Eight Notes on Basketball
1. MJ tries Baseball
I became a serious follower of the NBA the year Michael Jordan played in the Major Leagues. MJ tried his hand at baseball after his father’s murder because his father had always wanted him to play. In 1994, after leading the Bulls to three NBA rings, MJ left basketball in his prime to try a different dream. MJ was never a great baseball player, but what he did was as unimaginable as it was admirable. The greatest basketball player ever, in his prime, still had dreams, and they weren’t anybody else’s. From MJ, I learned great athletes can be greater than any sport. Becoming great is better than already being great. This is why MJ is one of the three best players the NBA has ever known (along with Kareem and Lebron, if you’re asking). And MJ is why I started watching basketball.
“Becoming great is better than already being great.”
2. Lebron Shook My Hand
I was a teacher at a charter school in Akron, OH, and Lebron picked up one of my students, Desmond, every other Tuesday as part of a Big Brother program. At that time, highlights from his high school games were broadcast on Sportscenter, so I was already in awe of the 16 year old. I was first impressed by his size, his hands, but then I was impressed by how he filled up the room in other ways, and how happy he made Desmond, how jealous the other students were, how jealous I was. I guess that’s all it takes: a good handshake, eye contact. “I’m Mr. Schomburg,” I said. “I’m Lebron,” he said. Yeah, I know. Fan for life.
3. 1991 Mark Jackson Basketball Card
One of the best gifts I got this year was from my friend, Joseph—a 1991 Mark Jackson basketball card. At first glance, it’s nothing special. The hall-of-fame-worthy point guard in his prime in a Knicks uniform is mid-bounce pass under the lights in Madison Square Garden. But if you look closer, in the front row, sit Lyle and Erik Menendez. The photograph would have been taken sometime after they murdered their parents, but before their arrest. What a strange world in which this card can exist. It reminds me of that wildness of this life, and how basketball is a part of it. Basketball is not a sport played in a vacuum. The court is always in the world, and the world is always in the court. And the world can be dark, complex, strange, cruel, violent. Basketball doesn’t pretend it’s not.
“The court is always in the world, and the world is always in the court.”
4. My Mom and Amy Bumstead
My mom was the 1970 offensive player of the year in 3-on-3 for Nodaway Holt High School in Northwest Missouri. I never got to see her play, but I love hearing her stories. Together, we’d go to my own high school’s 3-on-3 girls games in Iowa to watch another player, Amy Bumstead, dominate the boards. My mom taught me how 3-on-3 worked, and I loved it. There’s something about watching a player in such a specialized role.
Those years Amy played were the only years my high school was any good. She was 6’3”. Her move was to stand under the basket with her arms raised above her head like a vast sunrise. Her teammates used to just throw it high and into the light, and Amy’d turn and lay it up. It was like a little magic trick that thrilled every time.
“Her move was to stand under the basket with her arms raised above her head like a vast sunrise.”
5. Damian Lillard Portrait
A few years ago, I sketched a portrait of Damian Lillard. It’s not great—I’ve gotten better since. It was during Dame’s third year in the league, when it became clear the Blazers were his team. It was that year that I figured out the Blazers were my team, too. We were just getting out from under the hobbled ghost of Greg Oden. One thing that makes a player great, like Lebron, like MJ, is that they don’t get hurt. And when they do, they’re not out for long. Dame’s never missed a start. It’s too easy to take that for granted.
I sketched that portrait while listening to a first round playoff game on the radio against the Grizzlies. I tweeted my portrait out, since he’s usually so good at responding to his fans on twitter. Dame didn’t respond. Maybe he was too focused. Or maybe I just drew his forehead too big. Maybe I’ll try again soon with a better portrait.
6. 13 Rows Up
A year after moving to Portland in 2008, I went to a Blazer’s game by myself using Sherman Alexie’s tickets. He had vowed to become a Blazers fan after the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. So he bought season tickets 13 rows up behind the Blazer’s bench. He hardly ever went to a game, but he was generous enough to circulate his tickets around through the writing scene. I’ve only ever sat in the nosebleeds at NBA games. It’s an entirely different experience that close. It’s like I was hearing the game for the first time. I could see Brandon Roy’s eyes.
7. Bad Boys
When MJ returned to basketball in 1995, I followed. I fell in love with those next three championship Bulls teams, particularly Dennis Rodman. At that time, I loved what I considered the bad boys of basketball. AI, Sheed, and even Ron Artest. I was drawn to these players because they wore their attitude on their sleeve, even when they seemed to have very little to say. They were humans too. They weren’t perfect, they got frustrated, they failed, they broke, they were tempted and they succumbed. They were great basketball players, but they were bigger than that. They were their own flawed selves.
“They weren’t perfect, they got frustrated, they failed, they broke, they were tempted and they succumbed.”
8. Sad Fake Pumps
Most of my basketball during childhood was played solo on the driveway. I was an only child, and the rim was set at 8 foot because no one cared, or ever checked. Still, I could never dunk it, even though that was one of my dreams. I thought if I had some brand new pair of Air Jordans, I could surely dunk. But for my birthday, my mom got me some Reebook Pump Cross Trainers with the pump on the tongue instead. They were more affordable, and she thought I’d hardly notice. These shoes were pure sadness. I remember sitting on the steps one cold afternoon, pumping and pumping the little plastic basketball on the tongue, thinking about dunking, until the pump on the left shoe popped.
“Still, I could never dunk it, even though that was one of my dreams.”