“When it comes to basketball, Jimmy is the best,” Joe would say, referring to my trash-talking. The reality is I couldn’t hope to compete with the likes of him or Vineet; they were the best players to hit the court on Chambers Street, but there were other ways to stand out.
I would “oink” when Vineet had the ball, since he was a ball hog. I described various sexual (and sometimes romantic) positions I’ve engaged in with Joe’s mother. I would also mime stamping Larry’s passport, since he took so many steps before letting go of the ball. It was these gestures and a seeming fearlessness from being punched in the face that kept me in the games. Sure, I was the last one picked, but I was picked unlike poor schlubs such as Michael.
Every play of high school ball went the same: Someone passes you the rock, you dribble it on the gray asphalt, and then you decide to egotistically take a shot or pass the ball to someone who can make it. Oftentimes, bad players like me can grab a drink from the water fountains without affecting the game or chat it up with the person they’re guarding or who's guarding them. Besides that, we gelled excellently as a team. We beat local college students in half-court games to 21 on a regular basis. We knew our capabilities very well. Joe was great with the layups; Vineet made outside shots; Larry was good for getting rebounds; and I caught every opportunity to mock my opponent's physical appearances. Again, not a good player, but even pawns have their uses in chess.
Our school team name — the Peg Legs, implying a handicap — was one of the most common elements of my insults.
“If you fall on your face one more time, they might recruit you to the Peg Legs,“ I started, adding the politically incorrect "you fucking Chinese version of Corky from Life Goes On."
Aside from my racism, the malice toward our school mascot could have been jealousy. I was convinced my friends and I were better than the school team but would never be recognized for it. The basketball court was right at the entranceway to our school, but none of the members of the team ever joined us in a game. We weren’t even sure who was on the team; we just knew it had to be from the same group of white kids who ran the student government and our school newspaper. They were probably the same players in our football team, too. It was the kids whose parents could afford to buy them uniforms. They can stand to be told what to do because that was what life was going to bring them. They got to put “basketball team” on their college applications for extracurricular activities, and even if we played every day, we didn’t. We were stray dogs enjoying an unrewarding freedom, and we didn’t identify with anyone who trained and played in that air-conditioned gymnasium. This is why it was surprising when I barked to some passersby one night.
There was a cold winter darkness in New York, but we were warmed by our hours of playing. The street light illuminated the court, as some kids were grabbing their jackets to go home. I had my usual obnoxious grin, shouting “ In your face!” to Larry as I took a shot. Of course, it missed. I wanted to pick new teams among the people staying. A group of black kids came out of the school wearing varying combinations of pinks and grays, holding gym bags and a couple of basketballs. They weren’t familiar to me, as our school was mostly white and Asian, with the majority of the nonwhites being in our group itself, so I inferred they were a visiting team.
“Stuyvesant sucks!” yelled the shorter one in the group. His followers laughed.
“Why don’t you come in here and say that?” I shouted back, reminding my friends of my fearlessness.
We were immediately surrounded by them. Even those of our friends who were not planning on leaving initially had grabbed their stuff and headed in, leaving Joe, Larry, Michael, and me. I couldn’t tell what their immediate reactions were as I was busy staring up at some pretty tough faces while grinning stupidly, saying,“In a game of basketball, I mean. Why don’t you tell us by beating us in a game of basketball?”
And like a Daffy Duck cartoon, I managed to avoid yet another well-deserved beating, as our now-opponents started picking out their five players, jumping, raising their hands, as the short guy who made the remark initially confirmed who’d be sitting on their sidelines from their group of 12. Meanwhile, on our side, we were trying to figure out how to make our team of four work in a full-court game. Relief came when one of the rejected players from our opposing team put himself in our group.
“Y'all need a fifth? I’m Eric. I got the best layup.”
Who were we to argue? The game started, and it was quite a spectacle. Michael and I played guards, while Larry and Joe were under the basket. Joe was a small guy, but he had a great jump, which is why he could play a position normally reserved for taller players. He was everyone’s first pick, and he was a funny guy, too.
I stepped up to the short guy, their leader. He extended the ball out, dribbling it in front of me, daring me to try to take it. I didn’t know my opponent, but he shouldn’t know me either. Maybe I was skilled enough to take the ball from him. Besides, his team just lost to our school. People shouted in the sidelines about my “broken ankles” as the ball bounced between my open legs. They scored with cheers, and Joe passed it to our new teammate, who just as quickly got the layup in, taunting his friends with some inside jokes.
Coming back up from their side of the court, my nemesis smiled, pointing out how "I haven’t learned.” He hit the ball off my hand, and before I could retrieve it, had taken steps toward a layup. It didn’t matter that he missed the shot; he still embarrassed me by getting past my outreached arms. I still looked bad to onlookers. Joe retrieved the ball, passing it back down to Eric, who scored again.
“My turn! My turn!” Someone else wanting to get past me. He had his fun, too, as he spun around me, breaking through my already-worn-down defense.
“Oh, there he goes, there he goes. Oh!” The onlookers who clearly supported their friends were laughing while expressing empathy for the pain I must have been feeling.
But I wasn’t embarrassed. I had my mouth uncharacteristically shut, and I was determined to help my team get the advantage. Our opponents liked to switch it up, going after all our players. Eric though, like our opponents, showed no interest in playing defense, choosing to expend his efforts taking shots and driving the ball into the hoop instead. Vineet played like that. I wondered how the game would have turned out if he were with us.
The player shouting the score from the opposing team stopped when he started practicing his jump shot on me. I was a little angry, but I couldn’t deny how much fun everyone was having. My friends played a fierce game too, with even Mike getting a three-point shot in. Shorty stepped up to me again with his usual smile, then suddenly stopped and turned to a girl in the sidelines.
“Yo, is that them? Yooooo!”
I couldn’t see who they were referring to, but I knew. Everyone, including Eric, immediately evacuated the court, with the girls and some of the guys picking up their stuff and walking toward them. I asked that same girl as she collected someone else’s jacket what just happened.
“That was the basketball team. They went to go fuck them up.”
Joe came up to me asking the same thing, as a smile sneaked onto my face. I realized I had more school pride than I thought — just enough to defend her honor to some strangers, but not enough to care for other schoolmates. I also dragged my friends in what could have been a hostile situation, and they didn’t run. In turn, I tried my best to play defense, even as I became the butt of other people’s jokes. All those points gave me a reason to smile to Joe and say, “I don’t think they're coming back to finish the game, and we’re winning 16 to 14.”