Facial Features: Eyes that hardened when he stepped onto the asphalt. They contained no trace of the man who tousled my hair and cut the crust off my sandwiches. Within those steely irises was only pure killer instinct.
A purple vein that snaked through his forehead when he chose to taunt me. To chuck his “check” pass at my feet. To watch the ball bounce down the driveway, into the paths of the Subarus that whooshed through our subdivision. To say, with a voice like gravel, “Go get it.”
Hair: Lush, golden curls that swallowed his sweat-stained headband. When he left the ground, they bounced like coil springs. Their shimmer blinded me.
After he started treatment, his curls lost their sheen. They came out in clumps when he removed his headband. But he never spoke of his affliction. It hung there, an ugly specter in the skybox, cackling at the futility of every dribble, every pump fake, every hopeless airball.
Clothing: Larry Bird short shorts that exposed his pasty thighs. Of course, I gave him all kinds of shit. “Next time, do you think you could wear a tighter pair?” But he pretended not to hear me. For him, the shorts were more than a wardrobe choice—they were an homage to an era. A time when hand checks were doled out freely, elbows were thrown with abandon, and the refs just shrugged their shoulders and let ’em play. A time when the NBA’s greatest superstars weren’t “a bunch of pansies.”
One night, when my father drove the lane, he knocked me flat onto the asphalt. Blood gushed from my nose, soiling my new Curry jersey. When my mother asked what happened, he started to fess up. But I cut him off, “My shoelace was untied. Fell flat on my face.” Across the room, my old man donned an expression I’d seen but a handful of times: a beaming gaze of admiration.
Height & Weight: 5’10’’, 200 pounds. As a child, I couldn’t shoot over my father, nor could I drive around him. I could only cower in his hulking shadow. I may as well have been playing Godzilla.
As I went through my growth spurt, he began to wither. His spine curled at a violent angle. His beer gut shriveled, exposing his ribcage. I found that when I bumped him, even slightly, he lost his balance. So, I left the lane open. I stopped contesting rebounds. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare go easy on me,” he said between wheezes. That’s when it hit me: for all those years, the old man wasn’t trying to humiliate me. Nor was he trying to mold me into a child prodigy. There was a hunger in him that his cushy domestic life couldn’t satiate. That tortured him in the walls of his cubicle, while his 401(k) accumulated interest. The only way to fill it was with pure, fangs-bared competition.
Shooting: My father’s jump shot transcended into the realm of mythology at our block party. On that cloudless summer day, he sank six threes in a row. The wives sat courtside, jaws hanging open. When Mrs. Roddy fanned herself, a bolt of rage shot through her husband. “I bet you can’t do that again,” he said, nostrils flared. “Ok, let’s make it interesting,” my father replied. After some back and forth, they shook on it: if my father hit his next three, Mr. Roddy would forfeit his watch. With a wry smile, my old man snagged the inbound pass. Unfazed by the full-court press, he dribbled behind the back, pump faked, and let it fly over the outstretched hands of Mr. Roddy, Mr. Green, and Mr. Thompson. The instant the ball left his fingertips, he knew. He turned his back as it sailed through the net with a crisp “swish.” I watched from the sideline, pride swelling in my chest.
Jumping: I choose to forget the man who required supplemental oxygen to go up for a rebound. Who coughed bloody phlegm onto the asphalt between plays. A victory over him brought no sweetness, no satisfaction. He was not my father. He was a stranger with weak-ass hops.
The man I knew and loved soared above his opponents, hangtime defying his age, his stature, his bloated gut. Every time he left the ground, the Earth halted on its axis. Sprinklers paused mid-rotation, passing planes hung suspended in place, and the neighborhood kids stared in awe. This is the version of my father I choose to immortalize in pixilated graphics. This stupid video game is the closest I’ll ever get to playing with him again. To feeling the beautiful sting of one more elbow to the ribs, one more “Nancy boy” taunt, one more crushing posterization.
My school did not have a whole basketball court, and by that I mean it was halved, then quartered, then left cratered. Last I checked — a tip: do not attempt alumni reunions or nostalgia visits because then you’ll realise just how mundane the stairwell behind the basketball court/assembly ground really is; unlike the flight of fancy of your memories — the red tiled ground was a broken mirror. No child should be out playing on it.
But we did, slicing the skin off our feet like cheese on the toothy edges of the red, the red of our bare feet vanishing into the cracks, nourishing the barren underneath with our salt. And on such a ground, we played basketball.
Only the older ones, aged 13-15, played basketball, and when we arrived at that (st)age, we quickly learnt that only girls played basketball. The boys were content kicking the monochrome chequered balls into makeshift goalposts, marked by bottles and dusty bags, on a surface next to our meagre court that was already subsumed into a sandpit that no one played in, because no one changed the sand, and the metal of the slides and the monkey bars and the seesaw were already red with rust. Or crusted blood. Kids don’t enjoy being needled and pierced. Plus, there was a rumour that they made the sandpit because a girl died there, and to dispel it, they lowered all that sand; a grave for a ghost.
But this isn’t about sandpits and the horrors of childhood.
Before puberty, we were one race.
Post the hormonal uprising, we became a war zone.
As kids, we used to play all kinds of games together. Dog and the Bone, Athletics, Kho-Kho —
However, when puberty turned our bodies inside out, games became sports. Breaking boys and growling girls went off to their patches of the world. And when the girls came together, on the deathly basketball court, it was no party.
