You wanna fuck these smuts? Fuck these smuts, but you gotta do the right thing.”
Six years later I’m still not sure what Coach meant by “the right thing” — wear a condom or don’t commit sexual assault seem the safe guesses.
“Don’t call each other faggots,” Coach continued. “Someone overhears you saying that here, chances are they are one.”
Here was a newly co-ed, small liberal arts school in New England with a small time basketball program.
That was Day 1 of the academic school year.
In an empty conference room on Day 2, Coach proclaimed: “I don’t give a fuck about the NCAA,” informing us that, in spite of the NCAA’s prohibition of organized team practices at that time of year, we would be practicing that night.
Word of the illegal practice slipped out when a confused freshman guard asked our academic advisor if practice would conflict with the school sponsored dinner cruise that night.
Our team captain, a stocky Italian guard, held a meeting with freshman and transfers about keeping team information private. According to Team Captain, Coach asked, “which one of these little motherfuckers snitched?”
Young, tall and muscular, with an authoritative Boston accent and a bald head that I can only imagine was shaven with a Bowie knife, Coach was hardly a man whose bad side anyone wanted to land on.
Around 11 p.m. that night I woke to a text message from Coach: Meet in 15 for ball. Practice was still on — true to his word, Coach really didn’t give a fuck about the NCAA.
At 11, the entire team and coaching staff piled into a small university van.
The team’s youngest player, a 17- year old guard from somewhere south, but not too south, debated with a heavy set power forward from the burbs about the state of contemporary hip hop. The youngster was a supporter of some rapper I had never heard of, Stacks something or other, while the suburbanite lamented the lack of any Tupac’s or Biggie’s in the rap game today.
We drove two cities away to an outdoor court with lights in a non-descript residential neighborhood of working class, stucco sided two-family houses. The court was partially hidden from the street by a tree line. The rims and backboard showed their age, beaten in over the years by countless bank shots no doubt, but it was closer to regulation size than most outdoor courts, with a relatively smooth concrete surface.
The teams’ star player, a 6-foot-8-inch Buffalo, dominated both ends of the concrete slab. Coach had previously boasted of getting the admissions office to cut him a break despite his 1.6 high school GPA. A soft-spoken 6-foot-6-inch string pole, who doubled by day as an art major elevated above the rim, slapping his palm off the backboard for a layup.
I didn’t play, I watched from the sidelines – it would be the closest I ever came to playing in an NCAA game.
Some weeks earlier I ruptured a disc in my back after colliding with an NFL linebacker during a pickup game. It hurt to walk, it hurt to stand, it hurt to sit.
I was supposed to red-shirt that year.
Even with the light-posts, I remember the darkness of the night: I was engulfed in it — part of something but apart from it.
“Nigga deal with that,” Coach told a senior, burying his head in his hood as a police officer approached the court to inform us of the parks dusk closure.
“We leave when they come back,” Coach barked as the officer drove away.
I remember my first basket playing organized ball: It was in the fifth grade, Harvard Basketball Camp, an offensive rebound turned put back – as clumsy as my first kiss.
My youth was anchored by many of the staples of a millennial childhood: Lunchables, Nickelodeon, Internet porn, the WWF and AIM (remember ASL? How many of us talked to 45 year-old men pretending to be 13 year-old girls? I SHUTTER TO THINK).
But basketball was the thing I loved most, what I was passionate about. I’d spend hours working with my dad, running drills on the hoop in the driveway at my grandfather and his home.
It was a passion passed on from father to son. At 6-foot-6, my dad had been a star athlete in high school and then a Division I player in college. At 40, he was still throwing it down in games. As a kid, I considered basketball a birthright: I had an attitude of “of course I just got that board, or scored that basket; my dad is diagramming plays and dunking at my practices and yours is having heart palpitations watching the younger moms.”
Eighth grade was a big year for me: Beyond going to Hooters for the first time, I played well enough to make two city all-star teams. At 13 and nearly six-feet tall I thought it was only the beginning of my career; I didn’t realize this was going to be my peak as a player.
Two years later my dad– my best friend, my coach – died, hit by a car while biking. Ironically it happened during varsity basketball tryouts. The last conversation I ever had with him came the night before the accident and was about basketball. He asked how the first day of tryouts went and wondered whether he could volunteer as an assistant coach.
In an instant, everything I was, was gone, forever altered. Stained with anger, I didn’t want time to move forward, I just wanted to sit in a room by myself and watch episodes of Seinfeld and Homicide Life on the Street.
To accept my dad’s death felt like a betrayal to him.
I made varsity, but I hated basketball. The worst was the stigma I felt from the kids, the teachers, the parents- the way they looked at me: pity pouring through their eyes. I became that kid – the kid defined by his dead parent.
Most days I didn’t bother showing up for school; the days I did I mostly slept at my desk.
I didn’t have options after high school. I had one choice and that was go to a community college.
Let me tell you something, there is nothing fun about being a JUCO kid: You commute from home, you’re in class with other down on their luck people, it’s a job — no sex, no drinking, no dorming, just a J-O-B. I literally had to listen to a combination of M.O.P. Onyx and DMX every morning just to get through the day.
