Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
“I like pleasure spiked with pain”
—Red Hot Chili Peppers
Sometimes, I limp. Whether it’s from the cold, or a run, or just existing, I limp. Sometimes, people ask me about it. Same with when we used to go to bars and I’d show off the noise my jaw makes, from a league basketball game where a 6’2” 200-lb. dude pump faked me, and I jumped, in all my 5’9” 150-lb. glory, just to land chin first on the top of his head. I think of the scars that have faded into my skin, I think of all the streetball games where the scores have been forgotten, but the feeling remains. Most of the basketball I’ve played has been with my Pops, my peoples, strangers, on the streets I’ve lived on. And even the pains that stick with me come with the pleasure of remembering the first thing I ever got good at, the trophies of scars and limps and jaws that pop, all bringing pleasure, of growing up playing ball.
Right now, my basketball sits in the backseat of my car, deflated from a pandemic’s worth of idleness. When I grab it, my fingers are outstretched, like I’m in the middle of a shooting drill, stop and pop, like I’m going to shoot it from right in front of my house to the Oliver Bush Park in the Lower 9 of New Orleans, or to the park in the Irish Channel I used to play late night games at after my hometown Miami Heat’s NBA Finals games back in ’13, or Bunny Friend Park where I used to go to secondlines, or back home in Miami at the Hammocks courts where I went to middle school, or the courts in Overtown that Alonzo Mourning built where I played regulation games. I keep my ball in the car as a throwback to the old days, the days when I used to pull over at the site of an empty court or a full one, lace up my sneakers in the quiet or to the metronome of basketballs being dribbled and shot, as I’d holler out “Next” while I dribbled on the sideline, adding my bounce to the chorus of sneakers smacking the ground, the basketballs hitting the pavement, to the quiet as the ball was up in the air, waiting for the thud of the rim or backboard, of the beautiful breeze of a swish, before the ball cratered to the ground and the next play started back up. I keep the ball in the backseat of my car, like how my father kept my first basketball sneakers, kid Celtics ones, hanging from his rearview mirror of his beat-up Mazda, for I’ve loved this game for as long as my memory stretches. The pleasures spiked with pain that Pops loved, that Pops taught me, that I inherited.
There is a thing that happens in basketball, where when you get good enough, after years and years of practice, after years and years of what the Miami Heat would call “sweat equity,” after years and years of working on the same moves in practice over and over again, in streetball games and scrimmages, in working on your shot and your moves on August days down in Miami where the other end of the desolate court housed mirages that made the court look slick with oil, or on cold winter days in Oakland or in the mountains of Colombia, when the cold got into your bones, but you kept playing and balling anyway, where you ascend to a level where you can feel when a shot is going in, even before you see it go through the hoop. You don’t know by sight, or by cockiness, but just by knowing, by muscle memory, by having done the same thing repeatedly. It doesn’t happen with every make, but every make it happens on, is the sweetest thing, the chef’s kiss of a shot. I remember Pops telling me about this feeling, this knowing. I remember him calling shots every time he felt it, how every time he felt it, the ball went in. I remember the first time I felt it, and then how it happened again and again, how it became addictive, feeling it on my jumpers, then the runners, the floaters, the finger rolls, the halfhooks. It was this knowing that made all the practice and playing and training worth it, that the muscle memory clicked, and the world felt right. This knowing meant that nothing else mattered, not the person defending you, not the wind, not the double rim streetball court with the cracked backboard, not the busted up ball that shed like snakeskin, not the problems waiting for you at school or at home or with your fam or wherever, because the ball was going in, and because you knew it even before it did, the moment lasted longer, making the shot that much sweeter.
