Archive for the ‘The Basketball Kid’ Category


Darryl Dawkins

August 29, 2015

DawkinsIn memory of Darryl Dawkins

In 1979, the world was divided thusly:

  1. Those who could graze the bottom of the net.
  2. Those who could grab the net.
  3. Those who could touch the rim.
  4. Those who could grab the rim.
  5. Those who could dunk through the rim relatively small round objects such as a tennis ball or a volleyball.
  6. Those who could dunk.
  7. Darryl Dawkins.

I was eleven at that time, and this hierarchy coursed from my feet to my fingertips with wonder and need. I was in the first group, occasionally, sometimes able with all my might to jump and just barely feel the soft, puffy threading of the net hanging from one of the hoops in the junior high gym in Randolph, Vermont. I started playing basketball that year for a seventh grade team that would lose every one of its games, and so it was the year when I began to identity myself with the bottom of hierarchies. Accompanying that identification was an intensification of a fantasy life built on various notions of power and flight.

That hierarchy gave way over the years to other, more nebulous ensnarements. I never did get to the sixth level. I got close. Once I even sort of pushed one through on an outdoor rim, but because I was never able to duplicate the feat anywhere else I’ve come to believe that the rim was slightly lower than regulation, or that I was dreaming.

Dreams come and go. I’m pushing fifty now, an age when it’s not really possible to envision life as a rising. But life will always be astounding. Think of barely being able to touch the bottom of the net and then discovering that elsewhere in the world someone was able to leap up and dunk with such force that the whole backboard shattered to pieces. The counterpoint to the feeling of losing isn’t winning, exactly. It’s imagining what Darryl Dawkins could do.


Bill Walton

June 17, 2010

This card came with a T-shirt given to me by No Mas when I did a reading a few weeks ago at a store they are associated with in New York City. (Not that it’s the center of the article, but the shirt is described in a recent Boston Globe story about my book and my visit to Fenway Park.) As explained on the back of this card, the No Mas people based the shirt on a something they found in a thrift store, a relic from Bill Walton’s short, sweet era as a healthy Celtics’ reserve and, consequently, the Happiest Man on the Face of the Earth.

By the time he came to the Celtics, Walton had been riddled with injuries for so long that it was as if he were rising from the dead. I had started following basketball at the same time I began playing it for the first time, on my seventh grade team. That was in 1979, just after the end of Walton’s brief day in the sun as arguably the best player in the game. For the next several years, I associated him with gigantic, glowering unhappiness, his injuries keeping him from doing the thing he loved as much as anyone ever loved anything. When you’re a kid, each year seems to go on forever, so Walton’s relative obscurity for the first six years of my NBA fandom, years in which he played sporadically and/or for the nearly invisible San Diego Clippers, seemed much longer to me then. If Bill Russell and not Bill Walton had joined the Celtics for the 1985-86 season, it wouldn’t have been much more of a surprise. He was as shadowy and, because of his renowned, unique game, as magical a cultural presence as Bigfoot.

And as every NBA fan knows, Walton’s body held for exactly one year with the Celtics, and his contributions on an already loaded roster made the ’86 squad one of the greatest teams the league has ever seen. The next year, he was cooked, and the rest of the Celtics slowly began to follow his lead and physically crumble, too. In the ’87 Finals, with Walton sidelined, the Lakers won the rubber match between the two teams, who’d split their previous two Finals meetings in ’84 and ’85. For good measure, the Lakers won the title again the next season, demolishing any lingering doubts that they and not the Celtics were the team of the decade. It would have been nice if Walton’s body could have held up a little longer, but we all knew it was already a miracle for him to be out on the court for a whole season. When I think of Big Red I don’t wish for more. I’m just grateful.


Jim Carroll, 1949-2009

December 30, 2009

I didn’t want the year to end without saying a few words about Jim Carroll, who died this past September 11 while at his desk, writing. Back in the early 1980s, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was wandering around a bookstore in Hanover, NH, looking for a sports book to read, and I came upon the 1980 Bantam paperback version of Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (shown at left). To that point most of my reading consisted of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comic books, Alfred Slote little league sagas, and sports biographies. The farthest I’d ventured from that realm to that point had probably been when I read Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, a tale of a solitary basketball-loving boy edging into puberty (just like me) that offered helpful tips on how to hide unstoppable public erections. I suppose I figured The Basketball Diaries would be something along those lines, though I was probably vaguely aware of and excited by the darker currents suggested by the lean, somber figure in black on the cover. He seemed like a combination of the cool older longhaired kids in my town and, by virtue of his sneakers and long frame, the cool older guys on the varsity basketball team in my town. In fact, there was one kid in my town who almost bridged those two worlds, a guy who partied with all the longhairs but who was also renowned to have almost mystical basketball abilities. Danny Lollar was his name, and as I remember it his final foray into organized basketball lasted only a couple days of being hectored by the totalitarian varsity coach before he grumbled something like “fuck this shit” and shouldered out of the gym’s side door to go get wasted. Some time later, he materialized again one day on the sidelines of the court while some guys, including my brother, were shooting around. An errant shot got past everyone and rolled toward Danny Lollar. He picked it up and spun it in his hands, then stepped over the sideline and onto the court. He was just over the halfcourt line, in desperation heave territory, but he rose up in perfect jump shot form and sent the ball on a high arc that stung the bottom of the net just as he was finally dropping his textbook follow-through and turning to leave. I think when I picked up The Basketball Diaries I was aware I might find something like the legend of Danny Lollar in its pages.

