The score is tied at the start of the second half of our eighth grade recreational league basketball game in the millenial year 2000. My son Sam is trying very hard, as he always does. He is arguably the best all around player on the team, having chosen not to play on the town team after not getting a lot of playing time on that premier team the year before. He passes exceptionally well, drives to the boards, something I haven't seen him do before, is more aggressive and confident. And although his inside shots are not falling today he is trying. I tell him, "just keep it up, you are doing everything right, the shots will start to fall for you."
Sam goes up for a rebound under the offensive boards. He gets tangled up with the other team's center and comes down very hard and awkwardly on his right ankle, which bends horribly under him. He is on the ground writhing in pain with an injury that is instantly obviously more than just a sprain. His mother takes him to the health plan for examination while I continue to coach the game, which we lose in overtime, and I then join them at the doctors. Although the x-rays are inconclusive, it doesn’t look good. He leaves with a major splint, crutches, and an orthopedic appointment for Monday. He will not play or practice all this weekend, all next week, maybe not the week after that, and who knows for how long beyond. I am immensely pained and disturbed by his injury. It is a lonely experience for each of us. Were I Sam, I project I would be terribly upset at my losses and at the limitations on my freedom. I think of the school trips that are planned for the coming weeks and the many activities he has been so happily engaged in. He was on a roll and he is now virtually stopped in his tracks. I tell Lynne I’m surprised at how much equanimity Sam seems to be displaying. She says maybe it won't hit him fully until he has to go to school. Were it me I'd have been a basket case at the start. I am so disturbed in my identification with him I go to sleep and check out for twelve hours. Lynne's trip to India is less than a week away.
The x-rays on Monday confirm that Sam has an ankle fracture, as well as torn ligaments. He is placed in a hard cast up to his knee. His good brave spirits amaze me. He takes great hope in the possibility that this injury is not a season ending injury that will preclude his return for the championship tournament games in the recreational league or in his school league. Indeed, the only time I see his equanimity shattered is when he understands that prudence may require we assure this potentially season ending injury does not turn into a career ending injury, that he might indeed not return to the courts this season at all.
"Basketball was the best thing in my whole life this year," he says.
I understand how completely true that is, how engaging playing ball five days a week has been for him, how much being a starter on the rec team and the Pierce School team has meant to him. He's been on such a roll even his grades pick up.
Lynne leaves for India. She is gone two weeks. Sam limps around stoically. Bravely. I go with him on his class trip to Chinatown. Sam continues to go to all his school team practices, never missing one, notwithstanding his injury. He sits on the bench at every school game and every rec league game, game after game. When we leave one of the recreational league games after a well-played victory he says, "That was fun." I am so impressed with his demeanor, his good spirits, and calm.
I come home from work in time to coach the rec league basketball practices. Sam doesn't go which is the right decision, but leaves him home alone while I coach and play with his friends, a weird sensation. In a dream I have I ask one of the young ball players if being down on himself helps him to play better, worse, or a little of both. It is a good question. I also think about injuries.
When I was a young boy, at age eight, leaving camp I didn’t like after two months, I "accidentally" dropped a big rock on my foot, seriously injuring myself. It was not merely an accident. Nor was it an accident when I rode my tricycle down the stairs in front of my apartment on 168th street at age four and badly hurt myself. And when I fell out of the tree and dislocated my elbow at age 39, that act of carelessness also was more than simply accident, or inattention. On the other hand, when I pressed down on the metal apple corer and it snapped and gashed my hand to the bone that was an accident. And when I was running on the beach at age twelve and sliced opened my foot on the broken coke bottle that was an accident too. Shit happens. Life is a mystery.
I speculate that Sam's and my vulnerability to disease and decreased resistance can be affected by our emotional strength or clarity. I think that is true for many people. It is also true that people get sick or hurt for reasons that have nothing to do with their clarity of thought or mental health.
Lynne returns safely from India. I go with Sam to the health plan on Valentine's Day to get his cast removed after six full weeks. The smile of relief I see on his face is a cherished moment. The town wide school playoffs start three weeks later to the day. He hopes and he prays.
Our rec league team loses in the finals, Sam does not play. But Sam’s Pierce elementary school team makes it to the final round of the town tournament, although Sam has not played one minute of any game since the fracture. On the night before the school league championship game Lynne, Sam, and I sit in Sam’s bedroom discussing whether he will play the next day or not. His fractured ankle is still hurting him badly, but there is also really only this one opportunity in life for him to play in his town's grade school championship game.
We all struggle with the question of what is best for him. Could he play? Should he play? Will it hurt him to do so? Will it hurt the team? Who will make the final decision? Lynne says she thinks that we as parents should make the decision, that it is not fair to put the weight of this choice on Sam. I say I am not convinced it isn’t Sam's choice to make. We all agree to sleep on it and make the decision, better informed as to Sam's actual condition, on game day.
When I go in to wake Sam the next morning I ask how his ankle is and he says with absolute clarity, "I can't play." I respect and love this man. He is sad, and clear, heroic in my eyes, and still limping.
When I arrive at the game Sam is suited up with the rest of the team and gingerly moving around, running lightly in a lay up line. The game begins and is very competitive and close throughout. The high school gym is full to overflowing. Many of the students who have gone on to high school and college from the two finalist schools have returned for the game. The energy and rivalry are super-intense and it is tremendously exciting. The Pierce team dominates at first going inside again and again to their big center Terrence Raeford. In the second half the Runkle School comes back with exceptional team play, pressing on defense, stealing the ball, making their outside shots and the easy lay ups. With about five minutes left in the game Pierce is down by nine and the boys step it up. Pierce is down by five with four minutes to go but Terrence has fouled out. Brendan O'Connor, the team’s second strongest player makes two clutch free throws and then he fouls out. With two minutes left and still down five points the third starting player, Eli, fouls out.
After Eli fouls out, the team coach, Billie, comes and stands right in front of Sam and looks at him. He doesn’t say a word and doesn’t even really ask, but shows with his desperate eyes how much it would help, if Sam has anything to give, if he could go into the game. I watch Billie staring at Sam. There is no pressure intended in his inquiry. He is a great coach and he and Sam respect each other. They hold each other's eyes for three or four very long seconds and then Sam simply nods his head yes and limps over to the scorer’s table.
Sam trots on to the floor to cheers and fears. He limps up and down the court. He handles the ball well but has no shot opportunities and can't really put any pressure on his injured ankle. But his passing helps and his presence is a lift, and with the crowd going wild the game ends in regulation time in a tie. Sam then plays the entire five-minute overtime. Each team is so exhausted and tense that not one field goal is made in the overtime period. The Runkle team scores four points from the foul line. The Pierce team scores five. There is a tremendous moshing of players and fans on the floor of the gymnasium. Sam emerges from the pile eyes gleaming with happiness. He runs over to me on the sideline. “How’re you,” I ask. "My ankle is killing me," he screams, "and I don't care!"
There is life. And there is basketball.