Post Road Magazine #28

The Pass

John O'Connor

The defining moment of my adolescence came during a junior high school gym class when I pirated a behind-the-head-no-look-pass from a basketball prodigy named Eric Portis. The pass was an upgraded version of the behind-the-back-no-look-pass, with radically diminished accuracy. It was just one weapon in an arsenal that Eric Portis used to demoralize lesser players like myself, including a hypnotic crossover, a torrential three-pointer, a fifteen-foot rainbow floater, and even-again, this was junior high school-an occasional fingertip dunk. Only the behind-the-head-no-look-pass, however, belonged to Eric Portis. As far as we knew, he had invented it, so he held the copyright, and it was not for sale. Were one of us to attempt it, it would've been like Kurt Rambis dishing Magic Johnson's patented no-look-ball-fake-pass on the break to James Worthy. That is, unimaginable.

I hadn't consciously planned to co-opt the behind-the-head-no-look-pass from Eric Portis.[1] In fact, until that very moment I hadn't dreamed I was remotely capable. Prior to the seventh grade I'd logged about four minutes on the basketball court, and it became instantly clear that I had no feel for the game. My father had press-ganged me early into baseball, and while I had no feel for that either, it accommodated failure far better than basketball. In the latter, as one of only five teammates on a congested, over-lit court, your incompetence is instantly forthcoming, which is why basketball is an apt metaphor for life: in few other realms do one's wilting self-image and bankrupt dreams converge with such swift and horrifying clarity. In baseball, it's possible to hide. You can pass entire games, I discovered, by melting into the outfield greenery, fading to a speck on the horizon, and hardly ever touching the ball. But that only works for so long, and although it nearly killed my dad, I switched to co-ed soccer. In the coddling, anesthetized world of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), you didn't need to hide at all because incompetence was not only tolerated but feverishly promoted (nobody liked a showoff in AYSO). Unfortunately AYSO's hippie ideology didn't apply to real life and didn't help me one lick in basketball.

What might've been a simple undertaking for others-a wide-open lay-up, for instance-became for me an unconquerable abstraction. It wasn't that I was uncoordinated. My body moved like it grasped the physics of the game. It was even said, to much head-scratching, that I looked like I could play. I could jump okay for a white kid, move laterally, was taller than most players. I possessed the basic machinery: eyes, hands, feet, etc. But the ball simply would not enter the basket. Whenever I drew near that contraption, something inside of me slackened. It was as if I entered a kind of dream-state where my mind was swept clean and I lost both my fundamental dexterity and my sense of where I was and what I was doing. I became claustrophobically transient, scurrying away from the basket, unable to make it register up close, taking cover wherever I could find it, wedged between a teammate and the sideline, say, or parked on the center circle, reddening with fear.

I had, in other words, right up until the moment I stole Eric Portis's move, no expectation of ever becoming a real athlete, let alone one capable of deploying a behind-the-head-no-look-pass, or reliably in-bounding the ball for that matter. I figured I had about as much chance of duplicating the pass as I had of performing a vicious tomahawk dunk.

This was during Reagan's second term. Gym class at South Junior High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan began with twenty minutes of "open gym," which for boys meant full-court, five-on-five basketball. It was a crucial social arbiter at South, where notions of cool, at least for pasty white boys like myself, were defined by the black kids. Sucking at basketball-not exclusively but especially for whites-torpedoed your stock to near-unrecoverable depths. Some days we ran full-court the entire class hour. You had no choice in the matter. Good or bad, mutant athlete or hopeless freak, unless you were a girl, you played.[2] This was a radical departure from elementary school gym, where we had played kickball and four-square and capture the flag-indulgent, ego-bolstering games in which everyone had a role and individual success was minimized. Basketball, by contrast, was trench warfare. After games, I was shell-shocked, stumbling through the halls muttering to myself, textbooks clutched to my chest in cold, white hands, fingernails chomped to bits.

The thing was, I loved the game. It was the Bad Boys era in Detroit, with Isiah Thomas and Bill Lambeer and Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson and Dennis Rodman before he went off the rails. Rick Mahorn, the Pistons' bruising power forward, was in my mind the greatest man who'd ever lived. And the ruthless accountability of the sport appealed to my budding Hobbesian: with nowhere to hide, you either performed or you forfeited your right to exist. Competence was the leveler. Without it, you were irrelevant. The trouble was, I was on the wrong side of the divide. In this world, there are guys like me and guys like Eric Portis. The former are put here so the latter can achieve glory. Actually, we serve an undervalued role, for without us hacks there can be no heroes. But knowing this doesn't make our lives any easier. On the contrary, this kind of psychic forfeiture, I found, can exact an ugly toll.