I did find that. Jim Carroll could play some ball. (In years to come I wondered if all the things he said about his own soaring abilities were true, but on that first read I believed every last claim completely, so much so that I imagined an alternate reality where he hadn’t gone down a different path, and had instead stuck solely with basketball, and was at the time I held the book in my hands somehow also in the NBA, dunking on the head of his old New York City playground rival, the former Lew Alcindor. While this impression of Carroll’s limitless basketball potential may have been a bit of a wishful stretch on my part, he definitely was a teenage standout in the sport, playing varsity for all four years of high school, serving as the team captain during a senior year in which he was all-conference and, according to the 1968 Trinity yearbook, “had occasional spectacular performances and averaged 17 points.”) And I would have surely been deeply satisfied with a book that had merely followed the on-court exploits of a New York City playground star. But the book, from its opening pages, was much more than just that. By the second entry the narrator had diverged from a description of his basketball team’s exploits to describe being high on Carbona and puking on the head of “some dude” on the Staten Island Ferry. Before much longer the diaries were describing heroin addiction, anxious apocalyptic fears and fantasies, and the peddling of blow jobs in Port Authority bathrooms, among many other harrowing adventures. Instead of leaving me satisfied, the book–and more specifically its unique, arresting, and jarring voice–actually had something of the opposite effect on me, its street-stung visions and incantations awakening something like hunger inside me. I had begun writing in a journal by then, a little here and there, inspired by the diary style and the simple, hilarious hijinks of Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo, but with The Basketball Diaries a new and much wider and stranger sense of what could happen when the pen hit the page was born. I didn’t know what hit me for years and years, actually. I mean I knew I loved the book and laughed with it and was confused and disturbed by it, and I read it again and again, but the place it now has in my life, as not only a favorite book but also one of the three or four most important books in terms of my life as a writer, was not apparent to me for a long time because I didn’t really know I had a life as a writer. But I remember that when I took my first semi-deliberate steps toward that solitary vocation I did so by performing a direct imitation of Jim Carroll. It was for a literature class in my freshman year in college, and I wrote a first-person fictional account of riding a subway uptown “to score.” It was quite a piece of horseshit, I’m sure, but the professor, Tony Whedon, was a very gifted teacher who owed part of his gift to having the ability to find the tiny flecks of real gold in the globs of pyrite that piled up on his desk, and he singled my piece out and had me read it aloud to the class. (Jim Carroll would have been proud of one thing, I suppose: I had come to class that day just after doing several bong hits and was pretty far gone.) The attention helped spur me along to keep trying to find a voice that spoke as truly for me as Jim Carroll’s voice spoke for him.

It’s a lifelong search, as Jim Carroll showed by dying with his boots on, at his writing desk. It’s not an easy search by any means, but I’m very grateful to be on it, and I have Jim Carroll as much as any other writer who ever lived to thank for it. So thanks, Jimmy boy. I owe you big time. Rest in peace.


Mike O’Koren

December 11, 2009


(continued from Darwin Cook)


Two days ago, while I sat in a cubicle, unaware, the weather turned, snapping the withered neck of autumn. I had to work a little late, and when I got outside there wasn’t any daylight left. It had gotten very cold, and strong gusts blasted spiraling snowdust across the parking lot. As I crossed the parking lot and approached Golf Road, I saw two buses lumber past the empty bus stop, dooming me. That’s how I interpreted the turn of events: fuck, I’m doomed. The bus stop didn’t offer much protection against the elements, and I had to wait a long time for another bus to come. The battery died on my aging portable XM radio, right in the middle of a replay of a mildly diverting interview with 50 Cent on the Howard Stern Show. Without that satellite babble, which I use to paper over moments whenever I can, there was only the wind blasting past the filthy plexiglass of the shelter. But something was happening with the snow and the wind that I hadn’t noticed before, the snow dust coursing across the field behind the bus stop and across Golf Road like a fast rippling river. I stood apart from the river, blocked from the wind, but when the bus finally came and I stepped toward it there was a very brief interlude, in between the waiting for the bus and the waiting in the weary crowded sniffling congregation for the ride to be over, when I seemed to stand in a rushing shin-high river the color of ghosts. It was a moment.

