It didn’t used to be like this.
He used to be so small. When I was a senior in high school, my youngest brother Tim was nine. I was the big brother, the family basketball star that the cheerleaders chanted for. He was a doughy little kid who sat with my parents in the bleachers.
Now he’s in the car with me, and we’re about to play a game of 1-on-1 that’s been months in the making. My brother is a soldier. He’s been in the Middle East, in one of the places that’s always on the news. We’ve been planning a basketball game ever since he deployed, and here he is, 7,000 miles later, about to lace them up with me.
As I drove I asked him if he remembered going to those games. Did he remember sitting in the bleachers and cheering on his big brother?
He thought for a moment.
“I remember the nachos,” he said finally.
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The site of the game was Tim’s in-laws’ home. They live deep in the country, on a rural estate of rolling grassy plains hewn out of the forest of Alabama pine. A basketball goal stands in their driveway, between their rustic house and a large red barn. A big golden dog roams the premises, his fat tongue slung lazily out the side of his mouth.
As Tim and I stretched and warmed up in the driveway, his mother-in-law settled onto the front porch with a glass of tea to watch the proceedings. Presently Tim’s wife appeared, content to play fetch with the big dog. She produced a grayed and slimy tennis ball and heaved it down the sloping hill. The dog tumbled and rolled after it, as if the future of the world was at stake.
When I step on a basketball court I usually tower head and shoulders over everyone. Not this time, though. Tim stood 6-4, tall enough to contend with me at 6-8. While I had the benefit of years of basketball camps and coaches and team practices, Tim was essentially self-taught. He had played pickup games off and on for years, biding his time for the moment when he could pass me in the hoops hierarchy of our family. There was a good chance it would happen today.
On his first possession Tim took the ball and dribbled into a post up. He launched his body into my chest and rolled toward the hoop. As I jumped to contest the shot, his off arm flared out and smashed me in the face, like I was a member of Al-Qaeda or something.
“You okay?” my kid brother asked as the ball fell through the net.
Stars. Fuzzy lines.
“Yeah,” I said, running my fingers under my nose to check for blood.
Tim was no longer the chubby nacho connoisseur. His body was toned and thick, toughened by his military training. His game was tailored accordingly: his offense consisted of slamming into you and either pushing you into the goal or spinning to the right or left for running hooks. My saving grace was that, at 30, my Old Man Strength was finally starting to arrive, and I could more or less hold ground when he came crashing in.
It took him a few possessions to fully work off the rust, and I was able to go up 4-1 as he struggled. Strategically, it seemed like a good time to unleash some brotherly trash talk.
In my family we have a complex system of smack. The highest level of basketball insult is to tell someone that they are playing like Uncle Jesse from the show Full House.
After he missed another of his hooks and I corralled the rebound, I feigned seriousness and called over my shoulder to him:
“So…what are the other Rippers doing while you’re here? Are they touring without you?”
He laughed, but the slight seemed to energize him. He plowed through me for a series of buckets, snorting like a bull on his charges down the lane. Soon the score was tied.
After a sequence of fierce exchanges I had the ball and game point. Tim was coming on strong, and I had to have a basket to close the game out. I went to that last and trusted refuge of the aging hoopster, the up-and-under. I walked my brother into a pump fake, got the young buck in the air, and stepped through to sink the winner.
“Good game,” he said, slapping me on the chest.
“Let’s go again.”
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