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I found myself pounding up the floor, the ball floating beneath my hand like a yo-yo, the Pleasant View sixth-grade championship within reach. Only one defender stood in my way, and he looked scared. I crossed over, watched the surprise in his eyes, and floated up an easy shot without even glancing at the hoop.
And clanked it off the bottom of the rim.
Some things just aren’t fair. I love basketball more than almost anyone I know, but I am so bad. And I mean really, really bad. In fact, my zeal for the game might even make me worse. I feel like Larry Bird, but I play like Big Bird (only with larger feet).
Just like all little boys in Utah, I grew up worshipping John Stockton, the short-shorted Utah Jazz point guard. In fact, I just so happened to be at both games where Stockton solidified his name in the record books — once for career assists, and once for career steals. If you asked him, he would probably remember our Junior Jazz basketball team screaming lovingly at him from the very back row of the stadium, our skinny arms gesticulating wildly from the windows of our cavernous, city-issued mesh jerseys, our mouths dyed red and blue from the complimentary slushies.
That Junior Jazz team was an interesting one. Ten boys signed up to play that season, but no more than six ever showed up for a game. Often, there were only five, which meant every kid played the whole game. Most kids would be thrilled at that kind of playing opportunity, but not me. Six kids meant that I only had to play for about one quarter, and I could drink as much orange Gatorade as I wanted. Five kids meant a lot of running, which also meant red, puffy cheeks, sweating and wheezing (I still experience these symptoms when writing to a deadline).
My teammates were nice enough kids for 11-year-olds, always taking time to show me how to shoot in practice. My shooting style, which I liked to call “The Flail,” started somewhere near my belt buckle, and involved all the coordinated muscle movement of a landed trout. Any time I got the ball, regardless of where I stood on the court, I would close my eyes, push out enthusiastically with both arms, and use every wispy tendon in my body to send the ball sailing through the air, where it would travel an intoxicating six or seven feet before falling into the arms of the other team, somewhere around the free-throw line.
Our coach, a charitable man, let my complete absence of skill translate into a position at center, which is basically the paperweight of the basketball team. It was about as exciting as being on hold for tech support, but slightly less glamorous. The center’s job, as it was explained to me by Ryan (the wavy-haired, well-dressed point guard and son of the coach), was to run from a position underneath one hoop when our team had the ball, all the way down the court to a position beneath the other hoop when their team had the ball. That was it. With a physique like Winnie the Pooh’s, I was ill-suited for that much running, but it didn’t really matter, because my other job, according to Ryan, was to never actually touch the ball. Unless it was to give it to him.
I was totally fine with this. Basketball was wonderful, and I was part of a team.
Another problem was my complete lack of any competitive genes (though I did compete — twice, in fact — wearing jeans). Being the tallest kid on the court, the other team would look me up and down before the game, making plans to stop me, but about three minutes in, they would realize the chance of me stopping them from scoring was slightly less than the chance of them being mauled by a grizzly bear at center court. I was the kid who got yelled at by the coach for apologizing to the other team every time Ryan scored. I was more likely to throw a kegger than an elbow. If a potential rebound came my way, I would just bounce it, flat-palmed, to whoever wanted it. During most games, I spent my playing time intentionally running into the padded walls beneath the elementary hoops to see how far I could bounce back.
One game stands out in my memory. Because of a bar mitzvah at the local elementary court, we were given special entry to play in the high school gym. It was about six times larger than the elementary court. Of course, only four other players showed up, which meant a lot of running for me. I don’t remember much from that game, other than spewing about two gallons of orange Gatorade into a snow bank next to my dad’s van afterwards.
But it was good for me. Team sports build character, and teach a child important lessons. Like how to pass the ball to the coach’s son.