My longing to make the junior varsity basketball team was marked by an unrelenting optimism. I was driven. I could feel my future uniform. I would not consider anything but reaching my goal. I itched for stardom.
Such longing can be appreciated only by understanding the deprivation from which it springs. Riding on making the team was a total sense of self. If I did not make the team, I felt I would be worthless. For six months I carried these stakes with me as I prepared for the tryout in early December. Blinded by ambition, I was completely unable to assess my chances or skill.
Throughout the summer days and after school through September, October and November, I practiced. I practiced on my home court, a dusty dirt floor going slightly uphill behind my neighbor's house. There stood a shaky hoop on an unstable backboard with a few hanging threads as net. There I starred. Home from school, clothes changed, sneakers on, I cuddled my secondhand leather ball and dreamed of heroism.
My ball was an eager coach who listened to me as I suggested strategies -- a zone for awhile, then an all-court press. My ball was a teammate who helped me up after an opponent tripped me on purpose; it was the fans cheering as I scored the game-winning shot. At times it was a ball -- the ball awarded to the MVP in the state tournament, the captain of the winning team, a humble fellow who, with head bowed, shyly said, "I don't deserve this. My teammates, all of them, deserve this award more than I do." The fans went crazy. And Patricia Garepo, excited and full, kissed me. It was the ball given me by the principal in the middle of the game for scoring my 1,000th point, a school record. Worn thin and old, my ball, but loyal it was.
I do not know where my basketball desires originated. My father didn't play and wasn't interested. I was alone with my wish. My cousins, who lived 70 miles away in the same state, were basketball players. One of them, only three years older, had been a star, the high scorer his last three years in high school. Perhaps, I thought, I had a genetic predisposition to play basketball. Some of my longing to star was a focused need to be noticed, to be seen, to be acknowledged. If I "played ball," I would be more valuable. Others would know me as a boy of value, an athlete, a basketball player. Perhaps even my father might get interested. Making the team took on an importance far deeper than recreation or competition.
I repeatedly prepared for the tryout in my head. I dribbled up the block, imagining myself on a fast break during the first scrimmage. Accelerating speed down the court, leaping high for the pass, gracefully up I went, almost touching the rim: swish! In my imagination, I could do everything: every ball went to the hoop; every pass was perfect. Rebounding, assisting, feeding, tricking, long passing, jump shooting, leading the fast break, hook shooting, even dunking. I executed them all precisely.
Six feet tall, I weighed a scant 119 pounds, hardly a strong man. In reality I had but two shots: a two-hand set shot and a layup with my left hand. My versatility was solely restricted to my two shots, and any similarity between my two-shot skill and the star in my head was purely coincidental, as I was soon to discover. Alone at the hoop I lived out my Walter Mitty existence, anticipating, waiting, longing for the tryout. I played more than 100 imaginary games, measured out in my two-shot portion.
Always out of the corner of my eye, I could imagine the coach observing me. He would excitedly point at me, smile; at another time nod approvingly and once or twice stop the practice and ask me to repeat a pass so he could instruct others. He had plans for me.
It was not until the first practice that I realized that basketball is a team sport. It is played with others. You cannot pass to yourself, work a weave nor defend the basket by yourself, no matter the richness in your head. All my efforts were about to be tested. I remember the morning.
My friend Guthro was carrying a small tote bag. I was curious, about to be alarmed.
"Hey Guthro, what ya got in the bag, a big lunch?"
"My lunch and my stuff," Guthro said. "There's tryouts today after school."
"Who told you?" My heart raced. "Why didn't they put it on the board?"
"Coach Maley told Jarvis, Jarvis told Evetly, Evetly told me."
I felt overcome with worry. How could my long-awaited practice start without my hearing about it? I didn't bring my sneakers.
As I got closer to the schoolyard, I saw a number of guys with their tote bags, prepared for practice after school.
How did this happen? I ran into the school, over to the bulletin board, out of breath, more from anxiety than running. I saw the 5-by-7 card.
"J.V. basketball tryouts Monday, Dec. 8, 3:15 at gym."
It was impossible for me to get home, get my sneakers and shorts and be back at 3:15. I could skip school, but the coach would find out. I could call my father, but he wouldn't understand. I wanted to cry. But, maybe I could swap my shoes for sneakers and go.
I began a feverish search for a size 10 sneaker. I looked at all the feet in the schoolyard. No sneakers of any size. Feet alert, I rushed through the building, eyes downward.
