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Recently, on social media and my website, I have made no secret of my modern return into the world of competitive basketball. I play full court four days a week at the Hollywood YMCA and recently entered a Three-on-Three tournament against other fathers at elementary schools, which I happened to have won. (My proudest athletic achievement in my life to date – not counting the time I took Colton – the star 7-year-old pitcher – DEEP in a father-son Little League game last summer…)
I have re-discovered a love for the game I haven’t had sine 1993 and I’m actually a better player now than I have ever been.
Throughout my life and into high school, basketball was everything. As a 6’2” inch eighth grader, I was groomed by my coach to become the next great Arizona Wildcats big man. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown an inch since eighth grade. I switched to the wing, where I lacked certain skills, but was still able to hold my own mainly because I was actually grabbing the rim with ease and in top physical shape. However, around age 18, I discovered the usual pitfalls – Weed, beer and women – and decided that since I had no chance, or interest in walking on my college team, I would hang up my Air Jordan XII’s and I only stepped on the court a handful of times over the ensuing decade.
A few years ago, however, I was listening to UCLA great and fellow Grateful Dead-Head Bill Walton broadcast an Arizona- Oregon basketball game, when something he said struck me deep inside. After he spent a few minutes comparing some obscure 1970’s Bob Dylan song to the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break technique, he discussed his history of injuries he attained while playing. At the end of this sidebar, Bill Walton claimed to have broken his nose 13 times.
“That’s what happens when you play defense with your face,” he exclaimed.
He also mentioned his surgically fused ankles, incinerated spine, broken wrists, 36 surgeries and broken leg – all suffered on the basketball court. Walton’s lifelong injuries, along with his 1978–1979 year-long protest of the Portland Trail Blazers unethical treatment of his injuries, gave him the record of missing the most games during an NBA playing career, when taking into account the number of years he was officially listed as a player on a team roster. He spoke of how debilitating it became to walk and I researched even deeper to see that Walton once even contemplated suicide due to severe depression from debilitating back pain.
However, Walton then made a comment that made his life on the disabled list seem even more surreal… He observed a certain move power forward Solomon Hill had made and remarked, “That is a move to study – for those of you who are still lucky enough to play basketball…”
Lucky? How could 13 broken noses and suicidal thoughts be considered lucky? I felt that I was lucky to have quit basketball with my original nose still in place. What was Walton talking about?
Attempting to find out, the next day I dusted off some 10-year-old shoes and made my first trip to a court in what was nearly five or six years. I checked out a basketball at the YMCA that looked as if it had spent a good majority of its life underwater, and went to shoot around. It took me awhile, but eventually I was making short jump shots and working on my cardiovascular fitness while running up and down the gymnasium floor. Some of my old spin moves came back to me, and I put up a couple of nice finger rolls and hit some three pointers. It actually felt amazing.
About an hour later, a few guys asked me if I wanted to play “21” with them, but I declined, afraid of shooting 9 air balls and getting embarrassed. Instead, I continued to work on some post moves and drives and watched them from the corner of my eye. They were laughing, having fun and playing just above the level where I was – which made me think I might have hung in there if I had accepted their challenge. Instead, I returned my ball and went home and told myself I’d be back the next day.
I did come back the next day. And the next. I ran that court nearly every other day for months until I was actually joining the games of 21 and winning a good majority of the time. For the first time in over a decade, I was having a lot of fun playing basketball. I soon found myself in the full court games and now, three years later, found myself coming home and discussing the games with my wife as if I was playing in the NBA Finals. It became an obsession to the point where if I missed a lay-up during a game, I got depressed for the rest of the day. Still, it drove me to come back again, improve and remedy the situation.
My wife thought I was nuts. Every time I would bring up my day on the court, she would roll her eyes and remind me that I’m more Kevin Arnold than I am Kevin Durant. She also warned me to be careful, to which I reminded her that I was playing against a bunch of guys in their 30’s and that I was in better shape than most of them.
And then, about six months ago, I got smashed in the nose by a teenager who lowered his shoulder into me on a penetration. My nose now cracks in both directions when I try to move it, but I luckily avoided a full break. Then, a couple weeks later I was slightly concussed after being run under by a guy who was pissed that I was outplaying him. I ended up sitting out two days nursing my brain – which luckily was not permanently damaged. In December, I took an elbow to the bridge of my nose, which caused it to bleed profusely all over the court and earned me 75 “likes” on Instagram.
In February, I jammed my left thumb so hard during a rebound that I am still having trouble operating the zippers on my jeans. Then I jammed my right pointer and ring finger in consecutive games. I’m consistently fighting shin splints and a bone spur. Finally, last week, I discovered that I have bursitis in my right shoulder and that I might not be able to play for three weeks or so. This will be my first trip to the disabled list in my athletic career. And I’m a month away from 40. According to my dad, the injuries will now just start piling up. In short, I am about to enter my Bill Walton years. Now, my family is giving me all kinds of advice.
“Maybe think about not playing anymore,” my mother offered. “You know, you’re no spring chicken.”
I hung up on her.
“A spin class is much better on your body,” my dad suggested. I simply sent him pictures of my three-on-three trophy and told him I’d be back on the court in a month.
“Don’t do anything stupid, you don’t want to really hurt yourself,” my wife told me.
I rolled my eyes and studied Russell Westbrook highlights like it was important game film.
During the past week, I have found myself watching Bill Walton again. I guess recently there have been petitions to remove him from the Pac-12 broadcast booth, which upsets me entirely. Sure, he can go on tangents about the time Bob Weir and him spoke Arabic to camels in the Egyptian desert, but his unique and loveable qualities are what make him a treasure in the booth. He’s not a cookie-cutter color guy. He’s quotable and full of basketball wisdom. In fact, he may be my favorite college basketball announcer working today. Not only does he know the game, he makes it fun. I know he seems like he might be high or severely “out-there” once in awhile, but his love for the game is like nobody’s I’ve ever heard before. Not only that, his passion for the game is what got me playing basketball again.
Without Bill Walton, I’d still be jogging three miles on a treadmill. Not competing and not getting any sense of accomplishment.
For that, I thank you Mr. Walton. For inspiring me to lace up my sneakers that early morning three and a half years ago and return to the sport of my youth.
The evening after I won the three-on-three “Dads” championship, my wife said I had a “glow” about me. I knew what she was talking about, because I felt it. It was a sense of invincibility and achievement. I felt young again. Above the rim. It brought to mind a famous Bill Walton quote I had read years ago when he said, “You don’t win championships by being normal, by being average…”
I may have only defeated a bunch of dads in a Saturday pick-up tournament, but for those of us who are just hanging onto the final glimpses of what we might be able to accomplish as men, it was as if I won an NBA Championship.
Now if you excuse me, I have to go ice my shoulder. I’m planning on returning to the court earlier than expected…
Buy Zach’s BOOK at amazon.com!
