On Sundays, Dad worshipped the risen Savior, but on Saturdays our black and white Samsung TV became the altar for his worship of the South’s unofficial religion: college football. He’d spend the morning mowing the lawn or tinkering under the hood of yet another deadbeat car, his jeans flecked with grass clippings or his forearms smeared with axel grease. Then he’d kill the afternoon watching Bear Bryant stroll the sideline in his hound’s tooth hat or Herschel Walker tuck the ball under his arm and plow through some poor free safety possessing the unmitigated gall to stand between him and the end zone. If Dad had his druthers, I would have been prepping for future stardom with Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide or Walker’s Georgia Bulldogs.
But by the time I turned 13, this fantasy had no grounding whatsoever in reality. All anyone had to do was take a glance at my scrawny chest and pipe-cleaner legs to see that gridiron glory did not wait in my future. I was not going to run the triple option and maneuver my way through behemoth linemen to clinch yet another trip to the Sugar Bowl for the Bear. If left up to me, famed Georgia announcer Larry Munson would never again growl, “Hunker down one more time, you hairy Dogs!” as the defense lined up for one last stop that would preserve a slim victory over an opponent of the Red and Black.
But Dad rigged up a basketball goal outside our suburban brick ranch. A precarious feat of architecture at best, it featured a plywood backboard nailed to a post buried two feet deep in the red Georgia clay. When a big rain came, the ground grew soft and the post leaned to one side or the other. I remember Dad getting home from work one day and, still clad in his post office uniform with the eagle patch on the shoulder and the blue stripe running down his trouser leg, joining me for a game of H-O-R-S-E. I beat him easily. Dad blamed yesterday’s downpour, which had resulted in the goal leaning like Pisa’s tower. “I’m a precision shooter,” Dad claimed. “Any little defect throws me off. You’re lucky we’re not in a regulation gym.”
Awkward as it was, that goal and the surrounding driveway became the setting for my earnest attempt to salvage athletic glory from the dregs of futility. Through all kinds of weather, I hoisted hundreds of shots every day until the rain, wind, and occasional ice wore the ball to a slick orb and warped its trajectory to correspond to the goal’s tilting stature. Hoops was a poor substitute for gridiron greatness, all right, but in the end I did what I could to follow the advice we’d learned in Sunday school: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”
I played middle school basketball.
And so our team got off to a bit of a rough start—an 0-8 start if we’re counting here, and yes, it seemed like the whole school was counting—but we were sure things were about to change. We were eighth-graders; everything was always in a constant state of flux—our voices, our armpits, our moods—so we fully expected to reverse our (mis)fortunes on the hard court. After our last game, Coach Keegan must have felt it too, because he postered our locker room walls with construction paper signs exhorting us to adopt as our mantra every cliché imaginable, including the worst of all sporting maxims: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. And we believed it. We indeed were puny, but feisty. We’d only lost that game to Turner Middle by 11 points, our slimmest margin of defeat to date, and we’d shown tangible signs of improvement. We’d reduced turnovers. Narrowed the rebounding deficit. Increased our free-throw percentage. Made our opponents wait until the fourth quarter before emptying the end of their bench and playing the kids with goggles, the ones who couldn’t keep their socks from puddling around their ankles, the ones whose mothers made them wear mouthpieces. Listen: We were thirteen. We were, by definition, a work in progress.
Now we were lined up in the hallway, the dozen of us, caged by cinderblock walls, awaiting the signal to burst into the gym for a pep rally. And there was a salient fact, which these many years later, seems worthy of mention: I was first. I would lead my teammates onto the floor, pumping my fists, exhorting them to Get hyped, guys, c’mon, let’s go! I’d never before had the honor of charging first into a pep rally; I’d always been one of the last stragglers, or, in one regrettable instance, the caboose. Adding to that visceral thrum filling my insides, tonight the schedule pitted us against our archrival, Chatham Hill. I took it as a vote of confidence that, on this special occasion, with those hated Wildcats next on our ledger, Coach Keegan chose me to tear through the blue and orange banner created by the spirit club. My adrenaline was pulsing. I had entered that elusive realm of readiness—I was shuffling from foot to foot, on the verge of a sweat. I was in the zone. Chatham Hill should count themselves lucky we weren’t tipping off right now. Jostling against those walls and each other, the stench of pubescence fogging toward the ceiling tiles, we seemed to be growing too big for that hallway to contain us.
