Ball Wasn’t Life:
A story of hoop reality, not hoop dreams
I wasn’t good at basketball, never really played, but the reaction from the other kids seeing me touch the net in 5th grade drew me to watching the Bulls, but still not playing because I was busy drawing. I’d pretty much shoot only until 7th grade when I attended Joyce Kilmer Elementary. My gym teacher picked the teams. I didn’t want to play because I was new to the school and didn’t want people to know that I couldn’t play. I kind of ran up and down not knowing what the hell I was doing then someone passed me the ball. I ran in and made a layup, but didn’t dribble. A few people laughed that I traveled, but I heard someone say “you forgot to dribble.” He asked if I could dunk, because I slapped the board. I shrugged and said I don’t think so. We lost and while the other teams were playing, kids were running and trying to touch the rim while game play was on the other end. I wish I could remember the kids name, but the kid who asked if I could dunk told me to try and I grabbed the rim. I didn’t expect to actually get that high so I grabbed and held on too long…That caused me to to lose grip and fall. No one seemed to care that I fell like an idiot, they were all busy giving me credit.
I started playing more. We lived in Rogers Park at the time and started going to Warren and shooting, non-stop for hours on end. At the time there weren’t many games there for whatever reason. It was a few miles away so I’d dribble there and back. Every block I’d switch up and variate the hand, around the back, between what leg, etc…
I started 9th grade at Nicholas Senn High School. I’d VASTLY improved. Although the top players probably wouldn’t admit it, I was just as good if not better than anyone on Varsity. Coach Mitchell showed interest one day while I was playing in PE By this time I was obsessing over ball. Around the court, there were elevated bleachers and for some reason you could just sit up there unchecked by anyone. You could literally cut class by sitting up there, then sneak down, usually unnoticed. That was me, cutting classes to go to several PE periods if they were playing basketball. I was goin’ hard at one of the varsity teams best players. (He shall remain nameless) He started out trash talking, calling me a rookie because he didn’t know this quiet, artist, freshman. It quickly turned into my team winning and saying “good game, rookie.”
(To this day, I call a lot of people a rookie because that experience never left me. I remember how that simple word drove me to prove him wrong and how it can motivate people to get things done, all the while annoying them)
He couldn’t stop me and everyone there knew it. It was at that point that only basketball players know about. When someone on his team genuinely asked if he wanted “to switch.” It really threw him off which made it worse. He asked afterward why I didn’t try out. I’d permanently earned his respect and although we never hung out or had classes together, he always said “what’s up Tito?” in passing.
Over the next few weeks Mitchell had asked me the same question during my legal PE period. My excuse was that I didn’t have time when the reality was, I thought I was too good for that team & too smart for school. One random day Mitchell told me that he’d set up a tutor in his attempt to get my grades up so I could be eligible to play for his team, but I never went and eventually stopped going to school.
(To this day I regret that I didn’t thank him for making me feel valued and going out of his way when he absolutely didn’t have to. He showed me respect. He looked at me as if he knew I’d respond with thanks, and I could see the confusion on his face. I was an ungrateful moron and I visibly disappointed him with my lack of appreciation.)
When I decided to go I only went to go to gym classes and play ball. I think I missed half of the year to the point where teachers were surprised to see me. I always got picked up and always went harder than everyone when I was on the court. I started going to the Broadway Armory where serious players played on the Northside at the time. I also played at Loyola University, and UIC. I played all over the city with and against NBA players like Tim Hardaway, Michael Finley, Farragut legends Kevin Garnett & Ronnie Fields, King’s twin towers Rashard Griffith and Rich Hamilton and a lot of the cities top High School prospects at the time and held my own, respectively.
When my brother Jr started coming around more and we’d go out and play at ANY rim we could find, literally, in rain sleet or snow. I remember myself, Mike and Jr dangerously running on ice and dunking off of garbage cans. I have no idea why. They probably couldn’t answer that question either. Jr and I would travel the city and play anywhere as well & hustle clueless people by doing the Billy Hoyle okie-doke, long before White Men Can’t Jump came out. We played “tips” for blocks on end. We played even when it almost got us in trouble with gangs or racists. We just wanted to hoop.
