A Shootaround Story

Scattered thoughts on a late-summer afternoon’s dream.

For those who started following me because of my racial justice posts earlier this summer: trust me, there will be more of those very soon. But I wanted to get this up before descending back into my characteristic rage spirals, because a fair bit of my writing isn’t like that at all.

Or at least, I try to keep it from being that way.

Case in point:

The first thing you do when you wake up is swear, loudly.

The second is to be thankful that you don’t have roommates anymore to ask what’s wrong. The third is the observation that after five increasingly lonely months of social distancing, the luster on that particular silver lining has worn off. The fourth is to remind yourself that someone’s moved into the apartment next door, and that you should probably try to curb that particular impulse moving forward.

But first, you swear, loudly, and you swear loudly because you’re pissed that it’s 10 AM. Not the worst time in the world to wake up; it’s still summer after all, and you were up until 2:30 the night before doing what you do best — helping a friend deal with their personal problems as a way to avoid confronting your own. It’s just that finding an empty basketball court in Lower Manhattan is never an easy proposition, and you’ve learned pretty quickly since you started playing again that the best time to do that is early in the morning.

10 AM, generally speaking, ain’t early enough.

You know that it rained pretty heavily the day before, which means that there’s almost definitely going to be a puddle eating up a good chunk of at least half of your go-to park. You know that under the best of circumstances, you’ve always hated shooting around with other people who aren’t teammates or friends. The middle of a global pandemic with predominantly airborne transmission is very much not the best of circumstances. And since you’ve started playing ball again, you also know all too well that if you don’t a chance to get at least a few dozen shots up today, you’re going to be even grouchier than usual for the rest of the day.

So you skip the shower, justifying the griminess with the observation that you’re going to smell like a zoo by the time you’re done playing anyway, only pausing from frantically getting dressed to down a Thermos of coffee you’d stashed in your fridge the night before. You note that since cutting all alcohol out of your diet and introducing more coffee, you may have spent six years worrying about developing the wrong addiction entirely. You muse to yourself that it seems, once again, that fate is not without a sense of irony.

Quoting The Matrix to yourself makes you remember that Laurence Fishburne isn’t going to be in the next one, and you think to yourself that it’s quite possible to for one to be too angry right before a workout.

(Yes, you know about the MMO.)

You toss the Thermos in the sink, you mask up, you grab your gym bag, and you head out.

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As you predicted, there is a massive puddle roughly the size and shape of Pangaea devouring half of the court, but mercifully, there’s no one playing on the other side. Just a rollerblader who keeps looping through that changes course as soon as you approach and silently stake your claim. You swap your glasses out for your goggles, making a mental note that you still need to buy a new pair to replace the ones you shattered the night of your last birthday, and put up your first shot.

You miss.

You always miss your first shot.

But it’s cool, and it’s still cool when the second and third shots miss too. It’s always taken you a minute or two to warm up. Once you hit the fourth, you’re in your element.

You’re playing basketball.

Lord knows that by any objective metric, you still suck at it. No handles, no endurance, no offhand dribble or shot, and no real elevation remaining in a dominant leg that’s been surgically reconstructed twice over, pretty badly the second time. But you’re playing, and for a brief and precious oasis in the shifting sands of time, nothing and no one else matters.

Within minutes, the ankle you broke a decade ago starts aching, as it always does. So does the foot you broke five years ago. The cheap goggles you bought online start fogging up, the stitch in your side begins flaring with every acceleration or jump shot, and the corn on your other foot from your running program (because Jesus, you started a running program, who saw that one coming?) is begging you to just take a day off.

But you push through it. You’re playing, and playing feels good, better than most things have in months. You cycle through your usual hotspots on the court, insofar as you really have any; the right block, the left elbow, a step behind the free-throw line, the top of the key, the left wing — though given your ungrudging acceptance of the Democratic presidential ticket, you chuckle to yourself, there are doubtlessly those who would question just how far left.

The shots fall rarely, then occasionally, then often. You throw backspins to yourself at the elbow and pretend that they’re passes from absent teammates. You box out phantom opponents for rebounds after misses, you nod to imaginary fans on the sideline after makes. You try not to think too hard about the specific people you envision in those three roles, how good you might’ve have been if you’d had an iota of discipline growing up, how different your life might have been if you did. They’re the fantasies of a child, and while you might not have to put childish things away, it’s best not to think like one any longer.

