Here is Part One of NBA sports story.
There are only a few things I needed in life to be happy in 2005: my basketball, my basketball shoes, and oh my, a pair of these NBA socks hanging in my Phoenix Suns locker.
I put the socks on and shivered — NBA socks are the most comfortable socks ever made.
I thought about Leo Barbosa sitting across from me. He had just arrived from a small village in Brazil, was only 19, and didn’t speak a lick of English!
There was no way a 19-year old kid is going to outplay or dominate me, I thought. Hell, my jersey is hanging in Kent State’s rafters.
Guarding Stephon Marbury, the “Starbury,” okay yeah, he was going to be a problem— his damn quadriceps looked like the gas canisters on the sides of space rocket shuttles that fall back to Earth as they keep going into space. He looked more explosive than me sitting in his chair than I did standing. But again, this was my childhood dream. Any fears I had would be discovered on the court. Any excitement I had would be played out soon enough. And I wanted to show the Suns why I was — wait, is that Penny Hardaway walking towards me?
“What’s up, man?” Penny asked nonchalantly, crooning his neck to the side, walking past me. “I’m Penny. Welcome.”
Penny stuck out his palm and tried to give me some dap, and as I tried to talk, my tongue got stuck in the roof of my mouth and instead of words, or dap, I made the clucking sounds of a dying mallard.
“Clack — I, uh, nice to — ”
Instead of English, I gave him my best white guy two thumbs up and no dap. The Penny commercials flashed through my childhood mind, Chris Rock talking in his high pitched voice:
“The only time you yell ‘box out’ is when you’re out of donuts,” Little Penny said.
I sat dumfounded as he walked away, then looked into my locker and ran the edges of my fingers along the mesh of my freshly minted black and purple Suns practice jersey. My spine tingled. Then David Griffin, the small, ginger-haired head scout (that got me the Rav4 and the apartment with Scottie Pippen’s nephew) came around the corner.
“Huff, you need shoes?”
“I get shoes?”
“Yeah, you get shoes. We have loads of shoes in stock. What size are you?”
“Christ, are you serious?” I said. “12!”
“Follow me,” David said. “I’ll introduce you to our equipment manager.”
“Thanks, man. Wow, I could get used to this!” I said, walking forward past the rows of NBA stars, size 15 shoes, and giant sized pictures of Charles Barkley, Thunder Dan, and Kevin Johnson (KJ) dunking, shooting, and defending the world’s best athlete, MJ.
To be honest, this was starting to feel like destiny, like I had finally gotten the chance I deserved.
I laugh at the fact I thought I had a chance to make an NBA team. I had no chance, and it still, it was just as heartbreaking for me. I cried like a snotty, flu-infested baby for hours after Frank Johnson let me go. I wanted to jump off a bridge when I landed in Poland for my next professional season, and worse, I’d gained 30 pounds because of being homesick and never, ever wanting to play basketball in the NBA again.
The NBA dream had kept me motivated to work, train, and play hoops for an entire half of my life.
Okay, that’s a lie I told myself for a decade. And we all have to tell ourselves lies to keep going forward, right? Spring forward to 2018. I’m aging, balding, and fatter. I have a slight dad bod developing, and now, I can look back on that NBA tryout and laugh about how young, naive (okay, dumb) I was. I would never want revenge for something as silly as getting cut from my childhood dream, right?
My suffering isn’t the point of this story — getting revenge is. See, I got a text last week from a friend of mine, Sterling, about playing in a run with some old NBA guys.
“Ohhh, what?” I texted back.
I wasn’t playing a lot, and I usually pretended to be pretty busy, because the idea of hooping against old college and competitive Chicago league players that would judge their games off beating my old ass didn’t really appeal to me.
But Sterling caught me this time:
“Marion will be there. Didn’t you say he was at Phoenix while you were there? Let me know if you want in. We need one more.”
“Wait, the Matrix?” I typed back quickly.
