For some reason, my father invaded my thoughts this evening. I don’t know if it’s because Father’s Day is around the corner or because I follow him on Facebook and have more insight into his life than I ever did as a teenager. Whatever the reason, as I lay in bed at 2 am on Thursday night, hazy memories came flooding back to me.
I remember the first time my dad and I were on a court for the first time, not just in our driveway. He was the coach of my 3rd grade town team and some of my best friends would be on that squad. He was the coach, giving instruction when he was pleased and blowing the whistle to correct me when he wasn’t. My little sister was on the sidelines with us and basketball was all about family. Everyone could, and should, do it. We started playing regular 1 on 1 games that I was obviously dominated in.
Basketball had such a profound impact on my early life that it didn’t just consist of practice time after school, but my free time as well. I first started ‘writing’ about sports at that time. My fiction consisted of me and my friends, obviously representing our ‘Warren Magic’ town team, taking on the great Chicago Bulls dynasty of the early 90s and prevailing. We were allowed to play against MJ because he was retired from playing professional basketball, clearly.
In the stories, my dad was the coach, just as he was in real life.
He would coach my town teams for the next four years, bringing my friends and I up together through elementary school, playing against kids from our rival town who would eventually turn into teammates once we made it to high school.
I remember the end of those four years, and the transition to Junior High. I was no longer a kid, I was so close to being an adult. I do remember showing up to school the day the results of the Junior High basketball team tryouts were posted.
I was cut.
I was devastated.
Four years of my life, nearly a third of it, and my dad had coached me how to play the game I had come to absolutely love. I enjoyed soccer, could catch a football, and had dabbled in baseball (but couldn’t hit). Basketball was it. It was all I wanted to play. Hazily, I remember being scared of going home that day. I wasn’t just disappointed that I had gotten cut.
I was terrified that I had let him down.
The lefty runner was frowned upon by the coach (who ironically would go on to become my favorite math teacher) and I had a limited outside game and dribbling skills for an undersized kid who was gangly despite being only 5’4”.
But my dad wasn’t upset. Instead he stepped up to the plate. Out of nowhere a traveling Boys & Girls Club team was started in my town. All the kids who were cast off by the school team were invited to play, there were no cuts. We travelled to Worcester, Springfield, and every town in between looking for games. It was the best experience I ever had playing basketball. Sure it helps we went undefeated and didn’t lose to any other town teams. But that team would have stuck in my memory anyway. We didn’t win any trophies and weren’t known to the other kids in our regional junior/high school (yes, some towns still have all six grades in one building) but I will never forget those two years of playing basketball.
It was a time of many first. I got into my first real fight on the court, and my teammates stood up for me for the first time. I took stats for the first time for our team when I had twisted my ankle, also for the first time. Friendships that were started on that fourth grade team only grew stronger and new ones were formed with guys that would become life-long friends. They all gave me the strength to go back out for my high school team despite the immense fear of being rejected for a third straight year.
Instead, I made the team. I had grown into my body (as much as a kid who was six feet tall and weight 140 pounds could) and was fortunate that our school had a dearth of kids willing to bang bodies down low.
I was ecstatic.
My dad must have been devastated.
He would never coach another basketball team that I was on.
Six years coaching me had flown past in the blink of an eye. We would still play 1 on 1 while I was in high school, and we would start to play in our town pick-up games that were staged every Friday night in the same elementary school gym that he first coached me, but he would coach no more.
Those pick-up games became our connection as I went through my rebellious teenage years. No matter what was going on in our lives, we would find time to play on Friday nights. I would try to take out any teenage angst on him in those games, but his drop step was too strong, and his jumper would always find its way over my outstretched arms. He was good, awe inspiring good and I wanted to be that good too. Memories would get hazy, but the impressions left on those games would never fade.
Get a jumper but only use it once you’ve established that you can beat your man off the dribble. If you can’t, post him up down low and make him work so he can’t hurt you on the other end. Always help your teammates on defense.
They’re lessons that have never gone away.
It’s now been almost 5 years since I played a game of pick-up against him. I can’t believe that life has happened so fast as to make that possible. Even when I went to college in Pennsylvania, anytime I made the trek home we’d schedule it around being able to play pick-up at least one of the nights I was back.
Five Years, 18% of my life, have passed since I last tried to post up my old man. I’d like to think I’ve developed a jump hook, designed specifically to get over his longer reach. I’ve tried desperately to add the same long range shot that he’s made look easy for a 6’4 white guy with no athleticism.
How have I let so much time elapse since we’ve last laced them up?
Time might heal all wounds, but it also gives a shadowy edge to things we used to see so clearly.
It calls into doubt everything I remember about my dad playing basketball. Was he ever as good as I made him out to be in my mind? Most of my pick-up memories are from the perspective of a young adolescent trying to prove himself and those teenage years are filled with self-loathing and doubt as it is. Do I really want to try and disprove them?
Was the step-back J, patented after Bird no doubt, but in my mind reminiscent of what Dirk has done the last 10 years, ever as deadly as I thought? Were the post moves ever so strong and un-guardable as they were against my skinny frame? I used to think that anyone with a little heft should be able to post a guy up and make a move that led to an easy basket. Kevin Mchale didn’t inspire my now oft-used up and under, my dad did.
I’ve always wondered why a guy like Dwight Howard, the epitome of human size and strength, didn’t have a post-up game as good as my father’s. He made it look so easy.
You know what, as badly as I want to get back on the court with my dad I prefer to remember the guy that used to dominate our 1 on 1 games when I was a kid. I don’t want the harsh reality to catch up with either of us. As I’ve grown older, the illusions of my childhood have all disappeared, and this is one, my dad as the original Superman on the court, is one that I prefer to keep.
I still remember the first time I ever beat him. I was in 7th grade, not long after I got cut from the Junior High team, and we were playing in the drive way of the new house we just moved into. For some reason, his jumper wasn’t falling and my lay-ups were (that doesn’t happen anymore). We were tied at the end of the game, like we had been often the past year. But unlike previous games, I was the one with the ball at the end of the game. I used an up and under move, to score the game winning basket. I also pulled a muscle in my back (that to this day acts up every couple months) but it was worth the pain. I had won!
I had finally, finally won. I had even used his move.
He might have let me win, but that’s another memory that is pretty hazy.