**UPDATE!** Read Bill Walton’s email to ZACH below following the publication of this essay!!
READ SOME WALTON-ISMs HERE : http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/bill_walton.html
On December 28, 2012, during a visit to my in-laws house for Christmas, I took my family to a Chuck E Cheese in Poulsbo, Washington. After receiving the proper safety stamps, smothering my body in hand sanitizer and shelling out $40.00 for three cups of tokens, I noticed that behind the counter, in a non-descript homemade metal serving area that looked like a sink from my high school chemistry class, were four taps reading “CHABLIS, BLUSH, BUDWEISER and BUD LIGHT.”
Their display resembled something from the Prohibition that one might have found at a speakeasy in the south side of Chicago in 1931. It looked like a nine-year-old designed it.Didn’t matter, I wanted a beer. After all, I was feeling a little on edge, and 300 screaming maniac kids sneezing and running all around Chuck E. Cheese seemed a lot easier to deal with should I have a pitcher of beer on hand.
I inquired about buying a pitcher of the Bud Light, but was quickly told that the keg was kicked. The young lady behind the counter recommended the Budweiser, saying that is was “Really the Red.”
I told her I wasn’t interested in wine, but, as it turns out, the “Red” was not red wine, but a local “red brew” from nearby Silverdale with an extremely high alcohol content. Knowing that would probably do the trick, I ordered up a pitcher, paid the young lady another $14.00 and went off to challenge any nine-year-old takers in games of mini-basketball Pop-a-Shot.
Following a 45-16 drubbing at the hands of a 12-year-old named Jayden, I sunk into our family booth and proceeded to pound three of these red beers in under an hour. Suddenly, I was feeling like I was a 12-year-old a kid at a friend’s birthday party in 1987. I was engulfed in the dazzling lights and sounds of the Chuck E. Cheese. I chased strange kids around the game room in a game of tag… I took my daughter up into the plastic maze/slide and let a bunch of kids tackle me… I sat and posed for dumb pictures with my family and a giant, stuffed mouse on a cheap amusement ride… I was truly, the super dad of the Chuck E. Cheese, and my wife smiled at me as I approached her with a wad of gum stuck in my hair and a red pizza sauce stain on my t-shirt.
“You really are the best dad,” she said before kissing me.
As my buzz began to fade, I knew I would have to get another beer before we went home to keep the ride going. Deciding to skip dinner due to the plasticene appearance of the so-called cheese on top of the rubbery pizza, I took down two more Reds and packed up the diaper bag. My son ended up winning 498 tickets – which he quickly traded in for a stuffed mini-Spongebob and a pencil. Two pieces of unadulterated crap that retail somewhere around 75 cents. I didn’t care, though. It was a great time and he had a blast playing all of the games and winning tickets. Best of all, I was leaving Chuck E. Cheese with a tremendous buzz and a newfound love for dark beer from the Pacific Northwest.
That was the last thing I remembered from that evening.
The next day I woke up around 10 a.m. to hear my wife cursing me out from the other room. She was saying something about me falling off the bed in the middle of the night and waking up our daughter. Having no recollection of this, I stumbled to my feet and looked helplessly for my eyeglasses. When I couldn’t find them, I made a point of acting as if nothing was wrong, even though my head was pounding with the thumps of a million five-year-olds dancing across my temples.
“You’re in trouble,” she said to me, glaring as I walked into the kitchen.
Her mother laughed. I squinted for any answer in the mid-morning Northwest gloom. All I could find were blurry shapes and rapid movements, mainly my kids, who sat eating cereal and playing with their new Hannukkah and Christmas toys.
“What are you talking about?” I asked
“Do you not remember what you did last night?” She offered.
“Oh, you mean when you told me I was the best dad ever?”
“I can’t even look at you right now.”
And with that, I ran off to the bathroom where I threw up a mountain of fluid and a distinctly unfamiliar mystery meat. I found my eyeglasses in the wastebasket by the toilet.
According to my in-laws, we had come home after Chuck E Cheese and I split a bottle of red wine with my wife’s dad. When his neighbor Mike, a European guy who makes homemade beer and cooks a mean pork pozole, invited us over for some beer tastings and food – we both accepted. From then on, I proceeded to run a little “blank tape.”
My wife informed me that I had arrived at the door three hours later with my pants around my ankles. I was slurring and proceeded to pop my contact lenses out of my eyeballs and throw them across the room without knowing where my glasses were. After nearly falling through a plate glass window and severing my carotid artery, I demanded that my wife turn on a porno film on the big screen television – before yelling at my mother-in-law to “go the hell to bed already.” I passed out on the couch and was carried to bed by wife and her dad.
When this was all relayed to me by my wife, who just hours earlier had been commending me on my parenting skills, I let the situation slowly sink in. As I attempted to swallow a 16 ounce coconut water and wiped the never ending sweat from my brow, I began to think that it might be a good time to take a real close look at what WebMD had described as “my drinking problem.”
I spent the rest of the entire day in bed and/or in the bathroom, vomiting. It was one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced – not unlike those 24-hour bugs that have been going around where you puke and sleep forever, convinced you are dying.
I hated every minute of it, especially when I was incapable of playing with my kids because I was in too much pain. Embarrassed and ashamed, I took a vow of sobriety on the afternoon of December 29, 2012. I also vowed to chronicle my efforts in my journals, which I have been fastidiously keeping since my 16th birthday but had grown a little lazy about recently. I was sort of hoping that the non-drinking would re-inspire me to keep a more comprehensive diary again, but instead of logging activities and hours in the following pages, I mainly focused on the extremely difficult task of avoiding alcohol at all costs.
What follows are lifted directly from my personal journals beginning the day of December 29th and continuing on until I broke my streak. I hope this either inspires you to face your demons head on, or continue drinking responsibly so you do not end up trying to turn on a DVD of Little Orphan Anal in front of your wife’s parents over the holidays.
Sobriety Journal. Aka The Non-Rum Diary.
Dec. 29, 2012
Day 1: OOOOOOOhhhh God. I have been puking for 9 hours straight and I don’t even have any food in my body… I think I just threw up knee cartilage. Last night was a lost bender of epic proportions, coming to a head at the neighbor’s house (Mike? Mark?) Where I drank his homemade 14% alcohol Belgian Tripelbock after nearly killing 6 beers and some wine during and before dinner. I don’t remember the end of the night, but the wife said I arrived at the in laws door with my pants around my ankles. My last memory was beer at Chuck E. Cheese – and my kids playing arcade games with those disease ridden tokens. All I found was this picture crumpled up in my wallet of me slamming a beer with my finger up my nose.
Shit, maybe I got roofied. Roofeed? How do you spell that? More than likely, I put my hand in some kid’s snot that he wiped on the “Mousecalator” and inhaled it, which is what undoubtedly caused this massive bodily excursion.
