by Todd Walton, August 17, 2016
Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”
Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…
While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.
Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.
The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”
Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.
I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.
After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.
Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.
It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.
On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.
His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.
He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.
We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.
Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.
An audio version of Ruby & Spear narrated by the author is available from iTunes and Audible, while used copies of the novel may be had for pennies online. Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com