There was a basketball court just up the road from my grandmother’s house, where I grew up. It was up at the end of a dirt road, on a brown dirt lot grown up in grass in places where sometimes there were old pickup trucks or cars left. It was just a rim and a cracked backboard, and the pole it was on was a little skewed to the side from the time someone had backed a cattle truck into it. Most of the time it was forgotten but on summer nights when the sun was skewing away toward evening suddenly there would be people there, and a game. I mostly watched. If there was a game I wanted to watch. Someone who knew my grandmother gave her an old ball they had found somewhere. It was worn down almost smooth in some places, but I kept it in a special place under the stairs where no one would take it. Sometimes during the day when no one was around, not any of the older kids, I would go over to the lot and shoot a little. I was tall and awkward in those days, even when I was just starting school, and I tripped on my feet when I dribbled the ball and fell down in the dirt when I jumped to try to dunk. That’s why I never joined a game. I was no good at it.
Then one summer there was this tall boy there, older than me, from over in Minnesota. Red Lake, I think. He was staying with his aunt, who lived in just up the road from my grandmother’s house. People stared at him some, he was so tall. I think he mostly stayed at home. Nobody knew him and he was so tall. One night I remember I was down watching the older boys and the men play. It was a good game, they were playing hard, everybody hot and panting even though it was getting cool and dark. Then they stopped and all looked over by me. He was standing behind me. One of the boys said, “You want to play? The kid can play too.” He pointed at me. So I joined the game too, on the other team.
I don’t think I made a play. I don’t remember. I was watching him the whole time. He stood almost a head taller than most of the boys and the men. When he had his hands up you could just loft it in the air to pass and he could catch it. I could tell some of them thought it wasn’t fair but no one said anything. The team I was on could hardly score. He got all the rebounds. But what I couldn’t forget was when he drove to the basket, he seemed to snake through everybody, his body twisting and turned through the others, and then when he jumped he seemed to fly, he got so high. I don’t think they let me play in another game for a long time after that because I hardly played. I just watched him.
The rest of that summer I went to down to the lot almost every day, even when it was raining. I’d lope up to the basket the way he had, imagining a big team of defenders, not pushing through them, as I once had tried to do, but twisting and snaking through, like an antelope turning and twisting through buckthorn. When I jumped to dunk I felt myself flying to the imaginary net. I still fell on my face, but I didn’t care. I felt like I was flying and that was enough. I kept going back because I wanted to fly again, jump for that one shot and fly right out of that lot, into I don’t know where.