On the Line
It all comes down to this. No time left, the game is tied, and there you are, on the line, on the charity stripe as it’s sometimes called, waiting. You’re poised, your feet are set, and your arms rest on your hips: you look relaxed. You’re waiting, waiting for the ball to come to you, there on the line. Just waiting for the referee to bounce you the ball. Just waiting on that referee there...
Yes that referee. That same referee who, up until this point of the game, had awarded no calls in your favor. Zero, not one single whistle on your behalf. Not even the ridiculously obvious moving-screen incident towards the end of the first half. You remember, the screen where that overweight behemoth from the other team clocked you with his forearms just as you were moving in front of your man, the blow causing you to let out a yelp of involuntary shock and pain while simultaneously falling flat on your backside with such sudden force that you slid, yes slid-because of you were sweaty-on the hardwood in a squeaky shining heap, leaving a moist and glistening trail of slime-sweat, like a slug might do, back almost ten whole feet from where the cheap-shot/concussion-inducing screen took place.
You slid all that way, and when you were done sliding you ended up right at the very feet of the same referee who now holds the ball in his hands. The same referee who, at having you slide so suddenly to his generically bland brand of all-black referee-grade sneakers, simply ignored your unfortunate collision with the behemoth, and dismissed the whole thing as “incidental contact” and then, to your complete amazement, hopped over your broken, injured, and clearly fouled body to get a better look at the play developing nearer the basket. The basket that your team was then trying to defend without you.
Yes, that referee. The referee with the gut. The one who has the bald spot and the beady little eyes and the really high waistline. The referee who, for the duration of the entire game, was seemingly blind and deaf to all of the curse-laden trash talk and blatant cheap shots from the other team. Oblivious to it all, it seemed, but not oblivious when you needed him to be, when you yelled at him. No, he was not oblivious at all then, not by a long shot now was he? And you had to find that out the hard way, because just after the impact with the behemoth’s forearms (that nearly killed you, remember) you sprang up from the floor in your semi-concussed state full of righteous anger and surprising resiliency. Up in a flash you were, and unusually loud as you bellowed something incredulous at him, at that referee, with your arms outstretched, palms up, your head forward and eyes narrowed, with an expression that can only described as a combination of twisted disgust and complete bewilderment. Unfortunately though, this caused said referee to spin around on the spot and gaze at your amazingly forceful, up-and-about self with a sort of benign indifference. A slack-jawed tepid malignancy that seemed to undercut your passion and outrage, causing your improvised and impassioned rant/plea/call to reason to sputter to a halt as you awaited his reaction.
And then, of course, that referee’s predictable reaction to any and all forms of self dignity, with the lightening-fast (and in all probability choreographed) motion of the hands as they formed a “T” just inches in front of your widened eyes, and the equally swift and shrill “tweet” of his whistle in your ears. It was all so quick, so shockingly unjust, that it took you a solid ten second to piece together and interpret all of these bits and flashes of movement and sound, coming finally to the conclusion that you still, even now at the line, are both trying to wrap your mind around and to forget: the fact that you had been given a technical foul.
That referee. The one whose inconsistencies and bias you’re trying now not to think about as you stand, ready, on the line. You glance at that referee as he now tweets his whistle for an unusually long interval just before he bounces you the ball. You think perhaps that this fraction of a second too long (and now that you think about it, too loud) held note of the little black whistle is a last-ditch effort on the referee’s part to distract you from sinking this shot, and maybe it is. I mean, “Why wouldn’t it be?” you’re now thinking to yourself. After all, that would certainly fit into your theory of him waging some kind of not-so-subtle vendetta against you for the entire game. You think about this as you watch him raise his hand, signifying that: here, now, you’re about to get the ball.
But now look at what he does! This ref! This crook! This corrupt zebra of the court! Now it’s getting ridiculous, because instead of bouncing you the ball (like all referees are expected, nay, demanded to do) he rolls it to you. Rolls it! The ball! To you! As if this were just some street level, no consequence, pick-up game, with nothing on the line, not even respect or decency.
But now you know, at least, you know now that its official; the whole vendetta thing. You know that he, this chubby, balding, high-waisted, horrible-excuse-for-a-human-being-much-less-a-ref, has it out for you. That’s what you’re thinking anyway, as you bend over, at the waist, to scoop up the orange orb just before it skids against your shoe-tips.
You rise now, slowly, ball in your hands, and as you bring your head up to focus in on the hoop you catch the referee rubbing his hands onto his black pants, feigning an expression of surprise and confusion. The expression you recognize instantly as put-on, as his poor attempt to mask his prejudice against you, against your team, by this little show of letting everyone know that the only reason he rolled you the ball, instead of bouncing it, was because of some slippery substance on his hands, that the whole rolling things was an apparent “accident.” But you know better. You know that this is just another one of his attempts to throw you off your game.
