Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tales of a 4th String Nothing

Dear friends,

The Hard Taco song for December is called, "Suds." As a good meal is matched with the right wine, music should be paired with concordant activities. This song is best enjoyed when bathing, drinking, or drowning.

The Hustler Award
I always tried to avoid sports that involved touching people. Most of the physical contact I had with my schoolmates went like this: One of them would punch me, and in return I would bite his arm and pull his hair.  As my penchant for biting and hair-pulling became widely-known, the punching tapered off. I had finally achieved this happy state of equilibrium when I received the calamitous news that I had to try out for the 8th grade basketball team or forfeit my allowance. My parents wanted me to be "well-rounded." More specifically, they wanted to enrich me with the opportunity to fail at lots of different things.

Failure was inevitable. I had skipped kindergarten, and was a late-bloomer anyway. At 4'10", the only person on the court who was shorter than me was the littlest cheerleader (the one who got thrown). As my classmates were quick to remind me, she, at least, could jump. To the chagrin of both the coach and me, he wasn't allowed to cut anyone from the basketball team. Instead, we were divided into castes, or "strings." The 1st stringers played most of the game, and the rest of us would split their leavings.  Unfortunately for me, one's "string" level was inversely related to one's Tanner stage

1st string (Tanner Stage 5):  Mr. Conforti, the coach, buys you a Bayside Bulls warm-up jacket with his own money. 
2nd string (Tanner Stage 4):  You only play for 15 minutes per game, but you still get your own locker during away games.
3rd string (Tanner Stage 2-3): You only play during the cheerleaders' cigarette break. The coach calls your parents and talks to them about better property taxes in other school districts. 

I was on the 4th string, a classification invented to describe myself and my friend Jason. Jason had congenitally small fingers on his dribbling hand, and he was ahead of me on the depth chart. For me to see any playing time, two criteria had to be met. 1) Our team had to be ahead by more than 15 points by the closing minutes of the third period and 2) a player ahead of me had to be "injured." In eighth grade basketball, no one ever really got hurt, but sometimes a boy would suddenly throw up during play. As peculiar as this seems, this happened regularly and without warning. When it did, the "injured" player would be escorted to the locker room, and everyone would get to sub up to the next level. If the right combination of people was vomiting, my number might be called. 

When I did come in off the bench, I always gave it everything I had. I never made a basket, but if I got to play for two minutes, I would spend that two minutes biting the arms and pulling the hair of every opposing player on the court. I was a competitor.

At the end of the season, Mr. Conforti brought us all back to his classroom and thanked us for a great year. He announced that Lamont Brown was the winner of the MVP Award, and we all cheered.  

Then Mr. Conforti surprised everyone in the room by singling me out for the "Hustler Award." I can't remember the exact words he used, but essentially, the Hustler Award was granted to the player who kept showing up for practice despite obvious futility. He said that sometimes he would look down to the far end of the bench and see my hopeful eyes looking back at him as if to say, "Are you gonna put me in, Coach?" When I looked at him like that, he said to a roomful of my peers, he would get a little choked up.

So Lamont Brown and I both left that classroom holding shiny plastic basketball players. His was a portent of future success in high school hoops. Mine was a charity trophy, achieved through a scrappy ineptitude that evoked a baffling emotional incontinence in my coach. Paradoxically, it was both one of the proudest and most embarrassing moments of my life, and incidentally, it would be the only sports trophy I would ever get.

Someday, when I'm forcing my own children to participate in activities they hate, I will show them the trophy. "Your dad was a hustler," I'll tell them with quavering voice, "a well-rounded hustler. So if you don't practice your clarinet right now, I will bite your arm."

With warmest regards,