Days on the Asphalt
He picked me up with ease, placing me gently on his shoulders, and handed me the rough, orange-brown ball that felt extremely oversized between my miniature hands. As my dad raised me slowly towards the metal ring I cocked the ball back and threw it down into the net, allowing some hang time as I clung to the ring. This first, and only, slam dunk, which took place on the basket outside my house, signaled the official beginning of my basketball career.
There had been a basket there as long as I remember. It sat turned away from the house and the driveway, facing the other four houses in the cul-de-sac. I guess the neighbors took this as a sign that it was a community basket, because kids from across the street would come shoot on it whenever they felt like it. Beginning when I was about seven, before I knew much about basketball, I remember feeling incredibly protective of my beloved toy, and often attempting to shoot on the lowered rim strictly as an effort to shoo off the unwanted company. The goal had suffered a few falls, and the rough rope net hung disconnected from the broken metal pieces holding it. After years of use, the sturdy black metal pole had begun to rust, and the handle to adjust the height of the rim creaked with each turn. Black asphalt surrounded it on all sides, and the red spray painted three-point line stood in a semicircle roughly twenty-three feet and nine inches away from the basket. I had personally held the yellow measuring tape to assist my dad in measuring it.
After I had learned how to slam dunk, naturally I had to learn how to shoot. I began with a new, smooth basketball, and a naïve attitude. My dad demonstrated the simple steps: begin by holding the ball in my right hand and extend my arm out at eye level, then draw the ball towards my face and hold it at a ninety-degree angle, while lightly placing my left hand on the side of the ball. He emphasized the necessity of keeping everything in line as I extend up and jump, and the importance of always following through by flicking my wrist, “like you’re grabbing cookies from the cookie jar”. I snatched the ball eagerly, confident in my abilities, and felt for the gentle creases which I lined my fingers on. However, as I began to shoot it, I realized how many things could go wrong. Those were only the basic steps, but the small details to perfecting a shot seemed endless. Over and over my dad repeated phrases such as, “elbow in, don’t push with your left hand, it needs to be one fluid motion, flick your wrist, and jump, Cailin, your legs are where you get your power”. After an hour or so, I gave up. The sweat rolling down my face mixed with tears of frustration. However, some part of me must have enjoyed the challenge, because I returned to the basket the next day even more eager than before. We spent many days at the hoop, just me and my dad. The ball became rough and began peeling, but somehow my dad’s patience with me never gave out. I stuck with it until finally the ball consistently began to go in the basket; I had never felt more proud.
With time, and better form, I began to enjoy shooting, and escaped there whenever I needed time to myself. I remember in middle school and during my first few years of high school, while many of my friends enjoyed shopping as a relaxing hobby, I preferred to layer up and go shoot. As soon as I began to run around I allowed the chilled air to clear my mind of fights with my siblings, or the stress of recalling the dozens of pages of my textbook I had just read. The orange and red leaves fell on the grass around the court, and when I missed a shot I crunched through them to fetch the ball. Warm summer nights were also my favorite time to escape to the goal. After the sun went down, the temperature would drop twenty to thirty degrees and it would be bearable to go outside. The dark asphalt, warm from twelve hours of soaking up rays, matched the color of the sky, and the one tall streetlight a few feet behind the goal illuminated a small area around it. Whenever I bounced the ball, the vibration on the ground could be heard on the neighbor’s driveway on the other side of the cul-de-sac. I would turn around to see if they were outside playing too, but it was only the echo traveling all the way up their driveway. I remained alone and perfectly content.
The hoop was not always a place of serenity; it could turn into a war zone. Both of my younger brothers are extremely talented basketball players, and our afternoons were often filled with one-on-one tournaments. These games never went smoothly. They resulted in either one of us sprinting inside to complain to our parents about the other one cheating, or my brother punting the ball as far as he could after he believed that he had lost unfairly. The older we got the more physical and competitive the games became. We would often channel any anger we felt towards each other through fouls; guaranteeing that the other person would not only miss the shot, but would end up face-down on the unforgiving black gravel. Multiple games were stopped for bloody knees and elbows, but my mom always had the first aid kit handy. We were quickly bandaged up, and back on the asphalt impatiently waiting to play winner.
We have moved houses since then and our new house has a nicer basket right in the driveway. However, now that we all have different schedules, and most of our time shooting is spent with our teammates in our school gyms, our new hoop doesn’t receive nearly the same amount of love and attention as our rusted, rattling one did. About the same time that our basket changed, so did the game of basketball. Once I began to pursue my dream of playing in college, basketball began to induce stress, more often than relieving it. There was suddenly a responsibility to get up shots every day, and to grudgingly work on my ball handling because that’s what my hypothetical competition was supposedly doing 24/7. However, my love for basketball will never change. It may be not only a carefree hobby anymore, but I will always treasure those one-on one contests with my brothers, my dad’s eagerness to rebound for me, and his ability to easily find and correct any imperfection with my shot. Every time I recall my old basket I am reminded of the joy I felt when shooting that foreign orangish-brownish ball for the first time; I am reminded of why I love basketball.