I'd like to open this post by telling you about the Warrior Dash. It's basically a 5K with obstacles like barbed wire, mud pits, rope walls and freaking fire. It is without question the manliest thing I've ever done. I actually grew a second pair of balls by the time I dragged myself across the finish line...and it can do the same for you. For our female readers, don't worry: You'll merely grow some extra ovaries.
Anyway, welcome to this year's summer series The Pickup Diaries. Written in the spirit of Livin' Large, this series will serve as the memoirs of my "career" as a pickup basketball player. Hopefully, this will provide you with a little entertainment while you're waiting for the next NBA season to start up.
As of the summer of 2010, my pickup basketball career has spanned 20 years, or seasons, or whatever you want to call them. Of course, based on how my teenage years began, my career almost ended up being zero seasons.
You see, here's the thing: I was fat and sucked at basketball.
When I was three years old, my mom was in a bad car accident. During the following year, she had several surgeries, but her main problem -- severe nerve damage in her neck and arms -- would never heal and could not be corrected. That was bad, because my mom was a manual laborer at a local car factory. And now she couldn't do that work...or any other work for that matter. As a result, she spent the next seven-plus years on disability.
That was a rough seven-plus years. My mom was a single parent with two kids and no support from either father. Suddenly, her yearly income was one-third of what it had been and, on top of that, she had a Shaq-sized pile of medical debt. And of course I'm talking about the post-2001 Shaq, alternately known as "Fat Shaq," "Shaq Albert" and "The Shambling Pork Beast." As you can imagine, this presented our little family unit with a lot of problems, not the least of which was food. Specifically, the lack thereof.
This is how it worked. My mom got paid only once a month, around the first of the month. Usually, buying groceries was the first thing she did. For the first week, we ate really well. During the second week, we nommed on the leftovers from the first week. Weeks three and four were...bad. By the end of the month, we had almost nothing to eat. I used to get by on mustard sandwiches. That's exactly what it sounds like, by the way: Two pieces of (usually semi-to-mostly stale) bread with nothing but mustard between them.
If you do the relatively simple math, I spent about half of my childhood either hungry or nearly starving. And my mom and sister were right there with me.
Occasionally, my mom would try to supplement our diet with offerings from the local Rescue Mission. Hell, we even stood in line for a few hours to get a two large blocks of that horrific government cheese that was being handed out during the Reagan administration. (Speaking of which: Fuck you, Ronald Reagan. That shit sucked.) But my mom was a very proud woman, and, more often than not, her pride prevented her from accepting food stamps or standing in food lines with the rest of Kokomo's needy.
She never wanted to admit just how needy we were.
At the end of that seven-plus year period, my mom finally made it back to work. This was due in part to the fact that she had finally adjusted to the constant pain of her physical condition, but also because the UAW had gotten her company, Delco Electronics, to agree to a series of physical restrictions for partially disabled employees. Basically, Delco could no longer discriminate against workers who couldn't lift and move objects beyond their physical capacity.
A steady paycheck didn't make out mountains of debt disappear in the blink of an eye, but my mom could afford food again. Not just for one or two weeks, but every week of every month of the year. Unfortunately, all those years of being deprived one of life's most basic necessities had a nasty effect on my mom's outlook on food. No matter how much food she bought, she always felt like we were still on the brink of starvation. Every time she walked into a grocery store, she shopped like our cupboards were bare.
She's still like that to this day. I had to move her to a new apartment a few years ago, and she had (for example) three gallons of milk, 21 jars of pickles, 172 cans of soup, and 68 boxes of JELL-O. Yes, I counted. No, I am not making this up. Mind you, she was living alone at this point. I asked her what one person could possibly need with 68 boxes of JELL-O. She said: "You just never know." I took her shopping a few weeks later and she tried to buy four more boxes.
Sometimes, life can really screw with your mind.
Anyway, I was hitting full-blown puberty around the time my mom went back to work. I was a skinny little runt, which is about what you'd expect of a kid who was living off bread and water half the time. But now, suddenly, food was coming at me from everywhere. Fatty, high calorie food. (Science hadn't discovered nutrition yet.) And I ate it. I ate everything in front of me. I asked for more. I ate well beyond what my hunger necessitated. Now that I could eat however much I wanted, that's exactly what I did. I literally couldn't help myself.