You settle into a groove, and eventually carve down your shooting playlist to a two-track alternation between Nina Simone’s Sinnerman and the audio from the short film of Aaron Bleyaert’s How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps. You try to distract yourself from how much you still relate to Bley’s third step after all this time by mentally cataloging all the hip-hop songs you know that’ve sampled Sinnerman over the years.

You can only think of three: Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” Timbaland’s “Oh Timbaland,” and Brother Ali’s “Picket Fence.

(You later learn that there are at least eleven such songs. Some of them are good. Others are not. You also remember Tom Ellis’ rip-roarin’ cover of the song on Lucifer, and make another mental note that you need to watch the fifth season.)

You fall into something of a fugue state, not unlike the ones you slip into whenever you just have to finish writing something by an arbitrary deadline enforced by no one but yourself. As Nina’s voice and Bley’s words trade off in your ears, you fall into the simplest rhythm you’ve ever known. You shoot, you grab your board, you shoot, you grab your board, you shoot, you grab your board, over and over and over again.

Small wonder, then, that you don’t notice the kid at first.

Small kid, too.

He can’t be older than seven, maybe eight at a stretch. Scrawny, definitely not clearing four feet. Even if you hadn’t been in the zone, you might not have noticed him. But there he is on the sideline astride a scooter, undoing his helmet and mask as he meekly asks if he can shoot around on your side of the court, clearly not trying to drown in the puddle on the other side.

Of course you say yes. In your decidedly unlearned opinion, one kid shooting around in the vicinity shouldn’t run your COVID infection risks up too much higher. Besides, you don’t rule the courts, and you’re not good enough to dole out permission as to who can stay and who can go. The weird sense of power you get at being asked such a thing is dwarfed by your unease that the kid said “excuse me,” “sir,” and “may I” while asking.

There’s no way the new quarantine beard makes you look that old, does it?

As he gets closer to the baseline to put down his stuff, you notice four things about the kid immediately, or rather, you notice one thing in immediate repetition: the swooshes. There’s a Nike swoosh on the front of his t-shirt, another swoosh on the leg of his shorts, and yup, there’s two more swooshes on the outside of his pristine shoes. Kid’s a damn commercial, you note with some amusement, mentally contrasting it to your own tired gear. In fairness, your white socks are also from Nike. But the black shoes are from Reebok. The shorts, blue, are from Adidas. The vest, grey, is from Under Armour. The t-shirt, red, is from Hanes, as endorsed by the One True Basketball King himself. You’re rocking a veritable Power Rangers lineup of athletic apparel.

You wonder who would be the traditional sixth ranger in that lineup. New Balance, perhaps? Kawhi Leonard does seem like the type — the man looks good in gold.

Anyway, the kid doesn’t start playing right away. He reaches into his backpack and pulls out… a Nintendo Switch? No, an iPad. Huh. You make some vaguely sarcastic mental observation about kids these days, what with their Fortnite and Swedish multimillionaires brofisting the camera, and slip back into your shooting. An errant bounce takes you past the kid still squatting over his iPad, and you instinctively take a split-second peek at what he’s doing.

That split-second is all you need to immediately suspect that you might have pegged him wrong. He’s not playing a game or watching Tiktok compilations.

He’s watching drills.

Almost as soon as you make the observation, he puts the iPad away, hops up and gets started. And the kid’s a rocket, dribbling from baseline to baseline, weaving through and past imaginary defenders with aplomb before driving the lane. He’s as ungainly and unbalanced as any eight-year-old, but entirely undeterred by either. You can’t help but be impressed; you’ve seen that degree of discipline before, sure. But rarely with someone so young, without the supervision of a parent or coach, during what have to be the final hours of his summer vacation — as much as such a thing really exists this year.

Eventually he stops with the drill, and lapses into a less regimented shootaround alongside you. It becomes clear that the kid’s got more than handles; he’s also got a decent stroke, especially considering that at his size he has to fling his entire body behind the ball to get any real lift on it. Watching him play, you see flashes of Harden and Steph, but mostly Kobe — and a hella lotta Kobe for a kid who couldn’t have been out of kindergarten the night of the Mamba’s last game. More proof that the kid isn’t just a mimic, but a serious student. And there’s some real hustle beneath the talent too, as evidenced by his sprinting to keep the ball from bouncing out of bounds after a particularly clangy miss.