The Nets have had their moments. The first and best came during the ABA, when Dr. J led them to two championships in the renegade league. After that pre-NBA peak, they fell into a persisting pattern in which they would bottom out for several years, then make a relatively brief foray into the realm of the promising, then fall apart and start all over again. In some ways, Mike O’Koren is the prototypical Net, joining them as a rookie during a season in which the sting, or stink, of their generally horrible play was muffled slightly by the overwhelming presence of youth on the roster. While the first card featured in this series showed the wizened veterans, Maurice Lucas and Mike Newlin, who were actually shouldering the scoring and rebounding load, the last three cards have been of rookies who had made significant contributions during the 1980-81 season. O’Koren, a New Jersey native, stuck around beyond the 58-loss season and so was there, a poor man’s Bobby Jones, during the Nets’ first mildly successful NBA era, backing up the talented young frontcourt of Buck Williams and Albert King. With a youthful core, the Nets made the playoffs five years in a row. O’Koren was there for all of those brief playoff campaigns (they only won one series, a shocking 1984 first-round upending of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers), his diminishing contributions mirroring the diminishing promise of the team. He was traded to the Bullets in 1986, a move that did not save the Nets from reverting to the exact 24-58 record that had greeted Mike O’Koren’s arrival in the league. The Jersey boy returned a year later, in a deal involving an undisclosed amount of cash, to log 52 total minutes in the Nets’ worst NBA effort yet, the team finishing out the 1987-1988 trudge with 63 losses.

I played my last year of organized basketball that same year, sitting on the end of the bench for a Johnson State College Badgers team that had an even poorer winning percentage than the Nets. The JSC athletics website has the 1987-88 team record at 7-14, but I am pretty sure that this is a wild miscalculation on the part of the website; we won one or maybe two games. You’d think I’d have a clearer memory of our rare wins, but for the first semester of the season I was an “alternate,” which meant I was not one of the eleven full-time members of the team but one of four skinny partial rejects who took turns going on road trips to log the ol’ “DNP-Coach’s Decision,” and the team’s only taste or possibly tastes of victory came when I was back home in my room reading Dostoevsky or pulling my pud. In the second semester, when several grade-point average violations and the mid-year graduation of our sober-minded point guard, Norm, thinned the roster enough for me to be a full-fledged member of the team, I remember only losing, game after game after game.

That’s not exactly true. In fact, it’s not true at all. I remember a lot of other things, too. Once, after a road trip loss to a team that we had pegged as our best chance at a win (they hadn’t won all year to that point), we stopped at the house of the team manager. He lived on a farm in New Hampshire, and I remember standing with our team’s soulful, suffering leading scorer, Dave, as we stood by a fence that had some sheep on the other side. Dave reached over and gently patted the head of a lamb.

“This is God, man,” Dave said with a hushed voice.

Dave was some years older than the rest of us and had bounced around for a while between high school and college. He had a mustache and was in AA. In an early-season road game that I hadn’t been at, he had engaged in a thrilling mano y mano duel with the opposing star, tallying over 50 points to his opponent’s 40-something in a triple-overtime loss. (The unreliable Johnson State College website doesn’t have a record of this game.) But after that peak he, like the rest of us, struggled, becoming increasingly less sure of himself, less assertive, less focused, more adrift and agitated.

In April, either at or near the end of the season, Dave and I went down to his hometown, Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Grateful Dead. Here’s what I remember about my last year of organized basketball: Dave standing on the street outside the arena after the show, a large mournful man with a mustache, his arms outspread. All around us people were stumbling around or selling things or trying to find a ticket for the next night’s show. Most of these people gave Dave a wide berth. But once in a while someone got curious.

“What are you doing?” Dave was asked.

“Giving out free hugs, man,” Dave boomed.

Some of the people who asked him the question just laughed, some said “right on” and kept walking, but a couple people shambled into his big embrace. It didn’t seem to help much. When I think of that season I think of Dave, and when I think of Dave I think of a guy who needed something, needed it so bad it pained him, and he hadn’t figured out how to ask for it, or even what it was.

Just a few years later, I stood on a street in Manhattan with my brother and my friend Pete. I had my New Jersey Nets cap on my head. College was over, playing organized sports was over. Now what? On the weekends this question seemed to crescendo, resulting in an internal pressure to have something magnificent and amazing occur. I was young and living in the city of the Beats and the Fugs and the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. A city of magnificent transformations, of young people shattering the inherited parameters of art and copulating profusely, and where was I? Where was my Hydrogen Jukebox? Where was my Sweet Jane?

