Game: An Autobiography
WE were there for basketball and basketball only. Howard Garfinkel’s Five-Star Basketball Camp was a hoops mecca throughout my teenage years, a rite of passage for the nation’s top prep basketball players to measure ourselves against one another and be seen by college recruiters. The camps stretched for weeks each summer through different sessions at Honesdale, the more coveted camp hosted in the Poconos, and Robert Morris University, near Pittsburgh. In middle school, I had flipped through a Sports Illustrated and first learned about Five-Star, this mystical camp run by a character named Garf. I attended the first time the summer after my freshman year of high school. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Chris Mullin attended the camp before me. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Chris Paul made the trip after me. Coaches also made names for themselves as camp instructors. Bob Knight, Jim Valvano, and Rick Pitino passed through as counselors. John Calipari, then a fresh-faced assistant at Pitt, was among my coaches at that first camp.
I was headed into my senior year of high school in the summer of 1989 and had become accustomed to the camp’s rhythms when I arrived again in Honesdale. I had attended one of the camps earlier that summer and impressed enough to earn the MVP of the camp and All-Star Game. Garf was a warden, counselor, and coach all rolled into one, a New Yorker who started the camp far outside the city lights in 1966. He woke us by blasting Frank Sinatra each morning and spent his days motoring from station to station in a golf cart. A cigarette stayed glued to his lips as he talked in bits and spurts.
Everything about the camp was old-school, steeped in tradition. Garf insisted he was running a camp and not a meat market. He bypassed luxuries. We ate breakfast before the drills and rotated every twenty minutes while learning the fine points of various fundamentals. Most of the courts were outside where gnats and flies filled the thick air. A comforting cacophony constantly echoed from the courts lined by birch trees: thudding basketballs, squeaking shoes, shrieking whistles. Lunch usually featured a talk from a big-name coach. We sat in a ring around the court and listened, offering a standing ovation when it ended at Garf’s instruction. In order for the afternoon sessions to begin, Garf had to hit his daily shot. We cheered him on, hoping that his attempt found the basket quickly so that we could get on with more instruction and games.
Garf personally identified the best players throughout the country and invited them to attend the camps on scholarships. In return, we served meals and bused tables for the other campers. I viewed the duties as a mark of distinction, proud to earn whatever I received. My parents, Calvin and Janet, had inspired me to work hard and dream big.
You can’t teach hungry, my dad always reminded me. Either you are or you aren’t.
Players attended to make a name for themselves or enhance their reputation. New York kids populated every camp, and this year’s was no different. Those guys swore they invented the sport, but the truth was most of them could ball. I had met Brian Reese at the camp the previous summer and was eager to catch up with him that year. He played forward for a nationally ranked high school in New York and was teammates with a couple other campers, Malik Sealy and Adrian Autry. Brian hailed from the South Bronx, home to one of my favorite rappers, KRS-One.
We were loitering on the outdoor courts, waiting for games to start, when a few campers started a conversation about Lloyd Daniels. Daniels was a New York legend a few years older than us who had bounced around a bit, more of a myth to me than a real player. But some of the New York guys had seen him play and painted him as a much taller version of Kenny Anderson. I was busy imagining a player of that much size oozing that much versatility when Adrian punctured my daydream.
Hey, man, why are you here?
The question caught me off guard.
What do you mean?
You’re rich. You live in a mansion. You got money, right? We need this to eat.
Adrian and I were friends, both then and later. He advanced to play at Syracuse and overseas before becoming one of Jim Boeheim’s assistants at Syracuse. He hadn’t, I don’t believe, asked me out of malice, and I doubt he’d even recall this exchange today. But I figured he had somehow learned my backstory, that my dad had attended Yale and played in the NFL, that my mom was a successful businesswoman.
Adrian’s question was one of the first times an internal conflict had been projected outward. I grew up aware of my parents’ accomplishments. Sometimes, they intimidated. Often, they inspired. We might not have lived as grandly as Adrian or others envisioned, but we were comfortable.
At the same time, I spent most of my childhood wanting to blend into the background. Every article written described me as the son of an ex–NFL player. I’m not necessarily proud of this now, but I used to hate that characterization. I wanted to prove I could stand on my own. Me busing tables showed that I was earning my way at camp. Now it seemed like Adrian was trying to take it away.
