“This summer, instead of getting a job, I want you to focus on basketball.”
I looked up at my dad, my best friend, my coach for many years, and my biggest fan since forever. He towered over me at six feet and five inches. His hands were raised in expression. Large, swollen knuckles from decades of gripping spheres of leather moved expressively as he spoke. When he talked about basketball, his eyes grew a darker shade of blue and the corners of his mouth turned in ever so slightly. I don’t remember him being any happier than when I ran off the court after my first game on Varsity freshman year, embracing him with my sweat covered body as I hear him whisper, “I’m so proud of you, Erika.” He would recall his teammates of past like familiar friends. He talked of winning the state championship as a senior or the Duke Men’s Tournament with clarity and enthusiasm. I loved the way he spoke about basketball. I loved the way basketball made him light up. But I could never feel the same way.
“Do you play basketball?” When I committed upwards of twenty-five hours a week to the sport, I took pride in this question.
I would always answer with a, “Ya, big surprise, I do.” Basketball became an expectation when I was the tallest kid in my kindergarten class. Or maybe it was when I smiled innocently at the blinding bulbs of studio lights as my first baby pictures were taken with me holding a plush basketball. But maybe it was even before that, when my mom, the quiet freshman volleyball player, fell for the star-studded basketball player in college.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. A montage of endless nights out back shooting free throws until I made ten in a row and early morning drives to the gym suddenly overwhelm me. I smile weakly at my dad and nod. He pulls dramatically from behind his large back a poster board. Drawn across it are rows and columns each belonging to a unique basketball drill. My eyes enlarge and I look up in confusion. He explains that it’s just a guide to help me “work on my game.” I know he means well. He means better than well, in fact. He means to help me guarantee a starting position on Varsity next season. He and I know that if this happens, I’ll get the attention of the coaches. By junior year they’ll come flocking to my tournaments with scholarship offers in hand. Then we’ll all be able to say it was worth it, when I too shine on the court and dribble, pass, and shoot my way through college.
I take the poster from him, overwhelmed, and agree to do my best. I wasn’t scared of my dad. I was scared of playing the sport I hated for at least the next eight years. It felt like a prison sentence.
From its designated place in the laundry room, I grabbed my basketball. Worn, soft, and extra bouncy. I remembered picking it out from the variety of options with my dad a few years earlier.
“You can take them out of the package and try them out, Erika,” he spoke knowledgeably as he popped one out and tossed it to me.
I caught it, examined it, and threw it back, “I don’t like the color.”
He laughed and rolled his eyes, the same way I do, and reached for a higher shelf, the same way I reached for rebounds, extending from my hips, lifting my long arms with purpose. The next ball came as a surprise and I hardly caught it. It felt comfortable as I transferred it from one hand to the other. I smiled and dad smiled back. He pulled his faded leather wallet from his Saturday jeans and “invested in my future.”
“You made Kingdom Hoops? Erika, do you know how many scouts are at those tournaments?”
I nodded as my homely, information driven, semi-close friend, Renee, listed off NBA and Division One players who played for the team in high school. I was shocked to have made the team after an informal tryout late in the season. I thought that maybe if I didn’t get selected, it would be a sign and I would quit once and for all. But mom got the call and called dad at work and we all went out for dinner. They were proud of me. I sat on the edge of my bed just moments before leaving for my first practice on the team. I bent over and ran my fingers over the Nike symbol on my brand new shoes. I laced them, slowly and tightly. I sighed, hoping to clear the butterflies. I pulled my hair back tightly, too tightly, and snapped the rubber band. I nervously sifted through my drawer looking for a replacement. I smoothed my t-shirt into my new shorts and headed up the stairs, basketball in hand.
The drive to the facility dragged by as my mother spoke, her words mute to me. I imagined all the possible drills. In my head, I ran through pieces of advice my dad and I talked over the night before. In my bag I found a note Ashley had drawn of me dunking over what looked like my entire team. I read, “I know you’ll do so well. Love you! Ash.”
“Do you want me to come in or just drop you off?”
