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Authors: John Goode

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BOOK: Going the Distance
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When you’re a kid, the rules of society are a little fuzzy. Whether or not a parent had the ability to leave a kid on the side of the road without explanation wasn’t a black-and-white thing. I had flashbacks to when my mom had died, that feeling I was going to be returned because I was defective. And even though I was pretty sure I knew where babies came from so there wasn’t a place you could return them to, I was still terrified that was what he was about to do. I was hungry,
tired, the side of my face ached, and I felt on the verge of tears again. We pulled up to what looked like a gymnasium, and I felt lost. He stopped the car and sat for a moment. He looked as if he were weighing a difficult situation and didn’t like his choices.

I was sure he was going to sell me off or just ditch me somewhere in the middle of Germany. What could I do? I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know how to get back to base. I had no money and no means to make any. I would be dead within a day, wild dogs feeding on my carcass as I huddled behind some trash cans in the middle of the night. Of course I didn’t even know if there were wild dogs in Germany, but I’d seen a documentary in the States once, and the thought of something so benign ending up so feral had petrified me. After about a minute, he took the keys out of the car and opened his door. I followed, pretty sure he wasn’t going to abandon me in the car. He liked the car.

He spotted an empty bench just to the left of the gym door and sat down and pointed, first at me and then at the bench. I sat next to him. “You have a choice to make,” he said, still not looking at me. “I can do two things with you, and I’m going to leave it up to you to decide.” I felt the tears welling up again but forced myself to stay steady. “You can go back to the States,” he said. “I talked to your Aunt Kelly, and she said you could stay with them if you want.” He turned to stare at me. “But if you go, you aren’t coming back here. I have another three years in Stuttgart, and other than maybe Christmas, I won’t have any way to get back to Texas.” I could feel the world falling from underneath me and realized Dad wasn’t going to ditch me. He was going to send me off to live with his sister, a woman he described on his best days as a raging bitch. She had three daughters, and each was more self-centered and superficial than the next. I hated their family, and my dad knew it. We barely saw them, and the few times we had, I had literally begged my dad to leave when we were alone, a sentiment he never argued with. The wild dogs and being alone in a strange country sounded better than that.

After a second of letting that soak in, he said, “Or you can change.” That brought me up short, since I didn’t understand. “You go to school, stop fucking around, clean up your act, and find something else to do with your free time besides be a punk.”

“Like what?” I asked, not really knowing what else I could do besides be the loser I had been the past year.

He gestured behind me at the gym. “They have a youth basketball league here. You’d need to be here four days a week, take the bus from the base and back. There is a lot of practice, working out, and learning the game as well as building teamwork skills.” I looked back at the
building, wondering how such an ugly place had all that inside of it. “You hold down a B average, prove to me you can stick at something, and you can stay.” Our eyes locked as I realized this was the moment where I had to choose. “You screw up once, and I’ll send you to Kelly’s so fast your feet won’t even touch the ground before you hit the States. So think about it, because if you don’t plan on trying, you might as well as leave now and not waste anyone’s time.” I knew tears were streaming down my cheeks, but I couldn’t stop them. “What’s it going to be?”

The emotion became too much, and I buried myself into his side as I really began to bawl. “I’m sorry!” I exclaimed into his shirt as I felt his arm move around me. “I want to stay. Please don’t send me away!” And I meant it. I still hated Germany and the base and everything about it, but I loved my dad more, and the thought of living the rest of my life with him so far out of reach was the worst thing I could think of. “I’ll do better,” I promised as I held on tight to him. “I won’t let you down again.”

And though I was only a miserable eleven-year-old boy, I meant what I promised with every fiber of my being. I would never again in my life do anything to shame this man who had spent so much of his own life raising me. I had stumbled, but I wasn’t down, and I was willing to do anything to make it up to him, and in this case, it meant basketball. The game and my redemption were so closely tied together that basketball was never once a mere game as far as I was concerned. It was a faith, a belief that through it, I would be reborn as a better person. Some people come to that concept through Jesus or through AA, but I came to it through basketball. It was the path I could never stray from lest I lose my dad and his love. It became more than my life; it was my soul.

