Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Town I Live In: Of Mice and Ballers

One of the many humiliations I faced during my junior high years was being on a basketball team in Fullerton called “All Net.”

I had played on normal NJB (National Junior Basketball) teams for a couple years with limited success. I was a short, skinny, non-aggressive kid, so the only position it made sense of me to play was point guard. But, even to be a mediocre point guard, you must be sort of aggressive, and I was not.

It didn’t really make sense for me to join the All-Net team, which was basically like the all stars of he NJB league. I was, by no means, all-star material.

I think I ended up on the team because I had some friends on it and my dad was the assistant coach. Also, my older brother was a true all star. He’d played All Net with great success in junior high and he was already, as a sophomore at Fullerton High School, on the varsity basketball team. He was tall and strong and aggressive. But, perhaps out of a desire to “keep up” with my brother, I joined the All Net team.

From the very first practice, I knew I was out of my league. The other guys were bigger, louder, more confident, more aggressive, and more skilled than me. I very quickly lost all confidence and, whenever I got the ball, I would freeze up out of sheer anxiety. Because of my less-than-impressive performance at practice, the coach had me ride the bench most of the season.

Sometimes, probably out of an obligation to my dad, he would put me in for a few minutes here and there. But mostly I rode the bench, along with my friend Arie.

I’d gone to elementary school with Arie and, while he was more outgoing and popular than me, we shared a connection—we were both smart kids, like straight-A students, which, in the fucked-up world of junior high, is not a badge of honor. I remember having random conversations with Arie, as we fumbled our way through practices, and as we sat on the bench during games. At least I was not alone. We shared a common humiliation.

One conversation stands out in my memory. I had recently watched the movie “Of Mice and Men.” I don’t remember why. Looking back, it’s a strange movie choice for a junior higher. I was more into movies like “Ace Ventura.” But I absolutely loved “Of Mie and Men.” I remember telling Arie about it as we rode the bench one Saturday afternoon.

“It’s awesome. There’s these two guys, one is smart and one is really dumb, but they kind of help each other through the Great Depression.”

After the game, Arie and I watched “Of Mice and Men.” At the time, I couldn’t articulate exactly why I loved this movie so much. But, looking back, I can see how it applied to my life, and to me and Arie’s predicament. We were George and Lenny, together in a really shitty situation, but also kind of helping each other. Steinbeck writes, “We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.”

Steinbeck’s story takes the familiar expression “Are we mice or are we men?” and turns it on its head. The real heroes of the story are not the aggressive, loud, hard-nosed men, but the gentle ones, the downtrodden, the “mice.”

I suppose it’s no coincidence that, around this time, I began to lose interest in competitive sports like basketball, football, and baseball. I began to discover other interests that better suited me: music (I taught myself to play the guitar), running, and (a bit later) reading and writing.

By the time I graduated High School, I couldn’t tell you who was in the NBA playoffs or the World Series or the Super Bowl or how many yards so-and-so carried. I didn’t give a shit. I had other interests.

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