The first time I met Thee was at AAU tryouts.
That was the day I realized I’d never, ever, no matter what I did make it to the NBA. It was also the day I met my best friend.
I’d been playing basketball my whole life, but it was more like shooting around with my dad and playing in gym class. I spent more time playing 2K on Xbox than playing with other kids.
These AAU kids were crazy. They flew around the court. The crossed-over and did spin moves at full speed. They shot contested running 3-pointers and hit them. 12 year-olds were dunking.
Once we got out of drills into scrimmage, I was utterly terrified to touch the ball on offense. The first time my fingers touched the rock, 4 arms swarmed and octopused me, knocking me to the ground and hurling the ball that had been in my hands to a leaping 6-footer for an alley-oop layup.
They kept rearranging scrimmage teams to see how guys played together, and by the end of the afternoon I was on the scrub team. And, by scrub, I mean white. All of us except Thee. And the coaches had put us up against the most athletic 5 kids in the gym. While they waited for us to change jerseys, the other team was messing around with alley-oop dunks.
Thee was no bigger than me. 5’6” or so. He was wiry. At first glance, he appeared scrawny until you realized that every inch of his skin was stretched by muscle. One day, this guy would be ripped, but for now puberty kept him wiry.
I’d seen him a little during the tryout doing drills and scrimmaging. Super focused. Ridiculous handle. But I had no idea what was about to happen.
Thee pulled me and our three other dudes over. He was sweating from the last run … he looked and smelled like he’d been sweating non-stop since before I woke up.
“Don’t sweat these guys. Get back in transition, like run back really hard and pick up any man. Switch everything on D and still shout that’s what you’re doing. Make them shoot jumpers.” All day it had been the coaches yelling at us, so the four of us were a little stunned to hear a kid talking like this, especially so calmly after obviously busting his ass all day.
“What about on offense?” I asked.
“Just get me the ball and keep your spacing. If I pass you the ball, shoot. Then get back on D.”
The other 5 walked over. They were laughing and making inside jokes. They clearly knew one another. They weren’t saying anything to me, but I took it personally anyway. I felt intimidated and looked to the sideline if someone could take my place.
The jump ball bounced into their forward’s hands. I started back-pedaling when suddenly there was a flash and Thee had taken the ball out of the kid’s hands dribbled three times and laid the ball in.
The smile that had been on the kid’s face vanished. He shouted for the rock and went straight at Thee. Cross-over, hesitation, behind the back. Hesitation. And then he drive to his left. For a moment, it looked like he’d blown by, but Thee switched angles and seemed to teleport to the exact spot where the kid was pulling up for a jumper. Thee knocked the ball out of his hands before he’d even extended his arms. The kid cried foul. Thee ignored him, jumped for the ball and laid that one in also. 4-0.
They got angry and physical. I went to box out, and I was yanked to the ground. I took a dribble and multiple arms were grabbing mine. At first, they kept attacking Thee, trying to one-up him. But he kept getting steals or forcing his opponent to pass, so they went away from him. They posted us up. At first, they weren’t targeting any of us, just keeping the ball away from Thee. But increasingly they were going at me, and I kept giving up buckets.
But Thee just kept keeping the score close. They couldn’t keep him from the basket. Every guy on their team took a turn playing him straight up. The quicker guys got up on him, trying to take away space, but he’d just fake-and-blow-by. The bigger guys tried playing off, but he’d go right at them. As soon as they stopped back-pedaling and tried to make contact he’d change or spin. Trapping him was worse because he’d read it as soon as the second guy committed and burst through splitting them or bounce into a guy and blow past. The other three of our teammates kept standing on the perimeter. But I noticed that the other team was sending two guys above the three point line while the big guy was waiting for Thee around the free throw line. 1 defender was at the extended three waiting for a fast break, essentially leaving 1 guy to guard 4 of us on the perimeter.
We were down 6. Thee had scored all of our buckets so far and was flying down the sideline about to be met by a third-player trap. I’d been hanging out on the weak side hiding from the ball all game but the holy spirit or Kobe Bryant’s ghost or a sense of overwhelming shame moved my legs to cut to the basket. Thee jumped in the air just before he’d be smothered and rocketed a bounce pass to me. I caught the ball and laid it in.
For a moment, I stood there in complete bewilderment. That was my first scrimmage basket all day. And then I heard Thee’s voice: “GET BACK!”
They had already inbounded and was racing toward half-court. The endorphin rush of making a basket blasted through my system. I erupted running across the court. Their point guard was ignoring the open guy on the wing and busting a move. Left, right, stutter. I was somehow only a step away, and he was mesmerized by his own dribble.
Let me just pause here and give you a little context for this moment. While in most critical aspects of basketball I was decidedly mediocre, there were 2 areas I excelled in.
1: I was sneakily competitive. Winning was important to me but only if the game was close. If I was losing by too much, I conserved energy. If we were up by too much, I’d relax. I was all about the rope-a-dope UNLESS the game was close, and I felt like I had a shot to win. In those scenarios, something would change inside me.