But now, now is the time to forget these things, these transgressions of horrendous officiating, to put them from your mind as you grip the ball in your hands. Grip and forget, grip and forget; now you’re getting it. You feel the ball in your hands now, I mean really feeling it. The warmth of the smooth leather, all of the divots and ridges crisscrossing one another beneath your hands, the slight slickness of it pressing against your finger tips, the weight of it pulling against your arms.
And now you wipe the ball against your jersey, the orange sphere that is the culmination of all those little details, you wipe it against your jersey, not so much as to dry it (after all, at this point your jersey is thoroughly soaked with sweat) but just because wiping it against yourself is part of your routine, of your ritual whenever you’re on the line. So you wipe and return the ball to its default position between your hands. You’re holding it now as someone might hold a watermelon, hands evenly placed on either side, not in a shooting position or shot-grip fashion, but just wrapping your hands around as much of the ball as possible, feeling it as much as you possibly can, so that the ball is merely another part of your body, of your hands specifically. So that when you feel the ball cupped and secure in your hands it’s as if there were no ball there at all, just an extension of yourself. Nothing but leather-bound air there in between your palms, nothing but the air you’ve been breathing the entire game. You look, now, in this position, as if both of your arms and the ball form a sort of upside-down isosceles triangle, with the ball being the point of it all.
So you exhale now, giving the ball a little more of yourself, and bring it up over your head, hands still on either side, and then behind your head. You touch it against the base of your neck once. Twice, acclimating your muscles to the ball, preparing them. This is part of your routine too, but unlike the whole wiping-against-your-jersey thing, (which is more of a habit, really), this aspect of your on the line familiarizations is one of practicality. This allows your arm muscles to be slightly over-stretched (by pulling them back and over your head) to prepare them for the execution of the actual shot. This can best be compared to a marathon runner who will run 15 miles a day to get ready for only a 5 mile race. This is like that kind of over extension, only infinitely expedited, faster, quicker, sooner. An instantaneous kind of preparation of over extension for the purposes of flawless execution.
And so now you bring the ball back over your head, hands still on either side, bringing it back, over, down in front of yourself, just in front of your groin. Now, with you arms slanting and forming the same triangular shape as before, you inhale. Inhale slowly. Letting the air inflate your lungs, expanding them. Then, at the apex of your inhalation you drop your chin slightly, almost tucking it into your neck, so that your focused gaze meets the metallic-orange target, the small portion at the back-base of the rim known (to basketball followers everywhere) as the spring-box.
All is stillness for a moment. But now your lungs are at full capacity, and so you release it, the air, quickly exhaling so that your cheeks puff out and your lips purse, forming a sort of “O” shape as the air escapes from you. And, as the last puff of breath squeezes its way through your lips, you dip your head forward and gaze for the first time at the ball in your hands. As you look at it you feel the slight breeze of that last breath on your thumbs.
At this sensation upon the digitus primus of both hands, you push the ball down, away, down onto the hardwood just in front of your slightly off-center feet. A single dribble. The ball responds accordingly to this movement, making a springing-thud noise as it bounces up off the painted area just in front of the line, the line you’re behind. As the ball graces upward it connects with your fingertips first, and then slides farther back up and into your palm, which absorbs all of the momentum of the first dribble, your first dribble. The first of your customary, at-the-line-two-dribble routine. So you dribble again, more forcefully this time, fully extending your arm, locking the elbow momentarily as the ball makes its second connection with the hardwood. The springing-thud noise is louder this time, making the ball slide back up quicker and swifter than before, straight up to the touch of your fingertips, to the smoothness of your palms. You’re Shooting Hand takes most of this impact as your move it behind the ball, and then, coming over to assist, your Guide Hand sways over to secure the ball in your hands. The momentum of the two dribbles is now nullified. The ball is now supported by all eight of your fingers, both of your thumbs, and the part of your shooting hand known as The Pad, the part of the hand that inevitably calluses first whenever you mow the lawn or grip anything rough for long periods of time.
So, now that the ball is secure and ready, you dip your knees so that you’re about six inches shorter than your actual height. As you lower yourself thoughtfully into position, you pull the ball up to what players and coaches like to call the “shot pocket.” It is called this, called the “shot pocket,” because (theoretically) this is the position where, at any given moment, a player who wants to “let it rip” would most want to have the ball. This is because the “short pocket” is supposedly a place of maximum efficiency and familiarity for a shooter. Had you caught the ball in the position you presently have it during the game, you would have shot it already. Released it to the hoop, watching it rotate slowly backwards, arching upwards, and then..and then softly falling through the net…
But free-throws are different. They are different because with them everything is slowed, stymied, and stopped. Halted, so that things become almost hypersensitive to a point where you find it absolutely and fantastically remarkable that you were able to tune those things out before.
