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The Death Of A Baller

By 08.03.12

I’m not sure exactly how long I was sitting against the building, but help finally comes. An old hand named Ray screeches up in one of the company trucks to rescue me. He finds me sitting next to a pile of my own vomit. In bad shape, but alive. Ray is moving fast, faster than I’ve ever seen, that cigarette in his lips bouncing up and down with each stride.
Then, the doctor. They take my blood. They listen to my heart. And they tell me what I’m no longer allowed to do.

No more basketball. Not now, maybe not ever.

*** *** ***

One more trip. It is 1989, and I am a spindly little kid. No Nintendo, just a backyard. My Dad had taken an old rim and backboard and attached it to a 4×4 post in the yard. The post leaned to one side, so that shots from the right side were next to impossible to make. We couldn’t afford a fancy goal, the kind you wheeled out on your driveway. There were lots of things we couldn’t afford.

Dad would come home from his job on the assembly line and play me in the backyard as the sun set behind the mountains. Our ball was orange, and it was round, and those were about the only compliments you could give it. We would pound the ball into the grass, chasing it to the fence when it hit a rock and went rolling. Over the course of the summers we had worn down a thin strip in front of the post that served as a dirt lane. It was easier to dribble on the dirt, but you had to be quick.

The game is coming down to the wire, just like it always does. Dad is drifting out into the grass, shooting from too far out, missing his shots on purpose and waiting for me to catch up. I dribble up and down the dirt lane, each bounce kicking up a cloud of dust into the amber sunlight. Finally we are tied.

Next point wins, he says.

He misses like he always does and I get the ball. I dribble close to the hoop and fling a knuckleball onto the lopsided rim. The shot drops through.

Dad pretends to be irate, pretends like he can’t believe that I just beat him again. And I’m off, running barefoot through the weeds and June bugs to get to the back door. Got to tell Mom that I won. Got to tell her that one day I’ll be the best basketball player in the world.

*** *** ***

Alone. Sitting in my house, a thousand miles away from Old George and Andy and that sad leaning goal. I’m 31 now. Never became the best in the world. Grew to be pretty good, but not great.

A pair of basketball shoes sits in the corner. Starbury brand, blue and white. Don’t make those anymore. Shoe or the man, for that matter. I’ve been saving the shoes, though for what I don’t know. Maybe a comeback. Every baller’s got a comeback in the back of his mind. The shoes just lie there, staring back at me like a loyal dog waiting to be taken on a walk. Scuff marks all over. The ends of the shoelaces frayed.

Slowly, the retirement is dawning on me. Won’t be able to play church league. Can’t go with my brothers to play at the park. Not even supposed to cut my lawn right now. Maybe one day I’ll get cleared to play again. Keeping the Starbury kicks just in case.

And then there is Fear. He sits in the window sill, swaying one leg back and forth. He doesn’t talk much about basketball anymore. He talks about my mortgage and my daughters and my writing, but not basketball.

I turn and look back at him, at my tormentor, my friend.

“You know, after all these years, I want to tell you something.”

Fear gives me that look, the one that’s not exactly a smile but not quite anything else.

What’s that? He hisses.

“Thanks.”

The ball has come to rest.

What if an injury/health issue stopped you from playing?

Follow Matthew on Twitter at @ongreenmountain.

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