DJ races under the schoolyard hoop to snatch my ball and fling it over the rusted chain link into the street. The ball skids in the gutter in front of the bus riders who hoot and point and I get embarrassed and mad all at the same time.
“Boy you’re nothin’ playin’ in this school yard cage.” DJ shouts it every day walking through the gate after throwing my ball. “Real players run at River Park.”
Tires screech and horns honk when I fetch my ball and I say a couple of bad words hoping the grownups at the bus stop don’t hear me. If anyone tells my momma what I’m saying, my momma would wash out my mouth with soapy water, even if I am a foot taller.
Today, same as always, I’m weaving through the jagged shadows working my game, and same as always, DJ throws his wife-beater over his shoulder and grabs my ball. Only this time he doesn’t throw it in the street. “I’m takin’ this ball to the River. You’re nothin’ here, a big zeeeero. I’ll take it for my game. You want your ball, it’s at River courts—you gotta be player enough to take it.”
I picked up cans for pennies and ran errands for quarters to buy my ball. I dug in the gutter for nickels no one else wanted bad enough to get their hands dirty, while getting laughed at by codgers and kindergarteners, and when my big angry mouth howls it makes a ringing in my ears. “You better have your A game ready!”
I see heads turn all the way up at the 7-Eleven and I feel really dumb.
Have your A game ready.
Me and my mouth yelled have your A game ready. Original. Maybe I’ll start a basketball team and call it the Globetrotters.
Making it worse, a couple of girls from school are pushing through the gate the other way and I see them right after I yell.
“You playin’ DJ at River Park?”
One of the girls, Amber, sat behind me in school my whole life. “You goin’ to run at the River courts?”
I always feel good when Amber’s around, except this time I feel really dumb after she heard me yell, like a worse thing that got worse. I’m a beat up wall someone spray-painted ugly pictures on, only I did it myself.
It didn’t matter what grade I was in, I always thought Amber was cool and for sure she was always nice—giving me a smile, helping me with my work. This year she’s the prettiest girl, at least to me, with her long legs and snappy boots, and I have trouble getting any words to come out when she’s around.
“Let me know when you go down to the River, I’ll come watch you.” She tosses her head around and her hair brushes past my face. “Maybe.”
It’s like she’s opening then closing a door after looking out.
I don’t know if she’s teasing or real. Would Amber go down to the roughest park in the city? I’m supposed to tell her I’m going to River Park probably to get my head carved off?
How do you know what a girl’s really thinking?
Whichever way, I feel really, really dumb and really, really embarrassed. Amber hearing my big mouth makes me feel I have to go to River Park, makes me think I have no choice. Maybe I don’t.
Maybe I just never faced up to it—schoolyard players are nothing. On the River courts, you learn the game. The real fact is no one plays varsity ball without playing at the River, and I want to be a varsity player like I want nothing else—there is nothing else. I want to run when the band plays. I want the ball in my hands while the gym rocks.DJ and I have a history—it’s not what you think.
DJ lives one block up and even though he’s older, all the time he went one on one with me at the schoolyard. “You and me. I’m going to have your lunch.”
DJ would always win and trash talk me all day and the next day, too. But that was ok. It was like DJ was training me, like he was trying to build up my game and he built it up enough for me to play JV ball last season—the only 9th grader to dress with the varsity.
Now, DJ wants to jam me up against the inside of this chain link cage, like he’s looking for a fight every day. I’m a dog and DJ stole my bone.
DJ knows I’ve got skills, everybody does. When my jump shot jingles the chains on the schoolyard rim, it raps soul-moving music. Shing—boom, thump thump.
But there’s more to basketball than skills.
“You gotta get some want to’s.” DJ said it, and I know it.
I did everything but tap dance on the corner to come up with the money for my ball, and if anyone would have thrown me a nickel, I would have done that. I had to have that ball. I had to work my skills and I work my skills every day. I guess DJ never saw those “want to’s.”
Or maybe I never showed DJ the want to’s when score was kept.
