The god said, Here. – A man who hunts with care
May often find what other men will miss.
-Oedipus the King
There was a voice behind me, familiar, yet somehow suspended in the ether, drowning everything else, as if it were trying to break through some sort of protoplasm. I had heard the inflection before; the sloppy, pedestrian choice of words, usually in the most signature of moments. The disembodied voice would persist unless, or until, satisfaction was achieved.
To borrow a phrase, my failure was never an option to the voice. Because it was never my own failure.
“This is our moment, Kyle,” the voice screamed. “Everything we’ve worked toward is on the line. This is where you make your money.”
My forehead killed, a monstrous headache soaked in sweat, dripping onto my powder-blue uniform with red piping. I stared down at the parquet floor, the blond wood laid out horizontally here, vertically there, drops of sweat now settling next to my Nikes with the same powder-blue swoosh logo.
A soft chirp broke through the din, displacing the voice.
“Kyle?” it said. “Kyle? Are you okay?”
The truth? I had never experienced a migraine before and I wondered if this was the first time. Bile was churning in my gut, and my vision consisted of tiny colored orbs. For a moment, I had to think about where the garbage can was lest I puke on that perfectly symmetrical floor.
That would be gross. But maybe it would engender some compassion from the voice.
That was doubtful.
“Come on, Kyle!” it went on. “Get your ass up!”
Those last few words reverberated before fading into the solar system in my eyes.
“…ass up….ass up….ass…”
The soft chirp returned.
“Do you need to sit this one out?” it said in a soft, almost fatherly tone.
I knew what I had to do.
I rose and the packed gym whirled around me, faces and bright banners of titles won long ago and scoreboard lights, lilted by humidity, the scent of body odor and a hint of Ben Gay in the air. I didn’t stumble—wouldn’t stumble—because in one way, the voice was right. This was indeed our moment.
“All right, bay-beeeee!” it said. “It’s hammer time!”
You never know what you might think about in situations like this. Some might worry about the breakdown of one’s physical constitution, others about displeasing the crowd. Are you not entertained?
I thought of Sophocles.
You have your sight, and yet you cannot see.
Yeah, I whispered to the voice. You can see, but you really can’t.
The horn blared, shaking me from my doldrums, and a raucous cheer from the bleachers on my left—the home fans—went up as they chanted:
Let’s go North! Let’s go North!
I looked up and reminded myself the stakes in order to escape what was happening to me.
Class 4A super-sectional. Winner goes downstate to Peoria, for all that pomp and pageantry of the Illinois state high school basketball tournament. I’d never been. As a senior, it was my last chance, after three years of sectional-final disappointment, thwarting the voice’s expectations. He wouldn’t be denied this time. He told me.
The time: 20.4 seconds.
The score: Glenview South 50, Westchester North 48.
We were down by two. We had the ball. Or rather, everyone knew I’d get the ball. I had motive and opportunity, not unlike a criminal looking to knock over an all-night gas station on Cermak Road.
The question: Would we—I—be successful? Risk and reward.
The numbers were in my favor. I had averaged a cool twenty-seven points per game, and my success from three-point land was a ridiculous forty percent.
No garbage, no questions, no doubts. I was getting the ball.
Everyone in the gym knew it. The voice crowed the fact, not conjecture.
“Over here, son.” The ref, a stocky, bullet-headed man that I only knew as Jim pointed me away from the sideline. The voice returned.
“Hey ref, don’t crowd the kid out,” it said. “Give him a fighting chance. Goddamn…”
Our point guard, a kid named Daly that I didn’t really care for, and still don’t, stood at the outside the sideline, in front of the scorer’s table, awaiting the ball from Jim the ref.
“Kyle—get the job done,” the voice said, “or so help me you’ll be shooting until a thousand shots a day until you go to college.”
Daly inbounded the ball and I caught it on the opposite side of the center line. I passed it back to Daly and moved into position just left of the top of the key.
You have your sight, and yet you cannot see.
I had my sight. I could see the basket, some twenty-five feet away.
Twenty-five feet from either a tie or, preferably to the voice, and the North faithful, a trip to Peoria.
Warm up the buses.
No. Let’s not.
The play was designed for me to take split-second advantage of a pick at the free throw line, step to my left, find an opening and shoot over the defenders that would attempt to double-team me. We code named the play Marquette.
I caught the ball, yeah. There was the pick. The opposite defender left his feet in a vain attempt to disrupt my shot, a stupid move. Never, ever leave your feet on defense.
There I was, dead to rights. I pivoted left to avoid him.
“Shitcan this one, Kyle!”
