The news of Kobe Bryant’s death along with his basketball-loving daughter hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks and I had no idea why. It’s not like I’ve been following basketball as I did in my younger years idolizing the likes of Pistol Pete and Dollar Bill Bradley. I was a fan of the Knicks, the Lakers and the Celtics in the seventies but this didn’t feel like the normal sadness I felt when someone I admired from a distance died, like Audrey Hepburn. It felt more like an Elvis death, and I’m having Robert Redford and Paul Simon Death Anxiety as I type this. It wasn’t until I watched his documentary that I knew why. It brought back a tidal wave of memories and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that felt like loss, but why did I feel such loss when I rarely watched a modern-day Lakers game?
My passion for basketball began on the playground at Mt. Carmel when I was in the fourth grade. I read every book I could get my hands on and the one by Red Auerbach, “Basketball: For the Player, the Fan, and the Coach,” was my Basketball Bible that taught me to always,“See the Ball.” I watched every NBA game with my parents and made up game situations with two teammates on our driveway until dark. I was the shooting guard, the referee, the time clock, the ball handler, the ball stealer, the player with the most assists, and always the champion. I perfected my dribbling skills against invisible guards and became an expert guard guarding no one, and faked out an invisible opponent who committed a foul that brought me to the crack in the driveway to take my foul shot … five bounces, left Converse planted, right Converse one step back, and with the perfect follow-through, swish. When I missed, the ball hit the edge of the driveway, catapulted it into the hands of my opponent, the ligustroms, then stole the ball and passed it off to my teammate the roof who passed it right back to me for the fast break, and swish! Every afternoon Daddy drove up in his Texaco truck and became my foul shot rebounder until Mama yelled, “supper’s ready.”
Mt. Carmel vs. Welsh, Rapides Coliseum, State Finals 1974 and a technical was called. We cleared the court and Mama said, “Get out there,” and I was back on the driveway with hundreds of the best fans ever screaming instead of neighbors blowing their horns.
Five bounces, left Converse planted, right Converse one step back, a perfect follow-through, swish! I looked up in the stands and spotted my free-throw rebounder with a look that only a proud Daddy could have, and Sister Immaculata running out from underneath the bleachers clinging to her Rosary. We won the State Championship that night by one point, but that’s not the crux of this story. Dear Basketball reminded me … of me. We all start out the same. “The 21 Days of Indispensable Qualities of a Leader” says “Passion is the first step to achievement and it makes the impossible possible. “
When I pass by 103 Stockstill I look for traces of us and there are none. The goal is gone, the ligustroms are a version of their former selves, and the roof looks tired.
There is no Texaco truck, there is no Daddy, there is no Mama calling us to eat, and there is no me. Even a good memory can sometimes sting. Dear Basketball, thank you, and what would I have done without you?
PHYLLIS BELANGER MATA was born at the old Dauterive Hospital and grew up on Wayne Street. She is a 1974 graduate of Mt. Carmel Academy and is a chili dog “without the wiener” aficionado.