Mike NewlinDecember 10, 2007
The Basketball Kid Takes a Stand
Episode Four: Time Running Out
(continued from Darryl Dawkins)
I spent two summers living with my grandfather, spending all my free time sinking easy solitary baskets. During the second summer my grandfather had to use an oxygen machine to breathe. The following summer he sold the house and moved into an old folks’ home. The summer after that he died.
The day before he died I had my first day of work at a fast food place called Art and Ollie’s Hot Dogs. Before the lunch rush I got trained on how to use a wall-mounted metal press to slice potatoes into would-be French fries. The guy who was training me told me it was his 30th birthday. He had thick glasses and seemed miserable.
“I get my anger out using this thing,” he muttered. He yanked down on the lever and finger-sized slices of potato came out the bottom and thunked into a steel bowl.
Meanwhile, there are just a few ticks left on the clock. The home team is down by one point. The Basketball Kid breaks free of the scrum of bodies at midcourt and catches his teammate’s inbounds pass. As he catches the pass he is moving in the direction of the wrong basket, and he considers continuing in that direction and laying in a victory-sealing basket for the other team. He considers it like a weary commuter might entertain thoughts of falling in front of an oncoming train. So easy to end the monotony, the commuter might think. To be or not to be, wonders The Basketball Kid.
After I watched the birthday man fill a few metal bowls with sliced potatoes, I was placed at the counter. My job was to take customer orders and call them out to the owner, Art, who was manning the grill.
“Louder,” he kept imploring me. “You gotta shout out the orders louder. ‘Hamburger!’ ‘Hot dog!’ ‘French fries!’ Like that!”
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t raise my voice to call out those words. The place kept getting more and more crowded.
“Louder! Louder!” Art said. “Come on!”
During the course of the game The Basketball Kid has begun wondering who he is, and how he came to be here, and where he is destined to go. He has begun to wonder why high school has gone on for far longer than it is supposed to, and why every game is The Big Game, and why he always manages to fling in the winning shot with defenders draped all over him and the buzzer sounding. He has begun to feel doomed to forever repeat empty rituals, the needle of existence stuck on some kind of cosmic scratch: Triumph and then Triumph and then Triumph and then
I couldn’t sleep the night after my first day at Art and Ollie’s. I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to shout food the next day. I don’t remember, but it’s possible I even prayed for something to happen to save me from going back in there. When I got the news in the morning that my grandfather had died, relief was among my emotions.
“I can’t come in today,” I told Art over the phone. “Actually, I won’t be able to come in again at all. My grandfather just died.”
The last four words of my statement freed me of blame. (Sometimes I wonder if my only real ambition in life is to be free of blame.)
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Art said. What else could he say? The whole scenario worked so well that I killed my grandfather all over again a couple years later to blamelessly quit a job loading trucks for UPS.
Triumph? The Basketball Kid turns and faces up-court. He can see a path. He can see the whole moment of triumph before it unfolds. He will dribble left past a pick to lose his defender, spin to lose the man shifting over to guard him on the switch, drive the lane and take flight. But he doesn’t move. He holds the ball. He cradles it. Time is running out.
(Wherever we are, time is running out. And wherever we are, we’re at least partially someplace else, until one day we’re nowhere at all. Take Mike Newlin. Mike Newlin was shipped to the Knicks after most of the material for this 1981 card was compiled, and the next year he was out of the league altogether.)
For years after he died I dreamt about my grandfather. He kept getting older and older in the dreams. He kept seeming more and more stunned by life, his eyes wide, his lips moving as if he had something to tell me but couldn’t quite get it out. I had to help him walk, his body leaning into mine. I woke with the feeling of the weight of his flesh still dissolving from my own. Then I’d get up and go into some transitory job because by then I had become able to shout hamburger and hot dog as loud as necessary, so to speak. I mean whatever it was inside me that held me back from being some guy yelling the word hamburger had gotten dulled. If necessary, I could be the shithead yelling hamburger; I could work. By now I’m almost a decade older than the guy I’d pitied for spending his birthday angrily slicing potatoes. I’ve spent many a birthday doing the same, more or less.
Anyway I wish I still had my grandfather’s pine-tree basketball rim nearby. It’s a wish I often have. To kill the slow hours. To pretend there are an endless supply of hours to kill. To dream The Basketball Kid.
But The Basketball Kid is sick of being dreamed. He holds the ball. The crowd looks on, their eyes as wide as those of the stunned purgatorial ghost of my grandfather. They try to shout but no sounds come out. The Basketball Kid gently lays the ball on the varnished wood floor and walks toward the exit. He is outside in the cold when the buzzer sounds, affirming defeat.