But, first, the girls team: 8-0, winners of every game by double digits, a ponytailed, trash-talking, Bubble Yum-blowing roster of assassins. They ran into the gym amidst wild applause from peers and faculty alike. Even the pariahs joined in, the dregs and the derelicts, the punks who, already, were killing most of their waking hours strung out on AC/DC and Space Invaders. And the veteran teachers too, the ones who had outgrown their need to redeem their own wretched memories of adolescence by becoming middle school cool twenty years too late. Look: Respect must be paid. Everyone understood the protocol here. And we all did our due diligence. The band played the school fight song. The cheerleaders smiled with cherry-gloss lips and shook pom-poms and yelled Go! Fight! Win! The girls team gathered under the near basket and exchanged high-fives with an ease and finesse bordering on pure artistry.
As of late, our inverse records had become popular knowledge, and the collective student body had taken to making comparisons between the girls’ run at perfection and our string of futility. And yes, quickly and decisively, a general consensus arose: The girls were better. If ever we scrimmaged, they would proceed to strike a blow for sisterhood everywhere by pummeling us into submission. And so: this sentiment had been repeated so many times and with such certainty that, like all gossip in middle school, everybody soon accepted it as irrefutable fact. We boys did not dispute it. Somewhere inside our thirteen-year-old hearts, we too suspected the girls could beat us; and we hoped with all faith in the goodness of humanity that Coach Keegan—who surely had been a boy once—and the girls’ coach would recognize the obvious and ignore the girls’ standing request to arrange a scrimmage. We, however, did not trust the coaches in this matter. It seemed to us that the only way to avoid such an event coming to pass would be to win a game. Among our team there seemed to be the biding conviction that, if we could simply break through and win a single contest—even by a solitary point, even on a referee’s blown call, even if Chatham Hill’s best player took ill with a stomach virus at halftime—we could save face. We could put to rest all those comparisons of our records. Everybody would forget the scrimmage idea.
It was with these high hopes that we ran out of that hallway and into the gym. Again the band struck up the fight song and the cheerleaders shook their pom-poms and chanted. But then, unfortunately, there’s this: Just as I exploded through the banner and sprinted ahead of my trailing teammates toward midcourt, something unexpected happened. Something very different from what we’d just witnessed when the girls took the court.
Jeers and heckles, hisses and hollers.
What I’m trying to say, y’all: They were booing us.
It began as a couple of catcalls, a stray whistle or two. Somebody shouted something unintelligible. But within moments the spark ignited, the bleachers rumbled with a deep, sonorous boom, and a single, unbroken roar of disgust filled the gym until it seemed the rafters shook, the band was drowned out, and even the cheerleaders were hushed by the unanimous sentiment of the crowd. Because I was first, I initially thought they were booing me. But by the time the last boy ran into the gym, the noise had swelled to such a din that there was enough derision to go around. Every punitive aspect of middle school—the peer pressure, the conformity, the arbitrary judgment—seemed to converge in a perfect storm that united the entire student body against our ragtag assemblage of twelve boys.
But still: As we’d been instructed, we dutifully lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, under the far basket. We thrust our chests before us. We jutted our chins forward. To no one’s surprise, the boos only escalated. Standing there on the baseline, I searched the bleachers for any sign of consolation. A lone voice of compassion. An acne-scarred soul willing to declare solidarity with us losers and speak out against the masses. Alas: no one. Everywhere my peers were turning their thumbs upside down, pinching their noses, cupping their hands around their mouths to better amplify their opinion of us. Their faces became a blur of pagan masks, grotesque and disfigured. At the other end of the court, the girls team at first seemed dumbstruck, but promptly devolved from Hoop Heroes into catty, well, girls whispering behind their hands.