I felt myself to be carrying a burden sports-wise. My dad had been a decorated ball-field hero growing up in Indiana, a varsity letterman in basketball, baseball, and football. His trophies loitered in our basement storage area like a dusty shrine to athletic prowess. The centerpiece, "Best All-Around Athlete," won during his senior year, was a good three-inches taller than I was. During the summer between his sophomore and junior years, my dad had pitched for a semi-professional baseball team in Seminole, Texas, where his mother's family lived. He drove down from Bloomington to work on his uncle's cotton farm during the week and pitch nights and weekends in Lubbock, Amarillo, and Hobbs, New Mexico, freezing batters ten years older, men who worked in the oilfields or played college ball and drank themselves numb after games. My dad went on to pitch and play tailback on scholarship at Dartmouth; though, in a turn that ate at him deep into middle age, he failed to make the cut in basketball.

As my Little League coach, his past glories sometimes reared-up in practice. Loping around on the mound, he'd unleash these meteors that yelped and slashed past my teammates as we took turns swatting at them, losing our bats in the trees. I remember once when he took his t-shirt off and the hair rose like smoke from his shoulders. Even at that distance you could see a crosshatched scar running along his left shoulder from clavicle to armpit, the remnant of a torn rotator cuff and botched surgery that had ruined his pitching arm. Eventually he'd ease up and let us hit. But I preferred to see him going full-tilt, with that crazy martial wind-up followed by the hard slap of ball in leather.

My baseball career was brief and disgraceful. Had I not been the coach's son I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did. We played on meagerly watered fields out by the highway, with an outfield of low scrub mined with treacherous, career-ending divots, and an infield not much better. I tried catcher at first but proved inadequate to the task and was exiled to right field, where my skill as a backstop emerged. Not once but thrice I lost a fly ball on its descent-a feat which forever attached infamy to my name-and amidst the stunned, terrified hush of spectators, stood there shrugging in the sunlight as the ball crashed into my sternum and knocked me flailing to the ground. I was given a batting helmet to wear, which seemed extraordinarily cruel. Then I realized I could disappear for long stretches, quietly slipping beyond the range of batters, nearly to the parking lot, until my dad shouted at me to move back into position. If I concentrated, I could even will batters to hit the ball elsewhere, or shallow enough so that the second baseman could beat me to it. My poor father witnessed all of this. He never gave up on me, though. I loved him for that. He hoped I'd blossom into a real player, which might've been his greatest act of self-deception ever. I couldn't wait to be done with the game. I took it for two years, then quit with hardly a word passing between us. It must've been a blow when I started soccer. I knew in his secret heart he hated that game that had no danger or beauty in it. But he was at every match, pacing the sidelines.

Anyway, by junior high school I had come full-bore to the crushing realization of countless 12-year-olds: I wasn't cut out for sports. I wasn't just bad. I was toxic. Despite my pedigree, I was doomed to toil in the gravel-pit of inferiority, to endure the relentless, dispiriting subjection of the athletic underclass. And there was nothing I could do about it. There's a platitude about sports teaching youth the virtues of hard work and fair play, how "sportsmanship" rewards patience and resilience, instills respect for others, prepares one for life's trials, etc.

There might be some truth in that. But for most of us, most of the time, sports teach only bitterness and despair. The field of play isn't a proving ground of redemption or personal betterment. It's Hell. A dungeon of ritualized failure. A perverse laboratory where misery is splayed-out, dissected, microscoped, the results boxed and inventoried in the warehouse of self-loathing. What it teaches us is that there are times in life when you are nothing, when you are naked and useless, your body a mere toy for others' amusement. And that one of those times is gym class.

Our teacher, Coach Lipschultz, who naturally we called Shitlips, was a Vince Lombardi doppelgänger with a prominent gap-toothed overbite and several kaleidoscopic plaid trouser-tie ensembles. Much of the time he remained rooted to a crumbling swivel chair in his office, fiddling with a Rubik's Cube, which I never once saw him solve. For twenty minutes a day, we had the run of the gym.

Fourth period gym class at South Junior High in 1986 held a remarkable pool of basketball talent. There was Cedric "Snapper" Jones, whose nickname came from the sound the net made after his shot cracked through it; Darrell "Touché" Simms, as ruthless a twelve-year-old post-up man as there ever was, who also considered himself something of a wit; and Robert Taylor, a stick-thin African-American with a feathery moustache that he was very proud of, and who, nine years later, received two life sentences for a grisly double murder of local video store employees. But we knew Rob merely as a cunning mid-court tactician. (Perhaps an early sign of Rob's path came on Halloween that year, when he'd arrived to school dressed as J.R. Ewing from "Dallas" in a gray three-piece suit, cowboy boots, ten-gallon hat, and carrying a brown leather briefcase. This didn't sit well with the other black kids, some of whom rode Rob about it all day, until he finally snapped. I don't recall what happened, only that Rob was suspended and someone else carted off in an ambulance.)

