I walked off the basketball court tonight and I knew I would never win again. I’m 52 years old with bad ankles and I have something in my neck that my chiropractor describes as a “krick”. Well, I can tell you that it feels way worse than a krick.
My son is young and strong and swift and guiltless. And 16. Even tho’ he is a soccer player and a musician first, he came after me tonight like he had it on his calendar. He knows I beat my old man when I was in the 8th grade. So now this kid is coming on and he wants his own belt. There is something in his eyes. Something wolfish and hungry and I don't like it. But I knew this day would come – even though I told him it never would. I could feel it like a cold wind. And yes, I had to do it. Every Father does eventually in some way, have to do it. And so I did. I took him on. Yes I did take him on, but not as Hannibel in the Alps. This was more like Lewis and Clark coming home from Oregon. It was just something that had to be done.
And yes, somehow I beat him 15-14, but don't get it wrong. It’s over for me. I will never beat him again, I’m sure of that. I will never beat him again because that one game took everything I had. More than I had. To win, I had to summon that deep inner need to hold on, to fight, to prove. To provide. To survive. And having done that, I don't think I can do it again. I don't want to do it again. So as I write to you now in the melancholy glow of some small backyard victory, I say goodbye to something that once was.
And he felt a loss too. The loss. I could tell. It was a quiet walk back to the house. I didn't know exactly what to say. I mumbled a few words about his much improved game, but he didn't want to hear it.
But kid...you have to understand. Basketball was my life! My first love. My first court was an old dirt landing across from the store in Navarro. My shot from just behind an exposed root on the right side was from close in because I couldn't throw it very far in the third grade. I used to sleep with my ball by my head in the old white house on Soda Creek. Later I lived up a dirt road with my parents and two older sisters. My basketball was my best friend, and we’d play every evening in the fading light of each dying day.
And it wasn't just me. In Anderson Valley during the late 70’s and through the 80’s – basketball was king. Basketball was king and the high school men’s basketball players were Gods. Yes, Gods. Gods, as defined as those supernatural beings who do things beyond the scope of human understanding. THOSE kind of Gods. If you were 12 years old like me at that time and in that place you would know what I’m talking about. Friday night at the Boonville High gym the current was always electric. It was the place for stargazers like me. I’m talking about #10 Aaron O’Brien who was the perfect combination of honed skill and leadership at the point. #44 Zach Anderson had that sweet quick-release baseline jumper, #33 Richie Wellington could hit from deep before the era of the 3 ball, #32 Greg Price cleaned the glass underneath and the star at the center of it all – Jerry Tolman. Jesus, Jerry Tolman. He wasn’t just some winking star in the galaxy – he was a Goddamn Supernova. He was untouchable. Second on the all time scoring list for the Redwood Empire at the time, he had it all. The looks, the size. The cat-like moves. That perfect Larry Bird stroke. I remember he would walk into the gym with that brown and gold letterman jacket – AV on his chest. Straight stud. Trust me, I wasn't the only one watching. Then he’d go into the locker room like it was a phone booth and come out transformed in those clean home whites. #12 is gonna put 20 on ya before you realize you lost again to the good old panthers!
Oh, the battles they fought for us.
When I was in 8th grade one of those stars, Aaron O'Brien, just happened to live at the end of my road. Gschwend, down in Navarro. You would often see him shooting on his own dirt court out by HWY 128. He was out there working on his game. One day I gathered the courage to go shoot around with him. He was very kind to me. Giving me my change when I finally made one. Pointing out my foot work. Finally he said, “Hey kid, everybody needs a shot they can depend on when it matters. You have that shot?”
I said, “No.”
He said, “Alright. Let me show you something.”
Then he goes out to the left wing about 15 feet out and starts backing in to about 8 feet. He jabs into the basket and then steps back to hit a fading 12 footer. Swish. Swish. Swish again. A truly difficult shot to block even for a short guy like me. A tough shot to make too, but he made it look easy.
It's funny to think about it now; A step back “J” is all it was. That's pretty much THE shot in the NBA right now. But this is before Reggie Miller (he says he was the first to use it), before MJ took it and made it famous. Before Kobe and Curry won championships with it. And certainly before Luca Doncic embarrassed the Clippers with it at the end of a playoff game this year. I never thought to ask where Aaron got it from. If I had to guess it might have been from Rick Berry. But it was probably the local baller Gene Waggoner.
And so I was out there tonight playing basketball with my son. Still battling all these years later. Still out there. Exhausted, out of breath, out of shots, out of ideas, out of time.
Somehow, probably because I have 20 lbs on the kid, I hung in there to a next point wins situation. 14 to 14. I had the ball. Only enough energy for one last play. If it works great. If not, well – he finally got me.
So I get the ball and move to my left. About 15 feet out. Then I start backing him down to about 8 feet. Then I jab step him and get him back on his heels. It buys me exactly one second, and I use it to step back and stick the 12 footer fading away.
It's the last game I will ever win.
It’s the last game I will ever win and I won it for you Anderson Valley – where basketball was King.
And for you Aaron O’Brien who showed me that practice was a virtue.
For you fierce Pomalita where you broke my nose.
For you Mendocino where I was taken to the hospital.
For you Ed Whipple of Covelo. The Indian kid who was so fast, such an apparition that I, slow of foot, had to be benched for somebody who could run with him.
For you Jenny Monts, Suzanne McClure and Renee Wyant, who early on realized if they wanted to hang with the boys they had to play ball with us. And they did play and they were good.
For you Bill Cook for pouring my backyard court with cement where we then played with Eric Lavowitz, Tom Harkelroad, Peter the Dutchman (RIP), David Shoemaker (RIP), Mark Apfel (not bad for a doctor), JR Collins (probably the best of us with that unstoppable left) and Boffo among many others. [I leave Bill Dawson (RIP) off the list because he would play with a beer in one hand, and that’s just wrong.]
Those guys are old timers now. But thanks for letting this kid play.
Those games were some of the highlights of my youth. Of my life.
And for you dear old Dad (RIP), who taught me how to play. Who taught me how to play, but was so slow and old that he cheated to get an edge. He cheated yes, but he cheated with flair by giving it a cool legitimizing name. “Chicago style.” Uniquely “physical”, Chicago style didn't make me a winner, but it made me tough.
And thank you to Finnegan my own. My warm breeze and my cold tramontana. He doesn’t know it yet, or maybe he does, but to him the rock has already been passed – and all things must pass.
from the awakening of my first love
to this damn landslide of time and decay,
I give thanks to what remains.
To these memories,
and those lessons that stay with me:
How to be a winner.
How to be a loser.
When to read, and when to react.
Creativity will be rewarded.
The skyhook is the only unstoppable shot.
You get what you give.
Stay within the flow.
And, most dear to my heart...
...be there for the moment.