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With My Back Against the Wall

By Neil Bhandari

You should play basketball—try out for a team or something. I’m not really sure whose idea it was originally, my mom or brother or maybe even Titus, but really, it seemed harmless enough at the time. I’d been surprisingly good at baseball for a number of years, and with Bulls fever in full swing and no other extra-curricular activities occupying my time during the winter, it made sense that, despite my less than superior skills on our driveway court, I might somehow be able to find success in the more regimented confines of league play. Plus, Ed and Ryan—the only Asian friends I’d made by that time—had both been playing for a couple of years and assured me that I’d be alright, that as a kind of tall, kind of lanky guy, I might even be pretty good.

Tryouts were held at the park district, on a half-court, the other half curtained off by a transparent partition for cheerleading practice or some other activity whose only relevance to me was that it put about 40 thirteen year old girls within viewing distance of my basketball skills. We were lined up in alphabetical order and given numbers to pin to our shirts, so that the coaches wouldn’t have to worry about knowing our names. Or senses of humor. Or baseball playing abilities.

No, this tryout was about basketball skills—nothing more, nothing less—and it was a disaster from the start. While the coaches, parents, cheerleaders and my fellow hopefuls looked on, I missed three consecutive right-handed lay-ups, couldn’t dribble well enough to set up an attempt at a left-handed lay-up, passed the ball too hard to set anyone else up for a lay-up, had my hair in my eyes while missing four out of five free throws and dribbled the ball off my foot in the pathetically easy dribble-around-the-cones drill. It was the first time that I’d actually ‘choked’ while playing a sport. Despite my aforementioned lack of skill, I’d never been horrible at basketball—certainly never as bad as I was that afternoon. At one point, an acquaintance from school mentioned that I should’ve just skipped tryouts. The coaches would’ve seen your name, and assumed you were good since they know you from baseball. Luckily, community sports being what they are, if you pay the fee, you make the team.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from Tim Pudwell, a gruff yet friendly sounding guy, who told me that I was on his team, and that we’d be starting practices the following Monday night, in the carpeted gym at the church on Royce Road—the one you could see three miles across town with the lighted “Jesus Saves” cross on it.

I walked into that first practice quite nervous, and before Coach Pudwell even had a chance to introduce himself to the team, I rushed over to him, told him my name, and blurted out, I don’t know anything about basketball, like, positions and stuff, like who’s supposed to do what! I could feel my ears burning up, and I could imagine my teammates, this group of white, seventh grade boys, who, to me, were no less skilled and intimidating than Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and any other assembled members of the original Dream Team, laughing uproariously at this confession. I was, at best, Christian Laettner—a teammate, sure, but clearly less than worthy. However, to my surprise, they hadn’t heard me, and Coach just kind of stuttered over a laugh and said, well, I don’t really either, so that’s why we’re gonna practice.

Our team was sponsored by Subway, and as such, Coach referred to us as The Footlongs. Having found the level of the room amongst this group of 12 and 13 year old boys, he gave us such bits of coaching wisdom as, Footlongs, put it in the hole! on offense, and, Put a Footlong in his face and make him do something about it! on defense. His style really made for a pretty relaxed atmosphere at practice, and after the first week I was feeling pretty good, knowing that as long as I ran hard, got some rebounds and passed the ball to the suspiciously tall for his age Chris Daniels whenever I got the chance, I’d be okay. Maybe my friends had been right. Maybe I would really enjoy playing basketball. Unfortunately, I was only days away from being introduced to the scrimmage concept of Shirts vs. Skins.

I’ve always been hairy. I have full-fledged sideburns in my 1st Grade class photo. As a child, I avoided pool parties at all costs. Barbers and stylists run their clippers down to the tee-shirt line, just to clean it up. I’ve used Nair, I’ve used Epil-Stop, I’ve used pumice stones, and I’ve bathed in Basin—an Indian chickpea flour said to remove unwanted hair. None of it worked. I’d always known that it was weird and unsightly to have a hairy back and shoulders, especially at such a young age, but I’d never really had to ‘go public’ with it before, especially not at someone else’s demand or request. And as a twelve year old, just entering into the far-too self conscious and insecure world of junior high, I was not pleased about being asked to do so.

The first time Coach called for Shirts vs. Skins—which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like—and started counting off ones and twos, I faked a coughing fit and sprinted over to the water fountain, examining the line closely as I returned, counting my teammates and sliding back into the line in a spot that would guarantee my place as a member of the shirts. The game went smoothly enough, though I kept trying to plant ideas in my teammates heads—don’t you think this is gay?, Coach must like seeing boys with their shirts off—in hopes that they’d form an anti-skins alliance with me, and force him to rethink his policy. Unfortunately, they weren’t biting, and would instead yell at me for missing coverage or not paying attention to the game. But I couldn’t pay attention—watching their pale, hairless boy-bodies, I was horrified that next practice I wouldn’t be so lucky, that it would be my shirt, crumpled in the gym corner, my body on full display.

