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The Voices of My Father

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sometimes it felt like this too
What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? In a recent post, I told part of that story, recalling how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and also, how, at a metaphorical level, my father desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood perceptions as Wilt Chamberlain in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some others, other memories, other stories, other feelings. They don't all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does.

My dad was one of my earliest opponents on the basketball court (my two older brothers and, on occasion my sister or her boyfriend, were the others). My father loved to watch basketball, and he was a quick and intelligent student of the game’s more subtle dynamics, but, a Spanish immigrant to the United States, he was neither experienced nor skilled as a player. Moreover, around the time I was 8 or 9, he suffered a serious back injury that made it impossible for him to run and jump. Most of my memories of playing against my dad come from that time, when he was grounded, but still willing – somehow – to come out and play with me.

What a complex classroom in basketball and in life those contests would be. I say he was inexperienced, unskilled, and hampered by injury. But my father, as I recall his game, possessed a fair bit of natural athletic ability. I don’t remember him jumping, but I imagine he had pretty good hops in his day. Around 5-9 with a medium build, he was quick with wiry strong muscles in his legs and arms.

And he was a very determined competitor, which I appreciated because playing ball at that time was for me most of all about playing against grown-ups and thereby feeling like less of the family baby and I couldn’t tolerate the idea that someone was going easy on me. I’m aware now that the grown ups were 1) probably going easy on me to some degree and 2) protecting me from the knowledge of that. But the memory I have of my experience of those games is of an all-out war of bodies and minds.

Offensively, my dad had a somewhat limited repertoire. He had a fairly accurate one-handed set shot, given the time to set it up. He had a pretty quick first step to the basket, but for the most part he needed to look at the ball to dribble and so that slowed his drives to the hoop. He also had a methodical way of backing in toward the basket, keeping his dribble alive, and then, finally close enough, a kind of quick turn-around toss, half shot, half hook, off the backboard. That was tough for me to stop because he was bigger and stronger and I remember still feeling the dread of the inevitable as I desperately dug in, trying to hold my ground.

But what I remember most viscerally is his suffocating style of defense. My dad gave new meaning to the phrase man-up. I see him feet wide apart, crouched low, back ramrod straight, my dad played torso to torso defense. He got as close as he possibly could without touching, his hands stretched to the side or straight up in the air depending on whether I was shooting. Most vividly in my memory, as I begin to dribble (because of course I can’t get a shot off over him when he’s so close with his hands up – I am probably somewhere around 5-1 or 5-2 or so at the time), his arms begin to come together, a kind of stiff-armed hug so that as I continue to press my drive around him I feel like I’m trying to go through a turnstile the wrong way: there’s a little play, but I’m not getting through that way. I imagine that we acknowledged fouls in those games, but I don’t actually remember calling them or having them called on me at all.

Kinda like my dad playing defense

I do remember the combination of frustration and determination that his intense defense used to provoke in me, as well as the sense of elation and triumph I would feel when I scored. Sometimes I felt so beaten and trapped that I wanted to cry in frustration and complaint. Sometimes, I’m sure, I did (I cried easily as a boy). But sometimes, I found that my father’s will to stop me seemed to infect me in transmuted form and I felt an unshakeable will not to give up until I got past him. Then, no matter how many times I slammed into that turnstile, I’d backtrack my dribble, try a still emerging cross-over or fake, and try to get around him on the other side, or I’d try a wider path to the hoop, trying just to elude his reach entirely. Five, six, ten times this might happen and more than anything what stays with me is the sense that I lost myself, in a way that felt good, in that tiny, intense battle for a swath of poured concrete.

On those times I made it, I felt elated, proud, relieved, but also a little anxious – I couldn’t tell what my dad felt and that worried me: was he proud? Hurt? Angry? All I felt that I could be sure of was that he was determined and serious. But probably I was wrong even about that. Maybe all he was doing was trying to endure the pain caused by the herniated disk in his back. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. Yet it never felt that way. It felt like he was all there, and all about stopping me by hook or by crook, and that there was something personal at stake in it for both of us.

Maybe sometimes this was confusing for me, or unsettling, but most of all I remember those games against my dad as strengthening, and building my confidence, not to mention certain skills and qualities in my game that I still notice today in pick-up games, when I am being guarded by a stronger, bigger, more physical player. I still usually respond by going to the basket with extra determination, I still do my best to bang underneath and to hold my ground when he tries to post me up. And so, above all, I feel the surging and energizing desire to win – more, to vanquish. And if I do, when I do, I feel as much that it has to do with will, with wanting it more, and I think of my dad, and feel sure that nobody but him could have instilled that in me.

