Dear Basketball: A (Long) Love Letter

Dear basketball

Dear basketball,

Unlike Dorothy Boyd’s affection toward Jerry Maguire, I can quit you. It’s not that I want to. It’s that I have to.

I know you’re gonna miss me. We’ve been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees.

Basketball, I first started playing your fantastic game in my garage. Only, my garage was about 20 feet wide. On one end was a mini-hoop and on the other was a bike tire hung by a nail. Within those 20 feet, I played full one-on-one pretend NBA games against myself. On one team were my beloved Warriors and on the other, the Lakers. I didn’t really hate the Lakers at that time because how could you not like Magic Johnson? But in my pretend games, Sleepy Floyd always got the better of Magic.

On that same garage court, I felt like I could fly. Once I put on my Air Jordans (in kid’s sizes, they were Sky Jordans), I felt like I could jump a little higher and run a little faster. And I perfected all of Michael Jordan’s dunks from the 1985 Slam Dunk contest on my six foot hoop. The only thing missing was the gold chain.

That led to the YMCA version of you. My first year was a little rough. I felt like I was getting better, but there were kids who were much better athletes than me. My dad still said I was the MVP of the team because I passed the ball to the open man. Thanks dad. But I knew I had work to do. In my second year, I worked with my dad on layups and dribbling with both hands. The great American philosopher Yogi Berra would say that I was amphibious.

I would dribble up flights of stairs, having to cross over from left to right. And if I missed by an inch or two, that ball was bouncing back down the stairs. I was working on pivots and dribbling behind my back (and sometimes in the dark), but rarely between my legs because it was too fancy.

And it worked because I was pretty good that second year. Kids couldn’t really guard you if you could go from right to left. I wore a white headband that had the name Eric Floyd written on it in sharpie. That’s Sleepy’s real name. Because I wore glasses, I had to wear something called Croakies that would secure them to the back of my head so that they wouldn’t fall off if I got hit.

That led to basketball wars at Cedar Grove. This wasn’t the YMCA version of you basketball. This was the kid version of street ball on Sugarplum Drive. Our 6th grade basketball team was led by Mike Torio. He was as tough as shoe leather. And even though we only won one game (against Eddy Zucko’s Milbrook Dragons), it felt like a successful season. We were playing games that counted and that felt important. I just loved competing for my school. Somehow it felt real.

Junior high school was different and weird like only junior high school can be. I was clearly not one of the best basketball players in the 7th grade, but still good enough to make the team. I was a really good practice player. I not only knew where I was supposed to be on every play, but I also knew where everyone else was supposed to be. If there was no transition in basketball and everyone just had to go to their spots and run plays, I would’ve been a contender.

I started early on during the season, but our team was stacked. It’s still the single best team I’ve ever been on. We had twin towers in Brian Henderson and the late, great Edwin Martin. And our best player was a tall, wiry guard named Alfonso Zepeda. I think we lost only one game that season. It was pretty unfair.

I remember watching a Larry Bird shooting video in the offseason because who didn’t want to shoot like Larry Legend? He talked about warming up and starting out mid-range and extending out once you got warm. He didn’t miss one shot. He even purposely shot incorrectly and tried to miss. And he still made it. What a jerk.

I went to the blacktop and started mid-range and missed nearly every shot. I learned then that Larry wasn’t going to be able to teach me how to shoot and I surely wasn’t going to the NBA. We were playing different versions of you, basketball.

dear basketballIn the eighth grade, we lost both Alfonso and Edwin and we returned to mere mortality. Actually, we weren’t very good at all. But I still had a great time playing with my buddies the Thinh-man and Joel Martinez. I think Eddy Zucko could’ve made that team, but he didn’t try out.

My dad used to tell me about how fun basketball was for him during his high school years. So I definitely wanted to try out for the team. It wasn’t so much about being even a solid contributor on the team. I just wanted to show myself that I could play with those guys. I even had a plan to make sure I got the Air Jordan Vs for tryouts.

I told my dad that I wanted whatever new Nike shoe that David Robinson was wearing. I didn’t really want that shoe. But if I started on the low end and it wasn’t a good fit, it would show that I just didn’t want Jordan for the sake of Jordans. I’m sure my dad rolled his eyes when I finally convinced him that I had to get the Air Jordans, but he rolled them to the tune of $125. They were mine.

