There was Krueger whose father had a waxed handlebar moustache with points that looked dangerous enough to hurt you. Krueger was very fat but had stick-like legs and a slender neck. Weak and clumsy as he was, he was such a bad free throw shooter he frequently missed the basket entirely. Referees found this embarrassing and would offer encouragement before handing over the basketball a second time in bonus situations.

There was Demetrius, the precocious talker with the thickly muscled thighs and conjoined eyebrows and chronic bad breath. The kind of ballplayer with an unrealistic view of his skills, he frequently attempted, in his grandiose blindness, impossible shots and passes, then berated himself in a startling, vicious way for his bricks and turnovers. His parents never attended a practice or game but his older brother was always there, was a favorite of all us kids due to his bearish good humor, and one season served as an assistant coach. I think his name might have been Theo.

There was Gephardt, a tiny, curly-haired tough guy, more than capable of cruelty, liable to bite an opposing player’s ear in a loose-ball scrum. Because he did not grow along with everyone else, Gephardt could run with unusual fluidity and perform deft feats with his small, baby-like hands; forever undersized, he retained the grace and coordination of an elementary school superstar well into his teens.

And there was Lundgren, with his frizzy black hair and downy moustache that went unshaved throughout the early 1980s. Lundgren was strong and looked like a weirdly proportioned grown man, even though at five feet one he was evidently no grownup. This look of prepubescent maturity created an uncanny, primally disturbing impression, and the sense on the outside that something wasn’t right was confirmed by how bitterly mean he was. Lundgren abused quaaludes and would attempt now and then to hand them out to innocents on the team.

Such was the roster of the Mario’s Pizza All-Stars, a bunch of kids with little that was healthy or vigorous about them, and with less that was promising in any respect, athletic or otherwise, and everyone looking pathetic in his Mario’s t-shirt yellowed after two washes and impervious to bleach.

We lost a lot of games. A whole lot. We lost to the Optimists Club, whose coaches were upwardly mobile but unreconstructed former country boys, harsh and wittily profane. They had bowl-cut brown hair and thick glasses and were always tugging at their polyester football shorts to get them up and over hardened beer guts. We lost to the brothers and the cousins, the one-family team, of the orange-shirted Civitans. They would eat the same pre-game meal of Spaghetti-Os, and their cheeks would all be blotched with the bright sauce. And we lost most of all to the Black Knights, named, perhaps, to reflect their martial attitudes when it came to schoolboy athletics. The Black Knights played an up-tempo style. Even the center could run the break. They would beat us by fifty or more.

The pizza parlor that sponsored us by paying for shirts and end-of-season self-esteem trophies was located quite a ways from our neighborhood, on a heavily trafficked street called Wilson Boulevard. The parlor stood beside a decrepit motel and was down the block from a city parking lot where buses sat in dozens of rows behind impossibly high chain link fences spiked with corkscrewing barbed wire. Evidently, no one associated with the restaurant was named Mario, but it must have sounded like good, safe marketing to the owner, an extremely overweight and cheerful-looking man with a Van Dyke beard. Those who worked behind the counter were without exception emigres from India, including a man known as “Lefty,” with beautiful and dignified ways of using the English language.

I really didn’t know it until my high-school years, but the weekday Mario’s customers were office workers who walked in from a subway development hub known as Ballston, most of them government contractors making their highly paid contributions, via new lines of software code, to weapons systems and the like. At night there were zealous eaters in sweats, drunk construction workers, and stoned college students competing for tables. A small wall-mounted television showed the same dimly lit, badly edited Mario’s promotional spot over and over throughout the evening. The climax of the ad came when a delivery boy smiled so widely at a customer that he seemed to be in terrible pain, his teeth too white to be real.

There were two picnic tables in front of Mario’s, but few customers would sit at them. The ankle-deep pile of trash there—several weeks’ worth of waxy wrappers and plastic soda cups and lids held in place by dozens of smashed cardboard pizza boxes—couldn’t simply be nudged aside. Maybe it made sense that a place so worn out would try to borrow something it needed by sponsoring a kids’ basketball team grinding out its new life—scraped knees and bloody lips and elbows jabbed at kidneys—all the way across town.

I think we had a postgame celebration at the restaurant once, balm for another blowout loss. We would have gone to the party dressed in our uniforms. Did the drunks challenge us to a game of pickup? I remember that, when it came to the Mario’s Pizza All-Stars, we felt no different pre- or postgame. We expected to lose. We felt worthless before, and worthless after. We even felt guilty for being so bad. But for some reason we kept playing.

Jim McDermott lives in Virginia with his family and is the author of a creative nonfiction book about dogs.