Basketball Trek, Part II:
Making the shift from having a budding interest in basketball to actually being competent enough with the orange sphere to enjoy playing basketball took a long time. In fact, it is an ongoing process that has extended over a period of time far greater the consecutive years during which I would go to the park and spin around in place for no particular reason other than to make myself dizzy, try to swim through sand like Scrooge McDuck swam through money, pose like superman with both fists forward while pushing myself into the air on the swing with my stomach planted on the seat, and trying to separate grains of sand by color.
I was about seven years old when I expressed interest in actually playing basketball. My dad started me on a regiment of correctly executed chest-passes–ball starts at one’s chest, one aims for the chest of the person targeted, and the follow-through should end with one’s thumbs pointed down and fingers extended towards the target. Next came bounce passes–same form, but one must aim for a spot two-thirds to three-quarters between one’s self and the target (welcome to fractions!).
Of course, I wanted to focus on that which I deemed most rewarding in the game of basketball, putting the ball into the hoop, so my dad showed me some seemingly unnatural footwork and ball tossing he called a “lay-up.” My dad told me that I was only allowed to take one and a half steps during this choreographed movement towards the basket that was to be coordinated with shooting. How does one take half a step? You either take a step, or you don’t!
My training was sporadic, as I would get easily frustrated by my inability to do any of these things correctly. Many of our practice sessions would degrade into a trick-shooting extravaganza–throwing the ball from half court, shooting backwards, bouncing the ball off the ground towards the basket, shooting while spinning in the air, tossing the ball over the backboard. I figured, If I can’t put the ball in the hoop, I might as well not put the ball in the hoop with style. I don’t think my dad appreciated my lack of focus.
When I was about nine or ten I became a bit more focused, as my dad signed me up to play basketball in the Japanese American church league (avoidance of complete embarrassment in public was a good motivation for practice). Never mind that we didn’t go to church, and we have no intention of doing so; I was going to play basketball for the local Free Methodist team!
As I was one of the new kids to the “church,” and there were too many players in our age bracket to make up one team, I was put on the other team–the local Free Methodist D-2 team. The D-1 team was clearly composed of all of the cool kids who wore baggy shorts, used styling product in their hair, and for the most part, actually had some athleticism and skill.
The D-2 team stacked up like this: at point guard, we had the hard-working and ernest kid who seemed to get injured at least once a game. At shooting guard, we had me, the pudgy boy who had never even played an organized basketball game in his life, with a set shot that was about as consistent as a roulette wheel. Starting at small forward we had a guy shaped like a jelly bean (he looked like a middle-aged man as a ten-year-old!), who’s glasses fell off at least twice a game, and had a penchant for shooting on the wrong basket (but at least he could shoot). At power forward, we had a kid who had the attention span of a goldfish, and also shot on the wrong basket on occasion; he mainly just floated around the court and then spazzed out and flung the ball towards the basket when he got it. And, the man in the middle was Grimace’s shorter, less purple, Asian brother from another mother. Coming off the bench was a master of the orignial Nintendo videogame system, but that was of little help on game day as he measured up to all of the D-2 criteria we all met: short, unathletic, and relatively unskilled. Eventually we added the slow-footed gentle giant who was afraid of contact and often had a plumbers crack exposed when he bent over to pick up the ball. We also added a kid who was really tiny, protected the ball as well as tissue paper can protect one from the rain, and always just seemed to smile as if to say , “Hey, I’m just happy to be here!”
I was inextricably tied to this team, and we were awful. We lost to one team during our first year 63-2 (though, in our defense, I swear some of the guys on that squad had mustaches). We were so bad that year, in fact, that we didn’t play in the tournament for which every team in the league automatically qualifies. I later found out that my dad, who had the misfortune of coaching this splendid squad, thought it would be more humane not to have us compete.
That year, I learned how to be a good loser. I learned not to pout. Throwing things in anger after the game was definitely a no-no. I would line up shake the hands of the other players and the coaches after the game, and make my way towards the hallway where the designated parent would be handing out snacks. My mother likes to remind me that, despite losing every game over the course of two years, I would always get really excited about the snacks after the game: Red Vines, rice crispy treats, AND Rootbeer!
I think losing wish such regularity reinforced my nature. This is not to say that I am a loser. It is just that I am not all that competitive; I just like to play. The experience of playing a game of basketball was important, the result–not so much. I think I have my mom to thank for not taking myself too seriously. The two of us have always been able to laugh at ourselves.
Contrary to my nature and experience, there was my brother’s nature and experience. Andrew started playing basketball at the same time, and he actually experienced success (in his age division, they would reset the score every quarter so there would be no “winners,” however everyone could tell which team was really winning). Where as I played tentative, and was a bit trigger-shy, Andrew was like a bull in a china shop; barreling over the other small boys and girls and chucking three pointers with complete disregard for consequences. Once he started playing games where they actually kept score, it became clear that he hated losing, and he continues to hate losing. A car ride with me after a losing game was probably much like the car ride there. I might have been a bit upset, maybe a bit animated in trying to analyze the game and what could have been, but nothing too bad (at least that is how I recall it). Andrew, on the other hand, would become the living embodiment of grumpiness, and would not like to be engaged in pleasant car ride banter at all.
Our basketball paths could not have diverged more. My brother went to join his own group of cool talented kids during his time with the Owls. In fact, I think the team went undefeated during a two-year stretch, and won several tournaments as well (Thankfully, my dad coached those teams, which helps even out the purgatory he had to experience coaching my team).
Andrew was later recruited to join an all-star level summer tournament team that was definitely won more than it lost. For my money, his crowning achievement was probably his selection to the All-California Asian League team–a team of the best high school-aged players of Asian descent California had to offer. The squad would travel through Japan playing exhibition games with teams in Japan.
On the other hand, my experience with Asian league basketball was not so glorious. During all of my years of Asian league participation, not once did my team have a winning record. In fact, my team usually ended up in the “friendship bracket” of tournaments. For those of you not familiar with the “friendship bracket,” it is a title usually reserved for the game between two teams who are playing for eleventh place; the loser would take last place.
Yet, I would not trade in my experience loosing all those games for anything. I was on a team of kind, funny, and thoughtful guys. I learned how to lose well. Those losing teams helped shape me. More importantly, I learned how to love the experience of playing basketball without victory as a requisite for enjoyment.
Maybe the universe wants us all to learn how to be good losers. In a karmic twist of irony, my brother is now the coach of the boys basketball team at a small high school in the Bronx. The way he describes it, his team sounds like the Black and Dominican version of my D-2 squad (maybe with a couple talented players mixed in). His first year they won about three out of twenty games. Last year they lost every single game. I think losing has softened my brother. He can laugh at the teams futility (as well as his own).
This year, if his star players become academically or behaviorally intelligible, they might not do much better than last year.