Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tough Love from My Physical Therapist

"No more wheelchair," she said firmly. "It's not helping. It's hurting."
I couldn't protest too much, as I was ten weeks out from surgery, still unable to walk or even hobble. In a counterintuitive way, what I needed to do was put more pressure on my ailing back leg. In my amateur medical opinion, this extra pressure on the left foot would be analogous to taking off the Band-Aid and letting the cut get some fresh air.
"You have to put your foot down," she said, to which I nodded casually.
"No," she said, her intensity causing me to make eye contact, "You have to put your foot down, give it some exercise, let it readjust to being flat on the ground."
With the foot now having been made into its own pronoun, its own being, I looked at it, wondering if it was an avowed ally or a contrarian enemy.
It started in little ways, I was told--the foot on the ground when I was seated, putting helpful pressure on the long-dormant nerves. And, my physical therapist assured me, I must ditch the wheelchair.
A month into my recovery, I returned to teaching, deciding to jump right back into the school year, not missing any time, not getting a substitute. The four-day week and a teacher's assistant made the teaching manageable, but I was so tired at the end of each trip to the teacher's lounge, to the bathroom, and to the copy room that I decided to ditch the crutches at work. Anyone seeing my reddened, sweating face and hearing my heavy breathing at the end of each "trip" could not have blamed me for calling to claim the wheelchair prescribed by my surgeon.
For another four or five weeks, then, school was navigated by wheelchair, my crutches claimed at the end of each day and used around the house. The relative ease with which I could navigate the school, thanks to eagerly helpful students and colleagues, allowed my armpits to recover and my heart rate to slow down considerably. The burgeoning triceps from all the wheeling were another benefit for the erstwhile-sedentary Jaime.
A day before my physical therapist gave me this tough love and insisted on more crutch-walking, I received a similar talking-to from a friend who told me that the wheelchair was itself a crutch, keeping me from giving more ground exposure to the nerves and muscles of the foot.
"Thanks, Doc," I said sarcastically, but maybe my resistance to losing the wheelchair was more of a mental hangup than a physical one.
A few days later, my wheelchair sits idle, in the school's parking garage in case it's needed again. Though the going is slow, the crutch steps sometimes more like slides than strides, the foot is getting a bit more strength, a bit more feeling.
Thanks, Doc--and I direct this to two people and with no sarcasm--for the tough love.

Taking My Turn on the Karmic Wheel

I usually put the authors of dream interpretation books up there (or down there) with the authors of horoscope books and psychics. This is to say that these people do not take much of a risk in giving generic predictions and information, in that it is nearly impossible to prove them wrong. The Aquarius who is advised in his horoscope that "his high energy may rub others the wrong way" --we can convince ourselves that this is true for everyone, right?--and the psychic visitor both assure themselves that the predictions come from someone who is in some way "trained."

In the same way, let me take my foray into the dream interpretation arena yet again. Being that it is not possible in any way to contradict my "findings," let me begin...

I had a dream that I was coaching my basketball team. As I huddled the team during a timeout, I told the dream to put on a fullcourt press after each basket by our opponents. A player of mine (nameless and faceless while a few of the dream's players are really on this year's team) shook his head and scoffed, saying, "It won't work."

On the first defensive play, an overweight and hefty player--obscured in name and face--refused to stand where I told him to, and proceeded to go down in a heap with an unclear lower body injury upon colliding with an offensive player.

Was the message of this dream that there were conscious decisions that I made that led to my injury? Was it the shoes, an awkward position on my jump shot? Or was it more subtle and seemingly unrelated factors?

As I prepared today to return to a favored barber in an area thirty minutes-plus from my house, I was reminded that I haven't been back since the hours before my injury, twelve and a half weeks ago. Is my hairstyle, picture a slightly slicked-back version of Kevin Costner's Elliott Ness, so difficult that only this barber could have done it? Would a visit to Supercuts have eliminated the opportunity to get hurt? Maybe the universe was only prepared to injure me during that enclosed time period. Maybe a made shot earlier in the game by a teammate would have shortened the game and made it so that my gamewinning and butt-to-couch connecting shot would not have been necessary.

The importance of fate versus personal choice--the neverending debate continues...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Girlish Screams

It was the most girlish scream that this (fairly) deep-voiced man could make. It was my first physical therapy appointment, and, after some rudimentary measurements of my feet in comparison to each other, I began to do some basic stretches.
The stretches consisted of "alphabets"--moving the foot in circles that supposedly mimic the letters of the alphabet--and a 12 to 6 movement. The physical therapist then used an elastic band against which I was to push and then to "pull."
Finally, she had me stand with my left slightly in back of my right, and without the warning I expected, told me, "We're going to take a step."
"I don't think I can do it." (I knew I couldn't do it.)
"Yes, you can. The tendon has been repaired, it's regrown, it's ready."
With her flanking my left shoulder, I shuffled forward slowly with my left, then got ready to take the step with the right that would force me to plant on my left.
Then I got ready to take the step with the right that would force me to plant on my left.
Then I got ready...
I literally shook as I tried to reconcile the rupturing of this incredibly important tendon, its betrayal to my body, with the task she was asking/telling me to do.
After about minute of putting barely-detectable pressure on the left foot, I scraped forward, letting out a high-pitched, girlie noise as I felt that my left couldn't support me. I lunged forward, grabbing awkwardly onto a cabinet and leaning against her shoulder.
Thankfully, every step won't be this hard.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Long Road Back

"Bring a left shoe next time I see you," my orthopedist repeated, fairly cryptically, as I exited his office two weeks ago. Everything in my recovery having gone according to plan up until that time, he told me that my next appointment would allow me to walk out of his office with a real left shoe, not a boot.
His "left shoe" comment was enough to get me excited and nervous upon entering his office for yesterday's appointment. I'd told anyone who asked (and some who didn't) that the next time they'd see me, I'd be at least hobbling and wearing a left shoe for the first time since my surgery eight weeks before. I even told a few people that the wheelchair that had been helping me navigate the hallways and my classroom at school was going to be collecting dust very soon, maybe even in a few days.
Shoot, I even flirted with the idea of a "I Can Walk Again" party at my apartment that would have been tonight. The idea of me, even a hobbling me, being unable to play host in any meaningful way, put an end to the party idea, but anything was possible as I sat on the fresh sheet, waiting for Dr. Owen.
With a clinical efficiency that somehow is teamed with an incredibly-empathetic bedside manner, he retrieved the thick green Adidas shoe I'd brought ("Bring something substantial for your left shoe," he'd said last time) and loosened the laces as much as possible.
It must have taken two minutes for me to have the confidence to pull the laces and shoe tight over my foot, a bit of a surreal experience after so much buildup. The feel of the shoe was not so much uncomfortable as foreign.
With a flourish, I hopped off my chair to take my first step, felt a twinge of nerves, and followed the doctor's advice--"Use the crutches if you want."
With a stumble and a slight drag of the left foot, the foot, bootless, made contact with the earth and moved forward ever so slightly. It felt good and it felt very weird.
Telling me that my surgical wound was healing nicely and complimenting me on my progress, Doc told me that I was technically freed from the crutches, but they were to be used if needed.
They are needed. As Doc stepped out to get some paperwork and set up my first physical therapy appointment, I tried out my new gait in the office and right outside, maniacally "walking" back and forth in an area about eight feet by eight feet, pacing like an expectant father. A few tiny attempts told me that the crutches were necessary for any positive movements.
In the first few steps, and the halting and frustrating ones I've taken today, it is clear that my left foot is, at this time, not committed mentally or physically to moving forward on its own. Though I've stood lightly on both feet a few times, always with a closeby wall or grip for insurance, pushing off my left foot with its rebuilt Achilles tendon is not in the cards at this time.
Which made it all the more ironic when Doc Owen, as far as I know not a reader of this blog, told me to let the physical therapists know about my goals. "The therapists need to know if it's a matter of 'I want to just be able to walk to the store with no trouble' versus 'I wanna be able to dunk a basketball,' so they can create the right rehab program," he said.
Without replying, I thought to myself how badly I want to dunk a basketball. The thought of that first dunk, though, right now seems as alien as me giving birth.
My foot doesn't want to push off. My foot can't push off. This year's Students versus Faculty Game (something I take quite seriously) is set for February and already has been ruled out. My calf has atrophied to scary proportions. An accidental and light whack of the tip of my left shoe against a chair leg smarts for a good two minutes.
Here I am, deeply immersed in the conflict of this developing story. Everything is set for the buildup of drama.
I just don't have the happy ending in sight.

