On its surface, basketball is a game of creating distance.
The men in my family are good at this game
After the fire, the divorce, and the floods, my older brother and I found ourselves growing up in a new house. The new house came with a new father, two new sisters, and the same mother.
Some setting: it’s San Diego in the late 90s. It’s all Clinton and Jordan and Y2K.
Some stats on the new father: he drove a dented minivan; he shaved with an electric trimmer in his car on the way to work and the underside of his jaw always seemed tender and razor-burnt; he ate tacos incorrectly, biting the top of the shell which caused the bottom to split, and though it happened every time, he somehow seemed confused by the inevitable mess in his lap.
In other words, my brother and I quickly understood that he, too, wouldn’t make the cut. One of the new sisters sang show tunes and the other one smoked cheap weed all day and wrote mean things about the other sister in sharpie on the underside of her desk.
Our real father was in time-out, so to speak. For those who missed the action, a quick highlight reel: the Harmony Grove fire of 1996 took our house, put ash on our tongue, taught us the importance of backing up our files. Dad was beat but not broken. We overstayed our welcome in hotels and neighbors’ houses until we settled in a one-story. Then, for two years straight, the El Niño storms kept us up to our ankles in a band of warm ocean water. In the meantime, mom wrapped herself in infidelity and ill-fitting real estate blazers. It was too much. Our parent’s marriage fell apart like a natural disaster, and our dad moved back to his home city of Los Angeles, where a nineteen-year-old Kobe Bryant was getting his first real taste of heartbreak from the Utah Jazz. But the game goes on whether or not you’re playing. Substitutions were made.
My brother and I quickly became disinterested in this new generic brand version of what we called family. We spent most of our time in the side yard. It was a thin strip of concrete that ran parallel to the kitchen, interrupted by a massive bay window jutting out over the sink. We had one of those free-standing basketball hoops held down by a hollow base you’d fill with water. In the summer, the water would go green with algae. A missed shot that hit the hoop’s base would be coated in a thin warm slime. So, you know, don’t miss.
We were six and twelve. Defensively, my options were limited. My only real hope was to be a pest and swarm my brother with a tiny barrage of quick hands. He’d run around, swimming in his Baron Davis jersey, his hair perfectly parted down the middle and mouth full of braces. I was small with a chubby face and potbelly—a stir stick of a kid still stewing in the baby fat of my younger days. The two of us were uncool and completely devoid of self-consciousness without knowing the power of either of those things.
When you’re big, you don’t need to create distance to score; the distance is built in. You can enforce your will and simply shoot over people. I had to be creative. I was little enough to scurry underneath the bay window, dribbling low to the ground as I snuck out the other side. It was a maneuver that bought me a few feet of space so I could heave something up—a broken hook, a weird jumper.
I remember those games clearly. We would swear and laugh and spit and scrape our knees and blister our feet and play until the sun went down and we couldn’t see the hoop anymore. My brother always established a big lead early, then slowly let me back into the game only to turn up the defense for the last couple of points. This game of false hope should be familiar to any younger sibling. It’s a cruel and narrow window, sometimes just large enough to squeeze out a miracle—a backward chuck, a full-court prayer. It’s the first of many basketball lessons our dad taught us: no matter who you think you are, anyone, on any given night, can beat you. I didn’t know much, but I was learning how to lose each and every day.
The backyard where I learned how to play basketball is the same place where our mother sipped wine and took slow, exaggerated drags from a pack of Marlboro Golds all night. One morning, she told us we needed to find a way to get rid of the possums in the backyard because they stressed her out while she smoked. We fired up the family computer and found a simple set of instructions:
1) Fill a trash can with rancid meat;
2) Set the can at a 45-degree angle;
3) When the possum walks in, the weight of the animal will straighten the can, trapping it inside.
So, we did. We rummaged the fridge for something old—last week’s swordfish and mango salsa—propped up several trash cans with boogie boards, and went to sleep.
In the morning, we woke to find that we caught three possums: a mother and two joeys. Most boys are capable of catching an animal. Catching an animal is a game. It’s hide-and-seek; it’s fetch; it’s tag. But what comes next? What to do with a caught animal? That’s something else entirely.
After his brief hiatus, our dad decided that he did, in fact, want in on this family thing. In my mind, the gap was something akin to a CD skipping, a small disruption in the regularly scheduled programming.
