Way to Hustle
By Wes Prussing

Look: a back-top court framed by a tall chain-link fence that droops ominously between rusted posts. The posts bend inward like soda straws. Closer now. See: a metal backboard stenciled with marble-size holes. A chain net hangs from a steel rim by two hooks. The net is hopelessly knotted and serves no purpose other then providing a spatial reference for shooters who cannot gage the hoop’s curious elliptical tilt. Balls fly through the hoop but do not disturb the net. Balls bounce off the backboard and are tipped back up. Moist palms smack against leather, cloth and against damp flesh. Sneakers squeak. Sweat darkens all the colors. Everything looks washed out. There is little talk, just the occasional, “… yes… three… my bad… shit…”

Two captains choose sides. They hammer the air with their fists, counting in unison: “one… two …”

Everyone stops. Looks. Waits.

“Yes! Odd,” shouts the smaller captain. He leaves his arm stretched out, his index finger still pointing down. “I’ll take Kenny,” he announces, and swings his arm around like a gun turret until it lands on a lanky player wearing a Lakers jersey. Kenny nods and trots over. Others move in closer but not so close as you’d notice. Desperation means weakness. Weakness means loser. Nobody here wants to lose.

Me. I stay right where I am. I do not move. The game is twenty-one; four on four, eight players in all. I look around and count heads. I know it’s hopeless. I know that if there are even nine warm bodies, I’m out. But I count anyway—force of habit.

Now it’s Mark’s turn. “Wannamaker,” he says without a trace of deliberation.

Mark is the best player on the court. His choice of teammates is of little consequence. He knows he’s going to win regardless of his picks. He knows the whole process is just theater, an amusement. Wannamaker will not hog the ball, will not chuck it away or make stupid mistakes. He won’t throw the game away. Why make it more complicated then it is?

Andy’s turn again. He looks around, feigns consternation, lets a few seconds tick by, says, “Dunn.”

As he says this Kevin Dunne lets fly a short, ten-footer. It bounces off the front of the rim and lands back in his hands.

“Nice pick, Andy,” someone shouts.

“Kiss my ass,” Andy replies, then cupping his hands like a megaphone, shouts: “You suck Dunne. Ya better not do that during the game.”

And the ritual continues. Each captain makes a choice then waits for his opponent to make his. Soon Mark is down to the last pick. There are two players left. I’m near mid-court squatting on a ball, rolling it in a circle under my ass. Better then sitting on the sticky blacktop. I hear Mark mutter something like, “Okay, him.”

I see Dennis pick up a ball. He palms it and glances over at me. Figures. Just about everyone thinks he’s better then me. Like palming the ball makes you a better player?

The ball squirts out from under me and I flop onto the court banging my elbow. I hoist myself and swat at the daisies of tar and dirt clinging to the seat of my shorts. The ball is still rolling along the edge of the court and I start off after it.

“Where the hell you going,” Dennis says, dribbling past me.

I stop and he flips the ball over my head.

Someone calls out, “Let’s go Leslie, you asshole!”

“Dick-wad,” someone else observes.

I grab Dennis’s ball and head toward Mark who is at the top of the key bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet, stretching his calve muscles. “We playing or what?”

I bounce-pass the ball to the Andy who has his arm raised over his head.

“Our ball out,” he shouts. As I move into position I steal a glance over at Dennis who sits sullenly against the fence. He nods when he spots my spying eye and flips me his middle finger. I acknowledge his gesture by grabbing my crotch and giving a tug.

I’m in, I realize. I’m in the game. I’m as surprised as anyone.