April 19, 2015
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #379: Basketball
Please do not think that this letter is merely an excuse to brag about my basketball skills. It is so much more than that. Granted, I plan to unabashedly describe last night’s game from my perspective without coloring the facts or twisting the truth in any way. If, in the end, you choose to see me as a gift to the sport of recreational prison basketball, then, well, that is your doing, not mine. And no one could fault you for that choice. After all, the facts are what they are.
I’ve made an attempt to go to yard at least one time every week for the past couple of months, whether I need it or not. (Kidding; I need it.) The purpose is two-fold, though nothing actually gets folded. For the first fold, I get exercise infused into my otherwise sedentary life. For the second fold, I get to make friends with guys who would not normally talk to me. And don’t we all want to have at least a few violent felons as friends?
For the first several weeks of my return to yard, I played fairly well, which is to say that I played extremely fair, not like a basketball fairy. That word has an “L” in it, mind you. In fact, I tend to play too fair. I have such an aversion to cheating. (It takes all the fun out of any game, and it takes all the satisfaction out of winning. I mean, how can you gloat after an ill-gotten win? I certainly can’t.)
The problem isn’t that I’m an amazing basketball player. It’s that I grew up in a home with a dad who was a part-time basketball referee, so I know when I accidentally foul someone, and I notice all the other rule violations as well. Knowing a foul or rule violation occurred is one thing, but I can’t stop there. I call fouls on myself, a habit that makes me less likely to be picked on a team.
Prison ball is like a perpetual grudge-match, with constantly shifting teams. It is rough, violent, and loosely follows normal basketball rules. Thus, if a guy with the prison moniker of “Criminal” (real original, right?) wants to catch a pass, and without dribbling the ball, perform a non-Irish interpretation of “Riverdance,” he can most certainly do so without anyone pointing out the indisputable fact that he traveled. And he can continue to do this all day, every day, with complete impunity.
Last night, I agreed to not call fouls on myself in exchange for being picked up on the fourth team to play. I chose the tallest guy on the court to guard, a 6’4” young guy who normally scores most of his team’s points. I let him know that he shouldn’t expect to do what he normally does now that I was guarding him, then I backed up my words with action. He only scored twice, both times when I’d had to guard someone else’s guy to prevent an easy basket.
I played tough. I set picks, boxed out of the paint (though our key has no paint), stole the ball twice, and was our leading rebounder. Oh, and I was our team’s leading scorer, making four shots including two mid-range jumpers. Then came the play that I thought for sure would make all the highlight reels. (To clarify: no filming of any kind is allowed at any of my basketball games, and thus I am referring solely to the highlight reel in my mind.)
I was posted under our opponents’ basket on defense, alternating between stopping shots in a politically incorrect (if not relevant) way by getting my hands to block while yelling, “Hands up; don’t shoot!” and fighting for position to prevent easy layups. A shot played off the rim, and a volleyball match ensued, fingertips poking at the orb in an attempt at possession. I finally got it to go my way, which is not at all like everything else in my life.
I shot out from the pack jostling underneath the basket and streaked toward the opposite end of the court. (Please note the imagery designed to have you picture a very fast individual, as I chose the words “shot out” and “streaked.” I am almost as fast as those words, but not quite.) I could see one of our players running just behind me, to my right, as I wove around defenders to the left of the hoop. I had a decision to make, and I had a split decision, to make it more difficult in just mere seconds.
I could choose the easy way, passing the ball off to my trailing teammate who could most certainly have an easy shot as I drew the defenders toward me. Or, I could drive hard to my left and put up a left-handed bank shot or my signature between-the-legs teardrop.
My teammates being such ball hogs, this was my one fast-break chance to shoot, instead of making do with offensive rebound leftovers. I chose to go for it on my own, though I opted to exercise some restraint in the manner with which I shot. My decision made, I was on a collision course with destiny. And three defenders, who came out of nowhere.
What happened next was not pretty, and the only video reel of the play will be prominently shown on an endless loop in my Hall of Shame. Rejected on the shot, I got the ball and actually passed it … to a member of the other team. (In my defense, he looked just like half the prison population and thus half of my team, with a bald head and lots of tattoos.) My pride was shattered, and it was about time. I thought I could do it on my own, ignoring the help around me and the clear signs of trouble I was in. Adding to my pain, my team acted as if I’d said I hate America, which I do not. I’m not a fan of prison basketball though, that’s for sure, or being blamed for the loss.
Gratefully, that moment passed, and I was told I’ve been picked to be on the first team next time. I can’t wait to prove that I can be a hard-working, enthusiastic, selfless player and still have fun. Prove to myself, that is.