Winter 1994, Volume 11.1

Harris Steps to the Line

Funny thing, for January: it's stuffy out here in the driveway. Harris tries to get a deeper breath. Mostly blue sky, just a wisp of cloud here and there, and blowing. No more snow for now. He tries to find the shovel. Maybe if he stood up he could see where it landed when he fell.

It wasn't a slick spot, anything like that. More like the driveway moved. Like the deck of a ship coming up to meet you. Anyway, don't stand up yet. Just hold on a minute... Here it goes again.

Harris looks for a fixed star, settles on the white knob at the peak of the garage roof. Tries to focus on that white knob, keeping everything level. Tries to hang in there, holding on with his eyes.

Then it gets quiet, the wind stops. What comes into focus is the backboard and rim mounted at the edge of the garage roof. It's an old picture, fuzzy, no color, like 1950's TV. No wonder: he's lost his glasses. Must have landed the same place as the shovel.

The wind has let up, the bad air blown over. Easier to breathe now. Always, before he shoots, he bounces the ball twice, sights on the rim. Kids love to come and play here, in Harris'driveway, even watch him play. Hell, half the neighborhood sometimes, lining the driveway. Always lots of kids; even some grownups.

Mr. Harris, someone shouts from a distance. "Mr. Harris?" right up in his face now. Kids love to come over here, talk with him, shoot a few hoops, play with his kids.

"Mr. Harris, it's going to be okay." Someone lifts his head, slides a pillow behind it.

just wait a minute, Harris thinks, get your bearings. When he's ready he'll edge his toes up to the free throw line, bounce the ball once or twice.

It's going to be okay! somebody says. Who said it's okay? Too many people talking, Harris can't keep track. The pillow feels good, but he wants to lift his head, look beyond the crowd, focus on the basket, the back of the rim. Focus is the key, try to keep it in focus. Visualize the shot. That was Coach Kellogg's big thing. Harris stressed it with his kids. Visualize the shot. Visualize the arc of the ball. Visualize it settling into the net.

"Mr. Harris, can I pull your sleeve up?" A guy is talking right in his face again. I know that guy, thinks Harris. It's Bill Mullins. Maybe he says it.

"I'm Jeff Junior, Mr. Harris," the guy answers back, "Bill's grandson."

Harris tries to remember which of his kids played with Jeff Mullins. Is Jeff this boy's father? Whatever happened to Bill? Bounce the ball once, twice. He likes the feel of the ball in his hands, the sound of it bouncing on the asphalt. Except the driveway's starting to move again. Keep the rim in focus,

Neighborhood kids play here all the time. Have for years. With his kids, now with his grandchildren, when they visit. If he ever comes out, they mostly stand around, watch him shoot baskets. Afraid to join in, they stand on the perimeter of the court, laugh when he looks their way. He makes funny faces at them, and they laugh. Sometimes he shoots the ball backward, without looking, bounces a rebound with his head, soccer style, toward the basket, and they laugh at that. Crazy shots like that went in maybe a few dozen times in all the years he's played.

Harris taught his kids in this driveway, on this court. You want to get your kids started right. Teach them fundamentals. His kids taught his grandchildren. Now even three great-grandchildren, one old enough to stand with these from the neighborhood, laughing and clowning around with him.

His own kids don't play much anymore. Now it is mostly the grandchildren. Harris Jr.'s three kids, Robert's boy and even his two girls play, Laura's four kidstwo girls and two boys. Harris Jr.'s oldest is a hot ticket, just like his dad. Harris Jr., in high school, playing on this very court. No, not this court, start over, it must have been the Providence Armory. Son of a gun, the old Providence Armory. Was the Civic Center built then yet?

This kid, young Mullins, in his face again, asking something. Maybe he can find the shovel for Harris, see where it fell. Young Mullins wouldn't know about the Providence Armory. That was during Harris Jr.'s time. What did Harris Jr. do in high school? Final game, the championship, they won it. He played the game of his life, poured in 24 points. Wait a minute! Start over! Maybe that was the semifinal. Because didn't they lose the championship that year?

Both boys loved basketball. Took after Harris. Grandchildren? Hard to keep track. Wasn't Laura's oldest picked for all-state his senior year? Allcity, alltournament, whatever? Before he up and got married? Laura played tennis, wrote an essay, in high school: "Tennis Is My Racket." But her kids got the basketball genes anyway. Now Laura's a grandmother. Talk about unbelievable!