In response, we did what teenage boys do: We acted as though we didn’t care. If we didn’t care, they couldn’t hurt us; we could immunize ourselves against our own shame. Our collective body language suggested that we did not want to play basketball anyway—the school needed a team and, against our better judgment, we had consented to become one. We were taking one for the team, quite literally. We were martyrs here, people. Each of us turned to the teammate on either side, shrugged, grinned—tried our best to persevere with canned laughter. The kid next to me, Trey Flemings, and I glanced at each other a couple of times, recognized the primal fear dilating in the other’s eyes and crouched to assume a posture of quick retreat if any foreign objects started flying from the bleachers. Anything seemed possible. We really didn’t know what to expect.
Principal Sherburne climbed to her feet and strode toward the microphones assembled upfront for the standard remarks from the two coaches. Before she arrived at midcourt she was already employing her considerable girth and gesturing for the crowd to cease and desist this behavior right now, boys and girls, this very second—or else. She grabbed the mic, which immediately commenced whistling with shrill feedback. She said something, probably a few syllables of admonishment, and aimed a jagged finger at the crowd. But the boos only grew louder still. Nobody could hear a word she said.
When I again turned toward Troy, this time he was gone. He and the rest of my teammates had turned around and fled back toward the hallway through which we had entered.
There, Coach Keegan was standing at the door clapping his hands and pointing toward the exit. He was pulling us out of the pep rally. He waved toward me as though conducting a fire drill, motioning for me to vacate the premises—immediately. My teammates were already attempting to squeeze through the door, each of them slipping through as the roar rained down from the rafters. I finally caught up to them, and a moment later I too was joining them in the silent hallway.
Coach Keegan was the last one through. He slammed the door shut behind us.
My hoops obsession had started traditionally enough, when I was 10, with Bird and Magic’s landmark national championship game in ’79 (estimated viewing audience: 20 million). It had grown with the opportunity to toss up the jump ball for a Hawks-Supersonics NBA game at the Omni in ’80. It was Douglas County Night, and our rec league was sponsoring a contest in which the player who sold the most tickets to the game would toss up the jump ball and receive a ball signed by all the Hawks. My postman father sold over one hundred tickets to people on his route, thereby earning the prize for his son (who sold a grand total of two tickets—to his parents). I lobbed the ball toward the giant scoreboard above and then ran ducking for cover, because nobody informed me that this jump ball was only ceremonial—only NBA referees could officially commence a game. Two seven-footers, Tree Rollins and Jack Sikma, batted around my toss a couple of times before the ball bounded away and rolled to a stop near the scorer’s table. A ball boy fetched it. Sikma shook my hand. Rollins offered a soul-shake. The hometown Hawks lost by 20.
But the watershed event confirming my love of the game came with the innocuous purchase of a single item from the toy section at the local K-Mart: a Nerf hoop and ball. With this plastic rim, gossamer-thin net, and foam ball, I now found a toy commensurate with the capacity of my vast imagination. Listen: I became an All-American. I conjured a fictitious roster of teammates replete with positions, heights, and hometowns. I played a full 35-game schedule. I kept statistics. Example: It is a little known fact that in 1980 a fearless gunner bearing my name burst onto the national scene by scoring 37 points per game. After yet another victory, I imagined a gaggle of reporters crowding around my locker in search of a quote. I fancied myself good copy. I pilfered a broomstick from mom’s kitchen and transformed it into a microphone. Yessir, I said. It was a good win. My teammates were setting some great screens. I got some good looks and fortunately knocked down the open shots. I want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
But real roundball proved more of a challenge. I desperately wanted to be a jock, a tough guy, ice in my veins, a kid who could step to the foul line with the game in the balance and drop two free throws without fear. It seems a flimsy mold for masculinity now, but in the early 80s, for me to be any other kind of boy would have resulted in a full-blown existential crisis.
I’d already explored other avenues—4-H club, beginning-level band, CO2 cars. But sport was the vernacular in my family. I learned my seven-times tables by watching football games and counting touchdowns and extra points. I collected the entire first edition of Fleer baseball cards. I experimented, with unremarkable results, with Little League baseball and football. As a youngster I had shot up taller than most kids, sometimes a head higher, and gravitated toward hoops. I made the school team last year as a seventh-grader, but I didn’t merit enough playing time such that my real hoop experience interfered with my imaginary one. We won a few games. We lost more. But now I was an eighth-grader on a slow ride to puberty, and those shorter boys had caught up or even surpassed me, and I still shot the ball with two hands because I wasn’t strong enough to follow-through with one. I played guard. I began the season in the starting lineup. But as the losses mounted, some personnel changes took place in the depth chart—what Coach Keegan called “a little shake-up in the line-up”—and I found myself demoted to the bench on a team that was riding an O-fer…and counting.