Our dad performed the fatherhood equivalent of hitting the gym in the offseason: he went to therapy, he gave up smoking, he got a steady job, he drove from LA to San Diego every weekend just to see us. He put in the work. If you had some lurking memory of a rookie dad—someone quitting on the team, someone knocking your tooth out in a department store—cut it from the film reel in your mind. This guy was new and improved, reinvented. He took a nap and made us dinner at the exact same time every day. He kept every receipt for every purchase he made after being audited in the year 2000. He printed out every work email he ever sent and filed them away in banker boxes in his closet. Needless to say, this was someone you could really build a franchise around.
About halfway through high school, our dad won a decade-long custody battle by default. He never got the satisfaction of an actual victory. No judge ever appointed him full custody over us, but he ran out the clock by becoming the most relentlessly responsible parent possible. My brother turned eighteen and could make his own decisions. And, after a few years, our mother, twice divorced by then, in-and-out of rehab, simply threw in the towel. But hey, a win is a win.
Eventually, the three of us guys lived in a two-bedroom apartment together. My brother and I shared a room, which, when you consider the age difference—fifteen and twenty-one—seems impossible, but we made it work. We respected each other’s distance. I’d go to high school, he’d go to junior college, and we’d meet afterward at Stagecoach Park to play basketball.
Basketball is always a mental sport, but when you play against the same person over and over again, it becomes something else. It’s like playing against a mirror. You know each other so well—every move, every jab, every facial expression—it becomes a game of over-anticipation. Because he thinks I’m going to do this, I’ll actually do that. But then, of course, he learns that, and the next thing, and that thing you saw on TV the other day that he’s been waiting to try out: Iverson’s crossover, Shaq’s jump hook, a bastardized version of Carter’s between-the-legs dunk. At the end of the day, no matter who you’re playing, the only real conclusion is to just be yourself. Or rather, to be yourself better than the other person can anticipate.
For what it’s worth, we grew up in the age of Kobe: a deeply flawed and maniacally talented basketball player who managed to capture the popular imagination in the years before advanced analytics, social media, or the #MeToo movement. Kobe crafted such a pervasive mythology—baring his teeth into an unnatural gesture of aggression after hitting an off-kilter jumper, bestowing himself laurels and nicknames when no one else would—that it didn’t really matter what the numbers showed. Kobe played like an homage to himself—theatrical, oversaturated, a heedless alpha dog barking at no one, everyone—but we didn’t care. We loved the Black Mamba, even if he was a man in the ugliest kind of way. We tried to tell ourselves that at the end of the day, basketball is entertainment. We needed to believe it was pure entertainment because to reckon with Bryant’s accuser, his rape trial, or his settlement would force us to acknowledge something ugly and true about ourselves: that we were willing to overlook his failings because we appreciated his athletic prowess. Nine times out of ten, fans would rather cheer for an athlete than grapple with the reality and consequences of off-court abject failure. Nine times out of ten, fans won’t grapple with the toxic masculinity of a sport they love. We were no exception.
My brother and I cut out newspaper stories about Kobe’s performances and taped them to our bedroom walls, memorizing all his key stats, overlooking the aforementioned accusations, hoping that somehow we could transcend the useless containers of our short, frail bodies and play in the NBA one day.
A boring truth: when we still lived with our mother, she would get drunk and barge into our rooms, ripping all the clippings off the walls and curse at no one, at everyone.
Watching basketball with my dad and brother was the closest thing we had to tradition. We were raised without religion in a divorced family with a disdain for formality. For about two hours and fifteen minutes, it was a time when we came together, ate greasy take-out, and yelled the same seven phrases at the television.
— That’s a foul!
— That wasn’t a foul!
— Did you see that?
— Oh, come on!
— Here we go!
— It’s a game of runs, boys.
That last one in particular was our dad’s favorite, and perhaps the only one that requires a bit of explanation. On a technical level, it simply means that basketball is a long game often defined by short scoring bursts. Both teams trade buckets or defensive stops in an equilibrium until one of them breaks away and strings together eight to ten points in a row. More generally, our father would use this phrase whenever he saw either of us getting too worked up about the outcome of the game.
For emotionally stunted straight men in the suburbs, sports are one of the few arenas in which one has the freedom to get hysterical. You can yell, you can cry, you can throw a remote across the room, and all will be forgiven as manly, heteronormative devotion.