I think of playing with my boy J, who I’ve known since the third grade. I think of the dribble handoffs we’ve run together so many times, him a lefty with a sweet stroke and a step-back jumper. I played streetball games with him most of our lives, nobody expecting the bearded Cuban-American with the halfhook and the shorter Jewish kid to beat them off the court every day. I remember those handoffs, keeping my body between J and his defender, using my body as a shield, sacrificing my body for J to get an open look to shoot the ball. I think of how the running halfhook became my shot, faking the pass to J and keeping the ball and darting to the hoop, where I would jump with my left leg and shoot over my head with my right hand, keeping my body between the defender and me, keeping my body as symmetrical as can be for someone who sucked at geometry. How I took that shot over and over again in practice, waiting for that knowing feeling. How that was my shot when playing with J, and how even when I took hits from people reaching to block that shot, it just felt like money every time I took it. How being 5’9” and a buck-fifty didn’t matter when playing with my boy, how I can close my eyes now and see where he’d cut, how he’d move, where I’d pass to him and how he’d pass to me. I can see the day where he made a game winner after getting fouled on a jumper, falling on the asphalt court we made a home on, keeping his hands outstretched as we scooped him up and talked mad ish, or the time we won a three-on-three tournament where no one knew who he was, or the day we won a bunch of games with our boy’s father, who brought us back to his crib to share Presidentes with him after we cleaned up on the court that night, the first time I remember him being impressed with me, with us, with a skill we had. I think of how we played in the hottest of the hot days in Miami, during tropical storms and hurricanes, beating guys from all sorts of high school teams when we were teenagers, how we’ve beaten guys twice as big, twice as fast, how we’ve limped off the court with bruises and twisted ankles and bloody palms and wrists and shoulders from fouls, how we played for wins that aren’t counted but aren’t forgotten, for even if the game itself is, the feeling never fully leaves, even if it’s the pain that brings that pleasure back.
When the pandemic first started, I sat on the porch of my apartment, watching someone ball, feeling weird that I couldn’t just go down there and call “Next” and play a one-on-one or 21 or knockout or get some two-on-twos or three-on-threes rolling. Now, those courts are filled with the sounds of roller-bladers, the rims taken down. The game has abandoned us, and the sound of dribbling has abandoned me, too. I wonder when that sound will return, when I can join that dome of sound, when I can answer that call and ball up with them, or when I can put the ball back on the ground again, to start that call myself, waiting for other ballers to come out and join.
I remember when I was younger, how the best feeling in the world was hearing the sound of basketballs dribbling out in the distance. It was a metronome of my life, hearing the basketballs up and down those streets, up and down those courts. It was a form of call and response in my old hood. The basketballs pounding the pavement being a calling that games were beginning, were to be had. A player’s dribble was their pulse, and was the pulse of the neighborhood, and you could hear the beat of the game based on who dribbled and how, who shot and how.
I think of my boy, Costar, a long Cuban-American I balled with back home. I think of how we balled and grew up in the game together. When we’d play, I was the ballhandler in pick and rolls, he was the roll man. I think of how he’d set picks for me, and if someone was bodying him, between him and the basket, I’d pass behind him, so his momentum would get him spinning away from the defender, momentum going towards his strong hand, his left hand. I think of how I’d drive to the basket sometimes, if we were outmatched or tired from marathon games, if neither of us could get a good look at the hoop, I’d drive hard to his defender, taking a shot, trusting if it didn’t go in, he’d crash the boards, grab the rebound, and lay the ball in. I remember driving into so many men bigger than me, jumping straight into them to avoid being blocked, the kind of sideways basketball logic you have to train and build into your system, your body, so you could get good looks at the hoop. My body taking hits in games we weren’t paid for, that we paid for with our bodies, that weren’t counted the next day or even next game, but only in that moment. I think of balling with Costar, both of us leaving limping and bruised, playing three or four or five or six hours a day. Never in a league together, but never not playing, always already on the court. Even later, when returning to Miami, playing those games early in the morning after long nights of drinking, taking strangers up and down newer courts, expanding our map of Miami ballerdom.
