Everything I know about basketball, I learned from my friend Craig. We grew up on the same street, a couple of houses down from each other. He didn’t treat me like a fragile little flower because I was a girl. He boxed me out, hard. He set screens like a wall. I was on the receiving end of his elbows, knees, and noggin — just like he was on the receiving end of mine. Foul-calling was for pussies unless you were bleeding, and me and Craig were not pussies. We played basketball from the time the sun came up until the the time the sun went down, all day, every day, except when we were at our different schools or different churches.
Other boys in our neighborhood always tagged along; we had enough players for three-on-three almost always.
But Craig and I were different than those guys.
For one thing, no one — no one on this earth — loved basketball as much as we did.
And for another thing, I was the only girl and he was the only black kid.
We were inseparable.
Craig taught me an ankle-breaking crossover, an un-guardable spin move, a fade-away jumper, a pump-fake reverse layup, a behind-the-back bounce pass, and an eyes-closed free-throw. At basketball summer camp, it was teenage girls and a thousand free throws and talk about bras and blow jobs. Craig spared me all that nonsense and showed me how to throw my own alley-oop off the backboard.
My dad had to replace I-don’t-know-how-many rims on our driveway goal because by the time Craig was 15, he was throwing down monster dunks. Any other boy, and my dad would have been livid. But Craig popped two different neighborhood dudes in the mouth the summer my sister stopped looking like a little girl; my dad adored him.
Some summer nights when we wanted to keep playing after the sun went down, we’d walk up the road to the People’s Baptist Church and shoot around in their parking lot in the orange glow of the street lights. It was always a hundred degrees and so humid you needed gills to breathe. The tree frogs were our audience, and Craig could stun even them into silence. He was dribbling; he was dancing.
On the way home one night, when we were 11, a cop pulled us over and asked where Craig was “taking me.” I said he wasn’t “taking me” anywhere. We’d been playing ball and now we were both going home to eat dinner and then we were coming back to play more ball. Craig put his hand on my forearm to shut me up, but jerked away like my skin had burned him. The cop never even looked at me, except when Craig reached for me. He never even spoke to me. “Watch yourself, boy” is what he said. “I know I’ll be watching you.”
It was a long time before Craig went back to the People’s Baptist Church parking lot with me, and we never went again without one of the (white) boys tagging along.
"I hate bringing them with us," I told him every single time. "They slow us down. They talk too much. I can’t believe Kyle thinks he balls hard enough to wear Jordans."
He said, “It’s safer this way.”
I said, “I’m not scared.”
He said, “You don’t have to be.”
When we were teenagers we used to sometimes go see dollar movies together on nights when we didn’t have basketball games or practice. He was a Bobcat. I was a Spartan. He said being named All-Area had made me soft.
People stared and pointed at us at the movies, and on more than one occasion, I reached down and clutched Craig’s hand because it felt defiant and loyal and I loved him. Not boyfriend-style. I was a clueless, late-blossoming lesbian who could only ever stomach dating the most feminine boys I could find. Craig was all man. He never pulled his hand away from mine, but one night some kids from his high school were waiting at his truck when we got out of the movies. They said the same thing as that cop that night at that church, years earlier. They said they were watching him and he’d better watch himself too.
He asked me to stop holding his hand.
"I don’t care what people think," I said.
He said, “But you do care about me not getting hurt.”
The truth is, I didn’t get it. I was young and sheltered and Hermione-frees-the-House-Elves naive about the way the world actually worked. But Craig didn’t have that luxury. As an 11-year-old child, he already knew that if he touched me, even in an attempt to get me to act more respectful to a police officer, he was putting himself in danger.
I understood it better when I grew up. When I was in college, I watched the black inner city kids I worked with get harassed by cops right up until the point that a white camp counselor walked over to see what was going on. I studied and studied and wrote multiple theses on the Rwandan genocide (something that never, ever would have happened if the victims had not been black). I moved to Jamaica to do charity work and experienced, repeatedly, the phenomenon that young black patients would wait all day to see a doctor, but young white patients were treated immediately (because so many of the hospitals were staffed with white missionary doctors). A five-year-old orphan in a makeshift wheelchair looked me right in an orphanage in Montego Bay and said, “If I were white, an American would have already taken me home.”
Watching what is happening in Ferguson makes me physically sick, every night. Because of the perpetual devaluation of black lives in this whole world. Because just under the surface of politeness, the disgusting, irrational, inexcusable racism that has permeated American society since its inception has only been fueled and stoked by the hate-mongering propaganda Conservatives and Christians have been raining down since Barack Obama first announced his intention to run for president. Because it could happen in any city in this country. Because it could have happened to Craig that night in that church parking lot when all we did was play H-O-R-S-E and drink fruit punch Kool-Aid from the thermoses my mom had packed for us.
I’m wiser than I was back then. I have the physical and emotional scars of a dozen lifetimes. I’ve traveled and traveled and traveled the world. But Ferguson makes me feel as helpless as I did when I was just a kid. I guess the only real difference is I’m old enough now not to be afraid to call a foul. What is happening in Ferguson, what continues to happen to black people — especially young black men — in this country, is a foul. A wicked, indefensible foul.
I always thought it was just basketball. But Craig knew all along it was the Hunger Games.
So, fine. Let those of us who know the truth stand together, and rise up, and be the Mockingjay.
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