I am ten years old, and when I watch Patrick Ewing on television, I see my father. I know this shouldn’t make sense. Patrick Ewing is an African American millionaire who dunks basketballs for my beloved New York Knickerbockers, and my father is an Italian mechanic in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a bankrupt city sinking into abandoned mines. But there are similarities between the two only I can see. Their height. Their no nonsense attitudes. On the court, Patrick Ewing is not a finesse player. A tornado of elbows, he swats away opposing players or barrels straight into them, daring them to take the charge. He doesn’t make fade away jumpers. He works too hard for that and relies on brute force alone to get to the rim. That’s my father. Fingernails black from grease. Hands hard from machinery. I go to his garage every day after school and Saturdays too. I pull weeds and dig meaningless holes in the back. I don’t ask questions about the dwindling number of customers, the hours a day my dad spends in front of the frame rack gritting his teeth, waiting for something too terrible for language. Patrick Ewing and my father, they both know the importance of work, the self-satisfaction of a job well done even if there are no rewards. These are my role models for what it means to be a good person.
In 1994, the Knicks lose in the Finals to Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon. I change Catholic schools that fall and show up the first day wearing Blacktops, Ewing’s brand of sneakers. Flimsy and white, so unlike the Air Jordans the other kids wear, expensive, elegant, sneakers that smell like the not too distant future. My new classmates make fun of me and gush about their hero, the ultimate finesse player: MJ, MJ, MJ! My reaction is to join the basketball team, to prove to them on the court that toughness and hard work always win out over god given ability, isolation jumpers, and an athlete who agreed to star in Space Jam.
My father coaches the team and we go 0-50. I score five total points in five total years. After a 60 point shellacking by those snub-nosed Richie Riches at Our Lady of Peace, my father takes me to a park I’ve never seen before, a park far away from our Scrantonian home. He parks his truck and passes me the worn practice ball. It’s just the two of us, and the combination of orange twilight and cracked asphalt remind me of apocalypse. The ground beneath our feet is hollow for miles.
“We’re not leaving till you make five free throws in a row,” my dad says.
Even at ten, I get it. He thinks I’m going to make the shots quickly. He thinks I’ll make five free throws in a row and be reborn confident and new, my anemic offense rebooted in a single stroke of coaching genius. But then I remember Patrick Ewing, the doom of his body, how he never pulls up for a jumper, how he always runs headfirst into his trembling opponents. I remember all those missed game winners, the gimme free throws in the final ticking seconds, the baseball sized pads on his knees signifying years of pain, how season after season he failed to squeak past Jordan in the playoffs despite promising the Knickerbocker faithful a championship, a ring he will never deliver, missing jewelry that will force him to become a coach in his forties in some misguided attempt at redemption. I remember Patrick Ewing and I miss shot after shot after shot. Darkness comes and we can barely see, my father squinting beneath the basket, me at the foul line junking up brick after brick. We’re waiting for one of us to break, and I’m grinning like a lunatic, and I want to hurl the ball at his face just as much as I want to drop to my knees and thank him, because I know this playground is where I’m being formed, that he is showing me to outwork everyone no matter what even if there’s no chance at success or power or reward.
Five hours later, we return to my dad’s truck, but he doesn’t drive us home. He steers into Scranton and idles in front of his garage. There’s a demented pride in his eyes, and he cups his hand around my neck, draws me close to his warm body. Whenever his friends stop by, they ask me “Are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps?” and I say “Sure. Maybe. I don’t know,” because what else am I supposed to say? My dad lowers the volume of the radio, perennially tuned to ESPN, to the fading careers of Ewing and all my other heroes. Dad looks me in the eye and speaks for the first time in over an hour.
“You’re not going to be me,” he says slowly, enunciating each new word. “I won’t allow it.”