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2020-11-26 My basketball story

This photo was uploaded today by my aunt Annette. This was back in the day, when 1) I had a head full of hair and 2) played basketball a lot.

That first year of playing organized basketball, I focused on playing defense. It seemed that everyone wanted to shoot the ball, so I passed the ball and played defense. I probably led the league in steals, rebounds and blocked shots. I enjoyed taking on the best player from the other team, I felt like I would get better, quickly.

The second year, I was a different player. I will never forget the first game that second year--we lost 29 to 26, I scored 18 points. I probably led the universe in scoring that second year, although we didn't win much. One thing I learned from that experience is that one great player 9 (at least in his own mind) can't beat a team.

An eye injury ended my pro career before it began, to this day I still have floaters in my eyes because of the injury. I started wearing glasses, but the problem never went away. On the court, I would wear goggles to prevent further injury. 

High School

I transferred to a different high school. Three of the guys I had played with on the YMCA team were going to be varsity players the following year. I had transferred from a school that was predominately black to one that was predominately white. Overnight, I became a faster runner and my jumping ability improved.

One of the P.E. coaches at my new school saw me out playing with the varsity players and asked me if I wanted to try out for the team. I was interested, but then I learned they didn't plan on me playing in games, I was to be more of a practice dummy. I was then a high school sophomore headed for my junior year, which is kind of late to get started with playing high school basketball. I remember dunking to win one practice game, then telling the coach that I wanted to play in games, not sit on the bench. Of course, he couldn't promise me anything, he was the P.E. coach, not the coach of the team, so I focused on the school paper instead.

I enjoyed being a columnist and co-editor of my high school newspaper, that was certainly much better than warming the bench (IF I would have made the team).

* * *

I was a sports reporter on the Harvard Crimson. My junior year, I was one of the main beat reporters for the varsity football and basketball teams. I love watching football, but I never considered going out for the team. I never want to give another person an excuse to knock me out.

As for basketball, I reserved my glory for pickup games. For years I enjoyed wearing a "Harvard Basketball" t-shirt. I wanted to edit it to read, "Harvard Basketball reporter." I often attended practice to get a feel for the game and team outside of games.

At Harvard, I usually played at a gym at the law school. My family then lived in Boston, and I was often at the courts in different parts of the city.

We were all surprised by a guy in Brookline we called Bird. I never knew his real name--he was a white guy with a pony tail, nicknamed after Larry Bird. Our local Bird was unassuming, never talked trash, just played the game. Wow, did he play well! All kinds of pump fakes, smooth moves, great jump shot. Everyone else playing was black so there was already attention on him. Then he'd start doing all those pump fakes, behind the back passes. Sitting around talking waiting for our turn, we asked almost in unison: "Who the hell are you"?

It turns out that he had played college basketball but gotten kicked off his team for smoking weed (often). It was one of those "don't judge a book by its cover" moments (about basketball, not the weed and long hair).

I played with and against some great players, including one player who played several years in the NBA. If I had ever dreamed of playing in the NBA, playing with him would have ended the dream. The guy jumped so high, it seemed that he had come out of the ceiling. He was so good, he didn't need teammates in a pickup game, he could have taken on several of us, like a grown man wrestling with six year olds.

Too much testosterone--from me

I played a lot of basketball when I was in college, even sometimes with some of the varsity players at Harvard. That's right, when the players from the women's basketball team hit the gym, I would be right there to challenge them. I was much more athletic, so I could block their shots or drive past them easily. But they loved it.

I was like Juwanna Mann, scoring at will.

Yeah, I was talking trash to them: "You shoot like a girl!" Of course, if I talked like that now, I might get sued for sexual harassment or be accused of creating a hostile environment. But they loved it, and talked trash right back at me. It was all fun and games, they knew I took them seriously, trying to destroy them, and making them better. After battling with me, a game would seem easy.

Some guys were slow to catch on that a basketball isn't heavy and that women can shoot it very well, especially when they are unguarded by guys not taking them seriously. This bit of common sense took some time to dawn on them: If a woman shows up ready to play basketball with men, she is probably good or at least decent.

A few times I even played with some of the men on the varsity team. But then, I became like that young man in his first year of organized basketball, playing defense and passing the ball.

As a freshman sports reporter on the school paper, I remember looking at the basketball statistics for the women's basketball team. A couple of them had very good shooting percentages. So I remember asking during a sports meeting if the baskets were lowered for the women. The female sports editor couldn't believe I had asked such a stupid question. I'm surprised I made it out of the meeting alive.

I've always taken to heart the saying attributed to a publisher of the Chicago Tribune: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

I went to a women's college basketball game to watch them play. A few weeks later I played on campus and saw a woman shooting baskets alone. Who knows, she may have been there before but I just had not noticed her. I challenged her to a game of one-on-one.

Boy, was she delighted! She never tried to join the games when men played and no one ever invited her to play. Yes, she could play. More women started coming out to play pickup games with us. I was starting a revolution.

Probably none of them could have played very much even on the men's junior varsity team, but in a regular basketball pickup game, they were definitely good players! I enjoyed playing basketball with them. I would trash-talk them, treat them like any other opponent. I did not go easy on them, which they loved.