Hamlin Park is an old hotbox barn of gym. It rests in in North East suburb of Chicago, in a pretty nice area of Lincoln Park. I get there ten minutes early, park my car behind a bright orange Dodge Charger with black racing stripes and laugh.
Is that the Matrix’s car?
“Am I parking next to him again?” I whisper. “No. No way.”
There is a folding chair holding the gym’s double doors open. I push through it, and the chair clangs to the ground. “What the hell kind of operation is this?” I think, blushing, walking behind a tall, light-skinned, black guy doing the Mikan drill. The bleachers on the other side of the court have a few guys putting on gear and hoop shoes, so I walk towards them. The court is small. The rims might not even break away. The windows have metal cages with vents that open with a strange chain, pulley system.
As I cut through the court, I realize it’s Shawn Marion warming up. Just as I realize it, the Matrix turns around. He looks older — just as outrageously tall, but older, wider, and his UNLV dry-fit shirt fits snugly to his chest. He didn’t have the old-man body while he was at the Suns.
Then again, neither did I.
I nod back, “What’s good Shawn?”
“Not much. Just trying to get this sweat in.”
“I hear you.”
I keep walking to the bleachers. I really, really want to ask him if he remembers me trying out for the Suns. If he remembers me being his teammate for a month. I wonder if that was his Hummer I parked next too, if that is his orange Dodge Charger now. I wonder if he remembers when I outscored Leandro Barbosa in the preseason inner-squad scrimmages.
I want to beat the Matrix — I will beat him, I say to myself. You get overlooked until you continue to make the decision not to be.
I sit down, put on my ASO ankle braces, and focus on my tying my old Kobe sevens as tight as humanly possible.
IT’S GO TIME!
To be candid, I can still play pretty good for a 39-year old retired dude that still prefers flip flops to designer shoes, even if I hadn’t played competitive basketball in a year.
Playing to 120 points is hard in your late thirties, but I pace myself, and at luckily at halftime, even while the humidity index is unbearable, we decide to end the game at 105 points. I am playing well. Dishing. Scoring. Shooting. I bring my A-game. And we are up by 10 to 12 points most of the game, but the closer it gets to 105, I realize, the harder the Matrix plays. And as the momentum starts to shift, I realize my opportunity to beat him is evaporating through the vents of this rickety gym.
“Go get the ball,” I say to myself. “You get overlooked until you continue to make the decision not to be.”
The Matrix must have thirty rebounds already, but I feel the confidence coming back to me. 12 years in the pros — dude, it’s like riding a bike. I feel the flow, see things like I did when I was still playing, anticipating movements before they happen. Adrenaline is surging inside me, tingling, lighting up my eyes and brain’s dopamine storages like a roman candle. The Anaconda man hedges too late on a pick and roll. I step back and pump fake with my dribble still alive. He bites, and I blow by the Matrix to score a layup.
The Good Guys: 100.
The Bad guys: 101.
Tim Doyle, a friend of mine, and one of the best Big Ten passing point forwards to ever attend Northwestern University (who has two kids and lives in the burbs) yells, “You still got it Huff.”
I smile. It feels good to hear. “I do still got it, don’t I,” I repeat to myself.
Five more points to go — the Good Guys are going to win this game.
The Bad Guys come down and miss an easy layup that Shawn facilitates. He’s pissed, “Chill, goddamn, man — just take your time,” he shouts. We come back down the court with a head of steam on a broken transition. I drive and kick it to Sterling. He drives and pulls up for a tough contested jumper on a guy that still plays overseas. It swishes through the net.
We are going to win. They come down and shoot a quick shot, and one of our guys tips the ball. He must be afraid the Matrix is near him, but he isn’t. “Grab it!” I scream. Instead the tip caroms in the wrong direction in slow motion. I’m there. I’m right there. I try pick up the ball and suddenly it’s sniped by the Anaconda fangs. He snatches the ball and leaps quickly before anyone can foul him for another put back. God, I forget how big, how fluid and fast he is, even for being retired — he can still get up.
102–103 — Bad Guys are up.