As the bell rang for class, I spotted 5-foot-5 Billy McGargin, who thought I was crazy to want his size 8 sneakers. Between first and second period we made the arrangement. He would lend me his sneakers overnight for $2 and the use of my shoes. At least, if I got cut, I'd have a good excuse, I thought. I borrowed a pair of shorts from Guthro, two sizes smaller, girdled into them and, with McGargin's worn-out 8 sneakers over my orange nylon socks, hueried to the gym for my first tryout.
We called it the sweat box. It was as peculiar a gym as you could imagine. It was one flight lower than the rest of the school; I felt that I was entering a cave when I descended. It was square shaped, and the entire ceiling and walls -- down to 10 feet from the floor -- were an unrelenting dark mahogany. The 10 remaining feet were covered with a rough gray canvas padding, supposedly soft, that was as hard as the mahogany. The canvas had been kicked, leaned on, covered with graffiti, sweated and spit on so much that the gray almost matched the 10-inch black line separating the wood from the canvas. From the dark ceiling, eight giant eyes, covered with black wire, shed light. The four long windows were so situated behind other buildings and trees that they allowed in little natural light, except in December when the sun would shine in your eyes at one end of the court for 35 minutes. Apart from this one-month dawning, our gym was dark.
One end of the court was tightly against the wall. The outside lines and the wall were coterminous. This peculiarity eliminated anyone's accidentally going out of bounds without putting a head, arm or leg through the wall. It also hindered claustrophobics and made hard-driving basketball players cautious. It was a close gym in another way as well. It had its own permanent smell, a combination of hissing steam from the broken radiators, closed-in adolescent sweat mixed with the slight smell of oranges from the lunch-takers. There was always one pair of dirty socks and a wet-from-sweat T-shirt in sight. I can re-call this olfactory phenomenon as I write now.
Phone booth, bandbox, sweat box, armpit, the pits, it was called. Now it was to be my place to be tested, to try out.
I descended the stairs into a sea of bodies. Two half-moon groups, each 35 bodies strong, hung around each basket waiting for an infrequent shot from the four balls making the round.
The combination of steamhissing radiators and the bodies of 70 14-year-old boys in a poorly ventilated space raised the temperature to blood-curdling heights. My normally warm body always grew warmer when anxious. I was hot. In addition, Guthro's shorts were choking my abdomen and McGargin's sneakers gave me a ballerina feeling about my appearance.
The coach was at mid-court, his foot resting on a new ball, a clipboard in his hand. He would watch, then write briefly. At one time, I heard him ask the manager, "What's that kid's name in the green shorts?" I couldn't hear the manager's reply. I grew selfconscious about my appearance. I could not get my mind off those stupid orange nylon socks. In my head I heard the coach ask, "Whose the kid in the tight shorts, with the orange dress socks?... ah, never mind."
I got the ball four times, carefully moving out a-ways to show off my well-practiced accuracy for long set shots. The first two were close, rimming and missing. The third shot missed the backboard, hit the bottom bleacher and created a cymbal-like percussion. I hoped that the coach had not seen that one. I knew he had heard it. I wished I was back in my outdoor court. My fourth shot hit another ball in flight.
When we started the layups, I felt hopeful. I debated about trying to impress by shooting with my right hand from the right side, but decided to stick with my tested and trusted left. I made every one.
Next we divided into groups of seven and raced the length result of McGargin's tight sneakers. Shamed and embarrassed, I got up quickly and raced alone to the wall, denying the pain of a floor burn.
We were told to sit down. Seventy silent attentive prospects listened to their coach. I doubt that I have ever listened more intently. I hoped he could read the depth of sincerity in my face as I listened. Basketball is a man's sport, he said. It demands physical strength, determination and discipline. Rest, good food and brains are required. Obviously he could not keep all of us on the team. He would be cutting every few days until the final 12 players were chosen. (Let one be me. Let one be me.) Often, teams are equal in talent. The winning team is the one with two things: discipline and brains. Now I will show you a simple warm-up weave.
The coach continued. Form three lines, one on each side, one in the center. The center man passes the ball to the man cutting toward the center and goes behind him. You always cut behind the man you pass to. You keep passing like this until someone ends up with a layup at the other hoop. I will show you. He demonstrated. I understood, but I could not do it right. Three times I did it wrong. I cut in front of the man I passed to. I was paying the price for practicing alone.
The practice ended with a scrimmage. I played about three minutes and never touched the ball.