But this time, William Shakespeare spoke to me, in the form of Hamlet, and at that juncture I realized that the splitter, the migraine or whatever it was, had dissipated. No more orbs or urge to puke. With a clear head and eyes, I realized that the voice had a dream that wasn’t mine.
A dream itself is but a shadow.
Act II, Scene II. I knew it by heart.
That was my dream. To find meaning in the masters, and perhaps by some quirk of fate become a master myself, or a merely a blue-collar stooge that had the audacity to want to become a writer and a teacher.
I placed the ball under my right arm, walked to center court, and placed the ball on the logo, a bright red-horned devil that seemed to gape at me in delight. The lips moved.
Now you’re going to get it, it whispered over the hushing voices.
I turned, and by the time Jim blew the whistle—a travel, and thus a turnover at crunch time—I strode with purpose to the opposite baseline, turned left and entered the red doors that led to the hallway and eventually to the locker room. The voice reached a new level of agony.
“What the fuck are you doing? Oh shit, shit…Get back over here. That’s an order!”
I doubted I was his son anymore. Maybe I never really was.
Dad had a ragged VHS tape of him playing for Kindle County Union High back in the mid-80s. I had seen the footage dozens of times…snowy, snowy and then he blurred onto the screen, a tiny figure with short shorts and a tight green uniform that made him look like a celery stalk. I would chuckle inwardly when his shots on our fifty-five-inch widescreen would fall short, lipping the front of the rim. Or in one famous (to me) sequence, he drove the lane and had his layup rejected by a dude at least four inches taller and forty pounds heavier. Bad decisions.
“That was me,” he would say in a determined, no-nonsense tone. “That ain’t gonna be you. You’ve got what it takes to go a helluva lot further than I did. We can do this. We’ve got this.”
We watched the tape yet again the morning of the super-sectional, before school, but after my exactly one hundred shots in the North gym, a routine that I had become accustomed to since I was a seventh grader. Dad would stand under the hoop, feeding me the ball, needling me when I would miss, which wasn’t often, and saying nothing when I made shots. I remember that particular morning I shot fifty-four percent, including seven three-pointers. Not bad, right?
“You’ve gotta do better,” dad sniffed at the end of the session, holding his arms out, palms up.
But there was a gap between us, a quotient that I didn’t think would be resolved tonight.
Hamlet spoke to me.
Rest, rest perturbed spirit!
Act I, Scene V.
I don’t know Hamlet by heart or anything, just like I don’t know Oedipus the King or Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales by heart, but I know more than nothing. I am beginning to understand the point of these stories, the theater, which to me isn’t much different than the theater of basketball. There are heroes in life, and there are villains, in constant conflict.
I suppose I am the hero of this tale. But do heroes do what I felt like I was compelled to do last night? Does a hero merely give up and walk away?
Or is a hero a rebel?
And who was the villain? It didn’t feel like Glenview South, though it was truly a goliath, a leviathan.
Was dad the villain?
He texted me throughout the day, almost on the hour, to check in on my mental state. He’d done this for years before big games, once during a major lit exam, when I had turned my phone off so I could concentrate. Satisfied with my performance on the test, which had to do with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turned my phone back on to at least twenty messages (I quit counting after a while), asking where I was, what I was doing, where my head was at, even a threat. What the hell is going on, boy?
Everything’s fine, dad. I had an exam.
You better not do that again. There’s too much on the line tonight.
I rolled my eyes and thought of Milton, whom I somehow “knew” as a depressed old man writing by hand in a cottage under a bleak sky.
Solitude sometimes is best society.
Yesterday, dad demanded that I take another hundred shots after school, eat something light, then rest until it was time to head to school and the bus that would take us to Chicago’s Grosvenor College, the sight of the super-sectional.
I told him I wanted to save my shots for the game, trying to make a joke out of the fact that it was too much. The whole thing. My coach, John Flaherty, is a kind man with a thatch of graying chestnut hair and horn-rimmed glasses, and he and I had had a number of discussions over the years about how deal with my overbearing parent. Even Flaherty and dad had had a few tete-a-tetes, usually about playing time. Flaherty had patiently explained that what I brought to the team, my skills, was a part of a greater whole.
Dad said he got that, but still, why couldn’t the offense run through me? Why couldn’t he guarantee at least twenty shots a game? That way, he won’t have to do pushups.
Ah, yes. Pushups.
The rule in my house was—is? Maybe.—that for every point under twenty I don’t score, I had to do twenty pushups. So, do the math: If I scored seventeen and we won big over a crummy opponent because I sat out most of the second half, then I’d be responsible for sixty pushups. Dad would stand next to me, tapping his foot, as if he had to be somewhere else, and I was holding him up.
The voice of parents is the voice of gods.
That’s Shakespeare, though I don’t recall chapter and verse.
