What I Want You to Know About Shooting Hoops

The roster is expanding. The Dashers recently added your cousins and your best friend at school, who finally gave in to your incessant offers to join the team. We are now at eight members, and with each new addition, my spot on the squad is growing more uncertain. I am the only adult, after all, and I somehow manage to lose all the one-on-one games we play against each other. Still, for the time being, you are keeping me on the team.

You ask me to go outside for our third game today, this time to take on the New York Knicks. I am in the middle of cleaning the kitchen, so I tell you to give me five minutes. “Okay,” you say, and you head out to take some warmup shots alone.

I pop a pod into the dishwasher, and I hear the bouncing of the ball on the pavement followed by the thud of the ball against the backboard. I look out the kitchen window and see you gathering the ball from behind the hoop. You are wearing your Jalen Suggs jersey and Gonzaga shorts, complemented by a Steph Curry arm sleeve. You dribble the ball back two slabs of concrete to the division you’ve designated as both the free throw and three-point line. You close your eyes and take a deep breath. Then you heave a two-handed shot toward the hoop I got you for Christmas. It’s lowered to a little under six feet so you can jump up and grab the rim. For now, it’s just out of reach for a dunk.

I head down and slip on some old sneakers before meeting you outside. You show me where you’ve set the bigger basketball that I use during warmups. We take turns shooting jumpers from as close to the carport as we can manage. The house to the left and the orange tree to the right make corner shots impossible, so mostly we shoot from the top of the key. I toss up a brick and the ball caroms over the retaining wall and into the lawn. Ozzy gives chase and corrals the ball until I lazily make my way over to steal it from him.

We each take one more practice shot and then it’s time for tipoff. You remind me to announce the starting lineups and head down the steps out of sight.

“Now starting at shooting guard, standing at four feet and three inches, three time all-star… Evanderrrrr Websterrrr-Kim!!!!”

You jog up the stairs and start flexing and posing. You confidently hurl a ball at the basket and then run around flexing some more once it goes in.

After I introduce myself and try to match your enthusiasm, we start the game. The Dashers versus the Knicks.

I’m not much a betting man, but if I was, based on the last ten or so games we’ve played, I’d put my money on the Dashers winning this one at the buzzer.

You have always been a kid who has one strong passion at any given time. Our house is filled up with remnants of bygone obsessions: Ghostbusters, Captain America, Baby Groot, BTS, Spider-Man, Legos.

Basketball is currently the center of your world.

Before last March, you had no interest in watching any basketball games with me; you didn’t seem to have much interest in any organized sports, really. But you decided to cheer on the Zags with me during March Madness so that I wouldn’t miss Mommy too much. You found the old Gonzaga foam finger that had been stuffed in a closet and let me wear it. Sitting together in the recliner, we would shout out “Go Zags!” together at the start of all their games.

Your attention span did not last for the entire forty minutes of game time. But when Jalen Suggs hit the buzzer-beater against UCLA in the Final Four, I called you back into the room and we watched the exciting moment again and again as you ran around the small room cheering. You even jumped on the couch and did your best imitation of Suggs’ celebration, pumping your fist and then holding out your arms in exaltation.

In the months since, you’ve started to accumulate objects in support of this new obsession: jerseys and t-shirts, basketball cards, mini-hoops to hang from doors, basketball shorts and basketball shoes, and even a journal I found online with the Jalen Suggs buzzer-beater drawn on the cover. You talk to me about basketball, and have told me that you would be alright being drafted by either the Warriors or the Magic when your time comes. You aren’t so sure you’ll accept if another team picks you.

For the time being, you have made up your own team, the Dashers, and have started asking your friends and family members if they want to join. You drew a team poster and a roster sheet. On the latter, you’ve written in the player names and numbers (which you ask the new roster members to choose for themselves) and have started to assign roles for everyone. You are the best shooter, of course. Your friends L. & E. are listed as “dunker” and “mix.” I get the prize for being best at “defens.”

For Christmas, your grandparents in Utah bought you a hoop that we put in a guest room so we could play together during our short visit. We all packed together in the tight spaces to play games of HORSE and PIG. You were in heaven, except when your Poppy or I would forget to let you win.

And now you have the hoop for our backyard, and you want to play on it several times a day. With me, of course.

Although basketball has been my favorite sport to play and watch since high school, when I was your age, I was as obsessed with baseball as you are with basketball.

Cal Ripken, Jr. was my hero. When I would go a whole year without any school absences, I imagined myself a kind of Iron Man, committed to a worker’s ethic I highly respected without really comprehending. I collected baseball cards, always hopeful to find a Ripken card in a pack I’d purchased from Talkin’ Baseball with my hard-earned allowance money. I had Orioles hats and shirts, and I adorned my room with Orioles pennants. I dreamed of growing up to pitch for the O’s, setting every throwing record previously held.

