I love this gameTitle: Bounce
Author: Jeanie Chung
Category: Fiction

A leather ball, pebbly-skinned like an orange and the same color too, sits packed away until someone buys it, immobile. What a shame, because all the ball wants to do is move and bounce.

Bouncebouncebouncebouncebounce. Bounce and fly, maybe bounce and roll sometimes, but mostly just bounce.

A child, in this case a boy, around nine or ten, walks into the store with his proud parents and a little sister. Wants a ball. Picks this kind because his coach says it’s the best.

“But it ain’t what Andre and them have at the playground,” the boy had argued.

“That’s an outdoor ball. You want one for the gym,” the coach said, then sniffed, “Andre and them. You best not do anything Andre and them do. Don’t even get the same kind of basketball.”

The boy takes each one off the shelf, looks it over and over, like a jeweler examining a diamond for flaws. Pokes it, squeezes the third of it that isn’t walled off by cardboard.

“Just pick one,” his sister whines. “They all the same.” But he knows they’re not. He needs to find The One. When he’s older, he’ll realize he might’ve spent more time deciding on a basketball than on a wife. But for now, he tells his family and the store clerk that he’ll be back tomorrow. He has to think about it. He walks out of the store dribbling an imaginary basketball: bounce, bounce bounce.

The next day, he asks the clerk if he can take the balls out of the boxes. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to the clerk. The boxes have the security strip in them. What could stop him from stealing one? He has better things to do than watch this kid.

“Please,” the dad says. “I’ll put a deposit down, or something. And we’ll help you put the others back.”

The clerk gives up, lets the boy dribble ten basketballs, one by one, up and down the aisles. Something about the kid and the dad tells him they won’t walk off. Just please, be careful with the boxes, he says. After the boy leaves, the clerk will reassemble nine of them and put the balls back in. He walks back to his register hearing: bounce. Bounce bounce. Bounce-bounce, bounce-bounce. Bounce – bouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebounce.

An hour later, the boy and the dad walk up to pay for the ball. Everybody smiling, even the basketball, the clerk swears.

The next day, the boy takes the ball to the park district gym. He doesn’t walk down the street dribbling it. Oh, no. This ball won’t touch concrete until it’s much older, a little more worn. Coach told him it was an indoor ball and that’s what it’s going to be. However, he does dribble it all over the house: the living room, his bedroom, the kitchen during dinner. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce, bounce, bounce.

The boy picks up the ball and holds it up to his face, almost like he’s going to kiss it. Instead, he says, “Today we gon’ learn the crossover.”

Of course. What else would a young boy and his ball be doing in Chicago, home of the great Tim Hardaway? Dwyane Wade, who’s in college now, he’s a Chicago boy. Whether you’re talking about the playground or the NBA, you gotta have a killer crossover move.

First, the boy starts dribbling the ball low to the ground. Keep it down by your knees, one of the older kids tells him. Start out slow. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Then faster: bounce, bounce, bouncebounce, bouncebouncebouncebouncebounce – oops. Start over: bounce, bounce, bounce, bouncebbbbbbbbbbbbbounce.

Now, while dribbling, bounce the ball over to the other hand and keep dribbling. Bounce, bounce, bounce, switch, bounce, bounce, bouncebounce. Back again: bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, switch, bounce, bouncebounce. Boun-oops. Off the foot. Runrunrun to get the ball, back to where you started. Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, switch. Bounce-switch, bounce-switch, bounce-switch, bounce-switch.

“Look at me,” the boy says to the ball. “I’m Tim Hardaway. Look at us.” And he starts narrating his moves sportscaster-style, the way kids do.

“He faked that guy right outta his socks! And now he got the whole lane open. He drives to the hoop for twoooooooo!”

The older boy comes back over and laughs. Please, he says. You standing still. You gotta learn to do it while you’re moving. So he starts again: bounce, bounce, bounce, switch. Now, the older boy says, step one foot in front of the other, like you’re walking. Your legs and the ground make a triangle. Bounce the ball right through it to your other hand. Boun-oops. The boy hits his leg. “Keep working,” the older boy says. Boun-oops. Boun-oops. Bounce. Ba-oops. Shit. The boy looks around to make sure nobody heard him cuss. Bounce. Bounce. Oops. Again. And again. And after a while – not as long as you might think, because this kid is a quick learner with a basketball, but longer and with more patience than he or any kid would show for anything else – bounce, bounce, bounce, through the legs, bounce, bounce, bounce, through the legs, and off he goes.

Now it’s not such a big leap to get to walking and crossing over. Step (bounce), step (bounce), through the legs, step (bounce), step (bounce), step (bounce). Then running: step, step, step (bounce, bounce, bounce), slow down slightly, through the legs, step (bounce), step (bounce). The older boys are impressed, but not surprised. They could tell this one had something going on.

Now, they tell him, you gotta learn how to use it. You get your man leaning one way, then bam! You cut back the other way and you’re wide open. The boy knows. He’s seen it countless times on TV, at the playground, at the high school games. It looks easy.

“Come on,” another older boy says. “Try it on me.” He does everything he’s been taught to do, but when the boy cuts back, there’s the defender right in front of him, laughing.

“That,” he said, “was the worst fake I ever seen. You can’t be movin’ your head all around, makin’ it so obvious. Watch me.”

