At UCLA, one of my favorite things to do was watch the men’s basketball team practice. This was before they started closing practices. This story was written after one of those afternoons spent in quiet solitude watching one of my favorite sports.
At Home on the Hardwood
My favorite time of the day is 3 pm. That’s when they wheel us out. It’s only for three hours, but it’s so much fun that it’s worth staying in the lockerroom for the other twenty-one hours of the day.
Right after they wheel us out onto the hardwood, under the bright fluorescent lights, the guys start coming out. We always fight over who will get chosen first and who got Ray last and who will get to work with Earl today. It’s all luck of the draw though, because whoever came in last one day will always go out first the following day. We all know it, but our enthusiasm (and the heat of the fluorescent lighting) makes us excitable. And, of course, we all want to be the first to be heard.
At first, some of us are bound to get left behind in the rack, but by now we know that eventually we’ll all be needed. The best feeling is when the hands reach down into the rack and pick me up. And that first dribble, it’s so awkward and yet exhilarating at the same time. I’m usually a little stiff from being in the racks for so long, and it takes a couple dribbles for me to get acquainted with the feel of my partner. Earl’s got the softest touch and plays with the most speed, so I have to admit that he’s my favorite. He’s pretty popular with all of us. A day with Dan can be a little tiring because I’m constantly being thrown forcefully through the hoop. But he’ll always protect me against scratching and grabbing hands, so I know he’s never trying to harm me. Working with Rico is a trip because he’s always yelling and urging on his teammates and me. After working with him for twenty minutes one day, I couldn’t hear and had to sit out the rest of practice.
Eventually, though, we all get mixed up. I might work with guards for a while or I might work with the big guys. Working with the guards is tiring. I’m constantly bouncing, being chest-passed, and trying to find the net. And if you get into the hands of a guy having an “off” day, it can be pretty brutal hitting that rim over and over and over again. Working with the big guys is a lot slower. We often have to stop while they work out the problems without me. But when they get going, there’s all sorts of grabbing and pushing. One time I got knocked so hard off the glass that I bounced clear over to the other half of the court where the guards were, ricocheted off Ryan’s back, off Earl’s ankle, and into the third row of the bleachers. I tried to roll back out, (sometimes they forget about you if you don’t) but I was stuck. Luckily a student manager saw me a little later, and I made it back for the scrimmage. I sure was sore that night, and I prayed that I’d get to play with the guards the next day.
We get competitive when it comes time for the scrimmages. Only one of us can participate, so we all try to roll into just the right spot to be chosen. Again, though, this is all luck, but we still like to pretend that the chosen ones have somehow demonstrated a certain court savvy. The other day I got picked for a scrimmage–blue vs. white. The white team was harsh. Not only did they keep throwing me off the glass and at the rim, but Earl kept punching at me on defense. I began to wonder if he was still angry at me for hitting his ankle that one day. To make matters worse, Rico was yelling so much that I couldn’t concentrate and sometimes just bounced myself right out of bounds. Then one of the guys would smack me between his hands and bounce me hard just once against the floor. I don’t like getting in trouble because it hurts. Boy, between my mistakes, the white team’s bricks, and the blue team’s inability to hold onto me, that scrimmage lasted forever. When it was over, I practically rolled myself over to the rack, lest any of the guys would want me for extra shooting practice.
On normal days, I get to relax at the end of practice with some free-throw shooting. This is nice because I usually get to hang out with one guy for a while. The pace is slow and relaxed, so he’ll talk to me and I really get to know him. I guess I should say it’s relaxing for everyone except the one Travis picks. Let’s just say that when I see Travis walking toward me, I try to roll away or hide under Mrs. Gatorade, a coach’s leg, or anywhere. Not only is Travis’s touch not smooth, but you’ll pretty much never see the soft, nylon net. You’re hitting glass, the rim, bleachers, and everything but the net. It’s an awful experience which I’ve had, luckily, only five times. A while ago, though, Travis took a liking to one of our older ones–dark brown and quite smooth with age. Travis looked for him everyday. One day, after about a month of this, the old one disappeared. He didn’t come back to the rack with us that night, and we haven’t seen him since. We think Travis drove him into retirement.
Around 6 pm, the guys start to drop us back in the racks, and they go back into the lockerroom. Once everyone’s gone, we immediately begin asking each other who felt Ray’s horribly scratchy blister or who had a difficult time getting used to Earl’s strange new grip because of his torn webbing or how many times Ryan made his goofy stick-my-tongue-out-at-you face. I’m usually a bit sad when the guys start leaving because it’s always so much fun with them. One day, though, it was after practice when I realized why the hardwood is the true joy in my life.
It was a Thursday like any other. All the others were in the rack and had been wheeled away already. But I was picked up by the very last person left on the court, a student manager. Mrs. Gatorade had long been carted off, and the jerseys, stationary bike, towels–dirty and clean–and everything else were gone. He picked me up and started dribbling. I was thinking about how tired I was and wondering how they forgot to put me in the rack. But when I heard the echo that I made in the silent gym, I was inspired. I’d never heard myself so clearly before. Then he went to midcourt and announced, through an announcer’s voice, that the Bulls were down by 2 with 12 seconds left in the 7th game of the Finals. He started counting down the seconds of an imaginary clock as he slowly dribbled me toward the hoop. This was our Championship. When he got to the three-point line, as he counted down “5, 4, 3…”, he spotted up and released me just as he reached “2, 1…” And as he made the sound of the buzzer, I fell gracefully through the net. As I fell to the hardwood floor, I think I heard the crowd cheering.