Maybe I just never faced up to it—schoolyard players are nothing. On the River courts, you learn the game. The real fact is no one plays varsity ball without playing at the River, and I want to be a varsity player like I want nothing else—there is nothing else. I want to run when the band plays. I want the ball in my hands while the gym rocks.
The shadows creep back to make room for the schoolyard citizens and my friends show. “Yogi, Stack—come on guys, let’s walk down to River courts.”
“That would be crazy. Those cats are big.”
Nice pals—always have my back. “You can just watch.”
“We’re just watchin’ here.” Yogi kicks his shoelaces in front of his Jordans. “Where’s your ball?”
I keep my mouth shut, but my face gets a little hot.
Stack hikes his jeans back over his skinny butt and drifts toward the school steps where Amber and a couple of girls are hanging and watching us with one eye. “River cats are bad. Better prospects here. Let me know how it comes out.”
“Stick around.” Yogi jumps, grabs the rim chains and pulls up. “You’ll find trouble if you go down to the River—bad trouble. It’s Mars, man, it’s another world.”
I keep selling a walk down to the River—I could easier sell rust to a junkyard.
Stack shuffles back. “Yeah, man, stay here. River ball is nothin’ but bad news. We can play here. We’ll keep the court all day if we want.” Stack turns half around and points his chin at the school steps. “Like I said, better prospects, too.”
I’ve been telling myself I’ve got the skills—jumpers and cross-overs and step backs, but that’s not a game. I figure out that I’ve just been fooling myself and I hear my angry mouth again. “I’ll never have a varsity game if I hang around this schoolyard.”
“No problem man, just tell ‘em to send us your body—we’ll take care of arrangements.”
* * *
At the River courts, a basketball rolls to my feet and hops on my finger, spinning easy as a gull flies overhead. A joke with his belly pushing against a worn out City U jersey acts tough. “It takes more than tricks to play on this court.”
I dribble twice between my legs and shoot. Shing—boom, thump thump.
City U chases the ball while I cross the scarred pavement. The sounds of boat wakes and air horns remind me I’ve left my turf behind. I’m nothing here and I try to be cool while hunting a partner.
All I find is comedians.
“I think your momma’s calling.”
Funny guys. Excuse me while I go laugh.
I lace up by myself and study the courts: two-on-two, three-on–three, full court five-on-five.
I find DJ on the two-on-two court. His partner is Chief. Man, he’s big. They should call him House. He looks like he’s working club security—sharing sweat and serving elbows while he bounces wannabes out of the paint.
DJ has stepped up his game. River competition worked for DJ—he’s a player and big time. DJ and Chief never leave the court.
I didn’t give myself much choice with my big mouth, so I watch a couple games and try working up my courage. The play makes my schoolyard games seem like my momma’s bingo night. Players hit the ground as often as the ball hits the backboard and I’m seeing more spins and slams than I see in a summer month at the schoolyard. Pretty soon I’m thinking, be reasonable—my basketball isn’t that big a deal. I can get another ball and still play in the schoolyard, so I sneak behind the crowd to leave.
There’s Amber with her big brown eyes and I fall right in them. “You call next?”
I sort of mumble something, nothing, and those big brown eyes shrink into ebony slivers. “You think you have a choice?”
My legs are stuck in park and Amber just puts her hand on me and pushes a little. “Go call next.”
Just as I’m liking the way she touched me and that little push, she twists her head around to walk away and the harbor breeze replaces the scent of her hair with the far off stench of rotting fish.
All this female logic, plus knowing Amber is watching, has me beat down and I call next.
“You and who’s next? Try next year.”
I’m pretty sure I’m worn out with this comedy thing. “Unless you want to run with me, it’s not your problem, Jack.”
Jack comedian has to look up from below my shoulders so he lets my big mouth slide. Everyone else just laughs down at me, everyone except a tree topper I heard someone call Kevin. He stares at me over his beard and I’m wondering if he knows me somehow. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I just hope he can’t tell how scared I am.