I have to uke again…
Dec. 30. 2012.
DAY 2: Wow, a day after hangover. Maybe I’ll have a bowl of Honey smacks and watch Breaking Bad on DVD all day… Wife is in the other room talking about going to the mall or something. Not me. I’m still laid up… No more booze, ever. Period. I’m serious. 100%. Even though its New Year’s Eve in 2 days and were invited to a party in LA thrown by the guy who owns the Coldwater Wine Company, I will refrain… It’s been 15 years of this shit time to grow up and be a man. Fuck it, man… Robert Downey jr. got sober. So did Dick Van Dyke and Richard Dreyfus and Nick Nolte…I think… Maybe even Slash… wait, is Slash sober? If Slash is sober, I can be sober. Although I only seem to over-consume wine and beer … I think Slash was mainlining jet fuel at one point… I don’t know… I don’t want to have to keep explaining myself- especially once my kids are old enough to wonder why daddy is staying in bed all day. I talked to George Carlin’s daughter Kelly once… She told me she spent every morning of her childhood wondering when her parents would wake up and play with her… Apparently they had a blackout curtain in their room to keep out that evil sun. Luckily, I’m in Washington State right now and the sun is nowhere to be found. WE go home tomorrow… thank GOD.
(15 minutes later)
My wife’s brother just brought over a six pack and a bottle of wine and I turned him down! I think I’m cured! Who needs Dr. Drew- fuck that guy! I will never crave booze again!
Dec. 31, 2102
DAY 3: I want booze. So badly. Just some wine or a beer or something… DAMN! And it’s New Years Eve! What the hell. I’m so exhausted. We’re invited to about three different parties but I don’t want to go to any of them. I’m probably gonna do the lame West Coast dad thing and watch the ball drop at 9 pm on an East Coast feed— that is very very sad. Two years ago I took ecstasy and covered myself in body paint with a crowd of naked strangers in an apartment in Glendale. Yeah, I was in a shithole in Glendale and I was on ecstasy and I felt like I was being licked by the tongue of God. It was awesome. Now, I’m two nights sober. I feel awful Head cloudy, body still in shock… Maybe it was the pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food I consumed last night in an effort to curb my body’s sugar cravings… Who the hell knows. It is 8:31 at night and I don’t even think I can make it to New York New Years… So I am signing off, asleep at 8:34 on New Year’s Eve.
Jan. 1, 2013
Day 4: I feel a lot better! Might even attempt to go to the gym and run today… But I don’t know. We’re invited to a friend’s house for football and wine later and they always have the best French Bourdeaux. How the hell does that happen? Man, when you are not drinking, THE WHOLE WORLD IS AN OPEN BAR!!!
(later that night)
I just told my wife I had a late night meeting, but in reality, I’m off to the grocery store to buy some more ice cream. Seriously. I am lying to my wife so that I can go eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the Gelson’s parking lot. Alone. Jesus. Some men have affairs, I sneak off to have sex with pints of Cherry Garcia.
January 2, 2013
DAY 5: Back to the gym, finally sweat out the remnants of that night. I smelled like a beer on the treadmill. It was sad. My mom and my grandma fly in later tonight. My mom will immediately wonder why I am not drinking. She is a two bottle-a-night of chardonnay drinker… I normally stay up with her and talk, but this might be the time I don’t. Damn! I love drinking with my mom!
January 3, 2013
DAY 6. My mom and I had this conversation last night beginning at about 4:45 in the afternoon.
MOM: “Why aren’t you drinking?”
ME: “I had a rough night last week and I’m taking some time off.”
MOM: “You loser! Open some red wine and play Scrabble with me.”
Somehow, I managed to not drink with her and I went to bed early. The last thing my mom said to me before she went to bed was,
“I really hope this isn’t a permanent thing. Think of your mother, won’t you?”
I will say, my mom is one of my all time favorite drinking buddies. We sit and play old records and run through Scrabble games until two in the morning – usually forgetting to finish because we both get so loopy that we begin placing words like “Oughta” on the board and accepting them. Meanwhile, my grandma, who is 90-years-old and still sharp and hilarious said to me, “I don’t care if you stop drinking forever… you NEED to stop biting your nails!”
I love my grandma.
Jan. 4, 2013
Day 7. One week! Wow, I went one week. I still haven’t found much inspiration to write or play guitar or anything, but my son and I played his new Wreck it Ralph Wii game for five hours straight today! Not that playing video games is productive, but it was something, right? Oh man, I sound like all the stoner gamer geeks I used to work with at G4. So that’s what sobriety leads to? VIDEO GAMES? Shit, I might as well go get a bottle of Jim Beam right now. BTW, my mom and grandma went to Orange County to visit my sister, so I’m back to exercising and reading this great book on Bonnie and Clyde. Makes me happy I never shot anybody.
Jan. 5. 2013
Day 8. OK, I was at a film screening tonight and they had an open bar. I had sparkling water with lemon, but I was craving alcohol. You know how we Jew are, anything free, we WANT IT!! Especially the red wines they had… and the Pilsner beer… Oh man. Anyway, I ended up drinking my first Coke in about five years. It was like drinking a Snickers bar. Jesus. I switched to Diet Coke, but my buddy Eric told me about all the studies and the chemicals and the fact that Diet Coke causes cancer and depression… My God, once again, I’m better off drinking.
Jan 6. 2013
Day 9. Well, I just bought a six pack of Buckler non-alcoholic beer. It tastes alright, but is definitely lacking the sweet, calming trace of alcohol. I cracked one about two hours ago and drank it within three minutes. I drank the second one three minutes later. I killed the six pack in 28 minutes. Now I feel bloated and somewhat satisfied, as if there was a placebo affect to the whole thing. Whatever the case, my mom comes back tomorrow and I have an audition for a Toyota Commercial.
Jan. 7, 2013
Day 10. Fuck fuck fuck you Q Q Q Q DICK. Fucking dick fuck fuck this sucks fuck you dick dick balls dick.
Jan. 8, 2013.
Day 11. FUCCCKKKKKK YOOOUUUU!UU!U!UU!U!U! I want a drink I want a drink I want a drink drink drink dnrindinrindikkkkkk. I texted a few sober friends and asked them how they deal with all of this and they sent me back the clichés we are all familiar with. Cigarettes and coffee… meetings… ice cream… My one buddy, a former coke-monkey named Bobby wrote Dude, substitute one addiction for the other… why do you think I got divorced? I’m a cooze hound!
Jan. 9, 2013
Day 12. I have officially crossed the threshold! I truly believe I may not ever have a craving again. I’m exercising, nailing my auditions (Toyota callback!) and I’ve slowed down on my Ben and Jerry’s to half a pint a night! This is the beginning of a whole new me! I will write tomorrow. I LOVE this!!
