Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Define "Hero"

Everybody dreams of having the sort of sports moment where everything falls on your shoulders. At bat in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, down by one with a guy on third. Fourth and goal at the six-yard line with three seconds left in the game. Fending off beaters and dodging bludgers in a frantic race to catch the Golden Snitch before the other seeker. It’s all the same basic principle.

In eighth grade the majority of my sports fantasies came in the form of basketball, which happened to be the sport that would soon provide me with my own real-life heroic moment in athletics.

How could a kid not love basketball in 1996? Michael Jordan and the hometown Bulls were right in the middle of winning championships and the NBA was at the height of its popularity. Coincidentally, I was at the height of my height, having grown six inches the summer before junior high to the 5-foot-10 frame I still exhibit today (though I have put on a pound or fifty), making me a surprise call as the starting center on my eighth grade basketball team.

I was definitely tall—I’ll give me that—but I was also exceptionally awkward, which made all tasks requiring brain-body coordination nearly impossible. Rebounds came pretty easily for me since I was several inches taller than 90% of our league, but things like shooting and running with shoes on made me look like a limping flamingo in Nikes.

Basketball, however, is a game of confidence. There’s something called “The Zone,” in which a player gets hot for some reason and suddenly can’t miss a shot. Before high school I only had this experience once, but happily it came in the form of a major championship tournament game.

Allow me to set the scene: Every winter an area school hosted a tournament of sixteen teams from all over the northern part of the state. There were the usual teams from our own conference but also a handful of private schools from the Chicago area that we had never seen. Some of these groups consisted of children clearly from a pygmy race and would prove no real obstacle, but other teams had six-foot black kids with facial hair. Facial hair!

And of course our school’s rival, St. Joseph, came into the tournament heavily favored to win the whole thing. I know, I know… this sounds like the premise to a corny Disney sports flick, but these things really do happen in real life. I swear this is all totally true and that I didn’t steal it from “Mighty Ducks 3” or “Hoosiers.”

(Side note—if you were drafting a basketball team strictly from fictional players from sports movies, how could you select anyone but Teen Wolf with your first overall selection? Someone show me a scouting report on Michael J. Fox. You couldn’t guard that guy—he was an animal!)

My team, the Saints (it was a Catholic school, after all), breezed through the first three games of the aforementioned tournament without much trouble, sliding us easily right into the championship game against St. Joe’s. This championship game, ladies and gentlemen, was a battle between harsh rivals, right down to the bitter end. Kids were throwing elbows and fouling hard as both teams contiued to exchange baskets and the lead.

There was even a kid on St. Joe’s that would’ve been on our team that year had he not transferred out, which sounds even more like a minor plot point in a Disney sports movie. I’m totally blowing this story, aren’t I?

However you feel about the setup, the real suspense came at game’s end. We were up by three with twenty-something seconds left. Timmy, the kid who transferred away, took it in for a layup but got fouled with just about six seconds to go. He drained the first free-throw, cutting the lead to two, and then St. Joe took a timeout.

The purpose of this break was to instruct Timmy to miss this next one on purpose with the hope that they would get the ball back and sink another shot before time expired, thereby sending this clash of the titans into overtime.

Our coach Sam let us all know this was going to happen and told us to be on our toes for a big rebound. So when the clanged foul shot finally came to fruition, whose hands should that sexy orange orb fall right into?

Mine, baby. Mine.

Coach was screaming for me to pass the ball to a guard who shot free throws better that me, but I shut him out and cradled the thing into my gut like a pregnant woman having labor pains. The clock ran down, 6… 5… 4… and then the whistle blew. Up by two, I was going to have to sink at least one of two free throws to solidify the win (there was no three-pointer in eighth grade leagues back in those days). If I missed, St. Joe would have a chance to run it down the floor and get off one last shot to try and force overtime.

This time Sam called the timeout, basically looked me in the face and said I better not miss these damn free throws. “After Joel makes these shots, get back on defense and don’t foul.” Not “if” Joel makes these shots; “After.”

Now, as I mentioned before, most of my motor skills were still in the process of undergoing puberty with the rest of my body, so something as simple as draining an uncontested fifteen-foot free throw can quickly become arduous for a pubescent thirteen year-old.

But I was in a state of Zen. Everything in that little junior high school gym got pleasantly warm and surrounded me with an aura of fuzzy confidence. I stepped up to the line and bent down into my stance, lanky legs and knobby knees tilting as I practiced my shooting motions. The ref tossed me the ball, and I was finally provided my time to shine.

Usually in practice when I would shoot free throws, I would see the rim as this cold iron hole, unwelcoming and defensive. In my Zendom, however, I may as well have been tossing a tennis ball through a hula hoop. I nailed the first one without the ball touching even a little metal on the way down. Pure nylon, by the way, doesn’t make a “swish” sound; it’s more like a “twack,” which is infinitely more satisfying.

The second free throw is where I left my legacy. Knowing that I had this thing in the bag, I lofted the shot up in the exact same way as the first, but before I even heard that familiar “twack,” I turned my back to the hoop, threw up my arms like I was Julius Caesar after a great battle, and damn near pimp-walked down to the other end of the floor. One of the kids from St. Joe lofted up a half-court shot at the buzzer, but it was fruitless and futile. I, Joel Brigham, had sealed the deal. I was a hero.

I bet you’re wondering what I did after that. Disneyworld, obviously. They paid me a buttload for the movie rights.

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