Grand Blanc, Michigan | Fall of 1989
I leaned my head against the tile, rocked my hips back and forth and shut my eyes.
No. Stop. Please. Don’t throw up.
The start of my journey to the NBA commenced today. I looked down the hall at my Grand Blanc 4th-6th grade recreational league Huffman Hooper teammates dribbling their basketballs back and forth. They had smiles on their faces. They were giggling, but I couldn’t stand up, not yet. The tile was cool and it felt good on the skin of my neck but it didn’t come close to stopping my dad’s classic breakfast of gargantuan peanut butter pancakes and a glass of full milk from mixing into magma in the back of my throat.
So I did what any 4th grader does — I tried to ignore why I was feeling so nervous and forget the heavy morning breakfast slowly moving up my esophagus. But to be fair, I had dreamt of this moment, of playing in a real basketball game with real players, and real referees with black and white stripes for as long as my prepubescent brain could remember. And so, there I was, in a cold sweat, sitting Indian style in the hallway of the Carmen Ainsworth Elementary School, listening to the screeches of rubber shoes and referee whistles and parents shrieking, “go, go, GO…” as their sons sprinted wildly from end to end.
The Huffman Hoopers were up next, but the next game was my first real game.
And that meant something.
I reached beneath my cotton sweatshirt warm-up and felt my number, proudly running my small fingers over the acrylic numbers. It was finally my turn. It was my chance to proudly wear the Huffman crest — the number 24 that had been a family tradition passed down through two generations of Huffmans. I thought of my Uncle Jamie playing with Magic Johnson at Michigan State and my dad’s copper Han Solo statue face emblazoned into the Albion Sports Hall of Fame at the Kresge Gymnasium.
The number 24, even in 4th grade, already meant something to me.
And I had waited for this moment to come since my first memories of basketball recall, when I would hang on ladders in the sky and jump on wrestling mats or dribble a basketball with other black kids behind the bench while our dads battled in the Flint YMCA leagues. These memories were sketched into my brain through sights and smells and sounds — the grunt of bodies colliding and flying through the air, their sneakers squeaking against the polyurethane wood or the rattle of the glass backboard as giant men banged home dunk after dunk.
These were some of my first basketball memories, and I had waited impatiently for years to enter the family basketball discussion, to wear this number and finally be at the adult table with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins at our infrequent family gatherings. I wanted to be part of these holiday 3v3 games against Uncle Jamie, my cousins, my older brother, and my dad, games that usually ended in a few bloody noses and, most definitely, a few reckless offensive charges.
“Trevorrrr,” Aunt Corlinda would say, as our family opened Christmas presents. “Are you ever going to grow? Seriously. You need to drink more milk if you are going to make it to college, young man!”
Ironically, the milk may have explained why I was having a hard time keeping my breakfast down. I opened what my mom called my honey brown eyes and felt something reeling inside. My stomach lurched under the heavy, round ball of pancake magma moving from side to side inside me.
Don’t you dare throw up now! Just hold on.
I tried to focus on something else, on anything, on the old Wilson ball resting in my lap, on the leather panels that caught the small pads of my palms and my poor, thin, calloused digits that were taped white with athletic tape. Between each knuckle, the skin was cracking, bleeding, and flaking from the hours and hours of ball-handling and dribbling drills I had done in my basement, or as I walked home from the bus stop, or from shooting until bedtime under the floodlights my dad put up for me in the driveway.
Child Protection Services probably would have questioned the number of bruises and athletic tape holding my body and hands together, but I was a gym rat through and through. I was skinny. Bony. My knees and elbows jutted out in sharp angles. One would have thought I had broken every bone on my body with how much athletic tape I had holding them together, but tradition called for it.
See, my Uncle Jamie played at Michigan State in 1979 with my favorite player in the whole world, Magic Johnson. And since Magic taped his fingers, I taped my fingers.
It was how the world worked.
And even if taping everything meant not being able to bend any finger or joint on my body, or shoot with any resemblance of a gooseneck follow-through, I decided it was more important to show my loyalty for Magic and my Uncle Jamie because if there was one thing our family did well, it was passing basketball down as our family tradition. And the Huffman clan did just that, in parables and stories and folklore. And I listened, leaning into the threads that weaved our three-fingered power forward Uncle Alan, who swore that no one in the family could stop him on the boards, or our 6’6 razor thin swingman Uncle Kevin, who could shoot from anywhere, or our stubborn lefty state and national champion Uncle Jamie, or even my undersized bulldog father who complained he never made it out of regionals because his coach wasn’t any good. It was these memories, commingled around the dinner table at my grandparents’ ranch home in Homer, Michigan, that I’ll always remember first.
Needless to say, there were many reasons for my own growing basketball obsession: like my new white, purple, and gold Converse Attacks, or Larry Bird’s book Drive next to my bed, or the hundreds of Fleer trading cards of Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler and ‘The Dream’ I had taped above my desk. It never really felt odd to open my eyes and see a 6’7 smiling black man in Lakers gear hovering above me on my ceiling every morning. Unfortunately for me, I was stuck in my mother’s belly as the final horn rang, and Uncle Jamie, Magic, and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State for the 1979 NCAA title game. I must have been living vicariously through her, shaking hands with Jud Heathcote, talking to Al McGuire, and hearing the roar of the crowd as the final piece of championship netting was cut.
Granted, some families pass down recipes for spaghetti and banana nut bread, but our family recipe was basketball training secrets. Every summer, my dad would send me outside to train and work with the most accomplished player in our family Uncle Jamie — to learn the stutter steps and spin moves he used at Lansing Everett High School with Magic. He would pour out a bag of basketballs and tell me to pick them up and shoot from the ground or lunge around like a one-legged ostrich while I dribbled. I never questioned his odd methods.
My uncle Jamie never wore his Michigan State national championship ring around me as a kid, but I knew he always had it near him. I would ask him if I could see it and hours later, he would whisper, “Trevor. Follow me. Come here…
I’d follow him to the back of my grandparents guest bedroom and he would have it under a lamp. It glittered gold and diamond encrusted.
“Wow. This is really it?” I’d ask.
It was the size of a blueberry muffin.
“It’s worth a lot of money,” Jamie would say, his eyes looking up to the ceiling. And right there, I knew I’d never take that ring off if it was mine.
“You work hard, you might get one. You like it?”
“Wow! Uncle Jamie — can I try it on?”
He’d smack me on the butt and tell me to get outside and start dribbling if I wanted a ring of my own. But I couldn’t help daydreaming about it. I would never forget that ring. If it were mine, I’d wear it to Krogers for groceries. To games. To class. To Sunday school. I’d wear it everywhere.
I opened my eyes. I was alone in the hallway, still caressing my basketball, still sitting Indian style against the brick wall.
“TREVOR — let’s go!” a voice squealed from the gym entrance. “It’s game time!”
I must have stood up too promptly because it came and went too quickly. I felt the sweet syrup musket batter ball ignite. It was like a tidal wave at low tide ascending into the back of my throat and out my mouth. And so it began, my first season was underway.