Sometimes women will say, "There is too much testosterone in the room." And I usually say, "Yeah, from me. So stand back." And on the basketball court, I guess the same is true, whether if I am playing against men or women.

* * *

I played quite a bit when I lived in Taipei. When I look back that was the time of my life! Pretending to study Chinese in the early mornings. Pretending to teach English in the afternoons. Seriously chasing women at night. Playing basketball on the weekends.

I never minded trash talking. But trash talking isn't as much fun when you're opponent doesn't really understand what you're saying. I was always the best player so I probably slacked off a bit. I still remember one day when one of the Taiwanese kids celebrated after making a good play against me. I had just been playing for fun, but after that, I put it in his face, hitting something like 7 shots in a row to end the game. That was the last time I ever played for fun in Taiwan--after that, I tried to dominate every game.

I realized some didn't see me as just another guy playing in the game! Some of them were trying to get a reputation off me. I decided I was going to make them feel pain and fear my presence. Definitely there was too much testosterone on the court when I was there.

* * *
Korea (then)

I still remember my first day at the Kia Motors Training Center. I had been hired as a teacher in the center's intensive English language program. The general manager gave me a tour of the facilities. He was most proud of the basketball court. He talked about the Kia Motors basketball team, how they were so great, he talked about the different players. We spent more time at the basketball court than we did in the classrooms.

Of course I was thinking that, for once, my race had helped me get a job in Korea!

One day I was out playing, then during a break I went to the basketball office. Ho Jae, who later would play on the Korean Olympic team, wanted to know if I had played college basketball in America. Of course, I had noticed that he was a great player, and when I learned who he was, I took it as a compliment that he thought I was good enough to be a college player anywhere. But I was also wondering if he thought American college players were as raw as I was.

A year or so after that, I watched when the South Korean team got dominated by the American team in an international basketball tournament. Ho Jae scored 9 points, the US won by 30 or so points.

I played with Ho Jae, I figured that I could have scored at least 9 points against the US team, although I may have had to take about 100 shots if I had been shooting against Charles Barkley.

* * *
Playing against Nikki

Father Time always wins. Even Michael "Air" Jordan should have changed his nickname to Michael "Floor" Jordan at the end of his career. I wish I had video of myself dunking when I was young. I will probably never be able to do so again. I may need to have the rim lowered to 8' or 9,' or jump off a trampoline.

More than a decade ago, I had a health issue, and started playing basketball again. At the gym one day, I saw another gym member shooting hoops alone.

I walked in and asked, "Do you want to go one-on-one?" We were trash-talking, fouling each other and finger-wagging like I was Bill Clinton denying a relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

I told my opponent at the very beginning. "You know you shoot like a girl, right?" I was already talking trash after a minute, not even sure I would be able to last another 5 minutes of playing.

My opponent thought it was very funny, as we both laughed about my trash-talking. That's right, I played one-on-one with a woman. From Ho Jae to Nikki...

She hadn't played in years and was only shooting hoops because the fitness class had been canceled.

I had gently talked her into playing.

And that was the end of the gentleness.

I was better, but not by as much as I would have liked. She had played on her high school basketball team. Even though I'm much more athletic, she began doing a number of pump-fakes after I blocked her first two shots. That let her know that I was treating her like a real opponent, and she upped her intensity, too.

I don't take it easy when I play. No exceptions for women, unless they ask me to play softly.

The woman I played against that morning said she enjoyed the game--and the trash-talking! She said if she sees me around the gym that she'll challenge me to another game. I had the feeling she would be trash talking next time around..

* * *
Korea (now)

A few years ago I began looking for an indoor court to shoot hoops. I am not dreaming of going to the NBA, just something to stay (or to get back into) shape. I have learned that I am not going to hit the gym regularly and that I won't exercise at home. A few years ago, I called a local YMCA, they charge about $100 an hour to use the basketball court. I guess they are assuming you will have a full-court game with full teams, not just a guy and maybe a few friends out shooting baskets and talking trash about how good they used to be.

It is probably better for me not to join a league. I don't take basketball seriously, but I play hard. I want to do the equivalent of going to your home and taking the food off your plate right in front of you, and daring you to do anything about it.

Instead of talking trash on the courts, I talk trash in the office and in emails.

Yes, back in the day, I enjoyed playing basketball. Looking at the photo my aunt uploaded this morning, wow, what an impressive head of hair. If I had grown any more hair, I could have blocked the view of the basket for any players I was guarding. It would be great to have a 17-inch Afro now again, I wonder if Santa can help me this year. Oh yeah, I would do it, and probably with a comb in my hair as I, in my elder years, consistently threw the basketball over the backboard or dunked like a maniac on an 8 foot rim.

When I was young, I said I would publicly challenge Michael Jordan to a game of 1 on 1 when he turned 50 years old. Then I saw a video of him easily dunking at age 50. I still would take him on, as long as I could impose one rule on him: He must wear high heel shoes. If we played with standard rules, and he repeatedly dunked on my head, I wouldn't complain. And if he said I played like a girl? I would laugh as I kept trying to score against him, at least once.

The same with Charles Barkley. When I met him, I didn't mention anything about challenging him. Instead, I told him about TNKR.

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