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Love and basketball

After our dad died from cancer, a friendly competition between my brother and me became more than just a game


Ian Blair
March 1, 2015 11:00PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings There were no cracks in the asphalt, but we tried our best to create new ones. My younger brother and I entered the park, laughing and talking. I held a basketball with both hands and slammed it against the concrete. He stared off into the distance, then hedged toward me trying to steal the ball away. I quickly scooped it up and slapped his hand, cupping the ball under my bicep. He should have known better. He grunted, then suddenly turned, giggled, and took off running.

I watched as he worked himself into a sprint — he was a gangly six feet four inches tall with handsome, boyish features and awkward, sloping shoulders, but he ran gracefully. His long cross-country runner legs always reminded me of a gazelle frolicking across the African savanna. I sauntered in his direction, methodically pounding the “rock” on the ground; my right wrist snapped hard, thrusting the ball away from my callous fingers which coddled the ball’s rust-colored orange exterior. Sweat dripped from my palms and clung to the ball’s pimpled surface until it collided with the cement. After the collision, the ball climbed like a yoyo without the string toward my open hand; small liquid splotches took shape on the ground where the rubber had marked its territory.

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I dribbled a few more times. Then I picked up the rock to pass, cupping the leather like a sorcerer holding a crystal ball. I hoisted it above my head, reached back and heaved. I slightly overshot the moving target — perhaps I had miscalculated; maybe he wasn’t as fast as I suspected — but the pass was still catchable. My brother just whiffed. If only he could have seen the ball into his hands like “The Say Hey Kid,” Willie Mays, who played for our favorite team, the San Francisco Giants.

Embarrassed, my brother looked around. But only I saw his error. A few white teenagers threw a pigskin in the periphery. They were oblivious to our presence. A white couple jogged and pushed a stroller across the way near a creek. They ignored us too. Two neighbors watched their kids climbing on a jungle gym and slithering across the bark. No one paid us any mind. The ball landed on the path, but the spin caused it to dovetail into the grass, 50 feet or so from one of the cones the teens had set up as end zones. The rock skipped across the slick, green blades waving in the wind until friction slowed it down. It stopped 18 inches from the court.

* * *

The blacktop wasn’t ours. But we both believed it belonged to us. All of it: the 47 foot by 50 foot slab of cement (half of an NBA full court); the steel halo hovering ten feet overhead. It was all ours.

My brother’s eyes widened as he scooped the ball off the grass and looked back in my direction.

“You ain’t shit, dawg,” I yelled.

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I knew what he was thinking. He wanted to show me something. So he tried, measuring his steps, reaching back to wipe the watery residue that clung to the bottom of his sneakers from the grass. He took off like a high jumper approaching the bar — elongated, slow strides that shortened and accelerated the closer he came to the goal. He dribbled the ball twice against the ground and crouched down, preparing to reach for the sky. I watched as he leaped, palming the ball in his hand, extending it toward the rim. His fingers closed in on the heavens. But strangely, the ball began to grow wings of its own. I could see it slipping away, separating itself from his hand. Clank. He wasnt shit. I knew it.

By now, I had made my way to the court, too. I chased down the ball, which had ricocheted off the rim and bounced quickly toward the rear of the court. My brother shamefully looked at me, sad that he couldn’t throw it down. He could have made it. But the ball got away from him. He had jumped high enough, but I was glad he had flubbed. Too much of a confidence booster, I thought. He knew he could have made it, too, because this was his home court and he had dunked a basketball here before. He was strong enough. Big enough. But not bigger than his older brother, I quickly reminded him.

I took a few dribbles, two steps, reached up, and dunked the ball left-handed with ease. I walked back to the top of the key. Aint no thang when youre six feet seven inches tall.

“You ready to do this?” I cockily asked.

Warm-up was over. We were set to play a game of one-on-one — “twenty-one” as we called it, named after the point total, not my brother’s age or the freedom he thought it brought him.

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“Check ball,” I said.

He obliged, but I still held the rock. In the back of my mind, I admittedly was a bit surprised by his willingness to participate. I somewhat expected him to stand down because he had a habit of walking away from my basketball challenges when we were kids. Nearly every game we played, every practice we held, ended in my brother running home in tears.

