As always, I will keep the site updated with Celtics news. But since it’s the offseason (damn it) and news is slower than Michael Sweetney’s metabolism, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share some of my personal story.
When you’re beginning the first day of second grade, you worry about the important things: do my New Balance sneakers look good with my Umbro shorts? Did any girls get cuter over the summer, even if I don’t have the courage to talk to them no matter what? My mom packed string cheese and Hi-C Ecto Cooler for snack, right? Is my desk near any of my friends? Do I have any food stuck in my teeth?
So when I saw James Chen for the first time, wearing a backpack with Chinese symbols on it, donning some strange combination of clothes that was more Samurai warrior than suburban Massachusetts second grader, head and shoulders taller than every other second grader and even the third and fourth graders, being walked into class by his parents, who seemed tall enough that they could reach up and burn their fingers on the sun, I was too preoccupied to understand that I had just caught a glimpse of my first best friend.
If I had met James later in life, we never would have become friends. Not because I became less open-minded in the coming years, but because later in life, you become content with your own group of friends, your own life. James moved to Longmeadow without knowing a single word of English. The seven-year old me saw that as something intriguing, something new and exciting, something that made me eager to invite James to my house and to help him develop his English skills and to embrace him as my friend. The current me would have seen James’s choppy (at best) English and seen it as a barrier keeping us from becoming friends, then went back to my own familiar group of friends to drink a few beers and play a round of golf.
But I was seven years old then, and James, with his Chinese speech, Chinese snacks and Chinese clothes, was the most interesting person I had ever met. It took less than a week for me to invite him over my house. He still couldn’t speak but he could write fluently, and my mom brought a chalk easel for him to spell his thoughts. On that easel, I learned that James and I had more in common than I thought. At the risk of making James sound like a stereotype, he excelled at math and was more driven to succeed than any student in my class. I would later grow into a teacher’s worst nightmare – a lazy underachiever always prepared with a wise-ass quip (one teacher used to make me stand in a chalk circle at the back of the classroom, with my back facing the class and my nose at the wall) – but in second grade, I was like James, smart and driven, the type of student who made a teacher’s job simple. More importantly to our friendship, of course, James shared my love of basketball. His father had played for the Chinese National Basketball Team and James loved the sound of ball snapping through net, that beautiful symphony, as much as I did. So we put the easel aside and brought a couple basketballs out of the garage to shoot around.
Not to sound corny, but, well, I’m about to sound corny: when we shot around that day, the first time I shared a basketball court with my new best friend James Chen, we both spoke the same language. I’ve heard people say you can learn more about someone while shooting around for half an hour than you can by speaking to them for an entire day. Maybe that’s true, maybe not, but shooting does offer a window into a person’s personality. If both rebounds bounce in the same spot, does the person rebound his own first and let you get yours? Or does he rebound your ball first, pass it to you, then chase after his own? Does he say thanks when you rebound his misses? Chide himself after missing shots? The answers to those questions might not define a person’s character. But they mean something.
James was tall, a Sequoia tree compared to me, but his jump shot floated toward the rim like a feather dropped from above. He did not say thanks after I rebounded his misses, but that’s because he still did not speak a word of English. When my rebounds dropped anywhere in his vicinity, James chased them down. His passes hit me right in the fingertips, the seams already lined up for my shots. James was well-schooled by his basketball-playing father, I could tell instantly. He could also shoot. A center by height, a point guard by desire, James let fly with outside shots that did not even wake the net as they fell through. When James missed, he muttered to himself. I could not understand what he was saying, since it was in Chinese, but from the tone I knew he hated missing shots. This interesting kid, this new Chinese boy, my first best friend, my team’s next starting center, was a fierce competitor.