Eric Portis was the best. His game was more complete, his style silkier, more pliant than everyone else's, and it seemed wholly his own as opposed to having been cribbed from some NBA idol. Portis was laboratory-engineered for the game, with hands large enough at age twelve to palm a basketball, shoulders like hillocks, the muscles announcing themselves in crests and vales across his back; he had a deceptively tall six-foot frame powered by some kind of ghost chemical. His 15-foot jumper- a lost art in today's game-was a miracle: time seemed to decelerate as he squared his feet and elbows, his body effortlessly triangulating with ball and basket to conquer Euclidean space. Sometimes, in the midst of this, he'd glance at his Swatch, as if incredibly bored. To top it off, he wore immaculate white leather high-tops with tubesocks yanked to his knees like Pistons' swingman Adrian Dantley, a sleeveless t-shirt, gold necklace, and a single earring of Christ on the Cross, all complimented by a neatly trimmed jericurl. He was my idealized basketball-self, minus the jericurl.

I practiced at home, shooting around in the driveway, watching shot after shot smash into the backboard and plop to the ground. I was too ashamed to tell my dad what was happening. Our baseball experiment was still warm, and besides, I was beyond help. We lived in a white middle-class neighborhood close to downtown, and our hoop was the only one on the block. An elm tree cast looping branches in front of it, harassing my shots. The driveway was a sloping grassy paddock broken here-and-there by little asphalt ranges, and depending on where I stood, the basket height could fluctuate by a foot, so shooting was essentially a parlor game. But I could play alone, without judgment.

In gym class there was marginal improvement, but it came in such excruciating, baby-step fashion that the minutest achievement seemed only to highlight other deficiencies. A small victory in-bounding the ball would be followed by an ill-considered jumper being emphatically swatted into the bleachers (and the postscript chorus of laughter). Then, impossibly, I got worse, regressing twelve years in spatial intelligence. The very sight of the basketball bewildered me. What, mind you, is this sherbet-orb doing in my hands? As I got worse, I got dangerous. Ineptness in basketball inevitably spawns the desperate man's recourse: ghastly, almost lethal fouls. I'll never forget the dying chimp-like yowl of Bill Baker as he writhed on the baseline clutching his mangled ankle, which came courtesy of a shove in the back I'd given him on a lay-up. He recovered, but never quite went to his left the same.

Things spiraled. I sulked and swore through games, launched one-handers down court, played sham defense, punted balls to the rafters. My most forbearing teammates began to glare at me, their former pity swinging towards hate.

It was no use. I was a sideshow. A peril to myself and others. A lost cause. So, after half a term of soul-rending humiliation, I quit. If I remember correctly, as I strolled off the court I made an emphatic hand-wiping gesture to signal the finality of it. My departure meant an odd number of players and the scourge of subs. But nobody tried to talk me out of it. They were relieved. I didn't blame them.

I was glad to be moving on. Retreating to Coach Shitlips' office, I assumed water-cooler duty and fiddled with the combinations to old padlocks while waiting for Christmas. Shitlips abided me as long as I was quiet, and since I wanted nothing more than to disappear, I happily obliged him.

It was a mild winter that year. Snow failed to materialize in the driveway, so I shot around some. Now and then my dad joined me. He and my mom were separated and he was living down the road in a new condo development, but sometimes he stayed with us. Dad was having a second-act as a marathoner and triathlete, traveling to races across the Midwest, giving himself over to it so intensely-running, cycling, and swimming nearly every day-that a scarf of loose skin hung around his neck. We'd trade shots, or he'd sit cross-legged in the yard with a beer, looking on as I rifled balls into the garage, disemboweling leaf bags leftover from the fall.

I had this driveway routine where I'd roll the ball off the roof and catch it and shoot, wait for the clang and clatter, then chase it down. My dad did the same, though he usually connected. Then one afternoon he started mortaring shots from the side yard, from out in the street, from behind my mom's Vanagon. At some point he lost the ball over the roof. He wasn't drinking heavily but there was a Coors in the grass. Our dog Brutus knocked it over and the suds bled into the ground. My dad drained what was left, rolled the ball off the roof, caught it, pivoted, and rainbowed it right back up there. On the way down it got stuck behind the basket. I poked it out with a rake.