* * *

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It had been two years since I had cried. Two years, that is, since my dad had passed away from brain cancer — stage four glioblastoma multiform. It was December 16, 2008 and I received a frantic call from my mom that afternoon asking me to leave work early. I remember the panic in her voice, the uneasiness undermining her usually confident diction. The urgency with which she spoke made me feel frightened and uneasy. I rushed to my ’96 Buick LeSabre which I then put into gear and swerved, maniacally, in and out of traffic, fishtailing through city streets and darting down the westbound I-80. The pair of twelve inch subwoofers in the trunk coaxed some of my anxiety — my comfortable cloth seats vibrated from their punch — but as I pulled into the parking lot of the emergency room, and switched the tunes off, the massage ended and apprehension returned.

My brother had driven home, too. But the distance he had to make up was more than twice as far. I had traveled a mere 45 minutes from Sacramento, where I had completed my undergraduate degree and had built a life. He had trekked from his college in Chico, two hours away from the house where my dad and mom lay their heads at night and dreamed of the life he was making without them. When he pulled into the hospital parking lot I had been inside for a few hours and had just migrated outdoors, desperately yearning to breathe the brisk, fall air. As my brother exited his vehicle and approached the emergency room, I was nervously sifting through my cell phone. We met and embraced. I was certainly glad he made it.

As we turned and strolled inside the double-wide doors my brother and I were greeted by church friends and family members who were as happy to see my brother as I was. We plowed through the crowd to return to my dad’s room where he was struggling, gurgling from pneumonia, fighting for his last breaths. Doctors scrambled to get my dad oxygen, but his body was in a state of distress. The pain seemed unbearable. There was fluid buildup in his palate obstructing the inflow of air. He was convulsing. My brother simply looked on and consoled my mom, consoled us both the best he could.

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Those minutes, together, bent time and broke it. How long we stood in that moment remains a blur, perhaps clouded by the tears that welled up, tears that rendered the clock on the wall opaque, the hands motionless. What I remember vividly is how my dad’s eyes looked — nervous like his eldest son’s, the man he had failed to prepare for the heaviness that lay ahead.

The waves on the electrocardiogram eventually succumbed to the weight of the hour, flatlining. It was over — the struggle, life, everything. My tear ducts, which had been regulating the flows of the eyes like a dam, opened completely. I held my dad’s moist hand and kissed him on his cold, sweaty, forehead. A sloppy goodbye. My brother and mom cried. I trembled, barging out of the room and around the bend into a vacant, dark corner of the hospital’s gurney-lined hallway, a space to be alone where I could weep the ugliest of tears out of view.

It would take an hour or so for us to muster enough strength to leave the hospital that night. When we did, we left in a caravan, a dozen cars or so deep. I led the convoy, followed by my mom and others, but we didn’t have to travel far. Within seconds we were on my mom’s dimly lit street. The headlights from our vehicles brightened the neighborhood landscape as we crept down the block. First, our beams lit up a few tennis cages. Then a water fountain. And a well-kept jungle gym. Finally, our low-beams refracted off a basketball court, the park’s centerpiece, which stood a football field length away from my mom’s backyard. I pulled my car to a stop in front of the side gate, adjacent the park’s entrance. Each car behind me did the same, one after another. I got out and turned, motioning everyone inside with a flailing hand gesture. In the corner of my eye, a faint silhouette of the hoop glowed in the distance under the clear night sky.

* * *

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I slammed the ball against the ground and stepped on it, bending over and reaching down to tie my shoelaces. Since my sophomore year of high school, I had always left my shoes untied before pickup games. It was an intimidation tactic. I wanted my opponent to know how tight my game was, tighter than the double knot connecting the two bows which hung on either side of my sneakers. It sounds ridiculous — corny, even — but I made it a thing. And routines in sports are everything.

I lifted my foot and kicked the ball at my brother. “Check ball, son,” I said, crouching down into a textbook defensive stance — wide, commanding. I spread my seven-foot wingspan parallel to the ground. My brother picked up the ball. I could see the tiny hairs rising from the goosebumps protruding from his forearms. Hes nervous  far from the confidence he exuded during the failed dunk attempt, far from the arrogant jeers he slung toward me while watching the Los Angeles Lakers game in my mom’s living room that had motivated our challenge in the first place.

But my brother still decided to proceed, however intimidated he may have felt. He took one dribble. Then another. And another. With each bounce, the ball would return to its position alongside his waist. His hesitant, shaky hands would slide underneath, cupping it, then releasing. The ball’s “Spalding” logo would slide off his fingertips and gravity would do the rest. He approached me, one cautious foot in front of the other. I backed away, recoiling like a rattlesnake before striking. He had no idea, I thought. No idea that this was more than a game. True, pickup ball was always more than a game: It was pride, dominance, will. This was more. It was a statement.

