Monday, August 17, 2009

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.

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