Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Professor’s Game

So I’m running up and down the court.  Score 44 to 46.  Two twenty-minute halves.  We’re down two but have the ball with a minute to go.  ‘Little Mouse,’ a bespeckled Victorian Era professor, dribbles lazily at the three point line, more like slapping the leather that sounds like a puppy lapping up water.  I hear it beating as I jab left and sprint up right past the baseline, curl around the top as he whips me a pass.  I catch.  Pivot.  Square up and check the clock.
I’m twenty feet out.  Clock ticking down.  In front of me is a five man zone.  I know it like the face of an old friend.    Clogging the lane.  Collapsing.  Cutting off my angle.  No matter.  I’ve scored the last eight points.  Three minutes ago we were down eleven.  Then I started shooting.  No matter what, I’m shooting now.   That’s when I hear it.  ‘Peg Leg.’  The Walking Turnover.  Hobbles across the key and claps repeatedly in my face, “Hey maaa-aaan!” He slurs in broken slang, “Pass…da…rock!”  
The professor’s game took me by surprise.  Every Friday night up in the old university gym that looks more like a converted barn.  High brick walls.  Steel bars across the windows.  Fake wood floor laid over cement.  The first time I entered the building and saw the hoops, actually realized I was going to be playing competitive basketball here, I felt like flying.  That is, until I saw the teams.
I had been invited by the Chair of the Agricultural Department, a bulky behemoth hayseed in straw hat chewing on a grass blade who partnered with a couple of young tenured giants from Engineering.  All three could stand on tippy-toes and grab the net with their teeth, easy.  They told me, every Friday night, university professors play Inter-department games.   Psychology vs. Business.  Law vs. Medicine.  They said the English Department was looking for players.  Their team was… “Unique,” he explained.  I was ecstatic.  Finally… my people!  Able minded pedantics.  Appreciators of the fine arts.  What could our team name be:  The Jonathon SwiftsThe ‘Nothin’ but Net’-haniel Hawthornes?  My hopes were quickly crushed like a slam dunk to the face.
The English Department team was made up of the motliest crew of mumblers and bumblers you’ve ever seen.  There was 'Grease Lightning' an Aboriginal pygmy who planned to play barefoot and his apparent domestic partner, a shy poetess named 'Bunny' who screamed in bloody terror the first time I showed her a ball.  Our Starting Five looked as promising. 
There was 'Chalk Stick,' our center, a Classics teacher who was so old and brittle when he moved (that’s describing it generously) crusty clouds of dust hung wafting in the air.  Then our power forward, the aforementioned “Little Mouse” and my personal favorite, small forward,  'Cyclopes,' a comparative mythology specialist with an actual glass eye… I know.  I know… I didn’t believe it either until he yelled FREEZE in the lay-up line and saw it rolling under my feet.  But to top it all off, the most incredible specimen, was our shooting guard, 'Peg Leg,' the Modern Lit teacher. 
Yes, he had a wooden leg, tucked neatly into a size seven Chuck Taylor high top, the victim of an unfortunate monkey mauling as a boy.  He’d grown up idolizing Martial Arts and Blaxploitation movies from the 70’s and would say things like, “Slip… me… skin… Brotha!” and “Hey… Jive… Turkey.”  But what made it worse (could if possibly get any worse?) was that 'Peg Leg' was a total chucker… I mean, a real Black Hole.  Instead of discussing Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or having him introduce my to Asia's greatest writers to me, he spent every moment together explaining how I could get him a shot.  He demanded the ball on every possession.  Clapping in my face… shouting at me from across the key… every time, hands out, demanding in a slow broken drawl…”Hey maaa-aaaan!  Pass…da…rock!” 
I’ve never seen a player have such a diverse ability to give the ball away to the other team.  He passed it to them, handed it to them, seemed to will the ball mid-air into their grasp… and of course, he dribbled it off his wooden leg.  But each time he’d come back for more, “Hey maaa-aaan!”  So on that final possession, after clawing and fighting our way back, I decided to give him one last chance.  The final shot.  I held the ball and waited as precious seconds ticked away.  Down to twenty…then fifteen…then ten.  Then in one quick move I drop-stepped hard to the right and dribbled left, collapsing the defense upon me.   Suddenly turning, with less than five seconds on the clock, I shuffled the pass back to ‘Peg Leg’ who caught the ball in one perfect motion, his shooting hands ready, he lifted his arms and let the ball sail upwards toward the goal...
 The block sounded like a car crash.  One of the Engineering teachers swatted the ball so hard it took out two rows of wooden bleachers and still had enough force to bounce back on the other side of the court.  He made sure and chased the ball down leading to a celebratory dunk at the other end.  I stood and watched and sighed, then helped ‘Peg Leg’ up.  “That guy…is …jive, man.”  He slurred, rubbing his jaw.
I nodded. 
As I was leaving, the Agriculture Chair was laughing mercilessly with his team, telling me to come back anytime, my team needed me. That got quite a laugh.  Then he got serious, asking why I passed on the final shot, “You had the hot hand.  We couldn’t stop you.”
I smiled, “A guy with a wooden leg needs a break sometimes, you know?”
He laughed nervously and patted my back, “I don’t get it.”
“Exactly,” I said, “See you next week.”


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