I’ve never had a good memory and as I approach middle age, it’s getting harder to recall instances from my past with anything close to crisp precision. Everything is gauzy and disconnected, with only snippets surviving intact. My local library’s section on memory is maybe 5-6 books wide so I checked out Marilu Henner’s Total Memory Makeover for lack of a better choice. Oh, Marilu Henner? She was on Taxi in the late 1970s and I loved the show as a kid, but borrowing her book made me feel as girly, self-conscious, and out of style as if I’d just bought a Thighmaster.
But Marilu Henner, as it turns out, is one of only a few people on the planet with Highly-Superior Autobiographical Memory. These people are able to recall, with stunning detail, any day of their life—what day of the week it was, what they wore, the big news stories, what they had for dinner, and so on. I don’t need my memory to do all that, I just want to remember better. I feel a huge disconnect from my past and I hope there are tools in her book to help me pave those muddy, pot-holed dirt roads that lead back to my earlier memories.
Books we read can permeate our lives in unexpected ways. While I’m reading Henner’s book, I’m also reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, a touching memoir about his years as a college basketball player at The Citadel, among a hundred other themes. I pick up Conroy before bed or when my computer’s booting at work or on the treadmill to distract me from the pain of exercise or when I’m embarrassed to be seen with a Marilu Henner book. Pat Conroy’s lyrical prose has always enchanted me and the way he writes about the South Carolina Lowcountry—a place I also inhabited for a few key years of my life—teleports me back to those mossy, oak-lined streets that dapple light like no other thoroughfares in the world.
Conroy died about a month ago after a quick decline from pancreatic cancer. As a tribute and a way to hear his voice again and remind myself that at least that essential part of him will never die, I’ve gone back to read this book. I picture Marilu Henner and Pat Conroy waiting on a bench by the bus stop, patient and still, standing by until I call them back to the quiet places of my mind, those pockets of reading time between work and sleep and the lunacy of domestic life.
So maybe permeation is a natural thing with these books, along with a weird overlap. I spend a lot of time investigating artifacts from my memory with Marilu, then go back to Conroy where he mines his own head to reveal his 20-year old self that suited up for The Citadel basketball squad, the young Conroy that came before the writer Conroy. Likewise, through memory, I’m getting reacquainted with my younger, ball-player self. It’s like we all meet in a half-lit gymnasium—Marilu, young Conroy, old Conroy, young me, and old me—a bizarre lineup indeed, each of us laced up and taking part in these dreamy pick-up games.
When I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough I can smell a hot gym. I can hear the hollow echo of a rubber ball pounding against hard wood and the squeak of dozens of pivoting and cutting sneakers. I can occupy that space between dribbles when anything can happen.
My vivid basketball memories are strewn across many ages and settings. I remember getting called for traveling two straight times down the court in 6th grade—I had replaced another point guard (Marilu says dig deeper and I come back with the name and face of Chris Embler, much to my surprise) and I couldn’t quite figure out when I could take the two allowed steps. And I remember the crowd’s palpable disappointment in the new guy moving the ball down the court like a fullback on the run. I wasn’t ready for the spotlight—it was Chris Embler’s spotlight—and back then it felt as bigtime as Madison Square Garden. See, I suffer from an embarrassing lack of coordination with footwork. I couldn’t skip for a long time and my brother and stepdad would laugh at me mercilessly. Picture how you would simulate galloping while astride a broomstick—that’s how I skipped. And though the first memory (traveling in basketball) brought up a totally random ancillary memory (skipping like a goon), Marilu says to welcome what she calls sporadic memories as they still fill in the blanks. The initial memory also led to another embarrassing memory that took place in an aerobics class when I was out of sync with every other participant and then yet another memory where I couldn’t learn dance steps in a play where I was Brer Bear and the young cast had to dumb down the dance break enough for me to do it. (Marilu pats me on the shoulder and tries to give support, knowing that I will be spending a lot of time retrieving memories that make me look like an idiot. You know, Marilu, maybe that’s why I forgot all this shit in the first place?)
I don’t remember much of anything from my elementary school teams, even though I played as early as 3rd grade. All I can recall are some of the goofy team pictures and the vaguely familiar faces of the boys and my young, thin, boufy-haired effeminate self but I can’t retrieve a single memory of those games. Fast forward to maybe 7th grade, as I lay on the floor of the French Broad Elementary School gym with the other boys on the team practicing our form and follow-through—shooting up towards the ceiling, and the balls in their magical rotation descending towards our soft, awaiting fingertips. Then I remember being in the middle of a game, willfully ignoring open teammates (Kevin Gregg) to try to score and pad my puny stat sheet and my coach (Mr. Martin) reminding me that it’s a team sport. I remember taking an elbow to my braces-filled mouth and having loose wires and braces digging into the hamburger meat of my upper lip – and having to bring my wrecked mouth to the orthodontist (Dr. Taylor). Then I’m on a series of long bus rides returning from away games with my girlfriends from different times in my life (some were cheerleaders, some were players on the girls’ teams) when I was all hands and they had to deploy a staunch defense in the face of my relentless offense and how old that must’ve gotten to every one of them (names withheld to protect the innocent).