I made it all the way to the last day of the Frosh-Soph tryouts my freshman year, but something definitely wasn’t right that day. It wasn’t in the cards and I was feeling it slip away from me all practice long. Guys were clawing and scratching to make the team. I needed to get stronger, but more importantly, I needed to get tougher.

I had baseball to fall back on and it was what I was best at. But during baseball tryouts at Mount Pleasant, I twisted my back and couldn’t swing a bat. So I just stopped going to tryouts. I don’t even think I told the coach why. It was the first time since I was seven years old that I wasn’t playing a sport. I had to deal with the reality of not making the basketball team as a freshman and also not playing baseball. That was quite the pride hit. The following year, I was going to be sure I made both teams.

And I did. I didn’t have a terrific basketball season and near the end, didn’t really play much, but I learned a lot. It was during that 10th grade season that I found my love for hip hop music. When we were lifting weights in the gym, that’s all that played from the boom box. My teammates were into a lot of acts like A Tribe Called Quest and they influenced me a ton.

My favorite game of the season was a non-league game in Santa Clara. I didn’t even score during the game but I got major props from coach Ernie Shears for boxing a guy out all the way out of bounds. He was was probably a good five inches teller them me. I also blocked a shot that game, but it was one of those cheap Chris Mullin ones where you come from behind and spike it right as they let it go. But hey, when you send that thing out of bounds, the oooos and ahhhs don’t discriminate.

My buddy Steven Greenhouse was a 4.0 student. When someone asked him his grades, he didn’t just say he got all A’s. He told them which kind of A’s. He’d say, “Well, I got 3 A’s, 2 A-’s, and an A+.” But Money Greenhouse and I helped out our team GPA. My 4.0 wasn’t as impressive as Money’s, but it was still a 4.0. For some reason, when I was super busy with sports, my grades were better than they were when I wasn’t so busy.

I also loved playing with my buddy Jerrell Watkins. He wasn’t tall at all, but he played big. He was also the fastest guy in hoop sneakers that I’d ever seen. He could grab rim fairly easily on a nice bounce day. And man, he was competitive as all hell, almost to a fault sometimes. He wanted to play and win so badly that I could sometimes see the tears of frustration in his eyes. In some ways, I desperately wanted to be more like him.

I know this is about you basketball, but I have to discuss my baseball year too, because it plays into my junior and senior year. Because basketball bled into baseball season, I completely missed baseball tryouts. But I still got a chance to practice with the team and I made it. In fact, I barely hung up my hoop shoes and two days later, we had our first JV scrimmage. And without any practice or even throwing a baseball for months, I was playing one of the infield positions. That team sucked too, but by continuing to play half way decently, I felt like baseball was going to be my sport. I didn’t have the eye of the tiger to play basketball anymore. Just competing and making that team as a sophomore was good enough. But I wanted to be really good at baseball.

And I was pretty good by the time my senior year came along. But our team was terrible again. We won the first game of the season and then lost the rest of the games. If that doesn’t kill your desire a little bit, I’m not sure what will. But that’s why my basketball playing days stopped after my sophomore year. I wanted to give my 100% for those last two years and just focus on baseball.

But basketball, I couldn’t let you go.

Yes, I am the victim of a Basketball Jones
Ever since I was a little baby, I always be dribblin’
In fact, I was the baddest dribbler in the whole neighborhood
Then one day, my mama bought me a basketball
And I loved that basketball
I took that basketball with me everywhere I went
That basketball was like a basketball to me
I even put that basketball underneath my pillow
Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep at night

I finally beat my dad at one-on-one when I was sixteen. At 6’2, he had four inches on me, and he was just bigger and stronger and had a dependable jump shot. But beating my dad was one of the biggest accomplishments in my life up to that point. I guess I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen. I figured that I was always going to get close and he would always close the game out, eking out a victory every time. After I beat him, we never played one-on-one again.

dear basketballAnother great family memory basketball is when cousin Dave and I faced off against cousin Nak and Uncle Gary. They had age and wisdom on us, but we had youth and handsomeness. The game was for a Togos sandwich. They wanted that sandwich so bad, they beat us up the entire game.

But the next time we played for Togos, we brought Eddy Zucko with us and we finally beat them back for our sandwiches. To the winners, go the Togos.

