Zachariah & the Lobos Riders
“Ghosts in This Guitar”
Skywriting (c) 2014 Papago Records
I got dunked on this morning.
Yeah, posterized. Embarrassed. Juked. Lit up. Dusted. Shook, took and left for dead. Jammed on by a 20-something human helicopter in the YMCA basketball league I reluctantly joined to appease my doctor, my family history of heart disease and my rising cholesterol. It was pretty damn humiliating, especially since my wife and six-year-old son were on the sidelines – and this 6’6” athletic specimen – with arms like boa constrictors and the vertical leap of a Madagascan Cheetah – decided to gloat while high-fiving his teammates, shouting “Take that white boy!” in my general direction… Our coach Jerome called a time out and quickly informed that I wouldn’t be coming back in the game for awhile. I understood. I sat on the bench and hung my head against my 2004 Arizona Wildcats basketball shorts and wiped heavy beads of sweat into my towel. I slowly looked over at my son – who turned to his mom and asked her why daddy got taken out of the game. Ever the subtle parent, my wife informed him, “Your dad just got annihilated.”
When I first joined the Hollywood YMCA, it was on my doctor’s orders. My family history had a lot to do with it – and his main motive was to get my cardiovascular activity up and my cholesterol down. Since basketball was always my favorite form of exercise, I chose the Y because the courts were full of older players with no other motivation than a little exercise and some fun. The majority of the guys I encountered on Tuesdays and Thursdays were in their 30’s and 40’s and had some sort of knee brace or elbow support sleeve on their bodies. They put up long threes, blew easy lay-ups and spent half the game talking about the Hollywood trades and other silliness, killing time as their kids tooled around the clubhouse downstairs. Rucker Park this was not.
After hanging around the sidelines for 20 minutes or so, I was invited in to play… and I quickly put up a dazzling 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in a 21-19 thriller of a pick up game. In my mind, I was back. Back to those glory days of my youth when I used to school young Jewish guys in the “Stephen S. Wise Temple Basketball League.” Back when I made the Junior Varsity team at my high school and actually had the ability to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim. (OK, I did it twice, but I did do it…) Back when my life was simple and easy, and when the only thing that mattered was which pair of Air Jordans I would save up for to parade around high school as a way to try and impress hot Tucson girls who actually would consider me to be a potential prom date just because I wore a pair of $100 Nikes…
Nowadays, the last thing I remember dunking was a celery stalk into a Bloody Mary. Those Air Jordans are long gone. So is my vertical leap. And according to Facebook, all those hot Tucson girls have teenage kids and have been divorced an average of two times since high school. So, in my mind, scoring 6 points in a YMCA game was the equivalent of winning an NBA Championship. I immediately told my wife that I loved basketball at the YMCA – and I showed up again the next day to take on another set of chumps with my wicked first step and decent mid-range jumper.
Turns out, the Tuesday – Thursday game features a totally different crew than the guys who play on Monday – Wednesday.
My first indication that the competition was at another level, was the fact that most of the guys on the court didn’t have a mid-section. There were dudes even playing shirtless, a thing you only see down at Venice Beach during the summer, and they looked like their bodies had robotic sound effects when they moved. Some guys had typical basketball tattoos reading ”Ball is Life” and “Love of the Game” beneath an orange ball swishing through a net. One guy stood close to 6’10” and practiced drop-step lay-ups while a scraggly Steve Nash-looking kid fed him bounce passes. Another rained in threes from NBA range, shouting out “ALL DAY!” whenever he connected… which was a lot. Finally, a shredded swing-man named DeMar threw down an Isiah Rider through-the-legs dunk during a fast break. I quickly turned and headed towards the door, opting to run on the treadmill that day instead.
Little did I know, DeMar would be the same guy would dunk on me this morning… Let me back up for a second and explain how I even got invited to play in the YMCA league in the first place.
Back in the summer of 2008, I was covering the famed “San Diego Comic-Con” for Attack of the Show, a TV program I was hosting. The convention was a nerd party of epic proportions, and I took full advantage of every open bar in the Gaslight District of the city – including a party where celebrated Ohio State star and Portland Trailblazers number one draft pick Greg Oden made an appearance. Being one of the only basketball fans in the entire city that night worked to my advantage, and Greg Oden and I spoke for a good 20 minutes before he was whisked away by a publicist for some interview. After he left my presence, a geeky fanboy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if the seven-foot Greg Oden was Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane.