My metabolism -- metabolism being something else science hadn't discovered yet -- couldn't handle the extreme change in my caloric intake. Not surprisingly, I started gaining weight. Within a year, I had gone from skinny to pudgy. Within two years, I was very pudgy. Three years later, I was a hadn't quite reached the "human beanbag" stage, but I was a fatty. And you know how some people can be overweight but they're also just big, solid people? Like, you can tell there's significant muscle under all those extra pounds? Yeah, well, that wasn't me. I had always had been slender and long-limbed. For most of my life, I had been skin and bones...more bones than skin. Now I had some serious extra flesh wrapped around those bones.
Extreme weight gain over a relatively short period of time didn't exactly do wonders for my physical abilities. Mind you, I had spent about six years playing P.A.L. soccer. Now, I was the dreated Last Guy Picked For Anything in Gym Class. I was bad at almost everything. I was that kid who couldn't do a chin-up, or climb that damn rope that ran to the ceiling fo the gymnasium. I remember failing a really easy running test. I remember someone flicking one of my man boobs during a swimming lesson. It was humiliating, and so I began to avoid sports, or anything else that required physical exertion.
This, of course, didn't help my condition.
By my sophomore year, I was still a walking sausage, but my life changed course one day when I was waiting for my Driver's Ed class to start. I think nearly every high school has one or a small handful students who are universally regarded as the absolute bottom of the social ladder. You know...The Losers. Everybody, no matter how fat or ugly or whatever can make fun of The Losers because, well, just because. It's a high school thing.
Anyway, I happened to be standing next to Mark M., who was one of The Losers of my school. I wasn't talking to him -- I doubt I even knew he was there, being of a (only slightly) higher social caste -- when, unprompted, he turned to me and said: "You're a real fatass."
I was stunned. Not only had I just been blasted for no reason whatsoever by one of The Losers, but he was right. I was a fatass. I was completely disarmed. I had no comeback. He was right.
That afternoon, I went straight home, stomped up to my mom and said: "I need a weight set."
This wasn't the first time I had shown a sudden, passionate interest in exercise. However, because that interest had never sustained itself past the "sudden, passionate expression of interest" stage, my mom was more than a wee bit skeptical. She said: "Are you sure? Will you really use it."
At this point, my determination was absolute. "Yes," I said. And I damn well meant it.
We went to the local Service Merchandise and bought a 125-pound weight set. Service Merchandise worked like this: You bought what you wanted in the store and then drove your car around back to pick it up at the end of this long conveyor belt. The weight set was packaged in a large cardboard box. When it reached my end of the conveyor belt, I tried to pick it up...and couldn't. I tugged with all my might but couldn't budge it. Soon, a man came out of the warehouse and casually picked the box up then dropped it into the trunk of my mom's car. I felt like such a weakling.
At home, I still couldn't pick up the box. I had to open it in the trunk and carry the weight set into the house weight-by-weight.
I went from binging on food to binging on workouts. I lifted weights. I ran up and down the hill in my backyard. I did three aerobics shows every day: "Getting Fit" with Denise Austin -- yes, I'm man enough to admit I once worked out to Denise freaking Austin -- "Bodies in Motion" with Gilad Janklowicz, and "Basic Training" with Gilad's sister, Ada. The funny part? All three of these programs were broadcast back-to-back-to-back on ESPN. I'm being completely serious. It's hard to imagine that now, right? Kind of hard to fit in aerobics shows on ESPN these days. You'd have to make room between mock drafts and people screaming at each other about when Brett Favre is going to retire or whether Kobe Bryant is now the Greatest Laker Ever...and that's not going to happen.
I also returned to starvation mode, this time by choice. Some days I might eat nothing but one piece of bread with a little peanut butter on it. Other days I only ate a doughnut. It was a terrible diet for a growing teenager, but my obsession with losing weight quickly reached "borderline eating disorder" mode.
The school year ended and I kept pushing harder. By the end of June, I had lost almost 70 pounds. The old, skinny me was back, only now I had some actual muscle tone to go along with it. Not as much as I should have, maybe, because doughnuts didn't pack a lot of protein.
One Saturday evening around the end of June, I was hanging out with my friend Gauvin. We were chilling in his backyard -- which, like many homes in Indiana, was equipped with a rickety basketball goal -- listening to my latest discovery: Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani. While Gauvin was rewinding and replaying the tape over and over and over again, I picked up an old, half-flat basketball and started casually shooting hoops.
I don't know exactly what happened on that lazy summer night, but basketball -- a sport I loved to watch but loathed to play -- suddenly felt right to me. I became almost obsessively fascinated with the ball flicking through the net. After making it happen once, I wanted to do it again and again. So while Gauvin was wearing a hole in my prized tape, I stood about 15 feet from his old basketball goal and attempted several hundred, maybe even a couple thousand jump shots.
I was hooked. And my new vice would, in part, define the next two decades of my life.