It’s funny how the word "family" is so comforting.
"Family on 3... 1-2-3 FAMILY!" That was what my college basketball team chanted before games—we originally used the word “team,” but as a captain my senior year, I decided to change our chant to “family.”
Months after that final whistle blew, and I untied my team shoes for the last time, I found myself part of a “family” chant once again. A new family this time—a pale-faced, new guy named “Kemp” amidst a team huddle that had been together and chanted “family” thousands of times before me. I joined the North Charleston Recreational League weeks ago as an outlet to exercise my longing to keep playing the game of basketball. Though all of my other league games have been fun, I will never forget the first time I put on that Timberwolves uniform.
About 30 minutes early (not that I’m especially punctual, but I was unaware that when my coach messages the team, he always says the game is a half hour before tip-off because nobody is ever on time), I strolled into what seemed like a sparsely used middle school gym. I had only met Coach Hill once before, but I stuck out like Owen Wilson at a DMX concert, so he had no trouble spotting me.
“Kemp (Cullen is too hard to scream from the bench, he says), you gunna wear #23—like Jordan—you better play like him too,” Coach Hill prodded, as if he had known me for years.
Warm ups started, and I jumped into lay-up lines with 10 teammates, though I only knew maybe one or two of their names. There were so many differences between me and the other 10 men wearing Timberwolves jerseys that Sunday afternoon—everything from ethnicity to the fact that they had all been playing basketball with each other for over a decade. Yet, the jersey meant team, and team meant family.
Feeling comfortable, I started dunking the ball to the pleasure of 20 or so youngsters who filled the small set of bleachers adjacent to the court. I heard one of them say, “Man, that dude is like Larry Bird with hops,” and couldn’t help but grin.
Soon, the buzzer sounded, signaling the start of the game. “Bring it in, y’all,” Coach Hill told his Timberwolves, and as all of our hands touched in unison, I couldn’t help but admire the contrast of color between my arm and the others.
When I sat on the end of our bench, my senses took over—the smell of sweat mixed with the scent of charred rubber shoe soles from quick movements over hardwood floor. Just as easily as my love for basketball had vacated after I de-laced my team sneakers for the last time, I felt it rushing back. I waited anxiously… then I heard, “Kemp get ‘em!”
It was Coach Hill’s way of telling me to check into the game.
For the first minute or so, I avoided taking shots or over-dribbling for fear that an early mistake may send my butt back to the bench. Yet, soon enough, I was in the flow of the game and received a pass a few steps behind the three-point line. “Good pass boy!” I yelled before the ball even left my hands for the basket. Quelling my (over)-confidence was a clank sound as the ball bounced rudely off the rim and out of bounds.
I looked over to Coach Hill as if to say, “My fault, I’ll make the next one.”
His eyes—a stranger’s—accompanied by a subtle nod let me know that he had all the confidence in the world that I was right. On my next shot, I delivered.
The game went back and forth for the remainder of the half and before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of a sweaty huddle—Coach Hill drew up the final play. We had the ball under the other team’s basket down two points with five seconds to play. The play was diagrammed for me to set a screen for our point guard who would pop open for a (hopefully) game-winning three pointer (I was not particularly excited about my role in the play considering the MAN who I had to screen was about 5’10’’ 240—all mean muscle—and had been knocking down everyone in his path all game).
Just before the ball was put into play, the MAN sort of snarled at me and, with a deathly whisper, told me that if I knew what was good for me I would get the F out of his way—not only did I not know what was good for me, I didn’t get out of his way.
My slender 6’5’’ frame was no match, and when the whistle blew the bull of a man put his head down and made me feel like a Kimbo Slice football victim.
A bit disoriented and gasping for air, I realized that the guy who was guarding me had forgotten that I existed and left me staggering, wide open right behind the 3-point line. I received the in-bounds pass with seconds ticking off the clock… 3…2…1. I released my patent high-arching shot that I had made so many times, in so many situations before.
The ball bounced softly on the front of the rim, then off the back, (then hung on the rim like it was taking a nap), before deciding to roll off. No good.
I trudged back to the bench, accepting sympathetic-low-fives. “Everybody meet by the truck,” Coach Hill said.
After a short speech outside, Coach Hill told the team of friends to bring it in. “Kemp, welcome to the family,” he said as we chanted the word one final time.
On my 15-minute drive home that day, I didn’t seek out consolation from my mom, dad, or friends. I was busy trying to sift through my emotions to figure out just how I was feeling after the day’s heartbreaking game.
I settled on comforting.