In the Beginning Was the Handle: A Story of Dribbling in Heavy Traffic

Which came first, the comforting feel of the ball in my hands or my ability to keep it in my hands?  I don’t know. But I know I don’t remember ever feeling bad with a basketball in my hand.  To this day, there is some mysterious connection that occurs when I pick up the ball, a current that begins to flow.  It is the life in basketball.

I do remember sometimes feeling bad when thinking about basketball, especially in high school, especially junior and sometimes, more rarely, senior year. I might feel bad in a game when the ball was knocked out of my hands, but never, ever when the ball was in my hands. When the ball was in my hands, and even just when I stepped on the court, all was right: I always felt good, confident, hopeful, optimistic, relaxed, and at ease.  I feel this way to this day, even when the court I am stepping onto is just the neighborhood asphalt, even when I am alone, even when the body I step with is 47 years old and injured.

If I wasn’t playing I was looking forward to playing. When I finished playing I felt a bit of sadness, loss. Sometimes I’d feel disappointed about how I’d played. Sometimes I’d feel frustrated about the play of teammates or the breaks that hadn’t gone our way. Sometimes (usually) I’d feel nervous looking ahead to a game. But those feelings never grew to where I dreaded playing, or feared playing. On the contrary, they were always washed away in my eager anticipation of the next game, the next time the ball would be in my hands. Usually, just lying back in my bed, picking up my ball, move it around in my hands, just feeling it was enough to comfort me.

Near the beginning of his basketball memoir My Losing Season, the novelist Pat Conroy talks about the staccato rhythms of the ball on the floor:  “Where did all those games go, the ones I threw myself headlong into as a boy, a rawboned kid who fell in love with the smell and shape of a basketball, who longed for its smooth skin on the nerve endings of my fingers and hands, who lived for the sound of its unmistakable heartbeat, its staccato rhythms, as I bounced it along the pavement throughout the ten thousand days of my boyhood.”

I’m not sure where all those games went.  I actually don’t think they’ve gone anywhere, in my case anyway.  But I do know well the comfort of that feel and that sound; the sense of absolute easy, effortless control dribbling the basketball. It was on a string, a part of my hand. Casually dribbling, then springing into motion, intensifying the rhythm of the ball, which followed me a like a cheerfully obedient pet, or more: a vital, lively part of me. Experimenting with varying and controlling the rhythm of the ball hitting the pavement on the floor, I felt pleasure. I can’t consciously keep a beat to save my life, but with the ball in my hands, I was a percussionist — the ball and pavement my instruments — and more than once I dribbled around the driveway laying down the track of the bouncing ball over the rhythms of Earth, Wind and Fire blaring out of my father’s boom box (which he’d allowed me to take out to the garage).

I developed and refined my handle playing against my older brothers and my father in our drive way, probably starting around the summer I turned 5. Tony was the best athlete and most skilled, my Dad was the toughest and most physical, and Juan was the one would wear me down psychologically. But the truth is, they were all bigger, faster, and stronger than me.  I couldn’t shoot over any of them and I couldn’t back any of them down.  They were all three aggressive defenders who got up in my chest, suffocating me, and they all three got under my skin. If they took it easy on me on account of our age and size differences (my brothers were 8 and 9 years older than me), they were masters at disguising it.

So my game became protecting the ball, and using its motion as I protected it to create an opening, a passage, a line of flight through which I could burst on my way to the hoop.

This primal ability to protect the ball stayed with me and served me well, even years later, in high school. Our coach installed the North Carolina four-corners offense for the first time in my junior year when I joined the varsity as the starting point guard.

It might have been my favorite part of the game. We would lead by a point or two in the final couple of minutes, Coach would signal for the four corners, and I would be back in my driveway, dribbling and dribbling, beating my man, dishing off to one of my teammates in the corner, keeping alive an endless possession.  The feel of the ball in my hands then provided the opportunity to be selfish in a system that mostly had me thinking about others, a chance to control circumstances in a life that felt mostly bewildering and out of control.

Those possessions in high school might end with a teammate’s easy lay-up; more often with me shooting free-throws, which I made, especially at the end of games. I loved being at the line at the end of close games with the ball in my hand.

But at the beginning, when I was a little kid, there were no teammates, no fouls, and no free throws.  So it was all lay-ups, earned lay-ups crafted in traffic, under duress. My enemies never relented, even when I’d created my half-step margin, they rode on the back of my hip, the steel bar of a man’s arm across my chest, a sharp knee in my thigh as I pushed past.  But with the ball in my hands, I knew with my bones and muscles that the path to the hoop was mine, a thing I had made and that I had a right to.  That narrow passage was my realm, my kingdom, and my Eden.

But even when I got my step on one of them (earned when I was older, charitably granted perhaps sometimes when I was younger – though it never felt like charity), I knew I wasn’t done. Their dark shadows loomed behind me. And I could hear the sound of their breathing and feel the impending weight of their bodies.  They could easily block my shot from behind, frequently did so, and in doing so ejected me from my paradise, crushing the sense of power and autonomy I’d struggled so earnestly to craft.

So I developed through trial and error the knowledge of using my body and the hoop to protect the shot, to protect the space I had created, my space, and to extend that space all the way and up over the rim.  I learned that I could go under the basket to shoot the reverse, I learned to change my shot in mid-air, I learned to stop on a dime, fake, and when Papá or Tony or Juan had committed to go for the block and gone up or by me I would toss it up softly off the board.

Yago-007So if my handle and my quickness were my first game, finishing strongly and creatively near the hoop were the second, and a corollary of the first, and like my handle forged by the conditions of the games and especially the opponents I had at hand.

I would, over time, come to enhance my ball-handling skills with endlessly repeated drills. But the fundamental principles and mechanics and their systematic and orderly development by rote came much later. First there was this pragmatic academy in ball and life, founded on the chaotic urgency of my small body and my desire to keep up, my will to be grown, and equal at least to the best around me. Somehow, there was no intimidation, no fear. I was anger and determination.  And I was the joy of life in the ball.  I was that ball on a string.  I was the force of life its movement lent to me.  And, in the beginning, from the beginning and still to this day, I was that crazy, intuitively calculated prayer tossed up off the glass at the end.

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