Let’s just say I didn’t do many post-game pushups this season.
Score, or else.
Don’t you want to play at the next level? You got a shot at the NBA. Follow my lead and you won’t blow it.
We can do this.
Like I said, I didn’t sprint off the floor after I laid the ball down. My strides were graceful. I almost turned and blew a kiss toward dad, but I thought that might be a little excessive. Plus, I didn’t want to embarrass Flaherty any more than I had already. Like I said, he’s a good man.
Talk about theater.
I sat on the glossy one-piece wooden bench in front of my locker, at first wondering about the implications of my decision, especially on social media, and then, frankly, not caring. I thought I might finally be free. A roar ensued outside the locker room and I could hear the fans of the winning team, presumably Glenview South, storming the floor because they were on their way to Peoria just as much as their team was.
I wondered as I sat there who would be the first to burst through the door—dad, Flaherty or my really pissed off teammates. Or maybe it would be a reporter from the Sun-Times, trying to get the story of the season for high school basketball. I could even see the headline in my mind:
Star Player Leaves Floor; Team Loses
Sure enough, it was dad, and it played out just as I expected it would.
“What in blue blazes did you just do?” he spluttered. “Do you realize what you did? You screwed any chance for a scholarship. Nobody’s going to want a head case. You’re going to be playing at a community college somewhere. Unbelievable…”
Yep. No compassion. Not a drop.
I didn’t say anything, but my inner monologue spoke in Shakespeare.
Obey thy parents, keep thy word justly.
Act III, Scene IV.
How do I know all of this? How does a seventeen-year-old that’s had it rammed home his whole life that basketball is what matters?
While other kids played video games, or drank at keggers, or scored with pretty girls, I was contemplating. I was, quite literally, sitting at home, trying to find my own words that would pacify me in my, let’s say, situation.
Instead, I found them somewhere else. And I wanted to learn more.
I had already decided by then that college basketball wasn’t in my future. I wanted more literature, and even wanted to write some of my own. I kept this all to myself because there was no way pops was going to understand. I was going to tell him, eventually, but the right opportunity never presented itself.
Until last night.
Flaherty poked his head through the door, and said, “Okay if I come in, Kyle?”
“No,” dad said with finality. He never liked Flaherty. It was about my playing time, and my shots. Always that. Never about the team.
But I cut him off.
“Yeah,” I said, mustering a tone above a whisper.
As dad gritted his teeth, Flaherty entered.
“I bet you’re thinking about Sophocles,” he said. “None of us is radically free; none of us is the absolute master of all that he surveys.”
I wasn’t thinking about Sophocles—Shakespeare instead—but point taken.
Flaherty is one hell of an English teacher. He knew where I was, hat I was, and came to find me.
“Don’t you get it, Flaherty?” dad said, this time in an even tone that shook as he spoke through still-gritted teeth. “You’ve ruined him, and me. You’re gonna pay for this.”
Wow. Sounded like a B-movie.
Flaherty ignored that and said, “Let the young man make his own decisions. He has the mind, and the heart, of a writer and poet. He has to find that part of himself.”
“What’re you, crazy? After all these years of time and expense, now I find out that my kid is more interested in…Sophocles? Shakespeare? Who gives a shit?”
I stood. I had to get out of there before my teammates entered. Like I said, I anticipated they’d be pretty torqued.
“You’re going to suspend him, right?” dad said.
Which didn’t seem to make sense because the season, and my high school career, were over.
“I’m going to leave it up to Kyle.”
“Why not leave it up to his teammates, who he failed?”
“This is Kyle’s decision. That’s how this is going to be, sir. You may not like it, but Kyle does still have a chance to play at state. If he wants to.”
“That’s right, Kyle,” he said. “We got a steal on an inbound and Daly buried an NBA three.
There was commotion outside and no wonder none of my teammates had entered. They were celebrating with our classmates.
Dad stared me down with enough of a glare to clean glass.
“You’re not my kid,” he said softly, then walked out, slamming the door behind him.
As of now, state starts in two days. I had a hard talk with my teammates about what happened, and while they obviously didn’t approve of what I had done, there was a modicum of understanding. Despite what Flaherty said, they took a vote on whether they would be okay with me playing, and I got the green light.
So, I’ve decided to play. I’ve got two more chances to show what I’ve got, and then it will be over. All the shooting, all the pushups, the early mornings, the late nights. All over.
Dad won’t be there. He already told me. I went home and packed a bag and I’m staying at Flaherty’s until state’s over, and then I’ll decide what to do.
It’s a step into the unknown I will be taking, and while I am forcing myself to look ahead, I can’t help but define the past.
I came, saw and overcame.
All is not lost.