A basketball diary

You land in Los Angeles and make for a motel near the airport. Its toilet has the same smell as the one you used at the terminal, the smell of water that’s stale or something, water you wouldn’t want to drink. You hardly sleep that night, what with the sound of the planes and the early start ahead. You keep waking and looking at the time, checking the alarm, because, well, catching that next plane seems more important than just about anything else.

In the morning back at the airport you spend time at a place that sells coffee and doughnuts, mostly because of the black woman working there. When you get close to her you see she has big sad eyes and little raised white dots on the darker patches below them. You ask her how she is and she answers Oh, jus’ hangin’ in honey and as she says it she smiles though her eyes still look sad. You like it that she called you honey and the sound of her words holds you still for a second. You try to think of something else to say just to hear her speak again.

The plane to Salt Lake City is full of well-dressed people. A business flight, you suppose. You’re sitting beside a guy who is also tall, though not as tall as you. Hey, these guys advertise more leg room… let’s find out! he booms as he drops into his seat. He talks all the way to Salt Lake City. He asks about you and when you tell him you’ve come here to play college basketball he gives you his card, instructing you to send him a copy of your schedule. He’s on the road a lot, perhaps he can catch one of your games. Weeks later the first thing you do when you get the small cards on which the season’s games are printed, framed on all sides by ads for Coke, is to post him one with a note. Dear Steve, Remember the Kiwi you met on a flight between LA and Salt Lake City? You never hear from him.

At Salt Lake City it is clear and sunny and you ask someone to take a photo of you in front of a big window with parked planes in the background. You put on a big smile. Your mother said she wanted photos, for herself and to show the kids she teaches, but mostly for herself. She wants reassurance you’re OK. You are OK, as far as you can tell, though it has only been a day since you left, you’re still on the way there and even if you weren’t OK you wouldn’t let her know. The thought of doing or saying anything that might upset your mother sickens you. She’s been through enough. When everyone else was saying Go, you must, it’ll be good to get away from all this and what an opportunity your mother said nothing. She didn’t want you to leave, nor was she going to ask you stay.

Out of the window on the next flight you see small towns against a dry landscape and sometimes, on a hill near a town, you see a large single white shape resembling a capital letter. A ‘C’ then a ‘P’ then a ‘T’ all pass below, mysteriously, looking like some secret code for air travellers to crack. After a time, the plane goes in to land at one of these towns. Some people get off and a few get on. This sets off a chain of stops, the plane climbing and then descending almost immediately, up and down, up and down. You overhear a passenger say to a flight attendant How’s the milk run today? She answers, eyes wide in a pretend crazy way, a look which makes her prettier somehow: Someone’s gotta do it, I guess.

It happens suddenly – you feel set upon by tiredness. You’re so tired you doze off and sleep through one of these stops. There’s a squeeze of panic when you come to and realise what has happened. You pinch your inner thigh to fight off the drowsiness. You can’t sleep through your stop.  

The plane lands at the town that’s to be your new home though you haven’t ever thought about the town that way. To you it’s little more than a place name, one made familiar by having been in your mind and in many of your conversations these last six months, but still just the name of a place, the last one on the itinerary the travel agent gave you. Of the place itself, all you know is what you got from the few photos the coach sent and by looking it up. It has a cathedral and there’s a mountain, which sometimes has snow on it. One of its mayors, years ago, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. No, the word ‘home’ isn’t right. Even though you’ve left your home to come here, you haven’t ‘left home’. At least, you haven’t let yourself think that’s what might have happened. You’re coming here to live for a while, is what you’ve let yourself think.

The day has grown a large, indestructible quality. As you walk across the tarmac it is as bright and blue-skied as it was in Salt Lake City, and that now seems a long time ago. Inside the small terminal building you walk past a large stuffed bear and then you hear your first name being called. The voice is female, gentle, made sing-song by a questioning tone. Moving towards the voice, you find yourself before a woman wearing tight jeans and a pink sleeveless shirt. “Welcome”, she says smiling, holding out her hand. Her mouth stays open after she speaks and her teeth are large.