The Ageless Wonders

Many a priest was there who earned the nickname "Father What-a-Waste" from my female college classmates. The Catholic university had many priests as professors--many of them who were barely older than the students, many who just seemed that young.
The priests, highly-educated, cultured, and well-spoken, were fawned over by the girls, with a big part of the priests' appeal resting in the fact that they were untouchable and unattainable-truly "playing hard to get."
I remember my amazement that a favorite priest of mine-an important part of my formative years-was forty years old when he'd taught me a few years before in a creative writing course. I would have sworn before a jury that he was no older than 30 at that time.
The priests themselves were known to joke that it was the lack of a family and its responsibilities that made them appear so young. The vigorous eighty-something priest from Colombia who traveled there at least three times a year to visit family and take his annual trip to the family farm to help with the harvest was one shining example of this longevity.
So too was the fifty-something who had traveled to Los Angeles to participate every marathon since its inception in 1984.
The chaplain for the baseball team who regularly attended practice and shagged fly balls (albeit it not at Vince Coleman speed) when the team was short on players? Fifty-two without a noticeable gray hair.
Forget Ponce de Leon and Botox-the priests are the ones who have the answers to The Fountain of Youth.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Almost Forgot

I almost forgot that I needed to hop to the bathroom, at 3am or so last night, fresh off a dream where I was running sprints at a long-ago basketball practice that never happened.

I almost forgot that the back of my leg has been busted and crafted back together when my friend screamed at the tv after an amazing run by his team's running back. I wanted to run to find out what happened.

I almost forgot that the ten minutes it took to get ready for a date now takes thirty.

I almost forgot that food can be poured or cooked at one location and then carried to another. It does need to be eaten in the same place it was dispensed, while I'm leaning against the sink or the kitchen counter.

I almost forgot. But only for a split second.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Remember When

On one of the latter episodes of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano and his lieutenant, Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, take a trip to Florida to escape police pressure in Jersey. As the two need to remain anonymous on their escape from the law,Tony continues to worry about his partner's talkativeness, as Paulie chats up bellhops, businessmen, and other strangers. When Paulie tells stories about him and Tony engaging in some not so-legal behaviors to some young women they are dining with, Tony gives Paulie the evil eye and excuses himself from the table, making the cryptic remark that " 'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."

If Tony is a sage, then I think that the 30s are the start of a downward spiral. You might even argue that the end of college is the beginning of this downward spiral, as the days pining for very little responsibility, very little accountability, and an astonishing amount of independence often start hours after graduation.
In an oxymoronic way, my good friends and I started missing the carefree college life before we graduated. Aware that college was but a four-year stop, a vacation of sorts in the middle of a working life, we reminded ourselves on a regular basis, especially during senior year, to savor this time. How do you do savor something? Is it possible to actively do this?
An extreme example of "Remember when" inhibiting one's adult growth is Uncle Rico of "Napoleon Dynamite." A thirtysomething groveling for work and seeming to live out of a van that would make Matt Foley proud, Rico is not above mooching steaks off Napoleon's family and hawking questionable Tupperware to naive buyers. Sneaking peeks at his flexed biceps whenever he can, Rico is stuck in 1982. While sitting outside with his nephew showing off his quarterback's arm, Rico talks about his coach's inability to put him in during the fourth quarter of a key high school game.
"We coulda won state that year if he'd played me," Rico says, gazing into nothing and speaking more to himself than to his nephew.
In case anyone doubts his prowess, Rico carries around a tape of himself, some twenty years after high school, dropping back and throwing the football. Ready to show the video at the slighest show of interest (or disinterest, in his nephews' case), Rico is an easy target as a joke.
It has been said that behind every joke, there is a seed of truth. We all know our own Uncle Ricos.
Just don't call me "Rico Flaco."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Steppin Out

"You mean like walk walk?" I asked the doctor, making sure that when he told me to walk, he meant to like, you know, walk. My left foot had not touched the ground in six weeks and approximately three hours, and the thought of putting pressure on the foot, even when ensconced in a walking boot, was enough to make the timid six-year-old in me come out.
Yes, he meant walk. Pulling the Band-Aid off all at once, I took the awkward first step as if there was a fly under my boot that I didn't want to crush...success!
No crushed Achilles. No shooting pain. The feel of the first step was like that first sip of cold water on a hot day-no, I'm playin, this was a small step for the body, and a giant step for the psyche. The feel was of those slippery steps taken in Dad's "boats," those penny loafers that sat idle some days when he wore the dress shoes with the shoelaces.
"Just heel to toe, heel to toe," said the doctor patiently, practiced enough even as a youngish orthopedist to know that despite my fears, I would be all right. His comfort lay in the repetition of heel to toe, mine in the fact that he was comfortable.
I will be in the walking boot for two weeks, then I have a Shoe Appointment.
"Bring the left shoe with you next time," the doctor said at least three times. "We're gonna fit you, and you'll be walking in a shoe in a few weeks. Hobbling, I should say."
In three weeks, physical therapy begins, then some other followup appointments, and then...a long road ahead, I know.
Is it too corny to say that I have to take it one step at a time?
Speaking of corny, I held up my left foot today, sporting some new Chuck Taylor(s) after weeks of rocking the infamous Polo shoe that was on my foot when the Achilles was ruptured.
"Hey, look," I said, pausing for emphasis, "I got new shoe. Get it? Singular?"
The pitying laughter of the class told me that, wonder of all wonders, I was now That Guy. The teacher who made jokes so corny that students felt sorry for him. The teacher we all had, the sophomore computer teacher I had some fourteen years ago.
Time flies when you're telling shoe jokes...

Text Message Exchange Regarding How Old is too Old to Play Pickup Basketball (with Undergraduates)

My friend Mikey: "Is 30 2 old to play pickup basketball at the college rec center with undergrads? Thanks."

Me: "30 is not too old. 30 years and exactly six months is. At that age, you will rupture your Achilles tendon on a harmless jump shot."

Mikey: "Buzzkill."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Before and After

A few nights ago, I watched Dodgers outfielder Juan Rivera running all-out in his approach of a foul ball near the right-field stands. As he approached the ball, he ran uphill on the opponent's bullpen mound. As the ball dropped strangely with the wind, I yelled out, "Watch out!" while my friend yelled out, "Dive!"

A bit embarassed, I looked away from my friend, his gaze on me, and I clapped for the catch, an awkward one where at least Juan didn't get hurt by that darn pitching rubber that could so easily end a season or a career...

A partial list of things that are different after my injury: airport announcements asking for a wheelchair or volunteers to wheel a passenger around are listened to with greater concentration; an increased awareness of, and head nod/smile for, fellow airport crutch carriers and people in wheelchairs. An involuntary cringing watching Shaq's highlight films in which his 330+ lb. body goes flying into the stands (cringing for him and the fans); noticing more acutely the difference between a football player down with a cramp or a temporary pain and the player who's not getting up without help from another person or stretcher; recognizing the telltale hand wave that shows a teammate's sense of urgency for the trainers to check on his fallen comrade. Noting Rafa Nadal's constant changes of direction on the tennis court, his near-splits when reaching for a short volley. An even stronger sense that the shelf life of a boxer (Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman aside) and a running back--the Niners recently expressed satisfaction that Frank Gore will "retire a 49er" after signing a contract that ends at age 32-and a tennis Zeus (Federer) is very short in relative terms.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sympathy and Empathy

Sympathy and empathy. Similar, but not synonymous. Less and less so every day.

Chris had torn a ligament in his knee as an eighth grader, before I'd known him. I first worked with him the following summer, in June before his freshman year. A tough, hard-nosed player, he played all-out until he hit the floor, where he cringed and writhed as if he were on fire. It took about a year before this habitual writhing ceased.
It was the next summer when he told me, unsolicited, "Coach, I feel whole again."