“Uhm, no,” I told him.
In November of that year, I was inspired to get myself in shape. I read that Nike had announced the release of the new Greg Oden Power Max basketball shoe and the minute I had read about it, I knew that would be my shoe. After all, Greg had been so cool at Comic Con, I was convinced he had a Michael Jordan – like career ahead of him and would be exactly the kind of role model I needed to inspire me to revisit my past basketball athletic prowess. So, the day the shoe was released, I took a trip up to the Topanga Canyon Mall where I dropped 130 dollars on a pair of Nike Greg Oden PE’s which featured his name – “Oden” – prominently stitched across the laces as well as the back of the shoe. It was impossible to miss.
Five years later, as you may or may not know, Greg Oden is considered one of the biggest disappointments in the history of NBA basketball. Right up there with Sam Bowie, Joe Barry Carroll and Michael Olowokandi. Yes, a BUST. His injuries have left him sidelined for all but 23 games or so and the guy drafted after him – Kevin Durant – has gone on to become arguably the best player in the NBA. Greg Oden is currently coaching basketball clinics in Oregon. I hope he invested his money wisely, or he might be hanging sheetrock in a few years.
Unfortunately, his shoe is the only basketball shoe I own. Basically, I refuse to ever pay that much money for a shoe again – and I never really wore his model that much anyway – so it is in fairly great condition. A year ago I tried to see if it would sell on ebay, but the only other model on the website was a “Buy It Now” offer for $9.99, so I figured I’d just play ball in my Oden’s until they fell apart. (By the way, if you are interested, you can buy 100 – yes 100 – Greg Oden Topps rookie basketball cards for $3.99 on ebay right now).
So, I am stuck with my Oden’s and there’s a small part of me that actually kind of enjoys the irony of owning them. It’s like owning the film Gigli on Blu-Ray.
The treadmill I run on at the YMCA faces the pathway between the basketball courts and the water fountain, so the players come out every 20 minutes or so for breaks. The players have never noticed me running before, but that Wednesday, they decided to approach my treadmill as I was running following the first game they had played that afternoon. I wasn’t sure why… until they called me by my shoe.
“Yo, Greg Oden!” One wiry dude yelled just as I hit my 9 minute-per-mile stride. “Come off that treadmill for a second, man!”
A little intimidated, I kept running.
“Why?” I asked.
“We wanna ask you a question,” he responded.
I pressed pause on my iphone and stepped off the treadmill. I had run 1.2 miles in 10 minutes. 151 calories. Meh.
I walked over to the crew of dudes who were somewhat taunting me like jocks in high school making fun of the kid who played piccolo in the band. Why were they here? What did they want? I quickly found out.
“Where did you get a pair of Oden’s?” The leader asked.
As his crew looked down at my shoes, the laughs and taunts continued.
“Nice choice, bro!”
For some reason, I was facing ridicule for Greg Oden’s injury-prone career… as if I had been Greg Oden. It didn’t make any sense. So, as I have always tended to do, I made a humorous jibe about the situation.
“Yeah, I got these when he was the biggest prospect in basketball, alright? I could afford one dope pair of shoes, and I fucked up and chose these, OK? Whatchu think, I can afford a pair of Kevin Durant’s?”
The guys laughed. They high-fived. They made me feel better. They were funny, and seemingly down to Earth. And then, maybe as a kind gesture – or just as a way to see how terrible I was as a basketball player – they invited me to come get into a quick game of pick-up hoop in the main gym.
A lump appeared in my throat… Could I hang with these trees? Was my game on their level? I mean, if my shot was on, I might be able to put up a few buckets… but if my nerves got the better of me, I risked the horror of becoming known as the “Greg Oden of the YMCA…”
Painted in a corner, I said OK, and I tightened my $130 shoes and walked out towards the basketball court – convinced that I was about to get schooled by a bunch of guys who probably played division I, NBA D-league or even overseas basketball.