I must’ve shot on 100 different goals–Cookie’s house, the court in the public square in Cozumel, the goal by the dunes on Hilton Head, the empty echoing gym of Monmouth University, the goal at The Cave in Campobello where I learned the art of dribbling on gravel—same game in a hundred different locations. Our driveway in Weaverville, where I lived from 2nd grade to my freshman year of high school, played host to countless 2-on-1 contests. Scott Hardister and I would play against my older brother Dave into the darkening evening and my mom would yell down from the deck for us to come in and eat and we’d play until the food got cold (sorry, Mom), taking the same shots from our same sweet spots. Then we’d come in and eat and do it all again on the Nerf goal in the den.
I had a lot of time as a kid to improve my game and add weapons to my modest arsenal but, once I got to high school, all I ever wanted to do was shoot from outside. I was a mindless animal and the 3-point line was my invisible fence. Crossing it would cause a shock of indecision and disorientation—8-foot jumpers were harder and required a whole different set of shot mechanics so I camped out behind the line and waited to launch bombs. When a mob of guys would descend on the gym between classes for epic games of 21, I remember lighting it up. I could run and gun and shoot from deep. Though those memories run together, they are pleasant to think about, and I feel that for a string of years, at least during hot streaks, I was a real shooter. And though I was a guppy in a small, whitebread pond and we’re talking about games of 21 between classes, I was draining bombs at will.
High school games were different. I had no confidence in my skills in the more formal and pressurized game scenario, against kids that weren’t my buddies, in front of people in bleachers all looking directly at the court. I made some but missed most of my high school field goal attempts. Coach Lasher, a macho guy who could deflate my confidence with one withering glare, usually played other teammates who could penetrate or shoot closer, anyone whose game had evolved beyond standing out beyond the arc waiting for a clear moment to heave one up. For our opponents, it wasn’t hard to figure out my strategy and this oversight didn’t even occur to me until long after graduation, when a revelation like that meant nothing.
Add up all the camps and hours spent in driveways and gyms, watching endless plays on televised games, throw in some teenage insecurity and a tough coach, and you somehow end up with a kid stuck at a perimeter fence with only one option in mind. There was a single play drawn up in my head—launch a three if you’re open and haven’t shot one in a little while.
My career high was 17 points against Spartanburg Day School when I hit five 3-pointers in the second half. It was the only time when one of my shooting streaks happened in an actual game and I don’t know how or why it happened then. I was never able to harness it again. The other memorable highlight was when I was elected by my teammates to participate in the 3-point contest at Furman University’s Team Camp. I made it to the finals and came in second to a guy who hit 1 or 2 more than me in the 45-seconds we had to drain as many as we could. I have no idea who the winner was but I like to think it was Steve Kerr and why not, it’s my highlight reel?
It’s weird because I remember having a good reputation as a passer but can’t recall any standout assists. It’s like my selfish memory wants me to be the star of any clip its held onto and doesn’t see the appeal of a firm bounce pass.
While the team dynamic is central to the game, basketball is also one of the few sports you can play by yourself. All it takes is you, a ball, and a hoop to put it through. We have a goal at home and to hear my 8-year old son dribbling and shooting out in the driveway fills me with an athletic kinship, a connection nearly as deep as blood.
I know he’s out there imagining valiant battles between teams, with him embodying every single player. I come out to join him and he says, “Carolina is beating Notre Dame 144 to 68 and Brice Johnson just made a three-point play,” summoning players and concepts that he heard on last night’s telecast. I tell him to work on his dribbling and learn to go left or right, show him the difference between a spin move and crossover, walk him through the artful fluidity of the pick and roll. I try to instill the team mindset early as we execute improvised drills together. It dawns on me that I may be using my son to make up for my own shortcomings from decades past, but I let it go since it will only make him better—it’s up to me to play it off as nothing more than wise instruction rather than the psychological baggage that it probably is.
There are a lot of benefits to having kids but a major one is getting to play games again. Even better, you get to go back to the very beginning and go over the basics. You catch and throw and explain the most elementary of rules and basically do the sport all over—and going back to the beginning can spoil an adult. If you have an adjustable goal and little kids that are just developing their skills with basketball, you get used to having it set to a low height. A regulation basketball goal seems impossibly high after shooting for years on an 8-foot goal. The rim may as well be nailed to the top of a telephone pole. Getting it up there relies on the muscle memory of long unused muscle, muscles that have atrophied in these middle years and forgotten how to do their job. They can’t handle the assignment anymore. Shooting beyond that familiar arc on a regulation goal is a ludicrous proposition now. It’s a heave that could slam off the backboard or fall feet short, depending on how much leg I give it.
Foster has just concluded his rookie basketball season with some other 1st and 2nd graders. His team went 7-1 and he learned a lot in just a few short months. Since the early games that I once played are now lost to me, I wonder if he will remember his first basket and how perfect it looked? It’s hard to imagine that all these moments will be fuzzy memories when he’s an adult, if remembered at all. He will need his own Marilu book to help dig them up, his own Conroy to give them meaning and poetry.
Every skill and point yet to come can be traced back to this pollen-coated concrete driveway. When I go to his games, I will shuffle into the gym as an aging dad. My son will be the player and I’ll be the ride. The skills I had will be decades away and my peak a distant hill on the hazy horizon. I will take my seat in the bleachers and feel his adrenaline in my blood.