“Keep Shooting”: A Feel Good story for a Not So Feel Good Time

This is a story that took place more than 45 years ago. In a 30 minute span, I may have inadvertently offered the best advice that I ever offered anyone not only about basketball but also life and in return, I received a lasting life lesson and one of the nicest things ever said to me, all from a young boy who just wanted to shoot baskets.

When people need to clear their head, some may pray, some may meditate and others may go for a long walk or run. In my 20’s and 30’s, I would pick up my basketball and head for the courts to shoot some hoops. Shooting baskets was a very centering practice and often served as my moment of Zen. Bounce, Balance, Aim, Release, Follow Through, Retrieve the basketball and Repeat. So on a sunny summer afternoon, I found the basketball court at Memorial Park in Cinnaminson empty. There was no one to disturb me and I was left alone to empty my mind and forget my worries.

Photo by Stephanie Young Mertzel

Routinely when I practiced alone, I would start with bank shots off the backboard and then move further back until I felt warmed up. I would then shoot set shots trying to find a rhythm and pace.   I would then practice lay-ups and jump shots before I finished with shooting foul shots. I would be so focused on this ritual that I would often lose track of time and not notice people or activities around me.

But not this day…

After shooting for about ten minutes, in the corner of my eye, I caught a young boy maybe nine or ten sitting silently on the side. He watched me for a while and every now and then I heard a low “Wow” or see a shake of his head in approval when I hit a basket. I really was in “flow” and I did not want to be disturbed and have to share my time on the court with anyone. Every now and then the ball would roll over to where he was sitting and he would slowly get up and roll the ball back to me.

I was able to largely avoid the youngster until I noticed that he now stood and was mimicking how I was shooting as if to copy the shooting motion. The boy was mostly silent to me as if he knew that I was in my own world and he was trying not to disturb it.  But I could tell he wanted to shoot baskets.

In my mind, the young boy sparked a memory of my youth. It was of another young boy, about his age, fatherless, who also stood silently at a park or ball field hoping that someone would let him play catch or toss a football around. That shy young boy was also silent not wishing to intrude but also hoping that he would be invited to play.

I motioned the young boy to come over and asked him if he wanted to shoot. I noticed that as he walked over, his balance seemed unsteady. One of his legs appeared to drag. I softly tossed him the basketball and noticed he had some difficulty in catching it. When he dribbled the ball, he did it slowly with two hands as if he never touched a basketball before. When he spoke, I detected a slight lisp or speech impediment.

His first few shoots did not touch the rim. His shooting motion seemed forced and I wondered if he suffered some type of physical disability. I could tell he was becoming discouraged as he kept missing. I kept handing him the ball silently after he missed shot after shot. I sensed his frustration. He stopped after one bad miss and handed me the ball and said, “Thank you” and turned to sadly walk away.

“Don’t leave,” I urged the retreating youngster. “Keep shooting! Everybody misses at first. Don’t give up.” I then showed him how to bend his knees and use his arms to aim the ball to propel the shot. He struggled for a few more shots where he hit nothing. Then one of his shots bounced around the rim. He wanted to stop and I told him “Keep shooting.” Finally with one big heave he made a basket. He seemed very relieved as I smiled at his success. “All huge journeys begin with one small step,” I told him.

To compensate for his poor arm strength, I showed him the Rick Barry style of shooting foul shots underhanded where he could use both arms to power the shot to reach the rim. He was better able to reach the rim and he made a few baskets bringing a slow smile to his face. What was an exercise in futility for him now became a challenge he gladly accepted.

I had to leave but I urged him to keep practicing. I could sense a bit of sadness in his eyes as I said it. I asked him if he had a basketball at home and he said he did not. I wondered what kind of home life he had and if kids his age would play sports with him. He did not appear to have the athletic and mobility skills that kids his age would have. I sensed that he may not have been invited to play any sports.  

I handed him my basketball. I told him the basketball was his but he needed to keep shooting to get better. It was as if I was giving him a new bicycle for Christmas. His face lit up with a smile. I did not realize at the time that I was providing him a lesson not just for basketball, but for life. You will face frustrations especially when you attempt new things. You will have bad streaks where you will get discouraged. His struggles may have been more challenging given his physical limitations.

As I grabbed my towel to leave, I asked him if he watched basketball on television. He shook his head yes. I then asked him if there was a player he wanted to be like. He paused, looked down at the basketball in his hands, raised his head slowly and answered, “You.”