My chance to win the game is now. We need a three. I bring the ball up the sideline slowly, dribbling behind my hip, and I wave to the guy Shawn is guarding. I hear a Chris Rock voice yelling in my head: “Score on him. End the game. You know what he did? Demand respect. You were better than Barbosa. This dude doesn’t even know your name or that you got cut from the biggest dream of your — ”
“COME SCREEN!” I shout, the tension steaming through my guts like a sinkhole geyser. It’s time to finish this. It’s time to put the Matrix out of his misery and make him remember the white kid Jerry Colangelo cut. Shawn switches. He won’t risk a hard hedge this time. He is guarding me close, putting pressure on me. I dart forward and step back. He knows I went by him last time. I’ll be open.
I’m taking this shot, I think. I’m taking this shot.
Okay, no. I’m not taking this shot.
He must know I’m going to try and hit a three. I try again. I fake to the right, stop, go behind the back, and hop back to the three-point line. This time, I create enough space to shoot. Finally, I have him and the world stops. The metal vents creak and moan. The sweat drips off my forearm, suspended in air as I lift into space to release the ball — snapppp — it slides off my fingertips —and suddenly, I remember the times I hit last second shot to go dancing — as a junior against Miami on ESPN — the time I beat Indiana and Dane Fife in the first round — the overtime shot against Pitt in the Sweet Sixteen.
Yes, the world watched me then, but this shot means more — this shot is for what the NBA missed for all those years while I suffered for $50,000 dollar point guard jobs in Poland with no heat, running water, or internet.
But something is wrong, the Matrix is too close to me. His defense stuns my subconscious. The space I thought I had is gone. Now all I see is the Matrix’s long slithery fingers and thick twisting arms reaching towards the ceiling trying to block my shot. I can’t see anything — not the halogen lights, not the rim, and for a moment, I see him wearing a white and purple Sun’s jersey. I see Frank Johnson fingering for me to come to his office. I see Mike D’Antoni smirking, this dude can’t be real. Stop shooting, D’Antoni whispers.
“OFF!” Shawn shouts. “OFF LEFT!”
The ball floats by Shawn’s fingertips and over his outstretched body.
No, it’s not off. It’s going in — it’s going in.
For a split second, I know the game is over. It’s the perfect feeling, when you shoot and know the leather ball is going to go through the bottom of the net no matter what. But as the basketball drifts towards the rim in the slow motion, I catch the ball at its apex.
“OFF LEFT! OFF LEFT!” Shawn says again, moving past me looking backwards.
But I stay. I follow the ball that is floating in space, my wrist and arm craned forward, begging the ball to go in. I want Shawn to know who I am. I’ll tell him after I hit this shot. I’ll tell him who I am. I’ll tell him —
AIRBALL — .
“Get it!” Shawn yells. “Get the fucking ball! Outlet!”
There is a ferocious scramble for the rebound and then a blurry transition race to get back, but it’s too late. I was the last man back, frozen in time, someone on the Bad Guys shoots a layup, misses, and the Snake Man Matrix is there, gobbling up time and space like an event horizon, and as chunks of my intestines float out of my throat, I swipe for the ball on his layup and miss.
The Matrix wins.
You’d think I’d be upset. And okay, yeah, I wish I hit the shot. But no, I smile and walk off the court, brimming. That’s right. I tried to score on the Matrix. So what. Sue me. I’m proud. not afraid to take the big shot. Not afraid to demand respect. Not afraid to choke. After all the years of pro hoops overseas, I did learn something:
Play with no regrets, against everyone and anyone. NBA or not.
Maybe one day, when I hit that shot, I’ll tell the Matrix the truth; that we were teammates in the NBA, even if it was only for a month.***
*Ricky and my memory of each exact car is fictitious. I’m pretty sure I’m close though…
**I’m not sure about this. This could be absolutely wrong. That said, Stephon Marbury drove a really, really, nasty Ashton Martin that was more expensive than my current home.
*** I got cut off after the first preseason game, so there was hardly a chance for him to remember playing with me.