Tuesday, January 4, 2011
You'd think that a six-foot-tall black guy who spent four years of his youth living in a college basketball hotbed like North Carolina would have grown up with an appreciation for the nuances of the NCAA game. And, if I told you that same guy moved back home to southern California in the mid-1980s – during the NBA's flashy ascent into sports and pop culture relevancy; thanks largely to the legendary Los Angeles Lakers "Showtime" teams – you'd assume this impressionable pre-teen would've gotten swept up in the pomp and circumstance of pro hoops.
I'll spare everyone the heavily-foreshadowed swerve and simply mention that my six-year-old son Jalen is playing in his first organized basketball league.
Mrs. Bootleg and I took Jalen to his first Major League Baseball game on June 1, 2004. He wasn't even four-months-old. During this past NFL season, Jalen fervently embraced the Oakland Raiders. He wore a plastic replica Raiders helmet around the house every Sunday and parroted the playoff scenarios for every contending AFC West team during the final few weeks of the season.
Jalen's basketball exposure, though, has been much more limited. He's had one of those adjustable preschool-appropriate basketball hoops sitting in on our patio for several years. Unfortunately, the only competitive pick-up games on it for Jalen are with the 4'8" Mrs. Bootleg. These contests usually end after five minutes with a torrent of tears, accusations of cheating and unexplained bleeding in the vicinity of someone's eye socket.
Jalen and I did watch parts of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, but when my only son began exhibiting leanings toward the hated Lakers*, I found myself rooting for the basketball season to end before Jalen's full-blown betrayal could be consummated.
* -- I HATE the Lakers. Always have. And, for me, it's always been about their insufferable fans. Even as a child, I despised the haughty, Hollywood vibe of the Lakers' fan base. None of them suffered. A championship team was dropped in their backyard and with it came a sense of entitlement that belies their fair-weather tendencies. Car flags, replica jerseys worn with white undershirts and the infrequent Lakers' remix of already-awful pop-rap tracks. These are your Lakers fans.
Back in October, as the fall Little League season was winding down, Mrs. Bootleg suggested basketball for Jalen. Admittedly, I wasn't especially enthusiastic at the idea.
As all of you know, I love baseball. During Jalen's Christmas vacation; we went out five or six different days and spent a few hours working on assorted hitting and fielding drills with some of his old teammates. And, football – believe it or not – was my first love. At least until seventh grade, when I might've faked a season-ending injury in a cowardly attempt to alleviate the Pop Warner punishment on my marshmallow-soft body.
But, basketball? I'd played – off and on – in rec leagues or after-work pick-up games for years. Just between us, though? I'm a terrible basketball player. Maybe not "young Denzel Washington in Carbon Copy"-bad or "C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man"-bad, but I still wouldn't pick me in a playground game. (I couldn't find clips on YouTube, so you'll have to trust me on this: both movies feature extended "black guy is surprisingly bad at basketball" scenes. Really.)
I have ONE move on offense. If you feed me the ball – or "rock", as it's colloquially known – I can spin towards the basket, dribble once, take one-and-a-half loping strides to the hoop and lay it in. My entire offense is dependent on both sh*tty defense and a distance of no more than 10-12 feet from the rim. I'm better on defense, but mostly because of my long arms, illegal hip checks and particularly pointy elbows.
Despite my absence of a hoop dreams pedigree, I signed Jalen up for our local kids' basketball league.
The 60-Second Tryout -- On November 29, all of the players were required to appear for a "skills assessment". The league is broken up by age groups, with six and seven-year-olds comprising Jalen's level. Jalen was asked to dribble the full-length of the court, stop and shoot. He proceeded to outrun the ball once or twice, but hilariously doubled-back for it and just continued to dribble. Jalen stopped in the key and successfully made his shot off the eight-foot rim. And, that was it. I hardly had time to haul my jaw off the floor as several coaches stationed under the basket were intently scribbling in their clipboards.
"You're a Black Guy, Right?" -- Immediately after Jalen's abbreviated audition, we waited around for one of his young friends to finish up. Before long, I was approached by one of the league's administrators: "Hey, we're a couple of coaches short and wanted to know if you'd be interested in helping out with the kids and coaching a team? I bet you still play, huh? You think you can teach these kids a little bit of your game?"
The Three-Man Weave -- Jalen's team listed eight players on its roster, but at the first practice only three kids showed up. In addition, there was an unexpected conflict with the indoor gym times, so we were forced onto the crowded outdoor courts with only 20 minutes of daylight remaining. Jalen's coach – a phenomenally nice man who has a terrific rapport with the kids – turned to me and asked if I'd help out with some drills. I agreed. Without missing a beat, the coach asked me, "Do you know any drills?"
Twisting the Knife -- Jalen's team is the Spurs. For those of you who don't follow the NBA, the real Spurs play in San Antonio and primarily wear silver and black. In our league, all the kids wear the same colors with reversible "home" and "away" jersey tops. I'll give you three guesses as to which NBA team's colors are the league's universal hues. Do they want me to boo my own son? Don't think I won't.
The Rules That Aren't Rules -- I suppose the continuously-running clock (there are two 20-minute halves) is a necessity, lest the kids' games turn into Yankees/Red Sox slogs. And, the referees at this level should be as lenient as their NBA equivalents when it comes to ignoring travelling and double-dribbles. I can't, however, agree with any league that doesn't keep score. My position has nothing to do with any macho posturing or inane d*ck waving. It has everything to do with my son's macho posturing and inane d*ck waving. I have to LIVE with this hyper-competitive kid and he needs closure from the scoreboard.
Jalen's First Game -- Jalen's first basket came at the start of the second half. I waited for a fist pump, crowd taunt or some other kind of self-serving look-at-me moment from my son. Instead, he quietly turned and ran back on defense. Looking back, I'm glad I celebrated enough for the both of us. (Even though, as assistant coach I should be supporting all the kids.) He recorded four steals -- not surprisingly, assigning himself to guard the little blonde girl on our opponents' team. And, his shot blocking technique -- in which Jalen goes up vertically, but crashes into the shooter horizontally -- can best be captured here.
According to our unofficial scorebook, we lost 26-14. Next week, the head coach will be out of town and I'll be taking the reins for our next game.
I seem to be finding my enthusiasm for basketball.