As hard as I had tried at the time to feel my player's pain, to get to know him on his level, it was not possible.
Today: empathy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

See You at the Crossroads (No, not the Bone Thugs n' Harmony Type)

The proverbial angel and devil are on my shoulder 24/7. Do I hang 'em up? Do my basketball shoes collect dust (my Polo shoes definitely will)? Do I spend my Monday nights watching football instead of playing in the men's basketball league? Do I spend my Sundays eating hot dog after hot dog instead of taking the bike out for a ride? Do I talk trash from the sidelines instead of playing in the annual Students versus Faculty basketball game?

The devil (or maybe the angel) on my shoulder echoes the advice, no command, of my friend--"Don't try to play ball again, man. You're gonna get hurt."

The angel or the devil tells me, "Use this as fuel. You know what it's like to have been active, and you cannot give that up! You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube (my angel/devil has a firm command of figurative language)!
Let me say this -the fear of spending another period of multiple weeks/months off my feet, virtually helpless, unable to even shower without a Herculean effort, is quite real. The fear is real, yet I wonder how long it will last. Part of this fear is healthy, I think, that which kept me concentrating with each "step" on my crutches, loath to make a misstep that would lead to a fresh tear of my balloon-fragile, newly-rebuilt Achilles tendon.
About a week after my surgery, I made my way to my usual sitting room perch, a comfortable couch with a good view of the television. As I spun around to allow myself to lay down, backside first, I made a misstep that made my weight lean forward. In a feeling that I can liken to those agonizing seconds when the wind is knocked out of you, there was a moment (who knows how long exactly?) when I felt that the next logical step was me stumbling onto my bad leg, that it was inescapable.
I uttered a pitiful cry that didn't sound much different than the Tarzanlike cries I usually exhaled in a joking fashion when I stretched out on the couch. My sister and cousin, extremely solicitous and helpful in my recovery, must have figured that things were normal, and thankfully, I regained my balance, having seen the abyss below.
As I stand (so to speak) now at this crossroads, I wonder if this tenderness, this avoidance of injury, will stick with me for a long time, will infect my brain, will cause unnecessary worry.
Will I be emboldened by this injury, quick to resist the malaise that would keep me home from a workout? Will I run to the tennis court without hesitation, savor the back and forth that I missed for many months?

"Good news is," says my uncle who suffered the same injury at the age of 31, also playing basketball, "my repaired Achilles has never given me a problem in the twenty years since. Shoot, it's better than the other Achilles. I've played a lotta tennis, even to this day. Played basketball for years, too."
"And the bad news?" I say.
"Bad news is, they tell you six months until you can exercise, but it was almost a year before I felt right. You know what I mean by 'right.' Feeling like you can cut on that leg, plant on that leg, go up in a crowd and grab a rebound. The physical will be fine. It's the mental that is the hardest part.

Will I be gung ho about my first basketball game and my first tennis match, or beg out due to the possibility of reinjury?
With apologies to Robert Frost, is it possible to take both paths?

Life's Milestone Markers and 2Pac

Our life's milestone markers go from the most serious-Where were you when the second tower collapsed?-to the more specialized and trivial-Where were you when the Sox finally won The World Series? Our parents' generation had the Kennedy assassination, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," Ali/Frazier; our grandparents-Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Black Friday
Though not the defining event of my lifetime, nor my generation's, I do remember very well the shock of the death of Tupac Shakur.
Amazing. Amazing to me that yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of his death. My students wear t-shirts with his face and the line THUG LIFE in Olde English writing, and they talk about him as a hero of "old school" hip hop. It came to me yesterday that my students were born in 1996, the year he was born. A few of them-the late birthdays-were not even alive at the same time as him. Wow.
Tupac has been dead for about half of my life.
I feel old.

Get Away From Zero

A high school history teacher of mine used to impress upon his students the need to "get away from zero." What he meant was that partial credit, half credit, whatever it took to get away from zero percent was crucial to one's grade. A fairly obvious statement, it may seem, but it stuck with me throughout my academic career and is now a big part of my lectures to my students.
In the same vein, my immediate plan, a day-to-day sustaining plan, is to get away from zero. While I will obviously be staying away from calf raises, running, and the like for a while-the doctor has thrown on six months from the surgery date as a target date-I want to feel like I am in some increasing strength.
One of the things I have missed the most during my convalescence has been the ability and the freedom to work out, to lift weights. Until today, I had not lifted weights in a little more than five weeks.
There is something in the thirty-year-old psyche that sees any "day off" from exercise and strength training to be a loss. There is no neutral in the thirty-year-old plus psyche. There is only reverse, and a day that does not feature a machine in Drive means a step backwards.
As hard as it is to gain strength and definition at my age, these five weeks off have clearly shrunk my muscles. We have the human need to stave off the spiderwebs, to start that line on the graph in its proper trajectory-up and to the right, baby!
That's why, today, "Storage Wars" on in the background, it felt so dang good to do sixty reps with the left, sixty reps with the right, a simple military press. Yes, the dumbbell was fifteen pounds.
Fifteen? It's more than zero, right?


"It's ironic," said TV's Tony Soprano, discussing his post-bullet-wound recovery, "You lose muscle, not fat."

My cell phone camera and my dad's nice Kodak are full of injury milestone pictures. The first: there's me in my little booties and hospital gown about ten minutes after my surgery. The picture was my idea and not my dad's. I remember feeling very, very cold and having a horrendous sore throat (from the breathing tube that had been inserted and removed during and after surgery). My head was covered with the kind of hat cooks and ladies whose hair will soon be in rollers wear.

Why the picture then? Part of it was probably my post-surgery loopiness, yes. But I must say that part of me wanted to immortalize this moment, maybe as a reminder of a low point, as I lay there with a freshly-constructed and incredibly-fragile Achilles tendon. I was, in many ways, starting over again.
A little over four weeks after my surgery, four weeks with no measurable exercise, and man, my muscles have morphed. Atrophy has set in, and as Tony said, it does attack muscle and not fat. Though I have very little fat outside of a mini-gut, I still wish the atrophy would have happened in my neck or foot-ha!-somewhere that is not as visible.
Upon uncovering my hibernating left leg from it's four week cast, it has been quite obvious that both of my legs, the left one more visibly, have morphed to childlike proportions. I've always had chicken legs, but dang! The affected left leg hides inside its cavernous home, a boot which at least allows me some freedom to move. Four or so times a day, per my doctor's instructions, I take off the boot to do some basic flexibility exercises. As I do about ten reps, moving the foot left to right, and up and down, I see that something is missing. The telltale widening of the calf about halfway up is not there.
Though I cringe even picturing any weight being borne by my weakened left leg, I'm sure that a left leg calf raise would show very little, if any, of the characteristic plumping of the back of the leg.
In many ways, with the leg and certain parts of my life, I'm starting over. Starting over is often that wish we address to that invisible genie we desire, but in this case, I'd love to have skipped the starting over. Now, how about this, how about I start over with no Achilles tendon injury instead of starting over with muscle development? Deal?

