Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Final Score

I used to collect basketball trading cards, despite never buying a single pack myself. I won them. One week of every summer from five to 12 years old, I would go to the basketball camp put on by the high school I would eventually go to and play basketball for. The girls’ coach happened to be my dad’s nephew-in-law. What probably started as a way to support family became a tradition that set me up to fall in love with the game.

Each day at camp we would play “Coach Maya Says.” It was Coach Maya’s basketball spin-off of Simon says. There were certain actions you would perform that related to a basketball term. Jump and yell “Rebound!” when Coach Maya said rebound. Slide in the direction he pointed and yell “Slide! Slide!” when Coach Maya said slide. Fall backward when he yelled, “Take a charge!” The most used command was to get into a defensive position and yell, “DEFENSE!” when Coach Maya said breakdown. If you performed the wrong action, did the action when he just stated the action rather than saying Coach Maya says or did a flinchy or a wiggly you were out. The final three contestants won the coveted pack of basketball cards he would carry around in his pocket. 

Over the years I probably collected around 150 cards. Most of them have made their way to the trash or are packed away into boxes in the room I grew up in. With my parents getting ready to move, my winter break was spent packing up my childhood bedroom which has been emptied and turned into the new storage space. Out of all the basketball cards I collected I never once got a female player. In fact, the first sports trading card I got with a female athlete on it was this Christmas. I was shocked when I opened a Tobin Heath soccer trading card and all I could say to my mom was “I didn’t even know they made these.”

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna

Two weeks after the death of Kobe I am still processing. The initial shock, the wave of grief, and the fists shook at heaven are all gone. But now I am left with the questions. I wasn’t close to Kobe. I never got to meet him, his daughter Gianna, or any of the seven other victims whose lives were tragically taken by the helicopter crash. To be honest, I wasn’t even a big fan of Kobe until his career was nearly over. And I will never be caught saying that I am a Lakers fan. 

I did, however, hold the utmost respect for the way he approached his career; his work ethic was second to none. In high school, I used to rewatch a video of his at least once a week for motivation. My favorite was footage of him training while he talked about how the beauty of any craft was mastering the fundamentals, before going into a monologue of how in the off-season he would start his first training session at 4 am.

Kobe's devotion to the game made the comments from others slowly disappear. I didn't feel ashamed of spending hours breaking down footage of top players shooting in slow motion or practicing the same move over and over until I could do it perfectly nine out of ten times. I didn't feel as strange for preferring to watch the Phoenix Suns as often as their games were shown on cable.

He also supported women’s basketball more than any other current or former NBA player during the last few years. Kobe and Gianna would frequent WNBA games, women’s college games, and he coached Gianna’s AAU basketball team. When he was on Jimmy Kimmel, he told the story of how he responds when people tell him that he needs to have a son to carry on his basketball legacy. He proudly states that Gianna is the one to do so and the father of four girls wouldn’t have it any other way.

Questions about what could have been for Gianna have started to fade from my mind. I have no doubt she would have had a successful career at UCONN, the most successful college basketball program, winning a national championship (or multiple), before going on to be the number one draft pick in the WNBA. Her talent and love for the game of basketball were undeniable. And I know Kobe would have been there for the whole journey. Instead, those questions have been turned inward. I think of Kobe’s oscar-winning animated short film: Dear Basketball. Basketball was so good to him. Basketball what were you for me?

Despite my face in this photo, I was ecstatic to get a Steve Nash Jersey for my 10th birthday.
When my fifth-grade teacher found out that the Phoenix Suns point guard was my favorite basketball player, the one who I would try to emulate on the school playground, she confided in me that he was her favorite player too. One day after school she gave me a box full of cutouts from basketball magazines of action shots of Steve Nash. I arranged them on the wall across from my bed, forming a shrine of my basketball inspiration. I remember my mom coming in, excited to see what this player I raved about looked like; she was expecting a dreamboat. Why else would her ten-year-old daughter insist on watching every game? 

That’s him? That’s the player you like? Meija he’s not even cute.

That was likely the moment my mom realized, I actually really did like basketball.