The littlest ones in the neighborhood still watch him. Laughing, carrying on. Warm up first with a few free throws. Limber up the old arms.

Whoa! Here goes the driveway again. Hold on! Ride it out!

Remember that storm? Two years ago? Twelve years? Whatever. Anyway, it was the edge of a hurricane, just dying out over land. Blew down the backboard and the rim. Doesn't matter. Harris can shoot just as good without a rim. Visualizing. Mostly psychological. Visualizing the shot. Visualizing the arc of the ball. Visualize the ball settling into the net. Got so you could feel when it was right. It wasn't anything you saw or heard, you actually felt the ball settle into the net.

When Harris was a kid basketball was two-handed set shots. When's the last time you ever saw anybody shoot with two hands? One-handed, twohanded, whatever: Harris could adapt his game. That was life, wasn't it? Adapting your game? Every generation had something new you had to learn, just to keep up.

Is Barbara home? somebody asks. Darned if he can remember who's home. Ask young Mullins, Jeff Jr., Bill's grandson. He seems to know everything.

Barbara always told him, "Get on out there with your sons. Laura and I can take care of these few dishes." That wouldn't pass nowadays. When the grandchildren play at Thanksgiving, they're all out there, boys, girls. Girls shooting jump shots, setting picks like Darrell somebody or other, played for the New Jersey Nets a few years back.

Looks like some of the older kids standing along the driveway now. Some of the neighbors, mothers and fathers, little kids in the front row. They all must be watching Harris, waiting for him to sink it. Did anybody call Laura? somebody asks. I didn't call anybody, Harris thinks.

Resurfaced the driveway once, new asphalt over the old. Moved the basket and rim up an inch and a half to keep it exactly at ten feet. No unfair advantage, he told Harris Jr. It's ten feet at the Providence Armory, you practice at ten feet here in the driveway. Actually that was a while back. What was that neighbor's name? Helped him put the basket up. But a little sloppy with his measurements. Harris came along behind him, measured everything again.

No hard feelings, though. Life is too short for that. The neighbor's kid still played here, day in, day out. The best court in the neighborhood. Regulation distances: free throws, college and NBA three-point shots. If the driveway would just steady up, stop moving. With everything moving like this, measurements don't mean a hell of a lot.

Wouldn't the neighbor love to hear that, coming from Harris? Measurements don't mean a hell of a lot. Neighbor's dead, that's for sure. Years now. Him and his wife both. His kid lived in the house a year but the kid's wife wanted something newer, who knows what. Another family bought it from them. Coorsens? Probably even before that. Anyway the neighbor was number 17. Coorsens were the red shingles, number 21. Whatever.

Damned driveway. Harris is getting a little light-headed. Might help if he could find his glasses. Get everything back in focus. The embarrassing thing is: Harris remembers Coorsens, but what in the hell was the neighbor's name? Man lives beside you twenty, twenty-five years, you ought to remember.

All these people standing along the driveway, mothers, fathers, kids: doesn't anyone remember the neighbor's name? Does anyone here live at number 17?

Is that the only blanket you could find? one of the mothers wants to know. Why did a game always attract people? Everybody loved a game.

Maybe the fire truck attracted the people. No, start over! It's not a fire truck. Harris knows that. Not a fire truck, the other thing driving up, the red light and so on. People love the fire truck, the red light, whatever. People love a game. The neighbors. The kids. All here to watch.

Now it's a fireman in Harris' face, a little guy. His badge says Silvia, Silveira, something like that. Mr. Harris, he says. "Mr. Harris?"

Ask young Mullins, Harris thinks. Jeff Jr., Bill's grandson. He knows everything. I've answered all his questions.

Harris is surprised to see Barbara home from work. My God, Barbara, don't leave your purse there on the pavement. Is it all right if I take his shoes? she asks. She usually just keeps tabs on things from inside. "Honey, let me take those shoes," she says.

You remember those shoes, Barbara? We got them that day. Was it a Thursday? Friday? I took the day off. We went to lunch. Anyway, they're just regular shoes, right? Slip them right off, Barbara, and I'll step to the line like that, shoot the ball in my sock feet. It's all in the release, anyway. Release the ball at the right moment. Is this where you wanted to be all along, Barbara, out here in the driveway?