In a carpark full of pickup trucks the coach’s wife invites you to hoist your luggage into the back of one. The coach was to have been there to meet you but he’d been called out of town unexpectedly. “So he sent the Deputy Sheriff,” she’d said.

As she drives, her slight build at odds with the enormity of the cab of the truck, she asks you about the trip and your family and points out things – the continental divide is only 20 miles thataways, the range to the right is called The Posse because look – doesn’t that group of mountain tops look just like a bunch of riders? Your answers to her questions are minimal, especially your answers to the family questions. You’d rather gaze out across the wide yellow-brown expanse that stretches out to the mountains. As you enter the town you pass gas stations. It could be Waiouru, you think.

Now you’re driving along streets lined with houses. Small fire hydrants are painted red, white and blue. Looking down the driveway of one house you spy a backboard and hoop. You consider saying something, something like hey, there’s a basketball house because basketball is the reason you’re here, sitting in this pickup truck alongside the coach’s wife. Then you look down more driveways and see that most of them are basketball houses. The joy of discovering that first basket evaporates. Instead, you now feel an apartness. You know that soon you’re going to have to prove yourself as a basketball player and pitted against you is this – a hoop in every driveway. You decide not to say anything.

She turns off the road and sweeps her arm before her theatrically and says: May I present – the campus. There are brick buildings to left and right, lawns and trees, a slope crowned by an older stone building.

Minutes later you are standing in an office on the ground floor of this building. The Assistant Dean is a short man with an eager smile. He is telling you things. Your room is on the top floor he says, six storeys up, no lifts. Coach’s orders, interjects the coach’s wife who has said several times she must run but is still there. Keeps you in shape. She winks and grins her toothy grin. You ask the Assistant Dean where you might find a toilet. He gives directions and you set off along an empty corridor with a high ceiling. You’d been told you’d be arriving early, about a week before the rest of the students, so it’s no surprise there’s no one around. As you pee you read a line of graffiti written in green on the white wall: Mary Bianco blew me last night. As you whisper the name Mary Bianco to yourself you wonder about her, what she might be like, if you’ll ever meet her. As you near the office on your return, you’re aware they’re speaking in much lower tones. You slow down and strain your ears. “Obviously tired and jetlagged” you hear the Assistant Dean say. “Sure,” the coach’s wife replies. “But there’s something else. I don’t know… it’s like he’s …” She breaks off because you make sure your footsteps can be heard before re-entering the room.

Your room on the sixth floor has two beds, two desks and a wardrobe. You’ll be sharing it with a roommate in a week and you ask yourself how that’s going to go. You decide which side of the room you prefer and lie on the bed for a while, staring at the ceiling which has a number of small round marks you think can only have been made by contact with a ball. Your thoughts turn to basketball again. How did this all happen? How did the game become something that started shaping your life? It was fun, that’s why you started playing. You loved it, still do. The large round ball was so biddable, so obedient. You put in time, it would reward you. Once you sat outside on a Saturday afternoon vowing not to move until you could spin the ball on your finger. It took an hour and half.

But after a time this object of desire, by stealth it seemed, moved in and started taking up more of your time, occupying headspace, messing with your emotions, exhausting you, once putting you in hospital with a haematoma that spread over your thigh like a cloud of octopus ink. You loved the game so much you never questioned this, the way it took over. With your friends, you downplayed what basketball meant to you, making out it was this larky, interesting diversion you could take or leave, an addict trying to pretend he wasn’t. The truth was it had become a big part of who you were.

You’ll go the gym tomorrow morning and shoot around. The coach’s wife had pointed it out – a big squarish building on the edge of the campus. You imagine a big space with a floor shining like a flat sea on a summer’s day. Yeah, you think, that’s what it will be like… like arriving at some unknown beach, strange yet familiar. You’ll look up at the hoop with its net and smile. I know you. The ball will roll off your fingertips as it always has and rise up then drop through the net with that reassuring hiss. Your shots falling through the iron circle will be like footprints left in the sand, momentary, quickly washed away.

