Saturday, August 29, 2009

Friday, August 28

I felt a little bit more bounce tonight in my workout. My stretching regimen, as tedious and repetitive as it feels to me, seems to have freed, if not my locker-tight hamstrings, then at least my calves a little bit. These are the days that I will look back to when (if?) I'm dunking and say that they were the ones that made it happen.
Nothing spectacular happened today, but I completed the workout. I stretched, I strengthened, I (conquered?). Now the grand total is fourteen days of work, with six days off. I must say that I am looking forward to two days off. Sometimes, in the minutia of the calf raises, the calf stretches, the same exercises, day in and day out, I feel like it's a job.
I think I'll watch some "Office Space" this weekend...

Interlude, Part VII: The Forgotten Part of MJ’s Last Game *

If you ask any basketball fan who was in or past his formative years in the late 1990s about their lasting memory of Michael Jordan, it will most likely involve MJ crossing over Bryon Russell, pushing off on Russell’s leg, and rising up for an absolutely perfect jump shot—nothing but net as he holds his follow through in the air for an extra moment.
This shot was memorable for so many reasons—it was his last shot as a professional basketball player, it won the championship for his team—really, what better way for an all-time great to retire?
To watch that shot again (trust me, Youtube has been a godsend; I must have watched that shot hundreds of times in the last two years) is to see a maestro execute arguably his finest stroke on the last offensive play of his career, in the most pressure-packed, important moment of a basketball game, to win an NBA title.
There are few people in our lives who seem to be shadows, wisps, ghosts, even while they live. I remember having a conversation with my brother right after my grandfather’s funeral about how both of us had always imagined what his funeral would be like and what people would say in their eulogies. He was that kind of a man—legendary, saintly, larger than life. The morbidity of imagining his funeral while he still lived and breathed was overshadowed by the pure reverence for a person who seemed to be of humanity and some other group and the same time.
Jordan was one of those rare ones, the one that you savored while he still played, the one whose present was not overlooked in place of fastforwarding to his past. Many of us (most of us?) understood the grace, the elegance, the power, the dominance, the intensity, the rarity of this man named Michael James Jordan.
This shot over Russell, as beautiful as it was, would never have mattered if it were not for the savage steal Jordan made on the play before, karate-chopping the ball out of the Popeye-muscled Karl Malone’s hands. Prior to the steal, he had abused Bryon Russell (poor guy; does he have an “Owned by MJ” tag on his body somewhere?) for a quick bucket with about 37 seconds left. I cannot even imagine the nausea that welled up in every Jazz fan as Jordan, Michael Jordan, had the ball in his hands, with the shotclock off and fifteen seconds to go in the game. It was like David with no pebbles left in his slingshot trying to fight off a charging Goliath.
It was, as my more serious gamers know, like that uneasiness that comes in the last minute of any sports video game in which you are beating the computer at its own game. Especially if you are playing the computer at a high skill level, your imminent loss is pretty much like death and taxes. Despite what my brain would see as a seemingly insurmountable lead, a fumble on a light hit from the computer’s team in "Tecmo Bowl" or a missed layup in "Bulls vs. Lakers" always seemed to lead to a game-winning Hail Mary pass or fadeaway three-pointer for the computer, so much so that I learned to expect failure.
Michael Jordan was the Computer. He was the one who was never out of game, dragging his teammates along out of the sheer force of his resolve. In this way, then, we mortals feel for Karl Malone, as we know that he was just a vessel through which Michael Jordan would cement his greatness.
I ask you, dear reader, to return to Youtube: (
When you watch Jordan’s poster-perfect jumper fall through the hoop with 5.4 seconds to go in the game and you feel those familiar chills, don’t forget about the approximately eight seconds where he had the ball on the left side of the court, pounding the ball into the ground, waiting for an opening, sending the Jazz fans’ hearts into their throats.
Sometimes the wait is harder than the fall.

Good advice to remember for a pessimistic wanna-be dunker...

*It is your prerogative to count his Wizards comeback as part of his career--I just choose not to, thanks.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27, Thursday

I started today with baby steps towards a legitimate cardio program. I have always loathed running long distances--anything more than the length of a basketball court really--but I know this component is key to maximizing my dunk training program. I chose to run along the beach, as just the sight of the water has worked its rejuvenative powers on me in the past.
Today was an inauspicious debut, as the even the beautiful people, palm trees, blue (ish) waters and stunning views were not enough to give a huge boost to my cardiovascular system. Before I ran, I performed my jumping exercises at a beautiful grassy parkette overlooking the ocean.
Unfortunately, that ugly harbinger of fatigue, the random cramp that seems to emanate from the shoulder, showed up just a few minutes into my run. The 94 degree heat, even at the shore, probably didn't help much either. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I was only able to run for some fifteen minutes before I stopped, or at least slowed to an elderly crawl.
My lungs burned, my stomach felt queasy, my legs ached--you'd have thought I'd just finished a marathon as I tried to control my nausea. Despite the fact that the younger me would have thought this a beautiful shared experience with nature (see my poem below), I am definitely not going to throw up on a public beach. (I haven't thrown up for some twenty-one years, by the way, a Jerry Seinfeld-like record, but that's a story for another blog.)
This younger version of me, the blindingly and blissfully idealistic one, would have found some gray in this dark cloud of only running for fifteen minutes. "It's a start," he would say, and I will agree.
The glass may not be half full, but I feel fine saying that it's a quarter full.


Miles, hundreds of miles
all within one horizon.

Hundreds to the left,
hundreds to the right.

I take it all in,
yet take in none of it.

Gulls fly by in a perfect "V,"
("V" for victory?)

And as the waves turn chillingly white
from their seemingly permanent green...

As the blue sky stretches stupendously
to places unknown...

As the waves crash continuously, making
me feel securely safe...

As I feel the grainy sands of time between my toes...

As time indeed slows to a crawl...

I think to myself that
there is no place in this wide
where I'd rather
throw up.