That was my final entry into the Sobriety Journal.
I made it 12 full days before being invited to a party where they were serving Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Sea Smoke red wine. I looked at my wife, who knew that the minute I saw the Sea Smoke (my favorite) I would be done for. She grabbed me and looked me in my eyes.
“Look, Zach,” she said. “If you think you can have just a couple of glasses, I think you should. BUT, remember, drink water, stay in control and you don’t have to POUND the wine. Enjoy it, sip it, you know?”
I looked into my wife’s sweet face. She was sticking by my side no matter what I did and I loved her for it. I knew she was my rock, my confidant… my unofficial “sponsor” if you will and the fact that she trusted me to know my limits meant more to me than anything in the entire world at that moment. I kissed her and promised to be responsible and careful and I watched her walk away into the party to hang with a group of women who were discussing their unnecessary scarves in the 60-degree Los Angeles winter night.
I rolled up to the bar and took a long hard moment to gather myself. The waiter poured me a decent glass of Sea Smoke and told me to enjoy it. I swirled the red lava around in the glassware like a vinyl record and let it settle a few times before placing my nose up to its fortuitous aroma. I inhaled deeply, taking in the fine grape, the chutes of ember and the floral notes. This was GOOOD wine. The best wine to break a fortnight of sobriety with. I slowly pressed the glass to my lips and swallowed the heavenly liquid until my body turned warm with familiarity and melted into a séance-like calmness. I felt alive. I knew I was going to be able to conquer this demon – and practice the finest art of them all… The art of moderation.
The next morning I woke up on the bathroom floor, fully clothed and in a fetal position.
I had no idea where my eyeglasses were…
Watch Zach’s new TV Show “Guinness World Records Gone Wild! Feb. 7th at 8:00 pm on TruTV!
It has been nearly 19 years since I left my childhood home for college.
In that time, the closet in my old bedroom has been housing the rotting souvenirs of my youth. Souvenirs that eternally remind me of my precious, fading juvenile memories. Items that will forever sentimentally call out to me, and ALL of us children of the 1980’s… Invaluable, beautiful trinkets that I have been unable to part with since I was 13-years-old.
Of course, I am referring to thousands of ridiculously worthless Pac-Man key-chains, Garbage Pail Kids and armless GI Joe figures. Go-Bots and Star Wars spaceships that were shoved into back drawers directly next to a myriad of autographed baseballs – ranging from superstars like Gary Sheffield to busts like onetime Cleveland Indians prospect Luis Medina. At least 120 baseball-themed posters, like the Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire Bash Brothers print and the Bo Knows Bo Nike series. And finally, a colossal amount of baseball cards littering the back wall of my closet, long ignored and cast aside.
From what I remember, there is even a small collection of stuffed animals that somehow found themselves packed into a moldy cedar trunk – not unlike the toys from Toy Story 3 – who were forgotten when Andy eventually headed off to college…
They are all there. Forgotten and lonely, praying that someday their owner would return home and rediscover them – bringing them out for one last play date…
As mentioned, the majority of the closet was packed with my onetime extensive collection of baseball memorabilia.
My mother always told me typical stories of her mom accidentally throwing away all of her toys and collectibles when she went off went to the University of Wisconsin in 1964. She never forgave her parents for tossing out scores of Mickey Mantle baseball cards and rare Howdy Doody collectibles, which were now worth thousands of dollars. So, in my early years, she encouraged me to save certain things and to collect potential items for future profits… So, I jumped into my collecting with a furious passion.
Back then it was cool to own 123,000 baseball cards.
Today, they call it hoarding.
My closet has virtually lain dormant for 19 years. In that time, a certain online website known as ebay has shattered the dreams of memorabilia collectors everywhere, revealing that there were a lot more Mike Schmidt rookie baseball cards in the world than we once would have thought. Onetime Topps Nolan Ryan rookie cards – that the Beckett Baseball Card Monthly previously listed as being worth 725 dollars – are now available online for eight bucks. And the glorious holy grail of all kid collectors nationwide – the 100 dollar Don Mattingly 1984 Donruss rookie card – was suddenly available for a paltry $14.99 on ebay.
Even the crown jewel of my collection – my grandfather’s 1920-21 Christy Mathewson W514 Strip Card – which had once been admired by a middle-aged man willing to trade me a used car for it, was now selling for 250 dollars online… or best offer…
The goldmine in my closet has officially gone belly up.
My mother finally placed the phone call that I always expected would come… The newsflash that it was time I went home to clean out my closet of all my old childhood memorabilia. The alert that she was turning my room into an office – and that she needed some ‘at home’ space.
“What?,” I said. “Clean out my museum?”
“If it’s a museum, nobody is taking the tour,” my mom responded.
So, reluctantly, this past weekend, I returned home to Tucson, Arizona to begin cleaning out the two-decade old treasure chest that I once swore would only be sold to pay for my kid’s college fund.
I arrived in town like a cast member of American Pickers. It had been so long since I had explored my collection of stuff, I wasn’t sure what was still in that closet. After all, 19 years? I wasn’t sure if moths had eaten away at everything… or if I would discover some long lost prize that would pay off my student loans and credit card debt.
When I opened the door to the lost tomb of my childhood, I was immediately hit with a warm wave of nostalgia that spread over me as if I was a 13-year-old screaming at Ken Griffey, jr. for an autograph in 1988. Everything was there. All the busted bats I convinced players like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder to give me during Spring Training. The scores of batting practice foul balls I had gathered and had signed by one time major league prospects like David Taylor and Craig Smajstrla – and tens of thousands of baseball cards. Other souvenirs like pine tar rags, batting gloves and lineup cards from my days of following the Tucson Toros and the Cleveland Indians helped compose my makeshift museum. I had stored unopened Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes that had cut-out baseball cards of Angels’ rookie Wally Joyner on the back panel sitting in the corner of my closet, adjacent to a Michael Jordan Wheaties box. I even found a few Kathy Ireland Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues that had been dear companions to me on lonely junior high afternoons… It was a beautiful assemblage of my long lost childhood. And I couldn’t quite figure out where to start.
From1981 until about 1990, I rearranged my bedroom in a tribute to the game of baseball. Don Mattingly was my boyhood hero, and box scores, batting averages and ERA’s practically ran my life for nine splendid and unforgettable years during my adolescence.
When other kids went to Golf-N-Stuff on the weekend to meet the cute 6th grade girls like Amy Foust and Erin Shelly, I went to Tucson’s premiere baseball card shop “The Sports Page” with my collector-geek friends. My mother would often walk by my room and see me obsessing over Dave Winfield’s career batting average or Rickey Henderson’s stolen base record and casually mention that she had heard some of my other friends were going to a local water park with some classmates… I offered up a simple shrug of my shoulders and poured directly back into rearranging my baseball cards, occasionally choosing to alphabetize them so that I would always be able to pull them out at any given moment.
