The building had an oddly appealing smell of stale sweat soaked maple. It was the kind of smell that you get used to, the kind of smell that athletes can’t get enough of. The old gym existed somewhere between comfortable and worn out, like a marriage on the rocks. The referee handed him the ball and flashed two freakishly long fingers in the air. He reluctantly grabbed it and looked at the score, tied at 66. He held the ball as though he had never held one before. He looked down at his $178 shoes. He had three pairs. His uniform was two sizes too big and his hair was more manicured than expected, for the early morning game. There is nothing free about free throws. Why do they call them that? What a cruel, inappropriate and ironic name.
He wasn’t the most athletic looking kid in the world. His waist was entirely too high. Either his legs were too long or his shorts were too short. Even though he had perfect vision, he squinted towards the rim. He didn’t look nervous, just pensive. He looked like he was contemplating jumping into a cold swimming pool. He was the son, grandson and nephew of the greatest athlete in history. Isn’t that true for all of us? He wondered when his athletic genes would surface. His dad wondered if his athletic genes would surface. His mom worried that his athletic genes could surface. Piano lessons had to be rescheduled again.
When his legs worked, which wasn’t often, he actually ran pretty fast. Not fast like a gazelle bounding through the Serengeti, fast like Bambi on ice. To put it in a word, he was awkward. Not just in basketball, he was awkward in everything. Dad’s superman heat ray vision burned into his chest. He dare not look at him. Mom was sitting at the opposite end of the gym, but that’s a longer story. She was looking down at her phone. When wasn’t she looking down at her phone? Every sound he heard had a muffled underwater tone. He froze and looked at the logo on the ball, “Wilson”. “Son, are you all right?” The referee interrupted his new preoccupation.
Dad was screaming “focus!” Mom heard and decided to look up. A few more dribbles and he was ready. He bent his knees, put the ball to his forehead and uncomfortably shot. The glass backboard almost shattered! Dad sighed, stomped his feet and rubbed his temples. Mom kept texting. It wasn’t clear if she looked long enough to be embarrassed. The referee gave him a comforting and condescending smile. One shot left. One shot to win it all. One shot that would change everything. Again, the referee handed him the ball. It felt heavier this time and a little slippery. He spun the ball in his hands. He couldn’t remember who told him to focus on the seams. He decided to focus on the seams.
“Shoot it higher!” Dad screamed from the bleachers. “Use more spin!” His teammate was trying to be helpful. “Shoot it lower!” The coach said, in direct opposition to his father. Confused and determined, he quickly shot again. This one looked decidedly better. His eyes widened, as it approached the rim. Mom conveniently put her phone down to watch. Dad stood perfectly erect, with one fist clenched. Confidently, the coach started clapping. The ref bit the tip of his whistle, almost breaking it. The box score would record just one point, but it would be the greatest single point of his young life. “If it would just go in,” he thought.
It hit the rim and careened of the glass blackboard. He missed horribly. His teammate corralled the rebound and quickly shot it. “Swish!” The buzzer sounded and the crowd roared! It was over! He smiled, looked down and slithered over to the rambunctious throng. All was forgiven. As he shook the opposition team’s hands, he couldn’t help but notice their red and tearful faces. They were disappointed, angry and ashamed. With that, it was over. Coach patted him on the head and his father quickly escorted him off the court. The car ride home was painfully quiet. He didn’t know if the shot was too high or too low. He didn’t know if there was enough spin on it. He didn’t know if his knees were bent enough. All he knew was that football tryouts were on Thursday.