An ode to my youth, when the game of
-David Shields, Heroes
The game is tied with twenty-five seconds left to play. I'm on the wing, covered tightly by a tall girl. Pushing her a little, trying to get free, and she's pushing me right back, very competitive. I notice she has a pretty face. I take my mind off that because it's crunch time. And finally I get a step and Angelo flips the ball to me. He's naked as usual, and I wonder why the girl is wearing a white uniform. I think of popping the jumper right then-I only need a few inches to get it off-and most girls can't jump very well. Pelvic structure, I heard: good for babies, bad for hops. Anyway, with just twelve seconds left now I don't want to give her or her team a shot at glory, I want it all for myself. So I wait, faking with the ball, staying low. She crouches down too, looks me in the eye, and smiles. I can't help but smile back and she flashes a hand at the ball, almost slapping it loose. Sly temptress, I think, and then drive to the baseline with a flying first step, leaving my feet and . . .
Crashing to the floor next to my bed.
"What the hell was that?" Granny calls from the kitchen.
"Just getting up," I say lamely.
"Sounds like you're falling down, Jackson."
"No, it's all good."
"Breakfast is ready."
"Be right down."
Another hoop dream. Weird. I know from psychology class last year that it's ripe with symbols, and that I can learn from it if I think about it in the Jungian sense. The symbols have some basis in reality, I remember. The girl seemed familiar in a way, though I'm not sure exactly why. And I do play basketball every day, lots of times in pickup games with a guy named Angelo who likes to walk around naked when he's not running the point.
At breakfast Granny says that I could be on time to school for the first time this year. "That would show motivation," she smiles over her coffee. My guidance counselor wrote on my report card last spring that I lack motivation, and Granny took that line and ran with it. Pretty much true, I have to admit. But mostly I lack motivation in my first period Algebra II class. I was not meant to divide negative integers at seven-thirty in the morning.
My favorite classes are Honors English and Journalism. In Journalism I'm learning how to be an objective reporter, which isn't easy. I'm the sports editor and so I have to write about some guys on the football team who I can't stand, and it's been tempting to hit 'em with a shot between the eyes. Something like, "Joe Fridley, a flaming asshole who naturally plays tight end, caught four passes Saturday to lead the Highlanders to victory."
God, I'd love to write an honest story.
I know I can't, though. Wouldn't be fair or objective. Mrs. Ford, the Journalism class teacher, is forever telling me and the other Journalism students to keep "I" out of our copy, to write in the third person, recording events like a camera. The exception is a column, so naturally everyone wants to write a column. But Mrs. Ford won't allow more than two columns per issue of the Highland Beacon.
Granny Dwyer begins cleaning up. I start to help, carrying over my dishes, and she shoos me away, telling me to get to school on time. So I grab my pack and head out the door.
I've known Granny since I was seven, and she hasn't changed a bit in ten years, at least not that I can tell. Maybe her hair is a little whiter. She's seventy-four but doesn't look near that old. She laughs when I tell her she could pass for fifty-five.
She's not my real grandmother. Both of them died when I was young. The truth is she's just a nice neighbor lady who took me in after things went crazy last year. She treats me like I'm a relative, though, and I can talk to her about just about anything. Plus, she's a basketball nut.
The Dwyer house is just up the hill from the one where my family used to live, and I'd see her watching me out the back porch window while I shot around in the driveway. And when her real grandson, Gerry, invited me up the hill to play on his driveway when I was twelve, she'd pull up a lawn chair and be our lone spectator, clapping and laughing and offering advice, or just watching quietly.
Gerry is six years older than me, and what's so random is that he's now my English teacher at school. We're both cool with it-he didn't have to tell me not to act all buddy-buddy in class, like I was kissing butt for a better grade. Not that I care about grades anyway, but I just knew it would be better not to go around telling everybody that we were friends, and that he taught me how to shoot the jumper off the dribble long before he taught me to appreciate Shakespeare.
It bugs me sometimes that Gerry doesn't play much basketball anymore. He told me last year that he prefers golf now. Told me with a straight face. And he's the golf coach at school, not the basketball coach.
