By Isaac Hughes Green
Air Jordan, 2021, oil on linen by Andrew Fish. Courtesy the artist and Childs Gallery
You had seats in the nosebleed section that Mom had gotten from her coworker at the food hall in The Pearl. Nabbing tickets and other goods or favors in return for taking an undesirable shift was one of the perks she received for working in the service industry, along with the kid’s meals that you ate even though you were technically aging out of them.
She’d convinced Theo to let you go with them. Theo. That’s what you call him now that everything has changed. It’s not Dad anymore. Crazy right? Dara was pissed that we didn’t have enough tickets for everyone. But she saw how bad you wanted to be there and agreed to take a backseat, to cheer from the sidelines, or more accurately through short bouts of FaceTime on Mom’s phone when the score was close and it looked like the Pistons might come back and beat the almighty hometown Spurs.
Mom said you could go down to the black and silver bleachers by the tunnel at the end of the game and see if you could get a high five. And Theo gave you a poster and a marker and told you that if you could get it signed, he’d buy it from you for twenty dollars. You thought that was a lot of money. Mom told you not to take anything less than a hundred. And they began to argue like they always did about “how this family should be run” or “who was really in charge.”
You left the poster because you didn’t want to stir up any more arguments. The high five was worth more to you anyway. Mom and Theo tried to walk you down, eyeing one another as they went. But you were too excited. You ran ahead to where the players were walking off the court and you could have sworn you saw Coach Popovich look up at you before returning his attention to the broadcaster with a microphone in his face. Then you began to smile because you could see him—the McDonald’s all-American from Compton who’d won gold at the Olympics and was on the way to his second All-Star season. You reached your hand through those metal bars while other kids and men and women—decked out in black and silver just like you would have been if the jerseys ever went on sale—all shouted and waved and reached. And he saw you. He saw all of them. But then he saw you. Maybe it was because you were the smallest. You’d always been a tiny kid. “Too small for ball” is what Theo liked to say—“Big heart,” Mom would insist.
And he reached down for his shoes and carefully began untying them. When he finally looked up—his massive hands clenching the shoes by their toe caps—the crowd swelled to collect them. He grabbed a pen from someone waving one near his face. And he signed them and placed them in your outstretched palms. You had to throw them to yourself to get them over the gate. And in the process people began to grab for them. But he shouted, “Those are for the kid!” and they backed away. You held them close as you watched him and the rest of the players disappear into the tunnel.
“Fifteens, Nicole!” Theo shouted once you were all back home.
“You never know what could happen. My brother had a growth spurt in middle school and now he’s six foot five!” Mom shouted back.
“He’ll never be big enough. And he’ll never get as much out of looking at those shoes as we would be able to give him if we sold them!”
Dara heard the yelling and came down from her room.
“Race you upstairs!” she said.
You looked up at her without moving. You wanted the shoes back. Dara’s eyes held a quiet awareness that only an older sister filling in for her parents could claim.
“If you come with me, I’ll let you use the bathroom tomorrow before I do so you can get more of the hot water,” she said.
You followed her up the steps. And you sat there in her room, which was becoming pinker by the week. You both cried a little. Then you played a game on her phone. You heard a door slam across the hall and then your father stuck his head in and asked Dara for some “technical help.” She went with him and you waited, but after a while you got curious. You tip-toed down the stairs and saw Dara taking pictures of the shoes, staring at Theo between snaps. You hoped the pictures were just to share with friends. But then you saw the primary colors of the eBay logo on your father’s desktop computer and realized he was putting the shoes up for auction.
A year passed. You started middle school. You weren’t much bigger. But Theo always felt guilty about selling those shoes. You didn’t see him as your idol anymore. And he could feel it. He’d told you when you were in fifth grade that he wasn’t going to let you try out, that he didn’t have money for warmups and jerseys. But you wanted it so bad that the guilt of what he’d done with the shoes finally got to him.