On weekends, my dad, who perhaps understood the worker’s ethic a little too much, often spent his afternoons working at the dining table or enjoying a few minutes of rest on the couch with a book while Van Morrison and Lyle Lovett played on the stereo. As soon as the snows would melt and the temperature would warm above freezing, though, I would interrupt him by asking him to go play catch in the front yard, or maybe even to walk up to baseball field to practice hitting. Almost every time, he would indulge me. He’d set down the pen or the book, put on a baseball hat, and I’d hand him his mitt. Then we’d toss the ball back and forth in front of the house. Almost thirty years later, I can remember playing catch as vividly as if it was yesterday.

I remember the neighbors across the street had a yard full of impenetrable low pine shrubs, which swallowed up many of my errant throws over the years. No matter, we had plenty of balls to spare.

I remember how he’d squat down to a catcher’s pose to let me practice pitching. Now that my own knees creak and crackle with every movement like his used to, I realize what an effort this entailed. The squatting and the getting back up.

I remember how he’d launch balls into the air so I could practice catching pop flies. The balls sailed miles higher into the atmosphere than any that my friends or I could throw, and I often worried he’d clip an airplane wing by accident.

I remember how we’d talk about school and friends and baseball cards and Cal Ripken’s streak and how the baseball season would go that year, both for my team and the O’s.

Funny how all that practice never got me past little league, but still those were some of the most important hours of my life.

Once, my mom took me to a park to help me practice before a game. I had been struggling at the plate, always diving away from the ball after having taken a pitch to the helmet. She wanted to help rebuild my confidence, but all I could think was how embarrassing it was to have my mom pitching to me at a public park. Where ANYONE could see! We played together for a while before we loaded my gear back up into the Suburban and headed to the fields.

I don’t remember who won the game or how well I played. I’m sure if you could unearth the box score from the annals of the Boulder-Arrowhead Little League archives, it would show I struck out every at bat. But who knows? Maybe I laid down a bunt for a lucky single.

What I do know is that, all these years later, I haven’t forgotten that time my mom took me to a park to play catch.

We are down 64 – 67 to the Knicks after your first half buzzer-beater clanks off the right side of the rim. We huddle up and, as usual, you tell me what you think we need to do in the second half.

“I think we need to make more threes and play good defense because they’re pretty good at making shots. And I think we need to make sure the crowd doesn’t think I’m selfish, so we need to do more passing.”

“Good plan,” I say, and I think that if an NBA playing career doesn’t work out, maybe you can get a job as a TV analyst.

Your game plan seems to be working at the start of the third quarter. You make a couple of threes and then pass it to me. I throw down a dunk and you come give me a high five.

R.J. Barrett fouls you on the next play, which you pantomime by stepping back and swiping the ball across your body while grimacing. You line up and hit both free throws, putting us on top as we head into the fourth quarter.

I’m far from the first person to realize the greatest gift we give others, especially our children, is our time. But as I watch you out here in your element, and as I think back to all that you’ve been through these last few years, I’m hoping this gift is one that you’ll think back on years from now. That these memories will remain as vivid to you as my own are of playing catch with my dad and my mom.

Of course, I hope that you remember the hard times, too, if only to remember all that you’ve already overcome and all that you’re capable of enduring. But I hope that your memories aren’t all about the hardships you’ve endured, the times you’ve missed your mom and been sad, or the times where a heaviness has seemed to wrap its awful arms around our entire house in an unwelcome embrace.

Rather, I hope many of your memories are of these times shooting hoops out the backyard with your dad.

Midway through the fourth quarter we run a trick play. You pass me the ball, and I pass it back as you run toward me. Then I pick you up and you dunk it right over Julius Randle, who is a remarkably good sport about it as you throw out your arms and pump your fists to celebrate.

But the Knicks fight their way back and, with ten seconds left in the game, the Dashers are down one. I start the countdown:

“Ten, nine, eight, seven,” I say as you dribble back and forth and pass me the ball.

“Six, five, four, three,” I say as I look for an open shot before passing it back to you.

“Two, one,” I yell out as you let a shot fly.

It sails toward the basket, suspended in air for a lifetime.

And then it falls short.

Disappointment clouds your face. For the first time this season, the Dashers somehow have lost.

“…But what’s this? He was fouled?!?! I can’t believe it!” The announcer calls out. “Now he has three chances to shoot free throws. He needs one to tie it and two to win.”

Relieved, you line up to shoot. The first two shots miss, long and to the right. Maybe the Dashers really will add their first tally to the L column.

You take a deep breath and send the third and final shot flying. As if by destiny, it kisses the backboard and drops in.

“We’re going to overtime!!!” I yell out. You stomp your foot and pump your fist as you exclaim, “Yes!,” excited to get to keep playing.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About Shooting Hoops

  1. Wow! I made this essay. Now if I could only remember that day of practicing baseball with you as well as you do. I’m proud of you and think you are a great dad and son. I love you. 🙂


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