The two embedded videos show my boot in all its glory, as well as a comparison of my two atrophied legs. Enjoy, and blame my partial-Mediterranean heritage for the hirsute legs. I also would like you to observe the award-winning television that is on in the background. There is some really, really bad television on the airwaves. Yes, I was watching "Jerseylicious." For the uninitiated, it is a "reality show" that follows the trials and tribulations of the employeees of a New Jersey beauty salon.
I know-you're sitting there judging me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Already, I'm hyped. Bass-thumping hip hop music, huge crowd screaming and seemingly on top of us--the hated rival school and visiting team. Our starting power forward sneaks in a dunk before the refs make their way onto the court (an often-ignored rule stated that any team dunking in warmups would earn a technical foul), much to our delight. Proud of my previous example of "slapping," I approach the basket, hoping to place it through the hoop like Wilt The Stilt did when the dunk was outlawed. My weak attempt, hindered greatly by my need to jump off two feet due to my inability to palm the ball, draws snickers from my teammates, but it's all good.
The place is just alive, and all ballplayers know this feeling. It's all good. I know I'll have no trouble with energy tonight. The floor feels extra springy, like a trampoline, and each catcall from the opponent's fans just feeds the fire.
As the customary second or third man off the bench, I'm used to playing with mostly second team guys like myself, but tonight is different. Coach puts me in immediately with the simple instructions, "Keep your man off the boards." I join the four starters and when the night is over, I play a hefty thirty-plus minutes of what is to be a three-overtime thriller.
I score three straight baskets in the second quarter, satisfying because I create my own offense with a one-dribble pullup jumper, a steal and layup, and an offensive rebound putback.
In the third quarter, my adrenaline is up like I am a scared fourth-grader in his first fight. Isolated on defense at the top of the key, I poke the ball away from the wannabe Allen Iverson. As the ball bounds into the backcourt, I leap and dive parallel to the floor as I save the ball on a twisting Hail Mary to my streaking teammate for an easy layup.
With the crowd going crazy and my teammates cheering me on, my bounce is evident as I sprint back on defense. On our next offense possession, I cut backdoor at the same time as my teammate shoots a midrange jumper. Feeling like Jordan, with the cursive Bulls uniform and patch of hair, stalking a missed free throw, I leap for the rebound, time it perfectly, and tip the ball in at what seems like rim level.
In the post-victory exuberation, I talk excitedly with my friend JP. "Dude," he says, "you coulda dunked that one!"

Little did I know that night that it may have been my best (and last?) chance to dunk...

Dreams and Man versus Self, Part II

Last night I dreamed of a hobbled version of me playing a seemingly-innocuous round of golf. I do seem to remember that my legs were not visible in the dream (selective memory, perhaps?).
Was this a dream of a vision of the future? Is golf, that most sedentary of sports, my future sport of choice, or sport of last resort. Tiger Woods' famous knee injury aside, it's a lot harder to get injured seriously playing golf.
I must tell you that I hate golf. One of the main reasons that I hate the sport is that I'm bad at it, or more precisely, should be good at it, and I'm not.
Great attitude for a teacher to have, huh? Yes, boys and girls, if you are not good at something immediately, give up on it, and be sure to badmouth it later on.
I played a decent amount of golf as a kid, so I should be a mediocre player at least, but I'm not. In addition, the slow pace of the game does not fit me well. I need the immediate gratification of a steal leading to a layup, not the 1-0 score of a ninety-minute soccer match.
C'mon, Dreams, you're getting so easy to figure out! A big concern of this couch-relegated (young) man is that golf and similar sedentary sports (bocce ball, anyone?) will be the sum of my future athletic endeavors.
A friend of mine who is my same age warned me, with no little amount of intensity, that playing any more basketball after my recovery will lead to yet another serious injury. "It's gonna be a sprained ankle or a knee, or an ACL next time--trust me."
I do trust him. I also trust my cousin who told me that, though it took a little less than a year to recover, he was 99% as good as new once he started balling again. I also trust those people who have told me that I will recover, but I should severely limit my playing. I also trust those who say that modern science will make my ruptured Achilles even stronger than my right one, so watch out, streetballers.
Four seemingly opposing statements all true at once?
I gotta tell you, nothing is more conducive to philosophizing than staring up at the ceiling all day.

Sherman Alexie "gets It"

Reading "The Outsiders" as a confused teenager, I was amazed at how well S.E. Hinton "got It." She knew what it was to be a man and a boy at once, to act confident when scared to death. Her characters were real.
Mario Puzo got It when it came to flowery and descriptive language. Hemingway got It-his economical language said more in its gaps than its words.
Sherman Alexie gets It when it comes to the ideas of what might have been, of unfulfilled potential and the ways that we lie to ourselves about how large this potential.
A former player himself and a rabid basketball fan, Alexie wrote about Julius Shoemaker in the short story with the long title--"Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation." Julius is The One Who's Gonna Make It, the pride of the reservation, the can't miss bball prospect. Two middle-aged and past their prime men watch as Julius goes from LeBron to Sam Bowie due to laziness, petty robbery, and heavy drinking. The reservation, as represented by the two men, moves on, talking about the fifteen-year-old Julius as a past tense prospect, and already moving on to the next prospect, the next can't miss youth baller, Lucy, a nine-year-old with a handle like Pistol Pete.
Alexie gets It-the way we overhype young athletes, putting pressure on them from a young age in an indirect attempt to live out our athletic fantasies through them. Don't believe me? Watch The Little League World Series-eleven and twelve year-olds on ESPN. Watch and count how many players cry. Cry.
(Pardon me, I mean The Little League World Series Sponsored by Frosted Flakes).
The Alexie short story that really speaks to this quest of mine is "Whatever Happened to Frank SnakeChurch?" Frank is in forty years old, at the very least, a loner; at most, a misanthrope. When his beloved father dies, joining his long-deceased wife, Frank is beyond sad. His parents were his life, both of them incredibly loving and eccentric.
Frank's immediate reaction is one of a crazed war widow, as he sleeps in his dad's still-perfumed bed and even collects his father's hair-from the sink, the bathtub--and eats it.
After a few weeks of weeping and isolating himself in the house that he had shared with his father, Frank decides that he owes it to his parents to get in physical shape, and joins a gym and starts playing basketball again.
A high school phenom with a basketball scholarship to the University of Washington, Frank gave up the game when his mother died.
After a twenty-two-year absence from hoops, Frank hit the courts hard, playing pickup games seven days a week. As he plays, the game and his body return to a state that allow him to regain some semblance of his past glory.
Playing with a trash-talking old-timer who utters the title question and pokes fun at what he sees as Frank's pitiful and meaningless comeback attempt at the age of 41, Frank goes into a depression where he goes into isolation, erasing almost all of his physical transformation. A therapist recommends he enroll in community college, and Frank does, inquiring weeks later about joining the basketball team as a forty-one year-old with full eligibility (he checked).
The basketball coach, a former opponent of Frank's recognizes him, and against his better judgment, allows Frank to play a practice game against his incredibly athletic and increduluos team.
The crafty Frank, tired after two possessions, pushes himself to the limit, hitting some ridiculous Jimmer Fredette-style jumpers and exchanging trash talk with the opponent's point guard. With his team at game point, Frank fakes his opponent out of his shoes, takes two dribbles, plants, and boom...he blows his knee out.
Alexie gets It. Frank played his body to exhaustion again and again, for who? For his parents, their memory, or for himself?
Alexie writes about more than just basketball. He writes about the importance of ceremony, the family picnics and Kentucky Fried Chicken that came with trips to the local park to shoot hoops. The forty-point games against high school rivals, the pride of mother, father, and player.
Why have I undertaken my own quest more than a decade after competitive basketball ended for me? Am I Frank, the one at the gym who gets the nickname (all relative, of course) of "Old Man?" Am I Frank, the one who tries too hard? Am I Frank, the one who tries to make something of the ordinary into the sacred?
One thing's for sure-with my left leg spending more time on a pillow, elevated, than on the floor, I have a lot of time to think about the motivations for this quest of mine.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bring on the Man versus Self Conflict

The questions came in rapid-fire procession from the nurse who put on my cast a few days back: "How'd you hurt your Achilles?" "How old are you?"
The answers, "Playing basketball" and "30," earned a hearty headnod and "Yep."
From what I've been hearing as anecdotal evidence ever since my injury, the Achilles tendon is at its ripest, if you will, for rupture in the late 20s and early 30s. It often happens, said my doctor and nurse, to the "weekend warrior," the one who plays every now and then. It seems that my age and playing status (maybe on average playing once or twice a month)put me in line for that poison arrow from Paris.
The night of my injury, I told everyone who'd listen that my lowtop Polo shoes deserved the blame. It seemed a simple proposition that these far-from-basketball-shoes led to the rupture of my Achilles tendon.
Upon further reflection, the shoes were probably not exactly helpful in protecting my leg, but they were most likely not the culprits. I didn't roll my ankle or come down on someone's foot. It was the scary one, a non-contact injury.
The unknown, then, rears its ugly head again. Why did I rupture my Achilles? Yes, I know that the doctors and the anecdotal evidence say that it was my time as a thirty-year-old weekend warrior. But how limited is this "time?"
Was it meant to be in some cosmic/karmic way? Was it just a matter of time before I got hurt? What if I had stretched out better before the game? What if I hadn't been so open for that last jump shot and I'd passed the ball instead? Was my time fixed in the cosmos, or was it patient enough to wait another week or two to rupture my Achilles if it had to do so?
Nothing like these annoying, unanswerable questions when you are on your back all day with very little to do.


