Editor’s note: This is the second chapter of a book I’m writing this summer. You can read the previous chapter here: Chapter 1.
As always, I will keep the site updated with Celtics news. But since it’s the offseason (damn it) and news is slower than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share some of my personal story.
My first taste of competitive basketball came in first grade. Okay, maybe calling it “competitive” is a stretch. But there was a scoreboard and two parents who acted as referees, and, well, to a six-year old it felt like Apollo Creed vs. Ivan Drago. I played for The Yellow Team, and we played in an in-town league consisting of first- and second-graders from my town. Almost every first- and second-grader in town played; there were no tryouts, so everyone made a team. Since nobody got cut, the talent level spanned from “future college basketball player” to “that kid probably doesn’t even know what a layup is.”
One player on my team, Ben, played like a young Bob Cousy. He dribbled around his back with ease, shot floaters in the lane, and made a habit of the no-look pass. Another player, Marc, played like a young Stevie Wonder. He wasn’t really blind, but, well, watching him play basketball you would think he was. His favorite shot was the one-armed gunsling from 30 feet out. The problem was that he couldn’t have reached from 15 feet. Our coaches tried to implore Marc to pass, but he fell in love with that gunsling—which was reminiscent of a medieval catapult—no matter how many times in a row he missed it. The talent discrepancy could be similar to Lebron James sharing a court with Chris Rock.
Despite Marc’s Antoine Walker-esque shot selection (he always searched for the four-point line), our team was good. Really good. We went undefeated in the regular season and made our way to the championship game with ease.
My family, as always, showed up in droves to support me. When I or one of my cousins played in an important game (in this case, my cousin John played on my team), my aunts, uncles and cousins would all show up to watch. It didn’t matter whether the game was a first-grade in-town game or a college bout against Jameer Nelson and Delonte West (my cousin Pat played against St. Joseph’s when he attended Boston University)—my family would roll up to the gym 20 deep. Any excuse to get together. Any excuse to support each other. We aren’t just passive observers, either. I’ll put it this way: local refs are very familiar with us.
My uncle Buddy knows every ref in New England by name, or at least it seems like he does. Buddy’s one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. If he walks into a gym, he doesn’t just know everyone there; he also knows the names of everyone’s children and wives, and always wants to know how everyone is doing. But bad calls boil his blood. After a whistle he disagrees with, Buddy doesn’t scream at refs immediately. No, he patiently waits until the gym becomes completely silent before calling out the ref by his first name. His method assures two things: 1) that the ref can hear him, and 2) that everyone else in the gym can hear him, thereby embarrassing the ref quite a bit.
“Jerry, that’s one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen!” he might calmly shout. I know shouting calmly seems like an oxymoron, but there’s no better explanation for what Buddy does. He never loses his cool. He sits back with one leg folded over the other, sips on a coffee (normally from Dunkin Donuts), and calmly shouts at the refs. He’s louder than a foghorn and twice as obnoxious, but even when Buddy loses it he’s completely under control. “By my count, Andy, you owe us seven calls!” he bellows through a silent gym. After the game, of course, Buddy will go shake Andy’s hand and find out how his children are doing. But during the game, Andy and all other refs have targets on their backs.
Buddy’s not the only one in my family who harasses zebras on a daily basis, nor is he the worst. My mom, God bless her, promises me before every game that she’s done with chiding refs. “You should see me now, Jay,” she’ll tell me. “I don’t say a word anymore.” Inevitably, a missed traveling call or a bogus foul call will bring a vein popping out of her forehead and she’ll start right back in with her complaints. On multiple occasions, relatives of mine have been escorted out of gyms by police officers. We’ve started verbal fights with opposing coaches, broken up fights between eighth-graders (that was me—telling a 14-year old to “back the hell up” isn’t exactly something I’m proud of), and been ejected from gyms too many times to count. Just this past year, I complained about a ref’s bad call during my brother’s 8th-grade CYO game. The ref looked up at me and sarcastically noted, “Oh, I forgot you played Division One basketball.” As a ref, the biggest no-no you can make is responding to fans. But I laughed, then replied, “And I forgot you reffed Division One basketball.” Zing.