Was he implying that I was there only because of my parents? That I needed to travel a specific journey and come from a certain background to be ambitious? Or that I simply was not a good enough player to share the court with him?
I was on the edge of leaving adolescence for adulthood. By that point, basketball had already come to mean much more to me than just a sport. I had spent years advancing to different baskets in my hometown of Reston, Virginia, like they were grades in school at various recreation centers, park playgrounds, and gyms. The local legends clocked in at Twin Branches Court. The court was a blacktop where one rim hung lower than the other, the result of the iron bearing a few too many gravity-defying dunks. The park was a siren call for ballers from all over the Washington metropolitan area, guys a couple years out of school with magic still in their game and ones who went on to make a name for themselves through basketball, like Dennis Scott, who starred for the Orlando Magic, and Billy King, who went on to play at Duke.
That court didn’t offer much room to maneuver. With one step over half-court, you’d be at the top of the key. Another and you’d be in the lane. The intimacy forced physicality. It was a man’s court. Someone couldn’t just walk on and play. You earned your spot. A couple dozen people usually stood near the park’s tiny bench. Fights erupted over claims for next. Winners stayed. Lose and you waited another hour or two before setting foot on the blacktop again.
My childhood best friend, Michael Ellison, and I first rode our bikes to watch games at the park at around the age of ten, apprentices watching masters ply their craft. We’d hope for a pause in action when we could lob up a shot before being shouted away. I played for the first time on the court at around the age of twelve, fresh off a recent growth spurt. Honestly, I was probably more nervous to play for the first time at Twin Branches than when I debuted at Cameron Indoor Stadium. As I walked on the court, an old head told me not to mess up, to just rebound and pass. My opponents were older, stronger. They didn’t take it easy on me. They wanted to stay on the court and get their cardio in. I grabbed a rebound. A shove dislodged the ball from my grip. I assumed some knew me as Cal’s little son. Maybe they played me more physical for that reason. Maybe not. I just wanted to get the job done. I didn’t say much out there. I put my head down, defended, screened, and contributed in any way possible. I fought to not give an inch. A shot went up, the ball careened off the rim, and I grabbed the rebound and laid the ball home.
A purity has always existed in basketball: the game is rooted in democracy. You could be on a team full of strangers with no scoreboard, no coach roaming the sidelines calling plays. Instinct pulls your body in different directions before your brain catches up. The flow of the game dictates when you cut, pass, or shoot. The game exposes you, laying your strengths and weaknesses bare.
Either you can play or you can’t. If you can’t, you were not going to be picked again. Play the game right and you are rewarded. The ball possesses its own kinetic energy and usually finds whom it’s supposed to in the right position at the right moment.
That first time out at Twin Branches, my team traded baskets with the other all the way to game point for each side. I elbowed myself into position. A shot kicked off the rim, into my arms. I looked for an outlet, delivering the ball to a teammate who streaked down the court for the game winner. My team ran the table the rest of the day, playing until our weary legs could no longer run up and down the court and the sun began descending in the sky. I didn’t have to wait long the next time I arrived at the park. I was asked to join the team that had next.
The court helped quiet my nerves and jitters during my awkward adolescent years. Basketball had afforded me a purpose and identity.
In the moment, I didn’t know how to verbalize all that to Adrian. It was one of those interactions that lingered. Doubting my sincerity about the game was like questioning my existence.
My frustration stayed caged.
I just want to play, I told him, silently vowing to show him why I was there the next time on the court.
I usually tried projecting coolness and fluidity through my play. I dropped the pretenses that next time out against Adrian. I played untethered. I drove past everyone and leaped for rebounds against guys whom, a couple years earlier, I had arrived home from camp marveling about to my dad, doubting I could ever rise to their level.
I readied myself for the camp’s All-Star Game, the showcase for the soon-to-be college stars and eventual pros. We played the game outdoors on a night cool enough that we wore sweatshirts underneath our jerseys. I hunted down rebounds. I blocked shots. I sliced to the rim for dunks and drew applause and admiration from the coaches, spectators, and other campers. Adrian tried picking me up once on transition defense and became another victim.
Camp ended with a ceremony. Garf announced me as the first player to repeat winning the MVP at Five-Star’s camp and the All-Star Game twice in the same summer.
That is why I’m here, Adrian, I thought to myself.
For basketball and basketball only. The sport had found me, and I held on to it with a tight grip.
I planned on never letting go
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|Epub||June 8, 2022|
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