Basketball was a paradox: I chased it constantly but doing so made me miserable. The confidence I had when my dad was alive was gone, replaced with timidity and fear. When I was on the court, I wanted to be anywhere else, and when I was off the court I felt obligated to get back on it.
NBA draft bust Korelone Young once said:
“I just like to hide from people, I didn’t want to face a lot of these questions I got to face, I took myself into a shell, like a hermit.”
That was who I became.
I met Coach over the phone. Right after I transferred into Small Liberal Arts College, he called:
-I’m calling for Noah Perkins
-This is Coach, Head Basketball Coach at Small Liberal Arts College
My voice elevated several decibel levels, cracking along the way. Hardly a phone call I expected to receive.
–I’m interested in you playing for the team this year.
How did he know who I was? I planned to tryout as a walk-on, but here it was, hand delivered, what had consumed my every thought over the six years since my dads’ death: the chance to play NCAA basketball.
In a student body that was about 80-percent female and 20-percent homosexual, it was easy to pick up the feeling of self-importance as a straight male on the basketball team. In the dorms, some girl baked brownies for us. In the dining hall an attendant gave us off menu food. Another player pointed out a girl with red hair: she hooks up with everyone. This is why athletes become entitled (and this was at a tiny school nobody has ever heard of. I can’t imagine what it would be like at Ohio State).
I still wasn’t mentally well, and physically, my back was getting worse every day.
Doctors finally told me I needed surgery. I went home for the semester.
The last communication I ever had with Coach was right after my surgery. I texted him that it went well and I was looking forward to coming back to the team. He assured me my spot would be waiting for me when I returned.
In a way I was relieved to get away, to go back into my shell – this was all too real, playing on a college team without my dad watching from the stands – it felt like another betrayal of him. It doesn’t make sense, but again, I wasn’t mentally well.
Living off of muscle relaxers, pain killers, frozen yogurt and Reese’s Cups made me slovenly and paranoid.
I tried reaching out to Coach the next semester. Calls and texts went unanswered and unreturned. I could have gone to his office, I could have tried harder to contact him, but I was lost in paranoia. I’d walk the long way around campus to get to class some days, trying to avoid certain people. I wanted to be invisible.
That was the low point of my life.
Maybe with another coach it would have been different, but it doesn’t matter anymore.
After I transferred from Small Liberal Arts School to the University of Massachusetts Boston things got better.
To give an abridged version of the years that followed the transfer:
- I graduated Magna Cum Laude, a huge accomplishment considering the winding academic road I was on.
- I lived with a 7-foot-1-inch former professional basketball player for 10 months. Down on his luck, and recently out of the game, we bonded. Seeing someone experience the same things that I was on such a macro level was comforting. It made me feel less alone. A bond was created. It’s one thing to tell someone your problems; it’s another to actually have someone know exactly how you’re feeling.
- I moved to San Diego, fell in Love with Anna and with basketball again, playing nearly every day at an epic downtown YMCA.
- I started writing.
- I traveled the country playing pick-up basketball.
- I got engaged.
- Anna and I eloped in Iceland.
- I was accepted into a prestigious graduate program for journalism.
- I moved back to Boston and began the master’s program.
The ironies of life are awe-inspiring. Six weeks after I started my master’s program, my mom was struck by a car and killed.
Losing a father is one thing, a mother something entirely different: This is the person who incubated me inside her own body; whose heartbeat was my heartbeat.
My mom was the biggest supporter I had. She was dedicated to me and I can honestly say any success I have had in my life is because of all that she did for me.
It is extremely difficult going forward without having her in my corner.
I don’t have a choice though: I need to live the rest of my life however long or short in a way that honors her, that takes all that she gave me and turns this into something positive. Her love for the arts, her gigantic (at times to a fault) heart, and her unwavering belief that money should never come before happiness have shaped who I am.
My dad was a cynic: he once tried to dump a glass of water on a local politician’s head.
My mom was an optimist: she was proud of her $27 donation to Bernie Sanders.
I was lucky to have had them both for the time I did.
Recently, I went back to the court where I stood sidelined for that hush-hush night-time practice from what seems like a lifetime ago.
Small children were huzzing shots off the backboards, giving them an even deeper layer of softness. Six years ago I didn’t notice the train track running behind the fence, or the decaying third hoop beyond the full court, completely rusted out, serving as a reminder that the passage of time binds us all.
Maybe as a young man my dad got shots up on that hoop – it’s a nice thought.
After the kids left and only two teenage girls remained. I took a few shots and, for a second, I wondered what might have been.
Life is long, until it’s not.
One day, I will join my parents in whatever comes next. Until then, I am optimistic about the future. I have a full heart as I begin a marriage and await the birth of my first nephew.
Twelve years ago, when my dad died, basketball nearly broke me. Now, with the death of my mom, I am using it to put myself back together. Playing is spiritual: I feel the presence of them both on the court.
Author John Edgar Wideman once wrote:
“The past is not forgotten when you walk onto the court to play. It lives in the great time of the games flow, incorporating past present and future, time passing as you work to bring to bear all you’ve ever learned about the game, your educated instincts conditioned responses, experience accumulated from however many years you’ve played and watched the game played, a past that’s irrelevant baggage unless you can access it instantaneously.”
Authors note: Out of respect for the opportunity Coach gave me, I have omitted his name and the name of the institution I attended.