Girls were certainly around, but I was way to insecure too ever do anything about them. I left the girls at school to the skater kids who were dressed in Vision Street Wear and rode designer Gator skateboards…
Me? I was a baseball card kid. The Vice President of the baseball card club and a hip-hop music fan who used to write songs like The Baseball Card Rap to perform with some of my friends at a school talent show.
Basically, I was a complete fucking geek.
My parents seemed to never truly understand my obsession with America’s pastime. Perhaps it was because my own personal baseball career had come to an abrupt end when I broke my arm in fifth grade. My much-hyped little league comeback fell through and I hit a combined .216 over the next three seasons. So, I found my true baseball success in collecting memorabilia and autographs from big league ballplayers.
My mom could only stare in bewilderment as her oldest son spent all of his allowance and Bar Mitzvah money on what she viewed to be merely useless pieces of cardboard. In fact, the only time I remember talking to my mom about baseball cards was when I asked if I could fly to her childhood home in New Jersey to look in the attic for all those Mickey Mantle rookies she claimed her mom once threw away.
My travel wishes were never granted.
I started picking through my closet at a snail’s pace. Initially, it was mind-blowing.
Old baseball cards and memorable pictures brought me back to those hot summers spent in drug stores scrambling for the newest rookies, slipping Wade Boggs rookies into plastic album sleeves and standing outside in the 92 degree Tucson weather trying to get minor league players like Craig Biggio to sign a baseball.
The majority of my memories came rushing back to me all in the cards. It was like a Rorschach test…I was thrown back into Mattingly’s clean-shaven face on his ’84 rookie… Dwight Gooden’s pre-cocaine gold tooth on his ’85 Fleer card. Even Ryne Sandberg’s impossible youth on his 1983 Topps rookie that I traded for back in 1985.
Every scrapbook, picture and signature recalled a memory of a childhood full of innocence and a passionate love for the game of BASEBALL.
It was actually a fairly peaceful and calming experience. For the first hour, I was suddenly 11-years-old again. Going through common cards and rediscovering lost names like Alvaro Espinoza and Steve Sax was both magical and cathartic… However, when I came across a poorly-forged Mark McGwire autographed baseball shoved deep inside my closet, I suddenly burst into tears.
The first friend I had ever had in my life was a kid named Nathan. Our parents had lived together when we were born -two months apart- in 1975. At age two, Nathan’s family split Tucson and moved back east to Fairfield, Connecticut. My family stayed in Tucson. Still, by that time, a brotherly bond had already been formed and as the years moved on, Nathan and I grew closer through written correspondence, summer travel and phone calls.
Around first grade, we discovered that we shared an intense passionate love for the New York Yankees – forced upon us by our fathers. We also both had an extensive collection of baseball cards, inherited from older kids who had moved onto skateboards and girls, and we both began collecting them with fervor. As the years rolled on, our collections grew endlessly, as did our friendship.
My first Yankees game was in 1983 – with Nathan and our dads – against George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. (It was the day before the Pine Tar Game). Dave Winfield hit a home run and Nathan and I split about 5 hot dogs and 3000 calories of stadium treats. A lifelong obsession had been kicked into high gear and the memories are still there – from Winfield’s homer soaring into the bullpen to that first view of the infield as we walked up from the escalator. I get chills just thinking about it.
As the years rolled along, Nathan and I continued to share our baseball card collecting stories through the mail. However, it wasn’t until 1986 or so, when I had begun obtaining hundreds of players signatures at spring training, that Nathan began to get somewhat jealous of my collection. At the time, if you were a kid in Tucson, you could walk up to Hi Corbett Field and practically stand in the on deck circle as the teams warmed up to play each other. My buddies and I would skip school and get to the field to watch guys like Mark Grace and Rob Deer take batting practice before snagging their signatures. It was the end of an era, when ballplayers still made the league minimum of $62,500 and didn’t face any threat of being harassed and jumped by some stupid drunk fan hanging around the dugout… Even though they did offer Dollar Beer Night time and time again.
Meanwhile, as my autograph collection grew, I found that more and more collectors from across the country began asking me to get them signed baseballs from the superstars of the day like Canseco and McGwire…(This was way before the steroid era and Canseco’s tell-all book Juiced).
Still, realizing that I had an inside advantage to any collector from, say… Vermont, I recognized a little business opportunity.
So, I began charging a fee.
It was actually Nathan’s idea to charge. I was so adept at getting autographs, that I would charge five dollars to a guy in Nebraska for a Canseco ball and maybe a little bit more for a team ball. I went to at least 25 games that spring and got everything I could get signed. From there, it was sold, stamped and shipped. By the end of spring training, I had made roughly $375 and was buying any baseball card I wanted at The Sports Page. It was easy money. It was actually quite perfect and even a bit business savvy… I had become an entrepreneur.
But it was about to get easier.
That August, Nathan wrote me a letter and suggested a way to make even more money.
Have you ever considered forging the autographs?
I was on it like Tony Gwynn on a knee-high fastball. Within days, I had mastered every All-Star’s signature. I spent hours perfecting Will Clark’s end of name “K-tail,” Mark McGwire’s curvaceous bubble “cG” and Dwight Gooden’s sloping, elongated “D.” I had handwriting intonations down pat… And nobody could tell the difference. I was suddenly, a MASTER FORGER.
Nathan came to visit the following spring and proceeded to take back about 50 forged items to Connecticut. We had agreed that he would sell them to his local card shop and we would split the profits. Within two weeks, after convincing his local baseball card shop that he had been collecting autographs in Arizona at Spring Training, he had pulled in 750 dollars.
All on 100 percent forged material.
I guarantee that if you ever bought an autographed baseball or card in Fairfield, Connecticut or Tucson, Arizona during the late 1980’s… Nathan and I had something to do with it…
So that moment, when I held the poorly forged Mark McGwire ball, it made me cry.
I knew I was feeling emotional, but it was for many different reasons. One was because Nathan passed away 15 years ago at the age of 21, long before we ever got to reunite and laugh about our little criminal business venture. Back then, our operation was so easy to pull off, because nobody would question 13-year-old kids who were selling really legitimate-looking autographs. In the years following, I have read about dozens of teenagers and adults getting arrested and caught in the forgery game. (Most recently Babe Ruth baseballs were the subject of a criminal investigation).
I am happy to say that we got out before there was any industry crackdown.
Our little gig continued for a few years, until Nathan and I both stopped caring about baseball cards and retired from the forgery racket about $2500 richer. Girls and music and pot had entered our lives and we suddenly realized that maybe those cool skater kids had the right idea all along…
So, there I was. In my childhood bedroom, holding that poorly forged Mark McGwire baseball – obviously feebly done with a nervous, shaky hand back in 1987. It was a touching return the last days of my innocence… Long before overdue bills and property taxes. Long before I followed a girl named Leslie around the country on the heels of a Grateful Dead tour just to hope she would consider me as a boyfriend, and long before I had a family of my own to feed… And long before Nathan’s demons got the best of him.
