Since my boyfriend, Alexis, injured his shoulder playing pick-up basketball, he’s been watching games from the sideline. Usually he’ll just stop for a couple of minutes, en route to wherever he—or we—are going. If a pick-up buddy says, “What’s up?” he’ll sometimes give them one of those street-hugs, where they grab each other’s hand and bump chests. Then Alexis will explain about his injury. Everyone’s always full of sympathy—rotator cuff injuries are common in this game. Afterward, he’ll have a bittersweet look in his eyes, sad that he can’t play, but glad, at least, that the other players have noticed his absence, and missed him.
My ten-year-old son, Ferran, has suffered a different sort of basketball setback. Playing this past winter in a West Village league run by the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, Ferran was assigned to a team named Faicco after its sponsor, a local pork store. But Faicco’s coach, Nick, disappeared after the first game only to resurface a few weeks later in a black and white referee’s uniform. “He’d rather be a ref than our coach,” complained Ferran, who took it personally.
Faicco’s team had a lot of good players, including a boy named Adrien who scored a 3-pointer at the buzzer during the season’s final game. But with the coaches rotating each week based on whomever was around on Faicco’s game day—and Nick, the ref, snickering behind the backs of Faicco players—Faicco’s had a losing season. To make matters worse, during the one game Faicco won, Ferran forgot that after half-time, the teams switched baskets. When one of his teammates passed him the ball, Ferran scored a terrific jumpshot—for Faicco’s opponents.
Still suffering from basketball-induced disheartenment, Alexis dropped in on the cage at West 4th Street a couple of weeks ago, to glance wistfully at a game he would probably not be able to play again until August. He had come from the art gallery in Chelsea where he had a show—Alexis is an artist—and was headed for the grocery store, where he and I had scheduled a 4 o’clock shop. He was running a little late, though, so he called me from his cell phone.
When I picked up, he’d just spotted Nate Robinson playing on one of the teams. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “if I watch for five minutes.”
Mind? No sooner had I hung up the phone, than I issued a rally-cry to the kitchen: “Nate Robinson’s playing at West 4th Street!”
“Great,” said my older son Alex, who was 13, and busy drawing.
“Nate?” said Ferran, with just the kind of excitement you’d expect from a kid who loved watching Knicks games—win or lose—on TV with his mother’s boyfriend.
In our household, Nate Robinson, the Knicks rookie, was the silver lining on an otherwise dismal Knicks season. At a height that vacillated only between 5’4” and 5’9” depending on who you asked, he represented all that was possible if you worked hard enough and believed wholeheartedly in your dreams.
While all the sportscasters were in agreement that Nate should quit attempting to sink his crazy dunk, I, for one, was howling—at the TV, naturally—for him to continue. During the NBA All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest it took him 14 tries, but Nate finally did it, and the dunk—a spectacular pass to himself thrown off the backboard—lived up to all of its ambitious promise.
Unfortunately, because it had taken him so many tries to get it right, the crowd was not as impressed as we were at our house, and erupted into hisses and boos. And less than a week later, he was indefinitely benched. This only cemented our conviction: Nate was an underdog’s hero.
Ferran shared my enthusiasm not only for Nate, but for the Knicks in general. After all, it was on his birthday, January 27th , that the Knicks scored one of their few victories of the 2005-06 season. Our odd little family—Alex and Ferran, their father, his girlfriend, Alexis, and me—all celebrated together. After dinner at Keen’s Chop House, and after Ferran opened gifts, we cheered from the floor of Madison Square Garden as the monitor read “Happy Birthday, Ferran!”
Sadly, Nate sat out most of the game. But Jamal Crawford played well. When the Knicks followed up that victory with a losing streak, and Alexis was reduced to pounding his fist on the TV-room floor muttering angry epithets, Ferran would remind him that the last time they won was on his birthday.
“They won for me,” he’d say. He really believed it.
“Let’s try to catch Nate,” I said to Ferran that afternoon. “Let’s go to West 4th Street.”
Ferran was on it so fast, he more or less catapulted—with his shoes and socks miraculously on!—to the front door. Together we plunged down Bedford Street, calling Alexis frantically on his cell to tell him we were coming, as if he possessed the power, somehow, to keep Nate from leaving.
Nate’s team had won the first game by the time we arrived. The second game had just begun. Alexis picked up his gym bag, evidence of his determination to stay in shape during his recovery, and nudged us toward a good viewing spot just outside the cage.
The atmosphere was more hushed than usual, more like a tennis match than a basketball game. Nate wore a black sleeve on his arm, suggesting that the visit wasn’t merely impromptu, and that he’d come prepared to play. He had taken off his shirt and his upper torso was a marvel of human anatomy, but apart from that, he more or less fit in with the other players. He fed them the ball instead of hogging it, and then, after the appropriate amount of solid team play, he’d suddenly soar above the rim for an offensive rebound or a tip-in, and everyone would be reminded—a star was in their midst.
Someone called a foul at one point, and the game devolved into the usual token bickering, but other than that everyone appeared to be on their best behavior. If Nate ever wanted to take an outside shot or try to dominate the ball, he didn’t show it, and his reluctance to flaunt his talents seemed to rub off on his teammates and opponents; everyone was playing in a dignified manner.
When an opening appeared inside the cage, Alexis quietly ushered us through it. There we stood next to a pair of French tourists, one of whom was using his digital camera to shoot live footage of the game.
Alexis nodded toward a slight-looking young black man in street clothes standing under the basket. “Jamal Crawford,” he whispered.
Crawford was poking the keys of his cell phone, as if text-messaging someone. He put the cell phone in his pocket, turned to one of his friends.