"Nice one," I said.

He did the same thing on his next shot.

"You're heatin' up."

We kept shooting and missing. Eventually, by statistical decree, I had to connect. But that day I don't think I did. Not once. Even standing under the basket. Maybe I was trying to miss. My dad must have wondered. Brutus got a kick out of the rake-poke and went wild when the ball came down. It had slobber and grass all over it. Darkness was on us when I snatched the ball up and stared hard at it a moment. My dad waited, fingertips spidering. In that expanse of night the ball seemed a sudden absurdity, something that existed only as an instrument of luck, a flame of wild possibility that remained forever out of reach. I wound-up and punted it away. We watched it splash into the compost pile. I brought it back, stomping and swearing across the yard, wiped it off and handed it over. My dad looked at me, his face hidden in evening shadow. He seemed about to say something. I saw his hands, the nicotine-stained fingers, bare and fibrous, turning the ball over and over until the seams flowed into each other and I felt the beat of skin and leather inside of me like an invisible pump. Then, palming the ball Statue of Liberty-style, my dad rolled back on his heels, softly stutter-stepped, feinted, and swung the prettiest Kareem hook straight into the porch shrubbery.

I don't recall much else. But for some reason it was then that the value of the behind-the-head-no-look-pass dawned on me. In four months I'd seen Eric Portis pull it off maybe a half-dozen times, which meant it had about a five-percent success rate. Its virtue was also its principal failing: it tended to catch people off-guard, including the recipient, who occasionally received the pass with his face. The other 95% of the time it sailed out-of-bounds or pinged off a kneecap. It was the kind of play that drove coaches nuts, and among an older demographic Eric Portis would've been mercilessly ridiculed. But for us, the point of the pass wasn't its efficacy; the point was that it looked good. According to our fringe adolescent logic, successful execution was so fantastically improbable that failure didn't rest with the passer but rather with the fickle hand of Fate. The few times when Eric Portis did pull it off-in traffic, the ball shrieking through a thicket of limbs to its rabbit-eyed target-lived in our minds forever. Like all flashy plays, the-behind-the-head-no-look-pass was, at root, a psychic gambit calculated to stun, to disquiet, to augment legend. Whether or not it worked was an afterthought.

When winter break ended, I returned to Shitlips' office. Things continued, until one afternoon Mrs. Washington's shadow flooded the doorway. A large African-American whose polyester slacks contained porpoise-like thighs, Mrs. Washington had a way of moving her eyebrows that communicated the entire human emotional range, a kind of eyebrow sign language that was awesome to behold.

"What's this boy doing in here?" she said, an eyebrow crawling up one side of her forehead while the other crawled down. Shitlips and I gaped at one another.

"He's working," Shitlips said. I waved a padlock at her. Mrs. Washington's eyebrows executed an impressive figure eight.

"This isn't right, Bernard. He should be out there playing."

Shitlips chewed on this. He swiveled towards me, shrugged, and set down his Rubik's Cube. Rising, he slunk around the desk and gently seized me by the forearm, hoisted me up, and to my horror, shoved me out the door. I stood there a moment blinking as the sneaker-and-wood squeak of a game drifted over. When I glanced back at Shitlips, he was in his chair, his head slumped to one side, staring at his hands while Mrs. Washington said something to him. I went and parked myself on the bleachers, glowering at Mrs. Washington, shooting cancer-daggers into her meddlesome heart. Eventually I got bored and joined a game. Nobody said a word. It was like I'd never left.

Except that as soon as I stepped onto the court something was different. Tiny pockets of energy suddenly resided in the soles of my Keds. I felt lighter, less shambling than I'd been before, like a hand was pushing me from behind. The ball, that dumb orange Spalding, which had always been unwieldy, molded easily to my palms. Without anyone telling me, I realized the importance of creating space for myself to shoot, and I saw the ball going through the net before I released it. More incredibly, my tunnel vision faded and my claustrophobia disengaged. Things appeared as they never had. I knew with shocking clarity where to go, what to expect. An alien sensation-confidence?-crashed over me. In an instant, my conception of the world and my place in it shifted. I was a new person, unrecognizable from my former self.

I can't explain it. Perhaps it was osmosis or a dormant synapse was sent firing, or all of that headlong fear and torment finally popped and my ego put its foot down. I suppose this might be called "learning." But it was more than that. I'm talking about wholesale psychic transfiguration, a seismic realignment of brainwave tectonics that allowed me to see and feel what I hadn't before, so that what had been static and immovable in me became fluid, variable, alive.