A teenage girl is Primal Rage.
There on the basketball court, away from the reed red voices of boys, we were marooned, unmoored, on the wounded maroon land.
We had one Games period per week. By the time we stumbled into highschool, we were grateful if we got a chance at that one 30 minute period of physical recreation, for teachers swooped in to convert it into another of their lessons because of pending syllabus. And we were even more grateful if it fell in the morning hours because the Indian summers are infernal. But the older you get, the less luck favours you.
And so, whenever we could, we were demonic girls playing demonic basketball on a demonic court in a demonic clime.
Whack the ball, smack away the body. Guard the ball like it’s your life. Kick a shin and call it unintentional. And what fouls and what rules when none knew the game? Instead, watch the tallest girl stand underneath the basket for the entire duration of the game. Watch the faces raised to the halo of the ring, time coming to a standstill as the ball tittered and tottered on the edge, which if fell inside the embrace of the sometimes netless rim, someone would whoop, “goal!” only for another to counter holler, “BASKET!” Watch the half hearted attempts to block the ball, arms flying aimlessly, resigned to an addition on the scoreboard.
The boys came away with arguments, suppressed tears and maybe a torn edge of a trouser, only to make up and move on within minutes. The girls shredded t-shirts, stormed watches, shattered glasses, ripped toe nails, and scarred faces.
We taught the other the art of dribbling and leaping; we learnt from the other the jump shots, the shuffle, the between the legs, the nameless passes and moves that were passed around as an inheritance.
In those 30 minutes of play none gawked or chastised our freakish metamorphosis that made its presence known despite the despotism of the thick pinafore, the thin button down shirt, and the stifling brassiere.
Girls were the first cockroaches. Quartered, dissected, hunted.
But on that devastated court, lost in our make believe sport, unpinned from gravity, we were like cockroaches with wings. Wicked, deranged, powerful.
Sestina Makes the Playoffs
Jimmy Butler plays Jimmy Buckets in a movie about Jimmy Buckets
draining dreams off the cliff of a pier in South Beach, Sleepless in Miami,
based on a true story, inspired by the sharpness of welded cheekbones
pressed pillow-deep, scissors next to a faceless picture of last year’s MVP,
cans of Milwaukee’s Best littering the parking lot of what used
to be the American Airlines Arena. Now it’s the FTX Arena.
Nothing stays. In LA, it was the Staples Center. Now the arena
is hardwood highlighted in bits of coin. Not even the buckets
stay. It’s been a decade since I’ve listened to the Used,
five since Jimmy left Chicago, landed in Miami,
with layovers in Minnesota and Philly. The MVP
of Philadelphia is Joel’s knees, frailer than your ex's cheekbones.
Every November, I vote Jimmy Butler’s cheekbones
the poet laureate of my duvet. There’s still an American Airlines Arena,
it’s just in Dallas. Can you conjugate a Maverick? The last time an MVP
went to a Dallas Maverick, Stoudemire still knew how to walk, buckets
were still born in Jersey, and Dwyane Wade just bought a county in Miami.
Then, it was Bosh off the glass. Allen for a corner three. I miss the days I used
to count sheep dressed as sheep, floss with boneyards. Days I used
to get sick off rum and Diet while blossoms bloomed in my cheekbones,
flushed with lust, tender as lamb. I fell asleep in a bed in Miami
and dreamt a sandstorm in the Coliseum, as I stood at the edge of the arena,
my sword pressed through skin as plastic buckets
filled with what plastic buckets should never be filled. The MVP
of my third-favorite orgasm was your index finger. The MVP
of the morning after: the hot water from the showerhead, the lip I used
to never chew, the TV turned to ESPN, sound muted, clips of buckets
traded for other buckets. I vote Jimmy Butler’s cheekbones
a New York Times Bestseller, an arena
of signed hardcovers dressed as a Camel Light, the limp lip of Miami.
See, Rome wasn’t built in an arena, Boston couldn’t topple Miami,
and Ben Simmons sucking on buckets of water ice will always be the MVP
of the used and cracked, our weathered and diamond-cut cheekbones.
I Want Doris Burke to Narrate My Life
I had a baby because of basketball. Don’t ask.
Studies show it is easier to hate fuck than to cry.
Studies show if you step on a Woj Bomb,
you will end up trapped in Oklahoma, hoping for lightning
to follow the cracks in your jersey.
In the beginning God put rockets
on Vince Carter’s feet and made milk cartons
because he knew basketball players would end
up going missing. Which reminds me: Who stole
Roy Hibbert and why didn’t they do it sooner?
And is JR Smith still naked from the waist up?
And does Melo use fabric softener
while running his hoodie through the wash?
During the offseason, Alex Caruso sews headbands
and sells them on Etsy. Anthony Davis’s body
was born a mockingbird. Only
Greg Odin knows why. I still have so many questions
but I don’t have the time to list them
here. I’m too busy burying Dwyane Wade’s talking
cube in a pocket of earth,
between Grantland and Linsanity.
image: Aubrey Hirsch
Alabama Basketball Fans Drown Their Sorrows In Arby’s If They Lose, But Minnesota Timberwolves Fans Get a Free Arby’s French Dip Sandwich if They Hit 12 Three-PointersBrian Oliu
Because there are two sides to every sandwich and I grew up knowing something about loving losers—last second shots clanging off the back iron if we even let the game get that close. Most days it was a quick dap up while the clock was still running, the refs allowing for an extra shuffle of feet because it was time to go home and the game has been out of hand for a minute.
