So I’ve been taking my eight year old son Declan down to the local council outdoors basketball court. You know the type of court; seen better days, splintering backboard, maddeningly unresponsive hoop, all played out on faded green concrete.
If the court has seen better days, so has my game. But my son thinks I am some sort of Bogut/Curry/James god, cunningly disguised as a 66kg, 5-foot-11-inch 49 year old. But hey, his game is improving out of sight, and with a full height rim and a full sized ball, that eight year old is gonna live the sweet dreams of this old man, dreams that were shattered back in 1979 when….
But I digress.
All sorts come down to those courts. It’s a less than salubrious suburb we live in, so it’s rough, a little angry, and perhaps a little sad. There’s no one showy. No one that good. No one with great shoes or great skills. My local council sports ground is mostly Aussie Rules footy, where the smack of tradies’ hardened bodies can be heard from the sidelines, where the “f-bombs” get dropped when the ball does, and where the ballet girls run for their dainty little lives to mum and dad’s car under the glare of the oval’s evening spotlights.
I first noticed Kel when he drove up with some mates to shoot hoops about a month ago. And what was noticeable was just how unnoticeable he was. Short, mid-to-late twenties, cropped, thinning hair.
And a limp. Not just a limp. But a whole side of his body that pretty much limped. His leg and arm curled up, his midriff tilted to one side. And then, as he began to shoot hoops at the other end of the court with his friends, I noticed his low raspy voice, a cracked whisper even when he was shouting. None of this pointed to him being born that way. Something bad had happened to Kel. Something had broken him.
But whatever it was it hadn’t broken Kel’s shot. He could drain it from anywhere. Preferably outside the line. It was consistent. It was monotonous. He had a better three pointer than any sermon of mine. His friends would goof around, try – and fail – to dunk, speed down the court for a lay-up. He would fake them out, spin around on his good side, and nail it. Nine times out of ten.
We had a few chats a couple of days. I saw him again at the polling booth at our local equally-limping along government high school during the Federal election. He was getting back into his car, parked in the police bay of the school cark park (I kid you not). Exciting time to be an Australian, hey Mr Turnbull?
So this week, with Declan starting to hit a few more shots from just inside the free-throw line (c’mon son!), Kel came down by himself. He made to go down to the other end.
“Hey, dead-eye, shoot with us,” I said, before realising that may be taken as an insult. Perhaps he did have a dead eye. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
We got talking. Well I talked. He rasped. I picked up most of it. Hearing just isn’t the same as you reach 50, let me tell you.
And all the while he drained them from six or so metres out with what turned out to pretty much be a medicine ball in basketball drag. I stood under the rim and flicked them back to him. Declan would ping a shot from a few yards. Kel from 20 feet. And so it went on.
Finally I asked. Kel had been intimating that his game was all fake and shot because he had nothing else now. I figured he was open to it, so I said “So, what happened? Car accident? It looks like you were seriously messed up.”
“Surfboard. Through the skull. Four inches in.” He pointed to the now-obvious jigsaw puzzle on his head.
Declan and I stopped.
“Yeah, back in 2001. Some idiot who couldn’t surf hit me.”
He stopped to nail another one. I retrieved the ball.
“I nearly drowned in the surf before they dragged me out. Heaps of operations, heart failure. Just my left side though. I can still spin around someone on my right.”
And then the conversation turned to God. Out of left field. Not from me. From Kel.
“I believe in God. There’s gotta be a God after what I went through. And it’s not like he did it to me to teach me something is it?”
I told him I didn’t think God would crush him like that for some sort of object lesson. That God doesn’t want the world broken the way it is and will one day sort it out.
We chatted some more. It was getting existential.
“And don’t tell me that babies just get made by parents. I mean, look at them. That’s God doing that.”
We talked some more about God, some of it less than orthodox as you’d expect from him, and I didn’t push it. I just listened, responded, wondered about his wonder. After a few minutes he abruptly turned back to shooting.
“Warming up for a one-on-one with a friend of mine up in Kalamunda later tonight,” he said. Declan and I went back to his rapidly improving jump shot – his little body all lithe and free, unsullied as yet by Kel-like circumstances.
It got dark and cold. The lights weren’t on. We’d all had enough.
“What’s your name mate?” I asked as we went back to our cars.
“Kel”, he said, simply.
“Steve,” I said. And with that we were off.
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