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.