There is pride in seeing the end of things—not needing to beat the traffic because you’re going to get stuck in it anyway; that there’s always a train stopped on the tracks, or worse—one that crawls along just slow enough to let you know that it is moving at a pace you can do nothing about. Me, I’ve stepped up and over the crushed ballast while I checked the box scores to see just how off our off night was; to check in on the west coast road trip with its late tip and its potential for a parlay.
A confession: I’ve never drowned my sorrows in a five-point loss that was never that close, and I’ve never celebrated a hot night from beyond the arc in the same way that I’ve never wanted to fly that close to the sun—that there is some duality in this world; light from night, here and then not here that scares me to dare put my finger on it. I am scared to know about winning because I must know about loss—the duality of doorways, of how souls and bodies are separate, that we can lose loudness but gain quietness the same way we lose a person but gain a legend, and how I’d trade a thousand myths to get back the voice telling them.
Today, I learned that another word for the track on a railroad is “the permanent way,” and the word for railroad ties is “sleepers,” and these are things I wish I did not know because they make me not want to go home, ticket folded in quarters after another close one—that in another world I live somewhere else. Instead, I am here, shuffling home in the dark. But soon, the bridge behind the floor that will always bear your name will be built. I am here, caught in the middle before whatever satellite or angel lights up my pocket. I see the Wolves are only down three and we’ve got the ball. The order is ready. The Tide is still dancing even with the loss and you are still dancing. We are so empty, yet we dance for the nights you kept us full.
Larry Bird’s feet are the largest pieces of a body I’ve ever seen, more so because they were bandaged and elevated, post-Achilles surgery. His bodyguard strong-armed me, then a tiny 4 year old, away from the elevator as they wheeled his gurney down the hospital hallways. My Dad’s eyes sparkled as he realized who we saw, and we darted back to my Mom’s room to tell her. She was about to start physical therapy after back surgery, on her L4/L5 disc, and the morphine was giving her nightmares and making her vomit, which made her back pain even more excruciating. “You and the Hick from French Lick are in good hands,” my Dad told her, and his reassurance worked — her tense shoulders dropped and she eye-sparkled back at him. After she was discharged from the hospital we all piled around her bedside to tend to her, rotating her ice packs, bringing her little snacks of peanuts and chocolate milk, and watching NBA games together. Because I was four years old, I’d never heard of an Achilles heel before. My parents found their Greek mythology book to read the myth to me. I kept forgetting that the tendon was called an “Achilles” and referred to it as “the Larry Bird muscle.”
We were allowed to watch one hour of TV per week, but the exception was during the NBA Playoffs each year. My parents even moved the TV next to the dinner table so we wouldn’t miss a single play over our veggie burgers. Our new home in California was 3,000 miles away from Boston Garden, but it was only 2 blocks away from the neighborhood basketball court. My sister and I shot hoops for hours, my Dad providing buzzer-beating commentary, and my Mom joining us for rounds of HORSE since her back was better. That was when my parents started calling me “Muggsy,” and maybe that’s why I never grew past 5’2”, because I still wanted to look up to him at 5’3”. The laws of physics I was learning in school made no sense when I watched Muggsy or Spud Webb play.
Chris Mullin’s stint in rehab was included in my 2nd grade report about “One of my Favorite People,” which he had become now that I was in Warriors territory. My bewildered teacher marked the page with a “?” next to the section about alcoholism, and my parents talked to me about it at dinner that night. A blue and yellow leather Warriors jacket was under the Christmas tree for me that year, and I wore it every day while trying to find more words that rhymed with “Latrell Sprewell,” because his name made me want to write poems. When the sun went down and my sister and I had to head home from the neighborhood court, we took turns playing One on One on the family Macintosh. I always wanted to be Dr. J, because I knew about Larry Bird’s weak ankles.
And then Dennis Rodman started wearing Hard Candy nail polish and dyeing his hair, so I did, too. The jealousy that coursed through my body confused me when he put on a wedding dress and married himself at his book launch, because I wanted to be the one to marry him. I didn’t care which one of us wore the dress, I just didn’t want him to be off the market. But I respected his union, so I turned my attention to my first boyfriend, the best basketball player in our middle school, and gave him Chicago Bulls boxers and Michael Jordan’s cologne for Valentine’s Day. I can still smell that cologne, and could probably still draw the silhouette of MJ’s head that adorned the packaging. I traced it over and over before I had to cover it with shiny red heart wrapping paper. When the middle school boyfriend broke up with me, I wanted to ask if I could have the packaging back — not the cologne, just the packaging, but I couldn’t find the courage. How many hours did I then go on to spend watching teenage boys play NBA 2K?
Our family friend Dorothy had season tickets to the Warriors and occasionally gave us her tickets, and my parents hauled us 100 miles up to Oakland to watch the games — once even on a school night, because my mom’s undying crush on David Robinson was one of our favorite things to tease her about, and she had to see The Admiral play in person before he retired. During another game, when the Warriors played the Pacers, the security guards let kids stand on court level during shoot-around. I was 18 by then, but my Muggsy stature lent a younger look, and I found myself staring up at Reggie Miller, his wink to all of us a goddamn shooting star.