And has been ever since.

C
HAPTER
T
WO
:
C
HECKING
THE
B
ALL

 

 

T
HE
NEXT
three years passed by in a blur.

My life became a routine of waking up before the sun had risen, taking a shower, and heading out the door. I’d run around the base before school, sometimes with my dad, more times by myself. I had stolen an old Walkman of his, and though there was precious little on base in the way of cassettes, I learned to get by on my dad’s stockpile of eighties music. I’d get home, take another shower, and then eat everything I could find in the house. Then I’d sit in class and do my best to not nod off as I waited until two o’clock in the afternoon when class let out. I’d run to the bus stop and catch the 2:15 to the gym, where my day truly began. We’d change out and do laps around the gym until we started to work up a sweat. Then we started with drills. For those not versed in the fine world of basketball training, allow me to explain.

When you perform a certain skill over and over until it becomes second nature to you, you are doing drills. The key to being a good player isn’t being able to do something when you consciously want to. A good player is able to use a skill without deciding to. Passing, dribbling, shooting, you start to learn these individual parts of the game until you find yourself dreaming about them constantly. At first this is all you do—practice a pass, practice dribbling, practice another pass, practice your shooting. When the coach sees something only he can perceive in you,
then
you are allowed to actually play a game against other people.

That’s when it gets hard.

Playing against your own teammates is the weirdest thing you will ever do in basketball. Not only are you playing against guys who have watched you learn every move you make, but they have been trained in exactly the same way. The whole focus of learning the game isn’t about who wins or loses. It’s about how well you play. Make a basket through sheer luck, and you’ll get berated. You should always know where the hoop is no matter where you are; sheer luck doesn’t mean anything. Steal a ball from a guy, and you’ll hear a lecture on the guy’s sloppy form and the reassurance that the next guy you try to steal a ball from won’t get caught napping. It sounds horrible, and let me assure you, it is.

The funny thing is that you never notice you’re getting better.

You’re with the same group of guys all the time, and you all evolve at the same rate, so there is never this flash that you know more than anyone else. It wasn’t until I had been practicing for about a year and a half and played a pickup game on base that it dawned on me that I knew what I was doing. It was a three-on-three with a few of the older kids, none of them from Joshua’s crew, who would never be caught dead engaging in something as lame as exercise. They’d asked me to play because I was a few inches over six feet at the time, not because they thought I had any talent. I was a body to stand on the court and fill in for the guy who hadn’t showed up and nothing more. I accepted, because it was a Sunday, and frankly I was bored out of my head looking for something safe to do.

Less than a minute into the game, I realized these guys sucked.

They had no form, no style. They were just running around the court lobbing air balls, praying Michael Jordan would answer and sink one for them. The first time the guy I was guarding had the ball, I took it from him so fast he was still moving forward by the time I was taking the shot. There are few sounds as rewarding as the sound of a ball swooshing into a net. It causes a Pavlovian response in my mind that gives me pleasure no matter where I am. When I turned around to see who was going to throw the ball in, I was surprised to see five other guys looking at me in shock.

The rest of the game went a lot like that.

The guy who was supposed to be my partner was ignored as the three other guys went after me with a vengeance. The game became more challenging, but they couldn’t stop me for long. If they’d known what they were doing or had a sense of teamwork, I’d have been fucked, but all they knew was to stand in front of me and wave their arms, hoping that would be enough to stop me. Every time I sank a three-pointer, they realized it wasn’t.

They never invited me again, but I didn’t care. I walked away from the court with a smile on my face and the knowledge there was something I excelled at. The extra knowledge that I had schooled three guys older than me only made it sweeter. I threw myself even harder into practice after that. I made the actual team my second year, and we ended up winning the local tournament, solidly beating thirteen other teams. The next year I made the equivalent of varsity, and we went up against a whole other class of teams.

