This came back to me years later when my brother and I were moving my mother to a smaller apartment in Waltham, Massachusetts.
I was cleaning out a drawer when I came across a batch of newspaper clips from a summer basketball league I played in when I was nineteen. My team was called Sky’s the Limit and my teammates were a group of guys in their mid to late twenties who worked as engineers and managers for high end companies like Polaroid, IBM, and Honeywell, and who lived in the better areas of Waltham and out in Lexington, tall, jocular guys with solid hoop skills, confident and outgoing. Making a lot of money too, I assumed from the standpoint of what I was taking home working in a graveyard and what my parents made and the stellar reputations of the places they were employed at.
I met them one night in North Waltham, on the court closest to that apartment in Gardencrest, a low-rise development across Lyman Pond from Bentley College (now Bentley University). On Trapelo Road, I went there when I didn’t feel like going across town to Bicycle Park, where the competition was better and the summer league was hosted.
I’m struggling to recall my teammates’ first names and I suppose that says a lot about me and them. I’m sure I hadn’t seen them at the Trapelo Road court before that night, so it was likely I’d been back from school a few days only. Basketball was a consuming activity in my life at the time. I played almost every day. Despite my size, five-eight (and a half!), too short and thin-boned to entertain any ambitious hoop dreams, I was quick, had a good shot and that evening at Trapelo Road I must have been deep in the zone, lighting it up at a high intensity, because after a few games my soon-to-be teammates broke away and huddled on the grass. They came out of that and over to me with the news they had registered a team in the summer league and wondered if I wanted to be on it?
I was hesitant to agree. I mentioned I usually played on a team with my friends. It was called Bombers, and even though we hadn’t talked about it, I assumed, and was sure they did too, that I’d take up my usual spot at guard. But the tall blonde guy, the most vocal of them, was insistent. The Limit, as they called themselves, would be competitive and a penetrating guard with a killer outside shot would make them better.
“And that’s you,” he said with a pointing finger.
That bit of flattery got my attention. With only a little more stalling I said yes, but only if I started.
Obnoxious as that might have sounded, why would I leave a starting position on one team for a seat on the bench on another? The assurance came. Of course that’s what they had in mind. And after that the smiles and hand slapping went around. I was officially on The Limit.
“All right, all right,” the blonde guy exclaimed with a pumping fist, showing all his teeth.
He, and they, were sure The Limit would tear through the league. And while they were respectable players, a few of them better than that, it was a notion I didn’t bother tamping down. They’d find out soon enough. The summer league drew teams from all over the area. With names like Mean Streets, Jaws, and The Crush, their rosters included high school and college players, top-notch ballers and bangers from the playgrounds, more than a few of whom could violate the laws of verticality, and the overall competition they, we, would face was sure to be tough.
That didn’t matter right then. After a few games that night in North Waltham I saw myself getting a lot of minutes. I saw myself pounding the ball up the court on a fast break. I saw myself taking plenty of shots. I had seventeen or eighteen points a game in mind. No way I’d have to share the pumpkin as much as I would have with Bombers, a team I scored twelve or thirteen with. I wasn’t a ball hog. I liked to dish and deal the pill to my teammates. Most of all I liked to win. But I also liked seeing double digits next to my name in the box scores printed in The News Tribune. And I liked a boldfaced headline now and then, small as they were for summer league sports coverage.
While I’d enjoyed the thought of meeting new people and making a spur-of-the-moment decision, my friends, the friends I’d known and played with and against all my life, were pissed I’d gone off the rail. What was wrong with them and Bombers?
“That was much of a street unwise thing to do,” Michael said after I told them. He was Bombers’ starting center.
Kell, a lanky six-three kid with reddish hair, who was strung tight as a mousetrap, sniffed each of his armpits. “What the fuck?” he said, a comment I could only interpret as wondering if something had changed between us while I was away at school?
“Nothing,” I was adamant. “We’re cool. We’re cool as ice.”
Well, no, we weren’t cool. My tautological reply didn’t keep them from threatening a big-time payback when my new team and I met them on the court. It would be slaughter, they assured me. An in-your-face disgrace.
Thomas M., we’d called him The Bomb years before we named a team after him, connected a thumb and index finger to indicate how many points I could expect to score against them.
“Zero,” he filled the empty space in case I didn’t get it.
“You have a better chance of seeing god,” was my reply.
The Limit’s practices started a few days after I met them. They were organized sessions that might have come from a high school playbook and right away I wondered if I’d left a team with an exciting wide-open game for a boring one?
The answer was always yes, I had, but I did my best to appear eager and try to fit in. I did my best to listen to the coach as he pulled in the reins on my improvisational, run-and-gun game. The game that had impressed them enough to ask if I wanted to play for them.
Coach was a big dude. He carried a brown clipboard and paced the sidelines pointing out this and that: a screen had to be set at the top of the key on a certain play; a cut to the basket should be made sooner on another. He wasn’t a very good player, but his friends trusted his plan of a slowdown offense and dig-in defense and that meant getting me, the guy running the offense, to agree to it.
That was a lot easier said than done. My up-tempo style, a style I had a hard time applying the brakes to, and the coach’s restrained approach clashed. I might have tried to talk it over to nudge him, and The Limit, to my way of playing. I might have upped and left and went back to Bombers, a thought I had many times. But I knew my friends. I knew the torture they would put me through. They might have said no. They might have said maybe and left me hanging. They might have said yes and let me rot on the bench. I’d made an impulsive move. I had to stick with it.
This is all another way of saying The Limit never got its act together. Chemistry, those inexplicable bonds that make teams better than the sum of their parts, or worse if there’s a lack of it, was missing. The summer league was better than ever. We lost as many as we won and missed the playoffs. My place on the team was what I’d expected. I did what point guards in those days were supposed to do. I dribbled the ball across half court. I set up the plays the coach called from the sidelines. I didn’t like it. I was frustrated. The coach was frustrated. My teammates were frustrated. I did get my share of shots and scored in double digits most games. But we weren’t good enough to beat the best teams. And that included Bombers. Kell, The Bomb, and my other friends distributed a lethal dose of cruel and unusual punishment both times we played them. After each game they let me know just how much they enjoyed it. And they’d enjoyed it a lot.
Back to those newspaper clips. In one game I scored 27 but the guy I covered, a former player for Holy Cross, had 41 and we lost. I did get a headline for popping in 19 and leading The Limit to a win. But we were such a dysfunctional cast it was likely the team we’d played was just as bad.
Whatever. Bombers took me back the next summer. What humiliation might have been imposed on me to reclaim my spot, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, and however much it cost me, wasn’t a problem. No way would I ever play for anyone else in the Waltham City League. And that was probably one of the few mistakes I didn’t make a second time.
Paul Perilli lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The Transnational, Numero Cinq, Thema, Overland (False Documents issue contest winner), Aethlon, Jerry Jazz Musician (contest winner), and many other places. His recent fiction appears in The Write Launch (a novelette, “Roman Days”), Zin Daily (speculative fiction, “Vacation Time”), and Fairlight Books (a long story, “Vino, Vino”). His short story “His Name’s Not Ben” is forthcoming in The Fictional Cafe and an essay “Public Works” is coming out in Rabble Review.