There’s a basketball sitting loose, and not enough people for a pickleball game on our side of the gym, so I pick it up, dribble a few times and try a layup.
“C’mon now,” I think. “All I need to do is bounce the ball off the black line at the proper angle. It’s a layup!”
It takes me four tries to make one.
There are a handful of games every year where, based on the opponent, I know I’m going to play because we’re going to be winning or losing by a lot at the end.
And as the time gets closer, I get that old familiar feeling.
I get really cold.
Winters in upstate New York aren’t often pleasant, but this has nothing to do with the temperature outside or in the gym. This is nerves. The few times I play early, with the starters, I don’t play “well,” but I don’t look like I’m lost out there, either, because I don’t have time to think about it.
But there comes that time, sometimes during the last couple minutes of the second quarter, but mostly the last several minutes of the game, where the call comes to the end of the bench and I’m out there.
All I’m hoping to do is not embarrass myself. Sometimes I even succeed.
* * * * *
One of my teammates grabs the rebound, and fires it out to me, probably around the three-point line. There’s no one in front of me, and I’m off.
One of the symptoms of the nerves is that if I try to dribble at any kind of speed, I get so amped up that I pound the ball into the floor hard enough that it sometimes goes over my head.
But if I can keep it under control, I have a layup.
Then the referee blows his whistle. I stop, confused.
Until I realize what it was … an over-and-back violation.
You see, I’m heading the wrong way. That’s why no one is in front of me.
Either the next year or the year after, our coach puts together a program for the fans where we answer a few questions, one of which is our most-embarrassing moment. I know what it is, but I can’t bring myself to write it, so I answer a game where we got beat by more than 50 points.
Someone else writes it, though.
* * * * *
Senior year, we’re playing our rivals, and it’s overtime.
We’re hanging in there, even though enough players have fouled out that our other reserves are already in the game, The only players left on our bench are me and one of our regular starters who hasn’t played because the coach benched him for something that happened at practice.
Then another one of our players fouls out. Surely the coach has made his point now, right? After all, it’s our rivals.
Nope, he tells me to get in the game.
It would be unfair to say the next sound I hear is booing. But it sure sounds like groaning.
I manage to not do anything wrong, and actually almost get a steal, but I mistime my jump slightly and the ball goes out of bounds off my fingertips. We foul on the next possession, and we lose after he makes the free throws.
At least it’s not my fault.
* * * * *
To this day, I am torn about the reaction players on the end of the bench get.
No doubt, some of it is genuinely wanting to see them do well. After all, my parents and brother come to my games. I do have friends.
But from other people, sometimes the cheers feel condescending, like they’re not so much hoping to see good plays as much as the spectacle of a dog singing while standing on its hind legs. Whether it’s done well is irrelevant.
And there also seems to be that small group who want to mock the dog for not being able to carry a tune.
* * * * *
With one exception — and that only becomes clear starting with the game where the kid was benched — my class falls between two that have much better players.
On the backs of the seniors, we win the league title my junior year, and I think the class behind me wins it again the year after I graduate.
There are a lot of good guys — in fact, one of the guys who graduated the year before me (although we’re the same age, he doubled up on classes so he could be done a year early) recently sent me a note out of the blue on Facebook to see how my job search was going — but then there are people who don’t get along especially well on or off the court.
When we win, it’s palatable. When we lose …
I don’t know if it’s still this way, but postseason tournaments when I’m in high school are open, meaning everyone qualifies. My senior year, the team votes not to play in the tournament.
I don’t remember anyone making an argument why we should or shouldn’t play. We just vote. Maybe it’s because we know we’ll get beaten badly.
Another thing that I don’t know if it still happens is that our league holds an Exceptional Seniors game with players from all the teams. My senior teammates and I are invited. I turn it down.
After all, it’s the “exceptional” seniors game, and the only thing I’m exceptional at is being bad.
Plus, I’m ready to be done with it.
* * * * *
I have a chance to avoid this. Senior year, cutdown day is the same day as I’m going on a band trip to Lake Placid. I check in with the coach before I go.
Between him being my baseball coach, social studies teacher and basketball coach, we bust each other’s chops relentlessly, but he’s one of my favorites, and I his. He tells me that if I want to play, I’ll be mostly a practice player and on the end of the bench during games (tell me something I don’t know), but otherwise, he’ll create a “student assistant” position for me.
I turn down the offer. I like playing basketball, and I like being on a team.
The good news is that I don’t value myself based on my high school basketball career, and never have, and not just because I wasn’t good. Even if I‘m great, my career is always going to end in a small gym somewhere in upstate New York.
* * * * *
It’s the reunion for my class and the two others before mine. Suzi and I are sitting with my friends, and I’ve chatted up some of the other people there.
There are a lot of people I don’t talk to, not because I had bad relationships with them back in the day, but because I didn’t have any relationships with them.
But a couple of those guys are there. I go out of my way to avoid them. It’s really not fair, as I wouldn’t want to be judged forever based on who I was in high school, but I’m not taking any chances.
* * * * *
I’m tagged on a Facebook post. A friend (the same one who asked about my job search) is sharing news about an alumni basketball game and inviting a bunch of us, including me, to play.
I reply that I’d be willing to go, and I’ll do anything they want or need, but I’m not going to play. Been there, done that, wasn’t good at it, no desire to do it again.
* * * * *
It might take a while to get my timing back with the bat, but I’m pretty sure I could run the bases or play first base tomorrow.
Even if I don’t bowl for a few years on end, I can do a passable imitation of a time I was pretty good for a once-a-week league bowler.
I haven’t played volleyball in more than 15 years, but I bet I could do it if a game got started on someone’s lawn.
But I basically have no muscle memory of shooting a basketball, which I realize as I’m standing at the free throw line after finally making a layup.
I line up my feet just right, take a couple dribbles … and as soon as I get ready to shoot, my arms and hands don’t know where to go or what to do.
Because of course.
I put the ball down. The game on the other side of the gym ends, and a bunch of kids start shooting hoops.
In case you’re wondering (and I know you are), I’m No. 13 in the far left of the front row.