My face is actually right below his ass. And I'm standing.
When I was a freshman, my high school coach took me to the 8,000-seat gym at Elkhart Central High. We watched future L.A. Laker Rick Fox battle future Seattle Sonic Shawn Kemp. A beautiful, classic gym, the kind where the incandescent yellow light of the floor barely trickles up to the dark seating high above. Late in the game, my coach turned to this 15-year-old and said, "There's no reason you shouldn't be playing at this level in a year or two."
Two years later, I was playing at that level. Well, I was playing on that floor. Fox had graduated, but the younger Kemp still reigned, and now I would play opposite him. Kemp's team had every advantage. The Elkhart Central gym was a long drive through endless frozen farms for our team of short white guys but a virtual home game for his local, No.-2-in-the-state Minutemen. And they had the 6' 11" Kemp, who in every Hoosier locker room had become Casey at the Bat.
Establishing a regional champ required winning two games in one day. After our morning victory, my coach booked hotel rooms for us. Not for the repose. It was to keep us away from McDonald's. From speeding cars. From God-knows-what in Elkhart. It was incarceration.
So what really got me was that Kemp arrived that night at the referee-and-captains meeting at center court with a fresh haircut. Fresh since that morning. Tight, with a little rabbit's foot doohickey at the lower back. We'd been sequestered in hotel rooms, steeping in our fear of the man-child. He'd been chilling at the barbershop.
It was a moment of too much information in too little time. This stumbled through my head: "This is somehow different."
Here's what I observed while playing:
1. We somehow won the opening tip and passed the ball for three full minutes before making a shot. This really pissed the crowd off. Score: 2-0.
2. Our 400 supporters chanted "S.A.T.! S.A.T.!" Bad-natured ribbing invoking Kemp's failure to meet collegiate academic requirements.
3. Their aggravated 7,500 fans countered with "N.B.A.! N.B.A.!" That cracked me up.
4. Kemp dunked directly above me _five_ times. Here's how: He stood at the free-throw line, innocuous. Then, he slowly curled to the outside and just disappeared. Suddenly, he was catching an alley-oop and slamming the ball through. I'd honestly never imagined that as a potential component of a game of basketball I'd be involved in.
Here's the two-part epilogue:
1. We slowed the game down as much as we could. We lost 40-34.
2. Five years later, I was in an Eckerd Drug paging through a hoops magazine because Kemp — an NBA superstar — was on the cover. Page 37, there was Shawn Kemp. And — dumb luck — there's me. A three-photo strip of pure humiliation demonstrated the finishing touches of Kemp's stand-curl-launch-dunk move from that night. In the second shot, my face is right _below_ his ass. And I'm standing. In the third shot, I guess that's what it looks like when I think, "This is somehow different."