Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Last Sky Hook

I’m watching my favorite basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on TV lope up the court, his long arms dangling on either side of him, his face impassive. Setting up to the left of the basket, he takes a pass and shoots his patented “sky” hook shot: thrusting off his left foot, his body rises above the court, torso twisting right, right arm following in an arc. As his arm reaches the top of its semicircular path, above his seven-foot-two-inch frame, the ball gently rolls off his fingertips – almost more magic trick than athletic feat.
After the game, I go outside and shoot sky hooks at the basket nailed to the roof above the garage. I’m careful to execute each sky hook exactly as Kareem does, even though it’s bordering on the preposterous for a five-foot-something 12-year-old to be attempting a shot designed to maximize the height advantage of a man more than seven feet tall – even if I am tall for my age.
To mimic the sky hook, I record the physical Kareem in my memory and my muscles, but it’s Kareem’s soul that I identify with. He’s like me. In the course of battle he remains composed, tuned inward. His stoic face conceals inner emotion. In interviews, he speaks softly and uncomfortably, but, beneath, thoughts bubble.
Kareem’s non-conformity – his conversion to the Black Muslim faith and name change, abrasive as they may have been to the majority – inspires feelings of kinship in me, a Midwestern Jewish kid.

Kareem had been in the NBA four seasons and had already won one championship when his Milwaukee Bucks faced off against the legendary Boston Celtics in the 1973-74 NBA Finals. My best friend Steve Gurevitch was rooting for the Celtics. His mother was from Boston; his father met her there when he attended Harvard; and Steve, as he liked to remind me whenever the subject of allegiance came up, was born in Boston. Steve seemed to believe he was destined to go to Harvard, as his father had. And, with a similar confidence, he was certain the Celtics – proven winners – would defeat the Bucks.
Both the Celtics and Gurevitches were bound by pride. The very first time I stepped into the Gurevitch home, Steve and his younger sister Karen whisked me into the kitchen to play their four-year-old brother Stuart in chess. The wunderkind beat me handily, which they reported gleefully to their mother. Throughout Stuart’s massacre and its humiliating aftermath, however, Steve and Karen insisted on ignoring one small, pertinent piece of information: I didn’t know how to play chess.
With the House of Gurevitch backing the Celtics, I tried hard to will Kareem and the Bucks to victory. I pressed the Bucks’ case with Tim Donohoo, my friend from up the street and yet another Celtics supporter, as we shot baskets in his driveway.
“How can the Celtics beat the Bucks with Kareem?” I said. “He’s the leading scorer and rebounder in the league.”
“Jabbar’s lazy,” Tim replied. “Watch him. He doesn’t run hard up the court. He’s not like Cowens. Cowens dives after balls. Cowens hustles. He’ll be able to handle Jabbar.”
Desperate to defend Kareem’s honor, I cited a recent Sports Illustrated article on Boston’s star center:
“Cowens holds head-butting contests with people for the fun of it, and he went to Florida State University. He’s a real hick.”
The series turned out to be very close. In Game Six in Boston Kareem gunned down the Celtics in the game’s last seconds with the sky hook. All Milwaukee had to do to win the series was beat Boston on the Bucks’ home court.
But between the sixth and final games, the Celtics’ brain trust of past NBA champions gathered in Boston to figure out how to stop Kareem and the Bucks in decisive Game Seven. They devised a strategy to place a pesky Celtic like Cowens or John Havlicek in front of the Big Man to make it difficult for the Bucks guards to lob the ball into him.
The shrewd strategy worked. I lay listless on the carpet in front of the TV after the Celtics 15-point drubbing of the Bucks, wondering how the Lilliputian Celtics could have taken down giant Kareem. Maybe the Celtics’ victory was preordained. As I suffered for Kareem and myself, I knew Steve was reveling in Boston’s triumph.
The Celtics’ family had taken care of things. Somewhere in my brain Celtic pride and Gurevitch pride became enmeshed.
As the season and the mood changed from basketball to baseball, Steve put on the baseball cleats I had bequeathed him the year before with the dried, cracked mud still cleaving to the soles in between the metal cleats. He wanted them as a hand-me-down to save money. I told him they wouldn’t fit him in a year. He insisted they would, and, as usual, he was right.
That summer the powers-that-be at Kansas City’s Jewish Community Center invited me, a home-run-hitting star at the Center, to play on a team that would, for the first time, represent the JCC in a metro league. Meanwhile Steve, a fellow JCC ball player, had already decided, to my surprise, to break completely with the homeland and try his luck in another, more challenging, city league, unrelated to the Center.