“Why don’t you ask Jamal for his autograph,” I whispered to Ferran. “Now is probably a good time, while Nate is playing.”
Ferran stared at me, unmoving. Eventually, he slid the nub of a pencil and a crumpled ATM receipt from his pocket.
“You can’t use those,” said Alexis, referring to Ferran’s dubious materials. “Here.” He pulled a sketchbook from his gym bag.
When Alexis handed Ferran the sketchbook, Ferran opened it to tear a page out. “We’ll cut the page out later,” Alexis said impatiently, as if it were he, and not Ferran, who was going to ask for the autograph. Then, seeing Ferran’s expression, he softened and carefully ripped out a page—something he never did—as neatly as he could manage, given the quality cardstock. He handed Ferran one of his favorite pens.
“Maybe mention that you saw him play on January 27th,” I whispered. “That was such a great game for him.”
Ferran proceeded tentatively along the baseline, joining Crawford and his friend under the basket. His back was toward us, but he must have popped his question, because Crawford smiled down at him accepted the pen and paper.
“He was nice,” said Ferran, returning, his eyes blinking as if from exposure to a bright light. He held the signature up to show us. “When I asked for his autograph, he said, ‘Oh sure. How you doing?’ Then a guy on the court said, ‘Hey, you want my autograph, too?”
Hearing Ferran’s story, the French tourist focused his camera on Crawford. There were dozens of spectators, guys hoping to play inside the cage. There was the shuffle and stamp of feet as they descended onto our corner. Then the players receded back again, like the tide.
Then suddenly, Nate vaulted like a gymnast over the defense. His body flew straight toward the basket as he held the ball in the air with both hands. When his head appeared over the rim he seemed to float in the air much longer than a mere mortal could. Then he slammed the ball down, swinging from the net for a second before jumping to the ground.
The game came to a halt. Nate was beaming. Players shook their heads in awe. There was an air of celebration as the teammates and opponents alike high-fived Nate and hugged him.
“Now’s your chance,” I told Ferran.
Ferran stumbled backward a few steps. Nate was like the eye of a tornado, Ferran had to voluntarily enter.
“Go on,” I urged him.
“Ferran, go!” said Alexis.
God forbid either of us went with him.
Finally, Ferran ambled into the fray, his expression dazed, as if he were walking underneath everyone.
Nate’s shirt was still off, his skin covered with a sheen of perspiration. Ferran tapped him on his arm. Even at 5’9”, Nate towered a foot above him. Nate looked over, but he seemed to be looking for someone his own height or taller, not down, and he didn’t see Ferran. Several very big players stood around, laughing and making comments. Ferran tapped again from the other side. Again, Nate didn’t seem to notice. It almost looked as if Nate was trying to ignore Ferran. I began to wonder if the tap of eager children was something to which professional players became immune.
Finally, Ferran got it. The signature was a small scribble. It was impossible to make out letters, or even tell which way was up. When we got home, he propped the sketchbook page against a ceramic bird on the mantle.
The following day, when Ferran returned from school, he couldn’t find the coveted autographs. I called the housekeeper’s cell phone, suspecting she might have mistaken Nate’s and Crawford’s autographs for, well, nothing, but the line went straight to voicemail. The trash was already curbside, awaiting pickup the following morning. Ferran brought it in. Alex, a self-proclaimed germophobe, kept his distance. A putrid smell rose up as I untied the bag.
“I think I’ll get some gloves,” said Ferran.
About half-way into the bag, a corner of what looked like sketchbook paper appeared from a tangle of wet garbage. I reached in and pulled. From the wetness emerged the autographs. Crawford’s signature was a little smudged, but the paper itself was salvageable. Alex and I sighed heavily. Ferran didn’t like the smudge, but I just told him what I’ve finally learned tell myself in such situations: It’s just part of the story.
Three years later, their smudged signatures would be lost without much promise of every being found. Jamal would leave Nate—and the Knicks–for the Golden State Warriors. Nate would have just won another Slam Dunk Contest with a gleeful vault over seven foot Dwight Howard that looked a lot like the vault we saw that day on West Fourth Street. His former coach Larry Brown, who had once dismissed his zeal for dunking as a circus act, would consider Nate a solid team player, and even praise his ability off-the bench, and suggest naming him sixth man of the year.
Ferran would be playing for the Hoyas, another league team at the Tony D’Apolito Recreation Center. And he’d have two coaches who appreciate him: Salvatore Vitiello, who had played off the bench in Georgetown, before hanging up his jersey permanently on account of a rare heart condition; and Alexis, who, having fractured his foot during a drive to the basket would face yet another basketball-related surgery.
Ferran’s new league team would include 14-year-olds, many of whom were already shaving. His growing strength and determination would have stirred in him a certain swaggering confidence his limitless potential. But Ferran’s countless hours of shooting and dribbling drills would be offset by a condition known as Osgood Schlatter’s syndrome, a temporary but intense knee pain, triggered by his rapid growth (the bones are growing faster than the muscles, and the knee is not comfortably situated on the bone.) In spite of rigorous physical therapy, and shooting drills that didn’t require him to run, he’d have to watch his team hurtle toward the playoffs, from the bench.
Was this just a taste of further heartbreak to come? Undoubtedly. But such are the heartbreaks incited by the sheer love of a sport.
Seeing Nate and Jamal on that beautiful spring day in the city, made me obscurely happy that the playoffs had started without them. For an afternoon, or a small portion of it, we all shared the same turf–professionals, athletes, spectators, tourists and 10-year-old boys with stars in their eyes who can watch one of the league’s littlest players leap-frog over the competition, and still have ample imagination to see themselves up there alongside him, floating above the rim.