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.