The Incident: My Basketball Selves

If I did it again, he said he’d kick my ass. I’d already started running down court when he threatened me, but I stopped mid-stride, sneered back and yelled, “I don’t give a FUCK!” just like that, with an emphasis on the “FUCK” that masked my cowardice (had we gotten into a fight, I most certainly would have lost). He called me a dirty player.

Let’s call the events that precipitated this outburst “the incident.”

***

At Oberlin College, where I played basketball, the coaches would often scrimmage against us in practice, filling in for our top players who needed to be well-rested if we wanted to compete against the teams in our conference. I’d name the teams, but you’ve probably never heard of them; though I can promise you they were stocked with dudes who could play, guys who may have been bench-warmers on mid-level Division I schools and instead elected to play Division III basketball and score 20 points-per-game.

Though we knew we had talented players, overall we just weren’t very good. In my four years, most of which I spent on the bench, the teams I played for won 20 games and lost 80. Once, during my freshman year, we lost a game by 50 points. All that losing took its toll.

I was so frustrated by who I was as a player that when I wasn’t obsessively working out or praying before bed that I’d wake up a skilled player, I was losing my cool. During practice, if I missed a shot or lost the ball out of bounds, I’d stop mid-play and swear at myself. I once punted the ball so high it nearly hit the rafters. After committing a turnover during an offseason scrimmage, I ripped my shirt in half like the Hulk—only instead of revealing a muscled green frame I exposed my translucent and bony chest. I so deeply disliked who I was in college and convinced myself that if I could get good at this one thing, it would give me stability. But this was all infuriating, because basketball just so happened to be the least stable thing in my life.

Our coaches attributed our losing to a lack of toughness—mental and physical—and they used practice scrimmages as opportunities to challenge us by elbowing us in the ribs under the basket and fouling us hard when we went up to shoot. It’s easy to see now that they were trying to teach us how to handle the pressure. But when I was 20, I didn’t see it that way.

“The incident” occurred during an intrasquad scrimmage in my sophomore year, when I felt the coaches had taken things too far. I pushed one of them in the back when he wasn’t looking. He was a gruff, sturdy guy who swore often and once called me soft. I pushed him so hard he stumbled out of bounds.

It’s the hypotheticals of that moment that haunt me. What if he’d tripped over his legs and blown out his knee, or gone tumbling into the wall and hit his head in a way that triggered bleeding in his brain? At the time, I thought of myself as an activist. Some of my teammates even came to my support—I’d stood up to the coaches. But the self-aggrandizement quickly dissolved into guilt, and six years later it’s more or less remained with me.

***

Recently, as I was walking around New York City, I passed through Greenwich Village and stopped at the historic West 4th Street basketball courts, more commonly known as “The Cage” because of the high, black chain-link fence that hugs the court. In the summer, crowds gather to watch the players attack the basket and launch high-arcing threes and talk shit.

It was a humid evening. The players glistened with sweat. One of them—a stocky guard who looked to be about 6-foot-2—grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the court, crossed over his man, and hit a fadeaway jump shot. Adding some pageantry to the scene was an announcer who’d set up a speaker along the baseline, providing play-by-play commentary loud enough to be heard by the people milling around outside the independent movie theater across the street. After that particular play, the announcer cheered, “Mike Taylor!” Taylor must have been a popular player on the summer circuit, because every time he got the ball the announcer became giddy (“Taylor with the rock, what’s he gonna do?”). The announcer almost sounded relieved when Taylor made the shot—the star had delivered. Taylor seemed unfazed by the pressure. After hitting the shot, he smiled at his man and playfully yelled, “Oh, you must not know my name yet!”

As I try to understand who I was in college, I find myself drawn to those for whom basketball is a release, something that makes them better. That day, I was in awe of Taylor’s swagger, a competitive drive that appeared controlled yet freeing, a demeanor that intrigued me precisely because it seemed so foreign.