And now, here was my mother demanding that I throw away everything in my closet. I decided to take a stand.
“Mom, I can’t do this right now,” I screamed from across the house.
“Oh shut up and get rid of that crap,” she responded.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and approached her in the living room about five minutes later.
I sat down and relayed some of the stories and forgery adventures I had shared with Nathan all those years ago and told her I wasn’t able to emotionally get through the memories stored in the closet just yet. Having recently lost her best friend to cancer, my mother sat me down and talked me through it.
She totally understood.
She also informed me that it had been 15 years since his death and that I needed to get over it. She had to go clean out her best friend’s house in San Francisco just after she had passed away a year earlier… All I had to do was throw away some baseball cards and get back to my family in Los Angeles.
It was as intense of a moment I have ever shared with my mother and we have never felt closer.
After agreeing to keep a few items, but sell the majority of the cards to a baseball card shop, I managed to get through the rest of my closet somewhat easily. I found some special bits and pieces that, worthless or not, meant the world to me and tucked them away for my son.
My grandfather’s Christy Mathewson card passed down from my uncle for my Bar Mitzvah.
A Craig Biggio Tucson Toros cap.
Even that 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly card.
The rest of my collection was bundled up into a box and headed towards a baseball card shop. I decided I was going to sell it all to the “Sports Page.”
I dialed the number from memory. 886-5000, expecting to hear Mike or Orby answer, the way they did back in 1988.
Instead, a woman answered. She did not work at the Sports Page.
She went on to inform me that the Sports Page had closed roughly 12 years earlier, and that she used to get people calling her looking for the shop all the time. Turns out, I was the first caller looking for The Sports Page in about 9 years.
Wow. Had it been that long?
I was shaken again, but I eventually managed to find another store in Tucson willing to look at my collection. As I brought the nearly 120,000 cards into the shop, I looked around at the changing face of what was once my obsession. Gone were the display cases full of modern rookie cards. The new collector’s items of choice were LeBron James or Kobe Bryant autographed game-worn jerseys. Both of which came with a certificate of authenticity. I couldn’t blame ‘em.
I sat and talked to the two baseball card employees for roughly 45 minutes about the changing face of collecting, the effect ebay had on the hobby and the future. After they scoured through my cards, they told me there wasn’t really much they’d be interested in, and I told them I kind of figured that would be the case. They suggested Goodwill. I admired a Derek Jeter autographed baseball mitt in a glass case and a Josh Hamilton signed bat before thanking my new friends for their time.
However, before I packed it all in and left for the parking lot, they informed me that if I had any autographed items of value I’d be willing to sell, to come back and they would take a look.
I surveyed the store and thought long and hard.
“Well, I do have a Mark McGwire autographed baseball…”
I looked towards the sky. Nathan would be so proud…
Based on my calculations, I have probably nursed more than 3500 hangovers in my adult life. Most of them have been passable- usually unraveled before 10 a.m. with some coffee, greasy food and copious amounts of water. Others have traveled into the afternoon, unable to be defeated by all the old tricks – like boxes of coconut water, bottles of Kombucha and the occasional trip to the steam room.
Then there are those hangovers that creep into the next day. Those hangovers that have you seriously considering a treatment program or moving out to a deserted island- far away from the temptation and distraction of the real world… A place where you can dry out and kick the need to party every time your favorite team scores a run, you watch a film like Pulp Fiction or read a rock-n-roll autobiography.
As I have grown older, those 2-3 day hangovers happen a lot less frequently. My body just can’t recover as quickly as it used to, and I can barely recall the last time I even had a head-splitting, mind-crusher that took me out of an entire day. However, on October 27, 2012, my screaming two-and-a-half-year-old daughter woke me up at 5:42 in the morning to the largest mule-kick, thunder-fuck of a hangover I have ever had in my 37 years on planet Earth.
It was one of those “I’d rather just die here” hangovers. One of those “I’m considering just vomiting in my bed” hangovers. A shrieking anguish pulsated throughout my brain as I attempted to focus on any inanimate object in my bedroom. It was useless. I was as useful as a deflated pool raft. I felt like a moppish blob of failure.
It was at that moment that I remembered it was Saturday morning, and I was expected to fulfill a laundry list of activities throughout the day. Activities I had no memory of agreeing to.
At 10 am, my family was scheduled to meet another family at the Los Angeles Zoo for a Halloween-themed afternoon where there was supposed to be all types of fun activities, free candy and spooky decorations… The event was called Boo at the Zoo, and my wife had planned it a week earlier. Unfortunately, my wife had forgotten that she had to work all Saturday, so I would be hanging with both kids by myself.
Then, at 3 o’clock, we had RSVP’d to a one-year-old birthday party at a park in Sherman Oaks.
It should be noted that my six-year-old son had broken his foot a week earlier by jumping off of a jungle gym and was sporting a massive, immobile cast, so I was dreading any activity that would take place outdoors and make him feel useless. Unfortunately, both of these plans were outdoor events.
To top it all off, I checked the demonic weather forecast for the day… 90-plus degrees in late October.
The piercing screech of my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter demanding a bowl of Cheerios was a fierce reminder that I am no longer able to drink like I used to. In fact, I could barely walk when I carried her downstairs into the living room, where I promptly did what any terrific, hands-on parent who cares about his children’s future would do…
I turned on the TV and crawled beneath a blanket.
Beneath the din of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, I was able to quickly re-discover my sleep pattern and I drifted in and out of consciousness as Mickey and Goofy talked about calling some freak named “Toodles” for help with their project. I figured I was good to go. The blanket was a little thin, but the couch never felt better – and I was convinced I could skate by another two hours and be in fine shape to take the little ones to Boo at the Zoo. Unfortunately, then my six-year-old son woke up.
“Are we going to the zoo yet, daddy?” He asked.
“Uhghghg… I think the zoo is closed today…” I said.
“No… mommy said it was open… Can I have Frosted Flakes?”
When my wife woke up, she was bounding with ebullience over the fact that she was set to be spending the day interviewing orphans for a documentary film she was producing. Even though her project is important, understanding and impressively daring, I managed to insult the entire thing by moaning an insensitive bad joke from beneath my shield of a blanket.
“I’m real glad you care more about the orphans than you do your own kids,” I remarked.
And with that, she was gone. Out the door for her interviews, obviously pissed off at me – not only for my immature comment – but also for my Jurassic hangover.
As I hobbled myself into an upright state, I tried to piece together my activity from the night before. I tried to remember exactly where it all went wrong. What moment the tables had turned and I had blacked out. For some reason, I was running a lot of blank tape…And then it hit me… it was my trainer Tony’s fault!
