You Are All Witnesses

A basketball prodigy -- yours truly -- finally goes pro.

Joe P. Tone
Sprawled on the floor of the Brooklyn YMCA, admiring the form of my smooth, hairless quadriceps, I could see that I was the best player in the gym. By far.

This was no surprise. I've dominated every playground I've encountered. In my backyard, in the low shadow of my adjustable hoop, I routinely dunk over my neighbor, whose autism doesn't affect his defense as you might think it would.

But coaches have always ignored my obvious gifts, blinded by rigid notions of "height" and "athleticism," the mythical traits that constitute a basketball player. They dismiss me for my size, which is comparable to that of a very large Irish setter. They pigeonhole me as a guard, perhaps envisioning the next Steve Nash or Bobby Sura. At night, in my dreams, I see these foolish coaches huddling in their matching sweat suits:

Head coach: "He's so small."

Assistant: "And handsome!"

"Surely he's quick."

"Maybe he can dribble!"

"Put him at the point."

This much is true: I am quite handsome. Friends compare me with Simon Birch, who is some kind of movie star. But blinded by their diminutive intellect and slavery to convention, these coaches are not seeing what I really am: an inside force. A rebounding, scoring, shot-blocking freak.

The Paint: This is where I was born and raised. Ask Carl, an assistant manager at Dick's, who has more than once succumbed to my battery of "mad skillz" in games of horse. A mystical combination of Shawn Kemp and DeSagana Diop -- that's how I'm described on my blog.

Yet it all went unnoticed until recently, when word of my street legend leaked from the playgrounds to the front offices of the Cuyahoga Falls Cougars.

The Cougars are a new minor league team in the upstart International Basketball League, which has 29 squads in all the major cities, like Chico, Youngstown, and Tacoma. Though they had secured a roster of small-college players and CBA rejects, they were holding an open tryout, looking for post players. Obviously, I was Name One on their list.

The bright lights of the Cuyahoga Falls High gym; the yearning cries of semiprofessional dancers; the gentle, fuzzy embrace of a giant fake Cougar: It all intrigued me.

I quickly researched the team; no way would I play for a small-minded prick like my old middle school coach. Cook was his name, and he was so caught up in conventions like "shooting" and "conditioning," he didn't even recognize the hurricane of The Paint standing before him. Bastard cut me three years in a row.

But Cougars Coach Lee Cotton earned my respect. He was a longtime AAU and high school coach in Akron, where he worked with LeBron James. James is a decent player, but what excited me most was that like me, he is difficult to define. He doesn't conform to traditional sporting roles, and Cotton didn't try to make him.

Finally, a coach who would get me.

The tryout was slated for a gloomy Sunday. At the dingy YMCA, some guys were flopping around the court, throwing up ugly jumpers and calling weak-ass fouls. I began my pre-workout yoga stretches. But no matter how much I turned up my iPod, the other players' shoe-squeaking kept drowning out my carefully planned pump-up playlist, anchored by the muscular stylings of Coldplay. They were totally short-circuiting my chi.

The first real player -- or at least one who could provide me with a respectable workout -- to arrive was enormous, at least six foot threet. His name was Boris, I was certain; surely he was a former power forward for the Soviet National Team. I imagined him weeks from now, after a spirited Cougars practice, clumsily mimicking my jump hook, asking for my counsel. "You a pinko?" I would ask, and we'd both have a good chuckle.

In a giving mood, I was about to show Boris my jump hook when he walked over to me. He stuck out his hands, as if to say, "Give Boris ball." I tossed it to him and stayed on the ground to work my hammies -- crucial to the low-post game.

More players arrived. Shane Conwell, a pasty kid who used to star at Stow High, had averaged 20 points a game last year at Canton's Malone College. Word is, he can stick a jumper from the bathroom stall. Carlton Dean, a former Cleveland Heights standout, starred at Hiram College last year. He's a muscular six foot five, but with my arrival, he would have to join Conwell on the perimeter -- a fact made obvious by my grueling pre-tryout training regimen.

The day before, I had gone to the park to warm up with a friend, who would simulate the competition.

You remember Stacey Augmon? Well, my friend Stacy was like the Stacey Augmon of the Elyria Catholic girls' varsity back in '99. She towers over me at five foot eight, but in a full 10-minute session, she only rejected me twice before the weather forced us to call it quits. (My lips were getting major windburn.)

As I watched the guys warm up with my ball, I wondered what their streetball names were. I had gone through a couple myself. When I was growing up, my friends always called me "Not a factor," which I never thought fit. I preferred "The Professor Emeritus," but it wouldn't fit across my chest. Plus, for the Cougars tryout, I wanted something to honor my 10-percent Portuguese blood.

