For as long as I can remember my little brother has been better than me at basketball. Paul’s basketball prowess is a result of two things: his magical shooting ability and his large size for his age. Physically, it’s hard to discern which of us deserves the “little” designation. The two inches and twenty pounds he’s got on me do a good job of disguising that one of us is a high school sophomore and the other is a college freshman. Aside from confusing my mom’s friends about which one of us is older, Paul’s added height has had the profound effect of seriously improving my posture. But as much as I joke about it, this height difference has always bothered me. It’s not that I need to be taller than him— though some days I would not mind the perspective of power— it’s just that I sometimes find those two inches of separation between us to be much wider than they appear.
Sometimes, I rebound for Paul. When I was a senior and he was an up and coming freshman star, I would do everything I could just to get the chance to stand under the hoop and dish him back swish after swish as he glided around the arc of the blue and white practice court before a game or after practice. Shuffling around under the basket, I was proud to be a part of the display of Paul’s shooting talent. Like a curator in a museum of fine art, I was not capable of reproducing that which I stood in awe of, but I was able to understand and appreciate its significance and beauty more deeply than a casual observer would. It’s hard to describe, but that kid can really shoot. Years of pounding away by himself at the gym or in the wet backyard like Pete Maravich in the movie about “The Pistol” that we used to watch on VHS at Grandma’s house and tedious Youtube research of slow-motion clips of the greats have yielded an understanding of shooting, especially three-pointers, as an art form to be studied and practiced and felt. Occasionally, when he’s crushing me by double digits in the virtual world of his favorite basketball video game, I’ll ask Paul about a player’s form and he’ll say something like, “Dwayne could use a straighter elbow,” or “I used to like Curry’s wrist follow-through, but it’s looking a little floppy,” or (and this response is the most common) “Jimmy why do you care about those things, just play the game!”
Of course, I ask Paul about “those things” because I want to understand. I know that he lives in a different dimension when he watches or plays in a basketball game: one that I’m blind to most of the time. I played basketball, but never as well as Paul did. When I was in sixth grade, I was devastated by being put on the “B” team in a less-than-competitive Catholic school league. When Paul was in sixth grade, he was invited to a tryout for a club team where everyone bought the same kind of sneakers and the coach was a local DI veteran. In the fall of my freshman year of high school, I ran cross country. When winter and basketball rolled around, I cried about the somber email I received after the first day of cuts, but I soon found other awesome ways to spend my time. I joined the Circus Club and learned to juggle, but Paul kept on playing basketball. Today, I like to play with a group of friends— mostly other rejects from the competitive scene — and I follow the the sport on the professional level. But I still long to be able to understand.
Even though he’s respectful of the knowledge gap— this is almost certainly the substance of the two-inch span— Paul’s awareness of its girth sometimes burns through with the flare of his temper. As the size of his Nikes has stretched from seven to thirteen, the delivery of his justified frustration has evolved from a full-lung yell to a quiet scream through grimaced teeth, to something shouted by his eyes alone, but the message— “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND”— hasn’t changed. And he’s right. When the shots don’t fall and Paul finds his baggy shorts glued to the bench— whether he was trying to make buckets, grades, or friends— I’ve always been there to rebound, but my form and aim haven’t always been what I would like them to be. I’ve given lengthy rationalizations when I should have just listened, I’ve tossed advice to the wrong side of the court altogether, and at times I’ve just held onto the ball by not asking or caring and denied the flow and connection of the shot-and-rebound circuit. The pause and the distance can be felt. I know it when I’m perched up in the last row of the wooden bleachers at Paul’s practice gym, and I want to be able to see X’s and O’s and arrows instead of just fast-moving sweaty flesh and neon shoes so that I can communicate with him and close the gap.
My dad could see these X’s and O’s. In fact, until sometime in the fifth grade, he was the one drawing them out for me. Dad was a computer programmer by trade, but the 3PT-CTY license plate on the back of his blue PT Cruiser revealed that he preferred to spend his time running practices for my grade school team or knocking down long-range jump-shots over ex-college players in the age group league he player-coached in on Monday nights. Whether he was coaching one of his younger brother’s teams while he was still in high school, playing community college ball at UMSL, or clipping through forty foul shots in a row on lunch break at work; basketball was a part of Dad’s life right up until cancer struck down his body in the last six months of 2008. Dad’s 6’2” would have matched Paul perfectly. Maybe he would have been able to connect, to keep up with the falling shots when Paul needed somebody to catch them and throw them back. I still wonder if I will ever be able to do what Dad could never do.
So I think I know why I need to rebound for Paul. I’m not exactly sure how to identify the feeling or even where it comes from, but shoveling back balls to the rhythm of his smooth shooting brings me something more than just the pride of a big brother showing off a flashy young thoroughbred to the lingering fans. When I slide my fingers across the grooves of a worn leather ball and draw in the the sweet blend of sweat and bad ventilation that only the aged hardwood of a basketball gym can conceive, I am living— if only for a few minutes before a game— in the magical world of basketball. And being on the cusp of this place where my Dad and brother have found so precious a home enables me to see both of them more vividly. And to see is to connect. When I open my senses and travel to this place, the two inch height gap becomes irrelevant and the painfully absolute separation of death begins to fade away. We are held together by the basketball. Even if I can’t rebound perfectly, I’ll stay under the net.
“Keep ‘em coming Paully!”