When I was at San Jose State University, it wasn’t until my junior year that I realized that there was an intramural hoops league. My buddy at the time, Patrick, put a team together and basketball, believe me when I say this: it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing your great game.

We were very much a rag tag team. The other teams had team gear and we just wore NBA replica basketball jerseys. I wore a Latrell Sprewell Warriors jersey. I was also in the best shape of my life at that time. I guess that’s what happens when you’re twenty. When we’d play the other teams, they expected us to play as rag tag as we looked. But instead, we had guys who could shoot. I would just get to the middle and kick it out for open threes. We won the majority of our games, only losing to the teams who were much bigger than us.

My favorite memory of intramural was a game we played against one of the better teams in the league. Their best player was in my media class. My friend Aubrey was in the same class. Aubrey and I had the same major and minor so we had the exact same schedule. The morning the game, the guy went over to Aubrey and invited her to watch. I was eaves dropping into their conversation. He wanted her to come see his team win and he was going to dominate the game.

I took that bit of 411 back to Patrick and told him that I wanted to guard him. And I wanted to guard him the entire full court. I wasn’t just going to pick him up once he crossed half court. I was guarding him the full 94 feet. This also meant that I was probably going to be so tired that I wasn’t going to do much offensively, but I didn’t care. He was definitely their best player and if I was able to keep him in check, we were going to win.

I don’t even remember if Aubrey was there or not, but I think Carol was there with her friend. We may not have even really been dating at that time, but I wanted her to come, especially after I gave myself the assignment to guard their best guy.

Imagine this scene for a second. You walk into an old and dusty gym. You look at one corner of the gym and there’s a DJ spinning while a team with custom uniforms is in a layup line. They have about 30 fans there. You look at the other side and it’s just a bunch of dudes in old replica jerseys with a handful of friends to watch on. That was them versus us.

We beat the bumps off of them.

My guy scored one bucket all game long and it was when I went out right before the end of the first half. I think we were up by twenty pretty much the whole game. And we were talking so much trash. The guy probably didn’t realize that he and I had class together or why we were upset. One of his teammates even threw a karate kick at me late in the game because we were weren’t letting off the gas pedal. Thankfully, he missed.

I loved you so much basketball that I also took intermediate basketball class six semesters in a row. I was basically paying SJSU to play basketball. That’s what being a victim of a Basketball Jones is.

I tweaked my right knee while playing and the doctor told me that I stretched my MCL. He told me to buy a special knee brace (that had hinges on the sides) and to wait six weeks before playing again. Since I had class, I had to go, and after sitting on the sidelines watching for one week, I tested out my knee and came back the next week, five weeks early. You can do that when you’re twenty, but it would come back to bite me in the butt.

I would play in city leagues as an adult with my cousin Rey, Eddy Zucko, Young Randall, Marc Nobida, Albert Mangay, Al’s cousin Tony, the JYD, and Smelly Teddy. And that was definitely fun too. I’d also play in some leagues with my buddy George Kleidon. That was fun as well, but we’d always lose because we didn’t have many guys on the team. One time, we had to play another team who were low on guys and I think the game ended up being four on four. Who plays four on four full court hoops?

During that specific game, a left-hander on the other team would use his opposite hand to push me in the chest while shielding the ball to create space for his layup. So he’d knock me backward to clear me out. I told the referee, but he said he didn’t see it. There were only eight players on the court. What else was he watching? I told the guy that he needs to cut that stuff out. He and his teammate were on a 2 on 1 fast break soon thereafter and I was the only one back. Of course, he does it again. He gives me the Heisman pose right in the chest. As he’s running back on defense, I told him that if he does it again, I’m fouling him hard.

dear basketballLow and behold, he tries it again. He sticks out his right arm. I was ready for it. I hook his right arm with my right arm and as he tries to extend for the layup, I pull him down and he hits the hardwood with a thud and then the I hear the type of groan someone gives when they get the wind knocked out of them. The referee T’d me up and almost threw me out of the game. But the guy didn’t try and Heisman me again. I apologize for that one basketball, but he had it coming.

Right around this time, my kiddos were starting to want to play basketball. Have you ever seen four and five year olds play? It’s the worst version of you basketball. But still cute.