People all over, lining the driveway, waiting for him to shoot the ball. The fireman-Silvia, Silveira?-wants to take his pulse, see if he's up for it. People love a game.

Only thing is, if they can't get the driveway levelled out, there's not going to be a game. Maybe that's why Barbara is home early.

The night Harris Jr. poured in 24 points: there were eleven thousand, two hundred in the stands, standing room only. Harris and Barbara just hugged each other and cried when the buzzer went off. That was the semifinals. The next night Harris Jr. missed the free throw in the last minute. Of all things, to miss a free throw, after the thousands he practiced here in the driveway? Of all things, to miss a free throw. That's just what he was thinking when Harris Jr. walked off the court after the buzzer, looked up into the crowd and caught him with that expression on his face: of all things, to miss a free throw?

Now Harris has a lump in his throat, which is no good, doesn't contribute anything. Figures it is time to shoot the ball. Shoot or get off the pot, right? Harris steps to the line, bounces the ball again, focuses on the rim, the back of the rim, that spot just this side of the back of the rim, where the ball will drop through, settle into the net.

"Let's put this across your chest, Mr. Harris," Silveira says, fastening a belt, young Mullins helping him. Jeff, or Jeff's son. Whatever. Bill Mullins' grandson, still trying to ask him something, trying to say something. Just when Harris is about to shoot the ball. Well, okay. For Bill's sake, anyway, hold the shot for another minute, let this kid say whatever, right in your face.

"I'm Bill's grandson," he says. Didn't he say that already?

The driveway crowd starts to rally a bit, starts to lift him up. Harris knows they want it, want to see it, see what they came for, see him nail this shot.

It's darker now. Sun's lower. Hell, it's January, won't stay light forever.

Harris steps to the line again, sockfeet toes on the line. Didn't know Laura would be here. Now he can ask her if it was her kid? Was it your kid, Laura? Was he selected for the all-state team? Did I teach him okay? Your mother told me ease up. But I never drove the grandchildren like the boys. Let their fathers worry about that. With the grandchildren, it was mostly a lot of clowning around, over the head backward, and so on, until they were big enough to dribble the ball. You want a kid to dribble the ball correctly right from the beginning. Not learn wrong, get in bad habits.

"It's okay, Daddy," she says, not smiling. Hold his arm, somebody else says.

Wait a minute, Laura. It's not okay. Start over. Forget about correctly. Forget about bad habits. Forget about measurements, the exact distances. Let them play. Let them have fun.

Actually, nobody is smiling. Harris can't believe all the long faces. Hey, lighten up, everybody. It's just a game. Probably could use some clowning around, but not now, no time remaining. Anyway, he can feel it coming now, the energy, the focus, the concentration. He feels in control of the ball, in control of the arc, in control of the space between his hand and the basket. It's just a matter of staying loose, keeping the rim in focus. You have to visualize the shot. Release the ball at the right moment. Visualize the arc of the ball. Visualize the ball going through the rim, settling into the net.

Of all things, to miss a free throw. Today it would be different, Harris thinks. If Harris Jr. missed the free throw today, it would be different. Harris wouldn't say a thing. At the buzzer he would pick his way down to the floor, get to his kid right before he went in the runway to the dressing room. And he wouldn't say anything. Hell, what could you say? He wouldn't say anything, wouldn't even think anything, wouldn't have any expression on his face. He would just put his hand on his son's shoulder, try not to embarrass him.

Harris would like to tell this to his son, to Harris Jr., but he can't see him here. Is he here? Maybe not. Maybe it's just these kids, these little ones.

Anyway, he winks at the kids, and they laugh. Seeing this, the grownups smile. That's it, he thinks, lighten up. Then he tells himself, Lighten up yourself. You can tell him later.

And he takes a deep breath. Feels the ball against his right hand. Dips his knees. Somebody hold the door. Straightens up. Pushes. Pushes with his wrist, his arm, his whole body. At the right moment, lets it go. Hold the door. Take him right in.

The ball rises, gains momentum, arcs, a long, slow arc, over the rim and backboard, misses everything. It rises toward the peak of the garage roof, misses it, passes over. Easy now. Okay. Passes over the line of spruce trees beyond the garage, fades into the darkening eastern sky.

Exhausted, Harris lets his arms and legs relax, feels the ball disappear, feels the ball settle into the space beyond. He feels the rush of air, feels the sound swell up within him. The rush of air. The sound. The light.