The game we played

My father and I both knew what was really going on when I got him to shoot hoops. It wasn’t really about basketball – it was about the connection.

Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press/Newscom
A young participant in a summer basketball clinic in Florida plays on an outdoor court.

My mother always said that my father could fix anything except a broken heart. She may have misjudged.

Born in Texas at the start of the Great Depression with a deformed right arm he couldn’t raise past his ear, my father compensated for his inability to play games or go to war by channeling his immense energy into building houses and repairing things. As you can imagine, he wasn’t thrilled when I became obsessed with sports involving balls. I often had to walk 5 miles to Little League when I was 12. And in the dozens of football games I played in high school, my father attended just one.

The lone exception to my father’s aversion to sports was that, sometimes, I could get him to play the basketball shooting game of H-O-R-S-E. I wasn’t much of a basketball player. But on our lopsided goal, which was 3 inches low and sloped slightly south, I was unstoppable. I could sink the most amazing turnaround jumpers from 18 feet away. My father, with only one good arm, had just one decent shot in his arsenal: a long winding left hook that would either bank in with great authority, or sail into my mother’s petunias. I could beat my father at will (and in just five shots) if I took five fadeaway jumpers from the south side of the rim. But I loved playing with him so much that I’d con my father into another game, and another, by allowing him to keep the games close. 

“You have to win by two letters,” I would claim the moment he edged ahead.

“This game might never end,” he would groan as I knotted the score. “Maybe not,” I would laugh. Then I’d clank an ill-advised runner off the north side of the rim, which would lead my father to accuse me of throwing the game – to which I’d respond with a shrug. 

Sometimes I did lose on purpose. Those times, before my father could return to his work, I would quickly shout, “Rematch!” Only by missing on purpose – and so risking defeat – could I force my father to take the breaks I was sure he needed. Occasionally I’d make wagers I knew he wouldn’t refuse: “I’ll clean out the barn if you win”; “I’ll split a cord of wood”; “I won’t ask you to play again for a year.” Only by offering such enticements could I fool my father into believing I was a man of honor and, somewhat dishonorably, lure him into my trap. And if my father lost? Well, he would simply have to play one more game with his son.

In these ways, our private series continued for weeks, months, and years. Our battles were living things, ever evolving. These contests went on much longer than my father likely anticipated or claimed he wished to play. Though he would never admit it, I know he enjoyed these interruptions from his toil and worry. My parents were under constant financial strain for most of my childhood, often on the brink of foreclosure. Their late-night conversations seeped through my bedroom wall, carrying sadness and stress. But my father seemed to forget his troubles for a time while we shot hoops on our farm in the middle of nowhere – even after my mother had called us a third time for dinner, even after it was too dark to see.

A quarter century after my father’s death and the sale of that farm, we are out there still, on land I am forever to own in my mind. In my midlife memory, my father and I rattle the most beautiful baskets while I am gifted with not only pained grimaces, but also a fair amount of sly grinning that accompanies the willingness of a one-armed man to be duped.

And despite my late mother’s claim, it’s this memory of my father that fixes me now. 

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