My wife just finished reading The Martian, by Andy Weir. She loved it, as does, apparently, everybody else. Andy’s success story is a very interesting one. It appears that he – like almost everybody else – could not find an agent or publisher for this book. Shows you just how much those agents and publishers don’t know.
Undaunted, old Andy decided to do it on his own. What he did was put the book up on line, chapter by chapter, day after day, and allowed his readers to dig into it for free and to comment on and question his writing as the book developed. Turns out that the readers on line absolutely loved the book and flocked to it on droves. When the traditional publishing folks got wind that they had missed the next big thing, they came beating a pathway to his door. The rest, as they say, is history. His book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for fifteen weeks now and it is – drum roll – soon to be a major motion picture.
I’m going to do the same thing. Right here, right now. And you, faithful readers, get to be a part of it. This is square one. Following is the first chapter of my novel Overtime: A Basketball Parable. You’ll get it here, day after day, chapter by chapter, all for free.
Thanks for your participation. Dig in, folks, and get hooked on a good story. You’ve got nothing to lose.
If at any time you decide to take the plunge and spring for the book, you can buy it here.
Here’s to great hopes and good stories.
Overtime: A Basketball Parable
Although I have no way to tell what time it is, I know that my torment will start soon. I face east. And the long shadow projecting before me and down the length of this ragged basketball court tells me that the sun behind me is at its lowest ebb. The shadow itself, although exaggerated by the distance and the long-angled sunlight, is, like always, definite and unmistakable; it is of the concrete bench where I am seated, beneath the western goal. The shadow is all of straight lines and square corners. There is no human shape; no profile of me. Though I have experienced the same thing a hundred times or more and by now I should know that the laws of physics no longer apply to me, the old neural pathways are too well established. I cannot escape the register of shock. I still cannot avoid the unconscious and automatic processing of all my sensory data – the feel of the hard concrete bench beneath me, my view of this familiar court, my certainty of the identity of the shadow, and my absence from it – against that certain knowledge of light and shade, cause and effect that my 52 years on the earth burned into me.
I am not there. How can that be? And then, of course, the deeper question, the one that still frightens me and the one that I am no nearer to answering even after these long months of invisibility and immobility, why am I here?
The sun must be near the horizon behind me now and just before it dips below the mountains the last horizontal light hits the vertical backboard at the far end of the court at a perfect, ninety-degree angle. For a moment the direct brilliance hides every shadow of warp, bubble and crack in the ragged plywood surface and the thing looks ideal, like something that is what it was meant to be. Like something that is actually fit for its intended purpose. But it is neither. Although I cannot approach the goal to get a more precise measure of its faults, I can tell, even from where I sit, that the rim is at least six inches too high and that the backboard itself slants, top to bottom, away from the surface of the court. And, to make matters even worse, it is canted in on my right and is not square with any baseline that would be even approximately congruent with the shape of the court.
Likewise, this blacktopped rectangle before me, weather-split and hooved-up everywhere, is the worst excuse for a basketball court anywhere in this town. I made use of every other schoolyard and playground during my twenty-seven years here, but I avoided this place. For starters, it is much too long. The far basket is at least a hundred feet away from me. And these baskets must have been put up by one of the older schoolteacher’s husbands. A man handy with tools but who had played baseball instead of basketball and who approached the task with the idea that the location and dimensions of basketball goals were like those of outfield fences, varying in height and depth from field to field. But if you had to assign or imagine some purpose for this sagging mess it would have to be that the goal at the far end was designed to make scoring as difficult as possible.
This evening is no different from any of the others. The sun drops below the horizon behind me and in the first gray of twilight I see their faint outlines, nothing more than waves in the air, like heat rising off a highway. But as the moments pass and the evening darkens they gather form and substance. Even at the height of their definition the two players moving around the far basket are dim and vague, almost completely disappearing into the fading dusk when they move quickly. But there is no mistaking that shot. In my twenty-seven years of coaching and ten years of playing, I’ve never seen another one like it.
Mark Sparks. 1979.
