October 31, 2008

At 5-foot-8, hoop dreams far out of reach

Even now, I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I would never dunk a basketball. It was 1999, I was 12 years old, and I’d just watched Mike Dunleavy, then a freshman at Duke, play Stanford in his first collegiate game. Dunleavy and the Blue Devils lost, but I didn’t care. What mattered was that here was Dunleavy, a guy who was slow (like me), poorly coordinated (like me), and had blonde hair (like me) parted neatly to the right (like my mother combed mine each morning before school).

And yet, there he was on my 24-inch Magnavox, running downcourt and once, even dunking—like me, someday? Wide-eyed, I ran downstairs to the PC, booted up AOL, logged on, and typed “Mike Dunleavy” into AltaVista. I clicked on the first bio I found: born 1981 in California, son of an NBA coach, wing forward—and then I saw it.

“Height: 6-foot-10.” Though he looked normal on TV, Dunleavy had 20 inches on me and nearly a foot on my dad. He was a giant, a behemoth, a circus monstrosity. But he was a dunker, unlike me, and I knew it. Stung by the injustice, I went outside, lowered my hoop to six-and-a-half feet, retreated with my basketball to the far end of the driveway, and then threw it down with no regard for human life.

Such half-scale recreations proved cold comfort when I considered that if Dunleavy had dunked on my goal, he would have clotheslined himself, perhaps irreparably damaging his trachea. Still, that’s all I have and, as I’ve only belatedly learned, all I’ll ever get: sports in miniature, in slow motion, as played and practiced by a stumpy, pasty asthmatic with a bum knee.

(I can claim perfect eyesight as my chief athletic advantage. What do you say now, Horace Grant? Four NBA titles? Oh, right.)

It’s fair to say that my involvement in sports has been one long chain of disillusionments dating back, I think, to the start of my T-ball days. I remember that when my parents originally told me I was signed up for Little League, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

As I envisioned it, I’d arrive on the first day and stand amidst 10 or so other six-year-olds, all of us looking slack-jawed up at our coach, a grizzled man with leathery skin and sad eyes. Once he got finished staring meaningfully off toward the horizon, he’d look down, offer each of us a plug of his Skoal, and then, with a sentence or two, reveal to us The Secret to Playing Baseball.

Having heard The Secret, we’d all take our places around the diamond and begin turning 6–4–3 double plays. That done, we’d spit our chaw onto the dirt, step into the batter’s box, and dutifully execute squeeze bunts. I truly thought it would be so simple.

As it happened, I held down shallow right through five or six seasons of Little League, until my parents let me quit after a spring during which my team went 3–16 and I posted an unblemished .000 batting average.

The intervening years have been no kinder to my athletic ambitions. The thoughts that I might have a knack for soccer, football, lacrosse, tennis, boxing, dice, or jai alai have gone the way of my dreams of dunking like Dunleavy.

I’ve tried tinkering with my game, taking a different tack, but I’m no more Luke Ridnour than I am a high-flying dunker. That seems especially unfair for someone who was named after Michael Jordan, one of the most athletic men ever. I was set up to fail, and so I did, over and over, often in grand fashion.

But just to give sports a try is to invite those sorts of disappointments upon yourself. There are ups and downs in any activity, of course, but only sports are so relentlessly evaluative. Plays and poems may not turn out perfect, but they don’t inevitably end in a yea-or-nay, win-or-loss, like a baseball game does.

And it’s not just the team that competes; it’s the individual athletes, too. From the earliest levels, the whole organization of sports is designed to keep stats and promote the top performers to the next stage. It’s blindly, brutally meritocratic, with no room for nice folks with great personalities, but room enough for the high-scoring Mike Vicks and Pacman Joneses. And everyone is trying to keep up with those guys.

Most of us, though, fall behind and end up watching from the upper deck, and it has to be that way, or professional sports wouldn’t be the amazing spectacles they are. It’s like what Newton said about standing on the shoulders of giants except in this case, professional athletes, like Terrell Owens and Rasheed Wallace, are standing on the hollowed-out remains of your dreams.

Also, they’re becoming fabulously wealthy and dating beautiful women while they’re up there. I expect they’re all very happy, too. Makes you feel good about the $40 you paid for that seat in section 314. No? Hey, the roaming vendors are selling Coors for just $6.95.