When I was seven or eight years old, my dad signed me up for rec league basketball. My parents were both high school and college athletes, so they thought that it was really important for my little brother and I to participate in team sports. Before starting basketball, I went through a few thoroughly unremarkable seasons in little league softball, where I mostly hung out in the outfield and enjoyed watching the red dirt muck up my bright white cleats. The post-season parties at CiCi’s were always pretty sweet.
But basketball was always where I was clearly headed. I was, and am, a tall kid desperate to endear myself to all figures of authority. I want to do a good job. I want to help. I don’t want to let anybody down. Being tall and easy to coach seemed to be factors that were leading me down the road to eventual basketball stardom. With my dad’s intense encouragement, I rec leagued it up all throughout the back half of elementary school and middle school.
Factors working against my WNBA potential? Um, I was, and am, awkward and clumsy as fuck, and TERRIFIED OF THE BALL. I will box you out and rebound for days, but for the love of John Wooden, do not fucking pass that thing to me. I do not want it. I promise you that it will sail through my fingers, and my dad will be disappointed in me, and Abby will yell at me in front of everyone, and I will want to sink into the loam of South Forsyth High School to die a much deserved death.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
So, I was an all right basketball player, but my dad was sure I could be better. I think it caused my father a great deal of bewilderment and aggravation that I, this always-tall-for-her-age-kid who hustled even when scared, just didn’t care about sports the way I cared about Robin Hood and chapter books about heroic rodents. My dad and I have only ever gone through sporadic patches of really understanding the other one. Still, though, he didn’t give up on the dream of me kicking ass and taking names out on the court.
I didn’t make the 8th grade basketball team, which was devastating even though I didn’t really love basketball. But I have always hated failing more than I’ve liked anything, so it was still a pretty terrible day. I came home from school to deliver the bad news, and my mom immediately hopped into the car and drove to Taco Bell. My mom couldn’t take the sad away, but she could soothe it over with a chicken quesadilla and Mountain Dew Code Red.
They didn’t really cut anybody from the 9th grade basketball team. If you were good as a freshman, you just went straight to JV or Varsity. I did eventually make it to JV and even Varsity, in 10th and 11th grade. And I mostly hated the entire experience, which feels like a massive betrayal to my dad just to type.
Here’s the thing. I was the only nerd in the entire Dacula High School basketball program. Like, there wasn’t even really a guy nerd to commiserate with when we all rode the bus together to away games. It was just me, sitting in a seat alone towards the front of the bus and listening to The Lord of the Rings soundtrack on my Walkman. The girls on the team weren’t mean, we just didn’t have anything in common. We weren’t friends, but I had to spend more time with them than I did with any of my actual friends. I missed birthday parties and movie outings because of basketball games. My ability to participate in the drama program– quickly becoming the most important part of my life– was hindered by basketball.
One year, I had to be a day late to State German Convention because of basketball, and I ACTUALLY WON MEDALS AT STATE GERMAN CONVENTION. WARUM?!
Worse than not having friends, though, was the fact that I still wasn’t excelling. I tried hard when I was at practice or at a game, but I didn’t work on basketball stuff when I was at home. I just wasn’t into it. That frustrated my dad a lot, and led to me getting yelled at a decent amount. I was a disappointment. I rode the bench a lot of the time. I had a hard time landing my free throws. I fell down all the time, even if no one had run into me. With the exception of a few stand out moments like knocking a future Olympian out of bounds and rebounding my ASS OFF at South Forsyth that one time, I just wasn’t much to sneeze at as a high school basketball player. I felt like a phony whenever I wore my letter jacket.
So, basketball was lonely. I was bad at it, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone further by quitting. When I was little, my dad told me that he didn’t talk to quitters, so I try my best to stick everything out.
The worst basketball nights went like this:
Step 1) Be a big dork on the away bus who no one wants to sit with.
Step 2) Just epically suck during the game itself, earning the not-so-subtle scorn of your teammates.
Step 3) Get chewed out by your dad in the stands after the game.
Step 4) Sit by yourself in the bleachers, because now you all have to stick around for the boys’ game before you can go home.
Step 5) Try not to cry on the bus back to the school, you dumb weirdo.
Step 6) Potentially get chewed out more back home.
There was always one very literally sweet spot during Step 4 of such nights. If I had any cash– gifted to me by my mom– on me, I’d go to the concession stand for a blue Powerade and one of those warm, gooey Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookies. Remember those cookies? They were just the best. I’d sit in the stands by myself, ashamed and doing my homework, with my cookie to keep me company.
In my weird adulthood, I sometimes end up performing Shakespeare in high school gymnasiums, and that smell always makes me crave an opportunity for redemption and an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookie.
I have a lot of food memories wrapped up in high school basketball. That 9th grade comfort Taco Bell, my post-game cookies, Stouffer’s lasagnas for pre-game dinner provided by the Team Mom’s, etc, etc. Food accompanied everything. Even when I sucked during a home game, my family still ended up at a KFC or something more often than not. Victory, defeat, pride, shame… whichever way I was probably still eating mashed potatoes.
Even as I get older and start to realize that maybe I’m not as adept at metabolizing utter trash the way I could as a teenager, I daily fight the urge to drown myself in junk food as a source of comfort. I start to panic when I’m in a CVS, standing in the snack aisles. I want it all. I romanticize it. I want Goldfish crackers and a Vanilla Coke and Oreo’s and Reese’s Pieces and Twizzlers, and I want it to make me feel better. I want it to make me feel like my parents are just in the other room, even if I’ve let them down. I realize that I kind of miss when the anxiety that made me feel the most sick to my stomach was just high school basketball. I miss when the Goldfish crackers were just there, and I didn’t have to “be an adult” in the snack aisle and talk myself into getting a Kind bar instead.
I’d kind of like to just go miss a free throw, and cry into a blue Powerade, mostly because I’m confident that I can.