by Erik Germani
Erik Germani runs a blog at: http://weaponsgradeennui.
I am watching the NBA Finals with my ten year old son. In the past year he's finally hit his long-awaited growth spurt, and is rapidly catching up to me. The spurt has turned him into a grade-school Wilt, and my driveway lessons have finally clicked as he’s bulldozing smaller classmates in the post. He likes basketball more, now. In this particular game, the latest heir to the empty throne of Jordan has thirty at the half. During the break my son asks me if this is the greatest basketball player of all time. I think about it, and say no. "Well who is?" It’s a typical question – he only wants absolutes, and superlatives. They were still telling him he could be president. What interest would he have in the also-rans and near greats?
"Jerome Godfrey," I tell him.
His face scrunches as he consults his mental database of statistics. "Who’d he play for?"
"Nobody, he never made it to the NBA." Godfrey never had his name on a jersey, just the gray tee he played in every day at a small park at the corner of Beverly and Clark. "I used to play pick up with him."
"Okay, Dad." My son rolls his eyes. He’s not much impressed with my skills, and we both sense that first game where he beats me and it’s not because I let him is only a few years off.
"No, really," I say, with more heat than I intended. Just talking about Godfrey still gets me worked up. He never had anything except for that perfect jumpshot, and now my son’s dismissing him as first among chumps. I’m surprised at how upset I am. "Well what happened to him, then?"
"I don’t know," I say, but I do. The story’s too sad to tell him.
Rusted out chain-link bordered the court, and local church groups had to repaint the key every year because the parks district wouldn’t do shit about it. The blacktop was green, and right near mid-court a rift had opened in it. You had to be aware of that, or your man could swipe the ball and lope in for an easy layup. Ankle-biters would watch from the sideline and heckle anybody they saw fit – me, most times, though they let up on me after that one time I dunked on Tariq.
The kids never booed Godfrey. They tried sticking him with the obvious nickname, but Godfrey never acknowledged it because most Sundays he’d be seen attending church with his mother, looking uncomfortable in a short-sleeved collared shirt and black tie. Sometimes I saw him on the corner on Friday nights, giving himself sins to atone for. Church and corner you wouldn’t notice him, just see a tall black guy with curiously soft eyes, but on the court you couldn’t stop watching him. He crossed the half line with four or five bounding strides, and then, nearing the three point line, would go blurry as he took two hard dribbles and skied for a finger-roll. The kids would shake their heads and shout, though you could tell they wanted him to dunk. Godfrey wasn’t like that; he played smooth, dancing basketball – until he got mad, anyway. Whenever he caught an inadvertent elbow, or the words "Game point" were uttered and they weren’t coming out of his mouth, he’d get this look. I saw it first hand when his team went down 10-0.
TV analysts talk about killer instinct all the time. They praise or pan pros for having it or lacking it. But that’s guys with 8 figures in their bank accounts, a trophy wife at home, groupies on the road. Winning, for them, was not everything. It was for Jerome – winning was everything because what else was there? His eyes took on a deep focus, until I didn’t think he was just seeing the court and me, his defender, but through me and maybe into the future, and his brown eyes could see ghost images dancing through the lane, all of them moving in spontaneous choreography, a dance which he understood intuitively and knew his own role in.
The size up happened at the speed of synapses, his own reactions and calibrations occurring at an order of magnitude more swiftly than my own, because there he went, bulling past me, blocking my tardy swipe at the ball with a perfectly placed shield arm, then exploding forward and up for a two handed dunk. 10-1.
Godfrey worked out his own dominant arithmetic, ignoring completely my defensive efforts. Try as I might, I felt like I had strings running from my joints and Godfrey was holding their ends in his off hand. My motions were constrained, actions predictable and easily read, so that anything I might do would only be met by his first and second counter moves. Elbow jumper, deep bomb, sharp-angled bankshot, two, four, five. Dropstep dunk, Dr. J scoop layup, MJ fadeaway with mouth clamped firm, even that display of showmanship superfluous to his graceful mechanisms. Six, seven, eight. Another deep ball, and it was knotted, 10-10. Win by two, and it was a foregone conclusion. When I woke up that day, my knees were feeling good. When I got to the court, my stroke was good. I was seeing angles, chasing down long rebounds. None of that mattered. Godfrey would shoot this shot in my eye and he would win. Mastery like that could make a man find religion.
