Odd Job: Professional Basketball Player
Posted November 21st, 2018
Every week between now and November 28th, I will post another section from my book Odd Jobs. Since my last excerpt, I had picked up a job at an afterschool program. I was several months into my time there and nearing the end of the school year when I got my chance to become a professional basketball player.
You can read chapter one of the book here.
Odd Job #12:
Professional Basketball Player
How I found the gig: Recruited by the gym teacher
Time worked: A little under 30 minutes
I don’t even know what the kids and I were working on. With a month left in the school year, we were hardly trying with our teacher-led activities anymore. But whatever it was paused for a moment when the gym teacher came bursting into our classroom. She was desperate for people to fill out the staff side in the student-faculty basketball game. I glanced at the other teacher I worked with, giving a look that said, “Can I?”
My fellow instructor smiled back. She was just as checked-out as I was. “Let’s all take a field trip to the gym to watch Jonathan play in the basketball game!” she announced, and the kids cheered. They hopped to their feet and formed a line. As I walked out of the room to change into gym shorts, a thought crossed my mind. I was still getting paid for this hour of participating in the game. That meant I was about to become a professional basketball player.
Aside from the technicality of getting paid and having the objective of putting a bouncy ball through a hoop, there was little about the faculty team that resembled a professional basketball squad. Mr. Milton, the chemistry teacher, was already gasping for breath from the pregame practice shots. And Mr. Reagan, from the English department, 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 player under 30, and perhaps the only one who had exercised all year.
While our team left something to be desired, the game was clearly ours to lose. Lined up across from us was the eighth-grade varsity girls’ basketball team that would be our first opponent of the day (our second would be the boys’ team in a game immediately following this one). And while the girls 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 clear those advantages paled in comparison to the fact that we were twice their size.
As I glanced back and forth between our team and theirs, I wondered how we planned to make sure we didn’t humiliate our opponents in front of their peers. Were we going to duck whenever they shot? Score on the wrong basket? Intentionally pass to them?
But before we could discuss any such plans, the game was beginning, and a 13-year-old girl with pigtails was dribbling up the court and calling out a play. Her teammates ran with military precision to pre-assigned spots, and she zipped a pass to the open player who took a step-back jumper. And in that moment, it occurred to me that we were up against a group that had spent the entire year practicing and playing together, and maybe we weren’t going to waltz in here and annihila–
WHAM!! The French teacher leaped into the air and unleashed a thunderous, Dwight-Howard-like block, drilling 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 a team of middle-school girls?” had been answered with authority: We wouldn’t.
I checked to see if my colleague who made the initial block, and did everything but give the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag afterward, felt any contrition. But he was smiling from ear to ear. Meanwhile, the one who had completed the play was doling out high fives to the kids in the crowd. We weren’t going to beat the girls, we were going to embarrass them. I glanced at the student spectators who roared their approval like bloodthirsty fans at a gladiatorial match as the staff soaked in the adoration. For the faculty, this was their Super Bowl.
The thing was, none of us were all that good at basketball. We simply carried ourselves like we were. The next ten minutes were 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 meant 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 several feet beyond the three-point line, then held his follow-through triumphantly, only to see the ball fall half a foot short of the basket. No-look passes sailed out of bounds and between-the-leg dribbles clunked off of thighs.
Still, 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, when you think about it, tells the whole story. That we gave up only two points in a ten-minute game tells you that we showed no mercy. And that we scored only eight times in those ten minutes of showing no mercy tells the rest.
As the buzz of winning wore off, you could see the grind of the game taking its toll. My teammates were leaning over and panting heavily. The aches were settling in.
“Okay!” the gym teacher shouted. “We’re going right into game two.”
Oh, no! Game two! My head spun around as the boys’ team marched onto the court. They were spry and cocky. Chomping at the bit, eager for a chance to humiliate their professorial overlords. I looked back at my teammates who, in their minds, were already busy scheduling post-game appointments with their orthopedists. Suddenly, playing all-out for the last ten minutes wasn’t only poor sportsmanship. It was poor planning.
The next game moved faster than the first. The boys flew across the court, made hard, dirty fouls, and strutted after every basket. We pulled heavily from our first-game strategy, particularly the “be a lot taller than them” play. But the results weren’t as impressive.
With six minutes left, we were trailing and fading fast. A fitting comeuppance for the display we put on in game one. But it turned out we had one lower level to stoop to.
The call went out to our bench, and in came a sub who had only recently shown up. He was 25 and had certain things the rest of us lacked. Things like biceps, a functioning cardiovascular system, and talent. And no one seemed to be mentioning the elephant in the room: I had never seen this guy at our school. I think he was dating one of the younger staff members.
We had brought a ringer to a student-faculty basketball game.
Without even warming up, our new teammate started doing his best Bugs Bunny impression. Covering every player on the court and making insane shots look easy. With his help, we hung on for a 16-15 victory, narrowly avoiding the defeat we so badly deserved.
When it was over, we limped off the court and back to our classrooms. It was 3:30. There were still two hours left in the afterschool program’s day, and we had to get back to teaching our kids the proper way to behave.
 With afterschool teaching paying $16.25 per hour, and me playing a little under 30 minutes, the yield for my professional basketball career came to $8. Not a lot, but still more than any scouts would have predicted I’d make if they had seen me in high school gym class.