So I went with "La Respuesta." That's The Answer in Spanish, the native tongue of Portugal.

Damn it! I had been so caught up in practicing my pronunciations -- Yo soy La Respuesta! -- that I had forgotten all about Coach Cotton. Now he was standing at center court, blowing his whistle.

I slipped on my headband and hustled to the circle, finding a spot right next to Coach. "Point guards, shooting guards," he was saying. "Three-point shooting is very important in this league."

"Of course it is," I mumbled. Another league where all they care about is guard play. Maybe Coach Cotton wasn't my Randy Wittman after all.

The players broke quickly into layup drills, and I fell in line. You rode your bike all the way to Brooklyn for this tryout, I told myself sternly.

Drills have never been my forte. They seem to reward conformity, repetition -- the sort of play guys like "Pistol" Pete, "Magic" Johnson, and "Tractor" Traylor surely laughed at. I laugh along with them. My game comes alive when the shot clock is on, the arena an unformatted shit-storm of chaos. I am an improviser. Picture Miles Davis in a three-alarm apartment fire. That's me in The Paint.

I walked through the drills -- layups, jumpers, defensive slides, one-on-ones -- conserving my energy for the impending scrimmage.

Afterward, as I looked for my inhaler, Coach started dividing up teams for the scrimmage. It appeared he was saving me for crunch time, because I started on the bench, along with a guy who looked to be trying out for the Make-a-Wish program.

As expected, my team fell behind without me. Coach waited to put me in. (A gambler: I liked that about Cotton.) Eventually, halfway through the scrimmage, he called for a sub. But before I could switch off my iPod, Make-a-Wish ran onto the floor.

Boris, who turned out to be a gracious St. Edward grad named Tom, joined me on the bench.

"I'm gonna puke," Tom said.

Pussy, I thought to myself.

With a couple minutes left in the scrimmage, Coach turned to the bench.

"Joe!" he hollered. At first I didn't notice; I had asked him to call me La Respuesta, and figured a coach with his experience could heed this simple request. But when I heard my name again, I realized what was going on.

I was in. About time.

I ran straight for my home, mi casa: The Paint. My team hadn't rebounded a thing, and I was all set to spit-shine some glass. But the other players seemed to want me to handle the ball instead, because they were shaking their heads.

I took the rock at the top of the key, looking to kick-start the offense, then retreat down low. But the other team had obviously secured tape of my playground exploits, because they ran some sort of trick play. My pass was stolen from the guy right in front of me, who leapt out of nowhere and went coast-to-coast to lay it in.

I mumbled something about a foul -- Was that even legal? -- but Coach was oblivious.

On the next trip down, I headed directly to the post, trying to get "iso" -- that's Paint-speak for "isolation" -- on Conwell. He seemed to be avoiding the confrontation, perhaps even ignoring me. Has he heard of my jump-hook? I wondered. Does the great Shane Conwell also shop at Dick's?

I couldn't get the matchup I wanted, and was forced back to the perimeter. Time was running out. I took a pass, figuring I would just take the ball to The Paint myself. Tom looked me in the eye.

Before the scrimmage, he had nervously sparked a conversation. "What happens if you make the team?" he asked.

I looked at him as if he'd stolen my participation trophies.


Though I hadn't scored during my brief minutes on the floor -- and my opponent had sneaked in six points -- making the team was a given. Cotton himself had said he was looking for post players. As long as the Cougars had room under the salary cap -- they pay players like 50 bucks a game; obviously, I would need more -- it wouldn't be long until I was officially a Cougar. Hell, I half-expected Cotton to stop the damn scrimmage to announce it.

He didn't, probably for logistical reasons. We kept playing.

I lobbed the ball high and soft right for Tom, hoping one last bucket would boost his visibly waning confidence. But another trick play was on, and Tom's man somehow ran around him and stole my perfect pass. The scrimmage ended shortly after, my team suffering what must have been an embarrassing defeat for them.

The message was clear: "I'll get with the guys we're going to bring back to camp." That's what Cotton said after the tryout. I knew he'd be calling soon to talk contract, jersey number, company cars, and the like.

Some of the players -- Tom, Shane, and others -- waited around after the tryout, bullshitting with Cotton about camping or something. But I knew not to bother a man whose mind was made up. So I headed to Wendy's.

That was a few weeks back. I still haven't heard from him, but I'm not worried. Training camp doesn't start until Friday. There's plenty of time, and my ringer's turned all the way up.

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