Hoop Dreams

I’ve never been good at sports, and my interest in professional sports has always been inconsistent, at best. When I was a child, I followed the Oakland As and spent many a summer’s day trying to catch Reggie Jackson’s home run balls, but I spent most of my time out in right field devouring Colossal Dogs and peanuts while my brother studied the game, kept score, and remembered the starting line-up. I was even less interested in playing sports, participating in only three uninspiring years of Little League before hanging up my cleats. I put a great amount of time and energy into fantasizing about being a great athlete.

One of my two favorite pastimes was playing tennis against the garage door. The garage was no match for my powerful forehand and dead-spin backhand, but my career came to a crashing halt when I served a blistering foul into the lamp mounted above the garage door, shattering the glass, the bulb and my dreams of being a great garage-door tennis player. The other, less destructive waste of time was playing basketball alone in that same driveway. I knew that if I played against my brother, my next-door neighbor, the golden boy down the street or just about anyone not on crutches, I’d get creamed. Sure, I might learn something, but that wouldn’t be any fun. It’s funny how faux-good you can become at something when there’s no one there to test how really bad you are. I could spin the ball on my finger, transfer it to other fingers and dribble the ball between my legs. (I had to stop to perform this magical feat, but who cares?) I also could transfer the ball from one hand to the other around my back real fast-like.

While many of these tricks amounted to zip when it came to playing against real people, it didn’t matter; I was playing an imaginary team, and the imaginary crowd marveled at my ballhandling. The imaginary opponents shuddered at my wizardry, too. The coolest thing I could do was shooting with one hand. Forget about whether it was wise or not; since there was no one around to shut my game down, I was the king of the (driveway) court. Ultimately, someone like my brother or a neighborhood kid would come over and mess up my game, but there came a time when I marveled more than just my imaginary players.

The first time I applied these tricks in front of someone besides my thoroughly intimated imaginary competitors was during a high school P.E. class. When we split into groups for basketball, weights, tag football and slaughterball, I chose basketball, and by pure luck (and it would never happen again), the most clumsy, awkward schleps in the school signed up with me. While the future Marcus Allens and Ryne Sandbergs were playing flag football and lifting weights, I was with the guys who would probably grow up to become computer programmers and lifetime HO train enthusiasts still living with their mothers. I knew something was amiss when we picked teams for the first time; I was immediately perceived to be the franchise player and was snatched up first. This has never happened before or since. I was usually the handicap, the guy a team gets stuck with because they got first-pick and chose the super-jock.

There I was among a bunch of guys who allowed spittle to collect unchecked on the corners of their mouths and hiked their gym shorts up hopelessly way too high. I probably should have taken this time to be humble and help out these guys who were worse off than me, but I didn’t. I became the terror of the blacktop for that one semester, the Michael Jordan of these slobbering schleps. Actually, I secretly called myself Rick Barry. I remember watching moments of Golden State Warrior games where Rick Barry was the star. I recall the commentator repeat over and over again, “Barry, top of the key, two points!” There wasn’t much of a “key” to be at the top of on the blacktop, but since I couldn’t shoot too far beyond the free-throw line without looking like a girl, it didn’t matter.

Also, since my “muscle memory” at what was roughly the free-throw line was fairly decent, thanks to all the times I was imaginarily fouled during those imaginary games on the home driveway court, I stunned the schleps with those fancy one-handed shots from that distance, which might as well have been half-court for all they were concerned. The great thing about that semester on the blacktop was how these guys figured I was too good to mess with. Nobody tried to double-team me or slap that silly one-handed shot away. I was given all the room I needed; it was a turkey shoot.

If I was the Rick Barry among the schleps when it came to hoops, there was another semester when I was the Archimedes among the remedial math clan. After getting transferred out of my freshman pre-algebra class I remember walking down the hall towards my new math class, transfer papers in hand. I could hear what sounded like chanting ahead of me. As I drew nearer I figured out what they were chanting. I stopped to ensure I read the room number correctly on the transfer papers. They were chanting the multiplication tables! “Three times three equals nine; three times four equals twelve…” When I opened the door a football coach was at the head of the class leading the chant. He didn’t break the cadence, only waved me over, took my papers, and pointed to a chair in the back of the room. When I sat down I received the final blow of humiliation: the kid to my right was from our Special Education program. By the time nine times nine equals eighty-one I recognized a half-dozen more kids from Special Ed. So here’s the equation:

{ x = has a need to review six-grade math + can be taught by a football coach + is attended by >= 7 “special” students }

We can deduce that value x /= a room full of German rocket scientists.

It turned out I had a knack for remedial math. Never mind that I should have had this stuff down in elementary school – I was the wunderkind of the class. When I handed my tests in long before anyone else the other kids would look down at their half-completed tests and back up at me like I was some kind of egghead. I was a genius among my fellow classmates. When that semester ended I returned to pre-algebra where I struggled with the concept of letters in math equations and squeaked by with a C or a C minus. I never looked back after that. I graduated from high school and earned a BA in a university without taking another math class. Needless to say, I struggle when it comes to determining tips and sales tax.

I often think of those blacktop days, but I cannot translate how much I liked to play hoops back then into watching the sport today. My wife likes watching basketball, especially during March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. I’m so removed from the drama that all I can think of while watching parts of the games is how nice or dumb some of the uniforms look and why that Steve Nash guy doesn’t do something with that hair. I also like to try to find a player who doesn’t have a visible tattoo – kind of like a dynamic “Where’s Waldo.” As you can tell, I’m pretty emotionally detached from watching the actual game.

I have attended a few Sacramento Kings games, though, and I think some of the guys I know at work would have killed for the seats my wife bought for our friend Mad Dog and me some years ago. It was a post-season game, and we were about 10 to 15 rows from courtside on one of the corners near the aisle. While the fans were going ape all around me, I sat and wondered how cynical the presentation was. Keep in mind, I spent summers as a kid watching major league baseball, albeit not very attentively. What struck me is how the whole presentation was set up as if for people with A.D.D.; when the ball wasn’t in play, the cheerleaders were jumping around or that big diamond vision thingy was putting on a not-so-entertaining show. When the game was over, my ears were ringing, like the first time I saw the Ramones at the Warfield, but with none of the satisfaction.

Occasionally, I look in on the “Over Forty” basketball league at my club. These guys are twice my size, in very good shape and talk street hoops lingo like “cutting teeth” (ouch!). Sometimes after they have left and before the volleyball net goes up for the next group, I get a chance to dribble down memory lane. There are usually only a few guys on the court, so I can shoot a couple of hoops alone, but it’s not quite the same. That semester on the blacktop is long gone, and so is my muscle memory; now I need to be almost under the net to make a shot. Occasionally a fellow club member will invite me to play a quick game. I should do it. What would it hurt? I might learn something. I guess I just like to dream.

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