I scoffed and laughed nervously as I lied with a simple, “No Mom, I’m fine.” I walked to stairs to the gym focused and brave. The smell of sweat hit me as I opened the door. The sound of shoes squeaking and whistles blowing and plays being called and coaches swearing filled my ears. I froze. At that point I didn’t hate basketball, I was terrified of it.
Three minutes into practice we were both running lines for a “lack of hustle.” My coach lectured us as we ran back and forth base line to base line. Our eyes darted to each other in silent moments of encouragement. Finally, we heard, “start the drill over.” We each moved to our spots, panting, but grateful to be finished. At water breaks I would sit on the floor chugging water, too tired to socialize. Counting down each minute, slowly as the numbers changed on the scoreboard I endured the first practice at Kingdom Hoops.
“It was good. Really good coaching,” I would remark to my parents. They seemed happy, so naturally I thought I should feel the same. The practices didn’t get easier, but I got tougher. I learned how to turn off emotion when doing wall sits for three minutes or running sprints by myself in front of the entire team. I learned to nod when my coach asked me if I really wanted this, if I really wanted to be a college player. I learned plays and would record them in my homemade playbook right after getting out of practice and review them at night in fear of messing up.
This fear of failure dragged me through that season. I would come home from an evening of first my high school practice and then my Kingdom Hoops practice and fall asleep the moment my sore muscles slammed against my bed. I would come home early on Friday nights in order to prepare for Saturdays filled with tournaments and team dinners. I remember the exhaustion that followed a day full of running up and down and across a court vividly. I can recall the achy pain after landing on my feet thousands of times after gathering all my strength to block a shot or grab a rebound.
But I can also remember my dad, sitting on the third row of the bleachers, hands propping up his head in concentration. The way his eyes darted with my movements on the court, analyzing my reactions in order to create a game plan for improvement for the next game. I can so easily remember the way he would smirk and shake his head, as if to say, “Well done,” when I would block a shot and turn to look back at him.
After a weekend of two tournaments in a row, both out of state, I remember dragging my bag across the carpet into my room and collapsing on the floor. Shoes laced, ankle braces tight, jersey reeking of sweat, I cried. I cried deeply and for a long time. I cried because I knew I hated it. I couldn’t deny the fear it stirred up in me, or the constant feeling of pressure every time I stepped on to the court. I was tired of fitting expectations bestowed upon me and just plain tired. My body and soul ached. As I cried, alone, pathetic, and ashamed, the dread filled me, the dread of destroying the dream my father had for me the moment the doctor mentioned my unusual height moments after my welcome into this world.
I angrily zipped open my bag and, through my tear filled eyes, saw my playbook. I ripped out the last page, turned it over and wrote. In rage I blamed my dad for everything. Lines came and paragraphs followed until the entire page was filled. I read it to myself over and over. I read it out loudly. I stood up and paced my room reading it. I opened my bedroom door with momentum, convicted and ready to speak my mind and then stopped. Scenes of my dad lifting me on his shoulders to slam the rubber ball into my five-foot hoop at a young age faded into view. Late nights throwing shots from half court and screaming in celebration when one of us made it followed. Scenes from our trip to the NBA stores in New York ushered in remembrances of the tears of joy I saw out of the corner of my eye when we leaped in celebration as Duke won the National Championship in Indianapolis. Slowly, quietly, and purposefully, I stepped back from the door. I sat on the edge of my bed, holding the note. I folded it once, twice, three times. I pulled out the faded shoebox from under my bed. I slid it in. I sat back up. I wiped the tears from my eyes and slowly unlaced my dirty, worn shoes. I slipped each brace off with caution. I didn’t bother with the jersey; a sort of comfort came from being in it. I lifted my legs to the edge of my bed and I slept. I endured the rest of that season. I listened to lectures from my dad about how I didn’t show enough passion or drive on the court. I decided that my relationship with him was more important than my relationship to basketball. I played basketball for the college offers, for the strangers that insisted on asking me if I did, for my terrifying coach, for my younger brother, in his matching jersey, but more than anything else, I played basketball for my dad.
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