The older boy dribbles the ball just in front of the young boy’s right hand. He looks a little careless with it. In fact, if he’s quick, the young boy can just reach out and –

“Boo-ya!” The older boy stands up, grinning and dribbling the ball with his other hand. “See? Like that. You gotta be quick. Like this.” Now he’s just showing off, dribbling the ball from one hand to the other so that everything’s a blur. It reminds the young boy of the time his mother took him and his sister downtown on her day off to see the Christmas windows at Field’s. On the train that day had been a man in a knit cap and checkered coat, trying to make people find a pea under one of three bottle caps. He shuffled the tiny pieces around on a piece of cardboard, hands moving so quickly and yet never losing a piece or letting anyone see where the pea ended up. His mother said those people were not much better than panhandlers, but the boy could’ve watched it all day. He thought that’s what the people were paying for: the show. He would’ve paid for it if he had money.

He thinks about that man and the show while he practices, and in the end, for him, again, the crossover and fake aren’t exactly easy, but they’re not that hard. They come pretty naturally after some practice. Dribble up, meet his man. Stop for a second, bounce, bounce, get him leaning, then bam. He’s gone. Wide open. Stop, pop, swish. Then, bounce. Bounce. Bounce-switch, bounce-switch, bounce-switch.

* * *

They used to go in a sort of numerical order. The point guard was 11, then 21, 31, 41, and the center was 51. But then people started wanting to wear the year they were born or their street address or the number of somebody who played football or baseball, or the number of times they’d seen “Scarface” or whatever, and that system all went to hell. Depending on the team, you don’t even have true twos or threes or fives anymore anyway. If your point is 6-5 and can dunk, so much the better for you. If you don’t have any fours or fives, or even threes, then that’s harder. But you got to learn to work with what you have. If you’re too big and slow? Get the ball inside and let the big guys just knock everybody down. Too short and skinny? Run like hell and get down the floor before the other guys do. Work that ball.

* * *

Remember that one gym, had a big, brown burnt-looking spot about the size of a tire? Looked like someone had stubbed out a giant cigarette on the gym floor. Nobody cared; it wasn’t like it was inbounds or anything. Because once the game started, all the gyms were the same. Ninety-four feet from baseline to baseline. Sixteen and a half feet from the baseline to the free throw line. Twenty-four feet for the three-point line. Lines, nets, hoops, lights. Nothing else mattered. Hell, on the playground you didn’t even need nets or lights. For a while, they had to play games without any fans. The school officials were tired of breaking up fights. OK, that mattered a little. Anyone feeds off a crowd. But it didn’t matter that much. The sounds that mattered were the whistle, the domp, domp, domp of the ball hitting the floor, the squeak of rubber soles on wood court, the smack of ball on skin when you caught the pass. Sometimes, someone calling out a play or reading the defense, coming over to help. Sometimes, wide open out on the wing, calling for the ball. That was important, but not as important as the bounce. And the swish. Always the swish. OK, sometimes, the chunk-swish after the ball hit the rim, or the thop-swish if it went off the backboard, or the chunk-slap-swish on a tip-in. Still. The swish. The best sound you ever heard.

It didn’t really have a taste. Sweat, maybe. Blood, for a short time before they’d bandage you up. Didn’t want anybody catching AIDS. Don’t try to say it tasted like victory, or competition, or adrenaline, or shit like that. Truth is, you had too much else to do to think about what it tasted like.

There were no smells when you started, but soon, once everything was warmed up. Again, sweat. The new sweat from this game and the sweat from every other game that had been played in that gym. Leather -- the ball and the shoes. Sometimes you swore you could smell the rope in the net if they’d just replaced it. Floor wax. And as the gym and the people warmed up, everything smelled a little more.

Because yeah, it was hot. Even in an unheated gym in February, where your muscles were all creaking and stiff until they started to loosen up. They loosened up, but everything else was still hard. Hard, not just as in difficult, but hard surfaces hitting everywhere: feet on floor, ball on floor, ball on skin, body on body. The shirt, if you were wearing one, was soft, but you didn’t care about your shirt until someone grabbed it. That was the crucial trick: to take all of that knocking around and make it soft. Dance down the floor with the ball, so that only you could make it do what you wanted it to do. Zip that pass right into your teammate’s hands soft as putting a baby bird back in the nest. Float that shot up there and just let it drop through the hoop. See? Not hard at all.

Feel. Touch. Those are the absolute most important parts of the game. You’ve seen the people who can shoot free throws blindfolded, right? That’s touch. Nobody’s saying the game is better if you can’t see and hear. But without touch, there’s nothing.

* * *
They come out on the floor, shake hands. The crowd roars, and if there are cheerleaders they cheer and sometimes there’s music pumping too. If it’s a big game the TV cameras switch on and the players call out their defensive assignments and stand by their men and the big men come to the center circle, swaggering just enough to intimidate if they’re lucky, eyeing each other in an attempt to psych the other one out, and they step one foot back and everyone’s eyes go up toward the ceiling as the referee puts up the opening tip. Game time.

Jeanie Chung is a former sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times. This story is part of a collection in progress based on her years covering high school and college basketball. Her fiction has also appeared in upstreet, Madison Review, Hunger Mountain and Timber Creek Review. Her author interviews have appeared in Writer's Chronicle and Rain Taxi online.