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.