There are two kinds of people in the world, really: those who enjoyed the dream sequences from the episodes where Tony Soprano was in a gunshot-induced coma, and those who thought the dream sequences were transparent and heavyhanded. I would consider myself to be more in the first camp, though the transparency was pretty hardcore--the suitcase that the near-death Tony wouldn't give up-c'mon!
My dreams since the Achilles tendon tear have been pretty easy to figure out, at least as far as an amateur (isn't every human being an amateur when it comes to interpreting dreams?) can tell. In recent years, there have been many dreams whose different details have been unified by an overriding sense of what might have been. One dream had me preparing for a big weekend game at the varsity level against a traditional rival school, another had me playing for a starting spot.
Last night's dream had an ex-girlfriend offer to get me a bottle of water, which I declined politely. The theme, according to this novice dream whisperer, is pretty straightforward: a prominent thought in my mind, subtle at times, cheerleader-loud at others, is a great desire for independence.
The dream that stood out most to me, and the one that forced me to start jotting dream details down in a bedside notebook, took place a few nights after my injury. Though ostensibly unrelated to basketball and my injury, I think the connection is not too far-fetched.
I'm alone on a dilapidated diving board. The pool is not filled. Looking around and with a sort of what-the-heck capitulation, I bounce on the diving board and am launched into the air. The scene changes as I am all of sudden descending upon a raucous pool scene. A quick closeup and I am alone, a few feet above the chair. I consciously try to move, but my trajectory does not change despite my furious attempt...and the dream ends.
Spiders, rollercoasters, pit bulls, nuclear war, these things scare us, but so too does the unknown. So too does our changing independence. Will I dunk? Will I play basketball at 100% again? 95%? I. Don't. Know.
And that scares me.

Bring on the Man versus Nature Conflict

The day found me loading up my athletic bag for a day of social and athletic pursuits--a golf shirt, jeans, and Polo lowtops for a possible dinner date, North Carolina-blue basketball shorts for the tennis or basketball I would be playing, dark-blue Nike hightops with two pairs of socks. The last few days had been the epitome of summer freedom, with a few dates, two books enjoyed, and a tennis match, basketball game, and weight workout.
I went to the same university rec center I'd played at countless times, the bulk of them played in a 18 month span ending about six years ago. I did a basic workout after telling the waiting players in the gym that I had next. We had a neat team of five ready to go when the game ended, and jogged in from the weight room to lace 'em up. For some reason, probably just laziness, I decided not to get my hightop shoes from the locker room, deciding instead to play in my Mr. Rogers-would-love-them Polo shoes.
As introductions were made before the game started, one of my teammates looked at me askew, and said, "You cool to play in those?"
Thinking he was talking about my shorts, I said, "What, they're too short?"
"Naw, Dog, those shoes."
I nodded and shrugged, both an affirmation of his misgivings and an admission that my decision to rock the Polos was not the smartest idea, but that the game must go on.
The game was hard-fought, with my two jumpers helping us to a 9-4 lead before a turnover and blown one-on-one defensive assignment led to a 10-10 tie, game point. I took the ball up top after a teammate's pass was tipped out of bounds. I passed the ball in to the right wing, screened for the left wing, and stood at the free throw line, wide open when the ball was eventually passed to me. No one stood within three feet of me as I rose up for a jumper that went through the net, leading to my teammates mobbing me on the floor.
Oh yeah, did I mention that I was on the floor due to what would later be diagnosed as a completely severed Achilles tendon?
Before the shot went through the hoop, I had a horrific fleeting image of a oft-replayed injury I'd seen on tv some years back. I think this one was of Jason Kendall, a pro baseball player who ran over first base with his ankle bending at a grotesque angle.
Before I'd even returned to the ground after the jump shot, my left rear leg and ankle seemed to give out like never before. There was a sound like a dying dog (I still don't know if it was from me or from a player waiting on the sidelines)and I collapsed in a heap, breakdancing on my butt to get to a sitting position.
The feeling can be described better now in hindsight, as I know that the tendon was torn. It was a feeling of disconnection, a feeling that the calf and the foot were completely different entities.
When the doctor squeezed my left calf the next day at the emergency room, right before telling me that I would have surgery three days after my accident, he gave a knowing nod. My left ankle and left foot would naturally contract with the squeezing of the calf-go ahead, try it at home. The signals from the calf to the ankle were nonexistent.
The above might help the reader to understand in what way this pain was excruciating. After a minute of me shaking my head and saying, "Wow" repeatedly, I attempted to hobble the five steps or so to the sideline bench. I immediately crumbled and was helped along by two people whose shoulders bore my weight as I held my injured leg above the fray.
When I got to the sideline, a sense of strange clarity hit me as I looked around at the worried faces of the other players. They'd been here before, some of them. In their eyes, I can see now, were many hours of pain.
I was about to pledge their fraternity.
This was bad.
Very bad.

The Mind is Willing but the Body is Weak....or the Other Way Around?

Ah, the difference in what the body does in relation to what the mind pictures doing. In today's game, even with six points and a gamewinner, there were numerous plays where the brain was much quicker than the body, where the monster rebound above the fray existed much more clearly in my brain than on the floor.
The basketball player who in my mind's eye got to the loose ball a millisecond before my charging opponent lost out to the reality of being a step slow to get to the ball.
The baller who grabbed an errant rebound to end the opponent's offensive possession failed to materialize; instead, there was an appearance by his ugly cousin, the one who couldn't bring himself to leave the floor as two shots were missed and rebounded by the offense.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda--the things old men on rocking chairs are made of...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Coach vs. The Player

Walking into the local YMCA during the last five weeks has meant a jogging suit, lowtops, and a whistle around the neck. Some of these days, I came in ridiculously overdressed, coming straight to basketball practice from my summer teaching job. I was Coach.

Today, I walked in with my Reebok bag, my hightops, and my faded North Carolina-blue basketball shorts. I was there to play ball with the workers from the local software company. I've played with these guys a few times, as my friend-quite a post player-let me know about their Wednesday and Thursday lunchtime battles a few years back. Call me Player.

This was the first time I'd played in a few weeks, and I'm a bit embarassed to say that I did my high school ritual, eating the prescribed pregame meal I adapted faithfully from an NBA conditioning book that's so old that gracing the cover and demonstrating ab workouts inside is one Doc Rivers-as a player.
My triumphant return to the court almost didn't happen, as I almost fell victim to one of the weirdest maladies ever known to keep a player out of action...
I couldn't get my bracelet off.
Yes, that's right. In a week or so of wearing this Guido-style, linked silver bracelet, I've already received a few lowblows, but a few more compliments. The only problem is that I didn't put it on the first time-my aunt insisted on doing it, and I didn't know how to take the dang thing off.
As game time approached, I realized with dismay that I couldn't play basketball with this bracelet on! Someone might get hurt. Right?
Partly embarassed, partly dumbfounded, and partly and secretly happy, I watched as the clock ticked to within thirty minutes of game time.
Finally, with a little help from a stretched-out paperclip, I opened and took off the bracelet. Any other excuses I can think up?
The game started, and I called out screens for my teammates, tried to set backscreens on offense, and basically tried to do the little things. The coach in me knew that boxing out, playing help defense, and making the extra pass would help my team to win, but the player in me at times called for isolations, leaked out early (they call it "cherrypicking"), and jacked up a few ill-advised shots from well past the three-point line.
The results of this coach versus player, man-against-self conflict? I was probably 3-8 shooting, with five misses in the middle following two jumpers to start the game. I was scored on a few times, at least once getting left in the wake of a driving player, once getting a shouldabeen defense rebound ripped out of my hands by a smaller guard.
Perhaps the coach in me and the baller in me reached a happy medium on the last play of the game. A steal by my teammate led to him having a teammate running to his left and a lone defender a step behind. The coach in me was satisfied by my never giving up on the play, running down to grab the rebound from the missed layup. The baller in me got his Andy Warhol on, gaining a bit of glory and high fives for the game-winning layup.
We'll call it a draw.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What Movie Should We See Tonight?