Things that you now, essentially, can’t not notice. Things like the sometimes dull, sometimes deafening roar of the crowd, or the squeak of everyone’s expensive sneakers on the slick surface of the court. Things like the smell of the ten bodies of both teams as they work and sweat and stink, mixing with the present aroma of concession stand food, especially the powerful one of buttery-burnt popcorn. Things like the blur of everyone moving so quickly around, you and the sight of the court’s color scheme, and how, if you looked at it for too long, it would make your eyes ache. Things like the sour-ish after-taste of Gatorade you just drank at that last timeout, or the metallic/rusty tang of blood from the cut inside your lip, the cut from the first half, right before you got the technical foul. Things like the feeling of the floor beneath you, of the atmosphere around you, of how tired you suddenly feel from the sheer feeling of it all, all at once, these limitless potential distractions, coming at you, and their sounds coming and crashing around you like waves.
So you see with free-throws, all of these “what-used-to-be-peripheral” sensations are now at the forefront of your mind and body. This means that now is the time where you need to have, have to have, must-in-spite-of-everything have that special something that all deadly accurate players have at times like this: focus. Focus is required here, at the line. It is demanded of you. It is both demanded and required because the seemingly mechanical and nearly automatic motions of game-speed shooting are, now that you’re on the line, significantly more difficult when you are supposed to execute them at 1/10 of their usual speed. But you’re going to try, aren’t you? Yes, you’re definitely going to give best, going to give it a shot I guess you could say, if you’ll excuse the pun. But enough jokes, enough giving credence to those possible excuses you could grope for if and when you happen to miss this first and/or second shot. Because you know that all truly great players don’t look for excuses, only the weaker ones do that. The greats, they simply take to task that’s been thrust upon them and do the best that they can with it. That’s the course of the champion.
This is the course you’ve taken, apparently, as you are now in the position of the prototypical free-throw shooter. Your knees have the customary slight-bend to them, your Shooting Hand is perched back under the ball as it should be, with the ball resting in the “shot-pocket”, and your eyes are honed in on the rim. All of these things are trademarks of one who is ready to sink the shot, the result of your ritual, of wiping the ball off, gripping it with full hands, placing it behind the head, tapping the neck, bringing it back over, the breathing, the two dribbles, the lowered self, the shot pocket, the focus on the rim. All of it culminating in this: a stillness. A calm before the shot. You feel this calmness around you, in your bones, and at once feel ready.
Now that your routine is complete the only thing left to do is to shoot the ball. To shoot it the same way you did at the shoot-around this morning, where you made 29 free-throws in a row, the same as you shot it the day before, at practice, and the countless practices before where you made 100 after each (practice). The same as the summer before this season, where you shot 500 free-throws every day. That summer, with nothing around you in the driveway, no one near, alone you were, as you sank one shot after another in the summer’s brutal heat.
And so, with all of these little memories of reassurance flashing across your mind, you dip your body and push your self upward with your legs, your arms pulling up, the ball rising higher, higher, in your hands. And then you release it, flicking your wrist as you do so, your thumb pulling over into your palm and under your forefinger, which is now over your head, but pointed at the floor, the mark of a good release, the “cookie-jar” gesture. Your wrist and hand are locked into this position as your body sways slightly, your eyes following the flight of the ball, catching it just after the release and watching it now, watching it arch up, rotating backwards ever so slowly, in mid-flight now, rotating, spinning slightly as it now descends, still rotating back, the leather gleaming from the lights and the sweat, all eyes are upon it as it falls closer and closer to the net.
But it falls too soon.
Too quickly, and instead of dipping softly through the white nylon net of the goal it clangs rudely against the front of the rim, against the iron, causing the hoop to vibrate ever so slightly at its rejection of your rituals, subconscious prayers, and preparation. The ball seems, upon meeting the cold metal of similar color, to freeze momentarily on the rim before dropping like a stone, back down into the middle of the paint. You watch this all, and as the ball connects with the hardwood you let your left your arm fall down to your side, dropping it as if you had had an invisible weight strapped to your wrist, jerkily. You notice automatically the four players form the opposing team lined up along the box, all of them clapping anxiously, whooping, relieved at the first miss. But their enthusiasm, although tooth-grindingly annoying, is restrained, because you know as well as they do that their apprehension is only half-over. As you comfort yourself with this you notice your two teammates, also along the box, flanked by the four opposing players. They droop their heads and pull their lips tight over their teeth in a grimace, clapping their hands together one time in a gesture of disappointment mixed with frustration.
