“I can beat any mothafucka in this gym,” the tattooed hood named Mike woofs with typical aloof brashness. “In fact, I can beat anyone in the gym with one hand tied behind my back!” he adds with a wicked smirk while dribbling behind his back over by the four-step bleachers that serve as a hangout spot inside Monterey Recreation Center. A tangle of kids fly in and out of the scene, chasing loose balls, loose change, their own tails, Mike’s tales…
The aging veteran shoots his free throws in silence. One at a time, just like dad taught him in all of those 1980’s backyard shooting sessions. You can’t make but one shot at a time, so concentrate on that one until it’s time for the next.
Work is hell. The layoffs are butchering his staff, and those who haven’t been axed altogether are barely working, struggling by on as little as twelve hours a week. Most everyone in the company is on forced vacation, including the Boss, who is out for another three weeks. When he gets back…
A frail teenaged boy who clearly is in the midst of a significant growth spurt steps up and asks politely if Mike would like to play one-on-one. His arms are no thicker than garden hoses, his legs awkwardly long and undefined. To make his interest clear he successfully palms a ball and holds it out, palm on top, just in front of Mike’s pockmarked face.
“Shiiiit boy! I ain’t got nothing to prove to you! Bring that weak shit.” Mike says, ripping off his shirt for no good reason at all, except that it brings to life the blue wings that are painted onto his chest and shoulders. He moves with effortless grace, chasing the giggling teen that dribbles in scared delight, trying to keep away from the defensive birdman. The peanut gallery starts to cackle, led by a duo of players who never actually play. They sit on the bleachers with beam straight brims and new stickers on their baseball hats, bobbing their heads to unknown rhythms that live in their ear buds.
One called Micah wears an iPhone around his neck on a lanyard. If he ever actually played to his true potential, he would be the best player in the gym. Once, in an unusual flurry of activity, he dunked on the old veteran five straight times in a game of one-on-one, as if to prove a point. He does not seem to like white guys. But showing off for the white kids is different. Or any kids, as there are many human varieties here. Brown, white, black, yellow, Neapolitan.
The free throws don’t come easy. They never have. He has a lefty hitch that never got worked out despite 35 years of regular hoops, and a mean case of short-term muscle memory loss. The goal is to hit ten in a row. Just ten in a row, big deal, no problem. Ten in a row…
The young boy feigns a drive to his left with a deft juke, and then shovels all of his weight into a full bore drive to the right, his face wrenched in a tongue chomping grimace, his gait lanky and athletic like, but still mal-coordinated. At the crux of the key, he pours on the brakes, hoping that his bird shadow will keep diving backwards. In a flash, he lunges upward, his legs springing with every strand of musculature, taking his body to a noticeably new apex, one that he will remember later, in class, while pondering the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the word “glockenspiel”.
The polyester net sings with approval. That’s seven. Seven is lucky; every gambler knows that. But very few of those luck merchants have actually felt it deep in their marrow. Not many people would have gone to Reno with $7777 and let it all ride on one hand of blackjack, and won. Twice! Very few ballers dribble exactly seven times before shooting a free throw. Fewer still would have gotten married on the seventh of July in the year 2007, complete with seven groomsman, seven bridesmaids, seven bands, and a party fueled by 7&&’s. In the veteran’s mind, seven is as close to ten as just about anything, ‘cept eight or nine.
Three more to go, and then one last three pointer (he never leaves the gym, or any court, without making the last shot. To do so would be a sin; to do so would be unlucky.)
Swish. Seven down. Maybe some sit-ups, he thinks. He thinks that he should do some sit-ups or crunches next, maybe a good hundred, to get back into The Routine. Why not start tonight, after the free throws? The ball bounces once on the front of the bent orange cylinder, then bounds high up into the air, against the scuffed Plexiglas backboard, and falls through the hole.
The gangly boy rises farther than he ever has, his thin wrist touches new atmosphere. The ball rolls off of his fingertips like a slow motion dream. His fingers angle down and the hand follows. His form is perfect. And then, rising like a ghetto Phoenix, Mike’s ragged arm enters the airspace where the boy’s shot has dared to intrude. With a vicious, mean swipe the ball reverses direction with ten times the velocity that it carried towards the hoop.
“Woooooooo! DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU SEE THAT muthafucka? Do NOT bring that weak jizz into my world kid!” roars the winged defender.
Commotion. What else is new? Just block it out. Bend the knees, the veteran says to himself. Then the waist, create a solid base, and then rise up from the feet, the body pouring upward through the torso, into the poised arms, the wave moving upward into the hands, then the fingers. Release. Follow through. Always follow through, this is the key. Swish. Follow through is everything.
The red-faced boy takes a seat on the metal bench next to his sprawled, mocking friends. The older guys pack up their shoes into some newfangled shoe sacks, screw on their flat hats, and prattle on about this girl and that one. Micah swaggers off, having spent the better part of two hours on the bench without ever taking a shot.
Hopped up with adrenaline, Mike methodically dons his shirt, putting the birds to bed for the night. His head tilted back and fixed in a smug sneer, he nods to no one and follows his crowd out the door. A small Mexican boy takes a last jab at the conqueror. It is an innocent verbal swipe, something about letting the string bean score on him, but enough to elicit a response in the form of a serious and sustained threat to have his fat ass kicked. Mike saunters off saying “Okay. Okay. Just keep talking you fatass vato muthafucka. You’ll see…” he says slinking out of the gym, his booming voice echoing away in the far corners of the nearly empty three story gym.
One last shot, and then the sit-ups. Ten in a row would be a good way to end the day, a positive transition to the moonlit night. The ball lifts up and arcs toward the rim. Nobody got laid off today, at least none of his guys. The veteran’s brother emailed him and his dad back, interjecting new interest in a long running basketball commentary. Things are moving forward. Doing. Doing. The ball bounces off of the back of the rim, and then the front, and then lifts slightly backwards and into the empty hole, filling it temporarily. Ten in a row. There. It is done. One last shot, some crunches, and then maybe a half pint of scotch. He steps back and fires up a long three pointer, feeling his tired legs protest but pushing them forth. Schkulp. The net sings again.
Over on the bleacher, the embarrassed Latino boy glares at the crowd leaving. His vanquished friend lies on the court floor reliving every moment of his recent defeat, trying to understand failure while rolling a ball back and forth with his right hand.
“That dude works at McDonald’s,” the portly boy remarks to his scrawny friend, emphasizing the business name with pointed disgust.
“Who?” The bean pole asks absently.
“Chh!” he clucks. “Don’t gimme that. Mannn, you know who! MIKE! The dude with the wings who just sent your game back to the 6th grade, that’s who! He works at McDonalds, man.”
For more from Corby…