In an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Zinsky the Obscure, Ilan Mochari describes much more than a basketball game.
Author’s note: In one-on-one basketball, a lunch-pail player can beat a gifted player.
I would know. I’m the lunch-pail guy. I can’t run. I can’t jump. On my quickest dribble-drives, I’m lucky if I reach the paint, let alone the rim.
Though I’m six feet tall, I have the sort of post game you develop when you play a lot of one-on-one in the park. I modeled my moves on James “Buddha” Edwards—not the vintage Buddha of the Pacers and Suns, but the crafty backup of the championship Pistons teams in 1989 and 1990. To this day, I can hit turnaround jump-shots, all day and all night—clockwise and counter. Half-hooks with both hands. Up and under floaters.
And if you don’t bite on my up fake, I’ll hip-check for space and keep faking till you do. This is commonly referred to as an “old man” post tactic. Which is, of course, accurate: I’m now 38 years old, a bloodstained fossil of the hardwood. The thing is, I’ve had “old man” moves since I was a teen.
Anyway: I got cut from every team I ever tried out for. That’s life, when you’re a slowpoke of undistinguished height and subpar hand-eye coordination.
But on a few select occasions—in one-on-one games I can still recite from memory—I defeated members of my high school’s JV or varsity. Just as often, I beat playground foes who were always picked ahead of me.
And why? Because I wanted it more. Because these one-on-one contests — mere exhibitions to the stars I was opposing — were like title fights to me. I was Rocky, they were Apollo. For them, it was a jog in the park. For me, it was the chance to give the finger to anyone who ever doubted me — coaches, opponents, teachers, girls who said I was just a friend.
So formative were these occasions that I found them, almost unwittingly, cropping up in the early drafts of my debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). Mind you, the Zinsky of the title is not me; he stands six-foot-eight, attended the University of Michigan, and founded an NFL Draft magazine upon graduating. I was an English major at Yale. I waited tables for nine years while “figuring it out.” He’s an entrepreneur. I’m vocational driftwood.
But one trait Zinsky shares with me is a love for playing — and practicing — basketball. Perhaps that’s why the excerpt that follows made it all the way through to the final version. In the spirit of March Madness, I hope you’ll enjoy it. (And in the spirit of entrepreneurship, I hope you buy it.)
“She broke my heart, but at least I whooped her brother.”
I need not record what ensuing dialogue led to my borrowing a pair of Tom’s old Nikes and joining him by the basketball hoop. Tom also lent me a maroon Boston College sweatshirt and he was impressed when I shunned his sweatpants in favor of baggy mesh shorts – it was a frigid, wind-whipping, cloudy day in the 30s. “You play high school?” he asked, dribbling the light-brown ball between his long legs, puffs billowing from his mouth as he spoke. “I sucked at sports in high school,” I said.
“You’re trying to get me to underestimate you,” he said, passing me the ball.
“You already do,” I said, bouncing it back to him.
He drove toward the goal and completed a righty reverse layup. “I love Miranda, don’t get me wrong, but our marriage has absolutely killed my playing time.”
“Already with the excuses,” I said, puffing my own mouth steam for effect. “This is your home-court. You could probably fall asleep for 20 years, wake up, and make shots out here blindfolded.”
We warmed up with a game of HORSE. Tom destroyed me. I had S before he had H. He knew every shot of this court, every angle. And I was distracted by how clean and clear the glass backboard was. Inside a gym, the only thing behind a backboard was a monochrome wall. Vision posed no problem. But behind this backboard sat the entire expanse of cloudy autumn sky, a grayish shade of white set in relief by the milky house. I struggled keeping the rim in perspective.
Between shots I warmed my hands beneath my armpits; I ran in place, trying to get a good sweat going beneath my wool hat. Tom’s black hooded sweatshirt, by contrast, had a sewn-in sleeve for hands; and instead of a hat he wore one of those wraparound ear-coverers that skiers don, leaving his thick, cinnamon-tinted hair exposed in the wind.
Tom won the HORSE game and said, “Make it take it? To 21?”
I nodded. Tom drained a 24-footer from an imaginary top-of-the-key. We began.
Tom was quicker than I, so my defensive strategy was to allow jump shots and force him left. Tom took my allowing him the jumper as an affront; he took one dribble to his left, pulled up, and shot a brick. The rebound clanged right and I raced to corral it. Tom looked askance at me – for I had hustled a bit too blatantly for an uncontested rebound, as if our game’s opening salvos had championship ramifications.
Yo-yoing the ball between my legs, I assessed Tom’s defensive posture: lax. He wasn’t just allowing me the jumper; he was defying me to shoot. I could not shoot from 24 feet, though – I needed to get to foul-line distance, about 15. I assumed my Jalen Rose post-up posture, backing into Tom, bumping him hard until he held his ground, about eight feet from the hoop. Despite all the shooting we’d done during HORSE, revealing my left-handedness, Tom was not defending me as a lefty. I spun, pivoted, and pump-faked until Tom finally bit and jumped for a shot block. At which point I banked an eight-footer from the left wing, a shot I could make blindfolded, even against a backboard with a strange background.