The kid rebounding is a bit farther from me and I cannot see his face, but I have no doubt who he is. The profile is, again, unmistakable. Brandon Murphy, one of Sparks’ teammates. Murphy was a Pete Maravich wannabe in his day and he had the gangly body, mop of hair and floppy socks to approximate the iconic look. But he had nothing like The Pistol’s work ethic. Murphy’s purpose in playing basketball was not to play like Maravich, which would have cost him in time and effort, but to look like Maravich. Given what nature had blessed him with that was pretty easy. The players appear to me now just as they did in 1979 and Murphy’s resemblance to Maravich is striking – more striking, in fact, than I remembered.
It is always the same. Mark Sparks moves around the perimeter of the far basket, shooting what on a modern court would be three-pointers. He never makes a one of them. Murphy is rebounding; corralling every one of Spark’s misses and firing the basketball back to him, passing Maravich-style no-looks through his legs, behind his back, over his shoulder; encouraging another shot, another shot. Murphy smiles through it all, unfazed by his teammate’s unabated failure, having the time of his life, it seems. Sparks, who was the best pure shooter I ever coached, never says a word. His face seems to betray an inner state somewhere between stoicism and despondency. But he will not stop shooting.
Some of Sparks’ shooting trouble is attributable to that out-of-kilter contraption of a basket, but that does not explain all of it. Sparks was a long-range shooter and his shot was very high-arching. The extra six inches of height on that rim would not be as big of an impediment to him as it would to anyone with a normal shooting stroke. Sparks could concentrate and, if he was still the same guy I knew, he’d figure that target out, adjust accordingly, and – even given the crazy alignment of the rim – manage a basket every third or fourth shot.
I spent the better part of my life playing in, coaching and watching basketball games. I know that it is a violent sport, but to me it has also been a stage for breath-taking beauty. The hawk-like speed and near flight of the best players, the surprise and sleight of hand and body, the kaleidoscopic movement of five players together – going from seeming random motion and placement to perfect order and symmetry all in that split second before the shot goes into the air or the pass whips from guard to center and the ball slams through the net. These dramas are part of what I loved about the game; part of what kept me coming back, year after disappointing year.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the game is a perfectly-executed jumpshot. The shooter leaps straight up into the air and hangs there, the strength and will of the individual man superior, for the moment, to the universal force of gravity, and his frame aligns to the basket like the needle of a compass and he releases the ball skyward and it floats, spinning silently in a perfect arc over everything willed against it, and then plunges through the net like the knife of an assassin, its effect never to be undone. All accomplished at a speed that is unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t played. In those who have the gift it appears like an effortless grace. Baryshnikov or Nureyev could mimic the form, maybe, but they could not put the ball in the net consistently from 20 feet – and certainly not against a tenacious defender. It is a thing to behold and never ceased to thrill me in all of my years around the game. Although there was never a man born who was more competitive than me, there were a few times in my coaching career when I even caught myself admiring the form of good jumpshooters who were then in the process of burying my teams.
But Sparks’ jumpshot, that I have to watch every evening, looks like something put together from parts taken off of an old bus.
The best jump shots involve releasing the ball above and just a little in front of the shooter’s head. The shooter focuses on the rim, not the ball, but the ball should be just within his field of vision and, thus, give his brain an image to work with in doing whatever complex calculation it has to do to instantaneously measure weight, distance, arch, angle and everything else necessary to direct that 9.39-inch sphere through that 18-inch hoop. In his day and now, even as I watch him, Sparks releases the ball directly above his head. A variance of only a few inches, but what a difference in appearance. His motion was mechanical and unnatural-looking, like something you would expect from a child’s toy robot. I knew that opposing coaches would be shaking their heads at me when they saw that ragged-looking shot, but any pain that might have inspired – and there was some, at first – was completely assuaged by the fact that Sparks’ ball, which seemed to go straight up into the air, came down through the net almost half the time.
I spent a good two months trying to change those shot mechanics – until I accumulated a statistically-significant sample that established that he was hitting 48.1% of his jumpshots. That is phenomenal shooting for a high-school player, particularly at the range he shot from, and we used it to our great advantage the two seasons he played for me.
