I spent many many years, as a young person, playing basketball. I was simultaneously pretty good and terrible, depending which end of the court I was on. Genetically blessed with relative height and wingspan, quick feet, and a decent vertical leap, defense was my game. I loved running the mid line when we pressed full-court, intercepting the lazy pass, chasing down a break and falling into step at the foul line, matching the approach — stride-for-stride, side-by-side — launching off the left foot, right hand reaching, the ball lifting into my fingertips. A flick of the wrist and the rock spinning back down the court, scooped up by a teammate who knew it was coming, who knew I’d bring it back.
I came up as a centre because I could jump, not because I was tall. Really, I was too small for the position: everyone I matched up with had at least three inches, and usually twenty pounds, on me, and so my life in the paint was fairly brutal. If you haven’t played the game competitively, it’s easy to overlook its physicality, particularly under the bucket, where there’s a constant battle for position, the offence posting up and the defence trying constantly to check them. Because I was too short to properly defend a true centre, my game was mostly anticipation: reading the play, the pick, the pass; keeping the ball out of the paint, out of my opponent’s hands — because once it was there, there wasn’t much I could do but hope the short shot missed, start boxing a space to go for the rebound and count on my vertical jump to let me haul it down one-handed. Then the turn to the sideline, elbows wide, a heel for a pivot, and hit the outlet pass, hardly having to look, following instead the memory of practiced muscle, a teammate’s voice like a bull’s-eye I could hit in the dark.
On the other end of the floor, though, I often could not hit a shot to save my life. Though I could pretty easily get away from my defenders, hit the block and post up, I rarely made the little shots in the paint, or even got my hands on a fast pass. However good I was at knocking an opponent’s pass or shot off course, I was equally bad at holding onto the ball when I had to. I remember my frustrated coach throwing up her hands one scrimmage and shouting, If you had hands, goddammit, you’d be dangerous! We’d both given up, by then, on the hours I’d spent doing ball slams against the gym wall, trying to make my hands do what I wanted. We’d both decided — I had, anyway — that I was a head case, too nervous to get the job done. I wish I’d known then: it wasn’t the strength of my grip, a failure of muscle or mind, that gave me such bad hands, but the weakness of my eyes: a lazy left that, today, requires a prescription three times stronger than the right, and astigmatism in both, a combination resulting in difficulty switching visual fields — say between a ball in front of your face and an orange rim overhead, a ball in the point guard’s hands and the ball coming straight at your chest — and lousy hand-eye coordination. Playing defense, close does count: it only takes a fingertip to send the ball spinning off course. But an inch on the other end of the court is the clunk of the rim, the ball slipping quick between your palms.
I remember being benched, once, because of my field goal percentage. We knew going in the game would be tight, and it was the logical move. I was a senior, and a captain, and hadn’t missed a start since I’d cracked my brow bone open on a point guard’s head, the result of which was stitches and a few days on the bench. My back-up started at centre and scored some points early on, but couldn’t keep up on defense, so it was my feet that got me back onto the floor, and my lungs that kept me there for the remaining thirty-six minutes. Maybe my head had something to do with it, how many hours of play I brought to the team, how well-suited I was to my leadership role. Amazing, isn’t it, how quick we are to find fault in temperament, to cite the failure of will, the mind’s lapse? Maybe I was good at defense because I was quick, because I could jump — or maybe because INFJs seek balance, communicate well, are good at reading people. What I loved was getting the ball back. A good pass, an assist. A high-five. A slap on the back. The stuff you don’t measure with stats.
My last night in Paris I wandered around Luxembourg Garden as the sun went down. I’d spent the other evenings of my visit in my apartment, as I am decidedly no longer a night owl — I don’t even like going to the grocery store after dark. But I was only a few blocks away, and it seems no matter how many times I walk or run those gravel paths, I will never have seen it quite enough. Walking an allée in the heart of the park, I heard the game’s familiar sounds: slap of the ball, scrape of shoes over stones scattering the asphalt, dull clang of the rim and the net’s nylon whoosh, the ball dropping clean — the only sound outside of a whistle that stills the movement of feet: staccato stutter, slick twist of the forefoot’s pivot, the swift slide of the defense stepping close. I took a ubiquitous green chair under the line of chestnuts and watched, half-amused and half-envious, the way I always feel when I happen on such a pick-up, in which the players clearly don’t know much about the game. They break every rule that had me running laps until I learned: don’t reach, move your feet, left hand on the left side, if I see the back of your head one more time, you’re going to feel this ball on it.
The game always sounds the same, no matter what language punctuates it. I wanted to play, but didn’t have the French to ask — by which I mean I did not have the courage. (Despite all American rumours to the contrary, Parisians are generally friendly and welcoming, so long as you’ve learned enough to make a proper greeting.) And so I sat, and watched, and thought about playing defense, about how it is perhaps a psychology as much as a set of physical gifts. To play defense is to anticipate, to react, to prevent. To guard, to mark. To shadow and watch.
This is one of those very bad weeks at the writing desk, when it’s all I can do to achieve the very basic Ass In Chair. It’s three weeks into summer break, which is nearly always the breaking point for me: overcome by too much free time, I struggle to make basic decisions about what to do with a day, become paralyzed with indecision, do nothing for hours, then feel terrible about it. For the last few years, I’ve simply given myself, at this point, license to take a break, reasoning that one cannot work all the time. But I am beginning to suspect that this is in fact a cop-out, a means of not going where, wrote Uncle Teddy, “I have to go.” There is some part of me that wants very badly to run very quickly away from the work, and some other part of me that wants to rationalize and so approve that avoidance. Or perhaps they are the same part: the mind afraid of failure, the will afraid it cannot do the job. The lungs calling time out. The heart believing it can’t go on.
It can. It does.