“You got this.” One of them says to you, attempting to be reassuring even though his body language from just a moment ago expressed something that suggested he had and had zero faith in you. You meet his eyes and nod quickly at him, trying to reassure him as he reassured you, but instead of feeling reassured or slightly better about this next shot, now you somehow feel like he, your teammate, has just put more pressure on you. Enough pressure that you’re thinking if you miss it’s not just like you let your collective team down, which you might well do, but now it’s like you let him down, personally. Its personal now, became personal the second he publicly, in front of everyone else along the painted area, confided confidence in you. Now the silent, and let’s be honest here (at times like this) more comfortable companionship between you and he is unmistakably at risk, or appears to be at risk, and all down to one thing: you making or missing this last, final, second shot. The possibility that you might actually let him down almost, in a way, seems worse than just letting down the faceless masses of your fans and teammates, them as a collective whole, I mean. It’s like that expression that says when 1,000 people die it is a statistic, but when one person dies it is a tragedy. Well, now its personal and you feel that disappointing this one, singular teammate would be tragic.
So now you’re trying to forget this needle-prick more of pressure from your teammate, wiping your hands on the sides of your shorts, a nervous gesture, as you gaze back up at the rim. You try to ignore the fact that everyone is counting one you, try to ignore the uneven chants and jeers from the crowd, those idiotic sympathizers of your opponents, their noise behind you, beside you, in front of you, all not on the court but close enough to where you feel almost smothered as they shout “Hey you hey miss it!” “Don’t choke!” “Hey! You suck-hey!” Some of them even shouting not only your number but your name, your actual name, them knowing it because of the programs that have been passed out before the game. You try to ignore them, all of them, all of it all, just trying to shut off the damn sound of everything so that you can make yourself feel like you’re back at the empty post-practice gym, alone in the driveway, back to the quiet, the peace, the serenity of effortless composure.
But then, as you are mentally picturing yourself back in those places where shooting a free-throw was simply shooting a free-throw, a voice jolts you by saying, “He gon’ miss this one, he scared.” It comes from the opposing player nearest you, and as you force yourself not to look at him or give him any kind of clue that you actually are nervous, that you actually are scared of missing, you feel him staring at you, waiting for your put-on composure to falter so he can berate you again with his smugly confident words meant to bring you down. But the more you try to simply let this comment go the more it eats at you, the more you feel that pang of anxious-anger in your chest that makes you want to lunge out at him and grip his throat and remind him that the game is in your hands, not his, and that the only reason this is so is because it was him, yes him, that brought you to the free-throw line in the first place. He is the one who fouled you and he is the one reason the outcome of this game is in your control. He is the source of all of this pressure you and everyone else is feeling, except he is passive in this pressure, whereas you are active. And even though he is only playing the part of a mere spectator now, you still have to fight the urge to snap something back at him, something equally enraging and insulting. But come now, come, think for a moment, will you? You know as well as anyone that the last thing you need is another distraction, another thing to chip away at your attention, another thing to cloud your focus that is so wanted, so needed, so desperately required for the task at hand. So, realizing this, what you do is keep your eyes on the rim, breathe slowly, recalculate what is needed to be done on this next, last, final, second shot.
You stand there calculating, ignoring that referee as he picks the ball up off the floor, the shrill whistle as he blows it a little too loudly and a little too longly once again, his absolute last ditch effort to mess you up. You ignore the way he holds his forefinger, his index finger high, up over his head, letting everyone know what they already know, and what is another jarring reminder to yourself: There is only one shot left. One shot. One chance.
“One!” that referee calls out, glaring at you with those beady eyes, bouncing the ball to you, only this time hard. He bounces it hard so that it snaps up off of the paint and lands with a sticking sound in your hands, stinging them momentarily. You don’t actually see this aggressive little pass though, not really anyway, not directly. You still have your eyes on the rim, but you could sense the ball through your peripherals, quickly zipping out of the referee’s hand, downward, out of sight for an instant, then the sound of its springing-thud, and your body reacts to all of this for you. Your hands coming to your rescue, coming together on either side of the ball now, just as before.
You feel as much of the ball as you can with your hands, the same as last time, just as before.
You bring it over your head to your neck now, then back down, breathing your big breath, just as before.
You dribble it once, twice, and an extra third time because the second dribble felt funny. Everything besides that one extra dribble the same, just as before.
You assume the shooting position, just as before.
Your eyes hone in on the spring-box, the rim, calculating as you try to push everything out of your head, everything except making the shot, all of this, again, the same, just as before.
You rise up and release the ball, just as before.
Your fingers assume the “cookie jar” pose, with the thumb going over and the finger pointing down.
The ball arches with back-spin, climbs high until gravity overtakes it and it begins to fall down, down towards the white nylon net, towards the goal, the leather gleaming from the lights and your sweat, all eyes upon it as it falls closer and closer to the net, again, just as before…
Except this time the result is different.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Chase Procuro.
Published on e-Stories.org on 07/19/2011.