An Assist from an Unlikely Teammate

by Laura Didyk

Oftentimes, we find our teachers, our helpers, our guides, in the unlikeliest of people—people who help us even though it is not in their job description, people who assist us in more ways than they mean to, providing companionship as we navigate the narrow pathways from one important place in our lives to another.

From the ages of six to 15 years old, it was my gymnastics coach that fit that bill—not that unlikely a candidate. In my first two years of high school, it was my biology teacher, a Vietnam vet with a passion for helping kids deal with the rough, sometimes-cutting edges of adolescence—unlikely, but not inconceivable. When my family moved just before my junior year from the West Coast to the East, from a school seven blocks from the Pacific Ocean to the city of Baltimore, I met the person who would go down in history as the most unlikely, or unexpected rather, to make a difference in my life.

My mostly white high school in California had a mere 400 students. To get from one classroom to another, you just stepped outside into the temperate climate, traipsed through a corridor, or walked a few feet down a sidewalk under an eave. My new school was almost 1,000-students big, and, as a white girl, I was in the minority. Everything was in one old building that came with two hefty security guards who wandered the echoey halls. We were allowed to carry with us to class the textbook and binder we’d need for that period—nothing more lest we tote anything potentially dangerous in our bags. Also: no fur allowed, or gold, or brand-new Nike sneakers, in case someone greedy decided they wanted to take us down and steal our accessories, our clothes—a trend that had been burgeoning in high schools around the city. All to say, I was scared out of my mind and doing my best not to show it.

Thin and lanky, African-American, and wide-eyed, "Pops" towered at 6 feet 5 inches tall and lived in the apartment complex my family had just moved into. His front teeth consisted of really just one tooth—big and prominent—and a few others scattered about his mouth, which he opened often to let out his signature cackle. Despite his worn-out teeth, I could tell he wasn’t that old in years—much younger than either of my parents—but he’d obviously been around more blocks than I could count on both hands. I sensed this even then, because it was hard to miss, because I could see it in his eyes, because of how very at-home he seemed seated on the curb. His street age, I knew, was older than mine by multiple decades.

My first day out at the cul-de-sac, in my new, ridiculously white outfit—high-top sneakers, shorts, and a tank top—Pops was there, gangly and goofy, with a sad excuse for a basketball—so lacking in appropriate air pressure that it barely reached his knee on a dribble. Mine, however, just purchased at K-Mart, without a spot of dirt on it, bounced to chest height when I dropped it. So Pops started talking to me.

I’d never played basketball in my life. When I left California, I also left behind a 10-year career as a competitive gymnast. Over the years, I’d grown extremely attached to my coach there, so every potential coach I met in our new city was simply "not him." In the absence of training for competition, my body was demanding exertion. I needed to do something athletic and neither of the predominantly "white" sports at my high school—swimming and women’s softball—appealed to me. So I’d decided to try out for varsity basketball. First, I needed to learn how to play.

It occurred to me partway through my first conversation with Pops that it may not be the best idea: me, alone, a 15-year-old girl, talking to a man at least twice my age with approximately one tooth in his head. Even that young, however, I had a keen instinct for trouble. And I didn’t sense any here. I sensed a guy who had worked all day, and was out to shoot some hoops, saw my new basketball, and went in for the kill.

After showing me how he could palm the basketball and dunk it by jumping just a few inches off the ground, and after demonstrating some fancy dribble patterns—between his legs, behind his back, rolling the ball over the back of his hand—he finally taught me H-O-R-S-E—attempting baskets from different spots around the court. He explained how to dribble forward for a layup. He gave me some tips for making foul shots. "Close your eyes just for a second, Ms. Laura," he said, holding the basketball above his head, looking at me sideways out of his half-closed eyes to make sure I was paying attention. "And on the tips of your fingers imagine there are itty-bitty springs." He bent his knees and then his elbows, brought the ball close to his forehead, and released it. He rarely missed a shot.

When our court time became more of a routine, Pops would wait for me to arrive with the ball, and I’d have to wait for my turn while he warmed up and got in some ball-handling time. Then he’d guide me through the process with the same language he used on the first day, same turns of phrase. If I made it in, he’d run toward the basket, put a fist in the air while he retrieved the ball, like this was our championship and we were on a fast track to victory. When our paths crossed on the court, he on his way to the top of the key, me on my way to guard the basket, he’d reach his hand out to hit mine—not in a corny high-five way, but in that low casual place, by the hip, like we’d been playing together for years. Had I ever felt cooler in my life?

Pops was the closest thing I had to a friend for a good while. He was dependable, helpful, and always, always there. Sure, he talked a lot, and he sometimes hogged the ball using me as an audience to showcase his talents, but out in the cul-de-sac, he’d ask me how school went that day. Was anyone giving me trouble? No? "Well, if they do, you be sure and let me know," he’d say, " ’cuz Pops’ll go over there and give ’em somethin’!" He laughed, but I also knew he meant it. Every now and then, when he’d let me power by him to the basket, he might say, "You sure you never played before, Ms. Laura? Cuz it sure seems like it. You lying to me, ain’t you? You played at your old school. I know you did. I can tell."

I don’t know how smart Pops was on paper, but he was smart enough to see that I needed the encouragement, the attention, the friendship. He’d stay out at the hoop with me until the last of daylight left the parking lot, until the streetlights illuminated the lightning-bolt reflectors on his shoes. Then he’d stand on his stoop with his arms folded and watch as I crossed the long lot to my building, making sure I got in okay.

When I came home in tears the day of tryouts and reported that the nasty JV coach told me that "the only reason you made varsity today is because you’re in the eleventh grade, not because you’re good enough." Pops told me, straight up, what he thought. "That’s some serious bullshit, Ms. Laura," he said. "You tell him Pops says so. Shit, I should know. I made you what you are." Then he tilted his head back, let out his loud laugh, passed me the ball, and pushed me playfully toward the top of the key, but not before dropping his hand low and hitting mine, reminding me we were teammates, and that he was on my side.

Laura Didyk, MFA, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living. She has had her work published in literary magazines throughout the country, and has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

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