* "Pua'i" is a Hawaiian word for vomiting

Thursday, August 27--Interlude, Part VI: MJ

I'm reading a great book right now by David Halberstam called Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. Halberstam is one of those incredibly objective writers who is able to steer the facts to his developed hypotheses, though not in a heavyhanded or bombastic manner. It is truly a book written by a journalist who is skilled enough to make the reader forget that he is a journalist.
It has been eleven years since Jordan retired (feel free to count his Wizards comeback as part of his career--I choose not to, thank you). How then has he gotten better as a player each and every year that he has been retired? How it is that his airtime seems that much longer, his fallaway that much more unstoppable, his pullup jumper that much more deadly, from a 2009 viewpoint? Something about the mass-media age in which we live has elevated our celebrities and athletes to even greater heights with each highlight, each ESPN Classic retrospective, each YouTube search for "Greatest Jordan Dunks" or "Jordan Mix."
As Kobe Bryant led (is this too much credit to say he "led" a very talented team?) his team to this year's NBA Championship, there was a bit of the old man in me who couldn't wait to be asked my opinion on whether this had catapulted Kobe into "GOAT" territory. The more I was asked, the more had to defend my generation and speak my piece on how he was a great player, but not in Jordan's territory, lacking the unselfishness, the number of NBA titles, the pure "Did you see that?" quality of MJ's game.
There is something seemingly innate to humans that causes us to insert ourselves into the era(s) in which we have lived and defend that era to the death, because we are in effect territorial people. How dare a Young Turk come and shake the bars of our era, claim Lil' Wayne as the best rapper, when we know the best has to be someone from "The Golden Era of Music" (our era)--Dr. Dre or De la Soul, Tribe, Tupac. How dare someone say that these current cartoons are the best--umm, have you even seen Batman: The Animated Series?
In the same way that old-timers saw Elvis as profane with his hip-shaking Antichrist routines, so too do I have to remind any disbelievers that rape accusations against Kobe would not be forgiven in my day. (Sure, Jordan has proven to be a philanderer, but let's not let the facts get in the way of the story here.)
Your grandpa will never concede to your father that Ali was better than Marciano or Joe Louis, or to you that Tyson in his prime would have whupped any 1940s boxer.
And you will not, cannot, ever concede that anyone, be it Kobe or maybe even LeBron in a few years, was better than MJ.

Wednesday, August 26

My regime is coming along nicely, in terms of improvement with the intensity and frequency of most of the exercises increasing. Tonight's regimen:
-45 jumps with each leg individually, and 45 with both legs, for a total of 135 jump rope repetitions
-40 squats, using my body weight
-40 calf raises
-Six knee to chest jumps; jumps executed from standing start
-25 "rim touches," which have become "pole touches" in the basketball court-less local gym

It is clear that the next step for me is a more involved cardio program. As I did when I was training for high school basketball, I will start with more aerobic exercise and taper it down to sprints and other anaerobic exercise. I usually do 20-30 minutes of cardio at the gym, though it's on the seated workout bicycle, and I don't feel like that is incredibly taxing. I don't necessarily love running just for the sake of running, so I either need to find some workout partners, or just suck it up and take a little run, maybe along the beach...not a bad option.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, Part II

There is an inherent competition in exercising and training, even if it's for something post-scholastic like my training for a future dunk. This competition starts in oneself, pushes him to do one more rep, then one more, then ten more of a different exercise. It is a natural extension, then, despite the mostly collegial atmosphere in a gym, to this sense of territoriality and selfishness that comes with one's training. How can there not be, when you are pushing not just against yourself--your physical and mental limits, which seem to be entities outside of your own body--but against Time itself?
This sense of competition will manifest itself, in some ways more subtle than others, against any who is perceived as an outsider, . So it was that I felt a certain swarminess and cockiness in the words of the youngster training next to me tonight as I did my exercises. This young man and his training buddy, both with close-cropped, lined hair, long Nike shorts and obscure, generic Nike jerseys, were tortured by a pleasant-looking man who I guessed was in his mid-30s, maybe some 15 or 20 years later than his boot camp victims. The trainer had them doing multiple exercises with a compact medicine ball--squats, lunges, partner abdominal work, and chest passing drills.
As the pair ran and shuffled and threw and pushed themselves into exhaustion, they passed into the corner where I stood doing jump rope drills. As the taller of the two approached me, he stumbled just a bit, seemingly surprised that I stood in the corner, previously unseen to him in his athletic concentration.
As the two received a well-deserved break, I walked past them to the water fountain, lightly breathing after a fairly strenous set of jumps, but nowhere near as exhausted as these two. The one who had almost tripped over me looked me up and down, and smiled, saying, "Ah, sorry, man, you came outta nowhere. Sorry to crowd you."
Kids these days! So cocky. I knew that inherent in his wording and body language was a message, strong though unspoken: "Let me just play the better man here, with the false modesty. Yeah, I'm sorry that my incredibly intense workout almost interfered with your minor little one."
I smiled, said it was no problem, and toweled off my dry forehead unconsciously as a kind of silent response.
I finished my workout, finding myself feeling noticeably springier and more on balance on my "rim touches." My stretching and training regimens seemed to work together as one on this night, as I incorporated the two stretches (plus a "butterfly stretch" for my hip flexors and groin, and two standing calf stretches) and one core strengthening exercise shown to me by my physical therapist.
Also, my calves felt noticeably looser as I jumped, and I felt myself able to hold my calf raises for a split second longer than before, and I felt better able to explode out of my squats on my knee to chest jumps.
As I walked out of the gym, I swear that the young man working out looked down his nose at me as I left.
Is it possible that I imagined all this, that the youngster was being sincere when he smiled and apologized to me? Is it possible that I'm seeing things that aren't there as some sort of defense mechanism to a perceived flaw in my training intensity? Maybe I...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday, August 25

"The key is to close your butthole," said my physical therapist, and galdarn it, he was right!

Today was my second visit to the physical therapist, and my progress had been barely discernible in the 19 days since my last visit. I have really taken to this therapist--he understands that the frustrated athlete in me wants to push and push in the exercises, go fast, "knock 'em out," as we used to say about the remaining line drills or "suicides" left to run at the end of hoops practice.

Alejandro, my therapist, knows, though, that I must be protected against myself, as speed is not key in my back exercises, but instead precision and execution. He is the Phil Jackson and Tex Winter of physical therapy, a veritable bastion of knowledge, but it still doesn't make it easier for me to slow my roll, even with Angelo Dundee in my corner.