The coach’s office is there, in the gym. Chances are you’ll run into him tomorrow. The two of you have talked on the phone a few times, those calls which half the family stood around to witness, so novel and wondrous was this communication with the American northwest. He had a soft purring voice. Everything OK? Lookin’ forward to seeing ya. You start thinking about which t-shirt and which pair of shoes you might wear tomorrow. Maybe the national team top. First impressions.

A little later you go down to the dining hall for dinner. You eat alone, lasagne which tastes of tomato puree and mince and not much else. The football team lines tables on the far side of the room. The Assistant Dean told you they’d be here. Their first game isn’t far off.

The guy who stops you on the stairs when you’re returning to your room is a football player. His beard and heft make him seem much older than you, but he says he’s also a freshman. The name of the town he’s from sounds odd. It’s French he tells you when you ask him to spell it. French all over up there back in the day. Fur trappers, mostly. You can picture him packing down in the French scrum. After a brief exchange of hometown trivia he asks, out of the blue Hey, do you smoke dope? You answer sometimes, though you have no intention of getting stoned with him. You change the subject and soon after the two of you part ways.

Back in your room you sit on the bed and look out the window as the light starts to fade. You start scratching the side of your thumbs with the nail of your index fingers, removing skin, drawing a little blood. This is something you do sometimes, but this time the people who have always told you to stop aren’t there.

You have a good view of the mountain behind the town. The sun is setting behind the mountain. How can that be? Your instinct – and you’ve always backed your sense of direction – tells you that’s not westward. This troubles you. If the west is over there, and it must be if that’s where the sun is going down, then north is round to the right and that feels even weirder. Your internal compass is telling you south lies in that direction.

You sit with this for a while.You don’t know which way is up. For the past two days you’ve tried not to look inward, not to ask yourself how you were, just go with the adventure as some advised, though you were never sure what that was supposed to mean. But now it’s too big to ignore, this rising sense of being adrift and the dread that’s linked arms with it. Inward is open for business and yes, you do know the way there. You also know what comes next. There’s a collapsing feeling inside you then everything arrives in a surge. That night, that night when something you loved got replaced with nothing. Your mother was ironing in the kitchen, you were up in your room. The cops came to the door. Her scream seemed to tear the house in two.

Sitting on the bed, looking out the window, you shed tears. You wonder about being here. If it was so right, why are you feeling this way?

You move to your bag, which is on the floor still unpacked, reach in and rummage. You pull out a bottle in a plastic duty free bag. It’s a half bottle of a liqueur you bought at the airport. After opening it you look around for a glass, though you’re already sure you won’t find one. The room is empty, waiting for you to scatter your stuff, make your mark. So you start drinking from the bottle. The sweet warmth of the drink spreads down through you, slowly, a molten flood. You take another swig. You start feeling better, pacified. This is what you knew would happen. It was something you learned when you and a mate went on a summer hitch hiking holiday a few years ago and arrived at a beach town with no plan, nowhere to stay, evening coming on. You were both scared but incapable of saying so. Then you bought some beer and drank it under a boatshed and the world was a changed place.The power to banish care. You’d read that once in a book. 

Then you remember the cigarettes you bought at that stopover in Tahiti. They’re French. You’d had them before and liked them; the strong herbal smell of their smoke seemed so much more interesting and other-worldly than the usual darts. You’ve never really smoked, only at parties now and then, especially when there was something cool to smoke like these. You fish out the packet along with the folder of matches you’d pocketed from the LA motel reception desk. The first whiff of smoke is comforting. It’s something you know and now it has joined you here. The cigarette burns quickly and the room fills with smoke. As you smoke you take further mouthfuls of liqueur.  Outside the sun has disappeared and as the mountain darkens it grows larger.

Next week’s short story is a potsmoking odyssey by Michael Morrissey

John Saker was New Zealand's first professional basketball player and is a former Tall Blacks captain. He lives in Wellington and is the author of five books.

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