Clank! I missed another 3 pointer. That's the third one in a row. This is not looking good. If only I would've followed through more on that last shot. If only I would've flicked my wrists all the way when I let go of the ball. If only the sun wasn't in my eyes. So many "if only's".
Let's stop here to reflect on this situation.
I'm down 8 to 15 to none other than the legendary Karim Ali, and what's worse, my shot is off. I'm screwed. All I have is my shot. Without that, I'm toast. There's $20 riding on this game. We're betting.
You've got to understand, Karim's the fastest kid in the 7th grade, and he's 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Which I'm sure doesn't sound that tall to an adult or an NBA player, but for a 12 year old, that's tall. I was 4 inches shorter than him. God, it was so stupid of me to bet him. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did I let my so-called friends pressure me into this? To be cool?
Karim is like an Olympic athlete compared to me. When he goes to make a layup, his hands almost touch the rim. I'm happy with touching the net. There's no way I can block him and his handles are so good it's about impossible to steal the ball from him. He can drive to the basket at will on me. When I dribble, I hold the ball too far out in front me. It's easy for people to steal it. I can't drive on Karim at all.
That's why I depend on my shot so much when I play people like Karim. When my shot is on, I can bury my opponent in a minute or two. Swish, swish, swish - and he's down 9 to 0 before he knows what hit him. I used to practice shooting a couple 100 free throws a day after I heard on EPSN that the Orlando Magic's shooting guard Penny Hardaway did that when he was a kid. He was an NBA superstar in the 90s, so I figured if he did that, I should, too. Ever since then, I've had the best shot from long distance in my age group.
You know, it might not be too late for a comeback. Maybe I should pray. We are in back of the First Baptist Church.
But it was not to be.
Of course, Karim got the rebound off of my miss. I ran for the ball as fast as I could but he had a better position on the ball than I did and was able to box me out completely with his right forearm. He took the ball back past the 3 point line to check it, which is what you have do when the ball changes possession, and then he started posting me up from about the free throw line. His back to my body, he slowly pushed me closer to the basket. He was too strong. I couldn't stop him. 20 feet from the basket became 10 feet, and then 5 feet.
And yet, while all this was happening, the only thing I could think about was how overpowering the smell of his cologne was. I get easily distracted like that. It's just, why would you wear that much cologne? Who likes that? It actually made me kind of nauseous.
Then, the flash of his gold necklace in the sun brought me back to reality. The crisp scraping sound of pebbles against asphalt filled the air as he turned his hips and made his move for the basket.
"Kobe!" he shouted as he leaped in the air, referencing the L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
Another layup. Great, now I'm down 8 to 17, and the first one to 21 wins. Two minutes later, Karim sinks the winning bucket, beating me by 11 points, 10 to 21. Dave Hamzah, with his usual smirk and squinting eyes, had to rub it in.
"George, he killed you, dog! Damn. You didn't have a chance. You suck, bro."
Karim high-fived and chest-pounded all his friends. They'd been watching from behind the basket, sitting on the green grass, and now they were all laughing about how I played. It was so embarrassing and humiliating.
"You want to play another game?" Karim asked. "C'mon. $20."
"I don't know. I don't... I don't want to. I don't feel like it, man. No thanks. I'm good."
Dave had Karim's back.
"Why? You lost $20, bro. Don't you want make that back? Or are you scared? What do you got to lose? You're already down $20."
Karim looked at me with disappointment. He frowned, shrugged his shoulders, and said the dumb words I wish he would've never listened to. "Come on, man."
"Alright, alright. One more game, but that's it." I smiled. "Karim, you're going down. I'm going to destroy you."
Karim laughed. I grabbed the basketball off of the pavement and walked back to the 3 point line. I bounced the ball to Karim and waited for him to bounce it back.
It was early evening and long shadows followed everything we did. Karim bounced the ball back and I immediately took a three pointer. Count it! 3 to 0, baby, and we already decided that the person who made the last shot gets possession of the ball again. I was going to get that $20 back.
