New town. New life. Opportunities afresh. Only thing is, you’re still you.
I’d been thinking about our daily games, and how we had four fairly evenly matched players, one mediocre one and one pretty weak one. And somehow, just thinking about it, I knew there was something I could do that would be good for everyone, and I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. I loved basketball, all the intricacies of the game. I loved it so much that I’d spent time the past few years watching college games on TV&the pro game wasn’t really basketball so I didn’t watch it much at all—and even getting books from the library, books written by coaches for coaches. The books all emphasized fundamentals. I’d devoured the information they had. I’d practiced it, too, and those fundamentals were part of my game now. And it was those very fundamentals that Phil lacked. Well, those and a more assertive nature, but maybe, knowing how to play better would correct that.
So I thought, why not try to teach him what I knew? It made perfect sense. If he was better, the games would be better and we wouldn’t have to make allowances for him. He’d enjoy himself more, too. It was a win all the way around.
The only thing was, how should I approach him? The thing I most hated was looking like a know-it-all. Like I knew more or was better than anyone else. So how could I approach Phil? I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, guy, you’re doing a lot of things wrong, and I know how to do it better. I can teach you what I already know. You know, so you can be as good as me.’ Yeah, that would work. No, it wouldn’t. It would be ugly.
But if I could get past that, yes, I was sure I could help him, and by doing so, help us all to have more fun. I could even imagine it might help Phil’s self-esteem, too, if he could participate in the games at a higher level than he was at now.
Social adeptness wasn’t my forte. Maybe that was one reason I wasn’t the most talkitive kid around. I hated stumbling all over myself. I hated being embarrassed. As I said, you can tell a lot about a kid just by watching him play basketball. I could easily relate how I played to how I was in the real world. The confident, really out-there kids were like the ones who’d shoot the basketball. They’d make about half their close-in shots, maybe a third of their longer shots, but the thing I admired was, they didn’t mind missing. Me? I liked to pass rather than shoot. Nothing embarrassing about how well you shoot or how badly you shoot if you pass rather than take the shot.
I’d never really thought about it that way before. But it made sense to me. If you don’t put yourself out there on the line, you’ll never be embarrassed. But saying that sounds a bit stuffy and stilted, doesn’t it? Like all the shutters are closed on any excitement. I could see the fallacy, trying to live like that. Yeah, you could avoid embarrassment by taking no risks. But you’d avoid a lot of successes and maybe a lot of happiness, too. Very limiting; I could see that. Something to think about.
But back to my idea, how to help us all by specifically helping Phil. I gave it some thought but always hesitated, worrying about that sounding-pretentious thing, and then realized I was doing it again. I was saving myself from the embarrassment of sounding preachy or even self-aggrandizing, things I loathed. I had to do this, and I needed to get over myself.
So, after our games one day, when everyone was leaving, I took Phil aside. Well, tried to take him aside, to get him alone, but Carl came with him. Seemed Carl wasn’t about to let anything be said to Phil that was negative at all. So I let him come, and then just spoke up. I guess sometimes that’s all you need to do.
“Phil, can you two wait a sec?” I’d said, stopping him from leaving and causing Carl to stop as well. They just stood waited for me to talk. It was up to me.
I swallowed and took the next step. I hadn’t expected to be talking to two guys, but I forced myself to go ahead. “Guys, I want to suggest something. I think you’d both have more fun here if you were just a little more competitive. I think I know what would help. I’ve read a lot of books about basketball, about fundamentals, and if you’re interested, I could show you a few things. Things I can work on, too. We all can benefit from brushing up on our fundamentals. Everyone.
“But only if you’re interested. No pressure at all. I just thought I’d make the offer.”
The two boys looked at each other. I’ll never understand how anyone can communicate with anyone else doing that, but they seemed capable of it.
Carl was the one who answered. I’d have been amazed if he hadn’t. He smiled at me. “We were going to ask you if you’d do that. Ever since you’ve been here, it’s been obvious you know what you’re doing. You’re always in the right place, both on offense and defense. No one ever steals your dribble from you. You don’t shoot much, and I don’t know why that is, but I think it’s because you’re just that unselfish. You like to see your teammates score.
“But we’ve noticed you know how to play the game, and there’s no denying we both kinda stink.” He snorted deprecatingly, probably trying to emphasize their shortcomings. “We talked about it and decided to ask if you had the time to show us some things. I was getting up the courage to ask you, and then you took the bull by the horns. Yes! We’d be very grateful if you’d work with us.”