The boy’s answer stunned me. I was going to try to say something witty and self deprecating but I could not. I could not speak. I know the youngster appreciated my time and attention that I provided. I nodded my head and smiled my thanks and headed for my car. The boy may have thought as I walked away that I was using the towel to wipe sweat from my brow. I was wiping my eyes.

Never been a coach, never was fortunate to be a father but fortunate to have that opportunity to make a small impression on that boy’s life. I envy all of you who have or had greater opportunities to make positive impressions on a young boy or young girl’s life. I just shared mine…

Tuesday November 3, 2020

Author’s Note: Science fiction? Horror? Or Cautionary Tale? You the reader decide…

He awakened, startled by the noise outside. It was 3:00 AM. Normally he would be up and writing his first tweet. However no one wanted to hear from him anymore. Even the Fox Morning show was not taking his calls. Here it was the morning of a scheduled election day that was not going to take place. “Too dangerous” he argued and the election date was postponed. Plus his septuagenarian opposition candidate had contracted the virus and now was in serious condition. He wondered about the crowd outside – – it still sounded very loud and angry. Thankfully he was able to count on the military to place a perimeter around the White House grounds. That did not stop a few people from attempting to breach the White House grounds. Occasionally there was a sound of gunfire and the smell of tear gas. He remembered videos of the last days of Hitler hunkered down in his Berlin bunker while Russian troops closed in. It wasn’t tanks or troops he was avoiding but the utter catastrophe that was occurring during his watch. He was alone. His wife and young son sought refuge in a Caribbean island that had not been affected by the virus. 

How could things go so wrong and so quickly in nine months! He was assured by people in his administration that there was no huge threat to the American people. Regrettably those people were not scientists nor were they medical experts who could’ve provided the proper expertise and advice. His initial primary concern was the falling stock market and its effect on the economy and on his reelection chances. He now regretted the cuts to the budgets of the CDC and other medical projects. Testing for the virus had been delayed and many low income individuals with no health insurance could not afford the $3,000 charge and did not get tested. Maybe the Medicare for All was not such a bad idea?

The catastrophe started slow. He even bragged that this was all a hoax and that the virus would disappear shortly. However pockets of infection started to grow at a steady pace. Once infection pockets were found in large cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta, the virus spread rapidly. Just about every state with a large population center  was overwhelmed with sick and infected. The stock market mirrored the infection rate plaguing the country. The Dow dropped below 2500 and continues to decline. The Fed attempted to staunch the bleeding and even dropped to negative rates at his insistence but all it did was panic investors more. No one was worried about their 401Ks anymore.

He initially appointed his vice president to spearhead the effort to manage the crisis. But with each report of a 25,000 or more dying, he appointed new people starting with his son in law and then a Fox News personality to take over crisis management. In desperation he asked his daughter to take over but she also fled to an island resort not affected by the virus. Responsible people avoided him and his administration as much as they did the virus.

Being a germaphobe, he was always skittish around people with coughs and colds. He curtailed any outside campaigning or outside exposure when the rate of infections rose dramatically in the spring. No more MAGA rallies. No golf outings. He had found it hard to find people to play golf with when the infection rates spiked. Except for Lindsey. Even the summer national party conventions were cancelled for health concern reasons.

The infection rate overwhelmed hospitals and medical capabilities. Many doctors, first responders and nurses were among the first victims of the rising infection rate as protocols had not been adequately developed or communicated. Those doctors and health officials who did not die found themselves too sick to treat other patients. Infected people, usually the elderly, passed away in their homes. They received no medication and no treatment. He realized that he lost the country when even Fox News broadcast pictures of elderly people dying uncared in nursing homes.

For those who did not have the virus, life was very hard with plenty of disruptions. There were food shortages as many stores and groceries were closed. There was no gas for cars. Most civil and government services were suspended or terminated. No mail was being delivered. Law enforcement and the judicial system ground to a halt. Violent crime rose dramatically everywhere. Desperate people seeking food, medication and household supplies preyed on those neighbors who had them. Banks and the financial systems were at a standstill. ATMs did not dispense cash. The country was in financial, commercial and social gridlock.

City streets were largely empty. Those who were seen walking wore masks. Places where people tended to congregate socially were closed including churches, movie theaters, malls, restaurants and gyms. Neighbors stayed to themselves in their homes fearful to venture outdoors. Schools and universities closed in the Spring and remained closed. Unemployment exceeded Depression era levels. Manufacturing plants were shuttered. The service industry ground to a halt. No pizza deliveries. Fast food chains were dark. If you had problems with your internet or cable, there were no home repair calls.

