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Playground / Aug 3, 2012 / 3:30 pm

The Death Of A Baller

Starburys

One day the game will leave all of us. It’s a lot like gravity: no matter how hard you bounce a basketball, eventually it will come to rest.

*** *** ***

Hot.

Merciless, unbending heat. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Locusts in the distance, sending their rattling howls back and forth across the valley. The Alabama sun pushing down on top of you, burning the air thin and making your thoughts run slow.

I didn’t go to college for this, but here I am. The economy went bad, and some of us had to get our hands dirty, like back in the old days. The sweat-soaked t-shirt says “Landscape Service”. It is 5 p.m., or 6 p.m. — not really sure — and my crew is 12 hours deep into a grass-cutting detail. I have a 20-pound blower strapped on my back and I am circling a series of buildings blowing the clods of grass clippings off the sidewalk. My guys are out there somewhere, cutting and weeding, but I can’t see them. This place is huge.

Fear is with me. He seldom leaves. He paces behind, measuring my stride.

The blower motor hums and hums, rubbing against the small of my back. Little salvoes of sweat fly off the tip of my nose every time I take a step.

12 hours.

Something is wrong. The horizon is tipping, but nothing is moving. Is it me? I turn off the blower and sink to my knees. I am panting like a dog, but I just can’t find the air.

From behind, I can feel Fear staring down at me.

I knew you couldn’t do it. He says softly.

One of the buildings in the distance has an outcropping that provides a small amount of shade. The blower backpack slides off my shoulders and hits the concrete. I struggle to my feet and stagger towards the shade. My equilibrium is failing, badly, and it feels like I might not make it.

*** *** ***

Rochester, Michigan 2001

I am back at college, back on the wooded campus where they mint theology majors and small college All-Americans. The campus is empty, except for the gym down by the lake. The squeaking of shoes on hardwood bleeds through the building and echoes out over the water.

It is summer camp, and the coaches are doing what the coaches always do during summer camp: they are running us, over and over again. Trying to run the high school out of the young guys. Trying to run the rec league out of the returning guys. Trying to run the bad playground habits out of all of us.
Suicide after suicide. Wind sprints in between. Harder than you’ve ever ran for anything in your life. Stomach churning. Pure pride the only thing holding down the puke. The baseline stretches out in the distance like a mirage, like something you’ll never reach.

Coach blows the whistle. Get a drink, guys.

I hit the crash bar on the gym double doors and stumble outside, looking for a place to throw up where no one will see. Fear is right behind me. He never misses a trick.

You can’t play college ball.

You’re not tough enough for this.

And then there is Old George. George is a retired man who comes to every practice and every game to watch and shout encouragement at us. Has for years. He isn’t a coach, but he doesn’t want to be. He just comes because he loves the game.

George wanders out of the gym and finds me in the parking lot. I am bent over, holding my knees, sweat running off my red face.

The old man claps his hands like I am his champion. He walks right up to me, brushing Fear out of the way. George stands beside me, with that white hair and that silly little fanny pack, and he pats me on the shoulders.

Just breathe, he says.

Just breathe. You’re gonna make it.

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