Alejandro gave me three exercises last time, two for increased flexibility, and one for strength. As back sufferers know, back pain is not really back pain at all-it's hamstring tightness, neck pain, shoulder weakness, and on and on. The pain shoots down and up your body like a pinball machine lighting up, gradually highlighting a different part of your body.

The first stretching exercise is one in which I do a sort of lunge with one leg forward and the other back, with the knee of the front leg directly over the foot.

The second exercise is a pretty standard hamstring stretch, in which I lay on my back, extend one leg in front of me, and stick the other leg in the air, straightening it as best as my tight muscles will allow.

The third exercise is a strengthening one, designed to fortify my core muscles that are very weak and add undue stress to my lower and middle back. I lay on my back, with one leg outstretched, and the other pulled tight to my chest. The movements are nuanced and a bit complex. I am to push out with my outer abdominals (my obliques), flatten my lower back to avoid arching, and avoid puffing up my ribs and lower chest area too much. All this is to be done while concentrating on not holding my breath. It is seemingly an oxymoron in that I need to expend energy on concentrating my breathing, so that the breaths are so smooth that I don't have to think about them.

This is still my biggest issue with the strengthening exercise, as I feel that I am having to work harder than I should have to at breathing, while simultaneously tensing every muscle of my core. It seems harder than it should be, but it is getting better...

All of this improvement can be linked to the hallowed words of that Yoda in a physical therapist's guise: "Close your butthole." He said that he was not sure why this worked medically, but it did. Other patients of his were not able to enjoy the full benefits of the core strengthening until they heeded this advice, and I must say, though, I still feel a bit hurried and the exercises still feel unwieldy, the butthole advice has helped me immensely.

Monday, August 24

Ugly. Tonight's workout was ugly. I would say that getting two hours of sleep two nights before a workout, on a weekend in which you're supposed to be "resting," is not a smart maneuver. I skipped the jump roping, though the blame can be passed on to the personal trainers at my local 24 Hour Fitness for not leaving their cabinets (full of weights and jump ropes) unlocked as usual.
Besides that, the number of reps for each exercise was equal to that of my last workout. My prowess, however, was lacking on many of the exercises. My "rim touches" were more like broad jumps into the pole I use as a rim, more horizontal than vertical towards the end of my 25 jumps.
I am at times an optimist, and at times a pessimist, which makes me a staunch pessimist, right? Don't be so sure, you never know what can happen with a little positive thinking...
The optimist in me is sleeping tonight, though I can say that at least I went through with the workout (more or less) in its entirety, when my legs and my brain said "NO!" just a few hours before. Who knows, maybe this workout, in all of its gory and ugliness, will be the difference in that quarter-inch that allows me to throw down, and oh so beautifully....

Monday, August 24, 2009

Interlude Part V, Short Fiction: "Shadows"

Memories invaded my thoughts as I shot around the other day at Stevenson Park, right next to the baseball fields where I batted the highest in my league, stole bases with abandon, and made four straight Little League All-Star teams. Across the way were the football fields where I ducked right and left and left defenders in the dust as a seventh-grade tailback.
After about twenty minutes of shooting three-pointers, elbow jumpers, and free throws, two long-haired, scruffy dudes pulled up in a beat-up truck and jumped out, pushing and swearing, laughing the whole time. They wore jean cutoffs and wifebeaters, and let's just say that they did not look like basketball players. As they shot around, they actually looked like decent players. The one with the long sideburns and red doo rag on had a nice little jumper from the outside of the key and in, and the other longhair, complete with a mullet that Billy Ray Cyrus would be proud of, couldn't seem to miss on one short bank shot after another.
The usual basketball player flirting set in, then, and we eyed each other for a few minutes before I made the first move. "Hey, guys," I said, standing up as straight as I could, ball in hand, chest out, "you wanna play some 21?"
Doo Rag looked at Mullet Man, they both nodded, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves as Joey (me), Donnie (Doo Rag), and Jason (Mullet Man). The game was relaxed at first, the defense always played by one man, while the other defender stood in the key waiting for a rebound, in the 21 version of "cherrypicking." As the scores crept into the low-teens, the double-teams started, and the elbows and hips took on a wider arc. Just as I stood at the free-throw line, my score at 17, a shadow stepped onto the court.
The shadow asked if we were done, and then politely waited while we finished the game of 21, which I won with a fallaway bank shot from the left side of the key.
The shadow and Donnie made their first two shots as we picked sides, and so teamed up against Jason and me. As the shadow was my approximate height, I picked him up, leaving the 'Necks to giggle and guard each other.
The shadow came out a little tentative, passing up two open jumpers created when Jason failed to let me know that his buddy was setting a screen on me. As he warmed up, however, his shots began to fall. He was a master at using Donnie's gangly and awkward screens, freeing himself up for midrange jumpers. When we double-teamed him, or faked a double-team, he was agile enough to spin out of it and hit Donnie in stride for an easy layup. The score was 7-0, by ones, before we finally scored. Jason hit an ugly twenty-footer, no small feat on an outdoor hoop, to get us going.
I checked the ball to the shadow, and he threw it back softly underhanded to me as he got into defensive position. I lulled him to sleep with a steady right-hand dribble mixed with a few crossovers. I didn't make much forward momentum as I waved away a screen from Jason with a scowl, readying myself for "The Move," as my jv high school team had called it. As the shadow's left foot stepped forward, I smoothly passed the ball to my left hand by going through my legs, hesitated for a moment, and then came out of my crouch to explode to the left side of the basket. This was a move that had gotten me countless buckets in the past, a go-to move, the one that would have been my "Signature Move" on many an old school video game.
The shadow, though, beat me to my spot with a deft backwards step, his balance seemingly never compromised. He body bumped me, legally, and, surprised to feel contact where usually there was only an open basket ahead, I leaned in to him, causing us both to fall, him backwards, and me flat on my stomach and chest, as I moved my head up and out of harm's way.
As I helped the shadow up, he seemed to be the one helping me up, and I asked if he was okay. "I'm good," he said, smiling, "but you look worse for the wear."
There was something vaguely familiar in his quiet and innocent cockiness, and as the game wore on, the poor 'Necks must have felt that they were playing with Jordan and Kobe, as the game became a battle between the shadow and me. I scored a few through sheer physical strength and blind fury, but most of my drives and pull-up jumpers were met with a hand in my face and a dead end ahead. My usual head fakes and changes of pace did not fool my defender, and as the game wore on, I tired from such sustained offensive possessions, and the shadow and Donnie passed the ball between them like old teammates, with most possessions ending in short jumpers for the shadow or layups for the streaking Donnie. The shadow was one step ahead me on both sides of the ball, and his spinning, twisting layup, just over my outstretched hand, wrapped up a 21-10 victory.
I slapped hands with the shadow, told him and the 'Necks "Good game," and toweled off. The shadow's gaze never left me, and I saw his slightly goofy, slighty cocky smile as he surveyed his fallen prey. It was this look that convinced me that it was time.
"Wanna run it back?' said the shadow, and I replied, "Ah, sorry, guys, gotta go. Wife's demanding more time at home again--it's never enough, huh?"
Not waiting for an answer, not looking back, I walked away, aware that the shadow had just gained his second victory over me.
As I walked to my car, pride and chest hurting, the football fields and baseball fields seemed somehow wispy, farther away, their outlines barely on the horizon, and I blinked hard, hoping to reconcile reality with the truth.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I Would do If I Could Dunk, Hard

