In our on-campus apartment, where the linoleum meets the carpet is the free throw line. In a few weeks, there will be a trail of blood on said linoleum, leading to a bathroom mirror. The path will be random and disorderly, like a child picking which house to go to next on Halloween.
Five baskets in a row is the record, held by me—the one who will check where on my body the blood is coming from, exactly. The hoop is fastened over the back of our entryway door. The same door where my roommate and best friend, Mark, will lie to the Public Safety officer minutes after pulling the trigger, blatantly turning away help when I need it most.
I hesitate to call it a toy. Like a gun, calling it a toy would be an insult. The quality is like if you literally just shrunk an NBA goal so that a bunch of un-athletic college kids could easily touch rim.
We play PIG before dinner, a common practice. My other roommate, Keith, always beats me with a nasty bank off the wall, just right, nearly tripping the emergency fire sprinkler. The same wall as the fire alarm. The same wall that will be shot through, causing the alarm to trip, thus summoning Public Safety. I don’t want to be the reason our floor gets countless gallons of water showered down on it, ruining every electronic device in sight. Too close for comfort, I chicken out and cut the angle, missing.
Mark does a crowd-pleasing classic, the Eastbay, a between-the-legs dunk made famous by Timberwolves legend Isaiah Rider. Though Mark doesn’t get nearly as much lift or hang time. His motion is hurried as he thrashes the ball in right before his feet touch the ground. One leg always Po-Go’s out, which makes the whole thing look clunky and unnatural. You can tell his body was made for soccer. You can’t tell that he has multiple guns and enough ammo to outfit a small militia stored away in his bedroom. Stuff that he will rush down to the parking garage and hide in the trunk of his car while I’m upstairs, bleeding out on a pillow.
Mark oftentimes hits the shrunken back iron, sending the ball flying into a fruit dish on our kitchen island. He will send me flying into a cluster of wooden dining room chairs from the impact of the bullet.
I always try to do real-life dribble moves, killer crossovers, post shimmies, dream shakes, turnaround jumpers. It’s not hard to get your heartrate going in-between assignments and meals. My heartrate will increase substantially as I’m prepped for a surgery that will remove chunks of bone from my brain and add the weird additional weight of titanium plates and screws. My hopes of someday dunking on a real ten-foot hoop will be all but dashed.
Shooting around is by and large our favorite nonsensical pastime and intermittent hastener of commercial breaks during Star Wars marathon weekends.
It’s 2004, when I still believed I could play in the NBA. I’m a kid on my driveway, pretending to be each member of the Detroit Pistons. I haven’t made the jump to the Timberwolves just yet. I was born in Detroit. We moved to Minnesota when I was three.
There’s a setting sun, and a heavy spring coat of humid mist. Dead bugs in the flood lights, live bugs swarming. I work on my form, graduating away from using both hands to the proper crane’s head flick of the wrist.
There is something so satisfying about a basketball going through a basketball hoop, on any scale. The sound of a swish, so poofy and delicate, yet at the same time, definitive, authoritative. The way the ball bloats the twine as it enters, the way the net curtseys as the ball splashes through. I am not afraid to say it. Basketball is sexy.
I am Chauncey Billups at the top of the key, point guard for the Detroit Pistons. I pump fake, lob the ball to the low block, grow seven inches, gain fifty pounds of muscle and transform into Ben Wallace, who plays center, grabbing the alley-oop and flushing it down on my six-foot rim. Okay, a lay-up this round. I am gassed.
The Pistons are in the NBA Finals. We are getting new carpet in our living room.
Dad relocates our colossal, bulky box television to the adjoining ‘Don’t Touch Anything Room,’ where he usually reads the newspaper on Sundays, and it’s my job to refill his coffee cup on demand. My parents are not yet divorced.
I come in from playing outside, purple faced, winded, bangs wet and matted onto my forehead in goofy triangles like a cartoon monster’s upper jaw. In need of proper nourishment, I grab a Dr. Pepper, all too ready to bunk down and watch real professionals play the game.
I get a surge of excitement in the pit of my stomach. As if elated little bubbles are forming, building, and popping all around my small intestine. A feeling that comes whenever I’m Hider playing hide-and-go-seek, along with the urge to urinate. A feeling that comes whenever I break the rules. My own way, mildly. Like reading with a flashlight in a blanket fort past bedtime or taking a sip of dad’s beer at the lake.
Are we really watching the 2004 NBA Finals in the wrong room? As a family? With pizza? A minor construction zone in sight? Gym mat looking foam and perhaps some up-turned staples just there, in the next room? An eye sore and potential safety hazard? We are.
We are breaking the rules together. And we are laughing, really getting into the game.