That didn’t mean I wouldn’t make him work for it. After checking the ball, you had to pass once before a shot. Godfrey made his mandatory pass, and held his hands up for the return pass he knew was coming, as if his teammate’s hands were an extension of his own body and they worked as he willed. I knew the pass was coming, too, and closed off the passing lane with a lunge, hoping to intercept the ball mid-air. His teammate was paying enough attention that he lobbed the ball, so that Godfrey had to lift off his toes a little and extend a long left arm to collect it from the sky. As he touched ground again, that was his window right there. He could have shot and it would have been over. But the man had a duelist’s sense of honor, and I felt him hesitate for the split-second that allowed me to scramble back into a defensive stance. My position was good – he’d caught the ball six feet back of the three-point line, I was shading him right, and if he wanted the three, he wouldn’t have a good look at the rim – my hand would be so close to his face I could put in contacts for him.
Godfrey wanted the three anyway. He pump faked, pure stagecraft, really, more a suggestion of motion than an actual shot fake. Nevertheless, I bit and was an instant from barrelling into him when he lifted for the shot for real, angling his body away from mine to ensure enough airspace, and the ball skimmed over my fingertips on its inevitable journey to the bottom of the net. I didn’t need to see it go down, Godfrey’s smile – humble and friendly again now that it was over – was confirmation enough.
All the players headed to the sideline to drink from their water bottles. I chugged water while Godfrey did dribble drills and watched the street.
"You want any?" I offered.
"Nah," he said. He never seemed to be thirsty. He was hardly sweating.
"You know," I said, wiping my brow with my shirt front, "you really could play college ball, if you wanted."
He scoffed. "Don’t give me that, College. I’ve talked to them scouts before."
"Didn’t work out."
"Just didn’t, man." He began to drift away, but I couldn’t help myself.
"You know what, fuck college. You could play for the pros. I mean that."
He smiled at me in a way I wouldn’t understand until I had my son and he would tell me he wild (and constantly changing) career aspirations. But why not? I wondered.
"College, I’m 26 years old. You think some pro team wants a stupid motherfucker like me, never even graduated middle school? Nah, man, nah." I couldn’t believe he was twenty-six.
"I don’t think they’d care about diplomas, honestly."
"What about records?"
Godfrey nodded at the others and left. As he did, I reflected that it was no surprise. I didn’t know anything about him, not really, just that he could shoot the lights out. Even that seemed dubious as he walked away – outside the court he was just another young black man without prospects, headed God knows where. He called me College with a special bitterness, maybe because he sensed my fascination with him as a sort of case study. White liberal arts students spent an awful lot of time learning about hopeless inner city blacks.
I headed home. The loss still frustrated me well into the afternoon, but then my girlfriend and I went out, and I forgot about everything by dessert. Later we made love, and as she faded to sleep, I lay there and listened to the sounds of the city outside our open window, the shouting and cursing and laughing, the horns and the sirens wailing towards emergencies and crimes unknown, dopplering away from this safe place with her body warm beside mine. I wondered about the lives of those whom the sirens approached.
The next morning I woke up sore, in a bleary haze which lingered throughout the morning. I laced up around lunchtime. My girl sprawled on the couch, smiling and indolent. She looked good, good enough that when she poked me in the side with her big toe and said "Let’s eat lunch" – not talking about chips and sandwiches at all – I considered it. But the guys had said they’d be playing around now, so I told her to eat without me. She joked about me trying to recapture my glory days, the joke being how I never had any, and when I asked her to toss me the ball, she chucked it two-handed and with heat.
When I showed up, the courts were full of guys talking and hoisting trick shots. Those I knew nodded at me when I appeared, not an unwelcome presence but still clearly in a lower caste, and I nodded back before starting to work my way around the perimeter, trying to get my shot right. When Godfrey showed up, the scattered clusters of shooters congregated around him, ready to pick teams. We lined up at the stripe and took free throws. Godfrey shot third, and missed. That never happened. But not only did he miss it, he airballed it, shy of the front iron by a good foot. A hush fell over us waiting to shoot. Godfrey pretended like he didn’t hear it, just jogged forward and shovelled the ball no-look to the next guy in line. Then he came around to the back and waited his turn.
After I swished mine, I stood to one side and observed him. He looked nervous. Whenever a car came cruising past, his eyes flicked towards it. When Tariq tossed him the ball, he wasn’t paying attention, and started badly as the leather slapped his palms. He toed the line, flexed his knees, and closed his eyes. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled, mouth forming a small ring. His cheeks puffed, his eyes opened, and he shot. Swish, this time, and there were a few relieved chuckles and jokes.