The tip-off was the first sign of the ring of hell that I had entered. After Fez from our team won the tip, a guy named Derrick told Fez that the ball wasn’t thrown up “evenly.” A huge shit-talk session began for the next three minutes and we weren’t even past the tip-off. I had seen these trash-talker games before. Basically, a lot of guys call fouls on every play and their opponents complain about the calls. The games take forever to finish because nobody ever actually plays, they just spend most of the time jawing at each other. It sucks to play in and to watch. I immediately knew it would be that kind of game. After we held a re-jump ball, nearly every two or three trips up the court ended in a heated smack talk exchange.
“Hell, no, THAT’S A FOUL!” Yelled a guy called Jay Reezy who was covering up his embarrassing air-ball.
“Foul… and one,” screamed Joelle as his ball clanged off the rim.
“Man, get yo hand off my dick!” shouted Lorenzo, after I cleanly swiped the basketball from his hands. Yes, it was clean, but he accused me not only of the foul, but of molestation. They took the ball back and scored on sheer intimidation factor on the next play. The reality of YMCA pick-up basketball had set in. When Lorenzo yelled, “I’ma KILL you mother fucka” to oue sidwline coach Jerome who called a traveling violation on a jump shot, it vaguely reminded me of that scene from White Men Can’t Jump (A film that director Ron Shelton actually envisioned while playing on the same Hollywood YMCA courts I was playing on) when Marques Johnson’s character went to his glove compartment to get a gun to settle a dispute. I believe the line was “I’m gonna get my other gun and I’m shooting you AND him…”
Whatever the case, I was scared – and I did my best “hide around the three-point line and pray that nobody wants me to shoot” routine. Woody Harrelson, I was not. Amazingly enough, I did attempt one three-pointer… And I somehow nailed it.
As the game wore on, I notched up another bucket on an inside pump fake that got the team yelling “Nice one, Oden!” As I spent a minute jogging back on defense, I couldn’t help but notice as a guy named Red flew by me and converted a lay-up against an older center whom I had recognized from Tuesday’s game. As I threw the ball in, I jokingly told him, “You should’ve called a foul.”
He smiled and passed the ball up to the front court.
The game turned out to be the longest pick-up game I have ever played in. There was more chatter, more arguing, more fouls called, more shit-talking and more disagreements than I have seen even in my six-year-old son’s Junior Lakers League. It was like playing against spoiled teenagers, and I wanted to fake an injury just to not play anymore… Still, it was the big league players at the YMCA… and I was hanging.
When the buzzer sounded, we were shuffled off the court for the next crew of five. We had lost 21 – 17… and even though I only scored five points, I honestly felt like I had played better than some of the trash-talking intimidators who had been there dealing handfuls of smack to our opponents. I was inspired and convinced that after a little practice, I might be able to step back in to bang with these big boys. Following the game, when coach Jerome invited me to sub on their YMCA league team the following Saturday morning, I knew I had proven myself as somewhat of a baller… I was shocked and flattered, and I responded to his request with a foolish exclamation of “dope!”
I immediately felt like an idiot.
I came home and informed my wife that I had made the team… Sort of. I mentioned that I was invited to substitute for another player and that I needed to be on my A-game on Saturday morning. My wife, an actual high school female basketball All-State player seemed impressed. The stage was set. I had a league game on Saturday! No news yet on if I’d be starting… But I was nervous as shit.
I decided that a quick pick-up game in the Jewish Basketball League wouldn’t hurt my confidence either.
Back in 2000 or so, I was a terror on the courts of the Jewish Basketball League. My old roommate Mike and I had been a lethal inside-outside combination, and even though I would enter most games sweating beer and whiskey from the night before, our Stephen S. Wise Matzah Ballers defeated the Temple Hess Kramer Lions handily for three years straight. Many of our players have gone on to Hollywood success, some are still playing and others are long gone from the city… Still, I always knew in the back of my head that if there was a place to regain my basketball confidence, it was the Jewish league. A run I specifically refer to as “Heeb Hoops.”