I did the same thing on my next four possessions and took a 5-0 lead. Tom said, “You really are a workhorse. When I get the ball back, I’m taking it to you.”
Now that Tom expected me to back him down, he softened his face-up defense: he let me square to the rim, within 15 feet. I surprised him by taking, and making, a foul-line jumper. “Wow, you’re lefty, huh?” he said, catching on.
He didn’t defend my jump-shot until I’d made the next three for a 9-0 lead. At which point he finally awoke. He had doubtless begun to fear the embarrassment of my telling his wife, sister, mother, and father that I’d cruised to victory. Likewise, I feared the storytelling consequences of squandering a nine-point margin. I posted him up again. Finally aware of my left-handedness, Tom forced me right, assuming an absence of ambidexterity. Big mistake. I spun right and went baseline, going under the hoop for a righty reversal. 10-0.
On my next possession I did the same thing, but instead of reversing I finger-rolled, converting the basket despite Tom’s hack at my arm. “And one,” I said. “That’s eleven-nothing.”
“I know the score,” he said.
For the first time, he challenged me on the outside, was belly-to-back with me as I dribbled 20 feet from the hoop. The key was patience. With the lead, I had more patience than Tom. If I kept dribbling in place, he’d feel more pressure than I to make a move. Sure enough, he attempted to steal the ball, at which point I yo-yo’d by him for my Jalen Rose one-handed floater. Soon I was up 14-0.
I tried convincing myself our game was scoreless, so I’d remain dogged. But I was giddy. Borrowed sneakers, foreign court, inferior genetics, and I was up 14-0 on The Natural! Winning this game had the potential to crack my life’s defining moments. Diana could have dumped me at the Thanksgiving table, and I’d have recalled fondly: “She broke my heart, but at least I whooped her brother.” I almost had to miss now – basketball players, once cognizant of their special days, usually lose an ounce of concentration. Tom decided to allow my jumper again. He was a little winded, his hands resting on his knees. I focused and made four more foul-line jumpers: 18-0.
But then I missed. And Tom was far from fatigued. He’d merely been saving his energy for offense. And I hadn’t played defense since the game’s opening possession. Tom posted me up, elevated, and banked in five consecutive turnaround jumpers. I was still winning, 18-5, but I had begun to panic – for Tom could jump much higher than I. To prevent him from shooting was physically impossible, despite my height advantage. I had to hope he’d miss, or I was finished.
I got the ball back at 18-13. Tom had figured out how to defend me: tightly inside of 20 feet, never leaping in response to my fakes. I resorted, now, to a gag Jerod used to pull on me: I intentionally aimed the ball off the backboard, so it would ricochet to a certain spot. I beat Tom to the spot and converted a finger-roll. “That was an asshole thing to do,” he said.
“You left me no choice. I can’t rely on conventional methods anymore.”
“You tried to show me up.”
“I was just trying to score, Tom,” I said. “We all know you’re better than me. You’ve been able to score your entire life. You have to think about how you’d play if you lacked natural ability.”
“Check the ball,” he said. I bounced the rock in his direction and he heaved it back to me, hard, at my chest. I caught it with ease and yo-yo dribbled as he stared me down. I gestured as though I planned to ricochet the ball off the glass again. “You wouldn’t dare,” he said.
“I might,” I said, faking one last time before I bounced the ball through his open legs, raced around him, and finger-rolled my way to a 20-13 lead. “Point,” I said, checking him the ball.
He guarded me so closely, I feared I couldn’t take more than two dribbles without losing the ball. I turned my back to him, but he kept me a good 15 feet from the hoop with swift sidesteps and hard hand-checks. I had no idea how I’d even attempt another shot. At length I raced directly away from the basket. Tom closed on me quickly and, in a panic, I fired an off-balance 19-foot fadeaway from the left wing, knowing instantly I’d shot the ball too strong and at the incorrect angle. But the shot caromed high off the glass and into the basket. Game over. 21-11, Zinsky. “That was lucky,” I admitted, feigning sportsmanship but internally relishing how much better the turkey would taste, having the entire family recognize my victory.
Tom eyed me and said, “You’re smiling like you just got laid or something.”
“You have no idea.”
He chuckled. I imagined he knew about Diana’s celibacy. The question was whether he respected my obeisance to it. Had he – or had Billy – ascertained why I was dealing with it? Did they believe my intention was marriage? Or that I was so smitten I’d accept anything? Or that all-but-vaginal-sex with my beautiful best friend was preferable to solitude? I wondered whether Tom and Billy had sized me up in this manner. Or were they waiting for further interaction – or just the passage of time – before drawing conclusions?
“Best of three?” said Tom.
We played two more. He defeated me 21-13 and 21-17. In keeping these games close I surprised myself. My only intention was sustaining a semblance of effort. I dug deep, struck a defensive posture, and worked hard on offense. But my mind wasn’t in it.
