Friday, April 28, 2006

The Streetballer

I was thinking about Hamilton and Burr this morning. How foolish, I thought, it is to resolve a disagreement with a duel. It doesn't seem worth the trouble. After it's over, one person is dead and the other person doesn't have the chance to gloat in the dead guy's presence. Unlike Zell Miller, I'm glad we don't live in a dueling era anymore.

Then I remembered - I have been in a duel.

It was the spring before I turned 18. I was working in the only place a kid could find work in half-rural Doylestown, Pennsylvania: a chain restaurant that I will not name. I developed an unreconcilable crush on a co-worker named Karen. I struggled for weeks to find the appropriate words/context/environment to profess my love/admiration/crushiness to her. Then, after work one Saturday night, I asked for her phone number. She gave it to me.

A week passed. The senior prom was coming up. I wasn't really a school dance kid. But I thought - what better way to demonstrate my nascent love to a mysterious girl from a different town than to ask her to be my date?

I made the phone call. I don't remember the time of day or day of the week. I remember what she said to me though when I politely asked her to be my date. She said no. And I refused, resolutely and conveniently, to ask anyone else. I spent the Friday night of the prom holed up in my room listening to Dexy's Midnight Runners. My friend Patrick from New Jersey came down the next day to console me. We saw a Steve Martin movie.

But Karen and I still worked together. She didn't act the same way toward me anymore, not after my expression of interest. It was a little awkward. But I imagined she had rejected other suitors to whom she had offered her phone number, that we'd eventually work together without much trouble and disomfort. And I was right. Eventually, she and I came to an understanding: I didn't ask her out anymore. She didn't look away when I entered a room.

Summer arrived and so did Warren. Warren and I had worked together the previous summer. He then went away to some rural college in the western part of the state. Now, back in his hometown, he returned to his old job, weighted with the entitlement of a college sophomore in a room full of high schoolers. I didn't like Warren. Through my clunky thick-rimmed teenage glasses, he looked smug and self-important, the Zabka to my Macchio.

My delicate teenage constitution didn't react well when I heard that Karen and Warren were dating. Rolling up to work in my AMC Hornet one day, I spotted them making out in the parking lot, out by the dumpster where the overnight maintenance guy Tom was once caught pleasuring himself. Damn, that could have been me, I thought - kissing my favorite girl in the midst of greasy cardboard and bad meat.

I was a jealous kid. I turned my rage inward and acted as if the greatest injustice in the world had been committed upon me. I said not a word to Karen and Warren. No, I passive-agressively showed my resentment with smirks, grimaces, and silence. I took comfort in my other co-workers who didn't like Warren because he was a bit of a prick and didn't like Karen because she was from Plumstead.

One Sunday, a secret was revealed. Back in high school, Warren played basketball for my school's biggest rival. He wasn't a starter but he saw some playing time. I, on the other hand, was cut from the team when I tried out as a sophomore. Since that injustice, I played basketball constantly - in my driveway, in front of my neighbor Joe's house (he was from Philly! from the actual city!), and on the irregularly paved court of the local Catholic school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I didn't have a need for that well-organized school-sanctioned indoor brand of basketball. I was a streetballer yo!

Of course I secretly admired Warren and wished I was him, more for making his school's team than for hooking up with Karen. Sure, my high school was a powerhouse, making it to the state quarterfinals that one year. His school wasn't as good and maybe that's why he made the team and if my parents had just bought a house on the other side of town, I would have gone to West instead of East and I'd be a star!

What does an 18-year old with the maturity of a 15-year old do when confronted with a slightly older man who possesses what he does not have? I challenged him to a basketball game! One-on-one, outdoors - at the Mt. Carmel courts off of State Street - one game, a point a basket, play to 21, gotta win by two. No money, just playing for pride.

I didn't realize it then but I had challenged him to a duel. Instead of a sword or a gun, I had my patented one-hand running jumper and my more-awkward-than-Kareem's jacket hook shot.

Word spread around the restaurant that I had challenged Warren to a basketball game. People told me - "Ali, he's really good, he plays for his college team." Wait, how did I miss this? He plays in college? Sure, it was a lame Division 3 school somewhere out in Quaker-land, but that meant his game wasn't rusty. I shrugged this fact off too - again, I was a streetballer!

Everyone thought the duel was about Karen, that I was trying to prove some sort of point, to demonstrate my manhood in an extremely clumsy and transparent way. Perhaps they were right. But this was also about basketball, the game that provided me with hours of pleasure and peace in my youth. I just wanted to win the game and send Warren sulking away to his consoling girlfriend who said no when she sould have said yes.

About a dozen co-workers showed up at the court one Saturday afternoon. Other than Karen, standing at the baseline with her raccoon eyes and Susannah Hoffs haircut, everyone else was rooting for me: Jenny the pothead manager, Rich the pre-med student, Debbie the sweet girl who lived in a trailer with her dying Vietnam vet dad, Brenda the hippie, Donna the Christian, and the midget brother and sister whose names I cannot remember. Yes, they were both midgets. No, their parents were not.

Out of curiosity, I googled Warren and and Karen today, to see what they're up to. Warren has an unusual last name so I can be pretty confident when I say that Warren is doing socially valuable work in the retirement community/independent living industry in the same Pennsylvania county we worked in. Someone with Karen's name is a very good photographer of rural West Virginia life but I'm not sure it's her (her name is a little more common.) Just for kicks, I searched for Karen using Warren's last name. No hits.

Back to Doylestown. Back to the 1980s. Warren destroyed me. 21 to 4. I never stood a chance. Sure, I was a streetballer but when you're a step slow (like me) there is no defense that can challenge a perfect outside shot. Damn, Warren had the stroke that day - like Sam Cassell in a groove or former Timberwolf James "Hollywood" Robinson that one night in '96 against Cleveland. Or Downtown Freddie Brown in the '79 finals. Or me in my starkest basketball dreams - hitting every shot, basking in the crowd noise, loved by my teammates, tolerated by my coach. I don't think Warren missed once. I was lucky to make 4 baskets.

Unlike the victor in a to-the-death duel, Warren had the chance to gloat at his still-living victim. The summer had barely started. We'd be working together for two more months. But Warren held back. Perhaps he felt a little guilty for running up the score. Maybe he knew that if this were 2-on2 and I was playing with my neighbor from Philly and he was playing with some random westside kid, we'd have kicked their asses all the way to Solebury. Either way, we got along better after that day. Karen quit her job shortly after the game. I moved on to other unreasonable unrequited obsessions.

When Warren left for college in the fall, I told him I'd see him next summer. I'd be working on on my post-up defense, my moves to the left. I never saw him again. By the next summer I was in Minnesota, preparing for other, more wintry duels.

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