So that night, at least as I understood things, we had decided to Do Nothing. We had decided to go out onto the street and stand. Not even stand there or stand around. And we certainly weren’t out there to make a stand. We would just stand. Just . . . stand.

It didn’t last long before we gave up on the absurdity of standing in the middle of the sidewalk in a three-man triangle on the corner of Seventh Street and Second Avenue, our arms at our sides, staring at or past one another with idiotic blankness on our faces. But there was a moment, before we packed it in and drifted a block east to the International to drink, when I dipped my feet in the river that is always rushing past our shins, the river we only sense in stillness. As I remember it now, it was as if a voice had come to me, had quieted all the noise and questioning and half-assed questing and retreating in my tumbling mind.

The voice said: Whoop-De-Damn-Do.

At that time, the Nets had just crested again, for the first time since Mike O’Koren’s early seasons, and were in the midst of another collapse. The central figure in both the promising rise and the disappointing fall of the Nets this time was Derrick Coleman, a big, quick player who had as fluid and intuitive a feel for the game as anyone I’d ever seen outside of Larry Bird. Some players, for example Karl Malone, dominated through strength and will and calculating intellect; Coleman’s abilities were more musical, his talent lying in his ability to synch himself effortlessly into the complicated rhythm of the game and, if he desired, to nudge that rhythm in his direction. When he failed to seem to care about influencing events, basketball fans—who watched the game hoping to see the kind of rarified artistry Coleman was capable of—grew increasingly disappointed in the player. His orientation toward putting in the work needed to develop or even maintain that artistry was laid bare during the Nets’ collapse, when he was asked to comment on fellow team leader Kenny Anderson’s failure to show up at practice.

“Whoop-de-damn-do,” Coleman said.

It became tabloid fodder for while. It found a place of honor on the bulletin board in the apartment I shared with my brother. It was something we laughed about, repeatedly, and perversely cheered for its entertainment value. What did we care? Even though I wore a New Jersey Nets cap, the Nets weren’t really my team. They were only my team in air quotes. Whoop-de-damn-do to their collapse. Whoop-de-damn-do to my own. Whoop-de-damn-do to the whole spinning world.

But everything was in air quotes. Everything was half-sarcastic. Everything was never begun. Deep down, I was waiting. But for what? And as I stood on the street with my brother and Pete, I heard the words of Derrick Coleman, transformed into something beyond the context in which they were originally uttered, transformed into something beyond an existence bubble-wrapped in air quotes. Within seconds I’d lose the meaning again, just as, a couple days ago, I lost the touch of the river of ghosts the second I entered the hot, close air of a Pace bus. But there was a moment when I knew. There was a moment when there’s no winning and no losing. There is always this moment. There is always a voice saying Whoop-de-damn-do.


Darwin Cook

December 9, 2009


(continued from Mike Gminski)

Chapter Three

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)


Mike Gminski

December 7, 2009

(continued from Nets 1980-81 Leaders)
Chapter Two

Basketball players, like the religious, look heavenward periodically. During a losing streak, the sports world’s closest approximation of the essence of this disintegrating life, these glances gather the increasing gravity of supplication. If you were unfamiliar with basketball and came upon this photo of Mike Gminski looking up, you might guess that he was praying for some kind of a sky-born rescue. But of course he’s not looking at the sky, or even at the domed ceiling, but at the large digital mechanism that shows the score and the game clock. Most of the time, we’re not so desperate as to ask for supernatural deliverance. We simply want to know if there’s any hope.

As an expert of sorts in this regard, I can guess with some degree of certainty that the answer to this particular silent voicing of the question by Gminski was a fairly emphatic no. It’s not just that Gminski was suffering through a relatively dismal 58-loss season at the time of this photo. It’s his dazed and slightly melancholy expression and the slight stoop in his posture, as if he’s not altogether sure that the scoreboard with the demoralizing Time and Score might join the ode to the law of entropy of another Nets loss by coming loose from its moorings and crashing to the ground.

And I may well be projecting this, but Gminski even looks as if he may be checking the clock to see how much longer he has to endure the pain of the beating. I know what it’s like to long for the thing to be over. In the fall of 1981, when I got this card, I had been playing basketball for a school team for two years, and I had experienced many an on-court slaughter. I was in the ninth grade, and had gone through a winless seventh grade season and an eighth grade season that was in some ways even worse. It was worse mainly because it was by and large more of the same, further defining me and my basketball-playing classmates as somehow hopelessly deficient. Also, the seventh grade team challenged us to a game and beat us. And then there was the end to our losing streak.

