this is a short story I wrote a bit over a year ago - inspired by the days my friends and I spent on the basketball court near my home.
The arc of the ball
Malcolm McDowell Woods
Apogee. It’s a physics term. Something to do with the top of an arc; the height something reaches before it begins to fall back to earth- the farthest reach of an orbit. Everything has an apogee. The moon, a kid’s rocket, a thrown basketball, a dream.
Due to the irrefutable, immovable and unchanging laws of physics and the ceaseless pull of gravity, things that rise will rise for only so long and then they will fall. Everything has an apogee. A bullet shot from a gun. A bomb lofted by a quarterback. A life. And it might even seem to the observer that the apogee has already been determined before the ball leaves the hand, that how far it will fly and how high it will rise is known to the ball and to the heavens and to the whole universe maybe, that the cell of every living thing, the atoms and molecules which collide to create everything, they all know. And that it is only in our dreams that ignorance reigns.
A jump shot has an apogee. The perfect sweet, purposeful rise of the ball as it releases from fingertips and pulls hopes skyward, is short-lived. Gravity and friction will slow the ball’s flight, will temper the ball’s dreams of freedom, and will bend it earthward.
When I was a kid, our local pro team, the Bucks, had a player with the sweetest jump shot you could ever imagine. The announcer labeled it a “rainbow jumper” for its amazing arc, for the way the ball in flight mimicked the shape of a rainbow. To draw the flight of those jump shots, you needed a protractor.
A rainbow has an apogee. Trace it across the sky with your finger and the rise of it is oh so brief. The colors explode and soar and fight each other and then – as everything- they fall together.
Ricco had an apogee.
We all do. Maybe it’s when you are forty and get a big promotion or it’s when you retire or when you make some big discovery or it’s when your rainbow jumper leads your team to the championship. Ricco’s apogee, though, came when he was thirteen.
Ricco had a ‘fro. A wild black smoky cloud of hair that you could make out from across a park, from blocks away. There may have three or four other black kids at East Junior High back then, but they kept their heads low and their hair unremarkable. Blending in and being discrete, however, was not the way Ricco approached life.
I think the hair intimidated a lot of the white kids. But by then I had already known Ricco a couple of years and to me that mess of hair was just another part of him, like his dark, liquid eyes and long, gangly legs and arms.
He had the legs of an athlete. A sprinter, maybe, or a long jumper. He was the fastest kid in the neighborhood and it was no surprise that he was drawn to the basketball court in the park across from our apartment building. And, me being his faithful sidekick, well, it was no surprise that he carried me right along with him.
We’d hit the court as soon as we got home from school. Freestyle shooting drills first, then maybe a game or two of hustle before enough of a crowd had gathered for full court.
We usually managed to stay teammates; Ricco playing down low in the post and me ball handling and shooting the mid-range jumpers. If no other guys showed, we’d play an imaginary opponent, one of us calling the action, counting down the clock for the inevitable last-second shot to win the game. In those dream games, every missed shot was accompanied by a shooting foul or a technical or some other violation on the other team that gave us yet another chance, always leaving one of us to hit the winning shot. That was before we learned that even dreams had apogees, that at some point in their flight, they would run out of steam or imagination or hope, and they too would fall back to earth.
Ricco’s leaps, even Ricco’s leaps, would all fall back to earth.
October came around. Three days, then four, went by with no Ricco at the basketball court, and when he showed up on a Friday it was only to say hello and then head off to the small sewing store his mother ran. I don’t think I said anything to him then, I was honked off that he’d stopped showing up.
He was helping in the store. It was 1972. The week before, Ricco’s brother had been killed by the Viet Cong as he waded through a steaming swamp on the other side of the world, the bullet fired from such close range that it was still on the rise as it hit him, lifting him up off the ground ever so briefly before his body collapsed under its own weight.
The bullet body-slammed Ricco’s mother, too, and she took to her bed. Ricco’s afternoons, evenings and weekends thereafter were spent at the store with his sister. The fall and winter came and went without him appearing at the court.
I had other friends, of course, and other guys to play basketball with. And on the days no one joined me on the court, I practiced. Shot after shot. Hundreds of shots each day.
Dribble with the right hand, then a single bounce with the left, the ball rolling into my palm and settling into the caress of my fingertips as my arms began their swing upward in concord with the energy uncurling from my legs, lifting me from the asphalt, the ball to part from me as my body reached its own apogee, spinning backward from the snap in my wrist, arcing toward the hoop.
Snow came and I shoveled clear a semi-circle of asphalt before the hoop and practiced. Shot after shot. And when that straight-on jump shot became steady, then a turn-around jump shot, my body curving around an imaginary pole the way a cat slinks around your leg and then straightening and bursting upward.
Spring rains came and worms had to be swept from the court before I could practice. Shot after shot, while Ricco labored to fix his mother a sandwich after school, cajoled her to eat and then went to the store to sell sewing supplies until closing time, coming home to a dark house to work on homework.
And then, one afternoon in early May, he showed up at the court.
The ‘fro was gone. He was keeping his hair short and neat now so as not to frighten the women who bought sewing supplies and fabric and bric-a-brac and therefore kept him and his sister and mother in their apartment. The store was closed that day, so Ricco was free to come out to play.
He joined me for shooting practice and I could see that he was rusty, that the ball was feeling large and unfamiliar in his hands. Shot after shot missed their target, clanging off the front of the rim or bouncing wildly from the back of the hoop. We hardly talked. Perhaps it was just that we were both older now and not because of anything else that had happened, but neither one of us thought of doing the play calling, of acting out a last-second game winning shot.