When I moved to New York at 18 and didn’t have a TV in my tiny apartment, but was too young to get into a sports bar to watch a game, it was like a solo lockout. As the season progressed, so did my desperation, until I learned about the broken fire exit at the Horseshoe Bar. It could be opened from the outside without activating the alarm, allowing me to bypass the bouncers checking IDs at the front door. I sat at the bar to holler for the Knicks with everyone else, drinking a single PBR for the entirety of a game if I was paying, and much more than that if someone else was. What was the first thing you searched on YouTube when it launched in 2005, and was it also “Iverson crossover on Jordan”?
Following a man I loved to San Francisco meant I was back in the Western Conference, and we regularly snapped up Warriors tickets for cheap on craigslist, always an hour before tipoff, when the seller was desperate and we had nothing to lose. Our friends’ band played a show at the KeyArena in Seattle, and I flew up just to visit the Sonics graveyard backstage, which included a partially rolled up 3-story poster of Shawn Kemp, and a broken hoop that I could dunk on, so I did. We became a Clippers household when we moved to Los Angeles, when their tickets were more attainable than the Lakers. Individual loyalty has always been more my style than team allegiance, but CP3, DJ, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford belonged together in that space and time. Sometimes when I’m trying to sleep I can hear the tenor of Jamal’s voice on JJ’s podcast the day after they were eliminated from the playoffs. Thank you to my friend Mark Lanegan for giving us your Clippers season tickets sometimes when you were on tour.
Around the time I was reading fertility books and thinking about getting pregnant, Lance Stephenson’s dog, Sasha, gave birth and he congratulated her on Instagram. I took a screenshot, because it was so unintentionally funny, but mostly because now I can admit I thought it was a sign. I sat in a booth next to Tyson Chandler at Umami Burger in Studio City, and when he squeezed the cheeks of my friend’s baby and goo-goo-gah-gahhed at her, I implored him to play for the Clippers. I just wanted something big to happen. But I didn’t get pregnant, and Tyson Chandler didn’t get traded to the Clippers. I ended up being the Greg Oden of marriage; lots of potential, but ultimately, it only lasted a couple of seasons.
Now I look forward to Muggsy’s Instagram birthday post to his dog, Dunbar, every year. I watch games through Reddit streams, my laptop warming my belly, the streams always buffering and being taken down. “Who wants to sex Mutombo?” I mumble to myself as I swipe through the dating apps, quoting Dekembe’s infamous pickup line. Maybe I can be both a Muggsy and a Mutombo. I use a noticeable chunk of my income on drunk eBay purchases, constantly surprising myself with packages, like a puzzle of the 1992 Dream Team and a permanently off-center Sonics hat. One of my NBA eBay gifts to self is a Rodman Bulls jersey, which is listed under “vintage,” and I wear it as a dress all summer. When I use it as my profile picture on a dating app, I get messages from dozens of men all asking the same thing: “Did an ex boyfriend get you into basketball?” “No,” I reply, “My Mom did.” I still think Jamal Crawford should be on an active roster. I still kind of want something big to happen.
I was not what they refer to as a natural.
My lack of hand-eye coordination
was apparent, well-known to myself,
at least. Clavicles hunched, imploding
shoulders providing ample hiding space
for fumbling. I held my fresh perm high,
spherical volume, showy bangs winning
Best in Show, headband a staunch fabric
leash. My DIY uniform: cut-off stretch pants,
Hard Rock t-shirt (Bahamas, knockoff),
makeshift jersey of a pre-pubescent jester.
Deranged couture was my sixth-grade forte.
It was certainly not the traveling league,
but my teammates still knew more than
just what a basketball was, the extent
of my knowledge, and really, my skills.
But for an instant, I was the Big Dog
in the grip of talent. An open shot. Possible
glory. Dashed—valiant miss, my first
open-mouth kiss of the rim. I grabbed
the rebound, fueled only by imminent
swish. I would not be slowed by the odd lack
of defense. I would not be slowed by
confused faces, as the ball flew askew
to another miss. During the hang time,
I realized—this was my team’s hoop.
Having racked up two assists and two
rebounds, (best game of the season),
I blamed the perm chemicals for my
apparently low IQ. I ran away fast
and far, to join the cross country team.
The Slap Shot and Its Many Lessons
Someone, somewhere, probably said
that possibility is a slapshot to the face.
Too bad possibility doesn’t miss
at least some of the shots it takes.
In 8th grade gym, an adult with a degree
thought giving pubescent payphones
hockey sticks and a plastic puck was a valid
learning endeavor. My parents should
have rescinded their property taxes.
The wince of lip into braces, more shock
than blood, more rage than bent metal.
I’ll never forgive name redacted.
25+ years later, earth still orbits
my zeal for revenge. Given the imaginary
chance, I biff 100% of the shots
I pretend to take. You may be tempted
to describe my technique as mentally sloppy,
but I rollerblade religiously
and huff a daily multivitamin,
so your assessment of my acumen
would be very wrong. What is the lesson
in all this? That there’s a person
out there I never think of, who is
taking metaphorical slapshots
of non-forgiveness at my face?