Then I remember Amber and quick peek around to see if she’s laughing too, but I don’t see her.
Open closed open closed.
On the court, DJ finger rolls in another winning shot and pulls up his shirttail to wipe the sweat from his shaved head. “We’ll stay and play, who’s next?”
My shoe screeches and I almost trip. “I’m next.”
“Here’s the little boy that said I better bring my A game, right, little boy? Too bad you walked so far for this ball, ‘cause now you’re walkin’ home without it.”
The oily reek of the river creeps down the back of my nose to my throat and my voice scratches. “I called next.”
DJ slams my ball on the concrete and grabs it in my face. “I’m not playin’ the JV! And who’s gonna run with you! No one’s gonna run with a schoooooolyard boy!”
Before, I was scared. Now, I’m mad, crazy mad, I don’t know what I’m doing mad and before I can catch myself I slap the ball and the bang turns heads all the way at the five-on-five court. “I told you I was coming to get my ball, now let’s play!”
I’m not backing down—not anymore. DJ stole my ball. He made me walk down here to this river God forgot. Now he says go home?
DJ bumps me and I let loose a bunch of those bad words and shove DJ in the chest and he slams me back. My insides boil, but before I can get my hands up, I hear a voice that comes from the trees.
“You don’t run this court, Kevin. We’re winners and I say he walks.”
“We’re playin’. Unless you think you can’t take us.”
“Ok, Kevin. You’re a big man. I got a bigger one—Chief says he wants to dunk on you.”
DJ throws my ball into my stomach. “Let the JV play-UH shoot for the ball.”
Shing—boom, thump thump.
Kevin doesn’t smile. “Nice shot. Don’t embarrass me.”
My stomach knots up. I check the ball to DJ and he stomps my foot. Lightening shoots up my ankle and the ball rolls right into Chief’s hands.
Chief’s muscles ripple as he chins on the rim and sails through the air. The backboard bows down to snap back. Yang!
Kevin looks at me. My ankle throbs and the taste of hot wings tossed in dirt smolders in my throat. Now I’m just scared I’m going to throw up.
Thmp thmp. DJ dribbles behind his back. “This isn’t the schoolyard, little boyeeeee. And I won’t need my A game against a B team that’s got no want to’s.”
I can feel a nuclear reaction under my skin and sweat steam from my face. I wish I hadn’t tried to sound so tough when DJ stole my ball, but me and my big mouth did.
Kevin has tree limbs for arms and legs and he keeps the game close until the sounds and smells of the court wash over me and my stomach knot rinses free. I forget everything but the ball and the hoop. When DJ gets cocky, I steal his lazy pass and Kevin runs the end line. My left hand pass is a guided missile.
The crowd whoops. Now, it’s DJ’s face that burns and he stabs at me, jabbing at the ball and scratching my arm. “Go home little schoolyard boy, before you get hurt.”
I feel DJ’s breath in my face so I whip the ball overhead, the way DJ taught me, and my elbow clips his nose.
DJ rubs his nose with the back of his hand and smears blood on his face. “You’re going down.”
I dribble right. “You better bring more people.” My crossover dribble left is a blur. Two more dribbles and a step back one-handed shot, just like playing horse.
Shing—boom, thump thump.
The crowd blows up. “Game goin’ on!”
Yea, I’ve got skills, and I’m feeling them now.
I fake high. DJ’s hands black out the sky, so I drive low and spring to the hoop.
Chief hammers the ball away and drives me down on my shoulder and I skid on the pavement. DJ is ready behind the arc. Shing.
“OWOOOOOO! Don’t bring that weak stuff, little boyeeee.”
My shirt is ripped. The skin on my back and shoulder sizzles like bacon frying while DJ high fives Chief.
I roll over on my hands and knees. I hear the comedians laughing at their own jokes again and I wonder if Amber is laughing too, but I don’t look around to see—I don’t want to know. I’m not a beat up wall with ugly pictures painted on anymore. I’m a pile of smashed bricks.