Eventually, enough guys showed that we could get a game going. When we were picked for opposing teams, neither one of us complained.
Hook shots were big back then, and lay-ups. Underhanded scoop or shovel shots and two-handed set shots, too. But my jump shot had become a consistent weapon. Peeling around a screen, or juking left and then right from the dribble, the jump took both my arms and the ball just out of reach of the defender .
Ricco wasn’t having a good game, fumbling away a couple of passes and pulling up short on a fast-break lay up. The other team called a timeout when we moved out to a 13-8 lead and afterwards, I found Ricco guarding me. They figured, rightly enough, that Ricco’s long arms would be enough to get up in my face and interfere with my jump shot.
And that indeed used to be true. But that was months ago. I had how many thousand of repetitions of that jump shot since then? And Ricco? Well, he had the hours upon hours at the sewing store and the weight of his mother’s collapsed dreams on his shoulders. It was no match.
One game, then another, and then a third and I was having maybe my best day of basketball ever. I could not miss. My head fakes pulled him off balance; my changeover dribble left him steps behind and my jump shots, well, they were things of beauty.
A jumpshooter is both a magician and a contradiction. The shot begins with an explosion of energy – muscles and motion and hopes and dreams. A rocket lifting off. A bird uncaged. A rainbow.
But the ball will reach its apogee, the most distant point in its orbit from the earth, and drop, falling quicker and quicker to the hoop, which on this day seemed as wide as a hula hoop.
I had spent months, shot after shot, perfecting that arc, the balled-up energy, the soft release, the ball teasing the sky, and I understood as well as I ever would the physics, the laws and theorems which propelled the ball upward and then down.
Game three, we’re up 11 to 7, and Ricco has the ball near the top of the lane, and I am upon him, my left leg angled at him to prevent his favorite move, and he is struggling to find an outlet. His lane to the basket is blocked and the passing lanes are cut off as well. Any of the other players would have turned the ball over with an awkward pass or a desperation shot, but Ricco has always had these wiry legs and these stringbean arms and they have always been enough to give him an edge. So he fakes back to his right and away from the basket to draw me forward a step, make me rock my weight onto my forward foot and off of my back foot, and then slices shot-quick to the left.
How many times playing hustle had he done that to me? Hundreds. I knew it was coming, I had long ago mapped it out in my mind and had drawn up exactly what I needed to do to stop him, but it had never been enough. He would coil and curl and strike like a rattlesnake, with me some slow-moving, ungainly mammal.
On this day, though, Ricco the retail clerk was a step slow. When he began his move, I was ready, easily swiping at the ball and knocking it loose. It bounced toward a teammate and I darted off towards the other end of the court for the fast break.
“Psyche” was the big phrase then. Or “in your face.” If it was anyone else, I might have said something like that. I wish I had. I wish to god I had.
Because instead, after sinking another jumper over Ricco’s flailing arms, I said, “Shit, you and your brother couldn’t stop me.”
I’m no good at trash talking. The clever stuff escapes me and the stupid, never-should-have-said stuff is gone from my mouth before I realize what I’ve said.
Ricco just looked at me, slack mouthed. I backed down the court.
“Gimme the ball,” he shouted. And when he caught it and held it in both hands, it suddenly looked tiny and insignificant. He looked at it, spun it in the air once, twice.
And then he began dribbling, pounding the ball into the asphalt, punishing it, slowly advancing towards the half court line and once there, exploding in a galloping rage at the basket, at me in front of the basket.
Stand my ground, keep my feet from moving and I take the charge. This is in a blur, but I think of the soccer players lined up to defend a free kick, how they stand tight together with their hands covering their dicks and I feel like that and then I picture a matador with his cape as the bull – snorting and coughing and spewing venom – hurtles at him.
Just past the free throw line, Ricco plants his left foot and launches himself up.
I wince, blink, shudder before him. And then under him, as his body continues to rise, casting off in one goddamed incredible leap the entire weight and misery of the past half year.
Ricco is thirteen. Five foot five. He will grow to six foot-two in high school, but on this day he is five five, maybe 130 pounds. He is thirteen and his brother would have been twenty and his mother is home in bed weeping yet and he is still rising up.
He clears me. Like I’m a low hurdle. Ball squeezed between his hands. Still rising. For just the slightest moment I think he’ll keep rising, maybe forever. But he doesn’t, of course. The top of his jump, the arc of his flight, is there, at the rim. Forget the sweet symmetry of the jump shot, the perfect arc of the rainbow, this is violence and chaos and disorder.
Five five, and Ricco slams the ball through the rim with such force that the rim is bent forward and two of the bolts securing the hoop to the backboard are snapped.
It is all silent fury as the ball tears through the net, Ricco hanging onto the rim for a moment before releasing his hold and coming back to earth, meeting it with both feet flat.
“I’m done,” he says then, and, without looking back at the court, without another word, he walks away from us and away from the game.
I’m forty now. Still play every now and then. My jump shot range is closer to the hoop now and its arc a bit leaner. I’ve never dunked the ball, never even touched the rim.
Ricco, as far as I know, never played again. His mother died a year later – killed herself, I heard – and then he was gone, off to another city to live with an aunt. Claimed by gravity.
But for that one moment years ago, I truly thought if anyone were ever to escape its hold, it would be him.