Darwin CookDecember 9, 2009
(continued from Mike Gminski)
Darwin Cook is without any promising options. He has picked up his dribble, allowing his opponent, a member of the stellar 1980-81 Philadelphia 76ers (it appears to be Lionel Hollins), to trap him in a corner. Of all the teams to be trapped in the corner by that year, the 76ers would be the worst, as they were a team built on speed, defense, and demoralizing fast break dunks, a team that had quick hands everywhere, stripping and scraping and clawing at the ball. Hollins, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Julius Erving. Everywhere Darwin Cook looked, he saw his immediate future: a blur of red flashing into the passing lane, a steal, a rush toward the other basket, a beautiful soaring dunk by the Sixers superstar and former Net, the greatest player ever to wear their red, white, and blue, the one who got away: Dr. J. After the dunk: Some muted oohs from the sparse shadowy gathering in the stands. Some boos.
Cook’s teammates seem to understand the inevitability of it all, as they have either disappeared from the picture altogether or, in the case of the player in the background, are looking the other way, pretending to be unaware of the emergency at hand.
That’s about how I remember the losing as it continued from seventh and eighth grade and on into ninth and tenth: the guys from my grade who kept showing up to put on school basketball uniforms every year were less a team than a collection of solitaries who took turns taking the brunt of humiliating events. The natural extension of our team’s dynamic, illustrated by the trapped Darwin Cook and the teammate in the background distancing himself from the oncoming calamity, was for players to begin drifting away from basketball altogether. By tenth grade, only one other player besides me had been on each edition of our grade’s team every year since seventh grade. Others had come and more had gone, most to focus more time and energy on partying and trying to get laid. By tenth grade the only four-year losers were me and Chris, a guard who, like Darwin Cook in the moment captured in this card, had a knack for dribbling furiously and blindly into traps. The defining moment of that tenth grade team, which I’ve mentioned before on this site, is when the varsity coach barged into the mumbling halftime locker room speech being given by our junior varsity coach and began berating us one by one, and his appraisal of Chris and me, which he saved until last, could have used this Darwin Cook card as a visual aid. As if I was the nondescript apathetic cipher in the background of the picture, the varsity coach dismissed me by saying he “didn’t notice me out there.” Then he turned to Chris and he screamed at him he was stupid.
What I should have done was stand up for Chris, come to his aid. I should have pointed out that Chris tried harder than anyone, that Chris never quit. But we were all cowed by the varsity coach, a screaming, bullying worshiper of Bobby Knight, and anyway my mode of dealing with everything by then, as the coach had pointed out, was to look away and aspire toward invisibility. This doesn’t make for a good teammate. I didn’t do anything. Nobody did. We went out and got pounded some more in the second half.
A decade and a half later, I was a young man living in New York City. It was a dream come true, but not in the sense in which that phrase is usually meant: I was invisible. But I wasn’t invisible enough, in that I still felt something. Guilt? Desire? There’s no word for it. No word for that feeling, when you’re loose in the world for the first time and not connected to anything except things you can’t see, and you know the reason you can’t see them is because you’re looking away and pretending they aren’t there.
No surprise that I turned to sports to deal with this question of connection and invisibility. I needed something to signal to myself and to anyone who wasn’t already looking through me that I was invisible and disconnected. I decided what I needed was a New Jersey Nets cap. A cap for a team from the state where I was born but for which I felt no connection. A cap for a team that was promoted as a metropolitan area concern but which no one in New York seemed to have a connection to. A cap for a team that had, long ago, been glorious, but in a different league, the ABA, a whole different world altogether, the garish colors of that league in memory when compared to the muted hues of the present like the differences between childhood and those first gray steps into an aimless adult existence. And the team, in its glory, had not even been in New Jersey, but in Long Island. If I’d wanted to telegraph a connection to the joy of that team I would have plunked down good money for a vintage New York Nets cap, or perhaps even a Dr. J Nets jersey, but instead I went into a Modells downtown and got an innocuous white cap with blue script lettering, on sale, and outside the store put it on and, so I tried to imagine, further disappeared.
(to be continued)