It was one minute to game time and my heart was racing. My hands shook and my stomach turned. I hadn’t felt this nervous in years. I was moments away from a showdown with the eighth-grade girls basketball team.
Five minutes ago, it was just another day in the after-school program where I work with elementary school kids three days a week. We were making popsicle-stick pilgrims or whatever the hell it is we do, when the gym teacher came bursting in, desperate to fill out the teachers’ side in a student-faculty basketball game. While I was not part of the daytime faculty, and we were playing against the middle school that was attached to our elementary school building, the gym teacher was desperate for bodies and wasn’t going to split hairs. So now here I stood, in front of the entire student body and all my co-workers, praying I wouldn’t be the guy who missed every shot he took against a bunch of 14-year-old girls.
Our team was hardly the ’96 Bulls. Mr. Milton, the chemistry teacher, was already gasping for breath just from the pregame practice shots. And Mr. Reagan, the English teacher, had braces on both his knees and a third one on his shin– a place I didn’t even know people put braces. At 27, I was the only guy under 30, and perhaps the only one who had worked out this year.
But while we left something to be desired, the game was clearly ours to lose. Lined up across from us was the varsity girls basketball team. And while they were probably better at pure basketball fundamentals like shooting, dribbling, and being able to run the length of the floor without needing a hit from an oxygen tank, it was pretty clear that all that paled in comparison to the fact that we were twice their size.
And as I glanced back and forth between our team and theirs, a second fear started to emerge, just as strong as my concern about humiliating myself in front of the kids I taught. How were we going to make sure that we didn’t humiliate them in front of their peers? Were we going to duck whenever they shot? Score on the wrong basket? Intentionally pass to the other team?
Before I could voice any of these questions, a girl with pigtails was dribbling up the court and calling out the game’s first play. Her teammates ran with military precision to preassigned spots, and she zipped a pass to the open player who dropped back and took the shot. It occurred to me that these girls, though smaller than us, had spent all year practicing together and maybe we weren’t going to waltz in here and annihila–
WHAM!! The French teacher leaped to the sky and unleashed a thunderous, Dwight-Howard-like block, swatting the ball halfway across the gym. Another teacher blitzed down the court, picked up the loose ball and completed the easy layup. The answer to the question, “How would we go easy on this team of 14-year-old girls?” had been answered definitively. We wouldn’t.
I checked to see if the teacher who made the initial block, and did everything but give the Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag afterward, felt any contrition. But he was smiling from ear to ear. Meanwhile, the teacher who had completed the play was doling out high fives to the kids in the crowd. We weren’t just going to destroy the other team, we were going to embarass them.
The thing was, none of us were all that good at basketball. We just carried ourselves like we were. The next ten minutes was a rarely-seen combination of showboating and ineptitude.
One teacher tossed the ball off the backboard to himself, apparently intending to catch it in mid-air and slam home a dunk. Which I guess means he got so lost in the moment that he forgot about his bad knee. He leaped about three inches off the ground as the ball sailed back over his head. Another teed up a shot from about five feet beyond the three-point line, then held his follow-through triumphantly, only to see the ball fall about four inches short of the basket. No-look passes sailed out of bounds and between-the-leg dribbles clunked off of thighs.
But all the while, we fought hard for rebounds, swarmed on defense, and hunted down every loose ball. As the game clock ticked down, the scoreboard read 16-2, which, if you think about it, says so very much. That we gave up two points in ten minutes tells you that we played our asses off and showed no mercy to a team of eighth-grade girls. And that we scored eight times in ten minutes of playing our asses off and showing no mercy against a team of eighth-grade girls tells the rest.
I glanced at the student spectators who cheered us on like bloodthirsty fans at a gladiatorial match as the staff soaked in the adoration. For the faculty, this was their Super Bowl.
As the buzz of winning wore off, you could see the grind of the game taking its toll. Guys put their hands on their thighs and panted heavily. The inevitable aches settled in.
“Okay!” The gym teacher shouted. “We’re gonna go right into game two.”
Game two?! My head spun around as onto the court marched our next opponent. The boys team. They were spry and cocky. Chomping at the bit, eager for a chance to humiliate the teachers who spent all day telling them what to do. I looked back at my teammates who, in their minds, were already busy scheduling an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to help recover from the game. Suddenly, playing all out for the last ten minutes wasn’t just poor sportsmanship. It was poor planning.
The next game seemed to move faster than the first one. The boys flew across the court, made hard, dirty fouls, and strutted after every made shot. We pulled heavily from our first-game strategy of “Be a lot taller than them,” but with poorer results.
With six minutes left, we were trailing and fading fast. That’s when we went to the bench and brought in a substitute who had only just shown up. He was 25 and carried himself like he belonged on a basketball court. He had certain things that the rest of us lacked. Things like biceps, a functioning cardiovascular system, and a jumpshot. And no one seemed to be mentioning the obvious elephant in the room: I had never seen this guy work for even a day at our school. I believe he was one of the younger teachers’ boyfriends. We had somehow found a way to stoop even lower. We had brought in a ringer to a student-faculty basketball game.
Without even warming up, our new teammate started doing his best Lebron James impression. Defending everyone on the court, corralling rebounds, and taking the ball to the rack. With his help, we hung on to a 16-15 victory, narrowly avoiding the loss we so badly deserved.
We limped off the court, heading back to our classrooms. It was 3:30. There were still two hours left in the after-school program’s day and we had to get back to our job of teaching the kids how to be good, responsible people.
Odd Job: Participating in the student-faculty basketball game
Pay: When you consider my hourly rate and how long we were on the court, probably about $12
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. Like, really hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.