Whereas us boys were drawn to the self-destructive flashy genius of Kobe, our father much preferred the slow mathematical precision of Tim Duncan. His trademark post-up bank shot was a thing of beauty in the way that brake pads or tax returns are beautiful. Boring, efficient, tireless, dependable. There was no flare to Duncan’s game. He barely even jumped to shoot the ball. He played basketball with the doe-eyed calm of someone running errands. One only needs to know his various nicknames to understand why he appealed so much to our father: the Big Fundamental, Groundhog Day, Old Man Riverwalk, and the Stone Buddha.
It’s a game of runs, boys. Life is a series of bursts and if you put your full heart into every crest and breaker you’ll exhaust yourself. It’s better to stand the tide, stay focused, and keep moving forward. It’s better to be a Stone Buddha than a Black Mamba. Your mother is a great story, but when you’re raising children through fires and floods, it’s better to be a boring truth.
A list of non-basketball things that have taken place on my basketball courts:
— They converted the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA gymnasium—rank with the smell of sweat—into a dancefloor for all the sixth-graders in the northern San Diego area to dry hump each other to the tune of OutKast, Usher, Chingy, and Nelly. I remember the fear and exhilaration of sliding my thumb through the empty belt loop of Clarissa Harkins’s jeans while we grinded against each other, thinking it was quite possibly the sexiest thing that anyone had ever done. After the dance, we kissed, and she put her number into my Nokia 3310, an indestructible brick of Danish engineering, which in my heart and soul is still the perfect cell phone.
— They split the boys and girls into separate classrooms for sex ed., giving us surreal tours through the fallopian tubes and vas deferens, with animations that looked more like space exploration than anything human, obliterating our collective sense of self. Then the bell rang and everybody wandered, shell-shocked and prudish, into recess. I remember standing on the outdoor basketball courts, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was as if all our suspicions were confirmed: boys and girls are so fundamentally different, it’s a miracle we can communicate at all.
— It might have been September 11, with teachers dragging Magnavox televisions into the gym and swearing in front of us for the first time. Maybe a suicide or a drunk-driving incident, causing our principal to call an emergency assembly in the gym, to loosen his tie and give a pained speech on the importance of feeling our emotions as a group. Or a “shooter on campus” drill, where local law enforcement threw flash-bang noisemakers and shot revolvers loaded with blanks. Students hid in the gym, joking and flirting through a recreation of an event so horrific, you couldn’t possibly expect us to take it seriously. For all our naivety, we knew that when the worst comes knocking, sometimes all you can do is laugh.
Right now, I’m loosely a member of two basketball clubs. One is a group of guys in their forties who meet at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 a.m. They play “old man basketball,” meaning they barely run or jump, have very high basketball IQs, are excellent passers, and if they get to their spots, shoot around eighty percent from the field. I’m the youngest guy on the squad and provide little to no value. It’s not that I’m terrible; rather, I’m an unnecessary quantity in a near-perfect system of slow, half-court playmaking.
Like fathers and sons in front of the television, we shout the same seven phrases at each other. A real crowd-pleaser is when someone declares a mid-air shot is “Off,” and then if it ends up rimming in, the shooter finishes, “Off—ully good!” It’s the sort of dumb, call-and-response, shared language of sports that I absolutely love. I’ve spent so much of my life wondering what to say; the beautiful thing about sports is that provides a script to read with anyone else wearing the same colors.
The other group is a bunch of writers, editors, and radio producers in the Bay Area that play at the Chinatown courts in Oakland. We meet with no regularity, and it’s mostly an excuse to get drinks and sloppy cheeseburgers at a beer garden a few blocks away after we play. I remember one water-break conversation:
“I’m not really that into sports.”
“How can you not like sports? They’re just stories with numbers.”
It’s probably still the most succinct argument for sports that I’ve heard. The story of basketball is one recited with taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, or family members with the same level of familiarity. The icebreaker—crafting elaborate narratives around randomly generated sets of numbers—is arbitrary, but the certainty of immediately forming connections with strangers is nothing short of magic.
After my girlfriend and I started dating, she also got into basketball. One morning after a particularly long call with her dad, she declared, “I totally get why men like sports. I just talked to my dad for an hour about nothing.”
Is there anything more beautiful than the ability to talk about nothing with everyone? Is there any social currency stronger than an impersonal way to connect on a deeply emotional level? Sports is a strange marriage of statistics and sentiment. Nothing and everything is at stake. No one and everyone cares.