You didn’t make the gold team. But you looked at the corkboard in the hallway—the one with blue and gold trim and the charging bronco with its flowing mane—and you saw your name on the piece of paper labeled BLUE. Blue meant beta. Blue meant bitch. Blue meant butthole. But to you, blue meant better than you thought you were. Blue meant big deal. Blue meant brag to Mom and hope Theo didn’t hear because he’d never let you live down being proud of having a shot at riding pine on a developmental team.
Your new teammates knew Theo’s stats better than the sportscasters. They knew he’d tried to declare for the league but the scouts thought he was missing something—some “x” factor that was talked about to no end but never truly defined. Maybe it was that he wasn’t clutch, you thought to yourself as you waited for him to pick you up after a long day of conditioning. Or maybe it was that he wasn’t in good enough shape. You looked him in the eyes as he pulled up in that maroon Nissan. You saw his hulking forearms and biceps. You remembered all of the stories he’d told you about games they had won that were total upsets.
He’d been written about as the savior of Government Hill since he was at his mother’s waist. He got any girl he wanted. He got free BBQ sandwiches at Bill Miller’s. In some ways he was treated like a professional athlete before he ever entered high school. It had made him blind to what could happen if someone outworked him, if someone kept their cool better, if someone was more than just built. And you realized that day that you could be that person too—the one who made the bucket to take the lead while the superstar choked, because he’d been in the gym dreaming about doing it while working as hard as he could to make it happen at ungodly hours until his knees were weak and he limped off of the court, promising to return another day.
You threw your bag into the backseat and slid into the front.
That first season, you were a ringer. You worked your ass off. And the coach saw that you could be used to motivate other players. He wasn’t bold enough to put you in games except for when your teammates were tired. But in practice he’d shout at his starters about you coming for their spot. You thought that’s how it was supposed to be. You’d never been the center of attention; you were just happy to be there. But when you told Theo, he asked if you wanted to play. It felt like the question was more about him than you, like he was embarrassed. But that was nothing new. You told him you did. So, the next summer, he moved half of your belongings to his sister’s house and registered you at a middle school in her district. The coach there was an old friend of his. It seemed like maybe people were starting to believe in you until the coach came over for dinner one night and dismissively asked Theo what he was taking on in you.
“You the next A.I.?” the coach asked, looking straight at you and nearly choking with laughter. “You the next Nate Robinson?”
You committed that image to memory: his slack jaw brimming with pernil and hot sauce. You saw it at that first practice when you put up 12 in a scrimmage to 16. It floated just over your face when you benched your body weight for the first time in the weight room. And when the coach pulled you aside at the last practice before your first game with the new squad and told you he wanted you to start, you still saw it. Even though he was smiling and even though he was telling you what you wanted to hear, you remembered the pain and the rejection. They seared themselves into your memory until it was like you were wearing a pair of devil-dick-red-tinted goggles that made you as mean as the pit bulls that snarled behind rickety fences at every house on your block.
Every day, you were in the gym for as long as they’d let you be there and then some. You practiced layups and then jumpers and then free throws and then three-pointers. You stood under the basket and found the perfect spin and angle for shooting from the baseline. You got your euro step to where you thought it should be. You watched Instagram videos about crossovers and nailed those down. You convinced your mom to upgrade your cable so you could pause NBA games and play moves back in slow motion in order to add them to your arsenal. When you played against your friends you smiled at them like a psychopath because you didn’t see them. You just saw a mirror.
The first season at your new school started and you blew through everybody. Dara was taking videos. You didn’t want to prove that you were good so that you could make out with your chemistry lab partner or earn free BBQ. You just wanted that shroud of ineptitude to fade. So many people had told you that it wasn’t possible for you to succeed that it wasn’t any singular voice in your head that you remembered as you made all those shots. It was a specter of heartache that you didn’t know what to do with except to play like you’d never played before and hope that it would go away. And when the logbooks read “W” it did.