Because that’s pretty fucked up.
In the Bubble
the crowd is an mp3
& a wall of computer monitors.
The first pass zips to the right corner
& the point guard cuts
to the hoop,
gets the ball back,
passes it out
to the left wing
as some crowd recorded
cheers like a white noise machine,
a soothing, humming roar
outside a baby’s room
& the small forward catches the ball
with one hand and kicks it to his left,
a marvelous play too fast to
have even been conscious.
The two-guard in the corner
catches it and elevates
but the defense
lunges with a hand
looming like a stormfront,
and off-balance & askew, the
two-guard pushes an inelegant
cross-court pass like a shot put
and the signal goes glitchy
& everything freezes — / — fr
/— —fr / / — eez / / — —
/— — / / — — / — / / — —
The players somewhere
in paradise, the crowd
lost in coaxial, my black dog
& I motionless on the couch.
Everything pops back into place already moving
like it was never lost at all,
but it was—a moment is gone—
happened, but didn’t—
and the ball falls through & snaps the net—
its sender a mystery
we never saw,
as the empty arena echoes
with the mp3 cheering from
last year. Droning.
/— —dr / / — /
/— — / / — — / dr — dro / / — — ing
And pixelated boxes flurry the screen
like cherry blossoms blown off trees
by spring winds when I stared
into the reflecting pool
hungry and not alone,
when we dreamed
of a sandwich
with cherry blossoms
caught in our hair.
The lithe man with
giraffe necks for legs & arms
rises up into the air
and fast as a snare crack
straightens dozens of moving parts
into a line with his
wrist & hand clapped like
a gooseneck and he
launches the basketball
into the air
the arcing journey to home
the shot is a lifetime
a beginning middle & end
in one motion
born in the cradle
of the hand & fingertips
that second ticked and
that wrist flipped
and the ball was sent into the world
to strive & reach toward
the heavens only to
be pulled back to
earth and land and the hoop
where the nylon net strings snap
with the sting
of the clock.
So many goods and bads
come with resolution at long last—
sooner than anyone watching
with held breath would think,
like it or not,
victory & loss
at the same time,
and the only one
who always wins
is the end.
Yes, it was pure
poetry this morning
when I dropped
baseline, slipped my defender,
stretched my arm out in my
best white-boy Dr. J,
and laid in the basketball
reverse off the glass,
but it was also
poetry when I propelled
myself skyward like
a water buffalo trying
to break loose of
earthly bounds, missed the rebound,
came down on Raf’s foot,
twisted my ankle, and fell
to the hardwood like a dropped stack of papers,
my soul bouncing away like a
loose ball bumping slowly off the bleachers.
My Favorite Nikes Have a Hole in Them
No tugging at laces,
sliding past your tongue
Not in a rush,
our jumps and jukes
are in the past.
How much ground have we covered
Sometimes I go it alone,
step into the world,
shorn of your comfort;
I ache, from my feet to my *
and everywhere in between,
worn out from want of you,
my soul in tatters.
I can’t afford to give you up
but we’re broken (baby).
How can we be falling apart
when it feels so good?
Things that Lie (or The Rasheed Wallace Maxims)
to peer into your eyes,
which choose not to believe
it [when “it” is played as “it”]
or those little and white(?)
words under a picture.
Why would I?
When, like Craig,
I ain’t gotta;
even though you calling me one,
I would never
make one, out of you.
allow me to do
what the ball won’t:
down to sleep
Jordan VII Olympic Colorway
I was never really into shoes
but when I was 19 I worked at T-Mobile
They had a sales program
you logged your sales with corporate
and redeemed those points
My coworkers didn’t care
so I logged every sale made in store
The best thing I got was a self-winding watch
with a clear face
I also got tons of basketball shoes
at the time I had quit playing college ball
for a girl
or maybe not
maybe I keep playing
go to a D2 school
and my world never expands
Maybe sneakers take on more importance
than they do or did
When I transferred from JUCO to university
I got rid of all my shoes
and tons of clothes
Minimalism hit me
I felt bogged down by possessions
It could have been the weed
but pot doesn’t give an idea
that wasn’t there to begin with
Was it the bitter 30-something at LA Fitness
He angrily told me I only had shoes
because I didn’t pay rent
I did not tell him about T-Mobile’s sales program
before busting his ass
but it always stuck with me
It wasn’t the shoes
never the shoes
I did away with them
and my jeans
and my button downs
and my fitteds
[I didn’t have throwbacks]
Accumulate and purge
is a process I’ve repeated many times
when I realize the impermanence of things
of their meanings to me
Maybe that’s why I have never bought
My brother had them
I borrowed them one time
without his consent
They were great then
and maybe are now
but I’m too scared to find out
that buying them won’t bring back
whatever it is
whatever it is
that isn’t coming back
A Poem in Honor of the 1994-1995 Mount Vernon Middle School Lion’s 8th Grade Basketball Team’s Favorite Song: Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper”Darren Demaree
Here’s the hard field-
notes from the last
boy that made the team
because he would dive
into the stands for
no real reason at all
& barely played, but wore
those team warmups
like a teen claimant
testifying for one girl’s
attention. Any girl
that wouldn’t make
fun of brown glasses
& the silk shirts I wore
to every dance we had.
