October 23, 2007

Bennett and His Imaginary Basketball League

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When I was a kid, I played in a sweet imaginary basketball league in my room. It was a three-on-three league consisting of a dozen or so NBA teams. I was every single player on every single team. I had standings, records, playoffs — even a championship ceremony.
I had always had a vivid imagination. When Michael Jordan came back to the Chicago Bulls, I hauled out a cardboard box, emptied it and set it in the corner of my room. Somewhere else in the house I found a miniature rubber basketball — one of my first loves. It had this dull orange color and was made out of the kind of rubber that gives slightly under your hand when you grip it. There was a small dimple that interrupted the goose bumps that covered the surface. It always felt reassuringly smooth against my finger when I shot the ball.
I spent afternoons perfecting my fadeaway from the opposite corner of my small room. Eventually, to challenge myself, I had to open my door and travel to the far end of the narrow hallway where I was forced to throw the ball like a dart to keep it from hitting the ceiling. I was eight, and throwing an inflated rubber ball into a cardboard box was wildly self-affirming.
At the end of that year, my mom and I moved apartments within the building we lived in. The cardboard box came with me to my room that had suddenly doubled in size. The possibilities were endless. I had room to run, dribble, drive, whatever. I held a dunk contest — I think Toni Kukoc (the NBA’s 6th man of the year in 1996!) narrowly beat out Shaq in the finals.
My aunt and uncle came to visit for my birthday a few months after we moved in. When my aunt saw me playing in my room she must have seen me as being on the fast track to social ostracism and a friendless life, because she put a 20-dollar bill in my hand, rolled my fingers over it gently and said, “Cory, get yourself a real hoop.”
One car ride later I had the object that would define my childhood (am I exaggerating?) — a real basketball hoop. Well, kind of. It had neon green metal hooks that you hung over the outside of a door, a solid, black, wooden backboard and a purple metal hoop with a long, nylon net hanging from it. (Neon green, black and purple — when are we going to bring back color patterns of the mid-90s?).
The backboard had the silhouette of a man flying through the air with a basketball palmed in his right hand. An explosion of purple and neon green shot out from behind him, and jagged letters above his head proclaimed, “Slam.”
I quickly progressed from pretend turnarounds over fake defenders to imaginary games against imaginary teams (I guess my aunt didn’t really get the desired result she had for me). I had “my” team though — the Phoenix Suns. That’s right, the Suns. I wouldn’t let myself be the Bulls. I was terrified that playing as them in my room would jinx how they played in real life. If I won, that would fill their win quota for the day, and if I lost, it would make them play poorly (this crippling fear took me years to get over in video games, too).
So I filled my roster — of six people — with imaginary Bulls players and called them the Phoenix Suns. (Don’t ask me why I chose Phoenix, I had a weird obsession with the city, even telling my mom I was going to move there when I grew up).
My starting lineup was myself, Kukoc and Luc Longley. Coming off the bench was Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler and Jason Caffey (I traded Caffey to the Bucks after a few seasons, though). I think I was beginning to understand I would never make it as an athlete and thus surrounded myself with mediocre and decent players to make myself feel good (I don’t remember if this was before or after the doctor told me I would never make it to six feet — I died a little that day).
My league grew. Originally it was just the Bulls’ main rivals — the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers — but then I decided to grant expansion teams, so I brought in the Vancouver Grizzlies.
In my first two full seasons, I lost to myself in the finals both times (four teams made the playoffs, with the first round being best-of-three and the second round best-of-five). In the third year (or a few weeks later), I took home the championship.
I know losing to myself sounds completely ridiculous, but to me it was all so real. I kept time on my Timex watch (seven minute quarters) and played hard for both teams for the full 28 minutes. I even got upset when “my” team didn’t happen to win (although I’m sure I pulled a few strings here and there). When I lost, I would lie on my bed, a despondent emptiness filling my stomach. After a few minutes, I would roll over, perk up, and go back out to play again.
My dreams of athletic achievement were manifested through the league in my room by simply battling on the same level as current NBA stars. I knew it was fake — I wasn’t that delusional (or was I?). Still, it gave me a (slightly pathetic) sense of accomplishment when I banked in a last second hook shot over an imaginary defender to win a playoff game, or when I broke my own scoring record with 78 points (I chose 28-minute games because that produced the equivalent of high scoring NBA point totals).
I couldn’t have felt this way had I not had professional sports to fantasize about. By imagining myself playing on the same platform as the then-NBA elite, I was able to give myself that confidence boost that so many kids are looking for. I could dominate on that purple hoop that sagged and was so giving to the shots I took with that small orange ball. Oddly enough, professional sports allowed me to feel good about that domination.
That hoop still hangs on the same door in my room at home. The hoop is about five inches higher because of a rambunctious friend who tore it down with a vicious two-handed dunk. My mom screwed it back in above the crescent shaped bite of wood that is now missing while I watched with wet eyes. I implemented a no dunking policy.
I almost brought the hoop to college with me because I still hadn’t found anything more cathartic than putting up a few shots on the rim, now pretending I’m shooting over LeBron or Kobe.
It’s obvious that we watch sports because we are amazed to see athletes do things we could never dream of. I never realized until recently, though, that professional sports can also allow us to do things we could never dream of.
Special Thanks:
To Pat, who only responded once with “Me” when I asked him what to write about. He then launched into a discussion of how professional sports causes people to fantasize about it. Several minutes later, I hit on this idea in my mind.
Chicago mention:
Brian Griese has a better quarterback rating, better completion percentage, more yards, more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Carson Palmer since Griese began starting four weeks ago.