeper down, believed anything is possible. Of course, reality dictated otherwise. It wasn’t meant to be. Neither was it meant to be for Patrick, who – despite being the tallest person to try out – failed to make the team, as well. As upset as I was for both of us, his failure to make the team was a bittersweet consolation for me. Aside from having no skill, I was also short for my age. Patrick had both skill and size on his side.

Dejected, I took solace in my hoop. At times, it functioned as a therapeutic crutch. Take for instance that cold, gray fall day when my parents found out I was failing an AP Government class I had no business taking. Depressed and frustrated, I headed outside and shot baskets until I started feeling better. Later, when I found my calling as a writer, my hoop served double duty as a distraction whenever I needed a break or to dribble plot complications out of my mind until my brain worked the problem out with a jump shot of creativity.

Twenty years later, my hoop remained standing, despite the wear and tear it endured – particularly the missing chunks of the fiberglass backboard incurred by errant shots, alongside numerous cracks on the verge of breaking off completely. The pole’s black paint was flaking off piece by piece like black snowflakes, revealing a rusty interior. Despite its shape and general disrepair, it was still my home court. And always will be in my mind. By the time my parents moved out of my childhood home a few years ago, it remained standing, rust, paint chips, cracks and all. It outlasted all of us.

I think about that old hoop from time to time. I like to imagine that it still stands. I like to imagine that the cracks in the concrete are probably even more severe and dangerous for even the greatest of dribblers. Despite all of these flaws, I like to imagine that the court is still played on. I like to imagine that whoever plays on it now has a better winning percentage than I did. And even if the hoop is gone, I am hopeful that the concrete slab with my family’s initials remains, serving as both a tribute and memorial that we once lived there – a ghost of our former existence, permanently fixed in time, and never giving up.

Epilogue

All of these years later, my love for basketball has rubbed off on my one-year-old son (who shares my name). Before he could even walk, he formed a sometimes overwhelming obsession with the game. He thinks any round object is a basketball, including the period at the end of this sentence. The second we pull up in our driveway, he starts demanding: “Basketball! Baaasketballl!”” and won’t go inside the house until we let him play for a bit. He even watches Michael Jordan highlight videos on YouTube. Like any parent, I can’t help but imagine him turning out into a bona fide point guard someday. Though the odds are stacked against him, I plan on spreading my mantra on to my children: never give up.

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