You cannot know this
without me telling you,
but the bus trips
with my friend Paras
& with Ini Kamoze
blaring from the discman
is the closest I’ve come
to prayer. It filled me
to carry such color.
I didn’t like anyone else
on that team, but I sang
with them all the time.
Regret is as useful
as a uniform
so tight that it tears
during a lay-up line.
Na-na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na
Hooping Under the Sistine Chapel
I pull my niece through the neighborhood
streets in a little red wagon, she’s got snacks and
things, mouth full, munching, she points to a yard
and says, “yesterday, I see a rabbit in the grass blood-ing
and you know what else, it’s eyes were POPPING OUT!”
her voice is like a cluster of marbles circling in a funnel
gaining momentum before they all crash and pour out
of her mouth, we end up at the park and she lunges into a full
sprint toward the swings and of course I’ve got pushing duty, but
I really want to see how many 3s I can make in a row over at the
basketball court, so I quick show her how to use her own legs to
shift all 60 pounds of her body weight back and forth, which doesn’t
last long, about a minute later she’s under the hoop begging me to dish
the rock, instead, I make her chase rebounds for a while until she finally grabs
one and hoists up a shot with both hands as if the ball might burst and shower
us with confetti, it doesn’t even get close to the rim so I give her a do-over, underhand
again, she launches it like a trebuchet over her back and I pretend it elevates forever
caught in a tractor beam to outer space, I squint and point to the sky, shouting “look, look!”
and we imagine that the ball is just a little speck of brown paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an offering, my niece points too and shouts at the sun, “here, take it, it’s your turn!”
One More Year Away from Something Great
After I got let go from work because the CEO refused to take a pay cut, I needed to find some alternative means of income. So I went to my buddy Bill. He always seems to know a little bit about everything.
Bill and I planned the robbery weeks ago, when the rest of my severance check ran out, but wanted to wait until after our Timberwolves played the Warriors to actually go through with it, in case we got caught. It wasn’t a nationally televised game and he didn’t think jail had NBA TV. There was no chance Bill or I were missing a would-be upset, with half of Golden State’s roster out with injuries. Warriors fans would call it a fluke, they’d say we caught them on a lucky day, and reassure themselves that, for us bottom-feeder Wolves fans, this was our equivalent to winning the Finals. But to Bill and me, a win is a win is a win and looking back at the season, however lowly, nobody is going to remember who was or wasn’t playing that night. There will just be that shiny W, glowing like the letters on the Five Cents Off Gas If You Pay Inside window sign at the Speedway we robbed. And that W will remind us of our potential. It will give us hope that we’re just one more year away from something great. Like the playoffs, or a new job. Please God, make the playoffs.
The Timberwolves face the Bucks at full strength tomorrow. And though Bill and I and the rest of the inmates here don’t expect to win, we prefer rooting for the underdog anyway.
Bug Boy crashed our nightly pickup game in character. He wore foggy rec-specs, short-shorts over compression tights, a surplus pinny with a turtleneck underneath—all black, even the duct-tape sealing his sneakers. The only thing missing, Flores joked when the kid unlatched the gate and strolled into floodlit haze, was a cape.
“Dude’s getting stomped,” said Metzger.
“If he doesn’t die of heat stroke first,” said Trey.
“Should we break the news,” asked Quentin.
“Nah,” said Green. “Let him learn.”
The rules at Fort Constance were simple—ones and twos, first to fifteen, winner stays, no blood, no foul. Regulars ran the queue, lumped challengers onto losing teams. But when Bug Boy finally subbed in, the tables turned: outlet fake, behind the back, coast-to-coast layup. On the next sequence, he snagged a steal, feathered a floater over McBride, whose recent growth spurt made doorways dangerous. Misdirection, hesitation, stutter-step—he dropped nine straight including the decisive bomb, which Green answered with a blindside shove. Kid took the hit in stride, didn’t trash talk or fight back. Didn’t need to. He’d already flexed.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, we ate crow. Bug Boy was cradling a faded duffel on the curb. A force field of talcum powder stung our nostrils.
“Not bad,” Metzger told him.
“For a pest,” Flores added.
“For anybody,” Trey said.
“What’s your vertical,” Quentin asked.
“What’s your name,” asked McBride.
“More importantly,” Green said, “who do you play for?”
“You” was all the kid managed before a car horn interrupted our interview, two staccato beeps courtesy of the white Crown Victoria now circling the roundabout. Through windshield tint, a silhouette took shape—broad-shouldered, steeled by a glowing cigar. Bug Boy zipped his bag, hustled over, slipped into the passenger seat as if summoned by Pavlov himself. Then the car peeled out, all skid marks and tailpipe smoke.
* * *
If the legend of Bug Boy began that evening—a tale retold at dive bars and class reunions—the milestone didn’t register until school resumed. Cronan Heights spanned three blocks, zigzagging corridors conceived by an airport architect, abandoned wings and secret stairwells ideal for hiding. Still, in the early weeks, sightings painted a portrait not entirely inconsistent with our pipsqueak prodigy. Between bells, before homeroom, in the cavernous cafeteria, he was always on the move, eyes blurred by coke bottle glasses, shoulders hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of cult-issued khakis, worn every day with a church shirt buttoned at the collar. Any other freshman, evasion of this sort would not be tolerated, but what spared him our torment—stolen textbooks or hallway jostling or fake fart campaigns—was otherworldly game.
