Two of the things that are so great about the game of basketball is it is one of the cheapest sports to play, and you don’t need others to play it. All you really need is a goal to shoot on (preferably standing at the regulation height of ten feet) and a ball (preferably a 7-9 lb bouncing ball). This is probably why the sport is one of the biggest draws to underprivileged urban kids. Playing basketball with the hopes of making it to the big time is almost as good if not better than playing the lottery. At least with basketball you can put some hard work in to increase your chances.
It wasn’t all about the money for me, but I can’t say it didn’t play a part. I could escape from just about everything on the basketball court, but the emotional depression of being poor always seeped into the back of my mind. Perhaps it was my growling stomach chiming in during a game, reminding me that when I finished playing for the day, I’d undoubtedly go to bed pretty hungry, unless I wanted to put some added time into heating the welfare peanut butter in a pan so it would spread without tearing a hole in the bread. Perhaps it was the ghetto-fabulous backboard I had, reminding me that we didn’t even have enough money to get a real fiberglass backboard.
Shoes was the biggest reminder. I remember when the Jordan shoe craze took us all by storm in the 1980’s. A pair of Jordans cost more than our electric bill, and we could barely afford that each month. Ironically, I could believe that I would make it to the NBA easier than I could believe I’d get me a pair of Jordans. My parents could never afford to get me a good pair of shoes. I recall the first time I got a pair of name brand shoes. It was a pair of Asics. My dad wanted to get me a pair of wrestling shoes since the rest of the wrestling team had a pair.It was the first time we spent $30 on a pair of shoes! Unfortunately, my regular shoes were on their last leg. When they were rendered useless, those Asics turned into more than just wrestling shoes. I wore than for most of the year: in school, in gym class, and even on the basketball court at home. At least they were high tops. I could get over not having fancy pants or nice shirts, but not having the proper shoes to play basketball was just terrible.
There was another time when my mother brought me back a pair of shoes from a garage sale down the street. She probably paid a dollar or two, and she was just so thrilled at the bargain she received. I think she assumed that I would be super excited about them. I guess I kind of was at first. the shoes that I was wearing had holes on the bottom, so I was definitely in need of a new pair that wouldn’t dampen my socks when it rained outside. Have you ever had to figure out a way to get around every puddle of water during a rainstorm? Not fun! Anyway, I didn’t have a problem lacing those shoes up, until the jokes started rolling in. The brand name was called Jox. They looked like a properly engineered shoe. They were blue, which was a favorite color of mine. I was just happy to not have holes at the bottom of my shoes to worry about anymore, until one joke changed my mind about wearing them ever again. Someone said, “Hey Markie…get off my jox!” A group of friends labored in laughter for about 5 -10 minutes, repeating that line over and over and over again. Yep…those shoes found the back of my closet and never returned. I opted to wear shoes with holes instead!
Being poor is one heck of an obstacle when you are facing the peer pressures of your school peers to be cool. It’s virtually impossible to be cool in public schools when you’re broke. I have no doubts that my parents would have bought me anything I wanted if they had the money. Unfortunately, this was our reality. I had to find a way to cope with it, so I tried to outsmart the system. I started taking notes about which pants and shirt I wore during the week. I was trying to play mind games with people so they wouldn’t figure out that I had 2 pairs of pants and a couple of shirts to my name. I switched jeans every day, and I tried to wear one shirt with one pair, and then alternate back to that shirt by the end of the week. Then I started worrying about wearing the same shirt every Friday, so I tried to mix that up. My goodness…it’s emotionally draining just to reflect back on those days. No matter how hard I tried, I still ended up getting made fun of. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
That’s why getting to school was so problematic for me. I didn’t want to be laughed at. I started missing 20-30 days each semester. There was a running joke that I was the king of snow days in May! I turned skipping school into an art form. I was obviously smart. the brainpower that I put into skipping school without making my parents mad should have been redirected towards my studies. We only had one car, so if I missed the bus, there was no way to get me to school. I made up all sorts of excuses for missing the bus. I’d purposefully leave a book home so that I would miss the bus while I went back home to get it. I’d purposefully set my alarm for PM instead of AM so it wouldn’t go off, and sometimes I’d sneak into my parent’s room and switch their clock time so they wouldn’t wake up on time either. One of my favorites was pouring clumps of my mother’s dark mascara into the toilet, sticking a finger down my throat to gag, and faking like I had a 24-hour bug. It definitely looked like throw-up. I’m laughing even while writing this. Boy was I clever.
I try my best, even today, not to make excuses or transfer blame and responsibility for my own actions, but being the butt of so many jokes really discouraged my academic ambitions. Sure, basketball had become my primary focus, and I should have been more responsible early on with my educational development. I just felt like despite what my grades showed, I knew I was smart, and I wasn’t convinced that getting an A or a B guaranteed anything for a kid growing up like I did. I do know one thing: going from an Honor roll student that received the Presidential Award for Academics signed by President Ronald Reagan to getting C’s and D’s rocked my parent’s world. They couldn’t understand it at all. Needing a scapegoat, they blamed it on the game of basketball. To them, this game ws going to be my permanent demise.