The Basketball Kid Takes a Victory LapJune 18, 2008
This photo was taken in the fall of 1983, when I was 15 years old. I had been at boarding school for a couple of months. By then I’d played enough pickup basketball at the school to understand that my place in the school’s basketball universe was marginal at best. I looked like my brother, who had directly preceded me at the school and who had served as a human victory cigar on the excellent varsity team, fans chanting for him during blowouts, but I wasn’t as big or as skilled as my brother. I knew this already, even before I’d come to the school. All the teams I’d ever played on had sucked, each season horrific, a Donner Party pantomime, and I’d been far from the best player on even those teams. At the end of the last of those seasons, my 10th grade junior varsity campaign, I told the varsity coach I was going away to boarding school. He had gotten angry with my brother for doing the same a couple years earlier. I was expecting the same treatment, an impassioned lecture on why I shouldn’t leave. He just looked at me and shrugged, then turned back to some paperwork.
“Good luck,” he muttered.
Still, I clung to the hope that basketball would be a way for me to find some place in the world. How could I not? I didn’t see that I had anything else.
To get in shape for basketball season at boarding school, I took distance running as my fall gym class. A turning point in my life came the day, a few weeks into the semester, when I discovered I could show up for pre-run roll call, then let the instructor lurch way out ahead of me with a pack of untroubled youth who had enrolled in the class, and then veer off the path, dart behind a building, and saunter back to the dorm to laze around for the rest of the afternoon. The seed had been planted: it was frighteningly easy to fake it.
But I didn’t seize upon this discovery, at least not at first. I still wanted, at least on some level, to be more than a faker. I went on most of the distance runs, and by the day the above photo was taken, I was in pretty good shape. That day was the running at the school of something called the Pie Race, one of the oldest footraces in America. Everyone who ran the race under a certain time got a pie.
When I first saw this photo, a week or so after it was taken by my dorm parent, I was mortified. The kid who had begun to learn how to fake it wanted to be the kid who didn’t seem to care. It struck me as painfully uncool to be captured in a moment of puke-coaxing effort. But it was the home stretch of the race, and even though dozens of runners had already finished ahead of me, reinforcing my status as a marginal, I still very much wanted to do my best. The picture embarassed me.
As I look at it now, twenty-five years later, I see a kid who was trying. Soon enough this kid would begin to embrace his lot in life as a marginal type, a goof-off, a loser, but in this moment he’s still trying to miraculously discover himself among the ranks of the winners. If you look closely, you can see a familiar figure on the shirt he’s chosen to wear on the day of the tradition-haunted school-wide race. It’s the same winking, cane-leaning, basketball-spinning leprechaun that, late last night, Kevin Garnett put at the center of his first act as (to use his term) a “certified” winner.