Come tryouts, oddly enough, kid failed to report. In the airless gymnasium, Coach butchered our names before directing suicides and bulldog drills. Whatever hope we might have harbored had evaporated by scrimmage, at which point Bug Boy appeared in a doorway propped for ventilation purposes, chair fan rippling his shorts, goggled gaze fixed on the underhung rafters.
“No spectators,” Coach said.
“Not here to spectate.” The kid sloughed his bag onto the floor.
“Is that so,” Coach said.
The kid nodded.
“You think you can waltz in here thirty minutes late?”
“I’ve got news for you. Punctuality is a part of our process.”
Kid cracked his neck.
“Son is there something in your ears?”
Though tempted to watch the train wreck unfold, Trey interjected. “With all due respect,” he said, “Kid’s new here.”
“And,” said Coach.
“And he can play,” Flores chimed in.
“Not for me,” Coach said.
“He schooled Green,” said McBride.
“Posterized,” said Metzger.
“Give him a shot,” Trey said. “Maybe we could win for a change.”
At this, Coach stiffened, rankled by the reminder of six losing seasons. He was a lonely figure, twice divorced with a military past. Sometimes, during free periods, he would circle the courtyard with his hands folded behind his back like a convict plotting escape. He smoothed his scalp before plucking a ball from the cart. “Fine,” he said. “One shot. Half court. Miss and we’ll see you back here next year, on time.”
Unfazed, the kid caught the pass cleanly and squared up in one fluid motion. No running start, no deep breaths, no wasted motion—the release came soft and quick at the peak of a pogo jump, nothing but net. Cheers erupted, but if the kid was pumped, or surprised, or insert any emotion, you wouldn’t know it from his frozen pose, face paused in a hollow stare.
“Don’t just stand there,” Coach said. “You’re on blue.”
* * *
Within the week, two things had crystallized. First, even the worst among us, even Quentin, forever flat-footed and lost in space, looked better with Bug Boy in the mix. Of his many superpowers, more valuable than skittery speed or stunt-man ups was peripheral vision.
Secondly, his superior talent meant that for all our hard work, hours benching plates and hoisting prayers, victory now meant little more than playing second fiddle, a tune few of us could follow.
“Something’s fishy,” Green whispered after the season opener, a surprise blowout against a deeper team with trees up front. He stood in the back of the bus, straddling the aisle while leaves skittered in our slipstream. Blinking streetlights strobed his lanky frame.
“Tell me about it,” said McBride. “Winning almost feels wrong.”
“I mean Bug Boy,” said Green. “Kid’s too clean.”
“Then let him run the point,” said Trey.
Green whipped out his phone, scrolled to a grainy image of the chauffer from Fort Constance, now leaning against the bleachers, the same man Bug Boy left with in lieu of team transportation. He was bald with bushy eyebrows, a thick goatee. Around his waist, a black leather belt cinched his shapeless suit.
“So,” said Trey.
“Hawked the kid all game,” said Green.
“Helicopter dad,” Trey said.
“No resemblance,” said Metzger.
“Bodyguard,” said Quentin.
“Shadowy overlord,” said McBride.
“Guy muttered into his sleeve the whole game,” Green said. “Voodoo shit if you ask me.”
“Nobody did,” said Trey.
“Breaking news,” McBride said, “Bugboygate Engulfs District Three.”
“Illegal Implant Discovered on Star Student-Athlete,” said Flores.
“Match-Fixing Scheme Points to Alien Mutation Plot,” said Quentin.
“I know it sounds crazy,” said Green.
“Batshit,” said Trey.
“Just keep your eyes peeled.”
For what exactly, Green did not say. But soon enough, glitches emerged. For starters, Bug Boy never spoke unless spoken to, classic robot move. During our second homestand, not once did we observe our star player: Smile, grimace, cough, clear his throat, break a sweat, jam a finger, chew nails, chug water, flex a cramp, or lose his temper. More importantly, after every victory, Bug Boy changed alone in a stall, skipping showers or impromptu dance parties before exiting Clark Kent quick. To avoid congratulatory throngs, he would slip through the service entrance, on the other side of which his guardian idled in the fire lane, flicking spent stubs out the window. Once, the kid forgot his bag. Quentin caught up with him on the loading dock only to trip over untied shoelaces, spilling supplies down the ramp. Intermingled with trainer tape, court grip, protein packets, and mouth guards was a tube of unlabeled ointment, an item Bug Boy sheepishly retrieved.
* * *
DON’T ROIDS MAKE YOU BIG Flores texted at the winter formal the following evening, where circling chaperones and speaker feedback drowned out any attempt at real conversation. Stagehands had transformed the gym into a kelp forest, curtains cast in hues of green and yellow. None of us had dates, except Trey, whose appeal would prove mystifying for years to come.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS he replied.
TOPICAL texted Green. HELPS W/ RECOVERY.
MOOT POINT IF BEE BOY HAS SYNTHETIC MUSCLE texted McBride.
HIGH PERFORMANCE OIL texted Metzger.
SPACE SUIT texted Quentin.
HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK texted Trey.
INTERSTELLAR LAB ACCIDENT texted Flores.
INTERGALACTIC WITNESS RELOCATION PROGRAM texted Quentin.
