This might not be the most pressing question I’ve ever faced, but it’s still an important one. I’ve been playing basketball pretty much year-round since ’92. I’ve played pickup basketball, intramural basketball, basketball with friends, and mostly just shot around, trying to make myself into a mediocre basketball player. At thirty nine, my jump shot range has declined a bit, but I can still make the occasional NBA-range three-point shot. I’ve been working on my mid-range jump shot the past two years, trying to get it consistently around forty percent — without a hand in my face. Even with these caveats, most of my friends — the ones that are in the DC area, that is — refuse to play basketball with me. Their either not interested or see no point playing with someone who’s at least six inches taller than them. Oh well!
So I find myself most of the time on public courts, not necessarily looking for a pickup game. It’s become my alone time, a hour or ninety minutes of getting away from it all, of private contemplation, in between layup drills, working out jump shot mechanics, distances and angles, working on turn-around jumpers and jump hooks and post-up moves. I also put in about ten minutes of stretching so that I don’t pull anything. Somewhere in all of that, a brotha shows up — usually between eighteen and forty years old — dressed for something other than basketball or for some other kind of workout. They walk on my side of the court, stand behind me while I’m at work. I can’t hear them because I have my iPod on, trying to get into some kind of rhythm. Next thing you know, I miss a shot, they run down the ball and start shooting with me.
It drives me nuts, because it’s not as if the rest of the court has anyone else out there playing three-on-three or a game of 21 or 33 (depends on what rules folks bring from their upbringing). In the past couple of years, I’ve become stingier. I tell people point-blank that I’m not interested in sharing my basketball with them, or that I don’t want to play them one-on-one. I’ll even ask, “Where’s your basketball?” Most of them sigh and walk away. A few have gotten mad, asked me why, or told me I sucked. On that last point, I responded, “Well, at least I suck with my own basketball!” On why, I say that “this is my time,” which I know that they don’t get.
What I don’t get is why brothas would bother showing up to a basketball court without their own basketball. And please don’t tell me that this has anything to do with poverty. Even at my poorest, we had a basketball at 616. I didn’t use it much, but it was there. The cheap ball cost about $6 or $7. Even now, you can go to a Kmart or Target and get a ball for about $10. And if some of you think I’m being selfish, keep in mind that I often share my ball with kids, allow folks passing by to take a few shots, and am otherwise willing to give other people a chance to shoot around for a few minutes. Some of these brothas, though, I can tell that they want to go twelve rounds with me, even with a jump shot that would’ve embarrassed me in high school. With time as precious as it is in my life, I say “No” because I need to.
I guess the best explanation has something to do with how some of us approach life. Unfortunately, so many of us approach life from moment to moment, not thinking much more than a week or weekend or two ahead in our lives. There may be a need to, but many of us don’t see the need to think that far ahead. For some brothas, it revolves around the sense of hopelessness and defeat in their lives, between poverty, working for peanuts, the self-inflicted difficulties and societal roadblocks that come with being Black men in America.
I don’t want to make this more complicated that it really is. But if that is someone’s background — as I know from firsthand experience — then it doesn’t make sense to think beyond the next weekend or the next work week, because there isn’t that much to look forward to. So when a brotha sees me out there exerting maximum effort on a basketball court, working on different shots or running my own layup drill, it’s natural for them to want to partake, especially since they figure they might be able to take me.
It’s that same kind of mentality I’ve seen with my brothers and my Black (in this case, African American students more so than Afro-Caribbean or African) male students. Generally, they don’t think too far ahead and are afraid to embrace their aspirations, because working to fulfill might take longer than hanging out at the club on a Friday or Saturday night. They tend to get angry at a drop of a hat if I suggest that they need to organize their lives better or if they have work to do on themselves in order to be better students or expect things to work out for them. I’ve been there. I have that same anger that makes me feel that this socially constructed world in which I inhabit won’t be satisfied until I relinquish all of my hopes and dreams.
What many folks — brothas especially — don’t understand that the path to something better requires a plan. It doesn’t have to be a well-thought-out one either. Just enough of a plan where you can take a few steps, a plan that allows some flexibility, some options, the ability to ad-lib if necessary. My plans for my life weren’t that well thought out at all. I knew I needed to get out of 616 and Mount Vernon and go to college to fulfill them. I didn’t think much beyond the age of twenty-one when I was seventeen. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d make it to thirty, as silly as this sounds now. Yet I had a plan.
I look at my older brother Darren and my three younger brothers and am often baffled. Even with my example, lots of advice, and their own experiences banging their heads against the brick walls of life, they still often make decisions that are extremely short-sighted. On choosing a postsecondary institution, over the past twenty years or so, three of my four brothers have chosen the following: American Business Institute (one semester, part-time), Westchester Community College (one and a half semesters, part-time), Interborough College (three semesters, part-time), Monroe College (two semester, part-time), and American Intercontinental University (certificate program, computer technician). None of them have completed their certificate or associate’s programs. The other brother has failed the GED exam four times. The subject he’s having trouble in — Social Studies! In one afternoon, I probably could’ve taught him enough history to major in the subject. I’ve even tried the approach that promotes college as a place to meet intelligent and attractive women, which hasn’t worked at all.
Why, when Hunter College and the other seventeen CUNY schools, not to mention other colleges, are within a short Subway or Metro-North ride away from Mount Vernon, would someone choose proprietary schools that are both expensive and are revolving doors for students who can ill afford to drop out? Because these other no-name schools have tapped into this sense of short-sightedness, promising short cuts to a degree or certificate that will likely not help on the job market. The most vulnerable among us prefer this to a community college or other four-year institution that would force us to commit to achieving a portion of our dreams and aspirations.
I’m not in the greatest position to explain these pitfalls to my brothers or the brothas in my classrooms. They see me as someone with a PhD across my chest, as if I have no idea how hard it is to overcome both myself and my circumstances to get a degree. My siblings think that because I left Mount Vernon so long ago that I somehow forgot about the hardships of poverty, that my life in Pittsburgh was a party, and that my life now looks like a Ludacris video on steroids. Ha!
All I can say is what Chris Rock said in his Bringing the Pain concert in ’96. “Life isn’t short. Life is looong. Especially when you make the wrong decisions,” he said, getting his crowd in DC to stop laughing for a moment. He’s right. A lot of those “wrong decisions” are also short-sighted, disorganized ones. My hope is that Boy At The Window can provide a sense of how to make better decisions, of coming up with real, dream-inspired plans that stretch our lives beyond the next paycheck or next party.