We ended up ranking third in league, which was the highest our gym had ever ranked. That was when the coaches talked to my dad. I was oblivious to the conversations, of course, but I found out later that they told him they had taught me all they could. They told him I had a gift, not just my height, and that I had a chance to do something more than just play the game for fun. I always wondered what went through my dad’s mind. Did he not believe them? Did he ask them to make sure they had the right dad? Did he wonder if that talent had been wasted on someone like me?

Since I didn’t know about the conversation, I didn’t know about his thought process, but I do know what happened next. His tour was about up, and that put him at the fourteen-year mark, so we both had a big choice ahead of us. He sat me down to have A Talk, which so far had never been a good experience. The first had brought us to Germany and the second was the threat to send me home, so I didn’t have high hopes about the third one. He asked me if I liked Germany and the base, which was more asking me if I had learned to stop hating it. Again, I never found out his thought process, but I’m sure “I love basketball” must have been the answer he was looking for.

He re-upped with a transfer to Texas, a promotion training the security forces on a naval base. I had mixed emotions about leaving Germany that fall. I hated the base because now I hated Joshua and what he had done to me. We’d never talked again, though we saw each other from a distance. Every time I saw him, I had the same strange feeling in my stomach I’d had when we were friends, so I always stayed away, knowing nothing good would ever come from going down that path. On the other hand, I loved basketball in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. I knew there was basketball in the States, but I was afraid at the thought of having to start all over again. Frankly it scared the hell out of me.

I was fifteen, no longer the spoiled brat who had walked off the plane five years earlier. I could look back and see I had never given the place a chance. My own fucked-up little drama had spoiled me for any chance of seeing how nice a country it might have been. No matter how much I may have not enjoyed my time in Stuttgart, though, I had to admit that being in Germany had introduced me to the one great love of my life. The plane took off, and I felt sad as we said good-bye to Germany forever. I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I knew subconsciously the place had revealed more about who I really was than I cared to see. On one hand I was sad about all I was leaving; on the other I was relieved about all the things that wouldn’t remind me of my past. Now I knew what was inside me. It was my duty to try to keep it under control.

When I fell asleep, we were in Europe. When I woke up, we were in Texas. That was how fast my life changed. We switched concourses and planes in Dallas, and I instantly knew I was back in the States. I had thought I’d known the difference when I was away, but as we walked through the crowded terminal, it was blatantly obvious to me. People were more insular, closed off, lost in their own little world. I understood now how foreigners could see us as rude in comparison. We waited in the USO lounge for our connecting flight, and I could tell my dad was feeling it too.

It’s an odd sensation being a stranger in your own country. I noticed there were more than a few good-looking girls walking through the airport. My dad noticed more than a couple had stared at me. “You don’t look fifteen,” he said once we’d grabbed some food and settled in front of the TV.

I was in midbite of a hot dog and looked over at him. “Is that a bad thing?” I asked, trying to swallow the mouthful whole.

“Depends on who you ask,” he said with a smug smile.

“I’m asking you.”

He looked back and, though he was obviously having fun with me, as always there was a deadly serious tone in his voice. “Ask the guy who got a girl pregnant at seventeen and had to join the Marines to support her, and he’d say no. Ask the guy who is amazed at the man his son is becoming, and he’d say yes.” He took a drink as my mind tried to wrap itself around the compliment. “Ask your father, and he’d say you’re too young for sex.”

He laughed when I blushed.

We boarded a much smaller plane for the last leg of our flight. Unlike the massive jets used on international flyways, the plane we clambered into was a two-prop baby; I wondered if it could even take off. The flight from Germany had been packed; there were only five people including us on this flight. I was too tired to realize that the plane’s size and passenger load were the first warning signs about where we were headed. I adjusted my seat belt and looked over at my dad. “Where are we going again?”

BOOK: Going the Distance
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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