IT’S ALL ADDING UP texted Green.
MORONS texted Trey before silencing his phone.
In his absence, as the DJ spun slow dance songs, we traded GIFs from horror flicks, exchanged ruminations on the corporeal composition of evil. In the language of hashtag and emojis, we memed cloning juntas, crony cabals underwriting the outsourcing of American sport, druid-like eminences convening in chambers beneath the fieldhouse. In place of people, we conjured computer cords strung on skeletons, tresses bound by rods and pins, algorithms coursing through fiber-optic circuits, mercury oozing into unseen cavities.
More definitive evidence proved scant. If Bug Boy’s backstory belonged in the news, regional sports reporters missed the beat. Headlines touted our unlikely ascent: Cronan Freshman Calmly Sinks Winning Free Throws [STEEL FEELERS texted Metzger]; Rising Star Elevates for Tourney Win [SPIRACLE MIRACLE texted Flores]. Size No Limit for Nimble Prospect [FLEA MACHINE texted Quentin]. At the district title game, after Flores sprained his ankle, and Green got tossed for badmouthing the ref, Bug Boy found another gear. Steals and subtle picks opened kick-out threes, backdoor cuts, thunderous alley-oops. Point after point, the kid absorbed contact, altered orbits, his gravity unaffected by hecklers crowding the balcony with hypnotic signs. In the final minutes, when Coach sent in the scrubs, the kid ignored shutter clicks and chants of buzz buzz, just sank into his seat and buried his head in a towel, wincing with every backslap. [IRON WASP texted Quentin that evening], which prompted Trey to issue a moratorium on all rumormongering. His exact words: [FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, GET SERIOUS].
We tried. To obey the curfew Coach imposed; to monitor our diet, swapping burgers and onion crisps for spinach smoothies; to fine tune our free-throws, perfect our spacing, flow together like a flock of birds. We studied highlights, ignored homework, swore off detergent, sprouted patchy beards. On school mornings, we paid tribute to the lobby display case, mouthing prayers while peering through sea-green glass. It was easy to envision among ancient medals and faded portraits a golden grail, the names of more entitled academies relegated to unreadable font, though deep down, we understood that Bug Boy alone held the key to that cheap ass rusted lock.
* * *
The championship took place at the state college stadium, a cement monolith rising above naked fields. As lesser divisions squared off, we channeled our nerves into pre-game rituals—stretching, shadowboxing, lip-synching—but Bug Boy sat apart in the nosebleeds, studying opponents we would never face, nodding trance-like whenever his guardian whispered into his ear.
“Mind control,” Quentin theorized.
“Could be policing your thoughts,” Green said.
“Then why let me think at all,” Quentin asked.
“Villains love breadcrumbs,” Green said.
“You’re so full of shit,” Trey said.
“Watch your mouth,” said Green.
“Or what,” said Trey.
“Save it for the court,” Metzger said, stepping between the two.
If infighting impacted the game that afternoon, you wouldn’t know it from recruiting websites, shaky montages viewed thousands of times. Bug Boy faking mid-air, dishing easy assists; saving possessions, penetrating the lane; kissing glass, hi-low mumbo jumbo, ankle-breaking jujitsu; splitting triple coverage, gassing defenders, preventing any further doubt about an outcome determined from day one.
After the ceremony, after sappy speeches and Gatorade toasts, Bug Boy stayed behind in the locker room, gripping sink like he might hurl. Seemingly alone, he removed his goggles and splashed cold water on his cheeks. Then he hyperventilated before unpeeling his trademark turtleneck. No wires and cables, no ports or bionic valves. Instead, etched across his back was a spidery tapestry, streaks of scarred skin with elevated edges, bruising under the ribs. He wetted his shoulders with a paper towel, smeared ointment over purple ridges raised like mountains on a topographical map. When he sat down to change, a stifled sneeze issued from a locker at the end of the row. Green bumped his head on a hook, tumbled across the floor. Before he could think up an excuse, Bug Boy had already packed his things and left.
* * *
He didn’t show for school on Monday, didn’t take a victory lap in the parking lot parade or collect recruiting letters piled in coach’s office. For months afterwards, we’d bike past the duplex where Bug Boy purportedly lived, discovered by Flores and McBride on a recon mission earlier that year. They’d scaled the storefront across the street before camping out in lawn chairs, budget binoculars trained on a broken window, through which occasional dribbling punctuated a murmuring television. But now, every attempt at knockdown ginger summoned the new tenant, a cane-wielding geezer whose epithets, accompanied by barking mastiffs, echoed down the stairwell.
The following summer found us back at Fort Constance, retracing our steps ahead of an ill-fated season. Once, a scout surfaced, this crew-cut goon who watched from the picnic shelter, shuffling a stack of business cards for something to do. During a lull, he sidled up to the fence and faked compliments before asking about Bug Boy.
“You came to the wrong place,” Trey said.
“Wish we could help,” said Flores.
“Word to the wise,” said Green. “Focus on folks you can actually find.”
“Sure kid,” the scout said. “It’s not like I do this for a living.”
But then Trey admitted what the rest of us refused to. “He’s never coming back.”
Did he find a new school? Another team? How long would he wear those wounds? What should we have done differently? In the absence of answers, we played harder, deep into summer dusk, night after night running the rock back and forth, burning for the guts to be good.