Technically, a game is only forty-eight minutes, but time is a funny thing on a basketball court. “Basketball time” is one of those unspoken concepts that makes perfect sense to fans but can baffle others. It’s the notion that while some parts of the game flow in real-time, others—particularly the last two minutes of a game—slow to a crawl, lasting four to five times what’s advertised. There are fouls, timeouts, commercials, play reviews, and awful banter from the commentators. It gives the illusion that time slows down for the moments that matter, which might be true. For a sport known for its ballet-like fluidity, things are hardly beautiful in basketball time. Everything grinds to a halt. Nothing is given. Injuries occur.
April 12, 2013: the eightieth regular season Lakers game. The Lakers hosted the Golden State Warriors. Despite adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash the previous summer, the Lakers had an unexpectedly poor season. They needed to win to make the playoffs. Kobe had logged brutal minutes throughout the spring and was doing it again. He played virtually the entire game, despite hyperextending his left knee early in the second half. Golden State was up 109 to 107 with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter. Kobe made a move that we have seen thousands of times before—pushing off his left foot in an attempt to drive past forward Harrison Barnes. Upon planting, though, Kobe crumpled to the floor.
It’s a strange thing, seeing a reliable machine fail. Seeing a hero crash to earth. It’s the same unsettling surprise you feel when you flick the light switch and nothing happens. There’s a moment of disbelief as you stand in the dark, toggling the switch. You’re stuck there for as long as it takes to remember that everything has an expiration date.
Kobe knew it immediately. His face, normally a mask of pure aggression, fell completely slack as he paced the length of the court. For the first time in a long time, he looked human. You could see it in the way he was walking, like someone moving across a sheet of very thin ice. In a moment that would further cement his mythology, he still shot and made both of his free throws, then walked himself off the court. Standard medical theory says this should be impossible on a torn Achilles, but we all watched it happen. It was enough to get the win and provide momentum for the Lakers to limp into the postseason where Tim Duncan and the Spurs promptly swept them in the first round.
It was one of the last basketball lessons our dad taught us: Father Time is undefeated. This is the basketball version of entropy. Heat will always leave a system, things fall into chaos, and no matter how good you are, your body will eventually betray you.
My brother and I got the email on March 11, 2018. The subject line read “Update.”
On that day, the Timberwolves beat the Warriors 109-103, the Jazz beat the Pelicans 116-99, the Rockets beat the Mavericks 105-82, the Nuggets beat the Kings 130-104, the Bulls beat the Hawks 129-122, the Raptors beat the Knicks 132-106, and our father emailed us to let us know that he had stage four pancreatic cancer.
A boring truth: basketball was invented as a lark to keep a group of rowdy students entertained on a winter day in Springfield, Massachusetts. A teacher nailed two peach baskets ten feet above the floor, gave them a soccer ball, and said “hey, knock yourselves out.” It was invented because it was too cold outside. It started as a distraction and that’s all it will ever be.
Hospital waiting rooms are all the same: ugly 80s carpets, a grid of wooden chairs, bad coffee, two or three televisions that play local news and home improvement shows. Or in our particular case, for the entire month of March, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than forty-five thousand Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year and more than thirty-eight thousand will die. The overall survival rate is only six percent. There are no early detection tests, no effective long-term treatments, and unless caught in its earliest stages, no cure. When we asked a private nurse what the absolute, glass-half-full, best-case scenario was for our dad, she said three months.
Sports and cancer do not have much in common, but they are both stories with numbers—numbers that have the power to eviscerate you in their dull simplicity. Twenty-four seconds left. Two quarters to go. Three months.
We sat in waiting rooms during biopsies, PET scans, CAT scans, MRIs, and blood work. We sat in waiting rooms for chemo, bed changes, suppositories, ports, and catheters. We took unreadable notes and tried to remember all the names of all the medications for all the different body parts. We watched waiting room television without processing a single frame. Maybe UMBC beat Virginia in a historic upset, maybe Marshall did the same to Wichita State. I couldn’t tell you.
When a loved one is sick, you’re in the vortex. You live in the lobby, the hospital cafe, the pharmacy, and the most frightening corners of online health forums. For continuity, let’s say the suburbs of Vegas in early spring. It’s all Trump and cacti and roundabouts.
In the beginning, my brother and I took turns flying out every other week, so there would always be someone to take care of our dad. As things progressed, we both moved to Vegas full-time. Quite early on, we decided that we needed a healthier way to spend our time than heavy drinking. We joined a fancy twenty-four-hour gym. Like many things in that city, it was expensive, overblown, and despite being billed as a fitness center, still had a wet bar. Mainly, we joined because it had two full indoor basketball courts we could access any time. Almost every night, often as late as 1 or 2 a.m., we played basketball and attempted to process whatever fresh hell that day had served.