There were no diversions to distract those who were still healthy from all the bad news. The World Series was completed overseas in Aruba. The college and professional football seasons had been cancelled. There was a limited Olympics in late summer but U.S. athletes were prohibited from entering Japan, the site of the games.  As a further insult, Mexico and Canada blocked their borders to prevent Americans from coming in. Countries around the world including China, Japan and South Korea did not allow flights emanating from the United States. Mexico was beefing up their borders to keep Americans out and planning to build a wall.

His poll numbers were in the low single digits. His businesses suffered too. His resorts and golf courses were closed. Diplomats and business people were no longer making any reservations at his hotels. It seemed the only business being done was by some of his prayer partners who were urgently requesting seed money through various media ads to prop up their flagging enterprises. A donation of $1,000 was guaranteed to protect you from the virus, or if you were infected, to survive it.

The Federal government was bankrupt, financially, morally and in operation. State and local governments were left to deal with the catastrophes. Some states also issued their own travel restrictions prohibiting citizens from “high risk” areas from coming into the state. There were countless stories of citizens and charities taking care of the sick and dying and attempting to rebuild. The virus adversely infected the American immune system  but did not destroy the American spirit.

He grimly understood that he did achieve one thing that many in the country had insisted upon. He leveled the playing field between rich and poor. The virus did not differentiate between those who had money or did not. Some of the rich tried to flee to other countries but found themselves turned away. He sighed. All of this was Obama’s fault. He did reach out to the former President but Obama did not take his call.

He realized that his aide and butler had not knocked on his bedroom door to deliver briefing papers that he rarely read and breakfast. No more McDonald meals as the local store was closed. He poked his head out his bedroom door and saw there was no activity, no one in sight, not even Secret Service. He turned on the TV but it was not working. He could not access his Twitter account either. Suddenly, the din from the crowd outside was being replaced with a rumble by the gates…

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The Kiss

“The best kiss is the one that has been exchanged a thousand times between the eyes before it reaches the lips.” Anonymous

She was a 4.0 in the classroom and a 9 outside it. Ginger was a pleasant shock to the eyes, a fashion model like figure on our college campus. Light curly red hair, big round blue eyes, lightly freckled face, the girl next door but with a bit of a flirty attitude. Her looks and personality reminded me of the actress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Petite, always dressed smartly and perfectly coiffed, she was a classmate in a literature course during my sophomore year of college. She served as my visual and mental distractions to the monotone lectures about Beowulf and early European writers. She was the type of woman that I would hope to marry after I graduated college, worked my way up in a corporation and became CEO. 

Content to admire her from afar in class, our initial interactions involved some class discussion repartee but no social conversation. Maybe I could impress this young lady with my brain or knowledge of literature? But even though I was in a class with her, I never felt that I was in her class. She possessed a maturity, style and aura outside my area of expertise. I was simply content to see this vision of beauty in class twice a week for 90 minutes.

However much to my surprise, she made the first move for a more social introduction early in the semester. One morning as I studied alone at a long table in the bowels of the campus library, she dropped her books and coat on the chair next to where I was sitting. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked. I pushed a chair out so Ginger could sit, “Not at all, I quickly replied.” I would have pushed aside loaded bookshelves so she could sit next to me. Usually first conversations are a break in period with periods of silence. But we conversed easily, like old friends. She wasn’t stuffy or put on airs. She exhibited an interest in what I had to say and a wicked sense of humor. I do admit that I spent most of my time listening to her. It was a very comfortable beginning to what was a three year casual friendship and unusual relationship. 

Ginger had plenty of male admirers on campus and she regaled me with stories of her dates that were usually very lavish (theatre, concerts and expensive dinners.) She also had dreams of being in the theatre or singing professionally. Many of her suitors were from the law school who could afford her extravagant tastes. Every now and then, she would introduce me to another beau who would follow her around campus carrying her books. Her admirers came and went. 

I understood Ginger’s allure but I avoided the siren call of Scylla. The truth was that in terms of personality and social confidence that, in college,  I was much more like “Flounder” than “Otter.” (Animal House devotees will understand my reference).

During our friendship, she never called me by my first name. She would call me Poli Sci (my major), Clapton or some other nickname. I think she got the idea from watching Love Story where Ali McGraw called Ryan O’Neil’s character “Preppy.” During the summer, she sent me postcards and letters from vacation resorts where she had been staying that were addressed to Poli Sci with my home address.