Tony and I had met at the gym a year earlier. He was solely responsible for transforming my body from doughy, out-of-shape 36-year-old into the only slightly less-doughy out of shape 37-year-old writing this essay. (Truth be told, Tony has helped me shed 10 pounds and get into my best shape since high school…but that’s another story). Bottom line is, Tony is a beast. At the gym he throws me into gravity strength training classes, punishing me with his signature moves called “Burpees,” “Oil-wells” and “Gorilla Thumps.” I leave the gym in pain every time we work out together, but I have also seen incredible results and I look at the guy not only as a trainer, but as a new friend. However, up until the night before, we had never been out drinking together…
Tony had texted me that he wanted to have a beer somewhere in Hollywood. Feeling a little loopy following the bottle of wine my wife and I had split during bath time with our kids, I was motivated and intrigued to go and join such a healthy athlete like Tony on a pub-crawl. My wife told me to have fun and specifically warned me not to drink too much.
“Please,” I said. “He’s a trainer, I highly doubt he likes to drink excessively…”
Oh, how wrong I was.
The thing with Tony, was that he has the same sort of mentality in a bar drinking, that he does in a weight room or a gravity class. He is a leader. The kind of guy who pushes you to do the kinds of things that don’t make you feel good… So, as easily as he made me do 20 pull-ups in the gym, he just as easily made me do nine shots at the bar. It was his trainer mentality. The mentality that said, do it or you’re a pussy.
So, I did it. And I did it a lot. Convinced I could easily dust him in any kind of drinking contest, I was shocked when he continued blasting through shots of Jameson whiskey as I casually switched over to light beer. His constant ribbing of my “weak liver” only fueled me to turn my attention back to doing shots, and by the time midnight rolled around, I was so hammered, I stumbled outside and bummed at least two menthol cigarettes from a black prostitute named “Mouse.”
The last thing I remember was having a final glass of red wine at the bar down the street from my house before walking home to my awaiting bed, where I promptly knocked over a shelf full of books upon barely making it under the sheets. I slept in my contact lenses, and my wife said my breathing was so beleaguered, that she feared I might asphyxiate during the night. To top it all off, I tried to listen to music on my iphone as I went to sleep, but I ended up dropping it and extending a small crack in the face of the phone all the way down across the home button. And then, 5:42 am arrived and I was carrying the little girl downstairs.
After my wife left, I tried another tried-and-true father maneuver to try and divert children from wanting to go to a Boo at the Zoo celebration… I bribed them.
“Listen,” I said to the boy. “If we skip the zoo today, I’ll buy you any Skylanders toy you want.”
“Either that, or I’ll take you to get ice-cream sundaes later…”
“Can’t we have both?” He asked.
I rubbed a moon-rock of sleep from my eye.
“Sure,” I relented.
Roughly 30 minutes later, the cereal was all over the floor and the kids were fighting over what channel they wanted to watch. Feeling somewhat guilty, I informed them that we were going to not watch anymore TV and that we were going up to the park.
“But what about the zoo?” The boy yelled.
Raising children is not an easy thing. Especially when you are an aging almost-rock star who once released an album called “Alcoholiday.” You get used to the night life for so long, it is a 180 degree wake-up call the first time your kid jolts you up in the early morning ruining what was once uninterrupted sleep. I am not the first person to write about this type of stuff, but I may be one of the first to try and do what I used to do whenever things didn’t go my way in life: Drink through it.
I managed to put together the most comfortable outfit I could, compiled from a dirty floor-sweatshirt and cargo shorts with flip flops, and I loaded up a bag full of kids snacks and bottles for the zoo. 10:00 was quickly approaching, and I thought that perhaps, with a little more water and a power bar, I could get through the 20-minute drive to the zoo for what was sure to be a fun day for my kids. After all, my wife would absolutely kill me if I kept them at home to nurse a hangover, so I sacked up and decided that a little fresh air might do us all some good. (By the way, if you are wondering why I have yet to pop an Advil or Tylenol, it’s because I am afraid of pain-relief medicine. Yeah, I know. I will take nine shots of Jameson, but I am afraid of the physical damage two Advil might have on my body.)
I admit it. I am an idiot.
I should have turned the car around when I saw the traffic entering Griffith Park. We were backed up for 25 minutes. The number of cars going left seemed endless, and I immediately knew that the zoo would be a madhouse. Still, I turned up the volume on the back seat TV and let the kids watch the final half hour of Monsters Vs. Aliens. I also took the time to begin texting the other family we were going to meet at the zoo. Scott and Joely weren’t close friends, but they had a six-year-old who my son enjoyed playing with. Besides, I thought, another two sets of eyes would make the day go by a lot faster.
I texted Scott.
How close are you guys?
He didn’t reply.
After we successfully made the left turn into Griffith Park, we followed the winding road around past the golf course and up towards the Gene Autry Museum and the Los Angeles Zoo. I slouched forward and noticed the alarming number of cars already parked in the adjacent lot. Families of four all pushed strollers towards the entrance, roughly 2000 feet away from the nearest parking space. It was massively crowded. I should have turned around. Instead, I passed through the barricade and committed to the afternoon. I looked at my phone… 88 degrees and rising.
My headache only worsened as I wrestled the stroller from the back of my car. Sometimes, trying to maneuver a stroller into position is like attempting to fold a 30-pound Origami napkin. Wheels get turned sideways, diaper bags get caught in bottom carriages… it truly sucks. Of course on this day of hangover hell, everything you can imagine was going wrong. When I finally straightened it out and prepared for the half-mile hike to the entrance, I carried my daughter towards the stroller, praying she’d take a nap for the majority of the zoo adventure. Instead, she wanted to walk. The boy, already lame in his foot cast, wanted to go in the stroller. Realizing that it would probably be a better idea for him to not put as much pressure on his foot, I let him ride. Of course, this made the girl want to ride as well.
The brother-sister battle began. As I strained to push the stroller with a 55-pound boy inside, my daughter screamed that now she wanted to be inside. I compromised by carrying her in my left arm while pushing the boy with my right. Impossible to steer on a straight line, we made it roughly 25 feet before I had to readjust and try another tactic. This continued for the rest of the walk. Her only other desire was to be carried .It was finalized. I would be carrying my daughter the entire time we were at the zoo.
I think it was the minute we made it up to the entrance when Scott finally texted me back.
Dude, waaaay to crowded and hot. We’re not gonna make it. Beer later?
Fuck you, Scott.
Boo at the Zoo was one of the lamest things you could choose to take your children to. In the newspaper ad, kids were promised trick-or-treating and huge bags of candy. Upon arrival, they were handed a tiny paper bag with five treats inside – sponsored by 99 Cent Stores. The giant pumpkin maze turned out to be about 7 bails of hay arranged in a small stack surrounded by random jack-o-lanterns. The “spooky crafts” they had been promised was a table where you could paint a stick. Finally, there was a lame attraction where zookeepers fed chimpanzees pumpkins and let the crowd watch. Not exactly a fascinating thing to witness.