If I could dunk, and I don't mean dunk like a player in warmups who purposely doesn't touch the rim, or dunk like a player who slips the ball into the rim on a breakaway, I mean dunk like the explosive Vince Carter, or the punishingly powerful Shaq or Dwight Howard, I would celebrate so much they'd have to pull me off the court before I get thrown out of the game for taunting.
I remember the first game of my junior varsity year, in which I was the sixth man for the team. We were playing in our opponent's opening home game, and the air was rife with schoolboy bravado and adrenaline that seemed to be more plentiful than oxygen in the cramped old-school gym.
With the opposing fans shouting out idle epithets, the rap music on the gym's P.A. bumpin with its bass, and both teams trying to outshout each other as they warmed up, I felt like I could touch the top of the backboard each time I jumped for a layup or a rebound. Anyone who played ball as a kid remembers that the dunk had as its training wheels the vaunted "tap." To tap the backboard as you shot a layup was to join the ranks of the apprentice ballers hoping to move up to the dunk in the near future.
The game itself was probably the most exciting one in which I participated as a player, as three of our starters fouled out, I played some 35 minutes, and it went to three overtimes before we finally lost by one point.
In the last period and the three overtimes, there were multiple lead changes, and the momentum stayed suspended between the two teams in this tug-of-war. There was an intensity on each possession, on each free throw, on each shot that cannot be explained but only experienced.
I remember after the game talking to a teammate who played all 47 minutes of the game, and asking him if were tired. After hesitating a minute, scanning his previously numb body, he remarked, "Yeah, but I didn't realize it until now."
This adrenaline provided by the gym, the fans, the floor, the competition is something that all formerly competitive athletes miss like it were a human being. It felt that night like we could have played all night--and who's to say we couldn't have?
I imagine that if one were to take the sum total of that adrenaline-filled 47 minute game, it would be about equal to that felt in the split second after a dunk of Vince Carter's magnitude or Shaq's (in a furious rally that turned around a losing series against the Portland Trailblazers) giddy dunk off a precise pass from Kobe Bryant:
This is why I think that if I were in Vince Carter's shoes after his dunk on Frederic Weis, I would have done the exact same barking, scowling, screaming, pounding, posing, and punching that he did. I also would have talked about Weis' mama, marched in place like a soldier, wagged my index finger, a la Dikembe Mutumbo, done the "Ickey Shuffle," and maybe even have held a ceremony featuring various luminaries to plant a Jaime Flaco flag (sure, it'd have to be manufactured ahead of time, just in case) on Weis' body, thereby completing the metaphor.
Ah, a man can dream, can't he?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Two (or three, or four, or five) best dunks of all time? Please weigh in with your picks

Though my mind changes on this on an almost daily basis, I have to say that my two favorite dunks of all-time (ask me again tomorrow and I might throw in Kevin Johnson or Dr. J or 'Nique...) are MJ with a ferocious throw-down on Patrick Ewing-(
and Vince Carter's ridiculous dunk on poor Frederic Weis (

I love the "Oh no!" or something similar uttered by the Knicks defenders as Jordan slithers out of the double team in the corner and then absolutely posterizes Ewing.

As for the Vince Carter dunk, I remember seeing it live and being absolutely blown away, thinking that my eyes were deceiving me. I have since tried to intellectualize the dunk by trying to figure what his vertical leap was on that particular slam. Weis is 7'1", or 85 inches tall. Assuming that he was bent down a bit as Carter soared, "Vinsanity" (or at least his crotch) had to have been about 70-80 inches above the ground to clear Weis' head.
Mad, mad hops.
No amount of intellectualizing, however, will ever beat the chills and visceral reaction created as people around the world, me among them, sat and watched a man soar above another grown man, this one some 85 inches high, almost sit on his head, and throw the ball throw the hoop with a frightening and exhilarating amount of explosive force.
Absolutely electric.

Saturday, August 22--Interlude, Part III

The first time I ever lifted weights, at a summer conditioning camp for incoming freshman athletes, I bench-pressed 50 pounds eight times. That is lifting the bar "loaded" with two and a half pound plates on both sides. To see this pitiful image is to think it even worse than just hearing the total of 50 pounds. I was an incredibly skinny teen, about six feet tall with about 140 or 150 pounds on my fifteen-year-old frame.
There is, I think, no greater athletic optimism than that that comes with one's first attempts at lifting weights. The chart we used to gauge our progress at this camp showed incredible weekly improvements in bench press, incline bench press, and the other exercises. This early progress (my bench press had increased to 115 pounds by the end of the summer, a swell of a ridiculous 130%) will never be accomplished again in one's life.
It it with this knowledge that I know on an intellectual level that I will not just wake up one morning and rise up Vince Carter style (see above post) on some unsuspecting rim and/or defender. But I must say that there is a bit of the innocent, optimistic kid in me who hopes and believes that this training and focus I have undertaken in recent weeks will pay off, much sooner rather than later, with rattled rims and shaking basket supports.