We were on different teams, and as the game started, I matched up before anyone else could take the assignment. The day before still nagged at me, and I thought I had him figured out this time. Of course, I always thought that, but for once, I did. Godfrey played terribly. His moves were indecisive and rote, easily anticipated and answered. His shot was plain wrong, he wasn’t setting his feet. And Godfrey’s greatest asset, his poise, was nowhere to be found. The man usually played like a crocodile – lurking, lying in wait, lulling you, until that explosive burst from cover. On that day, he was playing like the gazelle that croc chomped on at the watering hole: frantic. After one ill-advised drive that I cut off, tying up the ball, Godfrey wrenched it out of my hands after the play was dead and hurled it at me.
Before I could even say something, Godfrey was on my toes, shoving his face into mine, lower jaw jutting, daring me to do something. "What?" he barked. For all the gifts he had that I did not, there was one advantage Godfrey lacked: size. I tore a page out of another sport’s playbook, and gave him a forearm shiver. Godfrey reeled back two steps, recovered, and leapt for me. We batted at each other with a few wild swings before the other guys stepped in and dragged us away. Godfrey glared at me from underneath the hoop. I shrugged off the guys holding me, still not understanding what had happened. The play had been clean on my part, and I’d never seen Godfrey so frustrated.
He seemed to recognize it, and shook his head, smiling. He came over, offered his fist. I tapped it, he apologized, and play resumed. That’s when Godfrey went back to dominating. He was playing loose and smart, picking our D apart with bounce passes, no looks, and wraparounds. But the scuffle had me inspired, and I was playing like a latter day Wilt. Once we took the ball out, I put Godfrey on my back and demanded the ball. From there, I couldn’t miss, and dumped in a variety of hooks and bankshots. We matched each other point for point. It was win by two, and neither could put the game away, so the score climbed past 11, all the way to 18.
Out of nowhere, a downpour started. By the time I felt the first drop on my cheek and looked up, the sky was full of rain and gray clouds we’d been too busy to notice. Donte took the ball and went to shelter under the bathrooms’ eaves. The others followed.
"Where are you going? Let’s keep playing," Godfrey said.
"What?" they said.
"Come on," I said, "it’s just a little rain." I hardly felt it. I needed this game. Grudgingly, the others came back, and we kept playing. I was so focused, so completely in the moment, that I was unaware of anybody but the man with the ball. Godfrey was holding it when the cops came.
We straightened up, startled. There were two uniforms standing there in the driving rain, two big white guys in vests, hands on guns. We stared at them, they at us. Of course it was me, who’d never been in trouble, except that one time I’d been caught speeding but the officer had agreed to tear up the ticket, that said, "What’s the problem, officers?"
I quickly realized it wasn’t the rest of us they had an issue with, only Godfrey. The cop’s eyes found mine for just a second before sliding back to Godfrey’s. Rage flickered in them. "Nothing you need to worry about," the cop told me. "Come with us," he ordered Godfrey. Godfrey stood there frozen, the ball in his hands.
"Now hold up, he hasn’t done anything," I said. "We’re just playing basketball. Unless that’s illegal, now."
All you could hear was the rain pattering on shoulders and asphalt. "No, sir, it’s not," the cop told me with frozen cordiality. "Assaulting an officer of the law, though… that is. Come on," he commanded Godfrey again. Godfrey’s head bowed, and he took a step forward. There had been no talk of going to the stationing for questioning, I noticed, and I had a nauseating premonition that no questions would be asked.
"Wait," I told him, "don’t go with them."
But Godfrey didn’t have a choice. Twenty-six years old and black, never even graduated middle school, brought up in the wrong part of town. This had been a long time coming. He dribbled once, then turned and launched the long three. Swish. The ball bounced to a rest beneath the hoop. No one moved to collect it. Godfrey smiled, sadly, and walked off, an officer flanking him on either side.
