Performers Playing the Goon
“Basketball, the game I loved, legitimized a transformation I didn’t welcome.”
It was early 2009, and the mood in America had elevated, for many, to a common feeling of hope. Due to forces in my life that seemed both predictable and unpredictable, mostly I hoped I’d make it through another hour, another day, another diaper change or daycare drop-off. Otherwise, hope was a thing that shimmered in a shop window like a luxury I could barely afford. I was probably depressed, and certainly sleep-deprived.
My daughter was one year old, and I’d put her to bed many nights and then wake with her for middle-of-the-night feedings, then often end up sleeping with her on a small futon so short that I had to lay diagonally on the mattress, her tiny body tucked safely in the triangle my body made with the wall and the head of the bed. She regularly awakened me for the day at 4 or 4:30 in the morning—which was hard—but she would then take these epic afternoon naps, rising from them often just in time to have a snack and watch a basketball game with me on the television.
College basketball, specifically the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team, became a kind of salvation for me during that time, something to believe in, something to care about outside the day-to-day drama of life with a small child. A third generation graduate of KU, I’d grown up in Lawrence, Kansas as a rabid Jayhawks fan and my fandom hadn’t waned much through the distance of years and age. In April 2008, the team had won their second national championship in my lifetime, a victory I celebrated alone by jumping around our front yard in Fresno, California and screaming at the top of my lungs loud enough for neighbors to emerge, worried, from their homes.
My daughter grew up watching me watch basketball. I was often acutely aware of her staring up at me as I paced the living room floor, bellowing at the television and yelling things like, “BOOM!” and “BOO-YAH!” when the Jayhawks scored a basket. At the time, the team was captained by a point guard named Tyshawn Taylor, a player who elicited almost as much praise from me as he did scorn. My daughter heard all of this conflicted love. Thus I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in the midst of the heated Big 12 Conference basketball season, as she was still learning to talk, toddling around in a diaper and a T-shirt, I’d find her again staring up at me. From the depths of her tiny diaphragm came one of her first complete sentences—the sort of thing a father waits to hear. Her eyes moving between me and the TV, waiting for the right moment, she bellowed at the top of her lungs, “Come on, Tyshawn!”
I was not a theater kid, and I never starred or understudied in a high school production—I have a terrible singing voice and I couldn’t dance or deliver a monologue—unless you count my performances on the basketball court, that Midwestern stage where, before a sparse audience two to three nights a week in the winter, I could talk the talk of heated competition. I could, in some moments, perform like I was meant to be there—even if I was out-matched, out-quicked, and outsized most games. I approached these court performances with life-and-death seriousness, as if they were a matter of survival; I had no choice, really, but to step up and act the part: Play my role or ride the bench; be the center, or sit at the edges.
At 6’4” in shoes, I was listed an inch taller in the official stats but still the size of many guards or small forwards, and I started at center for the largest high school in the state of Kansas. As a junior, I’d taken the spot of a senior who, after weeks of being pitted against me in practice, had abruptly quit the team, claiming he just didn’t have the passion for it anymore. I believed he didn’t have the balls to get whipped at practice by me every day; at the time, I was obscenely proud that I’d forced an eighteen-year-old into retirement. He wouldn’t be the first or the last person to express profound frustration with playing against me. I would later be told more than once that someone “hated playing against me and loved playing with me,” which I always took as a compliment, perhaps missing the other side and not considering if it was a good thing for anyone to hate playing against me.
I was neither fast nor quick. I had decent footwork, which only meant that I knew where to put my body to create the best angles for easy shots or to strategically impede the progress of my opponent. On offense I had a good drop step, big soft hands and a correspondingly soft shooting touch, a decent turnaround fade-away jumper, and a commendable spin move. My greatest asset to the team was on the defensive end of the court; my role as a defensive pest is probably what earned me the most playing time. I was usually a third, fourth, or bail-out option on offense. But on defense, I was the number one goon, a thug, a beast in the paint. On any given night in our league, I almost always guarded the tallest and biggest guy in the gym, which meant that I regularly had to guard post players who stood six or seven inches taller than me and outweighed me by twenty pounds; or I had to guard 6’6” wing players who were thinner and quicker and could jump out of the gym if I let them get past me. It was a lot of pressure. But I did my best to rise to the occasion.