My mind matched that weird haze that comes after stepping out of the movie theater into the pre-sunset haze (my apologies to the great S. E Hinton). I had just experienced what was to date the single worst movie I'd ever seen. The worst!

I've walked out of movies before-to hell with my $9.50! I've slept through movies before (shout out to Revenge of the Sith). I've skewered movies while in the theater, annoying a girlfriend and probably five people around me ("Come ON! That was obviously a rip-off of The Bourne Identity!) in doing my best contemporary "Mystery Science Theater 3000" impression. But this movie trumped them all in terribleness.

While I must admit that I see very few movies-a fact my friends rib me about-I believe that my voice still must be heard in the wilderness, trumpeting the horrid two hours and thirty-six minutes that was "Transformers III."

The movie was the consensus pick of my basketball team, a wholesome team activity for the first night of a three-day out-of-town tournament. I was more than happy to dodge Kevin James and his "Zookeeper," and while I didn't expect to get great enjoyment out of "Transformers III," I figured I could sacrifice for the team and it couldn't be THAT bad.

It was that bad. Five minutes into the movie, I knew that this was going to be a long evening. The 3d glasses provided gave me a headache. The Dolby Surround Sound made it doubly worse. The plot was already unnecessarily complicated and trite. Twenty minutes in and I thought about slipping out for an extended and indefinite "break." One of the parent chaperones fell asleep about ten minutes into the movie, and man, how I envied him! The other parent chaperone asked semi-earnestly, about halfway through the movie, "So, the plot is basically a good versus evil setup?"

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the shifting allegiances between automobiles that transform into fighters. The Transformers have come to Earth to take over the planet or else defend the planet.

Or something. Throw in a half-assed love story and you've got a movie that at two hours and thirty-five minutes is two hours and thirty-five minutes too long.

After the movie mercifully ended, I was joined by my ten players, the great majority of them giddy over the hot new love interest, the action scenes, an obscure quip.

Said my starting center, "Man, I told you the movie was dope!"

Half kidding, he added, "Coach, can we watch it again tomorrow night?"

The expectant pairs of eyes burned into my peripheral vision confirmed the fact that the great majority of the guys-maybe all the guys-loved this movie.

Never have I felt so old in a movie theater.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Still Ballin

"I got next," I said, strutting out onto the main courts at the local university rec center. My confidence was feigned, my strut probably overexaggerated, my tone surely too clipped and smarmy. I stepped out on the court between games, promptly airballed two long jump shots, and shook my head with a sneer, making it obvious to any viewer that those two shots were anomalies, somehow not worthy of a baller like myself.
My facade reversed itself this time, as I played nonchalant when I was really scoffing inside. This was in response to my new teammate telling me, with the confidence of a , that the guy I'd be guarding was "real quick, so be careful with him, make him shoot."
I thought to myself that I could handle him, that I'd always wanted to guard the quickest player on the other team, that I was a lockdown defender.
Was. Maybe. The haze of memory tells me that I was once a shutdown defender, the Deion Sanders of youth basketball. Gary Payton had nothing on me. Maybe.
The game was not bad, as I find myself writing about the first game in (insert time period here) _______ months. Again. It has been a few months since the students/faculty game, and I graced the court for the first time since, save for a few three minute bursts when practicing with my players.
The guy I guarded was very quick, did have a good handle. By my count, he got to the basket three times; the first was helped by me getting screened, I told myself. The second was a fast break where he got me on my heels, then took it right by me, using his right hand only. The third time was the most frustrating, as I had him pigeonholed as a right-hand only dribbler, but he crossed me over and left me in his wake on his way to the hoop for a layup.
There may not be anything more humiliating in basketball than getting left behind in an isolated situation, going mano a mano and losing.
My team won easily, 11-6, with me making the game-clincher, a running layup off a great pass. I made three baskets-the game-clincher, a putback off a teammate's missed shot, and a pull-up jumper from the right elbow.
This pull-up was the shot that I'll remember most, as it was right after I'd gotten abused by the man I was guarding, leading to his easy layup. I called for the ball, settled into my favorite move, a la former NBA great Kevin Johnson. This was a move I practiced to no end as a young player, in which I go between my legs from right hand to left hand, delay for a split second to freeze the defender, and then rapidly continue to my left. The move was executed perfectly, giving me the step on my defender (Payback, baby! This is Dominique and Larry Bird in the '86 playoffs!). A defender stepped out to cut off my route to the hoop, so I pulled up for the jumper...all net!
My right hand shot up in a Tiger Woods/Michael Jordan fist pump. Did I possibly get a bit of a screen that allowed me to leave my defender in my dust? Maybe...
Rewind to a week ago. My high school team won by two points, the game saved by my center, who blocked a possible game-tying layup at the buzzer. As he manaically jumped up and down in place, I said to him, quietly, "Act like you've been there before."
Fist pumping like Michael Jordan and Snooki's lovechild? Maybe I oughta take my own advice...

Road Trippin

It was a late Friday afternoon about five years ago when I called my friend and pitched the idea of a weekend trip to Las Vegas. I was a one hour flight from Vegas, and he was a three hour flight away.
"Next weekend?" he asked.
"No, today," I replied.
There was a pause on the other end. "Yeah, okay. I'll meet you at the Vegas airport at 10."
I found out later that he hadn't had time to go back to his apartment after my phone call, that he'd gone straight from work to the airport, and that his "luggage" consisted of a pair of athletic shorts, tennis shoes, and a workout t-shirt that happened to be in his car's trunk. Toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant-no prob, these things could all be bought cheap in Vegas, right?
It's different when you travel as a 30 year old. The days of trips--to Vegas, to Lake Tahoe, to New York--planned on whims, and without the slightest traces of practicality, are gone. Trips are planned weeks, months in advance, the three days of vacation planned to the most minute details months before, a gaggle of e-mail exchanges setting up meal coverage, how much each person will owe (down to the cents), and who will room with who.
A month from now, we will be celebrating my cousin's thirty-third birthday at a lakeside cabin owned by a friend's family. For some reason, my cousin has never had any sort of big celebration for the traditional benchmarks--twenty-one, twenty-five, thirty--but he wants to do it up big for his thirty-third (blame the Catholic in him, perhaps). The warnings started a few months back, first in the form of a "Save the Dates" e-mail, then in Evite form a few weeks later.
Ah, the Evite, that acid-test of age and youth. For the twenty-five year-old crowd, the Evite is nothing more than a sounding board for new comedy material ("It's your twenty-fifth birthday? Does it still count as twenty-five if you only remember seventeen of them?). The thirty and over set, however, uses it as an itinerary, a Rolodex ("Hey, Matt, send me your new number when you have a chance."), and a chat room ("Sweetie, are we free that weekend, or is that the weekend your parents will be in town?).
The younger set fills up the "Maybe" column with impunity (Depends on how hungover I'll be that morning!), while the older set keeps the "Yes" and "No" columns full. The older set is planned ahead months ahead, friends' weddings and business trips taking up the weekend space that used to be left free for spontaneity; the younger group's "Yes" and "No" responses are half the time wrong.
My cousin, though unmarried, is in a serious relationship (I actually wouldn't be surprised if he popped The Question on this birthday weekend), making him a little late to the game, but at least in the same arena as most of his guests. These guests have made the biggest topic on the e-mail chain about who is bringing kids and who is bringing dogs.
Dogs and kids, those stalwarts of domesticity. Five years back, the idea of sharing a room with a dog would have been ridiculed, and plus, we'd barely be at the cabin anyway...there were casinos to visit, beach parties to crash, bars to invade.
I laughed out loud as I sat at my computer the other day. My cousin's best friend from childhood e-mailed to test the waters for bringing a board game. This was the same board game that led to a raucous night of drinking games some years back between my cousin and his friends. Now, this e-mail contained a link to the board game's rules, as set by the manufacturer.
Years back, the rules were open to interpretation. Now?
The rules are the rules.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Men's Basketball Team

A few years back, as our boys basketball team tried to escape the shadow of our city championship girls basketball team, the athletic director began calling the boys team the "Men's Basketball Program." I loved it instantly. It reeked of strength, maturity, power.
I have used it at every opportunity-announcements over the school intercom, practice and game fire-and-brimstone speeches--it's very versatile.
The reason, I've determined, that I like it so much? They are not boys, so I'm not a man, an old man. I also refuse to refer to my high school students as "kids." I don't teach "kids," I teach "teens," or "young men and women," or "young adults." The older they are, the younger I am. Make sense to you? Yeah, me neither...