But now as I look on helplessly and watch him miss, I am pained. He looks like a coach has never gotten hold of him. Like he’s had no teaching. And I can’t escape the idea that if we could just change a thing or two here and there, the ball would go in, at least once in a while, and this little scene I watch every evening would no longer be torturous to me – or to him.
For a long time I made no effort to intervene in this recurrent and agonizing drama. I somehow sensed my limitations before I proved them to myself. But the repetition was too maddening and I finally tried, with all my might, to loose myself from this bench and to be heard. All to no avail. They cannot see me. They cannot hear me. And I cannot move from this concrete bench beneath the goal opposite theirs.
So this evening, just like every evening I can remember since, well, since my accident, I sit and watch. Murphy stands under the basket, pulling down rebounds and feeding slick passes right into Sparks’ waiting hands. Better passing than I ever saw from Murphy back in the day. And Spark’s catches the ball and shoots – and misses.
Although I want to get through to Sparks somehow more than I have ever wanted anything, the anguish does not last long. When the last of the twilight fades, the floodlights on the roof of the school switch on and the players – my players – vanish in the glare. And I am left here with the birds and the squirrels and the long, almost always completely uneventful night. If someone had told me that I would be faced with staring at darkness for eight hours every night with no possibility of sleep or other variance, I would have begged for any other fate. But I was given no choice and, as it turns out, the monotony, or whatever you want to call it, is really not troubling to me at all. Something about me has changed. I could not stay seated in a classroom for an hour during my career. I was the teacher who handed out a quiz and then stepped out into the hallway or through a fire door to the outside, even in winter, to get a breath and to look at something far away. But now my inability to move only bothers me when I am watching Sparks. It is such an odd thing for me to think of myself biding this existence. But I do remember something kind of like it.
Just after I finished my college playing career, I took a job as a basketball grad assistant at Texas Lutheran College. It was a small, Division III school then and part of my job was to attend high-school games and find players who weren’t good enough to get DI or DII schools interested but who were fundamentally sound and strong enough to contribute to our humble efforts at TLC. The school was forty miles east of San Antonio and the roads in every other direction stretched straight away for miles. You could go an hour without seeing another car going either way back then and another hour without turning the steering wheel a quarter turn. My favorite trip was north onto Route 46. I’d spend the night in New Braunfels which was then nothing more than a little cow town of about ten thousand. The place called itself a motel, but it had originally been an old-fashioned western saloon with the kitchen and dining room downstairs and the rooms up. In those days you could open the windows and if you got a corner room you could get a night breeze through the room and the cooling air smelled of pine and the sharp turpentine and camphor smells of the sagebrush. I have never slept so soundly anywhere, anytime in my life. Breakfast was bacon and sausage and steak and fresh eggs. All of it local. I’d wake up a get a plate of eggs and a sample of every kind of meat and coffee with real cream – all for under a dollar – and then set out for the north country in my beetle, the happiest man in the world. I drove for hours on end; never worrying about whether we could sign the player I was going to see. It didn’t matter much, anyway. In the 1960s basketball existed in Texas for one reason: to keep the football players who weren’t wrestling from getting fat. In DIII basketball in Texas in 1965 they should not have even kept score. And I knew I’d be gone before the next season. When I reached high gear I just kind of melted into the warm, sunny air and into the hum of the tires over the hot asphalt and lost consciousness. I’d go a hundred miles in one morning and not remember a thing that I had seen or passed.
That’s what sitting here is like, or, that’s the closest I can come to describing it. Except when Sparks is shooting.
Anyone watching a film of what I see during the day would go crazy with boredom. This court was almost never used in its day and now its day is long over. Since the school installed new playground equipment on the front lawn, none of the kids come back here anymore. I can hear their laughter and calling when they are active out front, but I never see them. After school there may be a couple of fourth or fifth-graders running through to get somewhere else. On weekends I see a mother with a baby in a stroller, a father walking with a toddler, someone tossing a ball, playing fetch with a yellow Labrador. No basketball.
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