The ref blows his whistle.
The moment has come.
This is the C Hoops intramural basketball playoff semi-final. We are facing Berkeley, our archrival. We are 11-0. They are 8-3. Berkeley is the defending champion, but we are the favorites, given our perfect record and our win over them in the regular season. The winner earns a shot at the championship. The loser goes home.
C Hoops is the lowest level of men’s basketball in Yale’s intramural program. In our league, though the games are heated, it is not uncommon for players to shoot the ball over the backboard or to trip over themselves while dribbling. We’re so unimportant that although the A, B, and women’s intramural finals will take place in the varsity stadium, our final will be on this very same court, in the student gym. But for me, my Trumbull teammates, and many other C Hoopsters, it might as well be the NBA.
As I approach center court to take the tipoff, I look around. A dozen of my Trumbull friends line the court, cheering. They sport the same C Hoops jerseys — personalized with names and numbers — that we do; when my team ordered the jerseys, 45 of our fans ordered them too. My friend Alison, an intramural veteran and the captain of the Trumbull women’s basketball team, is one of the loudest of our fans. “Go Trumbull!” she screams. Ryan, my co-captain and our best player, bounces in place, slapping the soles of his Air Jordans.
I eye Berkeley’s captain, Peter. He wants revenge. Earlier in the season, he was so distraught after losing to us that he blogged about it: “They’re more athletic and better coordinated, but for some reason, I still think we can beat them; we have the intangibles. I refuse to believe we’re going to lose next time.”
Trust me, we have the intangibles. We will crush them.
The only people here who convey no sense of intensity whatsoever are the student refs, one of whom, though the tipoff is now seconds away, lounges far from center court, chatting with one of his buddies. I curse our bad luck for drawing lazy refs and prepare for a game with few calls.
Finally, I look at my parents. They have secured their usual seats on the middle of the bench by center court. My mom, as always, has my Flip video camera in hand, already filming. My dad, who has rushed to the game from work, stands out in his suit and tie.
My parents, who live in Westport, Conn., just 40 minutes from Yale, have become a permanent fixture at my games. At first, I was a little embarrassed by their presence. I’m not 12; I’m 22. But soon I was bragging to anyone who would listen that my parents were coming. Even my friends — who initially would say, with their eyes squinted and their mouths agape, “They come to watch you play C Hoops?” — now expect my parents to be at every game.
My mom waves at me enthusiastically and smiles. My dad points to the ball, signaling for me to focus. My uneasiness disappears.
The ref throws the ball in the air.
My parents began coming to my games after our third regular-season win. In the first game they attended, I played poorly — two points, four missed lay-ups, four missed free throws — probably because every time I ran up and down the court, I was looking at them. One time, while I was glancing at my mom, a pass intended for me whizzed four inches above my right ear. Regardless, we dominated our opponent, Timothy Dwight, 39-29. Immediately, my parents became the Trumbull Bulls’ biggest fans.
Since then, my dad has emailed me analyses after every game, which I forward to my teammates: Go stronger to the boards and get rebounds out for the fast break basket. Keep the ball in Ryan Wilson’s hands to run offense. GO BULLS. Though his basketball experience merely consists of coaching my fourth grade rec team (he led us to an 0-9 record), I take his advice seriously.
My dad also texts me about the Bulls every day: JE game for first place go bulls. He even mentions the team in messages wholly unrelated to basketball: Are you up go bulls. My favorites are the combos: Are you practicing also study go bulls.
Midseason, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease and got an IV PICC line in my left arm. The doctor told me to avoid basketball.
“Are you sure I can’t play?” I asked him. “It would just be one game a week and I’d take it easy. And I’m in the C league. It isn’t that physical,” I lied.
“Some doctors think it’s fine, but I don’t recommend it,” he responded. “If you’re hit hard in the chest, the tube might break. If you’re hit in the arm, there’s a chance the picc line could dislocate and bleed. You won’t die, but you might need to be rushed to the ER.”
My dad, also a doctor, agreed that it wasn’t worth the risk. “Focus on coaching in the meantime,” he said. “It might be good. It’ll let you analyze the team from a different perspective. I’ll give you tips.”
But as my next game neared, even though it was against measly 0-4 Saybrook, my dad and I found ourselves coming up with reasons the team might need me.
“Dario” — a starter — “has section and can’t come,” I told my dad.
Minutes later, after we had hung up, he texted me: Tell him to play first half and then go to class.
It didn’t take long before we’d convinced ourselves that if I didn’t play, the Bulls would lose.