There were times where she genuinely amused me with her concern. She once sat in the bleachers and watched me play a spirited pick-up basketball game in the college gym. I was the only white player among the 10 players. In one of the time-outs, one of the players asked me, “Is that your girlfriend?” Fearing he would approach her and not knowing what her reaction would be, I lied and responded “Yes.” He elbowed me and smiled, “Damn fine lady.” I wish! After the game, she came over and whispered to me, “Weren’t you afraid?”

Another time, I was playing volleyball outside the college center. It was a cold afternoon but I took my coat off in order to play more comfortably. She ran on to the volleyball court at the end of a point with my coat, shook her finger at me and yelled “Are you crazy, it’s 30 degrees. You’ll get sick. Put your coat on!”

I often wondered if she saw me as a challenge. I never expressed to her or displayed any interest about a date or upgrading our relationship to being more than friends. I never showed jealously from meeting any of the guys she dated on campus. Ginger liked to tease me. She found me too quiet and gently criticized my quiet social life. She would see me sitting with a coed in school and ask me later, “Is she your girlfriend? I’d answer, “No, she’s just a friend.” “Like me?”, she’d ask and I’d tell her, “No one is like you.” 

The truth of the matter is that I feared if I pursued her or answered the call of Scylla that I would lose her just like the other guys on campus who dated her. I was content to keep things the way they were.

Until one day a few weeks before our graduation…

Sometimes I would sit with a collection of her girlfriends and my friends in the College Center before class as she held court. I usually had my head in a book or newspaper and listened half heartedly to her conversation. Sometimes her voice would grow very soft and she’d smile in my direction. That’s when I knew she was saying something teasing about me. On this day, I heard her girlfriends giggle while looking in my direction. So I asked Ginger what was so funny. Her answer changed our friendship but ended a stalemate on how we may have truly felt for each other. 

Ginger replied, “I was just wondering, “what it would feel like to get a kiss from you?’

Ah, a shot across my bow! I know I was initially embarrassed. Normally she would say things to get some type of reaction from me and I would usually roll my eyes, shake my head and ignore her jibe. But this came across as a challenge I could not duck. Time was running out. Exams would start soon and so would our opportunities to see each other.

I tried to play it cool. I got up from my chair, went over to her and whispered, “Ginger, can I see you outside?” She slowly got up from her chair as her friends laughed and chortled “Uh-oh.” I held the doors open for her and found a quiet spot around the corner of the College Center. She stood with an amused smile and her hands by her pockets. “Your question deserves an answer,” I began…

I slowly moved in front of her and softly grabbed her hands. “School is almost over. We should satisfy our curiosities that we have left at school. Life is too short to have any regrets. I want you to have an answer to your question.” She listened quietly with a mischievous smirk on her face and a tilt of her head, almost daring me to act. So our three year dance led to this moment.

I pulled her closer to me. She showed no resistance, no hesitation. I half expected her to laugh and walk away. She didn’t. Time stopped. The world stopped. I was totally present. I felt the warm sun on my right cheek. I felt the softness of her hands, noticed the curve of her mouth, smelled her hair and a soft scent of perfume. Birds stopped chirping or I stopped hearing. The din of noise from the college center was white noise.

I moved my left hand behind her shoulder squeezing her closer. I leaned towards her, closed my eyes, and gently brushed her lips with mine and then kissed her. The actual kiss lasted maybe five seconds but I still feel the experience 45 years later. I released her lips and noticed her eyes were still closed as if she was evaluating her experience and her lips were a bit pursed as if she might be expecting an encore. When her eyes opened, a sly smile greeted me. She was silent but her smile seemed to express she won a small victory. I gave her hands a quick squeeze and then let them go. 

About a month later, I saw Ginger for the last time at the conclusion of our graduation ceremony. I did not have a chance to catch up with her before the ceremony as we had different class and exam schedules. We missed having our yearbook picture taken together. She quickly introduced me to her parents and I noticed that she seemed to have another prospective beau waiting for her. Our good-byes were brief. I had hoped that I could still see her but those hopes were dashed when she mentioned that she was relocating to the Midwest with her family. She hooked my arm, squeezed it and pulled me close to whisper “Good bye and Good luck.” She then turned to wind her way through the throng of graduates and their families to slowly walk away. I sadly watched her go about three steps when she stopped and turned around. She had one surprise left. She moved back slowly to me, grabbed my left hand, pulled me close and touched my cheek with her right hand.  She then ran her index and middle fingers gently over her lips, smiled, winked at me and whispered “I’ll miss you, Eric.”