“Hold on. Wait a minute…How did you do that? This is hard,” I said looking over at Charlie. Boyish. Tough. She was my older, taller, light-skin cousin, with skinny legs and pigtails hanging from the side of her head, wearing blue cotton shorts and a colorful T-shirt that was popular during that time in the early 1990s.
She tossed the ball up at the hoop with ease, and nearly every time, the ball went through the middle of the iron circle parallel to the unevenly paved ground. She was around eight years old and I was five. I was a skinny little brown-skin girl living in my own world, the opposite of precocious. I didn’t quite possess the curious nature of most kids. I was just happy that I could tie my shoe on my own and run like the wind. I’d run just to run. I’d run just because I could run fast and when I’d tire, I’d sit down and take a rest.
On the basketball court that day I thought I’d get to run around all happy-go-lucky, but Charlie was all business, drilling my little brother Goody and I on the most basic basketball skills. Goody was about 4 years old. He stood idly by, not concerned as much about making a basket. He probably would have rather been doing something else. Charlie, an only child, had no one to play with and we were the only two cousins around that day. She was obsessed with basketball back then and didn’t want to play alone. She came into the house, where we were playing on grandma’s floor and dragged us out of the house to play with her. It was a sunny day, the perfect day for a kid to play outside, but she had to plead with our mom to let us accompany her.
Mom hesitated to let us out of her sight—even if it was just to go across the street; that’s where the court was. There wasn’t a person in sight on the playground that day. It would be just the three of us and those three hoops erected from metal gooseneck poles, bolted into the ground. Initially, we weren’t exactly thrilled to go. We knew when we first saw her that day that’s what she wanted to do. She had that damn ball in her hand again. She took it everywhere, to the grocery store, riding her bike, she probably ate dinner with it next to her. With no brother or sister, she always craved company. We had never played basketball a day in our lives. We didn’t know what to expect. And whatever basketball was, we knew we couldn’t keep up with Charlie.
“Come on, Aunt Niecy. I won’t let them get hurt. I’m going to show them how to play,” she told mom. She was so passionate about teaching us that her excitement rubbed off on us and we began pleading with mom too.
Mom finally gave in after a while. “Okay, Charlie. They can go.” Charlie wasn’t her real name, but she had a round head and rosy red face; she looked like Charlie Brown when she was a baby. Mom nicknamed her Apple-Head Charlie.
She wasn’t kidding about teaching us basketball either. All she needed was a whistle and an official title: Coach. She treated us like we were on a high school varsity basketball team. At five years old, it took me dozens of tries before I knocked in a shot, standing right under the hoop. Goody had a few go’s at a layup but he didn’t try too hard. It was a struggle for me and with him being shorter and younger, it must have definitely been harder for him. When we started to make more shots, she told us to step back and take longer shots. She had us launching up shots from the free-throw line the very first day within the very first half-hour.
Maybe that’s why I remember that day. Making a shot from the free-throw line, about 15 feet from the hoop was the most physically impossible thing I could do at the time. To get the ball to the hoop from there would have taken about twice the strength I could muster up that day, even with a running start and jumping into the shot. Every single shot I took from free-throw range was an airball. I never got close to making a goal. But the more I missed, the more and the harder I tried, to no avail.
Just when I was getting the hang of it, getting the ball closer and closer to the hoop, mom yelled from the porch for us to call it quits that day. I don’t know how long we were out there, 45 minutes, or an hour, or longer. It was long enough to break a sweat, but most importantly, we had so much fun that it was enough for us to lose track of time. I was in kindergarten. I had probably walked past those hoops hundreds of times going to and from school, never noticing them or inquiring about what you did with them, but from that day forward, Goody and I came back to the court day after day: in the sun, in the rain, in the snow, in cold so rigid it made your lungs burn inside of your chest and you perceived the taste of blood in your mouth as your heart rate increased.
It wasn’t the official game of basketball. There was a basketball. There was a hoop. There was an outdoor gray asphalt court with yellow lines to mark important points on the court dictated by game rules. But it wasn’t really basketball. There were no guards, no forwards, no centers, no offenses to run, no defensive schemes. There were no coaches. The best you could get was a random guy walking across the extensive playground encased by chain-linked fences, next to the single-level red and brown staggered-brick school building we attended, who’d yell out to you in a moment of advisement as he passed. Just as the rubber ball you just shot at the hoop clanked hard off of the doubled rims, extending from the white backboard he’d yell, “hey youngblood, you gotta work on that form! You gotta get that elbow in. Put some arch on that thang.”
The ball, somehow, always landed right in his hands effortlessly when he came within a few feet of you tossing the ball. Of course, he’d take a shot that would miss but wouldn’t miss as bad as you had. And you’d wonder how a dude who you’ve noticed hang a lit cigarette from his lips and who’s wearing an oversized short set, brown and tan, made of some heavy fabric that seems to be unfit for the eighty-degree dry weather, can chuck up a better shot than you.
But it wasn’t always about making the shot or missing it. In the beginning, it wasn’t about if you traveled or committed some other rules violation. The point was that you were there and every-now-and-then the ball was going to go through the hoop. And that meant greatness. That meant success. Through a child’s eyes, in that neighborhood, we couldn’t always identify many instances of success, but we could put the ball through the hoop. And seeing the ball go through the hoop was what pulled us back to the court time after time.
It wasn’t some activity that we got good at to gain social acceptance. It wasn’t something that we thought would lead to a rewarding career. We played when we were angry, glad, happy, sad, and everything else. It was our therapy, our pastime, our entertainment. It wasn’t exactly basketball. Sometimes we ventured to the court together, sometimes alone. We tossed the ball at the hoop, sometimes lackadaisically, sometimes with professional determination.
We learned to dribble. We learned to dribble the ball around our backs and through our legs. We learned to spin our bodies and dribble the ball all at once. We learned to pass the ball so hard it could jam your fingers. We learned because we tried…and we tried. There in the ghetto, we tried, poor. And we got good. We got good because we enjoyed it.
It was what we did all summer long and we never got bored of it. It was fun. We witnessed the improvement from those beginner days when we could barely reach the basket with the ball. When we figured out how to make the ball go through that hoop consistently and with a defender guarding us, it felt good. It felt really good, so good that we’d flick our wrists to put maximum backspin on the ball and leave our hand up in the air on the follow-through, long after the ball fell through the hoop and to the ground— not to showboat, not to taunt, but celebrating how far we’d come. We called it hoopin’.
last edited 10/10/19