Time Warp


I recently visited my son James, in Northern Virginia, just West of Washington, DC. I arrived on a Thursday evening with plans to stay until the following Thursday morning. James is 22 and has been working at his first job out of college as an environmental engineer for about nine months. He had recently told me that he started playing basketball weekly with some co-workers. This is when I found out about my abject failure as a father.

By most rational standards, my son is quite accomplished. He is an outstanding musician who graduated from a challenging five-year academic program in four years as the star of his department. He gave the graduation address for the largest department in at one of the largest universities in the country. He moved far away from our South Florida residence and is comfortably living on his own. He really only has one significant deficiency. He never learned to play basketball.

To be fair to my legacy as a father, I did try to engage him in the basketball arts. We had a hoop on the side of our pool with a ball that was just the right size for him. He and his friends would use it often, but only for two things, dunking and goaltending. I just couldn’t get any of them to take any interest in shooting, or defense, or passing, or anything that wouldn’t show up on a poster.

My wife asked what the big deal is. I told her my hoops buddies from college didn’t even believe it when I told them. One of them, my friend Dwight, came down to Virginia from New Jersey to see us while I was up North. I bought James a basketball and a pair of appropriate sneakers (he had been using running shoes!). When Dwight arrived on Saturday morning, the three of us walked down to a local court to show him a few things. James told Dwight that his friends called him for a double dribble and he didn’t know what that meant. Dwight shook his head and glared at me with disgust.

My son is 22, Dwight is 55, and I am 56. I am going to intersperse this story with a description of what Dwight and I would have been doing at an age equivalent to my son’s. This would have been around 1980 when Dwight and I were finishing up our college time, and some thirty-three years ago.

There is a single court at the suburban apartment complex where James lives. It’s after ten o’clock in the morning, but the court is empty except for an older Asian woman doing some sort of exercise routine. While she does have a basketball and is actually shooting, there also is a small blanket on the court and some sort of strap and pulley system attached to the pole holding the basket and backboard.

Dwight and I strut to the courts in Irvington, NJ. He’s wearing a pair of Puma “Clyde’s” and I have the high-top Pony’s with the red stripe. There are four courts running eight games of half court. Several people are waiting to play. We head for the court with the best competition and simply say, “I got next.”

My son is beginning to realize the difference between basketball shoes and running shoes for quick stops and cuts. He said the running shoes gave him a few blisters. I point out that it might be the tiny hipster socks that he insists on wearing. I notice that the Asian woman has some sort of music player and is listening to a high-pitched woman singing in English with an accent. I’m guessing that she is Korean.

Almost everybody is wearing tube socks up to the knee and several of the players are wearing two pair. The double sock technique provided more padding so you could play with blisters, a much more common occurrence due to poorer early shoe technology and the fact that we would often play for four to six hours at a stretch. There is a boom box pumping out Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Fantasy. Wait for it…”As Oooooooone”.

James mentions that he isn’t sure when he is fouling and when he isn’t. Dwight and I look at each other…more head shaking. We explain to him that if he is touching someone who has the ball, he is committing a foul. He learns that positioning of the arms, legs, and body to alter your opponent’s path is the key to proper defense. “What if they don’t have the ball?” he asks. “Then, for the most part, you can bust his ass,” says Dwight. More music drifts over. Is that Scarborough Fair? In Korean?

Dwight and I are playing in a game. It’s close, so we are focused on winning since the winning team gets to keep the court. I cut to the basket and Dwight hits me with a pass, but I’m already moving away from the hoop. I pass the ball back up top to him and he glares at me with the ‘You should have shot that’ look. Kurtis Blow is on the radio and several of the spectators bob up and down in unison to “These are the Breaks”. No one sits down and no one takes a breather. Dwight finds an afro pick on the court. It has a Black Power fist for a handle. He picks it up, holds it over his head and says, “Anybody lose a pick?” Simultaneously, fifteen people reach for their back pocket. If it had been a fifty dollar bill, everyone would have just kept walking and muttered, “I know that shit ain’t mine.”

There’s something about basketball that warps reality. Dwight and I are in our mid-fifties. He is plagued by gout and I am morbidly obese. I sometimes get winded going from the couch to the refrigerator and yet out here, we don’t seem to be as affected by age or gravity. A kid comes by with a ball and immediately we ask him to join us for a game. This cannot be a good idea. The Asian woman is now sitting on her blanket in a lotus position. She starts to roll around like a break dancer in slow motion. The singer is now doing. ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’. I need a copy of her mix tape.

We lose a game and step off the court for a drink. Like most of the players, we have jugs of Kool-Aid or similar poison. Dwight is next to a guy drinking that new stuff. “Dude, that shit will kill you,” he says. The guy looks at the label of his Gatorade bottle and replies, “I don’t know, Bro. It’s supposed to replenish your salt that you sweat out. The pros drink it.” A Sister Sledge song comes on.

It’s remarkable how it all comes back. I tell my son that he is not as bad off as I thought, but he just needs to practice. The physical stuff is easy, but the mental part of the game takes time to learn. Moving to an open space, anticipating a pass, when to head fake, and when to drive the lane becomes natural after a while. What really amazed me was how quickly it came back. I haven’t played competitively in nearly two decades. Also, I was surprisingly able to move without dying. Of course, I was playing both the elderly and amateurs, but still. A woman with a toddler walked to the other end of the court. The Asian woman greeted the kid and it was obviously her grandmother. Then the woman lifted one leg and did a split on the backboard pole while hugging both the pole and her extended leg. Thank God we didn’t ask her to play.

A guy shows up wearing a Sixers Erving jersey. He turns out to be the anti-Dr. J. He can’t jump, and he won’t pass the ball. The worst thing is that every time he misses a shot, he calls ‘ball’, indicating that he was fouled. This is considered bad form in street ball. ‘Let’s Get Serious’ comes on the radio. Dude, listen to Jermaine Jackson.

I have the ball under the basket and try to use my body to leverage the kid who is on me. I’d like to get a better shot, but mostly want to show my son some of the techniques he can use with his body while not fouling. The kid moves back and I stumble to the ground. I pop right up mostly embarrassed, but also know that I bruised the muscle on my left side between two of my upper ribs. I also know from five to eight weeks to heal. Still, I keep playing while answering in the affirmative when asked if I’m all right. I know this sounds ridiculous, but now the Asian woman is doing some sort of a headstand. Her head is on the basketball and her body is straight up except for one leg which is against the pole parallel to the ground.

We play a while longer and then head to White Castle for a snack. Over a sack of burgers, we argue about strategy and talk about some of the odder characters. Mostly, we discuss how the young kids lack fundamentals and have no respect for the game.

The Asian woman collects her stuff and heads past us off the court. Up close, she is at least sixty. More power to her. We decide to pack it in and Dwight asks the kid how old he is. “Thirteen,” he replies. The kid thinks James is thirty (must be the beard) and thinks Dwight is twenty-five (I guess black don’t crack). I did not ask him to guess my age. There are no White Castles in this area, but it’s okay since Dwight can no longer take the onions.
The next day, Dwight headed back to New Jersey. We were both sore, but not as much as we expected and were generally unharmed. I guess the important thing is that I showed my kid enough to allow him to play with his friends without embarrassing himself. I guess there’s really not much more a father can do.

© Copyright 2015 – Robert O’Connell. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert O’Connell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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3 thoughts on “Time Warp

  1. Another great story, Bob. You and James enjoy an unbelievable Father and son relationship and I am glad Dwight was there to enjoy it with you.

  2. Pingback: Memorable Sports Moments | thesmartestguyiknow

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