I ride my bike to school in September when the weather's nice. It's about three miles of easy pedaling, and I like to look at the tall trees and think about stuff. Plus, riding the bus sucks big time.
Morning is my favorite time of day. The air is sweet, the world new, the adults pumped on caffeine. I like the way the light hits the trees and fields. Not many cars use the back road I travel, so I don't really have to concentrate too much. I can just look around and sort of lose myself in the good feeling, the way I can when my shots start dropping through the hoop like guided missiles.
On this morning I think about the journal I have to keep for English class. I forgot to make my entry last night-read Sports Illustrated instead-so I remind myself to get it done first thing . . . I see a barn and hay stacks in a field, really pretty, and remember that my mom used to joke that Highland is a nice town, but unfortunately surrounded by New Jersey.
Back to the journal. Should I write in the first person, which seems natural, or third, which doesn't? "Jackson O'Connell had a wonderful day today, not including two additional zits on his chin." Sounds strange. Like those ballplayers talking about themselves in the third person. Whenever this is pointed out, most of them look blank-or worse, they start looking around for this third-person dude.
I once saw a football player asked about his constant third-person references in an interview. He smiled at the reporter and said, "God bless you." Like he thought "third person" was part of the Trinity-Father, Son, and Holy Linebacker.
A lot of jocks are pretty dumb. I know that's a cliché, but it's true. Maybe half are average or better. But it sure doesn't take a genius to hit a running back or a twenty-footer.
Mostly, I think my journal will be a diary of the basketball season. Our team at Highland isn't going to be spectacular, but I'm hoping to have a great year myself. It will also be fun to follow my friends' season at Shoreview High. Technically, Shoreview is Highland's arch-rival, but I'm not about to lose friends over that. Besides, it's fun to watch Shoreview play. They could go all the way to the state championship.
My goals are to average sixteen points a game and get a scholarship to a Division I college. Of course, I'd like to average twenty a game, but Gerry keeps urging me to be realistic, to face things honestly.
I suppose my journal will be mostly like a column, since I do have opinions and plan to include the word "I." But I'm going to be objective, too. Kind of look at it neutrally and report on the season, rather than spew out a bunch of opinions.
I gotta say, though, that my opinions about basketball are solid. If I don't know much else, I know the game. Maybe a few coaches around have read more books on the subject-maybe. I read every book in the school library my freshman year, every book in the public library my sophomore year.
Since then I've been hitting the bookstores and buying books when I have the money-which isn't often-and reading for hours. The clerks in the upscale bookstores with the soft chairs and classical music smile and say, "Still here?" And the clerks in the used bookstores tell me to get the hell off the floor and ask more often, and with an edge, "Still here?"
I also read all of Granny's library, and she has quite a few hoop books that are out of print. Autobiographies of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, to name a couple. Granny has always been a fan, and I found out gradually, from Gerry, that she was one of the best women basketball players in the state when she was in high school.
One night over the summer, when I was going through her bookshelf, she brought me an old picture of herself posing with the ball. She acted a little strange-blushing and stuff. I could tell she was both proud and embarrassed to be revealing part of her past.
She looked great in the picture, lanky and pretty with her brown hair in a bun. I teased her about her uniform, which was a knee-length white skirt and white blouse. "Lawn bowling, anyone?"
"You laugh, but New Jersey was pretty liberal for its time," she said. "Most girls elsewhere weren't allowed to play organized basketball."
I asked if I could have a copy and she said of course. I really did like the picture. She had the ball close to her shoulder, eyes focused on some unseen hoop, and her mouth was determined but held a little hint of a smile. Sort of like Jennifer Love Hewitt shooting a trey.
Anyway, to return to the subject, I guess I've read a couple hundred books on basketball by now-instructional, biographies, histories, novels, you name it. I also practice at least three hours a day and watch games and commentaries on TV. So even though I'm still in high school, I'm really an authority on hoops.
So my take on our team this year is pretty well-informed. I think we'll be average, maybe a little better. We have two sophomores who look okay, seven juniors who are decent, and me, the outstanding senior forward. Another senior who played last year is a better baseball pitcher than basketball player, so he decided to focus on the slow sport in hopes of getting a scholarship himself. Leaving me alone at the top of the ladder.
I hope I have a year to remember.