Ticket from a recent U of A women's basketball game I dragged my friends to
My dad and I used to go to nearly all the home games for the New Mexico State Women’s Basketball team. Since the team didn’t attract a large following, seats normally reserved for season ticket holders were free for the taking. We would sit a row behind the bench to listen to the feedback coaches would give players and try to eavesdrop on the huddle during time outs. My dad would chime in on what players were doing well, what I should try to emulate. I think a part of him hoped I would be on that team one day; He would have been proud.  

In Tucson, I can’t even get close to sitting near the bench. Most games I sit near the top so I can see over the sea of people in front of me. The energy in McKale is second to none, especially when playing the top ten ranked teams like UCLA. There’s something about 7,000 people cheering on a group of badass women that gets me so fired up. This season our girls are ranked higher than our men’s team, for the first time ever, but it’s a surprise to most students I talk to that the team is even doing well.

My dad coaching a 3v3 tournament. Our team name was the "Bad Girlz" and we made our jerseys ourselves.
Basketball is my dad’s favorite sport. He was my coach up until I got to middle school and even when he wasn’t my coach he was my coach in the stands and on the drive home from practice and games. There are very few things my dad enjoyed more than coaching.

Basketball was the main way my dad and I bonded. I was the only one out of his three kids who actually liked and played the sport for more than a year. To this day, it’s one of the only topics we can carry on a conversation about. I have so many memories of practicing together and playing one on one in our driveway with the hoop we assembled together. We used to pretend to be NBA players and try out moves we would see in games we watched together in the living room. I remember the proud look on his face the first time I beat him in a game of twenty-one where he was trying his hardest to stop me from winning. All the times we listened to country music or 70s rock in the white Chevy pickup truck on the way to games and tournaments. He would let me help pick out the uniforms for each season, and our team name, the sharks (my favorite animal as a kid), was my idea. For three on three tournaments, dad would sit at the kitchen table with me and my teammates, and help us make our own jerseys.

But because it was the place we spent the most time together in, it was also the space that our other issues were brought into and half dealt with. There were a lot of times I cried during or after our conversations on the way home. By the time I got to high school, I was burnt out with basketball; I had played fall, spring, and summer seasons since I was eight years old. When I told my dad I didn’t want to play anymore, he told me I was just lazy and needed to grow up. So I showed up every day for three more years, growing hatred towards the game and what it had turned my relationship with my dad into. It brought me to a breaking point. None of my friends were still on the team. The coaches were brutal and constantly used contempt in their conversations with us. My relationship with my dad was being held together by the frailest thread of common interest. In November of my senior year, I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit the day after the final cuts were made. My dad barely talked to me in the following weeks because he was so disappointed in me.

Legendary UNC Men's Basketball Coach Dean Smith who won 2 National Championships and coaches Michael Jordan.
The University of North Carolina is one of the most famous schools for men's basketball. With six national championships under their belt, and Michael Jordan as their most famous alumnus, it's easy to see why. I mean, when an annoying Duke fan tries to give any reason why they are better, all you have to say is "Michael Jordan" and you win. My dad is a UNC fan purely because of Michael.

I'm a UNC fan because of coach Dean Smith, who I never actually watched coach. What drew me in support of the Tarheels was actually coach Smith's comments on the women's soccer program. The Tarheel's soccer team has won 21 of the 38 NCAA national championships and has produced more beloved USA National Team players than any other program.

In 1997 Dean Smith did an interview with Football News Daily. Coach Smith said, "This is a women's soccer school. We're just trying to keep up with them." That comment meant everything to ten-year-old Yasmene, always the only girl trying to play basketball during recess with the boys.

One of my all-time favorite books: Brittney Griner's memoir In My Skin.
I didn’t know non-fiction could be more than textbooks before I read In My Skin by WNBA player Brittney Griner. I ordered the book during my freshman year of high school, hoping that her words would provide some insight for how I could swiftly make my way onto the varsity basketball team. What I found instead was a story I could relate to. I saw the story of a young girl with a turbulent relationship with her father, whose safe haven from him and her bullies was sports, and a secret about her identity that needed to be vocalized. It was the story I needed to hear to know that I wasn’t alone.