When I stepped onto the hardwood, I morphed into a slapping, pushing, elbowing shit-talker who would sooner knock the crap out of you than let you get an easy basket. To some, I was a dirty player, a cheater and an irritant. But I was simply a player with limited physical talents thrusted onto a public stage, a boy who’d internalized his father’s repeated admonition: “The lane is your house. You’re not just gonna let some little guard come into your house are you?”
I always took the foul to deliver a message. If you came into my house , I was going to let you know about it, even if it meant I ended up back on the bench, sitting next to my coach. I was, as an opposing team’s scouting report once described me, “Slow but VERY physical.” I was proud when the parents and families of my opponents turned against me, screaming from the stands, raining condemnation down upon me. I even played to the crowds sometimes, egging them on and acting the villain. It was as if I was allowed to be the orchestrator of their unhappiness and angst. They spent more time watching me than they did their own child. It was probably too much power to give a teenager—kind of like feeding him a mainline of adrenaline and speed.
The second varsity game of my junior year in high school was against Shawnee Mission South, a team that featured not one but three future Division One scholarship players, one of whom would end up playing for my beloved Jayhawks. I was matched up that night against their 6’ 10” center, Dan Augulis. In the days leading up to the game, much of the focus in practice and in the halls of school, even from the scant local media, was how I, at 6’ 4” and 185 pounds, was going to possibly stop the Giant, Dan Augulis. How could I do anything at all to keep Dan Augulis from dominating the painted lane? How could I keep him out of my house? After all, I was definitely NOT a D1 prospect, and Dan Augulis had a legitimate six or seven inches of height on me. He began to seem monstrous and mythic, bigger than reality.
My dad had always told me that if you could get your opponent to focus on you—get them angry or frustrated with you rather than focusing on their game—you’d already won half the battle. I figured I’d already lost half the battle to Dan Augulis before the game even started, so I had a lot of making up to do. All I had to do was make him think about me. All I had to do was make him hate me. But I wanted him to fear me.
From the minute the ball was thrown up for the tip-off, one that Dan Augulis won easily, my sole focus was on psychologically breaking him. I didn’t just want to intimidate Dan Augulis. I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to destroy him. It’s hard to explain the focus and intensity of this commitment. I didn’t really see it coming, but once it arrived, I rode that wave for the rest of the game.
My unexpected role as intimidator might have been helped by the fact that, while playing a quarter in the earlier Junior Varsity game as a kind of warm-up, I’d taken an elbow to the eye that split my brow open and sent blood pouring down my face. The trainer had to tape up my brow with a butterfly bandage and, by the time the Varsity game started, my eye had swollen purple and half-closed. At tip-off, I looked like a boxer who’d taken a beating and was crazy enough to itch for more rounds.
Dan Augulis was tall. Really really tall. When he caught the ball and I extended my left arm up to defend him, my hand only reached up barely past his elbow. He could shoot over me anytime he wanted; so when he caught the ball and turned to face the basket, I’d reach up with my left hand, waving it in his face. Then I attacked.
I cocked my right arm, clenching my fist and curling it up to my chest, transferring all the power and leverage to my shoulder. As Augulis raised the ball up to shoot, I ducked in under his arms and, with my right elbow, delivered a quick hard strike to his rib cage.
And another one . Pow .
I didn’t even care if he made the basket. I just wanted him to feel me hitting him.
The first time I hit Dan Augulis, I could tell he wasn’t sure what to make of it. The second time I hit him, he looked scared. I watched him watching me instead of paying attention to his teammates or his coaches. At that moment, I knew it was over; I had him. Every time he caught the ball, he physically recoiled from me, curling away and backing off, looking to pass the ball instead of dealing with my aggression and my elbows. I’d effectively taken him out of the game.
He was afraid, or at least seriously annoyed. And I fed off of his fear and agitation. I swelled with it, charged as if I’d been plugged into an outlet. I wanted more , wanted to hurt him.
I called Dan Augulis bad names and told him that he wasn’t as good as everyone said he was, that he was no D1 prospect. I mocked every missed shot and laughed at him. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t scoring much because he wasn’t either. He missed a wide-open dunk on a fast break and I howled at him, telling him how pathetic I thought he was, laughing in his face until he looked stricken, pained by my onslaught of language and venom.
I could tell he was thinking, “Who is this guy?” And I had the answer: I’m your fucking nightmare, Dan Augulis.
We kept it close the whole way and only lost by a few points. It was one of our best games of the season against one of the best teams in the state. But it was also perhaps one of my worst moments as a human being. I still feel guilty for the way I played that night, even if I did get a headline in the local paper the next day—“Church Sturdy in Lions Defeat”—and I still remember his name—Dan Augulis—when I’ve forgotten hundreds of other guys I played against.
