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A Story About Basketball

Back in the early ’90s I really got into basketball.

I was terrible at it. But I loved it.

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured my imagination and pulled me in. I became a fanboy. For awhile there as a kid, I lived and breathed basketball, the NBA, the Bulls, and to a smaller extent, the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were a new team, and pretty terrible. So watching the Bulls was more my speed. It was fun to watch a team that could win. Plus, the head coach was a North Dakota boy, and Jordan, the biggest superstar in the league, played in Chicago.


Eighth grade: heckuva mullet, kid! And check out that shirt. Da Bulls!

I watched all those greats: Jordan, Pippen, Magic, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley. I watched every game I could. The NBA on TNT network seemed to be a nightly routine. I would scour the TV listings, the printed listings in the Thursday newspaper, for anything that had to do with professional basketball: NBA on NBC, NBA Inside Stuff, special documentaries on cable. I watched Jordan lead the Bulls to their trilogy or “three-peat” of wins. I’ve still got one or two of those championship games on VHS somewhere in my stuff. I collected trading cards — mainly three brands: Fleer, Skybox, and Upper Deck. Now and then I’d get a pack or two of NBA Hoops. I still have them all. I wore Michael Jordan shirts, Chicago Bulls apparel, and the only shoes I would want to wear were Nike basketball shoes. I pestered my mother into getting me a limited edition basketball from a Pizza Hut promotion.


That pendant ain’t no bull, yo.

I was borderline obsessed with the NBA and my family seemed to know it. My sister Wendy found a piece of jewelry in the shape of a bull’s head and painted it to look like a Chicago Bull, just as a gift for me.

Oh, and I played basketball in school.

I was not good. I was also short, measuring in at 5’4″. My nickname was Shorty. I wasn’t great at remembering and running plays. My shooting was off the charts, but in the wrong direction. Apparently I was too aggressive as well. During one game, after the referee called my third foul, he told me I should try football or wrestling and use that aggression to my advantage. I didn’t.

There were three school years in which I played. Fifth, sixth, and eighth grades. I don’t know why I didn’t play seventh grade ball. Maybe I took a year off to work on my layup. I’m joking, of course. I couldn’t really work on anything on my own at home. Our living situation was never one that could have accommodated a basketball hoop at home, though I would have loved one.

In fifth and sixth grades I played on my elementary school team. The Roosevelt Raiders played against the kids in the same grade from the other elementary schools in town. I was so excited to be on a team. My only disappointment going in was that we played in red tie-on bibs, instead of numbered jerseys. But I got over that. In those two years, I scored two points. Two. One layup. I don’t even remember it. I just remember the mere fact that it happened. In those two years, our team won one game. One. It was against the Washington Warriors. And they were quite embarrassed by that loss. There was a kid in our school that mockingly said earlier in the season that if we actually won a game she’d buy the team pizza. She never paid up. Because she never expected us to actually win a single game. When we did, all bets were off.

I went out for the team again in eighth grade. Of course the only reason I was on a team at all was because it wasn’t a try-out based system. It was inclusive. Anyone who wanted to play could. Again, I was terrible. But I was so into it. And I finally had a jersey with a number. It was a reversible jersey that could be either white or blue, and I was assigned number 24. But I remind you. I was not good. I touted myself as being a mainly defensive player. This is what I told myself when my teammates would rarely pass to me, or when I’d miss every shot I took. At times, I would see my coach put his face in his hands. I knew I was frustrating the hell out of that guy.

Not pictured: any mention of Shorty. Let’s forget this happened, guys.

I’m not even in the junior high yearbook’s team photo, or mentioned as “not pictured.” To this day, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I didn’t know about it. It’s as if I didn’t exist on that team. Did I miss the memo? Did they not tell me on purpose because I was so bad they didn’t want to remember me on the team? Those were the questions I asked myself as a kid. And a few times when I signed a friend’s yearbook, I’d go to my team’s photo and write my name in as “not pictured.”

But I had heart, man. I took it seriously. All those inspirational Gatorade commercials in grainy black & white in which the athletes talk about perseverance, determination, and hard work with dramatic underscore… Those got to me. I remember telling my mother resolutely, “Some day I’m going to play for the Bulls and I’m going to make a million bucks.” Bless her heart, she didn’t discourage me. She kindly and lovingly said, “I hope you do!”

My basketball career culminated with the final game of my eighth grade year. I didn’t play much that game, but the coach must have felt obligated to put me in now and then. He put me back in during the fourth quarter. I don’t remember the score or even whether we won that game. I just remember, so clearly even to this day —

My team was on offense. There was a defender on me. He wasn’t great. But neither was I. I was at the top right-hand corner of the key. I broke away from my guy toward the side line. I turned and the point guard passed the ball to me. In the briefest of moments, I considered whether I would pass it off again, like I normally did, or if I should attempt a jump shot. My jump shot usually resulted in a turnover. So I wanted to avoid it if possible. In that instant, a path opened up from me to the basket. It was as if the Red Sea parted. Everything was shadow, save the light shining on this glorious path. I, Moses, was about to dribble this ball to the Promised Land. Everything went to slow motion. I broke into a run, remembering to dribble the ball. I sped straight down this wide open freeway and laid up the ball. Time went even slower. The ball went in. It actually went in. Two points for my team. Two points for me. They were the only two points I would score in the season. There was cheering in the arena. I looked over to my mother, who was beaming and clapping. Her son had finally scored something, after all these games. All this happened in a fraction of an instant and the glory ended when time instantly sped back to normal and the ball fell back down from the basket and bounced off my head, resulting in me tripping over my own feet and planting on the hard floor.

The glory and the dignity of my one junior high basket had faded oh, so quickly into my inevitable buffoonery. It withered into memory, where it still lives happily.

I kept an interest in basketball for awhile, but decided not to go out for the team my freshman year. I knew what the result would be. So I avoided it. I found activities that were more suited to my strengths. Music and Theater were more my thing after all. My interest in the NBA faded. I didn’t go pro with basketball. I never played for the Bulls.

However, this whole story is leading up to one more story. Fast forward more than twenty years. I’m married with two boys and a little girl on the way. We moved into our house about a year and a half ago. A paved slab in the back yard, complete with a basketball hoop, came with the house. Last summer, it just stood back there undisturbed. A couple weeks ago, though, I got a net and hung it up on the hoop. I have a kid-sized hoop as well for my little boys. We’ve been out there playing a bit the past few days. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but my target practice seems to go a lot better than it did in my youth. I’m not awful at making shots any more. At least I don’t think.

But there’s one thing I realized.

In those years of trying, all those times in which I tried to make something of myself in the game, in all the failed shots, all the turnovers, in all the fouls, in all the times I tripped over my own feet, in all the times I craved a crowd reaction to something good I had done on the court, the times I craved my coach’s approval, my team’s approval… None of it compares to now.

When I take a shot and it goes in, two-year-old Caleb claps, laughs, and gleefully yells “Yay, Papa!!” And five-year-old Josiah says, “You’ve got to be the best basketball player in the world, Papa.”

That’s all the approval I need.

I feel like a million bucks.

Categories: Family, Life
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