"Jon Baaaaaaaryyyyyyyy!" I yelled out after the next shot, which I also made, dragging out the vowels like the Detroit Pistons' public address announcer, John Mason.
Jon Barry was the best 3 point shooter on the Pistons, but shooting was about all he could do on the NBA court. So shouting out his name was kind of a joke. He was no Kobe. He couldn't dunk, couldn't block anybody. He was an OK passer, I guess, but his real strength was his hustle. That's why I felt like I had something in common with him. We could both do one thing well, and one thing only. That's it. The rest of what we did relied on our determination. We had to want it more than the next guy.
But depending on your 3 point shooting is a risky way to play, no matter how much effort you put in. Even the best NBA shooters are streaky. They can go 6 of 6 from "behind the line" and get on the ESPN SportsCenter highlight show one night, and then shoot 1 of 7 the next night. To be a good 3 point shooter, you have to get in the zone, where your mind and body become one. It's tricky to do. Michael Jordan was the master of it. He talked about the zone a lot. That's why he was scary good.
That second game, I was in the zone at the start. I was up 16 to 8, and I could tell that Karim was feeling frustrated. I even blocked one of his shots, a weak hook shot from his right hand.
"Oooooooooh!" Our friends heckled as the ball bounced onto the soft grass.
Then my shot stopped falling. There was clank after clank after clank. I got too overconfident with my lead and lost my focus. I tried to play inside and take closer shots, but whenever I did that, Karim kept getting his hands in my face so that I couldn't see where I was shooting. He was too fast, too strong. I couldn't get away from him when he was on defense. Six Karim layups and a ridiculously crazy leaning 2 point shot later, and I'd lost 22 to 18. The final score made it look closer than it was. There was no way I could've won. Now I was down $40.
I felt defeated. I wanted to go home. But before I could leave, Dave had to walk up to me to let me know what was up when it came to betting. He stuck his chest out like he was Mike Tyson and gave me his little "talk". Betting was serious, he said. I'd better pay up. He was the starting running back for the school's football team, a big-shouldered kid, and he was definitely intimidating.
"You've got a day or two to get the money, but that's it."
Yeah, right. Where was I supposed to get $40 from? They seriously expect me to pay them that much money? My allowance was $3 a week, and there were a lot of weeks were my mom forgets to give it to me. There's no way I could've put together $40 to pay off a bet unless I had spent the rest of my summer vacation collecting Coke bottles from garbage cans to get the 10¢ deposits.
I was lucky, though, and very, very fortunate that we were on summer vacation. We had just gotten out, so there was still 2 months of sweet freedom left in front of us. Avoiding Karim and his friends until they forgot about the money would be a lot easier this time of year than if we were back in school, and avoiding them was my plan. It was the only choice I had.
I pedaled away from First Baptist Church on my Huffy bike after the game feeling a little regret, but I was confident the whole betting incident would blow over in a week or two. It was no big deal. The sun was setting as I rode home through the curving roads of my subdivision, and the orange glow it cast on the aluminum sidings of the houses I passed made me feel like everything was going to be OK.
Just how wrong I would be.
The next few weeks were hell. Both my parents left for work in the morning, and I was alone at home until about 5 or 6 p.m. most weekdays. Karim, Dave, and the rest of their friends knew that, too. They started coming around my house at 1 or 2 in the afternoon and knocking on the front door, looking for me.
“We know you're in there George! Come out!” Dave would yell into the door while Karim paced back and forth on my porch.
Whenever I heard Dave knock, I turned off the TV and whatever video game I was playing on the Playstation and tiptoed upstairs to watch them from a bedroom window. I had to know what was going on out there. It was a crazy scene to watch. They'd always make a big show about being angry, throwing sticks and rocks on the lawn and swinging from the low tree branches on the maple tree, like they knew I was watching them.
What I wondered was, how did none of the neighbors notice how weird this was? I half wished one of those annoying the stay-at-home moms down the street would have said something about what was going on to my mom so that she would contact their parents and put an end to it. Then again, the other half of me didn't want to get yelled at and grounded to my room for an eternity. I felt trapped.