Statements can be conveyed in different ways, and today I chose brute force to get my point across. My brother dribbled closer, turning his butt toward me and backing up like a delivery truck toward a loading dock. I met him with a shove. The dock itself, I remembered from a roommate who once labored in the frigid warehouses of UPS, is unflinching even as it is meant to receive.

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“I’m right here,” I said. “You ain’t going anywhere. You’re too slow! Too deliberate!” I was on him. Every step he took, every slide and lunge he made, I shadowed. “Nigga, what kind of chicken shit move was that?” I said as he faked one way with his head and crossed over in the other direction. I’m not sure my dad would have approved of such language. Nor am I sure he would have fully understood. That word, nigger (or nigga)is as protean and controversial as any in the English language. During my dad’s childhood in West Oakland, racist police would terrorize his poor, black neighborhood and use nigger as a weapon to inflict injury. By the time my dad had reached his twenties, musicians like Sly Stone, who hailed from Vallejo, a bridge toll away, had transmuted nigger into a form of resistance and protest (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”). When I was born (and my dad was 43), local hip-hop artists like Too Short from East Oakland, flipped nigger into a term of endearment. Here, I slung it toward my only kin, a brother whom I loved unconditionally and berated at the same time. I was doing as my dad had once done to me, teaching me lessons I didn’t want to hear, amorously, with words that I rejected or struggled to comprehend.

“I got a dead grandmother that moves faster than you.” Something my dad used to say, too. It may have been a slight exaggeration. But it didn’t matter. I left my hands at my side as he aimed and shot the ball. A brick. The ball bounced across the baseline, parallel to the backboard. I quickly gathered it and dribbled toward the hoop. My brother cut me off. But I was not to be denied. I turned, and lowered my shoulder. “Weight room!” I exclaimed. “Light weight, son!” This is what I was making him. My son. His existence would not have been possible had it not been for me. That was my mindset. I picked the ball up with two hands and viciously swung an elbow. “Uh oh! Little man in the hole.” He pushed. I pushed harder. By now I was underneath the rim. I jumped and dumped it in the bucket, my fingers grazing the cylinder. “That’s two,” I reminded him, strutting away from the basket. It was “make it, take it” which meant I would regain possession with each basket scored.

“Check ball,” I said, tossing the ball at his chest. My brother fumbled the pass. He looked shaken.

“I thought you lifted weights in college,” I said.

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“Just play,” he reciprocated.

No problem. I battered him. I bruised him. I continued my verbal and physical assault, racking up basket after basket, point after point. This was probably the most talking we had done since my dad died.

* * *

We never really discussed our dad’s death, nor any of the complicated details surrounding his illness. We never mentioned the 18 months of intensive chemotherapy — oral and infusion — that he endured. We neglected to talk about the radiation treatment, a process that withered away his curly, black hair which would have been gray were it not for the hair coloring he brushed in every week in the mirror. We never discussed his disciplined dietary regimen, the switch to organic foods — more greens, less meat. We didn’t talk about the bottles and bottles of medication — pills to fight the cancer, pills to manage his high blood pressure, pills to neutralize the side effects of other pills. We stayed silent about the steroids he injected into his rotund abdomen as well. What all of this meant to my dad and what it meant to the two of us — his son’s — remained unsaid. Words forever lost.

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To do so would have been an act of confrontation. And as brothers this was something that had come to define our relationship: soothe, not heal. We always shied away from confronting one another, which is not to say we existed without conflict. Rather, we clashed as all siblings do — as rivals — jealous and selfish, playful and strategic, affectionate. But we waged battle without much potential for injury. As a kid, I never punched my brother in the face — our parents wouldn’t allow it. I relegated myself to “dead arm” jabs and stern shoves. At times, I would kick out the leg like Craig did Smokey in “Friday.” We perfected the art of war without much hurt or loss.

When our dad died we both put down our blunted swords. We helped each other push past the pain of his void. We helped one another move on. We became closer, less burdensome. More congenial, helpful. Texts and calls flowed more freely. Conversations remained light, the kind you would have with strangers in an elevator. Which is to say we pressed on living without confronting life itself. For confronting life requires a continuous reckoning with the burden of one’s existence as anguishing and complicated as it may be. Maya wrote of caged birds. We were two birds sitting inside the cage without singing, failing to recognize what was suppressing each other’s song.

