Editor’s note: Yesterday, I discussed the possibility of using this space to pimp my new book. After some mixed feedback, all of which I appreciated, I decided to give you a sneak preview. This is the first chapter of the book, which I started writing yesterday.
Let me know what you think, and also let me know whether you’d like open threads for the remaining playoff games. It might be fun to vent about the Heat, ogle about Taj Gibson’s dunk, or shed some tears while thinking about what might have been.
Thank you all, for everything. And yes, the picture above is me when I was in high school. If only Jeff Green could box out with such impeccable form.
In retrospect, I should have chosen a different sport. Basketball rewards leaping ability, quickness and height, and if genetics were any hint, I was destined to strike out in all three categories.
My dad stands 5’11 (though he’d get mad at me for calling him less than 6’0) and his jump shot looks like a rabid dog having a seizure. He played hockey when he was younger and will tell anyone who will listen about the time his firm hip check toppled the best player in his high school league. But if you wanted to pick someone to breed a world-class basketball player, my father would be near the back of the line, standing somewhere in the vicinity of Danny DeVito. This is the time he would want me to mention that he was not useless athletically; he set his city’s record in the mile run when he was only thirteen years old, and he was captain of both his hockey team and golf team in high school (he still brags about the one glorious day he shot in the 60s). That stuff is all true. But when it came to passing down height and fast-twitch muscle fibers that would help me become an NBA player one day, he failed me. Quite woefully, I might add. The man couldn’t jump over a sheet of paper.
All my athleticism, if you can call it that, came from my mother. Or at least, that’s what she tells me. A series of injuries stemming from a ruptured disc in her neck kept my mom from displaying all the athletic feats she claimed she could do. She was great at tennis, she says. She was the best water-skier ever, she tells me. She could lift entire houses with just her pinky finger, her self-proclaimed legend states. She was the most impressive synchronized swimmer Massachusetts has ever seen, she brags, the very definition of grace. But I remember more than she gives me credit for. When I was about eight years old, back before the injuries took away all my mother’s “athleticism,” I watched her play tennis. She stood in the middle of the court, refusing to move side to side, hoping her opponent would hit the ball straight back to her. Anything outside of her arm’s reach was a winner.
As you can probably tell, reaching the NBA was outside the realm of possibility from the day I was conceived. Not that I let that keep me from dreaming. When I was young, I believed my path to the NBA was already blazed; I just had to follow it. I was going to play for Coach K at Duke, then get drafted by the Celtics during the first round, probably in the lottery. I would become the hometown hero. Women would want me. Men would want to be me. Children would want my autograph. Somebody would probably make a movie out of my life. Of course, those dreams never materialized. If they ever do make a movie about my basketball career, it will be called “His Airless.” When you’re destined to be a short, slow white boy for your entire life, the NBA probably isn’t for you.
I did dabble in other sports. I tried soccer, like most suburban children do, and I was phenomenal. No, really, I was—I once scored 41 goals in a single game. Of course, I was seven years old at the time, played in a league that did not allow goalies, and my opponents were probably blind. But I scored 41 freaking goals in one game. You can never take that away from me. Nonetheless, I hated soccer. There was something about it that bored me to death (probably the fact that World Cup games could actually end in scoreless ties). So I quit on top, before my town’s league allowed goalies.
Baseball didn’t bore me as much as soccer did. Some people might hate baseball’s lack of action, but I found a way around it: play pitcher and catcher, and only pitcher and catcher. I was involved in every play and boredom didn’t set in nearly as often; I never had to pick my wedgies during long innings in the outfield. I was actually pretty good at baseball. I batted something like .700 in Little League, pitched a few no-hitters and became the most-feared baserunner in the league. We weren’t allowed to lead off the base once the pitcher toed the rubber. But by waiting until the perfect time (when the catcher started to put his mask back on and the pitcher’s back was facing the plate), I managed to steal home more than ten times in my final year. What I’m not mentioning is that I was in 7th grade and almost 13 years old, playing against a lot of nine- and ten-year old opponents. I was kind of like Danny Almonte, except at least in my case being the proverbial man among boys was actually legal. When I finally could have graduated to a full-sized diamond, in 8th grade, I stopped playing baseball. Not because I was afraid of playing against kids my own age (how dare you accuse me of being a coward?), but because AAU basketball was played in the spring and I didn’t have time to play two sports. It’s worth noting that I did make a brief return to baseball during my freshman year of high school. Playing for my school’s freshman team, I pitched only one inning, striking out four players. No, that’s not a typo, and yes, I am tooting my own horn. One inning, four strikeouts, and my high school baseball career was finished forever. I’d chosen basketball instead.
Actually, saying I chose basketball isn’t right. It chose me. I was born with older cousins and I looked up to them. In fact, saying I worshiped them might be more accurate. When I was young, I would have jumped into a school of jellyfish if my older cousins told me to. Once, I really did.
We had created something we called “The Man’s Club.” Basically, my older cousins came up with dares for the rest of us. If we completed the dares, we gained entrance to The Man’s Club. If we failed to complete them, we were scorned for a day or two, until the next dare came along and we had another chance at admission to the honorable club. Our places in The Man’s Club were very tenous—as soon as my older cousins thought of the next dare, our previous accomplishments were forgotten and we needed to prove our manhood all over again.