I’m reminded a little of Dave Hickey’s excellent essay “The Heresy of Zone Defense” in the book Air Guitar, his collection of essays in art criticism. Hickey opens this way, with a description of this play:

Julius [Erving] takes the ball in one hand and elevates, leaves the floor. Kareem [Jabbar] goes up to block his path, arms above his head. Julius ducks, passes under Kareem’s outside arm and then under the backboard. He looks like he’s flying out of bounds. But no! Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side.
Hickey thinks about the joy the play elicits, still today, watching it in replay and decides that the perfection of the play is as much Kareem’s doing as Dr. J’s. Kareem’s perfect defense elicited Dr. J’s perfect response. That’s how I think of my dad, now, as my Kareem: as the one whose perfect intensity and, ultimately, respect for me as his opponent, elicited from me my best, not only a set of technical skills, but also endurance and determination, not to mention the ability to transform feelings of frustration and anger into a combination of focused desire and intelligent calculation on the floor.

But my dad was more than my opponent. For once I started playing competitively, he was also my biggest, most conscientious, and most enthusiastic and vocal fan. I started playing soccer in competitive leagues when I was around 5 or 6 and played every season through my senior in high school. I started playing competitive basketball in 6th grade and, likewise, played all the way through high school. I'm sure he must have missed a game or two because I know he was traveling regularly during part of that time. But I don't remember him ever missing a single game.

Always he was there, with my mother, a fixture among the sparse crowd of parents and friends on the sidelines of a soccer game, or up about five or six rows behind our bench in our more crowded basketball games, home and away. He had a terribly painful bad back. I don't know if it really hurt him to sit in the pull-out wooden bleachers, or to stand for the duration of a soccer game. I always imagined that it must, that this why he paced the sidelines. But if it did, he never told me about it, never complained to me about that.

What’s more, and I've never heard of any other dad doing this, he kept track of the statistics at my basketball games all the way from 6th grade through high school. He used a small yellow steno pad and one of the ever-present fine-point pens from his shirt pocket. And on that, in neatly labeled colums, he recorded my field goals attempts, field goals, free throw attempts, free throws, assists, steals, turnovers, rebounds, fouls, and points. I believe that when I joined the high school varsity, he started doing this for the whole team as well, at least in my senior year.

My dad never used these statistics as the basis to criticize me or my teammates. I don’t remember him actually ever even making any neutral observations about the statistics he eventually came to enter into a database and to print from his new personal computer in the early 1980s. My dad was a scientist, a very capable scientist, with a brilliant statistical mind, and love of numbers. Though I never had his aptitude, I did love the mathematical games and tricks he shared with me when I was a boy, and I did love to pore over sports statistics. I even, I am a little embarrassed to say, kept track of the statistics of the different players I would imagine myself to be incarnating in one-on-one games against my friend Robb (I kept track, consulting him of course, of his “players” statistics too). All of this to say that I think what my dad was doing there was connecting more deeply to my life. It was enough that he was always there at the games, no matter what else might be going on. But he also joined one of his abilities and passions to one of mine and in so doing enhanced and augmented the space we shared.

Of all these memories, though, of competing with my dad, of poring over statistics with him, the one that most sticks out in my mind is the sound of his voice – deep, hoarse, slightly accented – bellowing over the sound of my coaches and the hundreds of fans at one of our basketball games: “Go Yago! Goooooo Yago!!!!” My friends sometimes made a little fun of me for that and I felt simultaneously embarrassed and annoyed with them and, very secretly, grateful to my dad for being the kind of dad-fan who yells for and not at his kid. Not all my friends’ dads were like that. Some of them never came to games. Others came but were quiet supporters. Others came and berated their sons publicly during and after each game. My dad came, kept stats, and shouted “Go Yago!!!!” (Maybe he also laid into the refs a little bit.)

It’s not just that he yelled “Go Yago!!!”, it’s that in that Go Yago he expressed all the pride and love and joy he drew not only from my accomplishments but from my participation. My dad let me know that he was proud of me when I won an award, or made all my free throws, or had a high assist-turnover ratio. But he also let me know, just as frequently, that he was proud of me and loved just watching me run down the floor. He just loved to watch me run. I don’t even know if it was the running per se. I dimly feel that my running on the court (or on the soccer field) really just stands for my being. And, in that way, that in loving my running my father was expressing his love for me, just as I was, just because I was. So “Go Yago” – the name of my basketball blog – is most deeply that: a calling forth of the love and acceptance of my father for me, not because I accomplish a particular thing or because I do it well, but just because I am and my being brings him joy.


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