Eventually, it got to the point where I couldn't even ride my bike anymore without having to worry about them finding me. Whenever I was riding by the schoolyard, or 7-Eleven, or a friend's house, I'd look every which way all the time to make sure that one of them wasn't already there, waiting for me. If I did see one of them, I'd pedal away as fast as I could and take strange routes through my subdivision to lose them, just in case they were following me. I was getting pretty paranoid, but these were scary kids. They put lots of gel in their hair, wore designer clothes with big logos on them (Nautica, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, & etc.), and sang 2pac rap lyrics like these ones from the song “Hail Mary”: “I ain't a killer, but don't push me/Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy!”
Truthfully, I was afraid of getting my ass beat by them. Every day that went by, Karim and Dave seemed to get more impatient. The knocks got louder, and Dave's voice sounded angrier. Still, I was determined not to pay them. They had to give up eventually, right? Even if that meant I had to hide from them for a month or two - or more - it was worth it. And it probably would've worked out, too, had that one fateful day not happened. It was about 4 p.m. on a Wednesday or Thursday when they tried to break into my basement through a window in my house's utility room. They had finally taken terrorizing me too far for their own good.
I couldn't believe it, but there they were, pulling on the window and kicking it and screaming my name. To make matters worse, my mom had gotten home early that day and she was upstairs napping. I knew they were going to wake her up for sure and turn this into a big deal. I was freaking out inside. My heart pounded like a set of tribal drums. There was no way she was going to sleep through this. I kept quiet and prayed.
But like I predicted, the noise woke her up, and she came pounding down the stairs to find out what was going on. When my mom was mad, she stomped louder than a herd of elephants, and I think my “friends”/tormentors must have heard her from outside, because they were long gone by the time she made it downstairs.
“George, what the HELL is going on here?”
“I don't know, Mom! I think Karim and his friends were outside trying to mess with me.”
“OK, well... OK, here's a question I want to know: why do your friends want to mess you so bad that they're pounding and making all that noise outside?”
“I don't know. Mom, They're not even really my friends. I don't know why they were doing that. Honest, I really don't know why they were out there.”
“Look, I don't know what's going on here, George, but you better tell them to stop whatever it is they're doing or I'm going to call the police next time! I'm not joking. I was trying to fucking sleep! Do you know I worked a 10 hour shift today? Do you realize how what that does to my back? No, you wouldn't know because you just sit around and play video games all day! I need quiet!" She stopped and looked at the sink. "Do me a favor and do the dishes, OK? I'm going back to sleep, and that shit better not happen again. I'm serious, or I'm calling the police!”
The last parts of her rant were normal for her. I thought nothing of it. But calling the police? Everyone at school would hate me to death if my mom called the police! I couldn't let that happen. Man, If I could just rewind back to before I made that bet with Karim. But I couldn't. There's no going back. Life has a lot of rewind moments, but you have to keep moving on. You have to think of a way to make things work.
So, that night, I decided to steal the $40 I owed Karim from my Dad. Stealing from him was easy, too easy. My Dad left his wallet out on a desk down in the living room at night, and he slept upstairs. I slept in the basement, and if I snuck up after he fell asleep, I knew he would never hear me and suspect I was doing anything wrong. He was a deep sleeper.
I took the two $20 bills out of his leather wallet like I was playing the game Operation, as if an alarm would go off if I touched the other bills. I wanted to leave everything how I found it, just minus $40. The bills were stiff and had the smell of new money. They folded cleanly into my pocket. My Dad usually had around 15 to 20 $20 bills in his wallet, so I guessed he wouldn't notice if one or two went missing. He never paid much attention to stuff like that.
With the $40 in hidden in the back pocket of one of my cargo shorts, I went to bed feeling oddly relieved.
“That's what I thought, George. You better pay me when you owe me, dog.” Karim said when I gave him the $40 noon the next day. Dave laughed. Whatever. Some friends they were. You could be certain that I wasn't going to play basketball with those punks again. Forgetting them would be easy. And who cares about stealing 40 lousy bucks?