The morning of the game, he texted me: Maybe play first couple minutes to see if the team needs you then sub out go bulls. Seconds later: Mom will bring bandages to wrap arm not as risky as doctor says but be careful especially on rebounds go bulls.
That night, my mom, a nurse, wrapped four thick medical bandages around my arm. I put on my jersey and looked in the mirror. I admired my bicep, which was the size of a watermelon, and couldn’t wait for tipoff. I played the entire game.
When I return to my room after each game, I watch my mom’s film from the Flip. I do so to prepare for future games, to relive the experience, and also just to hear my parents talking on the video.
During one play against Silliman, I steal the ball and run to the hoop for a lay-up, but I miss. “Ohhhhh,” my parents groan in unison.
When playing Branford, I make a monster block, sending the ball 30 feet across the court. “Woahhh!” they yell.
Against Pierson, I hit a three-pointer, my first and only of the season. “Yes!” they scream.
When their interactions are especially funny, or when they seem especially close, I rewind the clip and listen again.
Though the Berkeley game is physical, the refs call few fouls. Dario almost gets into a fistfight. A burly Greek grad student bristles after I slam into him. He screams at me in Greek, something that sounds heavy on profanity and light on vowels.
We enter halftime trailing Berkeley, 17-16. I’m nervous (we’ve never been down at the half), but I’m certain that we’ll win.
In the second half, hardly anything goes our way. Shots won’t fall, passes slip between our hands, and rebounds bounce away from us. Soon we are down by eight.
But then, in a flash, we find ourselves down by just one, with two minutes remaining and possession of the ball.
We pass the ball around, and find Jason, our best shooter. He dribbles through a pair of Berkeley defensemen and finds an opening near the free-throw line. His shot looks perfect. The ball hovers above the rim. If it goes in, we take the lead and control of the game.
After the game, I review the tape. I watch even more carefully than I do normally, rewinding the last two minutes once, twice, three, even four times.
Jason’s shot falls out.
Berkeley grabs the rebound, and the Greek grad student draws a foul. He makes the first free throw to increase the lead to two. He misses the second, but a teammate scores a put-back lay-up to make it a two-possession game.
We are now down by four with just thirty seconds remaining. Ryan shoots a desperate three-pointer five feet behind the line as the Greek grad student body-checks him to the ground. The ball hits the backboard, rolls twice around the rim, and is now part way through the hoop. Will it go in? Is a game-tying four-point play actually a possibility?
The ball pops out. Worse, still, no foul is called. Many students on the sidelines, including Nahrek, one of the intramural supervisors, are infuriated. Hands in the air, Ryan begins to protest to the ref, but he realizes that no amount of arguing will change the call. He stops, shaking his head, as my parents shout, “Foul!”
There are only 20 seconds left, but I hear my parents screaming on the tape, as if there is still a chance.
“Foul!” My dad’s voice is high pitched and desperate. “Foul them!”
We do. Peter swishes both free throws.
“Shoot a three!” they both yell.
Jason does. It’s an air ball.
My parents accept defeat only in the very last moment.
“It’s not looking good,” my mom says dejectedly.
“Six points … Nine seconds,” mutters my dad.
The buzzer sounds.
In an instant, the perfect season is over.
The tape continues. While my teammates and I slowly gather on the court, the Berkeley players run around, screaming and chest pumping. The camera centers on Peter. He joyously tilts his head to the ceiling, raises his arms, and points his index fingers upwards.
During the entirety of this footage, my parents are silent, until my mom finally speaks. “Oh, I feel so sad,” she says, and the tape ends.
An hour later, my dad texts me: Still great season and people said you were great captain you were screwed by refs go bulls.
At first I manage a smile, but soon I find myself holding back tears.
The next day, Alison texts me. Her team has made the women’s final. My mom just called me wishing me good luck because she keeps up online. If only she lived as close as your parents…
As I look at her text, I think about how my dad would sometimes arrive to my games early to scout other teams; how my mom would bring my teammates homemade chocolate chip cookies, with extra chips; how my dad would follow the standings online from home; and how my mom told me before every game that she couldn’t wait to see me play.
I attend Alison’s game and bring my Flip. I capture her at her best — swishing three-pointers, diving for steals, and motivating her teammates in the huddle. I sporadically interject comments: “Go Alison! What’s up now, JE? Damn, that girl is a monster!” I know she’ll appreciate the commentary.
Alison leads her team to victory. When the buzzer sounds, she leaps in the air. “Oh my God!” she yells, then sprints toward her teammates and falls into their arms. I’m happy for her, but I can’t help feeling jealous.
Though I haven’t told her, I plan to mail a copy of the tape to her parents, so they can watch her win the championship.