Exercises in creative futility, part 2

Part 1 is here. Also, a nod to Dennis, who’s featured prominently without really knowing I was going to talk about this.

So we had our basketball. On the driveway, in the gym, it didn’t matter where, so long as we had it.

Looking back now, I probably appreciate it more now than I did then. I had such a competitive streak- if we didn’t win, I was down on myself and the game. But for that time on the court, I could just play, and not worry about things. And it was never decided until the buzzer sounded.

Each year, my brother and I would be on the same team, owing to convenience and, well, it just made sense. And outside of scrimmages at practice, we weren’t often on the court at the same time on the same team, being so similarly gifted. Tallish, lanky, intelligent, not real strong… that was both of us. Even the years we managed to swing different positions- me at guard and he at forward once, and forward/centre in another year- we would often go in and out at the same time.

Part of that was it being a rec league, so the coaches would ensure that everyone got some time. But part of it was definitely that we were so similar.

That similarity is as much a blessing as a curse, as a twin. You always have someone who knows what you’re thinking, and with us moving around as we did, we always knew someone when we moved. But especially at a younger age, we were always looking for ways to separate, to differentiate from the others when there were those who wouldn’t make the effort. I liked blue, he liked green and red. I was the Pistons in our NBA Jam games, he was the Bulls (rivals in real life). He preferred strategy games, I opted for story and roleplaying.

Even as I sat on one knee at the scorer’s table, knowing I would point at him as I walked onto the court, taking his place, and slap his hand in congratulations as he walked by, I often wished it could be otherwise. That we could both be out there, together, beating whoever we faced. I thought this too when we faced each other down on that driveway, down to the final few points, seeing the same competitive streak in his eyes that I knew was in mine.

What a team we would be. The brothers, together on the hardwood.

*****

You know what they say about being careful what one wishes for.

Grade 9 year (That’s how I remember things up until the end of high school, by which grade year it was in) was one of the more memorable years of community basketball for me. Whether it’s due to the more recent timing of it, or the way it ended, or that Dennis and I were more prominently featured is for someone smarter than me to find out.

We were the best players on what was a pretty bad team… but even then, more hustle and heart and skinned elbows and knees than a lot of physical attributes or skill. It was our second year on that level, and as had become a pattern, had improved from our first year once we’d gotten more comfortable (and bigger and stronger, such as it was for skinny guys like us).

It had long since become a pattern for me to look at our opponents when we got to a game, and immediately start to worry. They were bigger, stronger, faster than we were. That became particularly nerve wracking when I figured out that if we were going to win, it was I and my brother who had to carry the torch. I just had to think positively. Not look at them and assume they were better.

If they were bigger, I was faster.

If they were stronger, I was smarter.

If they were all of these… well, maybe a little chatter and a well placed elbow or three from me would throw them off their game.

Dennis was ‘the guy’ for us. He often started at centre, drawing the biggest player the other team had to throw at us. More often than not, he was our high scorer, the one that led in both example and performance. He was quiet, professional (at least, more so than I was), and capable. If we won, it was probably because he’d put up a bunch of points, and held their biggest guy down.

Even as probably the second-best player on that team, I was a wild card. Just as likely to look at the taller players and cower while they boxed me out as I was to be as good as I had to be. I was also the agitator, throwing an elbow or jab out of view of the refs to get our opponents worried more about me than about the game. Trash talking depended on the week, and the opponent.

There’s really no getting past it: I was a dirty player at times, and unapologetic about it (and as is the way of those players, I dished out much better than I could take, probably making more fouls than I caused). I could put up the points like Dennis, some games. And like him, I could be a legit defensive stopper, sans the elbows and fouls, when I wasn’t rattled or worried about my opposite number.

And every once in a while, I took a competitive slight- any I could find- and turned it into a huge game. There’s one in particular that sticks out to me. One game, when our team went out for the tip- Dennis and myself both starting, with him taking the jump- I pointed at my opponent, the person I would guard for most of the game. He was about my height, but more built, thicker in the arms and chest. He saw my pointing, and chuckled, making an offhand remark to a teammate, about an ‘easy game’. No way this beanpole (don’t recall if I had glasses at that point, but that would have added to the look as well, don’tcha think?) could give him much trouble.

I inched closer as the ref moved to throw up the tip, seething as I bodied up to him, as if preparing him for what I vowed would be the longest game of the year for him.

He scored two points when I was in the game against him- on free throws.

Eager to get good position in the paint every time we went on offense, anger at the slight fueling me and blocking out worries about his strength or reach, I dropped 14 on him (not a bad number when community games tended to score around sixty), punctuating each basket by trying to find the opponent who had dared to presume about me, and stare him down as I jogged back, challenging and taunting him with my eyes. There were no words. There didn’t need to be.

To me, there wasn’t a better feeling than proving him wrong.

*****

Collective triumphs were few and far between that last year in junior high, though, despite the best efforts of my brother and I, and what would probably have been our best years individually. We had close games and blowouts; I think we lost every way imaginable.

Nothing our parents could say would console our frustration after the losses, so serious were we about this community, this ‘recreational’ league that probably didn’t deserve such obsession. Even with Dennis and I playing together on the court often (as much as a ‘rec’ league could do, needing to give everyone a decent about of time), realizing something we’d always wanted to do, couldn’t assuage our disappointment as the final score favored the other side.

Driveway games, whether one-on-one or involving whoever was around that day, weren’t the same. There wasn’t a scoreboard, a referee, a crowd, a stage. Something one could more easily imagine as being the biggest stage, even as small as it was.

But everything about the year changed, when we found out we were moving to Ontario.

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