I wanted them to also play baseball and they did, but they always gravitated back to basketball. Brian was a bit clutzy, but he would push his way into the mix. He wasn’t afraid to be physical. JJ was always so small, partly because I made him play in the same divisions as his brother who is seventeen months older, and partly because he was just small. But he’s always had great hand-eye coordination. He also could practice something just a few times and master it. He was dribbling between his legs and behind his back with both hands so easily at ten years old.

Once I noticed that they were drawn to your sport basketball, one of my dreams was to be able to play full court games with them when they were older. I don’t mean just with them and their friends, which we often did. But really competitive games against grown folk who knew how to play. They are private school kids. They’ve mostly played in gyms in organized leagues like AAU for their entire lives. I wanted to get them out on the outside courts where only people who truly loved the sport played.

There was one hiccup in that plan for me. About 12 or 13 years ago, I dislocated my kneecap during a baseball game. I played semi-pro baseball continuously for twelve years after high school ended. It was the last inning and we were down, but we were coming back. I was up with runners on and two out. I dumped a ball into the right field that would’ve plated the tying run and winning run. But the second I made contact, I felt my right knee cap move toward my calf. I immediately hit the ground. All I had to do was get to first base and we’d win the game. But I couldn’t even get up and we lost.

I went to the doctor and he said two things that I still remember. The first was that my right knee was always going to bother me. (True.) And then he said that I should never buy a house that had stairs. (Too late doc.)

I don’t remember much about the rehab, but I went hard, specifically so I could come back to play at the end of the season. I came back for the last double header of the season. We had to win one game to make the playoffs, which we did, only we had to play the same team again who was also the best team in the league. In the playoff game, I hit a HR in the first inning, but otherwise, my knee was weak and I had a feeling that it was going to be hard to play much longer. I only played one more year. It never felt right.

I was still playing basketball though, except with a knee brace, and mostly with the kids as I could no longer play long stretches competitively. If I tried, the knee would swell up for two or three days after and it wouldn’t be ready for the next game. So I just focused on playing with the kids.

We even created Ball So Hard University which was a fun thing we did in the summer to get all of the neighborhood kids out of the house and on the court. My dad even came out of retirement to play with us.

ball so hard university

#BallSoHard

Soon though, the kids were getting older. Brian was my nearly height and he was in high school now. I decided to have my knee looked at again. If there was a way to fix it so I could get a few extra years on it to play with the kids for real, like I dreamt, I was going to do it.

In December of 2013, I had knee surgery. The doctor centered my knee cap and cleaned up the debris. My physical therapist was happy to have someone to workout who looked forward to getting better quickly and he challenged me. But by the end, I had his program down pat. He didn’t even need to work me out anymore. I did it myself at his office. Nine weeks after knee surgery, I was ready to get on the court again.

It felt better, but immediately I could tell that it wasn’t going to be 100%. I probably shouldn’t have expected it to be. But I was able to move better than I had been moving and while there was still swelling after, it wasn’t as painful the next day. At least I was able to get up and down the court with the kids as they were now teenagers and pretty much able to run with adults. I started bringing Brian to play pickup with old friends who didn’t play private school style, if you know what I mean.

Over the last year or two, I could tell my knee was getting worse, but it wasn’t until earlier this year while playing with Young Randall that I knew I hurt it again. We were on a fastbreak and I had the ball. I kind of took a step toward what would be a Euro-step in today’s game, but it was really accidental. And my body stopped. I literally was in a trot on a fastbreak, planted, and by whole body stopped. There was something up with the knee.

I tried playing through it, but I was hobbling. I iced it when I got home and the next day, I noticed bruising, only there was no contact when the injury happened. It also took about four days for the bruising and the swelling to go away. My chiropractor is my favorite doctor because he’s very practical. He said that I should get a MRI, but that since I know how to deal with a knee injury, it’s just about pain tolerance and making sure I didn’t injure it further. He knew I already knew how to do that.

I played once more with some family, but it wasn’t serious so there was very little risk of getting hurt. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I’m in Tucson with the family to see Brian at the University of Arizona during family weekend.

The first thing he said was that he wanted to play hoop at the rec center. This rec center is beautiful. If I had something like this when I was in college, I’d have spent all my free time there playing basketball. He’s so lucky to have such a beautiful place to play at.