The PA announcer overaccentuates the syllables stressed in De-troit Bas-ket-ball. Their mantra for victory. We repeat, arms up like at the cusp of a roller coaster climax, holding out the last beat until our breath runs out completely. My parents have something in common, just this once. An appreciation for a game. The Pistons win the NBA Finals. I’m sure we have something to do with it.
I’m a couple weeks into my ongoing recovery, watching the 2017 NBA playoffs. I have sensory overload, sunglasses on to counter the blinding television light, foam earplugs pinched and loaded in ears. Celebration set to a minimum. I’ve been a die-hard Timberwolves fan for longer than what most would deem healthy, considering they’re the losingest franchise in all of professional sports, not just basketball. And since the Wolves had a fun but frustrating season with thirty-one wins and fifty-one losses, I’m watching a few minutes of other teams play simply because I love the swagger, drama, entertainment, and activism of the NBA. No other sport navigates a wider breadth of emotion with such authority.
Mom is to my right, and her new boyfriend David is in a love seat to my left. LeBron James just drained a three-pointer after nonchalantly spinning the ball in the palm of his hand, as if warming up pregame. I turn to my mom, smiling without teeth, eyebrows raised as if to say, would you get a load of that guy?
“He is so cool,” she says.
I nod in agreement, then prompt her with the impossible.
“When do you think I’ll be able to play again?”
I’m hardly able to walk. Down at least twenty pounds, not supposed to lift more than ten or risk doing additional damage to my brain. Residual threats are far from over. My head hurts. Every headache I fear will be my last. I could have a seizure at any moment, without warning, or just simply fade away.
“I don’t know, honey. Probably six months, at least.”
I’m silent through the next commercial break. David gets up, messes around in the hall closet. He lets out an aha and comes back, stands a couple feet away from me, holding my miniature hoop from the apartment.
“Shoot it,” he says, throwing me the proportionately downsized basketball. I pretend it’s real, using my actual jump shot mechanics, and miss twice. He rebounds, crouches, and underhand tosses it back to my make-believe half court line. I throw again, changing form to fit the situation. Just like life now, in the aftermath of my injury. David subtly adjusts. I am satisfied for one minute as the ball splashes in.
Choosing a lawyer is not too unlike those sport recruitment scenes in movies, where a coach or agent tries to convince the star player and their mom to join the team. This guy comes to my house, gives us his spiel. One of mom’s coworkers has recommended him. He has cool rings on, and I like most of what he had to say: he knows my life will never be the same, knows no amount of money will make what happened okay, knows this must be so harrowing for me and my family, and he wants to get me what I’m owed. His deepest sympathies, again. I sign my name on the line, giving him 33.3% of whatever we end up with.
I drive to a park near my sister’s house and walk to the basketball court in the back, tucked away in some woods, dodging tree branches to get there. There is some privacy. My lawyer says it is not uncommon for insurance companies to investigate victims in personal injury cases. Nobody with kids of their own could spy on other people’s children, though. If they do have kids, these settlement agents, I bet their kids all hate them. Clearly somewhere down the line, they messed up big time. Anyone who spies on injured and disabled people for monetary gain is an inherently bad person and parent.
I keep an eye out for people lurking between the trees.
The court is a green, rubber concrete-like material, storm damaged and warped. The hoop has a chain net. It looks as if a forest dweller, an ogre or abnormally tall, fun-loving cannibal witch, decided they needed a basketball court next to their gingerbread house/swamp. Perhaps to lure unsuspecting twins? It’s enchanting, really. I decide I’m going to run killers. I want to see what else my body can endure.
I start doing reps, inbounds line to inbounds line. After I work up a lather, I switch to left-handed layup drills, followed by lateral quickness shuffle runs in the paint. My standards for speed are relatively low now, and still, I’m not meeting them. I have never known tired. I have never known hot, or slow, or uncoordinated. These new tiers of exhaustion surpass anything I’ve ever experienced before my injury.
The ball bounces off my foot and into a bush after I try some novice ball handling tricks. I retrieve it and punt it over a fence, into the tennis courts. Despite my lack of mobility, I’ve never hobbled over to my duffle bag for a drink of water so fast.
Hands on my knees, panting, my limbs are filled with those sunbaked playground pebbles near the slide. The cannibal witch who lives next door threw me out of her cauldron after realizing I’m too skinny. The titanium made for a bad marinade.
What if my abilities don’t come back? Why does my body betray me so? I can’t believe I am in this position because of someone else, and not just someone, but my best friend.
My best friend, who was fooling around with the gun I didn’t know he had and pulled the trigger. By negligence, with a dash of bad luck, the bullet ripped through two walls before striking me on the top of the head while I was leaning over. The bullet fractured my skull, driving shards of bone into my brain, then ricocheted off and landed on the carpet. All one month before college graduation.