Friday, August 21-Jimmy likes the Strength Shoes?

Today's workout makes it nine days off and six days off. I've definitely made stretching a priority, because my muscles are incredibly tight, as my yoga instructor and physical therapist will tell you. It seems that I spend as much time stretching as I do exercising, but as boring as the stretching is, I know that it is crucial to me meeting my goal.
Some people have asked me if I'm going to use the Strength Shoes, or something similar. As for now, I have no immediate plans to do so, but I'm thinking I'll probably give in and buy them in a few weeks.
These shoes bring up two disparate images in my mind: the first is the obvious success of some of my friends and teammates who used them regularly throughout high school. Yes, high school was ten years ago, but I would be more than willing to swallow my pride and be That Guy working out with the shoes long after his competitive basketball days are over if the shoes help me to throw down.
The second image is of Mel Torme singing "When You're Smilin" to me as I sit with a goofy smile on a dais next to the "Velvet Fog"...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thursday, August 20 (Interlude, Part II)

It's the fall of 2007. I am in reasonably good shape, as I am playing in a men's basketball league, though I can't say I play much more than the requisite once a week. The night before a game, I decide to take advantage of the free personal training session offered at my local gym. As happens to all of us, I've become a bit bored of my stale workout routine, and I go to the session particularly interested in learning a few new abdominal exercises. With the game the next night, I plan on a short bit of conferring with the trainer, maybe a few practice exercises, and I'll be on my way.
This is not the case. What follows is one of the toughest workouts I've ever experienced. The trainer, an amiable Aussie, tells me that I am his first personal training client, and it is apparent to me that he aims to earn a reputation for thoroughly exhausting and emasculating workouts.
Not only he does he show me four or five ab exercises, stopping for a few minutes to have me do complete sets of each, he does it all with a broad smile. This throws me off--should I already be sweating and shaking, or is this just the warmup? As we continue through the session, I sweat through my shirt and feel as if my arms have the strength of a baby's.
As the workout winds down, I get a second wind that is rebuffed by the trainer's suggestion/demand that I do three different types of pushups--with the different arm positions targeting the chest, triceps, and shoulders.
Let me also note that this sadistic Aussie is demonstrating each of the exercises, not content to be merely a bystander. But (and maybe I'm saying this to cushion the blow to my sensitive ego ), I must say that he has done probably a quarter of the reps that I have as I do my pushups. As I near the end of the third set of pushups, my arms are absolutely dead, and I compensate by moving my legs up in an accomodating yoga-esque pose. In other words, I am cheating. I am of the belief that I will not be able to finish these pushups without a bit of cheating.
As I falter, the trainer encourages me, as he is wont to do, with words that approximate, "You can do it, just four more!"
With fewer than ten pushups to go, I feel that the whole of my body, with its particular alchemy, has but six pushups left in its shell. I am of the opinion that it is physically impossible for me to do another six pushups. This thought coincides with one in the trainer's head that impels him to grab my torso with his hands and guide me into each pushup as the ultimate spotter. I will look back later and laugh at how ridiculous we must have looked to anybody unlucky enough to look into the personal training room and see one grown man lifting another grown man into a pushup.
One can never lie to oneself, and this seemingly innocous workout sticks with me to this day because of the knowledge that I was spent, that my body or my mind (or both) had hit the end point. The spoken bravado of later revisionism cannot overcome the deep knowledge that for that time span (some twenty to fifty seconds), my body gave up. I gave up. Complete surrender.
The last image that sticks with me is this: as the trainer encourages me to finish, I tell him what was completely a true statement in my world for that one moment--"I can't! I can't!"

It is the fall of 1995, and I am a skinny and athletic starter at power forward for the freshmen basketball team. We end the season at around 20-10, but at this time, we have gotten off to a 3-5 start, and we have just been embarrassed by our local rival in a primetime Friday night game, with them continually scoring layups and putbacks on our lax defense. Our coach does not suffer fools, especially fools who choose not to use their God-given athleticism on playing defense. The popular saying that "Defense wins championships" becomes "Defense makes men" in this particular coach's lexicon.
To drive home his point about the utter necessity of defensive effort, our coach informs us at the beginning of practice that we will not need basketballs, as we will be running for the entirety of practice. This running mostly takes the form of Coach's patented and dreaded "Fivers," in which we run the length of the floor once, return to the initial baseline, and count that as one rep.
Can it be that we did run for the entire practice? Is that humanly possible? Did we run almost continuously for 100 minutes? The faults of memory do not allow for certainty, and perhaps this is what lends itself to exaggeration, this is what soothes old men's muscles and leads to the "fish stories" of lore.
Whether or not we do run for the full 100 minutes, one thing I am sure of is that while I catch my breath after one of the innumerable sprints, my gaze catches a teammate's, and I see from him and in him a capitulation, a surrender, that I will not allow myself to experience. His wretched condition is, to me, an absolute anathema. In the same way that a person unconsciously moves away from a sneezing person, so too do I lengthen the space between myself and the contagion. As the team runs yet another sprint, this poor boy throws up and wheezes in an outside garbage can, complaining of a heretofore undiagnosed asthma condition, and I speed up, if just for an instant.