After returning home that night, I slowly began to build my case for what, by the time the next practice rolled around, would amount to quitting the team. I knew that my parents wouldn’t except my hairiness as a reason to quit, that I’d have to be more creative to earn their sympathy, so I started out by telling them that I was terrible and that there was no way I was going to get any better. This was news to them, as, to that point, I’d been coming home with reports of how well I’d been doing despite my lack of experience. Annoyed, I countered with the claim that basketball just wasn’t fun—I wasn’t friends with anyone on the team and they didn’t want to be friends with me. Clearly, this line of attack was going to have a much stronger emotional impact on my parents. And it did. By the next day, Wednesday, with the following practice scheduled for Thursday, I just had to drop a few—they make fun of me’s—and my mom was ready to let me off the hook. But the moment she told me that’d she would call Coach Pudwell and tell him about our decision—I insisted that I couldn’t tell him myself for fear that he’d get mad at me—I regretted what I’d done. Sure the idea of my body hair being exposed was a mortifying one, but that didn’t change the fact that I had started to become friends with some of my teammates, and the coaches did really seem to like me. I sat in my room, hearing the muffled sound of her voice on the kitchen phone coming up through the vent, already missing the sport, and people, I’d never given a chance, and hating my hairy back and shoulders for making me do this.

A few minutes later, she knocked on my door. I told your coach what you said, that you don’t want to play anymore because you don’t think you’re good enough. I began to shout in embarrassed defense of my skills, that that wasn’t why I was quitting, wanting to remind her that it wasn’t my fault that my teammates were mean, but luckily, I caught myself before telling another lie, and let her tell me rest of the details of the conversation. He said that he doesn’t think that’s true at all, that you’re doing fine and that he doesn’t think you should quit. He wants you to come to practice tomorrow, then decide. So there it was. As quickly as I’d lost basketball—and the trouble of having to go Shirts vs. Skins—I had it back. The ball was in my court.

Cue Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment.”

The ball is tipped and there you are, you're running for your life, you're a shooting star.

I arrive at practice knowing what I have to do. We go through the stretches and drills, run our sprints, and then Coach lines us up. As my teammates assemble, I rush to the eighth spot in line, knowing that the even numbers are always the skins. Today will be the day. And all the years no one knows just how hard you worked but now it shows…

I see him count down the line, his finger points at me and his mouth forms the word skins. Everything is now in slow motion. I’m taking my shirt off and the cool gym breeze drifts over my body. My nipples percolate.

In one shining moment, it’s all on the line.

One shining moment, there frozen in time.

The scrimmage begins and I’m playing the best basketball of my life. No one can stop me as I drive to the rim, making lay-ups and bringing down rebounds with ease. My teammates and coaches are in awe. I’m exposed. I’m liberated. I’m Teenwolf.

But time is short and the road is long in the blinking of an eye ah that moment's gone.

90 minutes later, practice is over. We gather over Gatorade and Coach tells us where and when we’ll be meeting on Monday, for our first official game of the season. Afterwards, he approaches me. Still wanna quit?

And when it's done win or lose you always did your best cause inside you knew…

That one shining moment you reached deep inside.

One shining moment, you knew you were alive.

That practice was the highlight of my basketball career. I ended the ten-game season with 11 points—five of which were free throws—, a decent number of rebounds, and just a few air balls. I even got to start one game at Center when Chris Daniels got pulled off the team for bad grades. I lost the tip-off.

At the end-of-season team party, Coach Pudwell said a few words about each player as he handed us our trophies. When he got to mine—which he’d saved for last—he told the entire team about how I’d wanted to quit after that first week, about how I’d stuck with it and become a good player, and that he hoped I’d be back next year. I started welling up, on the brink of tears, when, luckily, he finished his speech and gave me my trophy. I knew I wouldn’t be back the following season. Basketball, for me, had been an experiment, not an ambition, and even though the season had been a moderate success, I knew I’d never be as passionate about it as I was about baseball, music or experimentation in hair-removal methodologies. I’d reached my basketball apex and there was nothing left for me to accomplish. And I had Coach Pudwell and my hairy back to thank for that.

That one shining moment, you reached for the sky.

One shining moment, you knew.

One shining moment, you were willing to try.

One shining moment.

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