Through a break in the trees, I spy a black SUV pulling into the parking lot a good hundred yards away. I try to check the make of the vehicle, private investigators and settlement agents alike would buy American, I’ve deduced, but no luck, it is simply too far away. I don’t want to go home yet. But it’s not really up to me.
Pretending to stretch, I get a little closer and make my way through the arbitrary list, my rules. The criteria I use to compute and asses cars as to the likelihood of a potential threat. Make: Toyota. That’s relatively neutral, not as bad as a Chrysler, Ford, Jeep, or the worst offender, Cadillac, but not nearly as good as a Volkswagen, Honda, Mazda, or Volvo. Also, not a hybrid, so no points toward a complete debunk. Two or more people in the car greatly reduces the risk factor, or better yet, a dog, but I only see one shadowy figure behind the wheel. Not looking good. Are they wearing athletic gear or a dress shirt? I play chicken waiting for the driver to emerge. Alas, he does not. Terrible sign. I fidget with the rubbery mouth piece on my water bottle, waiting. Fifteen minutes pass. I can’t help but wonder what drives people to sit in the parking lot of public parks, just watching other families and children playing. Surely nothing wholesome. I make an executive decision to flee.
As I pass from a distance, shielding the ball behind my back, head down, doing my best to hide any distinguishing features on my body, I memorize their license plate and add it to my mental database of vehicles to avoid in the future. On the bright side, they are Minnesota plates, as opposed to Wisconsin, where the headquarters to Mark’s insurance company is located.
My girlfriend Anna and I are watching the Minnesota Timberwolves in our apartment. I’m still wearing my Aurora Green Karl Anthony Towns jersey that I wore earlier today at my niece’s Sunday School choir recital and after-recital brunch. I made sure to tell each new stranger I encountered in the buffet line that it was indeed my Sunday Best, each time I got up for seconds. The jersey is so obnoxiously green, I was embarrassed for myself. But it was worth it on the off chance that someone else there was also a fan. I am a willing martyr, a glowing green beacon of hope among a sea of formal dresses and ties.
Anna says I’m way-sad lately. More so than usual. I say that makes sense when April 7 is nearly all I ever think about. There’s little room for anything else. She says that I never relax, and cites how I beat the dishwasher to a meaty pulp the other night when a bowl got wedged in the drying rack. I shrug.
It takes me a second to realize the strength of her argument. I tell her my life is like one big human-sized Chinese Finger Trap. The more force I use, the more I struggle, the more stuck I get. She agrees.
I grumble about a bad three-point closeout and lift our ottoman over my head, only to place it back down very gently as to not annoy the family that lives below us. I think they have a baby. The crowd boos.
“Boo,” I add. Every Timberwolves shortcoming reminds me of one of my own.
“Paul!” Anna says.
“There is no way they heard that, don’t worry.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
More than ever, I’m envious of these athletes’ abilities. Their talent. How high the players can jump, how tall they are. That they have a coach, teammates, that part of their job requires them to be in exceptional health and fitness, that they make so much money doing it. I crave even the smallest taste of their success and brotherhood.
Their bodies will fail and rebel, years from now, when they’re ready, but a failed body is what I have to begin with. It is a startling disadvantage.
Anna asks, “If they are so bad, why do you even watch?”
A valid question. Habitually unlucky, being a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves is a masochistic existence, but our numbers are substantial. A sense of community bubbles up when I watch the games, and that sense of community has gotten me through a lot. It’s not often I get to complain about something and know with absolute certainty that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are complaining about the very same thing at the very same time. Contrasting that with how alone I’ve felt throughout my recovery, how alone a traumatic brain injury makes me feel, it’s a genuine relief to watch the Wolves, albeit a frustrating one at times.
I’ve needed the Timberwolves, from watching games to gauge my mental progress in physical therapy, to simply keeping up with the team to ensure that time is still passing. They’ve kept my mind busy while things were bleakest, and have been one of the few enjoyable constants throughout this whole ordeal, no matter the win/loss ratio. The future is bright, perhaps for us both.
“I suppose it feels good to have something to root for,” I say. “Especially an underdog. You never know when something good is going to happen.”
On cue, someone misses a wide-open layup. I yell and scream and slap a water bottle off a table, then remembering the family below us, feel horrible about the noise. Ear to the ground, I listen for any clues that may suggest they’re upset with me.
“God damn fucking team!” I hear a female voice yell, barely muffled from our building’s lack of sufficient insulation.
Paul Rousseau is a disabled writer from Minnesota. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from Dr. Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, Catapult, X-R-A-Y, Okay Donkey, Waxwing, Hippocampus, Rejection Letters, and Wigleaf, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Paulwrites7
Compelling writing. This is how CNF should be written.
I really related to your frustration with your body, but for me, my brain from mental health challenges. Thank you for sharing this.