For a minute, it’s just the two of you alternating shots, with the customary unspoken assent to not get in each other’s way in the process. But before long, you both stumble into the do-si-do that’s all-too familiar to anyone who’s ever shot around at a park, when your ball bounces in their direction and their ball caroms in yours. As he tracks down your rebound, you wordlessly do the same, and when you catch it, you notice three things about his ball in rapid succession.

  1. The ball’s regulation sized. The little homie’s not using a 28.5- or 27.5-inch ball, or some carnival prize or Fisher-Price pack-in. He’s rocking with the professional deal. This isn’t play for him, nor is it exercise. We’re talking about practice, and you know in your heart that the kid is already aware of the difference.
  2. The ball is worn. Your own is starting to show signs of wear and tear after regular use, sure, but even after two years you can still feel the ridges on the leather and make out the branding. Yet his is almost smooth, the orange is beginning to fade to white and the moment you grip it you see that the ribbing is starting to peel a bit. Your opinion on the kid has already swung around hard, but the ball confirms it: either this kid is serious about the game, or is close to someone who is. Perhaps both.
  3. The ball’s a little flat. Under any circumstances, a flat basketball is a bad basketball, and the kid shyly accepts when you offer to give it a pump.

The two of you get back to shooting for a few more minutes before the kid’s startled by a loud yelling that suddenly erupts from the pocket you’ve stashed your phone in.

You think to yourself, and not for the first time, that while the opening to “Circle of Life” makes for a charmingly effective alarm to wake up to in the morning, it’s always more than a little weird when it goes off in public during the day.

Still, the alarm goes off, which means it’s time for the punitive rite of passage for all ballplayers: some good ol’ fashioned suicides. You know how lazy you can get during a shootaround; forcing yourself to schedule in some actual conditioning is your way of counteracting that. Before your set, it occurs to you that the name might be a little inappropriate. Something something young men and sports, something something mental health, something something toxic masculinity.

After the set, you think that propriety can screw itself. Suicide is the only name that fits.

You silently offer to shag rebounds for the kid while you wait for your lungs to start working properly again, thinking that he’ll probably take a break after a while. It does feel a little magical negro-y, but hey. It’s hard to really work on rebounding on your own, and when it comes to sports you’ve always been a much better defender than offende — yikes, now there’s a shortcoming of the Queen’s English if ever there was one.

Anyways! Yeah, the kid. Help the kid. Just for a minute.

But one minute becomes two. Two minutes become five, which turn into ten, then fifteen. It’s almost a half hour before the kid takes a break, a half hour that demonstrates that he doesn’t just have discipline and skill, but stubbornness too, and the best kind. While you’ve learned a long time ago to stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to, he chases every last waterfall on the court to shoot from, and refuses to budge from a spot until he’s scored from it. You have to feed him no less than a dozen passes in the left corner before he’ll move on. And unlike you, the kid’s unflappable. There are no visible signs of frustration at his misses, any more than there are visible signs of satisfaction. No claps, no swears, no yells. The only shot he cares about is the next one, and the only visible emotion is the steely-eyed determination that it’s going to go in eventually. When he finally breaks off for a water break, there’s a weird feeling somewhere in your chest when you get back to your own shootaround. Is it unearned pride? Thoroughly earned respect? Unexpected hope? A mixture of all three?

You don’t know. It’s been a while since you really felt any of them.

But you like it.

Some more shooting and suicide sets later — a blissfully spartan hour only broken by the brief intrusion of a pair of mumblerap-blasting Lacrosse Bros who intrude on your side of the court for a full-tilt game of 1-on-1 without so much as a “hey, d’you mind if we -”, but it’s cool, you’re not mad or anything, seriously, it’s cool— you and the kid are joined by a third party who’s far more welcome: his dad. The man barely has a chance to greet his son before the kid challenges him with all the cocksure bravado of a shonen protagonist. You appreciate that the dad has the common courtesy to ask you if it’s okay first, although you’re not sure you could have mustered the lung capacity to say no even if you’d wanted to.

It turns out the kid’s name is Dino.

…no, of course it bloody well isn’t.

You’re not going to out a child’s name online, even partially. One, the ethical considerations are too numerous to count, and two, the last thing you need is for him to find this essay one day, grow up, track you down at a pick-up game a decade later, and yam you into oblivion. You’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without getting dunked on; you’d like to die that way, if at all possible.

His real name is a little goofy, though.

But again, you remember that you insist upon people in both your private and professional life calling you “Mickey.” Perhaps people with glass ankles shouldn’t so much as think of stones before mentally throwing them, lest those ankles be broken. Having seen the kid play, you know that he very easily could, and so you sit back and just watch as Dino takes on his father, your mind supplying the requisite dramatic music.