I had 2 teams that I played with and we traveled from Foster Beach to the Greens, to Stateway, Warren, Dolton, Harvey, Senka, Fernwood, Jefferson, Washington, Garfield, Hyde… If it had a gym in the winter, or outside rims in the Spring/Summer/Fall, we were there. I played ball nearly every day, for hours and hours non-stop. Fast forward to a permanent broken pinky finger, dozens of ankle sprains, both shoulders separated. Ball was life.
I finally realized that I was living on the Southside, doing nothing with my life. I decided to go back to school. I went to a school for high school drop outs called Double E and after completing their program I, once again, traveled from the Southside to the Northside everyday to Senn.
I clearly remember, playing at a park and a guy named Colonel was there. He was in my 7th and 8th grade classes years before when I was horrible. This day I called next and was so drastically improved that he openly, out right was commenting on how good I was compared to what he remembered. I was a completely different animal. He was visibly shocked as I killed his team, lol.
So many times after returning to Senn, I’d see Mitchell when I went back asking how I’m doing, while shaking his head. He never showed as much disappointment as I felt outside of that head shake. A new coach was there, Coach Kerns. He and Mitchell were standing talking by their office doors. My first interaction with Kerns was him calling me a P***y Mutha F***** saying that I copped out and heard I was wasting my talent and life…
He was harsh.
He was an A-hole.
He was 100% right.
A while after graduating from high school while playing ball at McKinley Park while coming down off of a rim I landed and my left knee hyper-extended so badly that my toes almost hit my chest. MCL & ACL? Done. Left knee cap? Dislocated and all stability was lost. My knee was destroyed. I couldn’t walk for about 6 months without crutches. I couldn’t walk without my massive brace for a year. My life and body was never the same. That injury lead to lower back muscle issues well into my 30’s. The body’s over compensation toward the right side of my body eventually ended up in serious problems with my right knee. After multiple knee drains and issues with both knees I was recently told in 2015 that I have the knees of a 60 year old. I can comfortably trot when my weight is under 210 and with two knee braces. I have very very little cartilage and the Dr. said to stay away from any surgery, because science is on the verge of being able to do great replacements or cartilage repair.
Oddly, the NON-STOP playing of the game that could’ve changed my life for the better would end up being the reason I didn’t go to school and hurt me and stopped me from playing the game that I LOVE. Thankfully, while I wasn’t too smart for school, I was smart enough to envision and catch the downward spiral I was on that was leading toward me living on the Southside of Chicago for the rest of my life.
No longer able to play regularly in my mid 20’s I tried to offer my love of basketball by taking some Southside young men who were too smart to be living similar teen lives to what I had at that age. I saw them hurting their potential just like I had. I saw conflicts with other kids that could’ve went down a path of life ending violence. I began keeping them and 3 or 4 others away from the Southside every chance I got and took them with me traveling the way I had all over the city playing at diverse parks, joining leagues and I even had a stint of coaching their team, trying to teach them teamwork and to get along with other people that they didn’t particularly care for. They didn’t know it, but they would eventually need the ability to work with people they liked and disliked should they eventually enter the workforce and that these were extremely valuable social relationships. I ended up working full time and doing full time school, hurting the amount of time I spent with them and sadly both of the young men ended up in the system from extremely avoidable situations. My biggest fear. I’d move on to much nicer areas of the city and eventually to California for art school, but not without having the feeling that I’d genuinely tried to save two lives. I never explained my strategy or even that I was doing what I was doing and I don’t think it was warranted. It wasn’t being done for credit, I just wanted them to realize that Ball wasn’t life, but it was definitely a tool to help make a better life by avoiding the streets and maybe play organized sports, learning team work, keeping disciplined, and seeing the bigger picture through hard work as well as traveling outside of the crap neighborhood the boys rarely got out of to see that there are people living better.