Good (Enough) at Basketball
The day was bright. The store was crowded.
When I wasn't shopping with my family, though, the background of my life was different than in the years before. For a while, I had been working in the NIH Clinical Center. I was a contractor with them and I'd gotten fifty percent raises for two years in a row. My family had climbed above the poverty line. We didn't buy our groceries on credit anymore. We were still shopping for groceries three times a week, of course. We had a couple of kids. We felt the continual pressure to provide boxloads of crackers, juice, peanut butter, and diapers.
As we pushed a cart through the local Food Lion, I saw a former Hood College student striding my way down the freezer aisle. To my surprise, he sprang forward before I could wave. He had recognized my family right away.
I'd played with this guy during the Hood lunch hour basketball games but my wife didn't know him. She turned her attention to the kids, who didn't seem much interested in the strange, new adult.
"How's school?" I asked as we shook hands. He was much taller than me but he managed to give me a shoulder hug.
"Well, I just graduated," he said.
"Great!" We stood with hands on shoulders for a moment. I congratulated him and tried to catch up on his life. We chatted long enough for my wife to decide she should take the kids to a different aisle where they could drool over the cereal boxes. That let her escape the overly cool air and the smell of frozen, stale food, not to mention a conversation about things two years ago she hadn't seen.
After a few minutes, my old friend asked if I were still playing basketball regularly. He had been on the court with us when Jim Miller had died. I had to say, no, although I was trying to teach my kids to play. He said it was understandable. He'd liked the games, though. Then he really surprised me.
"I think about you a lot, man," he said.
"Really?" I leaned back, eyebrows up. This was a guy I'd liked. But we had only spoken on the court and in the locker room. He hadn't played with us for much more than a year. (Well, he had played for plenty of days per week but most of it was during the last year of the lunch games.)
"The sessions kind of fell apart after you left," he said. He stepped back and straightened his blue, collared shirt.
"Not enough critical mass, I guess."
"Not enough something." He shrugged. "Anyway, I had to get serious about my classes. But I always felt like you had taught me something. You really believed in me."
"Well, yeah." He had been a blonde, fairly tall, physically deft player but he had been awfully timid. With encouragement, he'd become one of the featured big men. He had shown us that he was quick, mentally. He could anticipate a rebound. He could lead another player with a pass. "Of course."
"I hadn't run into that before. And you were fearless."
I laughed. He was talking about a game, after all.
"You were the shortest guy on the floor," he insisted. That part was true enough. "And you'd go into the center fearlessly. And you'd get stuffed. Whacked. Fouled, sometimes, right in your face. And you'd grab the ball. You'd wrestle it back. You'd fight the big guys and most of the time, you'd win. And you'd shoot it again."
"Yeah, sometimes, I guess."
"I'm tall. But, you know, I'd always been afraid to look bad. You weren't afraid to look bad."
Definitely a back-handed compliment. That was more like it. I laughed again. "Thanks."
"You know what I mean." He stopped and put his hands on his hips.
And I did know. I understood.
"I wasn't getting any better because I was afraid to look bad." He touched my shoulder again. "But you have to go in there, don't you? That was my lesson. You have to mix it up with the others. You have to get rejected. That was good for me to see, man."
We stood and smiled at each other for a few seconds. It was apparent this had been on his mind. And he'd said what he needed to say.
"Well," he murmured in a resigned voice, "I guess I'd better find my girlfriend again."
"Good for you."
"Yeah. Where did your wife go?"
I waved in the direction of the cereal aisle. We parted, smiling and waving. I weaved through the aisles a little, mostly for fun and to find my favorite peanut butter, but I knew where I would find my family. When I did sneak up on their cart, my wife gave me a smile and handed me our daughter. Our girl launched herself at me, really, and I caught her.
"Who was that guy?" my wife asked. She pushed the cart towards the line at the cashier.
"Oh, he wanted to talk basketball."
She paused for a moment. Her expression grew concerned. She had always liked seeing me play basketball and thought I was good at it. All the trick shots I'd done had deceived her. I'd trained myself up to my best level for a little while, yes, but it was a level of solid mediocrity. That seemed pretty reasonable to me as an accomplishment. I knew it would take more training to maintain that level. I had to make choices about my time. And we had kids.
"I thought you were done with basketball," she said carefully. Even though she was a fan of me playing sports, I knew she couldn't love the idea of me devoting eight hours a week to it like I had before.
"And I am." I nodded as we took our place in line. I bounced our daughter on my hip. "I'm done."