It’s immediately obvious where a good chunk of Dino’s skill comes from. There may be more salt than pepper in his beard and his hairline has long since receded, but Dad can flat-out ball — better than you, to be certain. And as he dips into his arsenal, he exposes defensive gaps in his son’s game that you wouldn’t have had a chance to make out before. Dino bites on pump fakes, he reaches, and he gets heckin’ bamboozled by even the most basic of crossovers.

But 1.) he’s a kid, so you don’t dwell on it, knowing damn well that he’s way better than you ever were at his age, and 2.) he’s still a dogged defender, and he keeps the game close. And while you’ve played more than enough ball in your life to know when someone is holding back… you’ve also played enough to know when they’re not holding back that much. Dad fits the bill perfectly; at a minimum, he’s using maybe 80% of his full power, and he’s barely outpacing the kid. He confirms as much to you when his son chases after the ball out of bounds, hunched over with his hands on his knees in the universal stance for “I’m too old for this shit.” When you compliment his son’s skills, he flashes a haggard but unmistakably proud smile, admitting that he has to work harder and harder to beat his son each time they play.

You give it maybe five years before that’s no longer possible.

Still, if it’s true that no boy becomes a man until he buries his father, it seems that Dino won’t be becoming a man today. His furious rally towards the end of the game falls short, and his pops beats him, 11–8. But if hadn’t just seen it happen, you wouldn’t know it to look at the two of them. The father is sucking wind and downing a water bottle in a single chug; the son is smiling ear to ear and still bouncing around. When his dad can muster the air to tell him that it’s time to head home, the kid reveals that he’s internalized another lesson from the basketball gods — you always leave on a make. He drifts behind the three-point line and jacks up a shot.

Money. First try.

You compliment Dino on his game as he leaves, and he smiles. As he scooters away with his Dad, you take one last look at him, and get hit by one last jolt: his backpack is made by Adidas.

The traitor.

Once you’re alone again, you find that your energy to keep playing has mostly sapped. It makes sense. It’s hot, you’ve run out of water, the suicides took a lot out of you, and you’ve been playing for… four hours?

Wow. You can’t remember the last time you’ve — Christ, you don’t know if you’ve ever played basketball for that long before.

And on some level, you know that it’s because of the kid. That kind of energy is infectious, it can’t not be. With his departure, the litany of tasks you put your phone in airplane mode to avoid thinking about loom all the larger in your mind, and the second you reconnect, you’re immediately deluged by a flood of texts, emails, news alerts, and junk notifications.

The fantasy of crowds and cheers and championships fades away, and you’re yourself once more — a law student entering his final year with a proverbial full docket. So you do what every comic book nerd has known, since childhood, to do when duty calls in New York City: you get your shit together, you put your goddamn mask on, and you get to work.

But first, you know you have to leave on your own make. You decide on a bank shot from the left elbow.

It takes you two tries.

You don’t stop thinking about the kid for the rest of the day.

You can’t quite put your finger on why.

Sure, Dino was good, very good for his age and size. But he wasn’t amazing. You’ve seen better, and as far as breaking news goes, “boy plays popular sport with father” isn’t exactly Florida Man material. There’s no real reason why his memory should have stuck with you for so long, unless…

The answer is so easy that you laugh at yourself when you hit on it. It wasn’t the discipline, the hustle, the skill.

It was the joy.

The kid was doing something that he loved, he was happy doing it, and he wanted to do it as long as he could. It’s as simple as that.

And the reason you can’t forget it now is because you can’t remember the last time you really felt it.

You know how bad that sounds in your own mind, so you immediately try to rationalize it: it’s not like you’ve really forgotten what it feels like to be happy. You’ve laughed, you’ve smiled, you’ve cheered, and you’ve done all these things with a beloved and motley crew of characters who come swimming to mind almost immediately. You can’t grump away those memories.

But you also can’t pretend that even in the moment, there was something about those memories that felt… off. Artificial. Fleeting. Illusory. Flashes of color in a story that feels increasingly gray. Fun at the time, but joy, real joy? That life is good, that even if it stops being that way it’ll snap back even better in the future, that the work you put in now will matter in that future, that the dreams you’re chasing aren’t just possible, but probable, and that it can’t all come crashing down in a matter of weeks? Like, say, the outset of a global pandemic?

