The year was 1991. I was a seventh grader at Saint Ambrose, a Catholic school in south Florida. Our principal, Ms. Gentile, was a Jewish woman who looked exactly like Jackie Mason. That's not a slight against the Jewish people or anything, some of my favorite Rabbis are Jews and I think the entertainment industry is really neat. She seriously looked just like Jackie Mason in a dress. The fact that Ms. Gentile was the principal of a Catholic school was puzzling but none of the students dared mention it, in much the same way that one wouldn't repeat "bloody Mary" three times in front of a mirror or say "I'm conservative" within three hundred feet of a college campus.
Our school taught kindergarten through the eighth grade, yet we only had around 200 students total. There were less than twenty kids in my grade with only six boys, and there were even less in the graduating class. It was therefore out of necessity that we were all drafted into the school's varsity basketball team. I was reluctant to be on the team for many reasons, the foremost being that I was completely incapable of playing basketball. I had no grasp of the rules, didn't know what a shot clock was, what any of the positions were, and could not dribble. Well, that's not entirely true. I could stand still and bounce a ball straight up and down using both hands. Asking me to dribble the ball and move, however, was like asking Peter North to defuse a nuclear bomb: I was willing to give it a shot if I absolutely had to, but it was only a matter of time before someone's face would be covered in semen.
There was no way to get out of playing even with the help of my trusty pal named chronic asthma, so I soon found myself shopping for basketball shoes with my mom. Now, my mom worked ridiculously hard to keep me in private school but she didn't have much disposable income. Instead of getting black Nikes with the white swoosh like everyone else, we went to Payless and bought the $12 variety of basketball shoes. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, but instead of picking something simple and unassuming I bought the most blatant Not Black Nikes ever. They were white abominations with multicolored neon stripes, laces, velcro straps, fake "pumps" on the tongues that didn't actually do anything but whistle air when you squeezed them, and were topped off with some sort of purposeless plastic tubing which perfectly completed the impression that Mr. Toad's Wild Rollercoaster Acid Trip had sprung up around my feet.
Our first game was against another group of hapless Catholic school kids that happened to be wearing the exact same colored jerseys as we were. Navy blue and white were pretty much the standard colors for private school uniforms, and apparently no one thought to change things up by using different colors for their sports uniforms. As a result, 90% of the teams we played against wore some combination of navy blue and white.
During the opening possession of the game I was playing defense as best I could by straddling the half court line and staying as far away from the ball as possible when a kid on the other team turned, saw my similarly colored uniform, and mistakenly passed me the ball. Amazingly, I caught it.
Instincts kicked in and I began to move, drawing upon the muscle memory from my caveman ancestors who had bounced rocks on the rubbery edges of tar pits in order to impress pterodactyls for reasons that are secret and sexy. I ran as hard as I could, chasing the ball more than controlling it, praying that someone else would catch up to me so I could pass it to them, even if they were on the other team. Of course, no one did. I was all alone and the only choice I had was to attempt a layup. As I approached the basket I somehow managed to wrangle the ball in and toss it into the air with both hands without falling over. Time slowed to a crawl as I watched the very first shot of my basketball career. It seemed to float for ever...
...because I had thrown it entirely over the rim, and ten feet above the top of the backboard where the ball reached its apex before re-entering the atmosphere. After a few more minutes of running around like an idiot while the other team scored with ease, my coach (who shall be known as Ms. Coach because I completely forgot her name) called a timeout.
"What the hell do you think you're doing out there?"
I turned back toward the court in the hopes that it would provide an answer somehow, then sighed deeply and shrugged. Everything after my catastrophic layup attempt had been a blur, but I had a vague recollection of driving through a stack of crates filled with watermelons and repealing the first amendment of the constitution.
The following week in practice, Ms. Coach took me aside to work on my layup technique.
"I want you to try something different, a form of visualization. Imagine that the hoop is around the basketball pole. Go through the motions of a layup, but land directly underneath the hoop."
"Wait," I interjected. "If the imaginary hoop is directly around the pole and you want me to land under the imaginary hoop, won't I crash into the pole?"
"No, no. I want you to land under the imaginary hoop. You won't hit the pole. Do you understand?"
I nodded enthusiastically, clearly not understanding her at all. I've been subservient my entire life and it was a minor miracle that I had questioned the coach's logic in the first place. There was absolutely no way I was going to do anything other than slam into the pole if I followed her instructions, but I was just a kid and she was an adult so I figured she was right.
Starting at the three point line, I broke into a brisk jog and made a beeline directly toward the pole, leaping into the air once I was about four feet away from it and laying the imaginary ball up into the imaginary hoop. On my way down, my actual face hit the actual pole. There was an awful crunch from within my brow as a piece of bone splintered. My glasses immediately broke in spectacular fashion, and blood erupted from my nose and the right side of my mouth. My head rebounded backwards before my feet could find purchase, and I hit the ground on my back with a thud.
The first thing I heard was the cruel laughter of my teammates, followed by the reassuring sound of my coach joining them.
Trying to compose herself and doing a poor job of it, she asked "Are you okay? Why in the world did you jump into the pole, Dennis? You were supposed to land under it!"
As hard as I tried, I was completely unable to find the proper response to that question.
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