There was something magical about throwing a round orange ball in hopes of getting it through a cylinder with a net hoop. It was fun. So fun that every morning, I would be obliged to take a few shots. 30 minutes worth of shooting. From my designated “3-point line.” From close up. Against the backboard. Before long, my parents would threaten to take it away from my daily routine whenever I had misstepped.
And this was all in our relatively spacious living room with a fireplace that had been plastered over. My parents were renting out a house with hardwood floors. This was the first “house” that we’d lived in since we’d moved to LA. Finally, we were kind of like those families in Home Alone in suburban Chicago. Though there was still no snow in LA and I wasn’t sure that they lived around so many Mexicans. My parents had always made it a point that suburban Chicago was where we’d come from; living in LA was temporary till we could move to a place like Texas.
Someone had bought me a playskool-like basketball set for my birthday. It was about a 5-foot tall basketball hoop with a cardboard backboard that was about as tall my 5’5 dad. I stood on a white plastic chair, making it in total about 7 feet tall.
Before this basketball obsession, I’d loved everything Michael Jackson. My dad had recorded through VHS a Dangerous Tour special on VH1, which I would watch over and over. I loved the Black or White video, and was intrigued by the Remember the Time video. However, none compared to seeing the “Bad” video. I liked seeing an Asian guy as one of the “bad guys” — I wanted to be bad like that dude. If you Youtube the video, it’s the guy with the bandana of the Japanese flag.
However after catching a special about Michael Jackson doing a music video shoot with Michael Jordan, I couldn’t believe how I could like a fragile-looking guy like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson, was leaping trying in vain to at least tap the ball from a much taller Michael Jordan. Michael Jackson was older, had long hair. Michael Jordan was bald, lean, and tall.
The segment ended with might’ve been a benign afterthought for those who said it, but was life-altering for me: “it looks like the King of Basketball beats King of Pop.”
He looked so…fragile, and impotent at 5’11 compared to the lean, mean 6’6 Michael Jordan machine.
From that moment on, everything Michael Jordan did was something to watch.
I wanted to mimic his habits. I wanted to grip the ball just like he did. I wanted to do moves like he did. I wanted to pretend that I was going to shoot but then actually go under the basket and hit the ball off the backboard and have it go into the basket. I wanted to chew gum just like he did. I wanted to develop the habit of just sticking my tongue out. I wanted to be “at least” 6’4.
By following Michael Jordan, I began following basketball.
My godsister, whom my parents would drop my little sister and I off with, had been collecting basketball cards. Fanning the flames of a burgeoning fandom, I got into collecting basketball cards as well. Basketball cards were about 3″ x 4″ and would usually have some kind of action picture in the front and statistics in the back of the card. She had an album of NBA cards, an entire collection of one year of players, some 300 of them, numbered in order by team. I’d come to learn about the 7″4 bearded scowling Mark Eaton from the Utah Jazz, the 6″10 unsure-looking bald-headed Eddie Lee Wilkins from the Knicks. I liked looking at how old they were; some were born in the 1950s, which had been roughly when my own mom and dad were born.
I did everything to mimic what I saw on TV or basketball cards. I thought that a lot of the action photos were how they players wanted to look like on basketball cards, so I made faces in the mirror trying to mimic them. I drew my own version of the NBA logo on the cardboard of my hoop. I looked at baby pictures of myself in a Bulls apparel shooting on another kiddie hoop; I was meant to play basketball!
I kept looking at basketball cards and learned what the statistics meant and imagined what statistics I would want to mimic — mostly “PPG” or points per game. I learned that I liked shooting from far distances, about 15-20 feet away; it was challenging but yielded the most points back: 3. I would imagine playing with teammates playing certain roles on the team. I imagined my school classmates being teammates. Of course, I would be the star scoring the most with the highest points per game. Other people would do supporting things like get rebounds or assists.
When I went back to school for the 1992-1993 school year, I couldn’t wait till they put the basketball hoops in. I’d have to wait till November for them to install the rims and the nets; from September to October we were left with just backboards. Presumably this was done to prevent other kids from the neighborhood from using the courts.
I was anxious to show everyone my new interest and my skills.
In the meanwhile, I watched the Bulls and Michael Jordan anytime I could. Living in LA, I discovered that I wouldn’t always be able to watch the Bulls. I’d have to watch TBS/TNT, NBC, or whenever they played the Lakers on Prime Ticket or KCAL or the Clippers on KCOP.
The first game I remember watching was a preseason game between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. The Bulls had just won their 2nd NBA championship. They were playing a relatively soft Miami team that had a “Baby Jordan” named Harold Miner…least he had the bald head like Michael Jordan. The Bulls won handily, but it was preseason and I don’t remember much else. I did watch the Bulls play the Lakers in LA. Signifying the end of my allegiance to anything Michael Jackson, I ended up taping a Bulls vs. Lakers game over the Michael Jackson tape I would play over and over.
When November came, I watched the hoops get installed at school. The hoops were regulation size at 10 feet tall. A regulation size basketball was a bit big and heavy for me.
Standing barely under four feet tall, I would have to hold the ball with both palms around my waist area and then in one motion hoist the basketball up on the strength of my knees. I had to be really close to the hoop to even catch the rim.
There weren’t too many kids interested in playing basketball. But when I did get to play with classmates, it was chaos. It wasn’t anything like the neat orderly NBA I saw on TV. There were players double dribbling, traveling. There were more than 5 players per team. The bell signalling the end of recess rang before I even got a chance to touch the ball.
As the year progressed, I got a few more chances to show my skills playing basketball. At first, only girls like to play, so I played against them. I played afterschool. I learned very early on that not many players anticipated getting the ball stolen from them from behind, I capitalized on their inattention, That became my defining tact on the basketball court, stealing the ball from unsuspecting players.
This gave me lots of confidence, knowing what I could do, and knowing that I was better than kids at something. In PE one time, after everyone had one turn playing, the coach decided to put me in over a taller player; seems like he was amused by my tenacity or something. Another time I played against some 8th graders. I jumped high enough to block a bit of a guy’s shot. He called out mildly surprised, “snuff!”