I was looking forward to playing. It was really the culmination of my dream and why I’d gotten knee surgery in the first place. JJ, Brian, and I were going to play against college kids. And these weren’t just regular college kids. They were all pretty good. Several were probably one of the better players on their high school teams. And I was the only old head. No one else’s dad was there.

During the warmup, I took maybe 5 shots. I hadn’t shot a basketball in a couple months. But it felt good. I even started to shoot a couple of deep ones and the shot felt on. For once, Larry Bird’s advice from that dumb tape worked.

But mother nature is undefeated for a reason.

I actually scored the first bucket of the game. No one wanted to shoot it and I touched it and shot a three-pointer immediately. It went in. The teams weren’t all that fair, but I didn’t care. I got to play at a college rec center with my boys.

Their personalities are so different and it shows on the court. Brian’s confident, but more so in a spirited way and a team way. JJ can be confident, but he can also be quiet. If he gets going quickly, he’ll act like he’s the best player on the court.

Brian has always looked out for his brother and that’s what he did while we were playing. He knew that JJ would play well if he hit some early shots and probably not play well if he didn’t. So he continued to look for him, hoping to get doubled by JJ’s man so he could swing it to him. It was fun to watch. That’s how they are in real life together too. Big bro looking out for little bro. Little bro trying to show people that he’s not in big bro’s shadow.

Brian also has a bit of a temper when he’s playing, especially if he’s losing. He’s an aggressive player, but he’ll get even more aggressive when he’s losing because he just wants to win so badly. If someone on the other team is offended by aggressive play, there can be some conflict on the court.

There was one other guy playing who may not have been a college student. He surely wasn’t as young as the rest of the kids. I could tell early on that he was unhappy with something and when I asked him, he said that this was garbage basketball. It was weird because he had three kids on his team who were really good and much better than him. But I think what he meant was that he wasn’t going to get the ball much.

He was playing a little angry rather than hard, so I’m glad I was guarding him. He couldn’t move me, so that probably frustrated him even more. I kept talking to him, trying to get him into the flow of the game so his frustrations wouldn’t carry over to the young kids.

I had the ball and Brian came over and set a perfect screen on him. I don’t remember what happened during the rest of the set, but he and Brian started mouthing off at each other. He said something about setting bullshit screens. Only, I saw it. It was very clean. Brian just has wide shoulders and the dude couldn’t get around him.

They talked trash for a bit. Brian was clearly done with the play and wanted to go back down court and play defense. But the unhappy guy wasn’t having it. I let Brian talk until the guy took a step forward and then I got between them. He tried to take another step and I told him to stand down. He was trying to puff his chest out a bit. I said it one more time, took a step forward, raised up a bit and finally, he walked away.

Basketball, believe me that I’m not trying to get in any fights on the basketball court. I’m too old and respectful for that. But sometimes, you can use intimidation to stop fake tough guys too.

After the game, I told Brian that he needs to be the peacemaker. You never know what someone is upset at or what they’re they for. They might even throw karate kicks at you during the game.

Who knows why that guy was even at the gym playing with kids he was 6 or 7 years older than. Maybe he just wanted trouble. Brian understood and even went over to him to apologize for his clearly legal screen. The guy still wasn’t really having it and said something to the effect of, “Well, at least you apologized.”

Lesson: Apologize because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect them to apologize back.

My bad knee was really sore throughout and near the end of the game, my good knee started to give me trouble. It felt like the ligaments weren’t tight. I couldn’t shake it out. I predicted before playing that I was going to be in some pain, but the next day, I was in more pain than I even imagined. Here I am writing this over two weeks later and only now, my knees are starting to feel normal again.

Basketball, I think I’m going to have to quit you. Not because I want to. I would play your game until I couldn’t stand if I could. But my knees are telling me a different story. They are saying that I lived my dream of playing real hoop games with my kids and now it’s time to shut it down.

But you know the other reason why I should get out? Unlike me beating my dad one time in one-on-one, neither kid has ever beat me. For whatever reason, when they get close, I start posting them up and then their butt cheeks start to clench and they choke from the pressure. They never took the torch, even though they can run circles around me right now.

So basketball, I say to you, goodbye for now. I’m going to retire my Jordan 28 SEs and bid adieu. Not because I want to. Because I have to.

Your homie,

GG

P.S. If I get another surgery, I may comeback wearing the 4-5.

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