Once, we dared my cousin Mike to enter “The Torture Chamber,” which actually meant he had to lay down under some couch cushions so the rest of us could jump on him. Not our brightest idea; Mike broke his arm. Later, on a family vacation at the beach, we dared one of my cousins to take a shit in his pants (I’ll leave his name out of this in an attempt to save his reputation). He did, but, needless to say, Nameless Cousin’s father wasn’t as pleased as he should have been by his son’s entrance into the Man’s Club. Nameless Cousin spent the rest of the vacation grounded and confined to his bedroom, crying tears of shame.
During that same summer, we swam out to a raft in the ocean and were surrounded by a school of jellyfish. My cousins told me to jump in and swim to shore. Rather than responding with an intelligent, “No,” I simply asked, “Is there anything else you’d like me to do?” There was nothing else. Apparently, jumping into a pack of 20 or so jellyfish and getting stung dozens of times was enough to prove my manhood. Until, you know, my older cousins thought of a new dare, at which time my manhood would be entirely forgotten.
My cousins Pat and Billy, especially, were older, taller and, in my eyes at least, the next Larry Birds. They always raved about Bird. To them, he was the perfect basketball player. He was the most talented player on the court; he knew it, his opponents knew it, and the fans knew it. If there was somebody in attendance who didn’t know it, Bird had no problem telling them himself. But he still dove after loose balls. He still did all he could to get his teammates involved. To Larry, basketball wasn’t just a game. It was something holy, something he needed to respect and something everybody else should respect, too. Watching him play, it was evident that Larry cared about winning basketball games like a groom should care about his bride. My cousins dug that. And it didn’t hurt that Bird played in Boston while we grew up in the Western part of the state. Bird was their favorite player and basketball was their favorite sport. It was only a matter of time until it was my favorite sport, too.
I can still vividly remember the night I fell in love with basketball. At least, I think I remember it vividly. I might have glorified my memory through the years, altering my recollections to make this one night seem more important than it actually was. Or maybe I remember it exactly as I saw it but still don’t get all the details right; after all, that night I was watching basketball through the lens of a five-year old. At that age, you don’t always understand everything that happens. Anyway, on to the story.
Billy was playing in a high school game against Travis Best’s high school, Central High School. I’m not sure whether Travis, who would later earn fame as an Indiana Pacer, was on the team that year. He might have already graduated high school, after which he attended Georgia Tech. Either way, I was wearing a plain white t-shirt adorned with magic marker. My mom had written “Martin” (Billy’s last name) and “33″ (Billy’s number—an homage to Bird, obviously) on the back of my plain white t-shirt. On the front, she wrote “Cathedral” (Billy’s high school team). Wearing my brand new jersey (of sorts), I cheered until my voice sounded like I had inhaled cigarette smoke for 650 straight hours.
But Billy’s team didn’t respond to my cheers, at least initially. They fell down by about 20 points. The stands were so packed that a hundred or so people sat on the floor to watch the game. At least half the crowd supported the home team, Central High School, Billy’s opponent.
“It’s all over,” they chanted. “It’s all over.”
The floor boards quivered like a man waiting to get punched in the face by Mike Tyson. Billy’s team looked just as shaken as those floor boards. That was okay by me. His team didn’t need to win for me to idolize Billy. He was 6’6 with range that extended well beyond the three-point arc. He could pass like a point guard, played varsity basketball all four years of high school, and, since I had never been to a college or NBA game, was the closest thing to Larry Bird I had ever seen in person.
Billy was good enough that one local basketball aficionado would later compare him to Vinny Del Negro. ”He would have had Vinny’s NBA career if he had just learned to follow his shot,” the aficionado said. Okay, so maybe Aficionado’s judgment wasn’t perfect; he later told me without any hint of sarcasm that a local high school player (who never even played college basketball) was better than the San Antonio Spurs’ Chris Quinn. Yeah, right. And if my cousin simply followed his shot, he would have had a 12-year NBA career. Have another brew, Aficionado. But I digress. Back to Billy’s game.
The game was all but over, a loss all but certain. Billy’s team was being drowned by an uber-athletic Central team and the chants of opposing fans. Of course, they could have lost by 100 points and I still would have returned home thinking, “Man, did you see Billy’s no-look pass? He’s the best player I’ve ever seen.” But the Cathedral Panthers didn’t lose by 100 points.
Central’s lead didn’t slowly dwindle; Cathedral flushed it down the toilet in one quick motion. Like a dead fish, the lead almost instantly disappeared to wherever flushed toilet water goes. The “It’s all over” chants washed away and the Cathedral fans seized control of that overfilled gym.
“Score-board, score-board,” sang the chorus. My cousin Billy had helped lead the comeback, and he was a star. Thousands of people chanted for him. Thousands of people paid money to watch him play a basketball game. I sat there in my de facto jersey, my eyes bouncing with excitement, falling head over heels for Billy and the game he loved. One day, I made up my mind right then and there, people would cheer for me just like that. One day, basketball would help me become a star.
I never would realize the latter goal, but the game has given me more than I ever could have hoped. My friends, my family, my education; if my life were a plain white T-shirt, basketball has always been imprinted on top of it with magic marker.
What would my life have become if I never fell in love with basketball? I don’t know. All I know is that it would have been different. Very different.