Thursday evening, I rolled into the Michael Milken gymnasium wearing a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey and cradling a Vita-Coco water. My old roommate Mike was still running the league. Not much seemed different – except for the fact that Mike was now sporting a “Rip Hamilton Face Mask” that he had been fitted with following his fourth broken nose in Jewish basketball games. (Shockingly, the nose-break is a very popular Jewish basketball injury.)
Mike gave me a silent head nod as I surveyed the competition before warming up. Convincing myself that these young players had nothing on my storied Jewish Basketball League career, I shot a few jumpers, ran some drills and worked on my left-handed penetration – a skill I had been lacking since those JV days back in high school. By the time I was allowed to get in the run, I was on top of the world. And it showed. I shook Gabe Friedman on a crossover that gave us a two-point lead. Mike fed me a pass and Jordan Mogelwitz fell for my pump-fake and ended up watching me bank in a 7-footer on his left. Even Raphie Spiegel bit on my daring long-range three that tied the game at 16 before my old homeboy Mike crossed-over a college kid and put us up by a bucket. Mike and I ended the run with a classic give and go – punctuated by his three-pointer that won us the game. Mike and I celebrated, exchanged awkward 37-year-old dap handshakes and chest-bumps. I had 9 of our points. Mike had 12. It was 2000 all over again. We even smoked a joint in the parking lot afterwards and made stoned plans to form a team that had a shot at winning the coveted “Dead Sea Cup” in the fall. It was amazing. I got home, showered and went to bed, convinced that by Saturday, I would be running YMCA regulars up and down the court beginning at the first whistle.
Oh how wrong I was.
The YMCA league resembled the All-Valley Karate Championship from the film Karate Kid. Some dudes were mad-dogging any potential challengers like Johnny Lawrence did Daniel Laruso. Teams were stretching and warming up like it was the Final Four. Guys with prison-shaped muscles ran “suicide” drills and barked out orders towards their teams. I recognized DeMar the shredded dunker from the YMCA working on his through-the-legs jam during a lay-up drill. Some other players from the YMCA were there too, representing different branches. We were Hollywood, but there was definitely a Downtown crew and an intimidating looking Westside team. Most of their players all looked bigger and more confident than I did. Even my teammate Fez seemed to be in the zone, dishing out chest passes to our team before noticing my arrival and demanding I let my wife and kid know they had to remain outside the gym until the sidelines were opened up to the public… Somehow, I immediately knew this was a bad idea.
I did not start the game. In fact, I “rode pine” the entire first half, doing what I do best… MOCKING PEOPLE. I reverted to the 13-year-old clown who developed his ESPN-worthy broadcast voice on the bench as the 10th man on his junior high championship team. I regressed into the sophomore who spit funny commentary from the bench as my team lost by 29 to Marana High School. I became the stoner kid from college who skipped our fraternity basketball tournament due to a mushroom hangover… I was simply not taking anything seriously.
“Jesus, I’ve seen better jumpers hooked to the battery of my car,” I announced.
“He couldn’t hit air if he was skydiving,” I offered.
“He’s got more turnovers than a bakery,” I joked, terribly.
I went on and on. Until two minutes before the half when our coach, Jerome, informed me that our leading scorer Gary Vernon had sprained his ankle. I was in at small forward, and that I “better not fuck it up.”
Luckily, with a minute left, I handled my own. I was able to guard their sharp-shooter somewhat easily, at least for 60 seconds, and when the halftime buzzer sounded, I hustled to the sideline, winking at my wife and son, knowing we were up by 8 points.
At halftime, I prayed that Gary would be able to return. Unfortunately, he told coach Jerome he was out. I was summoned to start the second half and I told him I was ready to answer the call.
The second half was reminiscent of the YMCA pick-up game I witnessed a few days before. Smack was talked, play was delayed, but luckily, the presence of referees helped move the action along. A minute in, and I got passed the ball for the first time. I looked inside, but had no outlet. I took a few dribbles around the perimeter before handing the ball off to our point guard. He drove the lane and was quickly rejected… the ball bounced towards me. Wide open outside of the three-point line. Now, in my life, I have performed for crowds as big as 1500 people. I have no fear of the spotlight. I embrace. It. So of course, at that very moment, I did what any lifelong performer would do… I froze.