As you approached high school, it became obvious that you were bigger than your neighborhood, bigger than your team, your city, maybe even bigger than Texas. Theo made the inquiries that he should have made. He had names of coaches who would fit you in. But Dara had been in touch with a coach about a scholarship at Pine Hill, an East Coast school with a list of teammates that would only be considered fair in the modern era when NBA players left money sitting on the table to play with other superstars. You let her drive you to Virginia in her boyfriend’s Accord. It felt like you only stopped at Waffle Houses on the way there. But you weren’t complaining. It was the farthest you’d ever been away from home and the longest you’d ever been away from Mom and Theo. Riding down the highway with your sister, it felt like you were on the way to something—not just a school but a future, a way out of everything that you’d grown up around.
Your visit went well. Your middle school coach had let you play at all of the guard positions. But the coach at Pine Hill watched you dominate a scrimmage and labeled you a point guard. For the first time you had an identity. You were no longer the strongest player putting the team on your back and singlehandedly bringing home victories. Here you had a chance to be part of a system. And the system extended off of the court. It meant going to study hall and keeping your nose clean. There had been players on your middle school team who were already starting to cut class and miss practice. The coach at Pine Hill told you that none of that would be tolerated. But you weren’t worried. You’d never had your eye on anything but putting up numbers on the world’s biggest stage. And if that was what it took to get there then that was what you were going to do.
Theo and Mom were pissed at Dara when the two of you came home and told them you were going. It was too far they said. And they wanted to have had some say in what was going on. Even Mom who was always in your corner felt like things were getting out of hand. Who did your sister think she was? She was eighteen and acting like she was in charge. But Dara brought up the fact that your mother had her when she was the same age. If eighteen was old enough to have a baby it was definitely old enough to help a little brother find a way to turn his obsession into a career. After speaking his initial piece, Theo just sat on the couch. Your mother looked at him as if she expected him to interject. But he knew what was happening. You were on your way to a world beyond his circle of influence and, more importantly, beyond the long shadow that he cast when the two of you were together. And that was what took the words from his mouth all the way through move-in day.
You gave 110% when you started playing at Pine Hill. But it was hard to prepare for what happened soon afterward. The nights in the gym became tiring. You took a slew of bullshit classes that were put there for athletes in order to be ushered through their academics with easy A’s and you wondered if there wasn’t something more you were supposed to be doing with your time on earth. The sound of the ball going through the net had been like a siren song for you for so many years. But as you became an elite player it stopped sounding so sweet. It started to become a reminder of the fact that your hands were chained to that ball, your feet to that court, and, perhaps most tragically, your mind to something that some would call completely mindless.
There was a girl in your English class who had been shuffled around from school to school as her parents went through a custody battle. She wore checkered Vans and sex bracelets and pink lip gloss. One day she turned to you and rolled her eyes at something the teacher said. You didn’t understand where he’d been wrong. She explained it to you after class. And she reached out and touched you and remarked about how pitiful it must be to be a human racehorse—to have to go through life with blinders on. She offered to get you high by the baseball field after classes let out. And you were walking over there ready to throw it all away because you’d already been suspecting that maybe you just wanted to be a regular kid. But then you remembered the people back home. You remembered how they lived sometimes in the dark and sometimes without air conditioning or hot water. You didn’t know what this girl was about. But you realized how far you’d come and how much of a shame it would be to lose it all. You doubled back to the gym and made a hundred free throws that night without looking at anything aside from the backboard.
The next day in class when she asked you why you didn’t show up you just ice grilled her and moved to a seat that was farther away. When class let out, she gave you her copy of her favorite novel. And you didn’t say anything to her then or for a while afterward. But you read the book. It was good—really good—a story about a young man from a place like Government Hill who’d gone down the wrong path and struggled to make it back. But reading it wasn’t going to pay your bills for the rest of your life. And definitely not your family’s.
After turning down the free joint and whatever else was going to come along with it, your hand wavered when you shot. You brought the ball down when you should have kept it above your chest and you missed easy passes when your teammates were on fast breaks. Your coach almost benched you. But he’d been in your shoes before. He pulled you aside one day and asked how it was going. You leveled with him and told him that you weren’t sure if this was what you were meant to be doing. He asked if you were enjoying it, if playing was still fun. And you stood there and thought about it and realized that it had never been fun. It had always been a way to be something other than what you were. But you’d never really enjoyed pushing yourself down the court with the ball in your hand. You’d never shot and smiled because you liked the sound of people cheering you on. In fact, you couldn’t even remember what they sounded like.
You started listening. You stopped playing with your mind and started playing with your heart. And doing that took you to the state championship quarterfinals. You started talking to the girl again, the one with the checkered Vans and the pink lip gloss. You knew you weren’t going to smoke with her. But you wondered if she’d asked before because it was the only way she knew how to get to know you. You asked her if she wanted to talk about the book she’d given you, and, in brief hallway meetings between classes, you both changed. Alexis lost the sex bracelets and the pity and the weed. And you lost your fear of failure because you had something to come back to. Something that you knew would last much longer than basketball.
The NBA scouts started showing up your junior season. You tried to walk the line between remembering where Theo had come up short and relaxing so that your shoulders weren’t hunched over when you shot. Alexis was a senior and you promised to take her to her prom. But then the state championship was scheduled on the same day. You’d rented a tux and she’d borrowed a dress from a friend. She sent you a picture of it a few weeks before. It was a beautiful white one, and you told her that you hoped the team lost in the semifinals so that you could go with her. But then you played the way you really felt, like you knew that without the game, you two would end up in a trailer park somewhere talking about what could have been.
You never got to go to prom.
You went to states and you won. Alexis was there cheering in the stands. And the cameras rushed you after the game. You had to fight to get through them, through that sea of people and energy and lights and lenses, to make it to where she was waiting for you. You kissed one another and you felt like you were on top of the world. Until the same thing happened the next year and she graduated without knowing what it would be like to take those pictures in her backyard and ride to the repurposed cafeteria in that rented limo that neither of your parents could pay for. At Alexis’s graduation you’d told her you’d make it up to her. And you’d had every intention of doing so. She’d told you not to worry about it, but you still felt guilty. When you stared in the mirror, you were reminded of the way Theo had looked that day he’d sold the shoes.
As you were getting ready to receive your diploma a year later you started hearing a phrase rolling around when people mentioned your name. One and done. It’s what Dara said you should be and what the newscasters believed you would amount to too. Mom and Theo talked about staying in school but you knew better. Name image license deals would only float you along so far. It was hard to miss prom, but now you realized you might actually have to miss out on college too. You were supposed to get to find out who you were and to learn what you were good at and what you weren’t without a ball in your hand. Maybe IT; you’d always loved computers. Or something with books, which you didn’t read often but couldn’t help being completely absorbed by when you got the chance. Regardless, the league loomed on the horizon. And you knew that if you wanted to take your girl and your family with you, you’d have to get there as soon as you could. There were too many bills to pay, too many mouths to feed, for you to take time for yourself. Theo couldn’t get any more shifts and Mom was already kiting to stretch her tips.
During your freshman year of college, you took more jock classes and befriended your all-state teammates who were also league bound. You watched your coach try to create chemistry while knowing in the back of his mind that none of the players would be there long enough for things to really congeal. You played your game as best you knew how to play it. And you got to the NCAA tournament, although you didn’t make it all the way through to the finals in Phoenix. It was bittersweet.