2: Because I didn’t have a handle or reliable jump shot, I focused all my team basketball energy on defense. And because in better games I usually was slower or shorter, I’d learned to pour all my energy into figuring out how to steal the ball. The way Dennis Rodman studied the ball bounce off the rim, I studied the ball leaves someone’s finger tips and bounce off the court. I was really good at stealing the ball off the dribble.
So here I am a step away going 110% of my full speed, and I realize the ball has already left the kid’s fingertips. He’d faked crossing over right-to-left and instead pushed the ball further to his right. My teammate took the bait, but I took the ball.
And as soon as that happened, I heard that voice yell: “HIT ME!”
Maybe it was because I was going too fast to dribble without losing the ball. Maybe it was because I was deathly afraid of that kid coming to get what I’d just taken. But I took a step, planted, turned and one-arm rocketed a lead pass in front of Thee who slapped backboard as we pulled within two.
One of the coaches yelled 20 seconds. Thee was sprinting back to halfcourt, yelling at me … wait, is he really talking to me? The best basketball player I’ve ever witnessed in real life is telling me what to do in a 2-point game? The first time I couldn’t understand him. And then he waved his arms and yelled again, “Get the ball from him.”
The kid I’d taken the ball from had run back to grab it out of bounds. He was pissed. His teammates were all somewhere around halfcourt reminding one another they were up 2 and each demanding the ball with eyes or words.
But there’s Thee a maniac dervish sprinting past halfcourt, yelling “GO!”
Again, I took off. My legs were rocket fuel. I noticed Thee pass me and slow, playing the midfielder, and I accelerated. Their point guard, like he didn’t want to get freeze-tagged, took off at an angle away from me. I slipped, trying to switch direction but not before I noticed the kid yell at his teammates who were bunched up. They were yelling back at him instead of spreading out to give up the rock so he didn’t screw up the game. He was moving but slightly distracted, unsure whether to attack or wait out the clock – it was obvious he wasn’t going to pass.
As I was recovering from the slip, and closing ground on the ball handler, I noticed out of the corner of my eye Thee suddenly accelerate toward us. I threw my body toward the ball. I was trying to study the dribble cadence and anticipate when the ball would leave his palm, but my legs just weren’t strong enough for subtle movements. I ran at him, and he easily spun away toward the sideline. There, though, was a complaining teammate screaming for the ball, and the point guard hesitated. Just then Thee got his hand on the ball and it went off the boy’s foot.
They all yelled it was off Thee, but a coach interceded. He yelled at the other team to stop “being a bunch of selfish pussies and go play halfcourt defense.” Thee yelled at me to take the ball out.
The other team retreated to their halfcourt defense. The guy who’d been most consistent for them was telling the other guys where to go. They’d finally settled and organized themselves. I flipped the ball to Thee who dribbled past half court.
A coach said: “10 seconds.”
All their kids stayed a foot or two beneath the three-line. Their consistent guy got in a deep defensive stance. Looking Thee right in the eyes, he said: “Let’s see you shoot that rock for once.”
Thee started to attack, but the defender pulled back. He was baiting Thee to shoot the three. Thee pulled back and glanced to see who was open around the three line. The defenders noticed and stepped toward all of us they’d been ignoring all game. 4 seconds. Thee made another move to the basket, and the defender stepped back again. Thee pulled back to the three line. The defender didn’t budge out of the key.
Thee picked up his dribble, and the defender shot toward him hand outreached.
Thee jumped, arm extended, wrist snapped … and the ball completely missed the basket. Their big guy caught the ball and pretended to take a bite out of it. Then tossed it to me with a snicker.
Their team went back to laughing and joking, a little more muted, but the relief brought out their smiles. As one of them passed Thee, I heard him say: “Nice shot, white boy.”
Thee smiled but didn’t say anything back. I figured they they meant the comment for me but would later learn there was a lot more to it. Before I could say anything to Thee, he noticed someone on the sideline and ran over. It was a teenage girl who liked like she was in college with huge breasts pushing out of a tight turtleneck. She hugged him, and he seemed to hesitate, barely lifting his arms.
Who was this guy who single-handedly beat stacked teams and had hot college girls picking him up.
I grabbed my bag from the sideline and avoided my mom moving in on me for a hug with her big, proud smile. “Hold on, Mom, meet you at the car.”
Thee and the boobs were out of the gym. I needed to say something to him.
I caught up to him on the sidewalk waiting for her to unlock an incredibly beat-up blue Camry.
“Hey, wait up. Hold on.” Thee turned toward me, and I kept talking. “That was amazing. How’d you do that?”
He smiled. “Man, that was fun. Nice to see you come alive out there. How about you come play some real ball with me some time.”
The boobs were in the car, window rolled down, yelling, “Come on, Ass, we don’t have all day.” Thee’s smile disappeared as he turned from me and got in the car. As they pulled off, I could have sworn I saw her hand go to his crotch.
But all I could think about was how come I didn’t ask how to play real ball with him. Like what schools did he go to? Where’d he live? If this wasn’t a real game, then how could I possibly hang in a game with kids like him? Didn’t he notice I’m white and in mediocre shape and did nothing all tryouts until those last couple plays?
I didn’t really care about any of the answers. All I knew was the I wanted to be around this guy, really, really bad.