My first basketball hoop was on the gravel lot behind my childhood home, nailed fixed to an old garage — the old wooden kind built in the 70′s that was more barn than anything else. I remember shooting a lot from straighter angles. I learned early on that if I missed from the corners, the long rebound would make me chase the ball into the edge of the lot, filled with #57 gravel that would turn your ankle and lodge in your shoe. And instead of compensating by practicing from the corners, I shot from the elbows. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe not.
There was a three point contest during a tournament one winter where you didn’t have to move from rack-to-rack. You got to shoot from wherever you wanted, and your teammates had to funnel rebounds to you. I won handily. Imagine my surprise when the next team we played ran a full-court press on me so I could barely dribble the ball.
Basketball is a lonely sport. That’s why I liked it growing up. I am temperamental and often anti-social. I had a hard time keeping friends. So I practiced, first in the gravel lot behind my home, then on the concrete in front of the new house we built next door. I practiced in gyms after the team had left, the benefits of being the son of a coach who had keys. And when I was isolated and removed from schooling as a teenager, the empty court was the one place in the middle of a nippy October morning I felt comfortable. Alone.
Strange how that feeling never leaves you. Nostalgia, I guess you’d call it.
And here I am, again. By myself. There are many reasons we aren’t together. They’re all valid, I suppose. Four years is a long time to be with someone. Especially when you’re young. When the world is seemingly one thing, and by the start of a new year it is another. Where do you go when you’ve given it your all and seen nothing in return? When you ask someone for their love, and they can’t give it. When you ask them to marry you, and they won’t.
Late at night, after all the folks have gone home to care for their children, I’m left with unfamiliar faces. The elderly, the unconcerned, the out of shape. On the treadmill, each step whines with pressure, talking to me. Fuck. You. I. Don’t. Ever. Want. To. See. You. Again. Adrenaline pushes me onward.
I find myself where I’ve been time after time. In an empty gym, the ball in my hands. My knees aching. Sweat soaked through every fiber of cotton, but I lace up all the same. It smells faint of dust, barely wiped by a broom, and of sweat evaporated off the hardwood and into the exposed rafters above.
The routine is always the same. Five shots from each side, under the basket. Use the left. Remember to use the left. Then five more from the block. Find the stroke, push with the elbow and not the hand. Now from the top of the key. Time to lose track and go until it feels good. Or not. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I get lost in the smooth snap of the net. I don’t care that it feels good to hear it, even though it does. I don’t care about anything, not in here. That’s why I’m here.
She’s never left me. I’ve been away, I’ve been unfaithful. Unhealthy. Out of shape. Disinterested. Effete. I used to spend dark nights in January under motion-activated lights, hands dirty and cold but still loving. Here I am, years later, and it’s still here. It will always be here. And it will always make me feel the same. It’s unfair how little I have to put in for it to be worthwhile. But basketball doesn’t know any better. It doesn’t know how to be unappreciated. To be upset. To be hurt. It can only be there. Sometimes that’s all you need. It’s all I want. So I can get lost. In the dust of the gravel. The dark of the night.
So I can shoot from the elbows.