Don’t get me wrong, when we finally ended the long skid of losses that stretched from the fall of 1979 to the winter of 1981, I was so happy that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I mean this last part literally. At the buzzer I whirled and slapped a teammate in the stomach, making him wince momentarily before half-jokingly raising a fist to me like he was going to pay the slap back with a right cross. It was a brief sour note. Later that night, back home, alone in my room, I cut a lock of my winning hair and taped it into my diary. I wish I still had that diary so that I could see if I wrote anything about my part in the win. I can’t remember doing anything beyond my usual directionless on-court meandering, except for, near the end, waving my arms around frantically to distract the guy I was guarding from making an effective in-bounds pass. My efforts in that case didn’t lead to a turnover, as far as I can remember, and in general the win seemed to just happen, beyond any personal influence. As the losses resumed, the one win ceased being a possible end to our ongoing descent and instead just hung there in memory as an inexplicable temporary deviation from loss that I had floated around within, as incorporeal and inconsequential as a ghost.

Mike Gminski’s Nets descendents finally won a game a few days ago, their first of the season after 18 losses, but then they followed that win with another loss. The story of their historic incompetence has dissolved, leaving only the day to day apprehension of the Scoreboard in the Sky.

How are we doing? How much time is left? Is there any hope?

(to be continued)


Nets 1980-81 Team Leaders

December 3, 2009


Chapter One

My baseball card collecting days tapered off precipitously in 1981, when I was 13 and bought only a few packs of Topps and, out of curiosity, a pack or two of offerings from one of the new card companies, Fleer. That same year, perhaps casting around for some way to hold on to some semblance of the practice of collecting that had been so central to my childhood, I bought a couple packs of cards featuring the sport that had begun to eclipse baseball in terms of the amount of time I spent playing it. I was still playing Babe Ruth baseball that year, but I was a benchwarmer, and I’d be done with organized baseball the next year; meanwhile, by 1981 I was a couple years into a complicated love affair with playing organized basketball that would limp all the way into my second year in college.

Those couple packs of 1981 cards, which tellingly did not lead to other packs of cards, featured a large number of New Jersey Nets cards, including the team leaders card featured here. I can’t imagine that this glut of Nets excited me. More likely it produced a flicker of dyspeptic recognition. Growing up in Vermont, I was a fan of the New England team, the Celtics, so I was probably hoping for as many of them as possible. The disappointing dearth of Celtics (besides one Gerald Henderson card), coupled with the presence of several New Jerseyites, must have made me wonder if the cards were trying to tell me something about myself. It was probably late autumn when I bought the cards, that gray skeletal span known in Vermont as “stick season.” And there, within the kind of gum-scented packaging that had brightened many a summer Vermont day, one message after another from glum polluted New Jersey. My home.

You see, I was born in New Jersey. I lived there for the first five years of my life before my family moved to Vermont.

In Vermont, I aspired to be thought of as a native of the place I lived in, but I wasn’t. Similarly, I aspired to align myself as closely as possible with the Boston Celtics, who had in 1981 delivered the first championship of any of the New England teams in my lifetime [update: “in my lifetime” is an inaccurate turn of phrase; the Celtics won the last two of the Bill Russell banners in my first two springs, and Hondo and Cowens led them to two more in ’74 and ’76, but even for the last of those championships I was relatively oblivious to basketball, probably because I hadn’t started playing it, and because it wasn’t shown on either of the two TV stations we got reception for, and because the general store in our town didn’t sell basketball cards in the ’70s; I was even more–i.e., completely–oblivious to the successes of the Bobby Orr-era Bruins]. But I knew, deep down, that I was closer at the core of my being to the meaningless garbage time games of the 24 and 58 1980-81 Nets of my home state than the “World Champion” team from a city that I didn’t live in (or even near).

Like me, the Nets began in New Jersey, back in the inaugural ABA season of 1967-1968 (they played the last of their games to sparse gatherings in Teaneck that season as I was experiencing my first weeks of life in Willingboro), then they moved to New York for a few years before drifting back to New Jersey. They seem determined to escape New Jersey, targeting Brooklyn as their new home at some indeterminate time in the future, but in the meantime they are in New Jersey and they are losing.

Oh, my god, how they are losing.

Last night they lost their eighteenth straight game of the year, the longest losing streak to start a season in NBA history and just three away from the record for major American sports set by the Baltimore Orioles in 1988.