Funny how things work out. That was the beginning. They were great students, both of them. They listened to what I had to say, they worked on the things I discussed, I worked with them, and quite quickly there was a marked improvement in their play. I showed them how to move sideways on defense, how to use their bodies to prevent the other team from going where they wanted to go. How to keep their hands in the right positions to deflect shots and passes. How to pivot from facing their man when he’d taken a shot; how doing so allowed you to put your back into the opponent’s body to prevent him from getting to the boards for the rebound. How to be aware of what the offense was doing so it’s harder for them to run their plays effectively.
On offense I showed them how to set screens and picks, how to roll to the basket when their man switched off them, how to shoot off their fingertips instead of the palms of their hands, how to make themselves available for passes.
What I found most surprising was that Phil, who’d begun as a significantly weaker player than Carl, was the one who advanced quicker and was soon as good as Carl and even better than him at some things. Who’d have guessed that would happen? Could happen? He had more fire and drive in him than I’d seen before. All he’d needed was a little coaching.
What wasn’t surprising was that Carl didn’t seem to mind. He was happy for his friend. There was a lot to like about Carl.
＋ ＋ ＋ ＋
At the beginning of August, our games had taken on a new vigor. We had six good players now, and the games were really competitive. Which meant they were really fun. We had to work harder now, and the sweat ran. Everyone wanted to be skins now. Everyone but Tim, who would always call SHIRTS as soon as the sides were chosen. I couldn’t believe it when once, just before Tim could shout, Phil—of all people, Phil!—called out instead, and what was great was what he called. “Pants!” he shouted. Everyone laughed, and then Jimmy, on the other team, pulled down his pants. His underpants came down, too. He was going along with it, starting to pull them over his shoes and keeping us all laughing. Jimmy showed us he had nothing to be embarrassed about. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was part of why he did it.
Everyone laughed, other than Tim, who simply turned away. You never could tell what he was thinking. I’d stopped trying to figure him out.
He was the only blot on the complexion of our games. Everyone else liked the evenness of the teams now, the great competition of the games. But Tim didn’t like it that he was no longer able to be the star of whatever team he was on. The only check on his attitude was Jimmy, who was his friend and someone he respected.
Tim’s attitude really didn’t matter much. The rest of us were having a great time, and Tim showed up every day, so he couldn’t have been too upset. The games were fun, really fun, and the group’s comradeship had grown tighter.
It wasn’t always just the six of us. Sometimes one or two other guys would show up and we’d play four on four, or four on three, but it was usually just us six playing three against three.
And then Jimmy dropped a bomb on us. He told us one day that he wouldn’t be around any more that summer. There were three and a half weeks left until Labor Day, and he’d be gone.
“My dad wants us to get out of the heat. He hasn’t taken a vacation in years. But he’s got the gas stations covered for the rest of the month, and we’re leaving. He’s reserved a cabin up on a lake in Michigan where it’s cooler. That’s where we’ll be. Sorry.”
And he was sorry. We’d established ourselves as a group, and he’d be missed. But, more to the point for the rest of us, how would we have any sort of real basketball with five guys? We needed an even number. The ones who popped by irregularly weren’t able to come more often than they did. We needed a full-time player.
Jimmy saw our glum faces and smiled. “I’m not going to leave you hanging. I know a kid. Well, sort of know him. He just moved in down the road from us; he’s new here, just like you, Dave. He doesn’t know anyone, and I see him outside a lot, shooting baskets at that old hoop they have there. I watched a couple of times and know he’s a good shot, and he seems to dribble better than okay. So I stopped and asked him if he’d be willing to take my place with you guys while I’m gone. He was really enthusiastic about it; he jumped at the chance. Seems an okay guy. Our age; he said he’s going to be a junior. You want me to bring him tomorrow? It’ll be my last day.”
The five of us looked at each other. My thought was that perhaps this was the first time we’d recognized what an exclusive club we were, what we had become. This would be a change, something new. I don’t think any of us liked the idea. Still . . .
Roger was the one who spoke. He had no problem at all speaking for the rest of us. “We need six guys. Sure, have him come. What time, guys?”
That’s an example of being a good leader. Letting us all be part of the decision. We decided we’d be at the barn at 10 the next morning. Jimmy would bring him then.