I crawl to the chain link and gasp for my breath and the taste of the river gets all the way in my stomach and I throw up. I watch all my want to’s churn out of me and when I spit out the last of my soul, Kevin’s size 15s step into my view. “You playin’ or goin’ home?”
I worked it in my head while I listened to DJ bounce my ball high off the court.
“Forget him—who’s next?”
Forget is right. There’s nothing here for me now.
There’s nothing for me to lose. “Let’s play.”
Kevin whispered as I grabbed the chain link and pulled up. “You came here to learn the game—first lesson: let the game come to you.”
I face DJ and he drives at me, one on one. “Go home, schoolyard trash.”
I slam back and again pay for my anger when DJ’s elbow crushes my ribs. “Tap tap—time to take out the trash.” My whole body feels like a funny bone, like I stuck my fingers in an electric socket. I’ve got the taste of vomit in my mouth again when I finally get smart and remember DJ’s go to move from the schoolyard.
Let the game come to you.
When DJ spins, I’m crouched low waiting for him. I pick the ball and streak to the hoop.
Let the game come to you.
DJ’s hands shove my back and I jump to a stop. DJ rolls over me and my easy bank shot is money.
The crowd rocks and the chain link roars. “Is DJ going down?”
We need a basket to win and I’ve got the want to’s again and I’ve got them bad and what I want is the winning points for myself. But more than anything, I want to be a player—a varsity player—and I remember the first lesson: let the game come to you.
I spit the last of the acid at DJ’s feet and bounce a pass hard to Kevin.
Kevin and Chief hammer each other.
Now elbows probe and knees prod. The trash talk is gone. The crowd is silent. It’s two cats, a ball, and a hoop.
I coil my legs. Kevin drop steps low and DJ slides back to help Chief on defense. I race to the corner.
DJ’s ankles break. Kevin’s pass is perfect—catch and shoot.
Shing—boom, thump thump.
Kevin slaps my hand. “Game.”
The chain link stills. The crowd is silent.
I face DJ. I’m done being a “little boyeeee” and my trash talk is off the leash. DJ steps toward me and I’ve got enough crazy mad still left in me to fly to the moon. I pull hands up and we lock eyes.
I hear that voice from the trees again. “I think he’s a player, DJ, what do you think.”
I don’t know how long we stare at each other. In some ways it had to be a lifetime before DJ spoke. “A varsity player, that’s what I think.”
DJ slaps my left hand away and grabs my right hand in a shake. “Good game, little man. I knew you could be a player.”
I feel kind of funny after having my blood boiled then left on simmer. It was a new feeling for me, and I kind of mutter. “Sorry about the nose, DJ.”
“Isn’t that what I taught you? Besides, you got pay back.”
Then I look at Kevin. “I know you now—you played at the schoolyard when I was so little I couldn’t get in a game.”
“Yea, I gave DJ a lesson once, made him mad enough to come down here to River, except I didn’t let him bloody up my shirt.”
DJ laughed. “Yea, that was a little real.” I hadn’t heard DJ laugh in a long time. It was a good sound. “I got Kevin to help give you a lesson. Didn’t think you’d school me, I guess you had a good teacher.”
“Naw man, he’s just got the talent.” Kevin bounces me my ball. “You playin?”
“You need to clean that shoulder.” Amber was standing behind me, staring and trying to be all serious. “And you know your shirt is torn.”
“We’ll clean it up later and get a fresh shirt.” I didn’t mumble and my simmering feeling feels pretty good now, so I go ahead and try a smile. “Some ice cream at the drugstore might be good, too.”
Amber twists her head around. Again her hair brushes past me and those snappy boots step away. “Depends on how much later.”
“Tap tap.” DJ jabs at my sore ribs, but I’m already catching up to Amber. “Hey, wait up a sec. Stick around and watch.”
Amber twists back around and again I fall into those big brown eyes. “You little schoolyard boys go run on the three man court, maybe I’ll watch—for a while.”