My excitement over being chosen for the elite JCC team soon turned to disappointment when I learned that I wouldn’t be starting. I began each game on the bench with the coach behind the tall fence that enclosed the field, watching the other players like a little boy left behind by his older siblings who’ve gone out on a Saturday night. Later on in the game I would pinch hit, striking out to one of the other team’s superior players, then trot out to left field where I would stand in the grass for a few innings, watching as the fly balls arched high above me, taunting me to turn around and chase after them.
            Frustrated with my trivial role on the team, I told my mother I was going to quit. After she relayed my plans to my father, he called me from work for the first time ever.
“Mother told me you want to quit the team,” he said.
“Well … uh … I hardly get to play,” I answered. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to go to practice when I barely play in the games.”
“Danny, I really don’t want to see you quit,” he insisted. “You’ve never quit anything before … except your trombone lessons.”
I didn’t quit. While I climbed back from the ledge of surrender, Steve grappled with a similar fate. On his team he, too, bore the ignominy of the late-inning, substitute left fielder. Now, at least, I had someone to commiserate with. Then one day at his house he related a startling development.
“I’m pitching, now,” he announced.
“What? How did that happen?” I asked in wonderment. I imagined Steve on the mound, a little guy, cocking his arm, grimacing and firing a fastball, striking out an unsuspecting batter.
“The pitcher got hurt,” he explained. “The coaches asked if anybody could pitch. I said that I could, so they tried me out. They started me on Monday, and I pitched a one-hitter.”
This could only happen to Steve, I thought. Placed in a crappy situation, he steps forward and turns into Sandy Koufax!
Summer ended too soon, as it always did. My mother called me in one still-sunlit evening, the last night before school started – the last night girls really didn’t matter.
The next day I would begin junior high school and enter a thicket of libidinal arousal and social discomfort: cheerleaders with green underpants peaking out from under short skirts; school dances; cloying couples; reports of making out and hickeys. By comparison, the return to Hebrew school was like a reunion with an old friend – a weird old friend.
We had been together four years: Jewish kids at home with each other, bound by the shared resentment of being sent to Hebrew school against our will. Over the years we had paired off into preadolescent couplings: Susie Green and Jill Weiner; Karen Berg and Debbie Morgenstern; Stacey Bernstein and Joan Feld; Jim Aronsky and Jeff Isaacson; Jim Meyers and Mark Silver; and Steve and I. It remained to be seen whether our delicate male-with-male, female-with-female arrangement would be upended by the introduction of new, raging hormones.
            I don’t know if it was due to fact or to my emerging attention to the matter, but some of the Hebrew school girls had become a lot better looking since the year before.
One late Thursday afternoon that fall I walked into the classroom before class had started to find Stacey, Joan and Jennifer Lowenstein in the middle of the room dancing to their own rendition of the then current Doobie Brothers single, “Black Water” – swinging their arms, swaying their hips and tapping their feet to the sassy rhythm.
Jennifer, easily the shortest person in the class, had on her platform “sneakers” – sneaker uppers perched on top of thick, five-inch-high mountains of cream-colored sole. At times like that I wished I had the guts to say something funny, as I would when breaking up the class with a well-timed wise crack.
At approximately 5:15 every Tuesday and Thursday the kids and the teacher would get a short break – time enough for each side to re-arm. At one of those intermissions that fall the guys filed out of the classroom and gathered as usual in front of a window opposite the second-floor classrooms. The last vestiges of sunlight weakly lighting the hallway reminded us that we could be home watching re-runs.
The girls followed us out the room. We watched them enter the hallway, turn right and head for the bathrooms. Customarily we would continue our conversation, but this time one of us decided to ignore tradition. Steve, an elbow propped against the window sill, began talking animatedly to one of the girls stepping into the hallway. The rest of us watched Steve, subdued.
Basketball returned in the late fall. Kareem was injured for part of the season, and the Bucks finished in last place in the Midwest Division. (The following year, acceding to his demands, Milwaukee traded Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles, while the Celtics won another championship.)
I continued perfecting my sky hook in the Jewish Community Center league and friends’ driveways. It came to feel very familiar like a trusty old impression of an entertainer or politician. Sometimes I would try it from far away – from the street, say, at Tim Donohoo’s house. When I made those shots I felt like Houdini.
It’s a funny shot the sky hook. The shooter must overcome the shot’s inherent imbalance – the player off on one foot, holding the ball in the air with one hand like a waiter bringing an entrĂ©e, aiming the ball slightly to the left as the body swings right.
Shooting the sky hook entails, as well, becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: summoning his agility and lean strength, being, for a moment, the hero. But being Kareem starts with the sky hook – his designated weapon, the shot he alone took. And only the wild imagination of a child would consider employing a weapon reserved for so towering a figure. Anyway, that year the gates were closing on fantasy.