But winning streaks are for pussies. Has anyone ever pondered the tough questions during a winning streak? Has anyone stared off into the middle distance weeping? Has anyone imagined sneaking out of town on a bus under the cloak of night to start a whole new life elsewhere? In a winning streak, you try to think as little as possible. You try to narrow your existence to the bright beam of light that by some inexplicable twist of good fortune you are balancing on. In a winning streak, you attempt to will yourself to be as shallow as humanly possible.

But in a losing streak, forget it. In a losing streak you are at the mercy of gods. In a losing streak you barely have the confidence to button your shirt correctly. In a losing streak it’s you against everything. Worse, it’s you against nothingness. The Big Questions appear like the ominous metallic tangle of rendering plants glimpsed through a thinning of a polluted haze.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

I don’t know any answers, but I know about losing streaks. From them I’d hazard to say that it’s later than you think. Maybe we’re already there. Maybe we always have been. Maybe we always will be.

What I’m saying is, welcome to New Jersey.

(to be continued)


Sam Perkins

March 20, 2009


While I’m waiting to continue enjoying my two favorite sports days of the year, allow me to present a card from the recently annexed Aunt Celia wing of my collection (named for the Christmas-gift donor of the entirety of the wing). My favorite part of the card is Mark Jackson’s face in the background, just off Perkins’ right shoulder. That is the face of a guy who has had success everywhere he’s gone, but now he’s finding out what it’s like to be on the Clippers. He’s like, “Oh, man, you sad motherfuckers can’t even box out Sam Perkins?”

I feel for Mark Jackson. By that time, 1994, Perkins had been around for quite awhile. And even in his prime he was more of a solid all-around big man with a nice outside touch than some kind of young Moses Malone animal on the offensive glass.

But that’s another subject. What I wanted to get into was that my connection with college basketball began in earnest in 1982, the year Sam Perkins was a member of probably the most talented college basketball team since I’ve been watching. Before that, I’d had some awareness of college hoops, but my interest lagged far behind my interest in the pro game, which itself got started quite a while after I’d began my religious affiliation with baseball. But in 1982 I followed the tournament and watched with amazement the incredible final game—incredible all the way to the sour-note conclusion authored by poor “Wrong Town” Freddy Brown—between North Carolina and Georgetown. Georgetown had “Pat” Ewing and Sleepy Floyd and UNC had Perkins, James Worthy, and freshman “Mike” Jordan.

I started wondering this morning if I ever saw in subsequent years an NCAA champ that could equal the talent level of the Carolina trio, which featured in Perkins a future longtime pro, a future Hall of Famer and clutch-play legend in Worthy, and the future greatest player of all time in Jordan. Read the rest of this entry ?


The Basketball Kid’s Official Results

June 21, 2008

A couple hours after I posted the photo of me suffering through my final moments in the 1983 Northfield Mount Hermon Pie Race, my mom sent me the following message in an email entitled “esp exists”:

“you won’t believe what I located, put into an envelope for you, and sent off this morning. [6/18] …BEFORE I read your day’s blog.”

And so, yesterday’s mail:


The clipping from the high school newspaper spent the early stages of its existence taped to a yellow cupboard in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. When that house was sold it went into a box, where it has remained for twenty years. It finally got jostled loose the morning I wrote about the Pie Race. As I was writing, my mom, preparing for another in a long series of moves, was going through her belongings, trying to lighten her load, when she found the clipping and put it in an envelope.     

I spent a disturbing amount of time yesterday scrutinizing the details of the list. It occured to me at some point that I may have underlined my own name, sarcastically, in 111th place. But it’s just as likely that my mom did it. She’s the one who saved the clipping, after all. A year and a half after the race she had to come and pick me up in front of my dorm before my senior year was over. Sometimes I take for granted that there are people in my life who will highlight my name in 111th place. There are people who cheer for me, who refuse to give up on me, who save things for me.  

I’d started crying when I called her to tell her I’d been expelled. I was in the office of the campus dean, a guy whose name happens to be the last full one listed in the excerpt of the clipping above. After the phone call I shook his hand, consciously trying to be a noble guy on my day of ruin. I wish I’d gone berserk instead, noting that he was cross-eyed, upending his desk, mocking him for coming in 49 places after me in the previous year’s Pie Race.

Many of the other names, 550 in all, in the 1983 Pie Race Results carry a similar weight, the list a personal litany of longing, anger, embarrassment, curdled joy, regret. I was 15 and 16 and 17 when I was a name among those names. I never was so excited, so terrified. I never had bigger crushes. I never was so frustrated and lonely, confused and overwhelmed. I never laughed so hard. I never had so many boners. I never got so high.


The Basketball Kid Takes a Victory Lap

June 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.