Finding a part of my story in Brittney’s story led me to read other memoirs written by athletes. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this essay or any sort of creative essay, if it wasn’t for reading athlete memoirs. During my freshman year of college, I decided I wanted to take a creative writing class and intro to creative non-fiction was the only one that fit into my schedule. I didn’t know much about creative non-fiction at the time, but I knew I loved reading people’s stories, especially athletes like Brittney or soccer star Abby Wambach. So I gave it a shot and ended up falling in love with the craft.

The legendary coach of UCLA John Wooden. He won 10 national championships with a record of 7 straight

Coach Geno Auriemma cutting the net after winning another NCAA Championship
My favorite coach is Geno Auriemma. When I say this, mostly to white men, their response is usually along the lines that I must not really be a college basketball fan. John Wooden, not a women’s coach is the goat.

The Italian immigrant who didn’t even play college basketball knows how to win; He has over 1,000 career wins (and under 200 losses) and 11 national championships. My favorite thing about Geno is that he is the kind of coach who doesn’t put up with B.S. He runs the tightest ship in the NCAA without a doubt. One year during the NCAA tournament he benched his best player, Breanna Stewart. During the press conferences, reporters kept asking why he would do such a thing, reasoning that it must have been to motivate her or give her time to rest for the next game. He responded by talking about the premium he and his coaching staff put on body language; if your body language is bad you don’t get in the game, no matter how good you are. “Stewie was acting like a twelve-year-old. So I put her on the bench and said sit there. It doesn’t matter on our team… I’d rather lose.

About a month ago I came across an article WNBA player Breanna Stewart wrote for the Players Tribune during the height of the me-too movement. I was baffled that this was the first time I had come across it despite Stewie being one of my favorite players. But I think we see things when we’re ready to see them, and had I read this story two years ago I would not have been ready.

I reread that article three times that night, alone in the dark while the rest of my house was quietly (minus the snores from the dog in the adjacent room) sleeping. I saw myself in Stewie’s story; for the first time, it felt like my story was being told to me. Young. A known abuser. Freezing in fear. Basketball serving a safe space, a time to feel in control of one’s own body. I wasn’t alone in this being a part of my story.

An article by the New York Times following the death of Kobe Bryant 
I wasn’t old enough to know about the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case when it was initially going on. Amid his death, some people angrily talk about the way justice wasn’t served. They are hurt, rightly so, and want this case to color how we remember Kobe. I agree and I also disagree.

As I woman, I have a hard time believing that another woman would lie about something like this; It’s so painful to talk about, I just can’t see someone putting themselves through that pain and scrutiny for no reason.

Kobe was in the wrong for assaulting this woman. His response doesn’t account for the wrong done, but I do appreciate his response of acknowledging the pain of his victim, not dismissing her. Did he get our of a case because he was rich and famous? Maybe. Should there have been more serious consequences? Probably. But I’m hesitant to let this be the first thing I think of when I remember Kobe ten years from now. I’m also hesitant to erase this from how we remember him; it’s not fair to the young woman who was damaged by this encounter. I hope I can remember him as a human who played basketball, not as a basketball player with an elevated, can do no wrong position, and not just as someone who committed sexual assault with no real consequences.

The game of basketball is black and white. You don’t get half points for hitting the rim or for good form. You either make the shot or you don’t. You either win or you lose. The record books say Michael scored 63 points on April 20, 1986, and that the Bulls lost to the Celtics 131 to 135 in overtime. They do not record that he played with the flu.

What you were for me though is not black and white. You were my first love. I didn't need anyone to convince me to invest or practice. Backyard games of horse and 21 were the most fun. You taught me how to work hard and to keep going when I thought I had nothing left in the tank. I also hated you. I hated the way my dad’s failed expectations of me and our relationship was projected onto the game. I hated the way my teammate’s cutthroat nature was empty of friendship; the way I was outcasted while injured. I hated the way the coach’s condescending yell was just another space to be told I was not good enough.

Maybe this is what I’m trying to do with this cabinet. Collect the stats, add up the black and the white, and figure out what the final score is. I’m searching for the blend of the good and the bad, the perfectly nuanced shade of grey to give me the answers to the questions that can’t be solved by checking the books.

1 comment:

  1. I respect what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back however I would expect by every one of the remarks this is working for you also. kobe jersey for sale