When the public learned what happened to Godfrey, there was an outcry. Receiving scant mention in the papers, what the police spokesperson called the ‘regrettable incident’ was supposedly instigated by one Jerome Godfrey, who’d had the nerve to assault two officers of the peace. The community, especially Godfrey’s church, called bullshit, to the thorough disinterest of the authorities. Underlying every communiqué and press conference on the matter was the sense that, while the circumstances of the "incident" were contrived, this was still justice. Jerome Godfrey, we had to acknowledge, was not unstained. Apparently Godfrey had busted a cop in the head with a forty the very night before, leaving the man in blue groaning on the pavement, head surrounded by a red moat. Even granting that, his church felt it an outrage. This wasn’t even eye for an eye, it was an eye for everything, a whole body wrecked beneath a savage drum fill of nightsticks. The sense of wastefulness made the whole affair even more depressing. "A shame," is what everybody called it.
I went a little further than that. I saw it as gross criminality and brutality at the hands of law enforcement, an atrocity laced with a vile racial component, a black guy catching a beating where a white wouldn’t, because somebody who mattered would have spoken up. My girlfriend listened to these rants thoughtfully, not once telling me to get over it because she could see that I was trying to exonerate myself. I was guilty and deeply ashamed, and the reason why wasn’t clear. But I couldn’t forget the way those two white faces had looked alongside Godfrey’s brown face.
I kept away from the courts for awhile. I didn’t feel like playing. Basketball had always been a preserve, a fabricated but sanctified space where the real world did not intrude. Everything’s so clear on the basketball court. You’ve got in bounds and out, a line to tell you what the shot is worth. There are rules and regulations – sometimes ignored, but present and fundamentally respected. Even when the other guy made a bullshit call, and you argued, you could see in his eyes he knew he was wrong. Right, wrong, two points or three. Fouls or no-calls, in bounds or out. You knew where you stood.
That was out, now. I was sure Tariq, Donte, and the others – no matter how decent they’d been before – wouldn’t have wanted to see me. It was a time when you’d look in the mirror and notice your skin, really notice that color, and it would make you feel something. It wasn’t just arbitrary, a random ration of melanin, but somehow significant, like it said something deeply true about yourself. I didn’t like what I was hearing.
So I stayed away. I went to work, watched TV, tried not to think about anything. My girlfriend and I spent whole evenings seducing each other, starting with dinner’s first preparations and ending past midnight in bed, spasming helplessly. But I would always hear the city afterwards, as she slept: the voices and the laughter, the sirens and horns.
One day I was depressed, and I knew that all my other cures wouldn’t work. So I dug out my hightops and laced up, dribbling to the courts and taking care not to bounce the ball off the cracks in the sidewalks. It was a long summer night, and a coppery dusk had fallen across the court. The hoop’s shadow stretched all the way to the three point line. I shot, squinting into the setting sun, listening to my own breath and my sneakers scraping the pavement.
After awhile, once I’d slipped into a trance, Godfrey came gimping onto the court. He moved like an old NBA vet who’d played before sports medicine and so carried his career of bumps and bruises in his joints, his gait. What once was a study in grace, a body completely at ease with itself, was now a shambles. He nodded at me like we’d seen each other yesterday, and as I nodded back, I tried not to stare at his nose, which had taken a new shape since I’d seen him last. He began shooting alongside me without a word. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, noticing the strange hitch in his shot, the stiff way he moved his right wrist. Then he asked me if I wanted to play one-on-one. I’d been hoping he wouldn’t, but I couldn’t say no. So I shot for ball, missed, and he took it out from the top.
He was terrible. His first step was pitiful, his burst gone entirely. Godfrey moved in slow-time, as if this amber light was a new and viscous medium for him to wade through. Even his shot, once so reliable, betrayed him. What made it worse was that he still calculated angles and vectors I couldn’t even conceive – his body simply couldn’t realize them. I beat him, and it was easy. At 10-0, at risk of shutting him out, I clanked a floater in the lane I never usually missed. He collected the carom and brought the ball out, then chugged back into the lane on weak knees. I saw it happening, knew exactly where I needed to be to stop the drive… but couldn’t. At the last instant I slowed just enough for Godfrey to squeak by and hop for a weak finger roll. I’d let him score, and we both knew it. I was so embarrassed that when the game mercifully ended on the next point, I fled the court without saying a word. I wanted to talk to him about what had happened, ask him if he was alright, or at least on the way to it – but instead I left, and he remained, practicing his jumper, searching for his lost genius in the bounce of a ball and the rip of a net, remembering those afternoons on the courts when the ball was in his hands and he could go left, right, anywhere he wanted and the man across from him couldn’t do a thing about it, and they knew it, and he knew it, and you could hear nets snapping before the ball even left your hand.
Selected for publication as part of the Rufus on Fire Basketball Fiction Contest