Bucks 1980-81 Team Leaders

March 21, 2008
I never remember any new moments anymore. Take the NCAA basketball tournament. Every year I throw myself with abandon (i.e., sit and eat and stare at a television for hours at a time, clutching my disintegrating bracket) into March Madness, especially its first couple days, and every year I almost instantly forget who did what to whom. I sort of remember Vermont upsetting Syracuse a few years ago, but that’s because I grew up in Vermont and because when the final buzzer sounded I leapt up from the couch and bashed my knee on the coffee table, which really hurt. Other than that, it’s all a Mopa-Njila-tinged haze. Yesterday, had Belmont pulled off the upset of Duke, I would have again leapt up from the couch, taking care not to bash my knee on the coffee table, and I would have bounded around my living room shouting and laughing and high-fiving myself. But probably by next year only the vaguest memory would remain. At the very end of this year’s tournament, when CBS plays the song “One Shining Moment” behind a video montage of tournament heroics, it’ll be for me like watching files get moved across a computer screen to the Recycle Bin, where they’ll remain until automated deletion. I’ve got no more room in my brain for Shining Moments. And yet, after all these years, even though I probably never saw them play, I can name eight or nine members of the 1980-81 Milwaukee Bucks without even turning over this card.

Swen Nater

March 20, 2008

Who am I? Where am I?

I don’t know. It depends. A guy who wishes he could build a fort out of couch cushions. A guy ready to spend the next four days dissolved in a solution of basketball. A guy looking back. 

Twenty-seven years ago I bought a couple packs of basketball cards just as my interest in baseball cards was waning. Basketball was taking over. I got two Swen Nater cards.

A few years later I was in college. I decided to try out for the college team.

Who was I? Where was I?

I was a basketball player in America. It was 1988.

At the top of the basketball world in America in 1988 was Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson was the star of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers were the champions of the National Basketball Association.

There was some minor league basketball being played in America in 1988, but the most talented players in America not playing in the NBA were in college. College basketball was divided into many levels. At the top level was Division I of the NCAA. There were then, as now, many conferences in Division I, some better than others, each conference with its own smaller internal hierarchy, each individual team with its own even smaller individual hierarchy. At the very top of the mountain of NCAA Division I basketball that year was Danny Manning, star of the National Champion Kansas Jayhawks. I don’t know who was at the very bottom of the hierarchy of NCAA Division I basketball, because easily accessed records are not kept on the worst player on the worst team in the worst conference of NCAA Division I basketball.

But I do know that below NCAA Division I basketball is NCAA Division II basketball. I don’t know who was at the top or bottom of that organization of conferences and teams and players. I can however tell you that below NCAA Division II basketball is NCAA Division III basketball.

And below all three divisions of NCAA basketball is the NAIA.

I’m not sure what NAIA stands for. But it is a college basketball federation that has its own hierarchy of conferences and teams and players. Some good players have come out of the NAIA, such as He of the Blond Perm of Unmatched Magnificence (Jack Sikma) and Scottie Pippen. They most likely played on the best teams in a top conference in the NAIA. But this isn’t about them.

In 1988 the worst conference in the NAIA was the Mayflower Conference, a small collection of little-known state-funded schools in northern New England, that regional hotbed of skywalking, rim-rattling basketball talent.

The worst team in the Mayflower Conference, by far, was the Johnson State Badgers.

The Johnson State Badgers employed an unorthodox roster configuration that designated 10 players as team members in full and six other members as “alternates.” The alternates took turns suiting up in the remaining two team uniforms, two alternates for each game. A few games into the fruitless season, all but one of the alternates had gotten some end-of-humiliating-blowout playing time. This final alternate accompanied the team to a game in Plattsburgh, New York. The outcome of the game was never really in doubt, but somehow the Badgers managed to keep the game from being a rout, which of course made it impossible to insert the final alternate into the game. With a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Badgers somehow still weren’t without a slim hope for a miracle comeback. Their first- (and last-) year coach, a befuddled English teacher, realized that the only chance for such a victory hinged on the old strategy of sending the other team to the foul line and hoping they missed. He identified the opposing player most likely to clank free throws and started shouting at the guy guarding him.

“Luneau, foul number 32!” he shouted. “Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”

Luneau either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear, and merely kept trying to play tough defense. He was a good player. He had his limitations, to be sure, but he was a good scorer and a relentless offensive rebounder. He was certainly not the worst player in the world. He had his pride.

“Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”

The English teacher’s voice had begun to crack. The gym was mostly empty, so his pleading could easily be heard above the bouncing basketball and the squeaking of sneakers on the floor. Finally he spun away from the action in disgust and looked at the players seated behind him on the bench. He spotted the last alternate.

“Wilker,” he said. “Get in there and foul 32.”