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Eye

Being that our school does not have its own gym, my team is always scrambling for gym time. This forces me as the coach to be very creative--one day, we run stairs that adorn a local business, another day, we run to the bridge and back to school. Some days, we carve out a small swath of space outside, sandwiched between the cheerleaders and their tumbling mats and the latchkey kids who are taking their sweet time in getting home.
With all these distractions, I found it smart during a recent workout to have the players close their eyes as they dribbled the indoor basketballs on the asphalt outside the school. The idea is to have them work on game situations, in which they will hopefully have their heads up to see the floor and any openings in the defense. The fingertips do the work, locking in the good habit of dribbling the fall away from the palm of the hand for greater control.
After about ten minutes of constant dribbling--inside out, crossovers, front to back-- I gave the guys the okay to open their eyes. Our big man decided he liked the sensation and kept his eyes closed as the eyes of his teammates fixed on him.
His tall, skinny frame bent awkwardly at the waist, his right hand bent in front of him as a sort of buffer for the defense, he looked alternately ridiculous, lost, and in his own world.
His intensity, though, burned through, and he was no doubt in that zone that athletes talk about with the reverence of a prodigal son.
That zone, as slippery as it is enthralling, is what an athlete chases his whole life.
"Look," said a teammate, pointing at his still-squinting center, "Josh has The Eye."
And, that, I think to myself, is what I'm chasing some ten years after high school.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Students versus Faculty Game

I'm not sure if it was the two Five Hour Energy bottles I downed five minutes before tipoff, or the excitement of a victory, but I didn't fall asleep until about 2:45 am a week ago. This was the night/morning after the teachers at my school took home a nine-point victory over the school's girls and boys basketball teams, and it might well have been a healthy dose of excitement that would not allow me to sleep. Apparently, these Five Hour Energy bottles will keep you up, and it seems fitting that one of the salves I relied on to prop me up for this Game of all Games kept me awake almost all night.
These salves included a pregame meal the likes of which I have not eaten in a long time--well, at least in the year since the last student/faculty basketball game. My carbohydrate count was similar to that of the cloudy-memoried meals I ate in my high school days, full of pasta and bread and cereal with just a little turkey on the bread and milk in the cereal for my protein totals.
I drank two eight-ounce cups of water twenty minutes before the game, strengthening the base built by the three eight-ounce cups I drank an hour before tipoff.
My pregame ritual may have been laughable to an observer, as I couldn't help but think that I was doing the same stretches and rituals that I'd done some thirteen years before as a high school player. This night, though, my ardent pregame preparation would have to make up for the fact that I had not "done my homework."
The plan was (always a dangerous three words) that I would play three nights a week for four weeks. A week later, my basketball shoes still fresh in the closet, the plan was altered: three times a week for three weeks...until I soon found myself begging into a game to 11 with players who were probably born right around the years when I was playing JV basketball. This was the night before the real thing-the students awaited the next night.
Playing the role of distributor (I mean, c'mon, I couldn't just score every time on these young players!), I fooled myself into believing that not being a standout in a game featuring all mid-teenagers was not so much a function of terrible conditioning as of rustiness. Rustiness, I figured, would be eradicated with this one game reawakening my prodigious games. My shoes had been broken in, the wheels greased.
It was with none of the previous night's confidence that I awoke on game day, fully aware that my trash talk of the previous week was far ahead of my game's readiness.
It's not so much important that the teachers recruited two former (albeit, 40s in age) NFL players with tangential links to the school, or that our personnel director's brother (he of the twenty-point output and suffocating defense) was weakly and half-heartedly cited as a "substitute" to complaining students. It's not so important that the teachers mounted a huge comeback to turn an early 14-3 deficit into a 47-38 victory, helped by two big three-pointers and a few assists by yours truly. What I'll remember is an early maze of images--a big man guarding me after a defensive switch, my brain lighting up with delight, knowing I can drive by him to the basket. An awkward crossover, our footwork in lock-step, a tip-away, a steal. As I trail this big man as he approaches for a layup, the distance between us seems to lengthen, and I trail off like a cornerback conceding a touchdown to a streaking receiver. Fresh in my mind is the idea that "back in the day," I would have blocked the layup or at least forced a bad shot.
This turnover and layup were almost as strong in my mind as the fact that we'd won.
The next day, I resolved to play hoops more-you know, three times a week to stay up on my skills...
I have yet to lace 'em up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Intramurals as the Beginning of the Downhill Spiral...

Intramurals were most likely designed as a platform for camaraderie, fair play, and fellowship. They have devolved, however, into a Darwinian struggle for supremacy and an preview of the aging process. The leagues are full of frustrated athletes, people who weren't quite good enough to play college hoops or football or whatever the sport (ultimate frisbee?), but were the Big Dogs or Kinda-Big Dogs, or Thought They Were Big Dogs at the high school level.
I was no different when I entered the university recreation center with a few buddies to sign up for our basketball intramural league as freshmen. We were all decent ballers at our schools, still in pretty good shape from playing a lot of ball over the summer before college, and eager to be Alpha Males in the dorms and on the courts at once.
On one hand, these early games were key in building dorm solidarity, as there is nothing like an intense basketball pickup game to take acquaintances to at least cohorts, if not friends. With the uneasy niceness of those first days of college being like a perpetually awkward first date, there was nothing like a game of hoops to push you through the awkwardness to the unique camaraderie of dorm life.
I remember bonding with a soon-to-be-lifelong friends over our shared distaste for one dorm mate who consistently turned the ball over yet always wanted to be the one with the ball in his hands, demanding it in a nasally voice after anyone else got a rebound on defense.
Intramurals also house some behavior that is close to the worst of humankind. Players cheat with impunity, exaggerating scores or simply propping up wrong scores uttered by willing or unwilling liars. The ball is always off the other team, and fouls that are obvious to the other nine players on the court are always denied with the fervor of a Baptist preacher.
Guys "cherry-pick," they only hustle back on defense when they made the turnover, they throw unnecessary elbows, they chuck the ball up any time they have (or don't have) the slightest opening. When it comes down to the end of the game, though, a lot of them want nothing less than to have the ball in their hands, and the ball all of a sudden moves more at the end than it has all game.
The brave, the cowards, the selfish, the overly unselfish (the one who will not, under any consition, shoot an open shot) the crooked, the lazy--they all see their virtues and peccadilloes exposed on a grand scale.
Intramurals are the beginning of the downward spiral, where the zenith is the quality of play during the high school season, in which a player is in impeccable condition, and feels he can play for seven quarters. Rare occasions are those in which he pulls a jersey to avoid having to jump or box for a rebound, those in which he lets a guy drive past him so he can attempt the lazy man's steal from behind.
The low point of one's basketball career is demonstrated by "The Proffs," an intramural team made up of seven 45+ professors. Their strategy consisted of hard fouls on any layups for the opposing teams, pulled jerseys whenever possible, two-handed, two-footed push shots, and shouts of "Send it!" by shuffling old men who never crossed halfcourt on defense and wanted passes that would give them undefensed layups on the other side.
As my 3oth birtday approaches, just having signed up for my first adult recreation league in three years, I hope that I am much closer to the zenith than I am to The Proffs...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Aaliyah was Right

Despite my crippling fear of aging, I can honestly say, objectively speaking, that 29 (30 in a few days) is not Old.
Aaliyah, though she meant in the opposite way that I mean it, was right, though--"Age ain't Nuthin but a Number." While she meant it in such a way that someone as young as her could be more mature than her age states, I understand it to say that age can be more a feeling than a number.
Exhibit A: A student of mine wrote on his recent final exam that he greatly enjoyed a certain book we'd read in class, a book whose setting was the student's hometown in the early 1990s. He remarked that the book "was great because it described our town how it was like back then (emphasis mine) when we weren't born yet?"
Dang...1992 was "back then?"

