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My breath came out in clouds of white steam as I walked across the parking lot in the darkness. Each exhale was another cloud to push through, the wisps of vapor curling around my face as I trudged along. Tennessee was warm, but the mountain got cold at night. I needed to be in my dorm room studying, but the JV coaches had called me to the gym to go over the film from the game that afternoon. I really didn’t want to experience it again.
The Bryan College gym is carved out of the backside of a hill, so that you walk in the front doors and the whole building bottoms out in front of you. You’re essentially playing in a giant pit. It might not sound like much, but it had a certain charm to it. Our JV team had spent three weeks traveling the Southeast getting crushed by bigger schools, so when our first home game approached, we were looking forward to it.
When I found out that our opponent would be a nearby community college, my excitement rose. After all, community colleges were places where tired-looking 40-year-olds with jobs and families went to school, right? This game was going to be a cinch. In the days leading up to the game, I canvassed the Bryan campus, looking for every pretty girl I knew, casually letting it slip that if they wanted to see some “real basketball,” they needed to come to the JV home game and watch us put a “Bryan College whomping” on someone.
While I was technically correct in that lots of 40-year-olds with kids attend community college, that was not who got off the bus and marched into our gym. The team that got off the bus could be described, roughly, as “former Division 1 dudes who were now very angry.”
I entered the game midway through the first half and took Steve’s place, as was our routine. Steve came galloping off the court, his wild hair slinging sweat to and fro as he ran.
I took over Steve’s assignment: a 6-5 forward with an afro straight out of the ABA. My opponent did not seem particularly enthused about joining the proceedings on offense: He didn’t move to set any screens or make any cuts, and instead faded out to the corner behind the three-point-line.
We were in man-to-man, which I hated, because I had always played zone in high school, standing in front of the rim and blocking shots. Little by little, I cheated off of Afro until I had both feet back in the paint, where I felt more comfortable.
Presently the ball found my man standing alone in the corner. The JV coach screamed at me to close out, to get back in position, but I had a plan: I would take one step outside the lane and put my arms out to guard the passing lanes, just like we did in high school.
Afro was obviously not familiar with this airtight scheme. He gave me one look and immediately put the ball on the floor. He took one power dribble to close the space between us and then he took off.
I don’t remember much about the next few moments, except for the thought,
I can feel his shorts on my face and that is not good.
In my entire high school career I had only ever seen two dunks, and one of those was mine. I had played in a league of tiny private schools that was completely insulated from the larger world of AAU, offseason camps, and, you know, talent. Needless to say, I had never been dunked on, and Afro had just put me on his poster.
The three dozen fans who were watching in the stands made that OOOH sound that you make when you’re embarrassed for someone. Afro seemed bored by whole affair, like I was the tenth guy he’d dunked on since breakfast. I hung my head and ran back downcourt.