Consequently: I did not like Coach Keegan. To my mind, he was not a basketball coach. For evidence, I regularly recited to myself the facts. He taught Social Studies, not P.E. He was stocky, flat-footed, balding, with a wreath of curly brown hair. He wore a pastel blue tracksuit to every practice. He never talked about his own playing career, which served to make me suspicious of whether he’d ever had one. He never berated the referees either, which left me wondering whether he even knew the rules. He assigned positions in the most capricious of manners, often changing them within a practice or game without any explanation of why. He provided no framework for attack; we ran no patterns, abided by no understood principles of play. He stuck us in a 2-3 zone and instructed us to box out when a shot was launched. “Play hard!” he insisted, but his commandment sounded trite and meaningless. Practices consisted of shooting a lot of free throws and scrimmaging half-court without any clear idea of what we were trying to accomplish. Occasionally, if our effort or execution did not seem to please him, Coach Keegan assigned what he called “gut sprints.” We set the balls aside and ran, ran, ran.
The season began inauspiciously. On the first play of the first game, I passed to the wing and cut through the lane. We were running a give-n-go, the oldest play in the game, probably the first play Naismith conjured when he hung peach baskets. The ball struck my heel and bounced feebly away. It was an omen. The season quickly degenerated into a series of physical shortcomings, mental oversights, and outright travesties. Mike Eubanks fouled out in the first half of a game. Tyler Rogan raced the ball upcourt, aimed his pass at a teammate running the sideline, and proceeded to peg Coach Keegan between the shoulder blades. Sam Yeager grabbed a rebound in heavy traffic, swung his elbows wildly, and shot the ball at the other team’s basket. (He missed. He always missed.)
Indeed, we thought our losses reflected Coach Keegan’s inabilities as coach. As we moved inexorably toward a season-long O-fer—and the girls kept humiliating their opponents by more points than we scored in an average game—our masculinity was at stake here. Surely we couldn’t be to blame for why we weren’t winning.
We orchestrated minor mutinies. When Coach Keegan commanded us to run laps around the school building, we’d jog around to the far side and slow to a rebellious trudge. We started wearing green sweatbands—despite the fact green wasn’t a school color and didn’t coordinate particularly well with blue or orange. Whenever somebody made a mistake in practice, under our breath we’d sarcastically invoke one of those ridiculous clichés from the locker room wall. The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have, we’d remind each other—a phrase that takes on whole new meaning when it’s tinged with irony, and infused with sexual innuendo. Did I say we were eighth-grade boys? We might not have been good at hoops, but we were All-Stars at sexual innuendo.
And so we had been booed out of our own pep rally. We fled from the gym, down empty hallways that seemed so much bigger than usual now; past bulletin boards declaring Reading is Fundamental; past the Lost and Found, the infirmary, the custodial closet, the cafeteria with the tables folded and rolled against the windows; past the wall of lockers where the cheerleaders had taped construction-paper basketballs with our names and uniform numbers etched in glitter—Score that Basket! and Shoot for the Stars!—until finally we arrived at Coach Keegan’s classroom. We loped in. We filled the desks. There, stranded on the most distant wing of the school away from the rest of the student body, the other teachers, and the administrators—our whole community—we could hardly help but ascertain that all the rejects had been rounded up and quarantined in one tight space. Silently, we waited to see what came next.
Coach Keegan took his place in front of the chalkboard and stared at his shoes as though contemplating what kind of impromptu speech he could craft. He lifted his chin and surveyed the crowd. He searched our faces with the same kind of desperate expression we’d witnessed during time outs when our opponents put together another patented 14-2 run. We weren’t expecting sympathy. After all, just as we had blamed him, he probably blamed us. He seemed poised to remind us that, after all, we were the ones who had missed all the shots, committed all the turnovers, lost all the games. It’s hard to make chicken salad out of chicken shit, he must have been thinking. But then, surprisingly, came this: “Sorry, fellas,” he told us. “I’m real sorry you go to school with a bunch of knuckleheads.” He paused as if giving his brain ample time to come up with something more. We waited patiently, hopeful. But apparently he’d said all he had to say. He shook his head; he shrugged. He clapped his hands together once, sharply. Finally: “We got some time,” he said. “The next class doesn’t start for a half-hour. Make yourselves busy.”