I’m making my family sound like something from a horror flick, but the second we get out of a gym we become the world’s most inviting family. Kind, hilarious, loving, accepting—I’m not bragging, but my family’s awesome. Once, a 25-year old man showed up to our family’s Thanksgiving party. My aunt opened the door, gave him a big hug and kiss, and ushered him inside. She got him a plate of food, filled up his glass with beer, and chatted with him for about ten minutes. At some point, he realized he’d come to the wrong house—his family was actually next door having their own get-together. But he probably wanted to stay with us instead. My aunt had had no idea who he was, but figured he was somebody’s boyfriend and thus treated him just like family. That’s the way my family works. If you’re with us, it’s like you’re one of us. Our biggest problem is that if we were a pack of werewolves, a gym floor would be our full moon.
But this was just first-grade and the referees were two volunteer parents, so my family refrained from any referee bashing. Instead they sat in the stands, about 20 of them in total, cheering their heads off, eating donuts and drinking coffee—at morning games, you could always expect my family to come equipped with Dunkin Donuts. We call my aunts “The Hyenas” because their laughs could wake somebody out of a coma, and their cheers aren’t much quieter. Whenever I scored, my aunts’ loud shrills threatened to tear down the gym’s roof. But their reaction was nothing compared to my own. I would make a bucket and instantly act like a teenage girl who just met Justin Timberlake. I would start screaming and jumping up and down, and my hand would tremor like an alcoholic taking a day off from drinking. All the while a ginormous smile would stay plastered on my face. “I’m pretty good,” I would think. Looking back, the defense could only play in the paint and I was only making my baskets on an 8-foot hoop. Even then, I wasn’t making very many baskets. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought. But that wasn’t the point. This was first-grade basketball. We were mostly just there to have fun. Except for one person.
A man I’ll call Steve (I’ll leave his real name out of this for his sake) ran the youth league I played in. There were rumors that Steve pocketed a lot of the concession money that was supposed to go to the church we played in, but I don’t think there was any proof. All I knew for sure about Steve were three things: 1) he was my mother’s cousin, a scary thought, 2) he believed the gym we played in was his own personal gym (it wasn’t), and 3) he would not allow anybody to wear hats in what he called “my gym.” He became known as The Hat Nazi. It didn’t matter if you were the First Lady of the United States of America—if you wore a hat into Steve’s gym, he was going to A) scream at you, and then B) steal it right off the top of your head. Some people collect Pez dispensers or rare bottles of wine; Steve collected other people’s hats. His collection grew every weekend when we played games. After a while, most kids learned not to wear their hats to the gym. But every once in a while somebody would forget, or somebody would come to the gym for the first time, or somebody would get brave and try to test Steve—and Steve would inevitably snatch their hat right off their head, with a scowl on his face that said “This little fucker tried to put one over on me.” I think Steve would eventually give the hats back at the end of the season. Or maybe he would even give them back the same day he took them. I don’t know. In my mind, he kept them forever and still has them hidden in a back room somewhere in his house, where he occasionally looks at the collection, puts his pinky finger to his mouth, laughs an evil laugh, and reminisces about better days. In retrospect, it was a wonder nobody’s father socked him one for stealing a child’s hat.
There was no epic hat scene on the day of my championship game, at least not that I remember. All I remember, besides my family’s support, was the basketball. We went back and forth with the other team all game long. Ben would make a no-look assist and we would surge ahead. Marc would airmail a medieval catapult shot and we would fall behind. I scored something like four points, my cousin John scored something like six, and the Yellow Team became champions by a score of something like 22-18. Not even the Milwaukee Bucks could win that ugly. But we were winners, and even at that age, that mattered.
The Hyenas roared. Buddy remained in his bleacher seat, with one leg crossed over the other and a coffee in his right hand. Steve scoured the area for hats. The refs were relieved my family decided to take it easy. My hand trembled, I hopped up and down like a kangaroo, and the smile wouldn’t leave my face.
I had completed my first season of basketball, and I was a champion. If only winning always came so easy.
Read the previous chapter here: Chapter 1.