I go out on a run in our pandemic’d world, needing to push my body some, the safest cardio afforded for me and mine these days. I sprint up and down the levees of New Orleans, past courts I’ve balled at and past courts I haven’t. I feel my hamstring get tight, and wonder if something will get blown out, whether now, or the next time I try to play. There is no other cardio known to man that can replicate the sudden back and forth of basketball. The back and forth of sprints and tapping the ground, the staple of all basketball practices called suicides, because you don’t do that cardio, you don’t push yourself that way, for no reason. You only break your body down to rebuild it stronger, so it doesn’t break down when you play again. For the game, you train that way, for the game, you stop on a dime and run back. I wonder when I’ll get to feel that again, and if I’ll be able to do the things I’ve spent all my life doing, as I get older, as I have less time for training, as the wear and tear starts to wear and tear more and more out of me. I wonder if I’ll come back to the game completely changed, having aged like dog years through the dog days of a pandemic that took away my balling when I least expected it, when I most needed it, a pandemic that has affected our bodies in ways we haven’t yet realized.
There is an adage that says how you aren’t fully rehabbed from an injury until you test it, until you get back up after getting knocked down. You can try to test it all you want, but nothing checks a shoulder or knee or ankle injury better than driving to the hoop and crashing into someone in the game, to see if all that work you did paid off, to see if you’re fully healed. If you were, those hits, that getting back up, always felt great. It was a renewed confidence, a moment that couldn’t make you feel better. It was your body taking a hit, withstanding a blow, correcting what had been injured, and letting your mind know you’re back. It’s pure pleasure for anyone who trained and worked to get their body back, to play this game, knowing they’d only be faster and stronger from there on out, the last of the doubt shaken off. It was why whenever I was knocked down, I wouldn’t take anyone’s hand and would just get up, to prove that I could get back up on my own. On those rare occasions where I was hit hard enough, how I couldn’t take the other team’s hand, how it had to be my own teams, my own peoples.
I think of my boy Hot Sauce, called that after the And1 baller, who we called jokingly after we won a four-on-four where he didn’t score a point. How he used to throw his body around in order to get the game rolling. How his shotput of a jumper was surprisingly effective, how he worked hard for rebounds and picks. I remember playing a streetball game where my defender threw me down on the floor, the asphalt courts cutting up my shoulder, me bleeding all over the place. Hot Sauce convinced me to only beat them in the game, me throwing my bloody shoulder into the defender’s face on every post-up being our compromise, as we won the game, and the next one, too. I remember wearing an undershirt, with a T-shirt on top, with a flannel, with a hoodie to dinner with my parents that August night, my moms asking me what I was up to while Pops just laughed, the shoulder hurting as I kept smiling. So even though the scar has faded, even though I can’t remember what the score was, the pain sometimes pulses, reminding me of that good feeling from winning that game with my boy.
I think of Dwyane Wade, who was drafted by my Miami Heat when I was a teenager. I grew up watching my favorite basketball player play for my hometown team. And we all wanted to be him in college, underdog Marquette beating the Goliath on steroids of a Kentucky squad, Wade doing it all with points and rebounds and assists, a triple-double, playing the way I wanted to play, a smaller player soaring above the giants. Dwyane Wade’s slogan one year was “Fall Down 7, Stand Up 8.” For every basketball player that drove to the rim, that was the slogan, the calling card. We all took the hits for the shot, took the pain for the points, took the fall knowing we just stood up taller afterwards.
I think of one of Wade’s best moves, the “Euro Step”—faking your defender out by going one way with an exaggerated step, then pivoting sharp in the other direction, as you shift gears and lay the ball up. To do this move, you have to plant down on the floor hard for your first step, to sell the fake before pushing off with whatever you got left to go in the other direction. But selling the fake is also selling out your knees, your body, each step vibrating in your joints, your bones. To fake-out your defender, you have to commit your body to the move. I stole and used this step, over and over again, despite the pain that escalated with each step I took.