As I walked home, I kept running the practice through my head, trying to assess how I had done. I hoped the coach remembered I won the race and made all the layups. I kept seeing myself lying on the floor, tripped by my own feet. And those damn orange socks! Once home, I hoped my father would not ask me where my shoes were.
On Tuesday after the third practice the coach announced he was cutting the group. "Watch the bulletin board. If your name is there, come back. Get lots of rest and eat well." He offered no advice for those whose names would not appear.
My name was next to last the first day, providing me with much nervousness along with a delight at surviving. "There will be further cuts." Two days later, he posted 30 names. I was last on this list. Though the list did not seem arranged according to talent, I wondered why I was last. I was worried. My worry seemed to make me play worse. I would berate myself for my mistakes, increasing my anxiety. Two sessions later, on a Friday, the coach said he would make the final cut over the weekend and put the team members on the board. How could I wait until Monday?
The coach arrived at school just before second period. He would put the list up then, the rumor had it. We all thought we would make it.
"You'll make it," said Guthro. "You're 6 feet. He won't cut anyone 6 feet." I felt good at Guthro's judgment, but only for a moment.
"Even though you are skinny and one of the weakest guys out there, he'll probably keep you."
Keep me. Like I was a hangdog or a burden. I hoped Guthro was right in any case. I could improve later. Skinny I was, but weak I wasn't, at least not one of the weakest.
That night I had trouble sleeping. When sleep came it was uneven, jostled by dreams. In one dream I was coaching and yelling, swearing and berating an overweight aspirant with the face of the coach. I cut him because he had the wrong attitude. I woke up sweating.
In the morning I arrived early at the school, going immediately to the dreaded board. No, the coach had not put the list up yet. Could I wait until the end of first period? My bladder kept cheating on me. On my rush to the boys' room after first period, I passed the coach in the hall. I cast my eyes down and moved to the opposite side of the corridor. I felt that pretending not to be too interested was my strongest asset. I secretly but ardently wanted him to stop me, call me over and say, "Lovett, you're on the team. We expect great things from you." I slowed down as I passed him, listening. Nothing. I went to the urinal, unzipped and imagined where my name was on the list. I washed my hands. I wanted to run to the board. But maybe he was still there, with list and tack in hand. Better not to meet him at the hanging of the list. I dried my hands, realizing that I had not relieved myself. Using all the discipline I could muster, I walked outside, looked up the corridor and saw the coach's white hair moving away from me at the other end of the corridor. Ah, clear. I walked slowly to the board; I could feel sweat on my shirt. I heard my heart thrusting in my ear. Oh God, make my name be there. I looked at all the old notices in each of the corners.
Rather than look directly at the empty space on the board where the list would be, my eyes started at the left top corner and reached along the edges. In a throwback to some ancient formula that discipline will be rewarded, I controlled my eyes from the immediate joy or disappointment. I did not want to be disappointed.
My eyes scanned the board. My heart beat fast. My toes and my fingers felt numb. A feeling of dissociation descended on me as I looked for the list. That must be it. There, on an 8 1/2-by-11 envelope held lengthwise by a worn red tack, was some penciled writing and a list of names. The writing was wide from a determined hand: J.V. Basketball Practice at 3:15.
A list of names followed. I looked for one beginning with L: Lavalley, I saw. I looked for another L. None. I felt my world stop. I must have missed it. My eyes returned to the top. I read every name. Mine was not there. Do I dare cry? No. No. Act normal. Pick up your leg and the other will come. I started to leave. But my leg would not move. I studied the list again. Where is my name? An overwhelming urge to weep came over me. I did not give in. I moved away.
Guthro came up to me. He was saying something. I felt like punching him. His name was on the list. I will punch him if he says anything to me about my getting cut.
"Hey, good going. You're gonna be with the big boys, huh?"
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't you see the board? Go look."
I returned to the board. I looked at the list again. My name was not on it. I looked further. I saw this:
"Varsity Practice at 4:15." There was one name under the sentence. Lovett. I felt my body temperature drop.
Coalesced feelings overpowered me. Trance-like I moved to the boys' room. I roboted myself into a stall and locked the door. I wanted to scream. Yell for joy. But I felt tears. They started. Small tears came. Larger tears welled up from way down deep. I began to sob. I tried to stop. I could not. I sobbed and cried for a long time. I made it. I made it.
I went on to a successful basketball career, high scorer for two years, all-state team and a basketball scholarship to college. These successes felt good, as have others. But no success has ever given me the euphoria of that morning when I saw my name on the team list. Nothing has even come close.