At one point, while leaning over the Tapir cage, a father standing next to me sniffed near my body and made eye contact.
“Dude, I didn’t want to say anything, but you smell like booze,” he said.
I slowly turned my head towards the sober-looking instigator.
“Walk away,” I said before slumping my way down the railing.
The boy seemed to get heavier as the day wore on, possibly because I let him eat his entire treat bag, and he simply refused to get out of the stroller. The girl and I actually saw most of the animals, which was somewhat enjoyable – especially when she called the giraffe a “firaffe” and the zebra a “webra,” but mainly, it was just another day at the zoo with a ferocious hangover… and 2000 families in Halloween costumes jockeying for position to watch a Brazilian rodent called a “Red-Rumped Agouti” eat pumpkin seeds.
Having nursed mild hangovers everywhere from Disneyland to farmer’s markets, I have to say the LA Zoo has one terrific feature about it. It serves booze. At first, I didn’t notice it, but as the day dragged on, more and more moms and dads were nursing 12 dollar beers in the now 91-degree heat. I even saw a kiosk offering up red and white wine, and toyed with the idea of a little hair-of-the-dog, but my stomach pains eventually won out and I kept swallowing water at a feverish pace instead. About two hours into our zoo journey, I broke a natural sweat. It felt terrific. I let the girl run around near the elephant display as I soaked up the sun like a Jersey Shore cast member in a tanning booth. I finally felt, for the first time all day, alive.
I bought the kids some chips and a hot dog to split, but neither of them seemed interested. Frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm for the fact that I just dropped 15 dollars on a hot dog and bag of Doritos, I decided that I would be eating them myself. I wheeled the stroller to the edge of the “Gorilla Grill” and proceeded to wolf down a nitrate-blasted chemical dog, a bag of Doritos and even went back inside to order a chocolate-dipped churro. The boy sulked that I wouldn’t let him have any of the churro, but I felt that my health was more important to surviving the afternoon than his was. I told him he needed to eat something healthy before he could have a treat. This coming from a guy who just poisoned his body with 30 gallons of liquor and a frankfurter made out of pig lips, intestines and assholes.
The next sign of humanity came when I had digested the food and washed it down with a soda. Some color returned to my face and I felt less pekid. I wheeled the stroller around the lion display (which was closed) and past another Halloween activity – the pumpkin-carving specialist – before announcing that this day at the zoo was over.
I steadied myself for the nearly mile-and-a-half walk back to the car, and threw my daughter up on my left arm while navigating the boy in the stroller with my right. All I cared about was getting home, putting the girl down for her nap and turning on any college football game on TV. I could blame her nap schedule for us missing the one-year-old birthday (everyone does it) and I knew that if I didn’t lie down soon, things might get really ugly. My wife wasn’t due home until 7:30, and it was approaching 1:30 – so I figured that some coffee and some TV might help me drift through the rest of the day. I limped off towards our ride home.
30 minutes later, I struggled with the stroller again and climbed into the wretchedly hot interior of my 2005 Honda CR-V.
I sat and let the air-conditioning pulsate through the car. The boy looked miserable, and was jamming a pretzel stick into his leg cast as a way to scratch an invisible itch. Of course, the pretzel broke off, and I spent the next 14 minutes trying to dig it out. My daughter repeatedly asked for a bottle, and since we were out of milk, I tried to pass her a half-water concoction instead Of course she could tell the difference right away and threw it back at me in the front seat.
My head still pounding, I pulled out of the parking lot and turned the wheel towards home. I knew the day was only half over, but the worst part of my hangover had passed… or so I thought. My head was still pounding and now, following my disgusting lunch, my stomach had kicked itself into high gear as well. As it rumbled through the 20-minute drive home, I did my best to text Scott back and curse him out for skipping the zoo altogether. At this point, I had two choices. I could tell Scott how lucky he was that he had skipped it – and give him the sense of satisfaction that he had made the right decision to stay home instead – or I could talk up the experience as one of the best we as a family had ever been a part of… I went with the latter.
Boo at the Zoo RULED! Best day ever – we missed you guys… it was amazing and not too hot!
Evil, I know, but it made me feel a little better.
Five minutes from the house, I nearly puked in my car. I realized that it was probably going to happen within the next 30 minutes or so – so I did my best to hold it in as we rambled down Franklin Avenue. As I fought back the acidic demons in my stomach, I looked back at my kids and hoped that they had at least a morsel of fun. I know the boy was too injured to do much, but he at least got to see a few neat things – and for that – I felt proud of myself as a dad. I had braved the crowds, the heat and the zoo and even had a little laugh about the entire experience. I asked my daughter what her favorite part was, and she responded with, “The firaffe.” My heart nearly melted.
When I proposed the same question to the boy, his response was a little different. Aware that he had just been wheeled around a 91-degree zoo with a broken foot, he threw back something that only a six-year-old could hold onto after nearly half a day spent surrounded by strange families in costumes eating bags of treats from a 99 cent store…
He scratched at his cast and the bits of pretzel stick still hanging around the itchy part of his poor leg and caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. He squinted his eyes back at me before responding…
“Dad?” He said. “When are going to get ice cream sundaes?”
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
Zach is joining Wipeout host/comedian JOHN HENSON all weekend at the Irvine Improv for 4 nights of insanely funny comedy. Also on the bill are the very funny HALLI BORGFJORD http://halliborgfjord.com/
and ROB O’REILLY http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2688418/
See Irvine Improv website for more information. 6 SHOWS!!!
The easy-going acoustic video for Zach’s song “I See Penises in Everything” from his 2012 LP “Moose Knuckle”
Hey y’all! itunes that song HERE
Zach’s busy summer continues, as he has been tapped to host the upcoming truTV show “Guinness World Records Gone Wild.” Alongside Co-Host DAN CORTESE (Hot in Cleveland, Veronica’s Closet) and Guinness adjudicator LIZ SMITH – Zach will provide humorous and amusing color commentary as people from all across the world will attempt to break Guinness World Records.
Set to premiere later this year on truTV, Guinness World Records Gone Wild challenges people to push themselves to do astonishing things for their place in history. The one-hour series is being produced for truTV by High Noon Entertainment (Tough Love, Cake Boss, Hurricane Hunters).
“Like the title says, Guinness World Records Gone Wild is a wild hour of television,” said Marc Juris, executive vice president and chief operating officer for truTV. “This is an exciting show that really puts you on the edge of your seat while also making you laugh out loud at the crazy things some people will do to break a record.”
Zach’s other TV show, Americas Secret Slang, is also slated to premiere in the late summer on History Channel or H2.