I had no idea, no premonition, of anything. Nada. Another kid would join us. I just hoped he could hold his own with us. We’d been together, playing every day. Even Phil was decent now. He’d improved in all aspects of the game, especially on defense. He was shooting now, too, and getting more and more comfortable doing so. Carl had also improved. He knew how to do the pick and roll now and how to step back from a screen for a jump shot. Actually, I felt we’d all improved. I hoped the kid wouldn’t be embarrassed, that he’d be good enough to fit in.
I’m not sure why, but I was a little early the next day; 9:30, so maybe a little more than a little. I’d decided the kid would have more of a chance if I could talk to him a little, tell him about us and the game we played, the stuff like playing clean, no rough stuff, playing competitively but for fun, too. Find out a little about him so he’d be more comfortable. It’s hard to come into a situation where everyone knows each other and you don’t know anyone. I thought if I’d talk to him just a bit, he’d feel he knew someone at least slightly, know I was a decent guy, not feel quite so alone. But my being a half hour early almost said I was nervous, but I wasn’t. I was there only to support the kid a little. And maybe a little to help him be comfortable so he’d stay with us even if he wasn’t quite as good as the rest of us because we needed six guys. So maybe there was just a smidgen of self-interest in it, too. Maybe. Anyway, I didn’t find anyone sitting against the wall or pacing outside the stairway up to the court, so there’d been no need for me to come early. I’d thought Jimmy might have brought him early to show him the court and all. Didn’t seem to be the case.
I figured I could use the time, some alone time in the barn, for shooting practice. Shooting was the weakest part of my game.
I guess this is a good place to describe the barn. It was Roger’s dad’s barn. The house they lived in was an old farmhouse that had been re-built or remodeled or whatever you call it. It was a modern house on the inside now, set on a large rural lawn, but Roger’s dad wasn’t a farmer. He was a minister. The land that had belonged with the house when it had been a farm had been sold separately and was owned and being worked by the guy who had the next farm down the road. The barn, though, had been sold with the house; it was sitting right next to it.
Calling it a barn was something we did that was perhaps something of a misnomer. It actually was a very small barn and probably had been used more as a place to store tools and equipment and probably had been a workshop where the farmer would repair farm machinery. Roger’s dad used the bottom floor for a garage. It was a good size for that, larger than a two-car garage so roomy for two cars with room left over for storage and a workbench. The upper floor—I had no idea what its original use had been—was the part Roger’s dad had turned into a basketball court. Roger had asked him to do it, and he’d agreed, thinking it would be great place for teens to work off some energy. Now it was only used as a basketball court. We were the only regulars using it, even thought we let anyone who showed up into the games. Perhaps we were too far from town and too far from the cluster of houses farther out, or perhaps it was because we were such a close knit group, outsiders felt intimidated. The barn loft had a high, unfinished ceiling. The floor had originally been rough planks. In making it a basketball court, the planks had been overlaid with wide hardwood slats to create a perfect basketball floor.
There were backboards on both ends, set off from the barn’s walls as regulation backboards are, so there was space to run under the backboards. Players making layups didn’t have to worry about running into a wall. There were windows at each end of the court above the boards with grates over them to prevent breakage if a ball ever got that high. One had a large exhaust fan in it so some of the hot summer air could be pulled out. We joked that pulling hot summer air in didn’t really help much, just created a slight breeze. Roger could open or close the windows using a long pole when we played.
The windows didn’t provide all that much light, but six overhead fixtures had been installed. When the lights were on, it was plenty bright enough for us to see, almost as bright as a school gymnasium.
The size of the place was good for six- and eight-man games. The length of the court was shorter than a regular court, about two-thirds that length, the width a little more than half a regulation court’s width. The roof slanted down at the sides, but not enough to bother any shots. The entire court was just small enough to feel cozy and large enough so we didn’t feel squished when we played.
I loved the place. It came to feel like home to me. I think the others felt the same way. I’m sure I smiled every time I walked into it. Somehow, I got to feeling it was ours rather than just Roger’s.
So, I’d come early to meet the new kid and he was a no show. I sat down and was resting against the barn when I decided to go upstairs and practice my shot. I stood up, brushed my butt off as we always did after sitting there, and that was when I heard something, a sound I was intimately familiar with. I heard a basketball bounce twice, then silence for about a second, then a very faint swishing sound, the sound of a ball cleanly passing through the rim and net. Then I heard it again. And again. A couple of bounces, then a basket being made.
I climbed the stairs, wondering what I’d find.
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