Good (Enough) at Basketball
Usually, I left the door to my office open. It was my way of encouraging people to drop by with their computer problems.
I'd been working for a year at Hood College, where I wrote the code for a couple of the large, clustered minicomputer systems. When I wasn't programming, I walked around campus soliciting material because I'd written the systems to dispense information on campus life. Only when I was out did I close my office door.
Sometimes people came to visit. They'd stand in the doorway to talk over their coding requests. Occasionally, they'd sit and chat. My office was a large, imposing place, though. Whoever had occupied it before had stacked it with shelves and filing cabinets. They'd hung art on the wall, four framed watercolor flowers and a map of the campus. My desk sat on a swath of gray-green carpet in the middle. The oak desktop would have held three of me but it only held a microcomputer with access to the VAX clusters.
This was a space created in the remotest corner of the library, near the data center.
Occasionally, other computer staff would drop by. They had completely different jobs - none of them connected well with mine, exactly - but we kept track of one another. Sometimes I helped out the desktop repair crew by fixing the microcomputers that interfaced with my VAX minicomputer systems.
Allen Sullivan, one of our IT staff, knocked on my door one morning. He leaned his head into the office.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey." I'd made a habit of finishing whatever line of programming I was on, so I kept typing. I always wanted to write enough to make sure I captured the essential thought. I hated to lose solutions that had come to mind but hadn't made it into my code. Allen knew how I worked, so he waited a few seconds. "What's up?"
"Lunch?" said Allen.
"I was planning to hit the pool."
"Do you have to go there every time?" Allen was the supervisor for our desktop service team at work. He and his crew ate together or played together on breaks. He had a relaxed, easy-going confidence and charming smile. "Why don't you join us in the gym?"
"You guys play basketball. I don't play." For decades, I'd kept in shape by doing laps in the pool no matter what city or town I was in.
"Can you dribble and pass?"
"Probably." I had doubts. It had been over a decade since I'd been on a court.
"That's all it takes to be a teammate." His eyes crinkled as he smiled. He was tall and thin, with a gentle and fairly graceful sense of movement. His accent had a bit of Appalachian twang to it, which made sense to me because he commuted from West Virginia. "We'd sure appreciate it if you try."
When I got to the gym, Allen introduced me to five other guys. That's not a lot, just a three on three half-court game. My intentions of hitting the pool faded. After Allen and another captain picked teams, they let me dribble the ball for a moment before we started. I took a practice shot. I missed.
Fourteen years is a long time to stay away from any sport. I don’t know why some are easier than others. Why does throwing a football or riding a bicycle come back immediately? Why does a basketball shot take practice? My touch, such as it once was, had disappeared before I resumed games at Hood.
The main difference, as I restarted my learning process, was age. At this point in my life, I understood better how to learn. Emotionally, I let go of my preconceptions about sports and instead tried to maintain the mindset of being coachable.
I hit the playgrounds, a thirty-two year old dad shooting games of horse. Even on the rare occasions when someone else walked onto the court while I was practicing, they drifted to the other end. The younger guys left me alone. I was free to be awful. And I was.
One day, a group of young men on the other end of an asphalt court asked me to play. They had watched me shoot, which might have been deceptive. I'd been playing in the Hood College gym for a couple of months by then. I'd been shooting on playgrounds, too. Although I was still a generally bad player, I had re-learned my basic shots.
Having me in their group made the teams even. Well, in number only.
During the first match, I shot okay and I hit the game winner. The white guys in the group didn't seem to know they needed to guard me or that it would be easy for any of them to do. At the start of our next game, the best player, a muscular black guy, volunteered to 'stop' me. Which he did.
When you're always the shortest on the court, it's vaguely insulting to get beaten by another short guy. He wasn't more than a head taller than me. Unfortunately, he was simply way better. He moved side to side with ease, possessed a bursty sort of speed that I didn't, and could shoot over me if I didn't foul him. He got so comfortable while guarding me that he started to criticize my game.
"You got to dribble left sometime, man," he said.
I shook my head. "I'm no good at it."
"Do you want to get good?"
"I'm practicing my left-side dribble."
"You mean," he huffed, "you dribble when no one's guarding you?"
"That's not enough, man." He gave me a knowing smile. "If you have to drive to the right every time, I can just step out father to my left and take the ball away."
We started up again. The first time I drove right, I pulled up and passed. I'd been thinking about my defender trying to anticipate me but, even with my extra wariness, he barely missed the steal. The second time I drove right, I headed straight for the basket. Suddenly I had no basketball. He picked it away clean.
"Goddammit," I muttered as I took position to guard him.
"I told you. You got to move left enough so I don't know where you're going."
"I'm not so good at moving left."
After the game, he wanted to stick with the same teams again. My teammates rebelled for a minute but he talked them into it. He turned to me.
"You got to dribble left, man." He tossed me the ball.
"Well, I suck."
"Sometimes you just got to go in and do it."
"Oh. You're going to let me move left?" I started to dribble left handed.
"No, I'm going to stop you."
That made me laugh. He chuckled, too. We were the only ones smiling, though. Everyone else wanted to play hard and win.
The first thing I did at the start of the game was dribble left, hide behind a pick, and shoot. The shot didn't go in but it was close.
"It's not going to be that easy, man," he said. His teammate had passed him the rebound. Now I was guarding him.
All game, I worked on guarding my guy and, when I had the chance, worked harder on finding a way to drive to the left. We both knew his advice was spot on. Sometimes you've just got to do what it takes. There's no substitute. I was going to be terrible, at first. I was going to get stopped. And he stopped me, plenty.
But it was always that way. I always got into trouble when I was too slow in basketball. It happens to everyone on every playground. You've got to be quick. That day, my defender stayed on top of me. He cut off my passing lanes. He harassed me when I picked up the ball. But there was no substitute for driving left and shooting or passing from the left of the key.
After the game, we sat and chatted for a while.
"You know," he said. "I can see you've got some ideas. You just need to do this, man, like, a thousand more times. Then you'll be all right."