He was also a smart competitor. In second grade, I still played in-town basketball, the same league my team had won the season before. The league had a rule about coaches: if two or more parents decided to coach together, their sons would all be on the same team. Naturally, since winning and losing is supposed to mean nothing at that age, assistant coaches almost always had All-Star sons. The rule was only one of the league’s odd ones, another being that there were no traveling violation calls. Because his services were a package deal with his son, there was almost a full-fledged steel-caged match to recruit Mr. Chen as an assistant coach. He couldn’t commit any time whatsoever to coaching and probably wouldn’t even be able to attend any games, but his son was a 5’6 second grader with range to the three-point arc – thus, Mr. Chen became the most prized recruit in town. Eventually, he chose to coach my team. I think Mr. Chen decided to coach my team (and I say the term coach in its loosest fashion) because I was his son’s best friend in town. Or maybe it was the fully-loaded Lexus and mysterious duffle bag filled with $30,000 that changed his mind. One way or the other, James became my teammate.
Our team (the blue team) advanced to the semifinals, and we were the clear favorites. But everything fell apart on a Saturday morning. My whole family attended the semifinals, most of them sipping Dunkin Donuts coffee – when they weren’t screaming at the refs, at least. In my second year, I had stopped shaking like a massage chair every time I scored a bucket. I had grown too cool for that. Instead, after every make, I grinned like I had just met Santa Claus. But that day, I didn’t do much grinning and neither did my teammates.
We were a star-studded team, the cream of the crop, the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics playing against a bunch of teams that were more like the Beno Udrih-Omri Casspi-Tyreke Evans Sacramento Kings. But some days, the ball just doesn’t fall, and that Saturday was one of those days. The game went back and forth, brick after brick, turnover after turnover, like a “Tony Allen’s Greatest Bloopers” clip. Eventually my team fell behind by one point. I don’t remember the exact score, but it couldn’t have been much more than 16-15. We fouled the other team with five seconds left, and we needed a miss. It came, and James corralled the rebound. In a flash of brilliance, perhaps the most intelligent play a seven-year old ever made, James remembered the “no traveling violations” rule.
In five seconds or less, James needed to drain a shot to win the game and send us to the finals, where we would have been favorites again. When he calculated the fastest route to the other hoop, he realized dribbling would have only wasted time. The refs didn’t call traveling anyway, so James cradled the ball in his right arm and took off as quickly as he could. He sprinted for the other hoop, all 5’6 of him, his jet black hair standing at attention, opponents trying to keep up, their heads at his shoulders, necks craned up watching this Asian blur pass them by. I watched, stunned, as James carried the ball like a football player, high-stepping his way to the other end. His decision to forego dribbling wasn’t just wise, it was brilliant. In less than five seconds he sprinted downcourt, made a layup, and then celebrated like only a child could, jumping up and down and waving his arms in the air, like a pogo stick flagging down a cab. A few years later, James would learn the Walker Wiggle while rooting for the Celtics and his celebrations would become more choreographed. But then, Walker was still at Kentucky and when James celebrated, he just looked like a man in extreme distress. Not that it mattered. The blue team had won, James and I had prevailed.
But in that moment while James celebrated, while the other team started wailing, while my aunts, uncles, mom and dad all stood and cheered on the sideline, spilling only a little bit of their Dunkin Donuts coffee, the two referees convened at mid-court.
“Traveling,” one of them said after a few moments.
“There’s no such thing as traveling in this league!” shouted my coach. “We won! We won!”
Winning didn’t matter at that age, remember?
“The traveling rule was made for kids who can’t dribble,” replied one of the refs. “Not for the most skilled player in the league. The basket doesn’t count.”
And with that, two referees wiped away the most intelligent play a second-grader ever made. James cried. He could have dribbled if he wanted to. He could have still made the shot. I walked over and gave my best friend a hug.
A few years later, James and I began our own business. We sold basketball cards online at a website called Courtside Cards. James created the website himself. He was 11 years old.
We were positive the website would make us millions, and two months after we created it, I received my very first pay check. It was for 31 cents. The check came in the mail. James’s father had gotten a job as a professor at Towson State, and the Chens had moved to Baltimore.
It was time to find a new best friend.