We were children again, helpless, scared, and hoping to create some distance from the real world by performing the same motions, again and again. Sometimes we’d talk like coaches—imagining each and every possibility for our father and what that would mean for the small team of our family. Other times we played in near silence, the only noise being the dolphin squeak of shoes against hardwood, echoing throughout the empty gym.
Frequently, we mimicked the moves of our father on the court. He didn’t have a ton of them, but he had Magic Johnson’s skyhook down pat. When we were kids, he used to do something he called the “orangutan defense.” Crouching down, he swung his arms over his head and made monkey noises like “Ooo, ooo, ooo.” It made us laugh so hard we’d fall down, and then he’d just scoop the ball up and lay it in while we rolled around on the floor.
Then of course, he had his free throws. Not only was our dad great from the charity stripe, but he loved the whole process. To be clear, free throws are no one’s favorite part of the game. The clock stops for this portion, and they are generally considered a natural but humdrum byproduct of an otherwise unpredictable game. It fit his whole aesthetic exactly: do the easy stuff well and the hard stuff will take care of itself. If someone missed a free throw during a game, he’d yell, “Come on, they call them free for a reason!” and we would laugh, even though we’d heard this joke a million times before. Perhaps that’s the most important part of the shared language of sports—no one should have to read lines by themselves. You say the same things over and over, not because you think the other person doesn’t know, but because you want them to remember they’re not watching this alone. All the recycled phrases, all the high-fiving, all the talk about nothing, it’s a dozen different ways of testing the same connection: how nice it is that we’re all in this together.
The Final Two Minutes
I got the call at 11:39 p.m. on May 7, 2018.
On that day, the 76ers beat the Celtics 103-92, staving off elimination in a must-win game at home; the Cavs beat the Raptors 128-93, sweeping the top-seeded team in the East in embarrassing fashion. Sure, most people knew the Raptors would lose, but not like that. It wasn’t even a contest. They got killed.
When the call came, I was lying on my back on an exercise mat. My brother decided to skip the gym that night, so I went alone. I remember staring at the ceiling, stretching my right thigh across the left side of my body, pushing myself to that elastic limit where the muscle starts to vibrate in place.
There are all these invisible boundary lines within your own body. You don’t know they’re there until you cross them. This is as much as I can take, you might think. But if you make a habit of pushing these limits, you can extend the borders a little farther out.
One final basketball lesson from dad: you are capable of so much more than you think—more success, more failure, more love, more resilience, more heartache than you ever thought could fit inside one puny body.
The difference between a boring truth and a great story is erasure. We drowned those possums in the trashcans, but that’s not a great story. I could describe the way my father’s mouth hung open when he died, but it makes my heart feel like busted-up concrete, and it’s not a great story. Most of basketball is spent not playing. Most of writing is spent not writing. Most of everything is nothing and yet we’re all still here until we’re not. I wanted to scrub the previous six months with a piece of steel wool until all that remained was something thin and polished, but I couldn’t. I found myself stuck in the last two minutes of a game that wouldn’t end and things are hardly ever beautiful in basketball time.
From a twenty-seven-minute conversation with my dad on Sunday, March 18, recorded on my iPhone at Summerlin Hospital:
(5:26 p.m.) “The only real thing I’m feeling is shock. Just… really? But most of my life I’ve been saying that. Really? You think this is going to beat me? Nope. Nothing’s gonna beat me. You know, I truly want to keep a good, happy attitude through this because, if I don’t, then they win. I just don’t know who they are—’cause those are the people I’d like to take into the back room. But it seems like it’s always been that way for me. Things have never come easy. The truth of the matter is I’ve always picked the hardest roads.”
It’s still unclear who they are in this instance. They might be anyone who ever rooted against him: his parents, his ex-wife, his past life, or maybe just some anthropomorphized version of cancer personified. Whoever they are, they’re on the other team. And in sports, that’s enough to hate their guts.
Regardless, one thing is clear. If this was a game of will, if this was a game of keeping an indomitable spirit no matter what the other side threw at you, if this was a comeback game, coming back from fire, from flood, from divorce, from distance, then there’s no question. He went undefeated. My dad: he won, he won, he won.
At its heart, basketball is a game of connection.
The men in my family are still good at this game.
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.