I’d like to say that my abuse of Dan Augulis was a turning point, that I quickly gave up such roles, but I kept playing city league basketball after high school in most places where I lived. I did eventually give up playing, in part because my knees just couldn’t take it any longer, but also because I realized that the court often brought out the worst of my competitive side; I understood that sports, and basketball, the game I loved dearly, legitimized a transformation that I didn’t welcome.
This realization occurred in part during graduate school when I was playing games with my English Department colleagues, and playing for reasons that were vastly different than they had for playing the same games. They played pickup basketball because they wanted to get some exercise and forget about books and papers and teaching composition. They didn’t care if they were any good. They played because they liked spending time with each other. They played because it was fun.
I played because I wanted to win and because, more importantly, I hated to lose. I played because I wanted to dominate and destroy another man in a sanctioned competition. I wasn’t interested in making friends, and I took sadistic delight when one of the professors in our department, the guy largely responsible for my course assignment in freshman composition, decided he wanted to join our regular pickup game. It’s hard to describe, without sounding like a truly terrible person, the enjoyment I derived from humiliating this guy on the basketball court. Our battles typically began with him sticking his hand in my face and me swatting it away. And they just went downhill from there.
In my defense I will say that he was at least as (if not more) competitive than me and regularly took on the assignment of guarding me in the same way I took on the assignments in high school of guarding the biggest and best player on the court.
On the basketball court, I became a different sort of person, a man I didn’t recognize—or didn’t want to recognize. It was a performance of self as predator and aggressor that I wanted to quit. After games, I had trouble sleeping; I replayed every moment, second-guessing myself, worrying that I’d become someone else, someone I didn’t like so much. It wasn’t the real me or even a character I wanted to play any longer. It was a part of me I had to let go, or at least try to—even if I understood that the rage and the performance would always hide beneath the surface.
As I write, another season of Kansas basketball approaches. My ex-wife lives a few blocks away and I have my kids half the week and every morning when I take them to school and in the afternoons when I pick them up from the bus stop. Most of the year, I don’t watch much television or get too obsessed with any one sport. I don’t care about football and only watch baseball during the playoffs. But from November to April, my focus shifts decidedly and dramatically toward a nearly fanatical following of the Jayhawks.
Once, when the Jayhawks were matched up with lowly Bucknell in the NCAA tournament, I’d invited a friend over to watch the game; as the game devolved into one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, I found myself curled in a fetal position on the ottoman, watching the Jayhawks lose.
My friend looked at me and said, “I feel like I shouldn’t be here.”
He was right. I wanted him to leave. I didn’t want him to witness my shame. I didn’t want him to see the failure of my saints.
The personality that defined my play on the basketball court has morphed into a role that I now inhabit when I watch games with an intensity normally reserved for the people who are actually playing the game. I yell and scream and pace the room. I squat down and bellow at the television, imploring the players to do better and excoriating the referees, even openly talking shit on opposing players as if I was out on the court. I can’t watch KU games in public places in part because I have trouble controlling my outbursts, but also because I’m convinced that the team needs my undivided attention and focus. These days, my children are afraid of me when I watch basketball. It’s kind of a running joke. They don’t want to be around and will, when given the opportunity, regularly retreat to one of their rooms to watch a movie on the computer.
Watching KU basketball games is not—much to my shame and chagrin—a family activity like it was when I was a kid. We don’t all gather around, wearing our Jayhawk jerseys, and cheer for the home team. Instead, I pace and scream alone, and they scatter into the farthest reaches of our house; I don’t know what I’m teaching them about fandom or fanaticism. As a toddler, my daughter rarely left my side, which meant, she had to negotiate the strange environment of KU basketball games, where Daddy morphed into a raging sports goon. She tried to keep up and would, at least for a while, happily watch me watching the games, perhaps because of the sheer spectacle of witnessing the change in my persona. She became an excellent mimic of me, a tiny walking screaming parody, like a mirror reflecting the worst parts of myself as a basketball fan.
I remember squatting in front of our television, screaming at people who couldn’t possibly hear me, and looking down to see my diapered daughter, also squatting in her triple-threat position (pass, shoot, dribble), looking up at me, eyes wide with wonder or awe or fear, as the two of us yelled, “Come on, Tyshawn!” and hoped that our heroes would not let us down.