Like a statue. Good old DeMar ran up and swiped the ball from me before beasting towards the other side of the court where he easily converted a tomahawk rim-rocker that brought the crowd to its feet. I was suddenly, the worst player on the court. I felt that familiar lump return to my throat. Sure, I could perform music and comedy in front of 1000 people, but when 18 folks – including my wife and son – were standing on a nearby sideline, I had no idea how to execute anything. The floodgates of failure had been opened.
DeMar went on a scoring tear. 12 points in under five minutes. Our eight point lead became a four point deficit. Game was 21… It was 17-13.
I felt the crowd getting into the game. I looked towards my bench and saw Gary glaring at me – as if I had stuck his pet kitten in a microwave. It was not exactly the teammate support I was looking for. As I tried to juke the opposing team with some cross-pattern routes I remembered from high school ball, I was checked by a player and felt like I had run into a concrete wall. I staggered back slightly, a bit dazed but conscious, before looking up to see Fez’s missed three-pointer bounce my way. I turned my body asunder – if only to imitate the Lebron James and Magic Johnson moves I had grown up worshiping, and felt an inescapable lack of confidence when I sent a lazy pass over the lane intended for a guy named Rick Cahill. Unfortunately, that pass was read with precision by DeMar.
I made the mistake of chasing him down the court. By the time I had come close to catching up with his super-human speed, he was already 39 inches in the air… I lept up as well, and thought for a second that I might have a chance at slapping the ball out of his hands. Instead, what happened will forever be known as the worst sports moment in my life.
He threw down a one-handed fiendishly brutish ogre-fuck of a dunk. The ball thunderously cascaded off of my head. It ricocheted against the back wall and sadly crept towards the exit of the gym before pausing against a stranger’s bag – almost as if it had been shot by a hunter with a cross-bow. It did everything but deflate itself and bleed to death. Coach Jerome called a very necessary time-out.
A few minutes later, we lost 21 – 13. I looked over towards my wife and son. She had already taken him out of the gym as if to not force him to watch any more of the carnage. Our players threw water bottles at the bench and cursed to each other. They asked Gary about his ankle and offered him 50 solutions to get it to heal. They swallowed Gatorade and water without making any eye contact with me and exited quickly and quietly. Before coach Jerome could leave the gym, I yelled out at him.
“What time’s game next week?”
Jerome looked back to me and offered, “You don’t have a game next week…”
As DeMar disappeared to the sidelines and put on a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre, I stood up and made my way down to the locker room to shower. As I walked inside, I could hear many of the members talking about DeMar’s dunk and how incredible it was. When I passed the crew of players tightly seated in a circle, I noticed they were watching something on one of their iphones… Sure enough, it was the dunk. Someone had filmed him taking flight and macerating the rim at my expense. I quickly turned away from the viewing and tried my best to tip-toe back out of the door. Before I could escape, one of the guys called after me.
“Yo, dude!” He said. “Quick question for ya…”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around, afraid of what insulting low blow he would send my way. Anticipating the worst, I took a deep breath and awaited sure insult and humiliation. Finally, he spoke.
“Are you wearing Greg Oden’s?”
I cracked a meek smile and threw my towel over my shoulder.
“Only until I can afford a pair of Sam Bowie’s,” I joked.
The guys chuckled, probably because they felt sorry for me, but it was enough to show that I wasn’t taking any of this stuff that seriously.
As they replayed the dunk over and over on the iphone, I slipped out the door and called my wife. She answered the phone by saying, “I’m sorry.”
We spoke for a minute about everything but the game. What we needed at the store, what time the kids needed to be dropped off at practice… even what Netflix we wanted to order. It was a nice distraction and one that took my mind off my embarrassing moment on the court a few minutes earlier.
I drank some water and said good-bye to some of the other players who were on their way out of the locker room. I looked around the YMCA and quietly announced my retirement from the basketball league to nobody in particular. It was rather unnecessary, but it felt better to say it out loud.
And then I went upstairs to run on the treadmill.
Zach Selwyn October 23, 2012
To read Mike’s wife cute blog entry on Mike’s mask itself – click here – THE FACE MASK