Because I enjoy telling embarrassing stories about myself, I decided to play basketball at X-Sport Fitness. (Here’s my take on X-Sport.) I’m getting better at b-ball, but it’s in the same way that I’m getting better at kite-boarding, pogo-sticking, goat-milking, or anything else that I never practice. Surprise: I’m not good. Here’s the thing: not everybody on the court knows that. They see a thin, 5’10” white guy wearing white Champion calf-high socks (the kind with gray toes and heels), white high-top Nikes, blue shorts that don’t come below the knees, and they think, maybe he is an exchange student from Germany. Trapped in the 1970s. Who hasn’t seen the sun….
We should give him a chance.
So I get a chance.
Queue Remember the Titans theme song. I know what you’re thinking (because I think the same thing): Ohhh I wonder if the story ends with Bart tearing it up out there!? Like John Stockton! I bet he grows ten inches and Larry-Birds everyone! (My uncle likes to tell a story about Larry Bird: “when Bird was in his prime, some guy was trash-talking him at the free-throw line. Larry stares at the guy and says, ‘you’re trying to get me off my game?’ and then sinks the shot still looking at the guy!” And because my uncles tell the punchline twice, this is said again: “He’s still lookin’ at the guy!”)
Right before I lace em’ up, I think, maybe…just maaaaaybe… I haven’t practiced ever, I didn’t grow up playing, I can’t jump more than a foot in the air, I’m not a good shooter, not a skilled dribbler, and I don’t really know where I’m supposed to stand or run on the court…but maybe this time I’ll be amazing!
Spoiler alert: amazing doesn’t happen. X-Sport is a diverse place, racially speaking, and if I was smart I would end the story here. Instead I’ll continue with this: I was the only white guy on the court. Now if you’re racist or you’ve seen me play basketball, you’re saying, “Bart doesn’t stand a chance.” There were twelve people out there—five black guys shooting on one hoop, and six Latino guys plus me, shooting on the other. These particular Latino guys were not particularly good…and I knew that because I was the best player on that end of the court. When it came time to choose captains, one player from each ethnic group, minus me, shot a three-pointer for who would be the two captains. A black guy effortlessly swished his shot. A Latino guy, with one of the more unnatural deliveries I have seen, banked his shot hard off the backboard and in. Oh boy, here we go.
The two new captains picked the teams. It was to be blacks vs. Latinos. If you pay attention to ridiculous stereotypical garbage that in this case was extremely accurate, or you’ve been reading anything that I wrote in the prior paragraphs, you can guess the outcome: the Latino team got smoked.
There were two people not picked. The first was an awkward-looking guy who could have been in eighth grade. One of those my-body-is-growing-faster-than-I-can-control guys. He was wearing huge jean shorts. “Jorts,” as the kids are saying. The second person not picked was the whitest guy you’ve seen, wearing Champion gray-toed socks. (Me.)
Because Jorts and I sat out, the unwritten rules are that we get to pick our team. We then had a tri-racial team. Here’s how pick-up basketball works: you get two chances to prove yourself to your teammates and then you’re done. Usually, I’m the guy who is wide open, and who no one passes to because they figure I’ll miss the shot or throw the ball out of bounds or take out crayons and start coloring on the court. One time, I was playing in an “important” basketball game. Here’s how I knew it was extremely important: because I had the ball in the last minutes, and when I wound up for a three-point shot, I heard everyone on my team say, “NO!” Nothing inspires confidence like your own team yelling at you to not shoot. So I threw the ball out of bounds and started coloring.
Today, I was going to prove myself. “Oh, you guys didn’t pick me? SEE WHAT YOU MISSED?” SLAM…LAY-UP.
Early in the game, I found my chance. I sprinted to open space under the hoop, caught the ball in stride, and looked behind to see a guy on the other team at about half court. Plenty of time to prove that I’m worthy of a pass. I dribbled once, jumped for an easy lay-up, and felt a hand slap the ball, that I was trying to put into the basket, right out of my hands.
There were remarks from the other team about how good that block was and how I got swatted and how I was made to look like a fool. My face turned more red than usual and the game went on. The thing is, the other team thought I was good enough to trash talk! Chalk that up in the win column.
A few minutes later, because of my insane speed and the fact that nobody cares about defense in this game, I find myself all alone, again, under the hoop. I have the ball. I go for another lay-up because I didn’t want to show off the dunk. At the height of my jump, about four inches from the ground, with victory in sight, my head goes into some dude’s armpit as he swats the ball away. Have you ever tried your best and felt like a big pathetic loser? Me neither.
This was a discouraging moment, not because I got swatted in a more embarrassing manner, but because no one said a thing. Now, It was expected that I would get swatted, and it would be weird if I somehow put the ball in. I don’t like to be bad at things.
No one likes to be bad at anything, but some people are better at not caring. Some people, on the other hand, care way too much. I like to think that I’m in the middle of the pack. I’ll try hard, but I’m not going to turn into a psycho. [I only fight if I’m provoked.] I don’t yell at my co-ed soccer teammates to “PICK UP THE FRICKING TEMPO!!!” which are actual words from a team that we faced.
Whenever I start performing poorly in pick-up sports, or any activity that I thought I would be better at, I justify my lack of skill. But only in my mind. I think: man, if I was playing these guys in hockey, I would destrooooy them! And then when I’m playing hockey and I’m losing, I think: man, if I were playing these guys in Up and Down the River, I would dooooominaaate them! And then when I’m getting smoked in Up and Down the River, I think, if we were having a competition to see who could cook pasta to al dente, I would anniiiiiiiiiihilate them!!!
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he writes essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com