I think of being a kid and balling-out on the old block. With my best childhood friends, playing against older kids and figuring out our games, ourselves. Them calling me Crutches ‘cause it was my long arms that blocked them. How we’d all use the same Nike ball that was left hidden behind a porch, essentially the neighborhood ball. We’d walk to the park or wherever to ball out. I think of streetball games on 146 as we’d play groups of kids who walked on by, how we’d walk on by ourselves and play against other blocks, how me and my boy were the youngest ones, but we were balling and taking everyone. Basketball is how we filled any time we had with each other, shooting and playing. The game was how I made my first friends. When I’d be on traveling teams and they’d comment how I was good at scoring after contact, me and my boy who lived on the same block smirked, knowing we played that much harder when we got home, after hours of practice.
I watch He Got Game in the middle of this pandemic’d night, a love song to all those who ball. I watch the scene where Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by Ray Allen, is finally revisiting the letters he’s never read from his father, Denzel Washington’s character Jake Shuttlesworth. When Jake was trying to drown out the demons in his head, he sat on his bed, passed the ball back and forth to himself off the wall, dribbled the ball between his legs. They both were in sync, Jesus doing the same solitary basketball drills in his space, them both alone and feeling alone, just dribbling under their legs, thinking. I think of how many decisions I made while dribbling by myself walking home from school, or in my house on rainy days. I think of how many passing drills I did bouncing the ball off the walls when PE was messed up due to rain. I think of days sitting on my back as a kid after my mother would yell at me not to dribble in the house, working on my shooting motion, flicking the ball up and down. I think of how Jake and Jesus echoed each other, how I echo my father in those moments, how the hand may be part of the ball as the rule goes, but the ball is an extension of my hand.
As a kid, nothing sounded better than the swish of the net. It sounded like what people talked about with their morning coffee, with their morning breakfast. The sound a justification for the work I was putting in, of you making the shots you worked on, the perfect end to the knowing feeling that you worked so hard for, shooting around in gyms and outdoors and makeshift courts. The swish marking the end of that feeling, and the beginning of your next shot, your next move, where you tried to get that feeling back.
I think of playing with Pops, who taught me the game. The game being the first thing he taught me that wasn’t required, but loved. The first thing he loved in this country, the first thing he got good at. I think of him coaching my teams after work, or us going to shoot at the courts on random days, not having to say anything but pass and shoot together. How he’d run me through drills like stop and pop. How he’d come home after long days, having played games of ball afterwards, covered with black eyes and bruises, knees all messed up, my mother asking what he was doing. And he’d just smile, getting to live a life physically engaged through this game that was anything but just a game to us. Every time I write a rough piece, or have a rough day, I crave the contact of this game, the knowing, of playing and sweating and bleeding, of needing to take those hits and feel that pain, that pleasure.
So I’m back in this pandemic’d world, pumping my basketball up as I stare outside, waiting to play this kids game that played such a big part in my making it to adulthood. I’m now dribbling here alone, thinking through this year of no basketball, thinking of cuts and moves I made and hope to make again, trying to stay in shape with my long runs and short sprints, waiting for the next time I can play against some strangers and pull out my bag of tricks, when I can go back home and ball with my boys. I think of the next time I can move the ball around with my peoples, handing it off to J and rolling hard to the rim or popping out for an open jumper. Or having Costar set a pick for me and feeding him off on a roll. I want to know how hard I can plant my foot for my next Euro Step, if I could even do it, if the pain will gratifyingly be punctuated with the sound of a swoosh. I want to know the next time I can shoot with my father, the two of us sharing more in silence between swishes and passes than I have even said here. I think of the next time I halfhook my way to a win, of the up and under that rings out with a slap before I bank it in. I think of the next time I get knocked down, only to get back up and know that I still got it. Or the next time I take a shot, just knowing that it’s going in. I think of the next time, please let there be a next time, that I can ball with my boys, us all knocking each down, us all getting back up, no one remembering the wins or losses or final scores, but just the stories, the feelings, the trophies of scars and limps, and the game that birthed them.
Christopher Louis Romaguera is a Cuban-American writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was born in Hialeah, Florida and graduated from Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Romaguera has been published in The Daily Beast, Curbed National, Peauxdunque Review, New Orleans Review, PANK Magazine, and other publications. He is a monthly columnist at The Ploughshares Blog. He received his MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans.