June 25, 2009
Looking back, there wasn’t much to celebrate during the 1980s. Bad hair, bad style, bad music, sure. But the relentless cheese was nothing compared to the actual news of the times -- crack cocaine, runaway crime, televangelist scandals and an earthquake during a World Series.
Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We loved the primitive first wave of video games. We loved our first portable cassette (cassette!) player. And we really loved the rise of the NBA, led by a generation of superhuman athletes wearing signature lines of Converse hoop shoes.
There had, of course, been some incredible basketball players in the days of the canvas high-top, when virtually every pro player (and virtually every kid) wore Chucks. But the game changed exponentially when Cons went leather in the ‘70s. Suddenly, we all wanted to dunk; we all wanted to drive the length of the court and take off from the top of the key, finishing with a majestic fingertip roll.
By the end of the decade, I was spending countless hours, even on frigid days, imagining outrageous buzzer-beaters and punishing my misses with foul shots. One day my mother’s car was in the way, so I found the keys and backed it down the driveway – with the door open. It took months of foul shots to work off the ugly sound of the door catching the rock wall and crumpling like a tin can.
I played most of my one-on-one against a quiet, distracted kid from the end of the street, a lanky, stork-like guy who was easily six inches taller than me. He was a soft-touch lefty shooter and, against me, anyway, a shot blocker worthy of the nickname Tree. But playing against him forced me to change my game. Over time, I became adept at fallaway jumpers and, my specialty, a quick stop-and-pop from the corner. In my beloved white leather Converse – blue star, blue arrow — I learned to work the angles, to hustle after missed shots and grab position on rebounds. For a few summers, I held my own, until the kid shot past the six-foot mark on his way to the 6’ 7” or so that he ultimately reached.
Later, I played a lot of pickup games with my high school buddies, some of whom were on the team. In college, the regulars from my building included a couple of big guys who’d reached the states with their high school teams. Sometimes I got my clock cleaned. Sometimes, though, I’d surprise everyone by making five or six baskets in a row. Few things in life satisfy as much as the thoop of hitting nothing but net.
Competitive basketball isn’t a lifelong game for a vertically challenged guy who knows that five-ten might be bending the truth. But I still get excited to lace ‘em up, and I’ll never turn down an open shot.
And outside, there’s a nine-year-old boy in his Chucks, gunning from the top of the driveway.
James Sullivan is a Boston-based writer whose most recent book is The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America. James has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, and eMusic.com. Learn more about James at www.placeformystuff.com.