You can fake it. Lord knows you can fake it really well. But it doesn’t feel real — hasn’t felt real in years. And even the rush of a shootaround today, or for the past few days before, can’t distract you from the reality that you are a 3L with no clue what lies in your future beyond November 3rd or whenever this godforsaken election actually ends, let alone your graduation the following May. Teasing out the branches of all the alternate destinies you’d ever envisioned for yourself, there’s no escaping that you sit, at twenty-seven, in the knowledge that most of them have been unceremoniously cut off forever. Given the hellscape that 2020 has proven to be on seemingly every front, you can’t say with certainty if there will be a future. In a city with 8.4 million people, there are days when you’ve wondered if you’ve ever felt more alone.

And while the kid was young, eight is not so young not to know at least part of what’s going on in the world. He has to know why the city shut down for three months, to know why everyone is wearing masks. Grimly, you recognize that there’s a solid chance that like you, he’s lost someone, and that he knows exactly why.

But still, here he was. Playing, playing hard, playing the quote-unquote right way, chasing a dream that millions have had and millions will continue to have without a glimmer of fear or doubt. Might not have a team to play with this year? Screw it, he’s playing. Might not be able to go to school at all? Screw it, he’s playing. Might be stuck in a ghost town if the dreaded second wave strikes this fall? Screw it, he’s playing. The boy is eight, and he’s staring down the terrors of eternity with a bat, just waiting for a chance to swing.

The kid, then, was a reminder.

That when the deepest darkness falls, sometimes your dreams are the only light that is left to be found.

And sometimes, they’re enough.

They have to be.

You wonder about the kid some more. Is he a Knicks fan or a Nets fan, or did he move from somewhere else and bring those loyalties with him? Assuming he stays on the shorter side (and Dad was shorter than your own six feet, so it seems like a safe enough bet), will he be a 2-guard or running the point? Just how good is he gonna be, and will you ever see him play again?

You doubt it.

It’s almost definitely a coincidence, but in weirdly stark contrast to Chicago, New York ballparks don’t seem to have regulars. You’re entering your third year in the city, but you’ve somehow never seen the same people at the same parks, even when you’ve gone to them regularly. And with the school year right around the corner, odds are both you and the kid are going to find the time you have to get your shots up eaten into considerably.

Still, you never know. Maybe not at that park, maybe not at any park, but maybe one day years from now. You’ll be flipping through sports channels and catch him during a high school game. Maybe this mixtape or compilation goes viral on YouTube or the ‘gram and he becomes a prized college recruit. Maybe he ends up orchestrating one of the maddest dances that March has ever seen for a mid-major most folks have never heard of. Maybe some night Adam Silver steps out to a podium and calls out his name under the bright lights of the 203X draft.

You know in your bones that it’s unlikely. His passion for the game might not last. Maybe Dino’s calling is in another sport, or the arts, or the sciences. And even if that flame keeps burning at every successive level of competition, there are only so many spots. Grade school ballers get filtered through high school tryouts, and then through college recruitment, and then through this league’s rules or that league’s standards. Guys far more dedicated and talented than you have tried and fallen short. And even if he sticks with it all the way, you still know that for would-be greats, all it takes is one bad injury to turn what should’ve been a legendary career into a mythical “what-if.”

The Hills. The Odens. The Roys.

…the Roses.

So no, in all probability, you know that he might not get that far.

But you still hope he at least gets the chance.

And as you take stock of the day, you realize that this entire time, you’ve been mentally cataloging all the stray thoughts and unexpected emotions that all stemmed from this kid, this kid, who just walked up and asked if he could play basketball with you.

So, you do what you do best, the thing that lies at the heart at your last and greatest dream.

You pull up your laptop and write it all down.

It takes hours, but you only notice until after you’ve finished. And with night well and truly fallen, you know what you have to do next.

You check the forecast, and silently pump your fist when it promises clear skies for tomorrow.

You pack a bag for the next morning’s shootaround, and prep a new Thermos of coffee.

You crank up the AC, you slap on the oversized grey hoodie and sweatpants that have effectively become your pajamas in the past few months — somewhere in your memory, the voice of a woman you went to college with excitedly talking about “groutfits” echoes in your ear. You don a sleep mask and slip under the covers. You sleep.

And in spite of yourself, you dream.

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Black dude. Chicagoan. Shithole-American. Politics junkie. Nerd. A monster of many words trying to be a man of all of them.

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