Tom and I shook hands, clasping sweaty yet frigid digits. Then we went inside, both smiling like we’d recovered precious pieces of our childhood puzzles. Tom ran upstairs to his room, and I was left standing by the piano, my cheeks and kneecaps thawing. From the kitchen came the metronomic banging of a knife against a cutting board. A tall but plump woman in a black cardigan, with hair the tint of ginger ale, hovered high over the island countertop, slicing two baguettes at once into inch-long segments. Was it from this woman, whom I presumed to be Connie Kennedy, that Diana had learned her mincing skills? I wanted to introduce myself, but I reeked of perspiration, and I was certain my dried sweat had formed salty lines on my face.
Connie finished cutting and placed the slices into a wicker basket lined with a green napkin. She brought the basket into the dining room and upon returning to the kitchen spotted me lingering. “You are tall,” she said. She turned to a stack of pots and pans in the island sink and began scrubbing with steel wool. “Been out playing with Tom, have you?” she said.
“You have the most amazing driveway court I’ve ever seen,” I said. “Where’d you find a glass backboard?”
“Billy found it somewhere,” she said. “One of those sports megastores.”
“It was so – clean,” I said. “I could see the house and the sky right behind it.”
“We actually take a ladder, climb up there, and Windex that thing every few months,” she said. “Well, not ‘we.’ Tom does it once every few visits. It was one of his chores growing up.”
“How often do he and Miranda visit?” I sallied.
“Almost every weekend.”
“Wow? Well, I guess that must be ‘wow’ to you, with your mom in New York and everything. Do you ever think about moving back there?”
I wondered how I was supposed to answer that. “Only if your slender daughter comes with me,” was what I felt like saying. I said: “Why would I move back there?”
Connie laughed heartily at this. Something in her easy risibility messed with my values – made me feel like I was somehow provincial for not living within 50 miles of my relatives.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“25. How old are you?” I rejoined, grinning.
“Never you mind,” she said.
“Have you been to New York?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “I went to Barnard. I went back for my 30th reunion not long ago. Billy had his at Columbia the same weekend. We visit New York three or four times a year. One of Billy’s pals from work gets us cheap Broadway tickets.”
Billy was an executive with a New England banking colossus; that much I knew. “What did you major in?” I continued.
“English. Not that I ever did anything with it. I was an admin at the state house when Billy started at BancBoston. I got pregnant with Tom in less than a year, and that was that. When Di started college, I considered working part-time, but Billy talked me out of it. Di says you’re a rising star in the publishing world. Are you enjoying yourself?”
“I can’t complain. Late hours, but that’s how it is, you know?”
She looked down into the sink, giving a pan a few final, vigorous scrubs. Then she turned back to me. “I can’t believe you played out there in shorts,” she said. “Tom’s sneakers fit okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a terrific athlete. I’d kill for an eighth of his ability.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said. “I saw you making quite a few shots.”
“Diana and I watched. You can see the basket from her bedroom window.”
“Well, I don’t suck,” I said, before catching myself. “Excuse my language. I mean – I’m a capable shot-maker. But Tom – I’ve played with great college basketball players, and he’s got a dose of what they possess. If he solely dedicated himself to basketball, he’d have been a player somewhere.”
“Williams and Amherst recruited him. But he didn’t want to go to school ‘in the boonies,’ he used to say. He preferred baseball anyway. He walked onto BC’s team, then quit after a year because he wasn’t starting. And you went to – Michigan State?”
“University of Michigan,” I corrected. There was a dash of impatience in my tone.
Diana came into the kitchen, stroking her mother’s back. Her copper hair contrasted with Connie’s ginger and her lankiness with Connie’s knobbiness. Diana winked at me, and I approached her and kissed her briefly on the mouth. Diana, to my surprise, didn’t curtail the kiss in Connie’s presence. In fact, she seemed pleased with it. She turned to Connie and said, “See how he is?”
“Funny and self-deprecating, as you described,” said Connie.
“But in definite need of a shower,” said Diana.
“Get him one of Tom’s shirts,” said Connie.
“He has his own,” said Diana.
“I was just telling mom what an athlete Tom is,” I said, eager to learn Diana’s perspective on my victory before hitting the showers.
“He said you caught him sleeping and took one out of three,” said Diana.
“Pretty much,” I said.
Diana dismissed herself to fetch towels for me and I went to the living room to check the football score. Billy napped in his chair. Miranda had swiped the remote and switched to a movie channel showing Fargo. “I’ve seen this about twenty times,” she said. I nodded, and just then Diana returned with towels.
We went to the guest bedroom, which had a bathroom in it. “Here’s where you’ll be confined for the evening,” she said.
“Take a shower with me,” I whispered. I seized her, not without force, by the small of her back.
“Behave,” she said. She removed my arms and glanced out the door, toward the kitchen, from whence came the whacks of Connie’s cutting. She returned to me, undid the drawstring of Tom’s shorts, and reached inside my boxers. She held me for a few seconds and whispered, “Think of this while you’re in there.” She looked into my eyes. “I love you,” she whispered. She bit my lower lip and released me.