We were also like Richard, though, two native sons — that is, two half-black, half-white boys — doing as their country had taught them. We had convinced ourselves that to be whole was to forget the wound was there. That life is better lived without the scars. It takes great hubris to believe the Band-Aid can, in fact, make it all better. Or perhaps it takes fear or conviction. Either way, singular vision was our tool to move forward.

Ironically, such a mindset is the kind never enjoyed by boys who look like us, but forced upon boys who look like us by people who have the luxury of living their lives free of the burdens of the past. For living with black lineage in America is to live with a type of double vision: One must heal as new wounds are inflicted. One must dream as reality reminds us our aspirations may go unrealized. One must fight to define themselves against a world that has made up a definition for you already. And still, society is convinced that it is you who needs bifocals. That your double vision must be corrected, become singular. That to assuage your pain you must see the world not as it is and as it was, but as it can be. Dont worry, youre good, you’re told. I aint worried; but Im not good, you insist. But sometimes you wish you were good. You wish the past stayed there. You wish what lay ahead wasn’t mired by what was. You surmise that one can, in fact, move on.

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And yet a gash will continue to bleed no matter how much you cover it up. Which is what me and my brother did. We moved forward, only to see the bandage dampen once more. My dad’s memory lingered despite our best attempts to suppress the pain, suppress ourselves. We should have welcomed the hurt, confronted it, which is to say we should have been more fearless like James. For “people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.” Mending such a deep wound first requires a radical act of suffering which means confronting the wound, not looking away. Only then can one sew stitches that hem two severed edges together. Healing is not erecting a bridge over the gorging red sea that lies in the middle; rather, it’s about soaking up the blood and allowing it to harden into a scar, a reminder of the wound that once was.

* * *

What we did instead was keep playing. Keep pounding the rock. Keep fooling ourselves. Two brothers waging war on the playground, absent any visible wounds. Internally we continued to bleed beneath our brown skin. But, like the unwritten rule of the street, we kept ballin’: No blood, no foul. Point after point, dribble after dribble, jeer after jeer, we battled.

“My nigga, this is why you never made varsity,” I derided, spinning with the rock exposed, barreling into his wiry frame. What peppered the insult was not just that he had been cut — Michael Jordan was cut from varsity, after all — but that a bunch of soft, white boys who weren’t very skilled or athletic had beat him out. He wasn’t like his brother who had started on varsity squad of about a dozen black boys and one Filipino with a black name.

I aimed low even as I swung high. Two points.

“Check ball,” I reiterated. He caught the ball and flipped it back at my face. My reflexes didn’t fail me. I snatched the ball out of the air before it smashed my nose.

Then I picked up where I left off, dribbling, turning and aggressively backing him down. This was my winning tactic — shielding the ball from his outstretched hand and pounding my way to the hoop. He leaned on me. But I pushed as hard as I could. He tried to counter my size by digging his forearm in my back like a ventriloquist, but he lacked the strength to control my movement. I took him where I wanted. Left and right. Backwards. I leaned into his jaw as mine ran wild.

“Too small, kid.” I flipped a short jump hook. Two points.

The pattern repeated over and over: “Check ball.” Two points. “Check.” And another two. It was a drubbing, the kind that an older brother dreams of. I only let him score once. And when I did, I told him it was his last. With a few more buckets, I sealed the victory. My brother walked off the court to a water fountain to rinse the taste of losing out of his mouth. I continued to taunt.

“Let’s run it back,” I said.

No reply. I took a shot at the basket. The ball glided through the rim without touching it. Still hot.

My brother finished slurping from the fountain. “Check up,” I said.

I kicked the rock forward with my shoe. This time it veered to the left, steered by the backspin I summoned by digging my toe into the cement. I felt no pain. My brother just stared, pensively, as the ball scooted by, wobbling across his home court, a place where softness gets no love and toughness gets the glory. I watched as he watched. His expression hardened to match mine. There we stood, paralyzed in our sanctuary. No words exchanged, just a solemn glare.

The wind bellowed. The grass danced, shimmying like a tiki girl atop the dashboard of a convertible cruising the Pacific Coast Highway. The leaves did a jig of their own, whimsically scraping across the court. Dirt from the playground pirouetted over the cracks in the cement and then settled, filling the holes in the ground that two brothers had worked so hard to create.


Ian Blair

Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.

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