Thursday, August 20

The tally is growing and growing, as is the adrenaline. Today marks eight days of solid workouts versus six off days. I definitely notice an increase, however slight in my hops. I played a solid game of five-on-five today (I shot the lights out like Jim Les or Dell Curry or Nick Van Exel, but I couldn't get my shot off in traffic). There is definitely a skill to getting a shot off in traffic, and "creating space" is one intangible that has never been a strenth of my game. I am trying to gauge my vertical leap by my rebounding prowess, and I would give myself a "C" for today, with a couple big boards, but not enough to satisfy me.
After a pretty exhausting two games, during which I felt pretty fatigued, I wanted to rest, but I decided to push myself through an immediate workout.
I was pleased with the workout, using the same number of exercises as last night. One follower of this blog made a very good point in asking me if I think I should be doing less reps with more weight for strength. That is on my mind as I almost close out my second week, so maybe I'll change things up again next week.
I am not by any means an expert on athletic conditioning, but I am currently of the belief that my stated goal (dunkin, babeeeee) lends itself better to a series of exercises that will increase anaerobic readiness as well as strength--hence, lower weight, more reps? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wednesday, August 19

In the words of O'Shea Jackson, today was a good day. It was also my toughest day because of some unfortunate circumstances last night. Two Dodgers dogs, two malts, and a lot of drinking after the baseball game served to ennervate me on the crucial day in which I could put the balance in my favor--seven workout days to six off days.
The local Irish pub apparently serves rum and sambuca, my two favorite drinks, and, if you ask me, two very un-Irish spirits. These liqueurs, served to me in great quantities thanks to a generous friend and a talented bartender, made exercising the last thing on my mind when I woke up this morning. The greasy chorizo and eggs I had for a late breakfast didn't help the cause much either.
I finally hit the gym about ten tonight, and my chosen motivation was a higher number of three of the exercises. I did thirty-five squats, forty calf raises, and thirty-five of all three types of jump roping. As it was my normal "legs" day in my weightlifting routine, I also added some lunges, using the length of the dark workout room and twenty pounds of resistance. I can promise you I will be very sore tomorrow, if from nothing more than these lunges.
There is something about progress, be it small or large, that motivates one when he feels he cannot do something. Sometimes this progress is imagined or its truth stretched, but for one crucial night at least, it worked for me.

Wednesday, August 19: Interlude

It's 1993ish. I'm with my brothers at the local park, complete with three full basketball courts. As we're shooting around, playing a HORSE or 21 game here and there, another baller joins the fray. He sets up shop on the court next to us. This guy is fresh from the mall--trust me, you know the type. He needs to be added to this list, which is dead on:
He's rockin the fresh Jordan jersey, the new Air Jordan shoes, the low socks, the long Nike basketball shorts. He definitely looks the part of a baller, but his game looks like it leaves a lot to be desired. He's doing fallaways, determined drives, and shooting pullups like nobody's business. Somewhere, I guess, a college recruiter is watching.
He even has the tongue going. The tongue wags, just like UNC's native son. His game, at least when he's playing on a deserted court in front of no one and against no one, is quite Jordanesque. Though he is far enough away that I can't hear what, if anything, he is saying, I'm pretty sure it would have been, a la Dave Chappelle, something like "Jordan!" or "Kobe!" like we all said when we were 12 or 13.
But this guy is at least in his mid-30s.
For myself and my brothers, there is no greater indignity than being That Guy, trying to hold on to lost talents, holding on to a world spinning in its way to throw you off. Full of youthful ignorance and the transparent bravado of life's uninitiated, we trade jokes about him, incredibly confident that we will never be like him.

Today, as I went through the rim touches, the jump rope, the running, I had the horrifying thought: "Am I that guy?"

Tuesday, August 18

Today was a good workout. We're even, baby. Six days on, six days off. I played a little pickup ball today, and I felt a little bit more spring on rebounds, but maybe it was just the placebo effect. I gotta satisfy my curiosity soon--I'm still not sure how close I can come to dunking. or what my exact vertical is at this point.
If this dunk happens, I have to figure that it'll have to be on an alley oop or a throw off the backboard, as I cannot palm the ball. But, hey, that's a bridge I would be very happy to cross.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monday, August 17

Indeed, the gap is closing. Now I have done five workouts with six off days. It is pretty amazing how quickly I can lose some of the gains made in a week of training. As I do my calf raises, my legs feel the combined effects of a week off of leg exercises and a strenuous stretch at yoga yesterday. As I do my "rim touches" against a beam at my local 24 Hour Fitness (nice product placement, eh?), I feel dizzy and can't seem to jump straight up. Small victories, though, rule the day. I finish the workout, do all my exercises, and am hyped to even up the tally at 6 and 6 tomorrow.....
The key is to avoid the mentality that has weighed me down at times, which says that if my level of success goes down, I often become very hesitant to continue with the sport or workout until my level is visually appealing to the masses. You know, the masses that watch 3-on-3 halfcourt games at the local schoolyard.
As one can safely assume, it is hard to improve on anything when you do not practice it. Exhibit A: My disbelief over my staggeringly-worsening golf game, which may be in some way connected to only playing about five rounds in the last five years.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday and Monday of Week Three, August 16 and 17

This week has started on a Sunday, as I have put my masculinity on the line, attending the first of (I hope) many yoga sessions. I threw down twenty hard-earned dollars for a two week, all-you-can-yoga pass.
Walking in to the studio in a somewhat yuppie part of town, I am either the youngest or second youngest of the participants, and one of four males and about ten women. The instructor is a gentle and welcoming woman, with an incredibly calming voice. Ok, I can do this.
I have always had an interest in the rejuvenative effects of yoga, and though I have read a lot on its history and practice, I have never attended more than three or four classes in my life, all of them heavy on fifty-something Desperate Housewives.
I have entered this yoga class to help me deal with daily stressors, and to gain lost (or maybe, never-there) flexibility. The snickers from a few friends who ridicule my choice of exercise as feminine will easily be overshadowed by that flick of the wrist over the rim and into the hoop. But, yeah, it’s a little embarrassing, especially when I come in two minutes late and knock three yoga mats off the shelf, sending echoes throughout the dead silent, relaxed room. And I am the only wearing socks. Yup, no bare feet for me.
As a formerly (presently?) competitive athlete, this “Introductory” class is quite humbling. The poses are alternately challenging, painful, uncomfortable, and inhuman.
I sweat, twist, and, at times, fail. Tough to say, but there are a few poses that are too much for me, and I have to stop.
Towards the end of the workout—yes, this wording is indeed apt—we are challenged by our instructor to see if we could perform the pose called “The Crow.” This pose involves one on his hands and knees, leaning forward onto his hands, which are spread on the ground in front of him, and lifting his body weight off the floor, with only the hands touching the ground. Many people, all of them women, are unsuccessful. Three of the men have varying degrees of success.
I am not one of these three men.
One woman, noting the troubles most of the class had with the pose, remarks out loud, “Man, that’s hard. This one’s for the guys, though. We just don’t have the same upper body strength to lift ourselves."
Yeaaah. See, what had happened was…

