The Death Of A Baller

One day the game will leave all of us. It’s a lot like gravity: no matter how hard you bounce a basketball, eventually it will come to rest.

*** *** ***


Merciless, unbending heat. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Locusts in the distance, sending their rattling howls back and forth across the valley. The Alabama sun pushing down on top of you, burning the air thin and making your thoughts run slow.

I didn’t go to college for this, but here I am. The economy went bad, and some of us had to get our hands dirty, like back in the old days. The sweat-soaked t-shirt says “Landscape Service”. It is 5 p.m., or 6 p.m. — not really sure — and my crew is 12 hours deep into a grass-cutting detail. I have a 20-pound blower strapped on my back and I am circling a series of buildings blowing the clods of grass clippings off the sidewalk. My guys are out there somewhere, cutting and weeding, but I can’t see them. This place is huge.

Fear is with me. He seldom leaves. He paces behind, measuring my stride.

The blower motor hums and hums, rubbing against the small of my back. Little salvoes of sweat fly off the tip of my nose every time I take a step.

12 hours.

Something is wrong. The horizon is tipping, but nothing is moving. Is it me? I turn off the blower and sink to my knees. I am panting like a dog, but I just can’t find the air.

From behind, I can feel Fear staring down at me.

I knew you couldn’t do it. He says softly.

One of the buildings in the distance has an outcropping that provides a small amount of shade. The blower backpack slides off my shoulders and hits the concrete. I struggle to my feet and stagger towards the shade. My equilibrium is failing, badly, and it feels like I might not make it.

*** *** ***

Rochester, Michigan 2001

I am back at college, back on the wooded campus where they mint theology majors and small college All-Americans. The campus is empty, except for the gym down by the lake. The squeaking of shoes on hardwood bleeds through the building and echoes out over the water.

It is summer camp, and the coaches are doing what the coaches always do during summer camp: they are running us, over and over again. Trying to run the high school out of the young guys. Trying to run the rec league out of the returning guys. Trying to run the bad playground habits out of all of us.
Suicide after suicide. Wind sprints in between. Harder than you’ve ever ran for anything in your life. Stomach churning. Pure pride the only thing holding down the puke. The baseline stretches out in the distance like a mirage, like something you’ll never reach.

Coach blows the whistle. Get a drink, guys.

I hit the crash bar on the gym double doors and stumble outside, looking for a place to throw up where no one will see. Fear is right behind me. He never misses a trick.

You can’t play college ball.

You’re not tough enough for this.

And then there is Old George. George is a retired man who comes to every practice and every game to watch and shout encouragement at us. Has for years. He isn’t a coach, but he doesn’t want to be. He just comes because he loves the game.

George wanders out of the gym and finds me in the parking lot. I am bent over, holding my knees, sweat running off my red face.

The old man claps his hands like I am his champion. He walks right up to me, brushing Fear out of the way. George stands beside me, with that white hair and that silly little fanny pack, and he pats me on the shoulders.

Just breathe, he says.

Just breathe. You’re gonna make it.

I’m sitting in the shade, waiting for someone to find me, and my legs have stopped working. I’m staring at my calves, watching the muscles twitch and contort under the skin, writhing like they are trying to pull themselves off the bone. My heart is fluttering inside my chest. No matter how still I sit, no matter how many deep breaths I take, the frantic pumping will not slow down.

Across the acreage I can hear the whir of one of the riding lawnmowers. Too far to scream out. Surely someone will find me.

Fear stands in the corner, his head slung low, looking at the ground. Smiling. He fills the air between us with one liners, each darker than the next:

You’re stroking out.

No one will find you until it’s too late.

You’re alone.

I try to string a prayer together, try to drown out the dread.

Can’t talk. Heart going too fast. It comes out pathetic, the words melded together into a stutter.

“Jesus Jesus Jesus…”

Fear scoffs.

He ain’t here. I don’t see him.

*** *** ***

Collinsville, Illinois 1999

It is a cramped, sweaty little gym. My small Christian high school is playing another Christian school. There are no media members present. No one is even taping the game.

Fear is here. He sits on the bench and waits for me to get subbed out for breaks. When I take a seat he is already in my ear.

Don’t take any jump shots. You’ll miss anything other than a layup.

The cheerleaders think you are the worst player on the team.

You’ll never get a scholarship.

The game is close from the opening tip. As the fourth quarter winds down, the two teams stand toe-to-toe, exchanging baskets like two old heavyweights slugging it out in the final round. On the critical play, when our team needs a bucket to answer our rivals and stay afloat in the waning seconds, the ball bounces off one of my teammates and sails over the out of bounds line. I dive after it, leaping over the line in pursuit. I catch the ball with my back to the court and there is no time to do anything other than throw it blindly over my head.

Somehow, as I hang in the air, I know where our point guard is. His name is Andy, and he is my best friend. We have played basketball together from the day we met. I can feel him, behind me, somewhere in that tangle of arms and legs and shouts. There are nine other boys on the court, and simple math dictates that a blind pass is more likely to find the wrong color jersey. But sometimes basketball gives you a sense of these things. I throw the ball back onto the court, over the outstretched hands of the defenders, and it sails true. Andy gathers in the desperation heave and disaster is averted.

Even now, nearly 15 years later, we’ll talk on the phone about that night.

How did you get that pass to me? He’ll ask.

The answer is kind of simple, even if I don’t understand it.

I know you. I don’t have to see you.

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.


The ball has come to rest.

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

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