Sunday, January 23, 2011


As the ball trickled past the goalie, spinning from slight contact with his left hand, I felt an elation that I'd never felt in my three years of Little League baseball or three-and-a-half game season of soccer.
It wasn't important that I wasn't even on the soccer team for which I scored the goal or that my goal was scored on a goalkeeper who was more interested in the fading sun's colors than his temporary role as gatekeeper. It wasn't even important that I was a year older than most of the players on the field and two years older than the first-time players.
I had scored a goal. My first goal. The papers wouldn't feature my goal, the evening news wouldn't cover it at 10 o'clock. Shoot, it wouldn't even enter the scorebook or notepad of the most dedicated youth soccer fan. It was a goal scored in practice by a player who had come to his younger brother's practice with his mom after a grocery store run and had been asked to practice for a few minutes in a scrimmage because another youngster had just gotten hurt-you know the type of goal I'm talking about, right?
This was my first time playing soccer since midway through my first. As a six-year-old with a budding love for sports--basketball and baseball were already practiced in my front yard, along with some innocent and novice touch football--I had followed my friends into the La Sirra Soccer League.
It was quite clear, however, from the very first practice that soccer wasn't my thing. I was deathly afraid of the ball and well, what else matters in soccer? A few games into the season, and it was clear from my game tears, my incredible reluctance to leave the house for soccer practice and games, that I was not to be the next (first?) American soccer star.
That day at my brother's practice though, as the street-clothes-wearing mercenary, I felt what it was to score, to be a momentary spotlighter in a team sport.
I imagine that if I multiply that feeling by a million, it'd equal the feeling to rise up, hang in the air, and bring down the house with a dunk.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Gut

As a kid and deep into my early 20s, I was so skinny that I even went to the doctor to find ways to gain weight. My homebrew of weightgainer milkshakes lasted about as long as my first vomiting session induced by the milkshakes. The Met-Rx and weight-gainers/protein powders of my teenage years made me gag so badly I could never find enough fruit juice, water, or milk to disguise the taste. One of the countless nicknames of that era was "Slim Jim," and I was even called "The Skeleton" by one of my vindicative students early on in my teaching career. I still remember the laughter that ensued when our varsity basketball trainer tested my body fat, and chortled as he reported that my body fat did not even register on the index, and that I "oughta mix in a steak every once in a while."On the court, my relative height and strong-mindedness to hit the boards made me a post player, but I was no match inside for the burly and the beefy--6'2," 158 ain't likely to scare anybody away from attacking the key.

I must say, however, that this thinness did make me seem more muscular than I was. With no fat (literally none, according to my first body-fat test) to hide under, my veins and six-pack shone through like those on an anatomy class poster. As I got into my mid-twenties, friends a few years older would warm me of that most slippery and cunning of things-The Gut. They warned that they, too, were once like me, but that the ravages of the years included the sprouting of the Gut. My stretched-tight abs, though, told me a different story. My metabolism was different; the usual rules didn't apply to me. I would never get fat, never get the infamous Gut.The last few years, though, the pounds have come, most of them healthy ones. I consider myself to be in good shape, at 6'2," 188 lbs. The Gut, though, I could do without. Is it obvious? No. There are a lot of people who wouldn't consider it to be a problem. But It's there, no doubt about it. It is a Gut, a lower ab conglomeration that defies ab exercises and itinerant running. My diet, while every once in a while fatty, is pretty darn healthy on the regular, complete with boneless, skinless chicken breast and egg white omeletes, pasta, and a lot of grains and fruits.About two years ago, a friend, five years older than me, tapped me on the shoulder at a barbecue, and pointed to the lower part of my ruffled shirt.

"I told you it was coming," he said.


"The Gut."

I turned away as I unconsciously smoothed my shirt bottom--the truth hurts.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rockwell, University...

In those heady first days of lifting weights, where the young lifter sees dynamic results in bulk and quantity of weight lifted to a degree that will perhaps never be revisited, I used to laugh as my friend stared as his biceps bulged in the funhouse mirrors of the weight room. With each bicep curl, he shouted out a name of a rival high school--"Rockwell! University!..."
There was no mistaking his motivation, and my motivation in lifting with him. We had a clear set of opponents, the Jokers, Riddlers, and Penguins to our Batman. The league title was our goal, and the goal was a quite objective one.
Now, as I approach my 30th birthday, with no competition on the horizon, no players to shut down defensively, to league titles to earn, can I bring myself to do, to the best of my ability, with a Ray Allen-like singlemindedness, those nasty leg exercises, the squats, the lunges, the jump rope, the ones the make me have trouble climbing stairs the next day?

Age and "The Acid Test"

Interlude--Poem: "The Acid Test"

As I approach my thirty birthday-24 days and counting-the relative nature of age and how this relativity is continually being reinvented continue to amaze me. My parents will both turn 60 soon after I turn thirty, creating a neat sense of order for a numbers nerd like me. They will, upon turning 60, have exactly double the years of their son, exactly double the life experience. (Yes, I know-we'd all have to have the same birthday to make my previous statements literally true.) There is something awe-inspiring and comforting in the fact that they have been through two days to my every one.

The big 6-0, however, should not be as daunting for them as it will be for others (me, for example), because they are not old now, nor will they be on the dates they turn 60, nor will they be at age 85. Why, because they were born on the good side of 1950.

In my young mind, my parents were the Alpha and Omega, the foundation, the centerpiece. If a friend had a parent born before this arbitrary marker of 1950, this parent was Old. The opposite was of course true for a parent born after 1950--The Fountain of Youth was theirs.

Enjoy: "The Acid Test" by Jaime Flaco

What does a child know about BC, AD,

Nothing, except

What better compliment than to base years,
centuries, epochs—
your life measurement—on one man,

When you are young and feel but cannot verbalize
His love for you, yours for Him,
you do these things--

You do this for your parents:
born before this cut-off,
this objectively subjective year, and you were
old, getting older.

Born after, and you were young,
Aging, maybe, but never aged.

Mom and Dad,
you were the acid test, the marker,
the wind-blown flag on the 18th green.

You were the Right and the Wrong.
The Alpha and the

And maybe this is what it is like,
Maybe just so small of a fraction that it is
like an ant among the massive mass of ants of the world—
but it is love,
your love,
a love like the ant compared to the love our Father (Anno Domini)
has for us.

“Every hair on your head I have counted,” He says,
and you remember when Mom told you (your first human memory?)
that you must have a beautiful soul, because it is said that the eyes are the window
to the soul.

This soul fashioned by the Lord, but perhaps shaded in by one’s parents—
What are we to think of it?
Maybe, just maybe, only this: You have never outgrown,
will never,
outgrow the idea that your parents are perfect.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Doctor Al Finally Got me to Prioritize Stretching

If there's one thing that works on a Catholic boy like me, it's guilt. Well-played, Doc.

Some Good Did Come out of the Chiropractor's Visit

Before I subjected myself to the body-twisting of Dr. Al, he asked me, fairly innocuously, how often I stretched. My perhaps exaggerated answer of "Twice a week" was met with a practiced, though not-altogether dishonest smile and canned follow-up question.
"Do you brush your teeth every day?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, momentarily confused. Then, "Yes," again, with a bemused smile.
His silence and shrug saying more than any words could have, Dr. Al pointed to me and simply said, "You cannot neglect something that is so vital to your health."
And that is how he got me to stretch, really stretch, one minute at a time, one body part at a time, for an extended period each day since the visit.
This is the good news I report, eight days into my full body stretch routine, with three consecutive days of dunk workouts under my belt. That whole dunk thing? Oh yeah, about that...