I must lay a few things out right now. I have yet another excuse already laid out: I have a friend in town. A friend who is a brother to me. So I must focus on his visit, right? Ok, ok, I can still make time for the workouts. But I’m just letting you know ahead of time, so you’re not disappointed in me.
Also, I haven’t yet dared to test my vertical leap, or see how close I can come to dunking. This is the purpose of the quest, right, so what is holding me back? Like the purported horrible movie from this summer: Knowing. Knowing I am quite far from dunking. Knowing I don’t seem to be able to even dunk a tennis ball. Knowing that I can’t do what I saw a 5’10 player on my basketball team do a few weeks ago.
What we don’t know can’t hurt us, right, and I wonder why I should be surprised that I haven’t peeked behind the curtain yet, and tested myself. Much of my current life is governed by this maxim. I don’t want to look at my online checking account, though I am well aware that it is much smaller than it should be, due to reckless spending.
I don’t want to check the text message beeping on my phone, knowing that she can’t (won’t?) go out this weekend with me.
I don’t want to look at the pile of paperwork on my teacher’s desk, because I want to pretend, even for a minute, that my workload isn’t that intense.
As Monday dawns, I am happy to get back in the weight room, to have a cause, to...okay, it’s 6:15 pm, and I haven’t done anything. But I will.

Charity Timeout

Time to give a shot out to a great charity. Check them out:

You should start donating.

I'mma try to get them to sign on to my "quest," maybe have followers be able to donate a certain amount of money for each inch I gain on my vertical leap.....more to come.

Week Three: August 10-14

Ok, your brother’s engagement party, while a beautiful event, is not conducive to one trying to stay in/get in shape in order to dunk. The food, the drink(s), the general state of pleasurable malaise that comes with this weekend has made me loath to get off my couch or even leave the house.
The excuses, yes, the excuses. They are many. I am in a city where I have no gym membership. I am in financial straits such that it would be a waste of money to spend some $15 for a day pass. I am entitled to a week off, especially after a week (actually, four days, but who’s counting) of exhausting workouts after a long period of inactivity. I just had two weeks of irregular sleep—one because my trip overseas threw off my biological rhythms, and the second after having to all of a sudden conform to a teacher’s early schedule again for a one week island of substitute teaching.
Pessimist that I am, I have calculated that this workout schedule designed to help me dunk has seen more off days than workout days—six to four. This statistic, this objective fact, inarguable, overwhelms me with guilt, and I promise myself to get right back on the workout horse come Monday.
At least until I think of another excuse.
Week One, Part II
No, that’s not all I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you that I feel old and stiff, but imbued with this sense of purpose, I feel strangely young again. I feel like I’m back in my high school days, where the world (conspiring against me as it does all of us) had not yet brought its crushing denial. I have pieced together—at least 75% of it—my old routine, formerly posted above my teenage bed, designed to maximize vertical leap. There is something like déjà vu in this retreading of the exercises—the squats, rim touches, calf raises—that gives me an occasional jolt that tells me this feat can be accomplished.
But there’s the work. You know, we’re all so busy with our jobs, our responsibilities, living our lives, that there’s no time for anything else. Yes, I truly am really, really busy—I teach, work very hard in planning lessons and grading papers. There are a lot of these papers, as I am an English teacher. I tutor, four to six hours a week. I coach basketball. I craft and crack jokes. I write—or at least pretend I do. I cook, sometimes. I watch television. I do a lot, trust me.
Sure, I don’t have children of my own, a wife, or a serious girlfriend. I know that these things equal time, and I think of my friend who has run some forty marathons, including all twenty-six Los Angeles Marathons, and I know that he has a wife and daughter, so, hey, it can be done. He’s run 1048 miles—shoot, what have I done?
I try to remember: what was it like, really, to have no job, no real responsibilities, to be able to play hoops from 11 am to 8pm, to go home tired and exhilarated, then wake up and do it again the next day?
Here is my routine that I have proudly followed for the first four days of this week:
--Five standing jumps, with a strong base, in which I jump as high as I can while bringing my knees to my chest
--Twenty squats, using a ten pound medicine ball for a bit of resistance, and being sure to hold the squat for at least two seconds
--Twenty five “rim touches,” in which I jump continuously as high as I can, touching as high on the rim (or net, depending on the day) as possible
--Seventy five jumps with the jump rope—twenty-five with the left foot only, right foot only, and with both feet.
--Thirty-five calf raises

The routine of yesteryear, which I performed as religiously as an old woman reciting the rosary, also included sprints of varying length, but I will leave these thirty, fifty, and seventy yard runs for later. Gotta catch my breath first.
I must say, too, that a bit of my reluctance to perform the deeply important sprints is a bit of elder hubris. Twentysomethings who haven’t played a competitive game in years shouldn’t be running sprints on public fields, feigning seriousness about a sport in which they will never be rated by a high school or college coach or professional scout. Not that I’m worried about outer appearances and external approval, but it just looks ridiculous. Right? Don't you think?

Week One, Part I, August 3-7, 2009

I finally started. That’s all I want to tell you. My original start date was June 29, and it’s about five weeks later, but hey, such is life. I started—that’s all I want to tell you.