You didn’t know where in the draft you were going to go. But people talked. It was between you and a center from California. Everybody knew your conference was the most competitive one in the country. Dara set up meetings for endorsements. And even though they took time away from training, you listened. You listened as companies presented videos of celebrities and athletes who were already endorsed by their brand telling you that it was the right place to be. You listened as people put figures in front of you that you barely knew how to read out loud. You listened when Dara told you she wanted to make things official and get paid to manage you. And you tried to listen when Theo told you that money and blood don’t mix—that she was out of control and had been ever since she’d seen that she could make a buck off you. But she’d never done you wrong. And she was introducing you to a world that you’d only seen on TV.
You were in New York with your family for the draft. You’d let Dara become your agent and had signed a shoe deal. You even had a pair of prototypes tucked away in your suitcase. You were used to being a local celebrity but when Dara told you she had front-row tickets to your favorite rapper’s concert and that he wanted to meet you backstage afterward, you realized that there was more to you than what you knew about yourself. You existed beyond where your feet took you: you were a perception, an image, a story, and a stat line. You went to the show, which was in the same arena where you’d be drafted just a few days later. There were tens of thousands of people there and yet he singled you out and brought you on stage. Through the mic, he called you his brother—even though you were meeting for the first time—and told the world that they weren’t ready for the way you were going to change the game.
When the show was over you followed him off the stage. You wanted to talk about what it was like at the top but his handlers and entourage immediately surrounded him. You followed them as they walked through endless hallways and checkpoints, unsure if you’d be stopped by security. But they’d all seen you on stage. And they all knew your face. Eventually you found yourself on a bus full of women without much clothing on and a lot of different kinds of drugs. The rapper drank something muddy, took a few pills, and saw you off of the bus before heading toward the bare thighs of a woman that wasn’t the girlfriend you’d seen him posing with on Instagram. You never got to say much more than “hey that was a great show” to him. And he never indicated that he heard you.
You got back to the hotel where your family was staying early that morning and Dara asked you if you’d had a good time. You said “yes” a little too quickly. She asked what had gone on and you told her. Together you promised that no matter what, neither of you would let success or failure or money or attention change the way you lived your lives. You’d only call someone family if you meant it and that you’d be loyal to the ones who’d showed loyalty to you.
You and Theo bought suits. You told him it was the last thing you’d ever let him buy for you. He forced a laugh but looked pained.
“It could’ve been you,” you added in the moment. He nodded and made himself busy looking at ties and matching pocket squares. You wondered if it would be like this forever, if your success came at the cost of closeness with him, if what was lost the day he’d wrapped those shoes up with that leftover newspaper from the kitchen table and took them off to the UPS store would ever come back. When he finally picked something out for you from the glass display beneath his fingertips, he had the clerk hold it up to your chest. Your eyes met Theo’s just after you saw how nice the colors looked on you. You saw acquiescence if not pride, a dance between resignation and envy that maybe the two of you would one day resolve out on the court. And if you did, basketball could be something other than a sore subject between you and him, the way it always should have been.
You boarded the half-full bus, which drove around different hotels in Manhattan and Brooklyn to pick up the rest of the players. And you went first after all. It wasn’t to the team you expected to go to. But you put the hat on and shook the commissioner’s hand and smiled at America as you looked out at it through that lens below the red ON AIR light. Alexis was ecstatic. She had family in the area. They helped you pick a neighborhood. You played in the summer league and trained. You got to be the best you could be on and off the court.
You were in the locker room the night before your first regular season game, lacing up shoes that had been custom designed for you—an evolution of the initial prototype that would soon be available to the public. They were size elevens. After the game you were walking to the tunnel and you saw a young kid that looked something like you had looked when you were his age. His eyes were dead-locked on your shoes. And you wondered what would happen if you gave them to him. You wondered if he’d go through the same saga that you did. And you wondered, if you knew that he would, whether you’d encourage him or warn him against it. You took the shoes off. And you walked toward him. You grabbed a pen from someone waving one in your face. And you asked the kid his name. He told you and you signed the shoes, addressing the signature to him. It was all that you could do. So, you gave him the shoes. But you reminded him that the rest was up to him.