And with that Coach Keegan declined the opportunity to teach some kind of lesson. To impart wisdom. To tell us again about the size of the fight in the dog. He did not refer to any of those clichés. He didn’t attempt to torque this catastrophe into a Teachable Moment that we would remember years from now.
We waited for him to reconsider. We studied him in utter silence and with a kind of attentiveness that, on another day, under routine classroom circumstances with study of, say, Mayan civilization on the schedule, he probably would have appreciated.
But he would not be persuaded. “While you puzzle over how to kill some time,” he said, “I got work to do,” and collapsed into his own chair. He rummaged through his desk drawer until he located a red pen and began dutifully grading a stack of quizzes.
The only sound in the room was the squeak of Coach Keegan’s swivel chair and the shuffle of papers as he finished one quiz and moved onto the next—until another teacher appeared in the doorway. It was Ms. McCleskey, a comely young Math teacher who had inspired among us plenty of lascivious locker room chatter. “Bill,” she said. Coach Keegan lifted his head, set his red pen aside. Ms. McCleskey entered and crossed the room toward his desk, her steps delicate, an expression of grave concern spreading over her features. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She began offering sympathy. She apologized on behalf of the entire school. She wished there was something she could have done. It was all just so—unexpected. “I admire what you did,” she told him. She patted his hand. They chatted for another brief moment before she apologized once more and disappeared out the door.
Then it was again just us—the Fairplay Middle School Pioneers basketball team.
After a couple more minutes of quiet, I think it was Darnell Nichols and Shane Woodson who folded a piece of notebook paper into a tight triangle and started up a game of paper football. Almost immediately others began pairing up and following suit. Jeff Rutherford and I squared off. We debated the heavier topics: we argued over whether our opponents’ flick of the football was actually overhanging the edge of the desk, and we ran our fingers along the edge to confirm the results. We made goal posts of our fingers and thumbs and flicked extra points. Trey Flemings drew a hangman’s noose on the chalkboard and proceeded to solicit letters from teammates. Donnie Gibson and Lee Isakson started thumb wrestling. Ronald Sinclair and Michael Remington engaged in a cutthroat battle of Break the Pencil. And to our surprise, it wasn’t long before a little miracle happened: We became so absorbed in quelling boredom inside our little foxhole that we forgot why we’d retreated to it in the first place.
Listen: We didn’t beat our rivals Chatham Hill that night. In fact, we didn’t win a game all season. And yes—one day, at the very end of practice, Coach Keegan and the girls coach confirmed our worst fears and arranged a scrimmage. With every tick of the scoreboard clock, the outcome seemed to matter much more to us than to the girls, who bypassed their trash talking and wore stoic expressions as they passed the ball around the perimeter in search of a good shot. After ten minutes of mostly ugly basketball, with the score tied 6-6, Coach Keegan called the game. In May, at the end of the school year, one of the girls, a point guard with a jheri curl and eyes in the back of her head, signed my yearbook. She can sue me for plagiarism, but here’s what she wrote, word for word:
You’re a very nice person that I like a lot. I enjoyed watching you play hoops. You know, you can really handle a basketball. Keep up the good work.
But all that was still to come. Right now, only minutes away from the end of the pep rally and kids spilling out of the bleachers and heading our way, we were still alone, twelve boys and their coach. Here, in the safe confines of Coach Keegan’s classroom, we could flick paper footballs end over end through the uprights of our fingers. We could still picture our story ending the way sports stories are supposed to end. A victory over our archrivals. The final buzzer sounding and a chorus of dramatic music swelling as our chastened classmates swamp the floor in slow motion and pat us on the backs and tell us they knew we could do it. High-fives and smiles and hugs all around. In those stories, we were still capable of winning a game and becoming whoever our imaginations could conjure.
We were thirteen. The season wasn’t over. We didn’t yet know there was any other kind of story to tell.