Chapter One and Day One (At least Original Start Date)

It is 1997 or ’98. The Time has come. We have just gotten done with basketball practice, and those of us without a driver’s license decide to hang out in the gym while waiting for our rides. The practice we have just completed hasn’t been very taxing, a fairly brisk one-hour workout designed to give us a bit of a respite after a buzzer-beating loss the night before. I am stretched, fresh, and full of youthful zeal. Conditions are perfect. So I try It.
I pick a time when the others are clustered on the main court, and I use the small basketball left there by a teammate’s little brother. I take my prescribed four step drop, leap, and throw the ball in. Almost.
Waiting another minute—you know, to rest up for the impending thunderous dunk—I get a little closer, but I don’t quite execute the wrist cock that will signify the real thing. It is more a throw-in than a slam; more a line-drive than a dunk. That night, I will invent a dead spot in the floor, a loose basketball from the adjoining court, and a mistimed leap brought on by overcompensating for a knee to the thigh the night before to explain why I couldn’t dunk. But, man, I was this close!
It is with this memory in my head, as well as the fuzzy memories of numerous other “near misses” in the ensuing years, that I enter my twenty-ninth summer convinced to finally dunk a basketball. To dunk a basketball is to show the world what I once was and what I can still do. To dunk a basketball is to convince all those haters (let’s be honest, no one really loses too much sleep evaluating a man for whom it’s been ten years since competitive sports were even an issue) that I can in fact do it. And, perhaps, more importantly, I will be able to prove it to myself, the biggest hater, that in the haze that we call memory, I used to be pretty darn good…

Monday, June 29, 2009
Day 1
In the ten or so years since I last played competitive basketball, I have grown perhaps an inch at most, and I have gained some thirty or thirty-five pounds. I have gone from a fairly-shy, skinny, gawky acne-tinged greaseball to a gregarious, skinny-looking, sometimes gawky, acne-tinged high school teacher with a Matt Lauer-style haircut. Ten years haven’t done much for the confidence, though, so that a desire for exterior approval often trumps everything else. Let’s just say that not being named one of the two “Heartthrob Teachers” in last year’s high school yearbook stung a bit more than it should have.
In the meantime, I have earned a high school diploma, a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish Studies, a Master’s in Education, along with my California teaching credential. I have dated on and off, with too few of these relationships even tiptoeing into “Kinda Serious Relationship” territory. And, I’ve played a lot of basketball, shot a lot of jumpers, attempted a lot of bank shots, but never have I climbed the mountain that Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, the first two women to do it, have climbed—I have never dunked a basketball, never reached that particular mountaintop.
Much like a person going for that last hurrah before starting to diet on the somewhat arbitrary date of January 1, I chose a date a week after my school year ended. The previous weekend had been a dizzying medley of rum, coke, and rum and coke. The drunkenness led to the usual bravado masked as drunken ramblings, or maybe vice versa, and too many people were let in on the secret plan to dunk by the end of the summer. Many questions, some unanswerable, came up in the midst of the haze, some ones that might not have been brought up in the cowardice that is sobriety. Among the questions:
-What constitutes “summer?” If I dunk on September 8, let’s say, when I’ve gone back to school, does that count? Do the calendar and the workday have to synchronize?
-How many people have to be present for the dunk to be official?
-What constitutes a “dunk?”
-Do conditions vary? Will there be an asterisk next to my dunk if the dunk is executed on an especially springy floor?
-And maybe most importantly, will anybody care about this dunk?
And then there’s the back. Much like the obese woman who is said to have a “pretty face” that will finally be presented to the world once the weight is lost, there was always the assumption on my part that once my back healed, my natural athletic ability would be able to truly shine.
Despite the fact that I weighed about 155 pounds soaking wet as a 6’2” high schooler, I have had chronic back problems since then. Due to a combination of horrible posture and a ridiculous lack of flexibility, my back has been in a weakened state for as long as I can remember. I have not, however, done much to remedy the situation, always too “busy” to really start an authentic rehabilitation program. With the exception of some irregular visits to the doctor for followup on my back pain and three or four visits to a psychical therapist, I have not made a concerted effort to deal with an issue that has plagued me on a daily basis.
I’ve never been a fan of the cliché that says that “time flies.” No, it doesn’t. Time is time. One minute is one minute, sixty seconds, right? I am amazed, however, as to where the years have gone. It seems like yesterday (well, not yesterday, but maybe a few days ago) that I was psyching myself up for every practice and game, sometimes praying that I would get the strength to finish the game. As a sophomore, I’d had a particularly ugly case of pneumonia from which I was still regarding months later (I still can pop my ears on command due to that bout of sickness), and a protracted bout of mononucleosis my junior year further depleted my strength, so that I often felt that I wouldn’t be able to finish a practice without a little divine intervention. The dramatic musings of a drama king, possibly, but in my defense, I will say that no one besides me knew of this daily struggle as it was happening.
I guess they do now.
But the part that gets me? The part that haunts me? It’s this, the ugly truth, that I hope to flesh out through the course of this book.
The truth: maybe, back problem or no back problem, I was never that coordinated, never that athletic.
Maybe, just maybe, I was never that good.


“The older I get, the better I was” is a credo that seems to be as innate to manhood as locker room boasting, messy bedrooms, and a disinclination to resist a challenge. It is because of this that the JV high school game basketball in which you scored eight points and had five rebounds becomes the night that you dominated that player who ended up playing ball for some big college and you heard got a tryout with the NBA, even though he went to San Jacinto Junior College for a year before dropping out and they haven’t really had regular “tryouts” for the NBA since the days of really short shorts and two handed push shots.
That game takes on legendary status as you recount the fiery speech Coach Jones gave to you as he told you the game hinged on you taking the challenge of shutting down the opposing team’s best player, the San Jacinto Junior College guy, though in reality, your defensive stopper was in foul trouble, and you were really only guarding the guy one-on-one for like eight minutes.
A varsity basketball average of 8.9 points per game becomes “about twelve or thirteen a game.” Your forty time was “like 4.6 or 4.7,” even though that sub-5.0 you ran was aided by a novice timekeeper whose painted nails, naiveté, and schoolgirl crush ended the run at about 35 yards. Your vertical leap is not necessarily worth mentioning, but you attribute that to it being measured the day after you tweaked your hamstring playing pickup ball with the neighbor kids who couldn’t guard you so they had to play dirty and try to hurt you by undercutting you.
The only thing that hinders you nowadays from replicating that 4.6 time or doing ninety straight pushups, like you used to do, of course, is, well, time. That and the lack of flexibility, of course. But that comes from having to be at a desk job, you know. Gotta pay the bills. It’s a tough life for a former star athlete. One who used to break people down off the dribble, one about whom people would say, “Man, for a white boy, you can play!” One who was so quick that you couldn’t be guarded one-on-one.
And, there was that one time, when you came this close to dunking…