Whatever the reason, things started to click. Before I knew what was happening, I'd scored eight points, equal to my previous semester's total. I'd also picked Snapper's pocket and flown out-of-bounds for an errant pass. I ended one series with a menacing post-move: Rob Taylor was on my back like a marmot when I spun and floated a hook-shot into the supple, beckoning net-payback for an earlier play when Rob had given me a mouthful of forehead on a ferocious drive.

Then, without thinking, I unfurled the behind-the-head-no-look-pass. It began innocently. After receiving the ball at the top of the key, I dribbled left, was stonewalled, backpedaled, and went right as the defense collapsed around me. Out of ideas, I glanced to my right, closed my eyes, and with my right hand, hooked the ball behind my head, zinging it left. Nobody saw it coming. The ball whizzed past a half-a-dozen noggins and slapped into the chest of a teammate hibernating in three-point land. When he realized what had happened, he lined up and snapped one home.

Everyone froze. Eric Portis was my teammate that day. He shot me a look. I'd made a huge error, it seemed to say. A rule had been broken, unspoken etiquette transgressed. For which payment would be dear.

Inexplicably, his face broke into a grin.

"Nice pass," he said. As we turned and trotted down the court, he raised his palm and-Oh, sweet joy!-high-fived me. Things were never the same.

I said earlier that guys like me and guys like Eric Portis occupy two complimentary sides of the athletic rift. I should've mentioned a third way: mediocrity. Some of us, contrary to the natural order of things, through pure luck or synaptic reshuffle or remembered past-life or I don't know what, end up here. It's not the hokum that coaches and sideline orators spew-triumph over adversity and so on. It's an accident. That's all. Though perhaps one that makes it easier to crawl out of bed in the morning.

To be sure, my game was still full of holes: unpardonable turnovers, defensive meltdowns. But I could compete. I had passable defense, a semi-reliable jumper, an intuitive sense for the game. For a while, I could hardly keep from smiling. I figured I'd have to contend with Eric Portis for possession of the behind-the-head-no-look-pass, but he soon dropped it from his repertoire, so I inserted it into mine. I didn't rely on it too often, lest an astute defender catch on. It failed more often than not, but I used it to perfection a handful of times and on each occasion it ratcheted-up my status a notch. The fact that I'd stolen it from Eric Portis was forgotten, as were the circumstances of my hasty erudition.

When I explained all of this to my dad, I didn't think he believed me.

"Why didn't you say something?" he asked.

How do you say, it was like a dream, everything was far-off and murky, as if I were seeing it from the top of the stairs, until I wasn't?

This was my final burst of accelerated development. Some days it seems to me like I've never improved at anything else. Like I've been coasting ever since. I'm forty. How embarrassing would it be at my age to aspire to more when you've proven that second-rate is the best you can do?

Years later I bumped into Eric Portis, selling popcorn at a movie theater in Kalamazoo, his jericurl replaced by a crisp flat-top, the crucifixion earring by a diamond stud. We talked about Rob Taylor, who was in prison down the road in Jackson. How crazy was that? Eric mentioned a pickup game I should come play in, which we both knew wasn't going to happen, but it was nice to think about.

It was around then that my dad injured his foot while running, a repetitive stress fracture that never seemed to heal. His second wife had left him and he was living alone in a big house on Lake Michigan with an enormous stretch of grass. He moved onto the couch, forged a spiritual acquaintance with Johnny Walker Red, and swelled several pant sizes. His face went limp and pink. He came down with what he thought was the stomach flu and was so numbed by Scotch that it took a few days before he realized it was bigger than that. I was living in New York. One night my sister Katie called to say that dad's appendix had burst. Apparently it'd been a close call. He bounced back pretty quick, but he quit the triathlon/marathon business cold turkey. Hasn't run a mile since. Or touched the booze. I've talked to my dad about this. Maybe it's grief or maybe it's fatigue. You want to carry it inside of you, to continue to see clearly in the real world, the old voices from that dry West Texas town fanning your blood's desire. But once it turns off, it can't be reclaimed. No matter what direction you've chosen it can lead straight to the heart of regret, though you keep going on with things, dreaming and learning, waiting for another epiphany to strike the confusion from your life.

[1] Charles Barkley has pointed out, rightly I think, that the premise of a "no-look" pass is disingenuous. After all, how can you pass to someone without ever having looked to see if they were there? But I'll stick to the nomenclature.

[2] The girls' and boys' sides of the gym were separated by an accordion-like partition that was maybe two-stories high. I don't know how, ten years after Title IX, a public school class could be segregated by gender, but it was, and the girls were yoked to the iron-fisted reign of Mrs. Washington, who oversaw a gruesome battery of calisthenics and rope-climbs.

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