Sometimes I’ll still catch a glimpse of my younger, hyper-competitive self when I play pick-up. Maybe I’ve made a few shots in a row and the guy guarding me will throw his forearm into my side to slow me down, or try to get in my head by talking trash. (Like anyone who constructed so much of his self-worth around the identity of being an athlete, you can see I have trouble letting go—I need you to know that I can still play). I don’t act on my frustration, but I can feel it.

When the guilt sneaks up, when the shame swells in my stomach, I start asking questions I can’t—or just don’t yet—have the answers to: Could I have channeled that aggression into a ruthlessness that would have made me a star instead of a perennial benchwarmer? If the way you play says a lot about who you are as a person, as the sports cliché goes, then who was I?

I used to wish that as I got older my younger self would fade away. Now I wish he’d crystallize so I could finally confront him and move on. But my younger self doesn’t want to cooperate. Whoever I was at 20—scared, uncertain—just kind of lingers in the back of my mind, far off but still close enough that I can see him grimace and pout and then yell ‘FUCK.’

After watching the game at West 4th Street, I rode the subway home and thought about Taylor knocking down that fadeaway jumper and talking smack as he backpedaled on defense, sweating in that thick June heat, smiling. I had found it difficult to pull away. I watched just a little bit longer, weaving my fingers through the taut loops of the chain-link fence, gripping it tightly, hoping to get closer.

***

The following Saturday, I woke up and rode the train down to Greenwich Village, determined to play at the Cage. I’d intended to get there before 8 a.m. to shoot alone, because summer league games start early. But I overslept, and by the time I arrived it was nearly 10:00 a.m. and a women’s league was underway. So I wandered west, to the Hudson River, where a week earlier I’d noticed an outdoor court right by the water.

I arrived at the court and before long enough players had trickled in to play a full-court game. The last two players to join were a father and son, Robert and Miles. Miles was 13 and Robert was 55. Robert was raised in New York and had the lean, sinewy frame of a man who got in shape when he was a boy and never got out of it. Robert and Miles joined my team, and we won our first game together. In the process, I proceeded to play one of the best games of pick-up basketball of my life. Admittedly, the competition wasn’t great, but I felt at ease running up and down the court, driving effortlessly to the basket, sinking fadeaway baseline jumpers and nailing three three-pointers, including two in a row to win the game.

After the game, Robert approached me with a glint in his eye. He asked if I’d played in college. Robert was one of the only people I’d ever played pick-up with who was familiar with some of the schools in my college’s conference—the College of Wooster, Denison, Wabash, Kenyon. He looked at me in a way I’d never experienced in college. At one point, he interrupted our shoot-around conversation; he gestured at my form and blurted out, “See Miles, thats a jump shot!”

We played a few more games that day, baking under the sun as it rose higher in the sky, and my play slowly deteriorated. But Robert and Miles didn’t seem to notice. Miles giddily sought me out for high fives after each game, and Robert pulled me aside, asking me to encourage his son to get excited about playing defense. “He’ll listen to you,” Robert said.

Robert didn’t know about “the incident,” or that I contemplated quitting basketball every single year I played it, or that when I got dressed before games in college I did everything (pulling on my shorts, lacing up my shoes) before slipping my number 33 jersey over my head, hoping it would give me confidence the way young boys think wearing a red cape will suddenly give them the ability to fly.

When we were done playing, I gave Miles one last high five and shook Robert’s hand. I left the court and walked slowly along the pier. I didn’t try wrestling with that younger version of myself—I never even considered sharing my struggles with Robert or presenting myself as a cautionary tale to Miles. Instead, Robert and Miles trailed off in the opposite direction, believing I had been a much better version of myself in college, and, for just a moment, I allowed myself to believe it too.

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Hal Sundt teaches writing at Columbia University, where he received his MFA in nonfiction writing. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Classical, and Away. He is working on a book about failure.