Editor’s note: Even though I have not been posting my book lately, I have been writing it. Due to popular demand—err, due to an NBA lockout that means there is almost nothing else to write about, I will start to post more of my chapters. This is the book’s preface, a look into why I miss the national anthem more than I reasonably should.
Despite all the things I miss about playing organized basketball—the competition, the camaraderie, the memorable wins, the long days spent with all my best friends shooting the shit and trying to improve—I always feel the largest dose of nostalgia while listening to the national anthem.
My deep adoration for our country’s song has nothing to do with patriotism. Actually, my hallowed respect for the national anthem has nothing to do with our country—like so many other things in my life, my bond with America’s ballad was forged by basketball and basketball alone.
Other aspects of the world’s greatest game should elicit stronger emotion. Hell, through most of my hoops career, I thought the anthem’s biggest function was to delay the opening tip. Living in the bubble of youth, I didn’t much care at the time that it also pays homage to our country and its freedom. I just wanted the game to start. Even now, with a better realization of what the song stands for, I don’t think I should miss the anthem so desperately. I should miss throwing no-look passes and I should miss the precious days when I could not miss a three-pointer. I should miss the few times I starred during high school and I should miss the few game-winning shots I was lucky enough to drain. I should miss locker room banter and team dinners to local pizza restaurants and team poker games that would last twelve hours straight. And I do. But the national anthem carries my heart back to the past, back to my so-called glory days of youth, like nothing else can.
I will prepare to watch a basketball game these days, either sitting in the stands, laying on my couch or coaching on the bench, and instantly Francis Scott Key’s words remind me of the way I once felt as a player.
The song still begins the same—“Oh say can you see”—but when I listen to it now, my mind vacates the present and immediately remembers the dreams of an adolescent boy whose hopes extended far beyond his grasp. In anticipation of my games back then, my body would sway like an oak tree in the wind, and I would begin dreaming of all the ways I would help my team. Never mind that I only averaged a few points per game; I would score 30 on this night. Never mind that I played only 10 minutes per game; I would make my presence felt. Never mind that my coach once told me never to dribble again; my ball-handling maneuvers would make the crowd buzz with comparisons to Allen Iverson. Never mind that I could barely stop a paraplegic from scoring; no opponent would free himself from me this game. During the national anthem I felt like I could lasso the impossible, fly through the rafters and dunk the entire stadium through the hoop on my way down. Nobody could stop me, or at least nobody could stop the dream version of myself I concocted, fed and cared for during national anthems.
The game would ultimately arrive and pop that dream boy, that All-American I created in my head, with a thumb tack. But for those few precious minutes when everyone stood addressing the flag, my goals felt both large and accomplishable. Before one playoff game in my sophomore year of high school, I closed my eyes, swayed back and forth to the anthem, and envisioned canning seven three-pointers to lead my outmatched team to victory. After the fictional game I played out in my head, this dream character who bore an uncanny resemblance to me interviewed for the local newspapers and television stations. Beautiful girls ran to him and professed their love and adoration. His high school coach awarded him a starting role. College coaches patted him on the back and promised to stay in touch. Young children wanted autographs.
But fiction harshly morphed into reality as soon as the anthem ended. My real self, pimpled and gangly, finally entered the real game eight minutes in and promptly fired his first three-point shot. It headed directly toward the net and my pre-game visions of grandeur were coming true. But the guided missile malfunctioned and clanged off the back rim, close but not quite. I missed both shots I took that day, a far cry from the success I dreamed of during the anthem. I did not lead my team to victory, I did not score a single point and we lost on a controversial buzzer-beater that was actually released a full second after the horn sounded. I can still remember my teammates’ reaction to our loss, the tears and the anguish and the quivering lips, the hugs, the promises that we would do better next season, and the faraway look in the seniors who knew there would be no next season. But I also remember the excitement of standing for the national anthem, the beauty of those two minutes when I thought I could score 30 points, lead my team to a championship, and then walk off the court with college recruiters chasing me and my arms draped around two swimsuit models. For two minutes, anything seemed within reach.
By the time I entered my senior year of high school, most of the teammates who stood alongside me for the anthem doubled as my best friends. There was T.J. Hollins, my surrogate brother who entered my life as a 6th-grader. At that point his body had already begun to ripple with muscles, and my AAU basketball coach intelligently recruited him to join our team. I remember gaping at T.J. during our first practice together, eyes wide and jaw dropping. No other 12-year old I knew had such a developed physique, so the first question I ever asked my future best friend came naturally: “How many pushups can you do?”
During anthems that year, T.J. and I stood beside all our other teammates, all our other best friends. Matt Katz, the type of player who rarely made mistakes, the type of person who could lead Martin Luther King Jr. into war. Mac Sullivan, a refreshing soul, a laid-back killer, a rugged bastard who needed his next rebound like Seattle-ites need an umbrella. Dan Potito, a temperamental youth who would mellow after we graduated high school, someone who could crack a joke one second then sucker-punch the wall in fury the next, the team’s most underutilized player. Paul Kennedy, the lone junior in the starting lineup, a tattooed Irishman who treated the three-point line like a PGA player treats the ladies tees; Paul preferred to shoot from many feet behind the arc. Vilenti Tulloch, a self-described pretty boy who carried a handheld mirror at all times and could provide instant offense off the bench.
And me, a boy in love with James Naismith’s game, a boy who always realized his basketball career would peak in high school, a boy who would follow basketball wherever it would take him nonetheless, a boy who possessed an island of big-time dreams surrounded on all sides by debilitating insecurities, a boy who pretended to have everything figured out but really didn’t have a goddamn clue.