Magic Johnson in . . . The Nagging Question

December 12, 2007

Now that The Basketball Kid has wandered defiantly out of the gymnasium inside my head, I must fill up the hours some other way. I wish I wasn’t a fill-up-the-hours kind of guy. I wish the moment was to me like a fastbreak was to Magic Johnson, a realm of kinetic creation, a careening eruption of jazz. But since I don’t often see things that way I must fill up the hours. One way to do this is by wondering about trivial hypothetical questions. The hypothetical trivial question for today is as follows: If you were called upon to build a basketball team and could pick any player in his prime, who would be your first pick? Me, I’m going with this guy. Wherever he went he won, and he beat the best, and unlike the handfull of players that could be considered his historical equals (in my mind there are three: Jordan, Russell, and Bird) he played not only with indomitable will but with infectious joy. His greatest and most peerless talent was making other people look good and have fun while they were doing it. Put another way, his greatest talent was being a teammate. So what better way could there be to start a team than to start it with Magic?


Mike Newlin

December 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.


Darryl Dawkins

December 7, 2007


The Basketball Kid Takes a Stand
(continued from Wayne Rollins)

Episode Three: The Rise of The Basketball Kid

One day in November 1979, my winless 7th grade basketball team was off to another slow start in some opponent’s cold, near-empty gym. Early in the game there was an inbounds play at midcourt. The ref handed my teammate Chris the ball and Chris slapped it with his right hand, a signal to the rest of us to start milling around, pretending we had set plays. In a rare burst of on-court assertiveness, I cut hard to my left, breaking free of the listless scrum of bodies near the center jump circle. I caught the inbounds pass in stride and started dribbling toward the wide-open hoop. I had never scored a basket before, so as I dribbled a kind of joy bubbled up through my ribcage and into my throat.

Previous to that moment there had only been an aimless murmur of voices in the gym. Suddenly the murmur spiked, went weird. I’d never heard the sound before and hope to never hear it again: A generalized, ingrown gasp, like a note from a choir on a record played backwards. I pressed onward, dribbling, still preposterously open, ignoring.

I stopped just inside the foul line and hoisted the side-holstered push shot that all kids use before they get the hang of a real jump shot. Improbably, the basketball grazed the inside of the rim and nestled through the net. The strange sound that had risen up all around me ceased. I turned, smiling, expecting to see my teammates smiling back. Jesus, the look on their faces. My own smile congealed. The players on the other team stared one more beat, still stunned, then started spasming with laughter. Eventually the scoreboard operator added the tally to the already swollen number beneath the word HOME.

From that point on the losses began to blur together. We lost all our games that season, all but three the next season. By the time I got this Darryl Dawkins portrait in my last unironically purchased pack of trading cards I had begun to understand that my fate was sealed. Forever would I labor beneath scoreboards generating nauseating inequalities. Ninth grade was no different. Our freshman team lost every game. The following year my junior varsity team kept losing. The varsity coach, Viens, came into our locker room at halftime of a game we were losing pretty badly. He went down the line of all the guys on the team from my grade, listing faults, his mole-like face pinched into a particularly sour expression of pure disgust. Only two of us had been playing all along, since 7th grade. Me and Chris. Viens saved us for last.

“Wilker, I don’t notice you out there,” he said. “You’re invisible.”

“Chris,” he said. “You’re stupid.”

Chris had always been my mom’s favorite player. He was always the smallest kid on the court, and though he was something of a gunner, he always tried hard. Sometimes he tried so hard during our collective humiliations his face got red and he verged on tears, his unceasing drives into the crowded lane sometimes seeming like involuntary convulsions of grief. But Chris quit hoops at the end of that year, neglecting to try out to play for Viens on the varsity, and I wandered away to the boarding school that would eventually expel me. The summer after I got expelled I went to live with my grandfather, who had for the benefit of my brother and me nailed a backboard and a basketball hoop to a tree. The rim was the most forgiving rim in the history of the world. Almost any shot would fall dead upon contact with that rim and drop through the net as if collapsing from exhaustion. What was I going to do with my life? Who was I going to be? I avoided these questions. Instead, I went on outlandish imaginary scoring sprees, again and again, pretending I was someone else, some beleaguered, limping, indomitable hero battling long odds to lead his loyal teammates to victory. As had happened throughout my solitary childhood, sounds escaped my mouth as I played, the whispered approximations of crowd noises and ecstatic announcers and grateful exulting teammates. I was 17 years old. Finally my grandfather got me a job pumping gas. But I still got two days off a week, and I spent them the same way I’d been spending my free time before the start of my first full-time job. Reeking of pot smoke, hoisting jump shots, mumbling to myself, I imagined myself invisible to this world, instead forever rising in the universe within the universe where losses turn to wins.

continued in Mike Newlin