I never knew my brother loved me.
I'm talking about my oldest brother, Jimbo. He's an athlete - a good one. He lives for sports. He's wholly involved with competition, and he keeps only one goal in sight - winning.
Jimbo doesn't enjoy a close game, especially when it's happening to him. He likes to control the other team from the onset and win the game by a wide margin. He's very demanding, both of himself and of his teammates.
That's Jimbo, and that's why I never would have guessed that he loved me.
I'm a terrible athlete. Always have been. And from early on, Jimbo made it clear that he did not appreciate having an inept sportsman for a kid brother. From the time I can remember, Jimbo was always trying to turn me into the jock that I wasn't, the jock that he was.
It could be that I misled him.
As a kid - six or seven years old - I showed an interest in baseball typical for kids that age. And because Dad had lost an arm when he was a teenager, it was Jimbo who taught me how to hit and field the ball. But despite Jimbo’s work, neither my interest in the game nor my seedling talent blossomed. Finally he realized that baseball would never replace H. R. Puffenstuff or Star Trek in my world, even if I lived to be 100. So Jimbo lost interest in me and I lost interest in the game.
But Jimbo's no quitter, and there was still football.
Maybe he got the idea when I, at nine years old, wandered into the TV room while a Cowboys game was on - and I didn't immediately leave. I sat and watched the game with him and Dad. I even commented on the players' muscles. Jimbo told me, with a condescending laugh, that they weren't actually muscles, but pads.
Undaunted by my ignorance, Jimbo tried to turn me into an all-star running back. I guess this is as good a time as any to point out that Jimbo's eight years older than me. A huge eight years older than me. On the first play of our one-on-one scrimmage, I lost about 30 yards. I managed not to lose the ball, but that's probably because it was wedged between the two halves of my broken shoulder.
After that, Jimbo didn't bother me about sports - at least not until I got out of the brace.
Despite his previous setbacks, Jimbo tried just once more.
Basketball is the game that Jimbo loves most. Though when he was young, he was great at baseball and football, he had always been superior at basketball. He convinced Dad that I should play sports with kids my own age - my own size. Jimbo had a decisive advantage over me in all our sibling competitions, and he was never one to relinquish his upper hand.
I remember being really happy when Dad told me he'd signed me up for a basketball team. It's funny now to think about how eagerly I anticipated what became one of the most humiliating times of my life.
Are you thinking it couldn't have been all that bad? Let me share one of the many examples that I can still recall.
Once, my friend and teammate, Jamie, got into a situation where he and a guy from the other team both had death grips on the ball. Neither player would let go. The referee blew his whistle and everyone from both teams went to stand around the circle in the middle of the court. I figured I should do the same.
Jamie and the other guy were with the referee in the middle of the circle. The referee had the ball in his hand and his whistle in his mouth. He blew a staccato tweet then tossed the ball straight up. Jamie and the other guy jumped up to hit the ball.
I'm sure there's a term that basketball players use to briefly describe the entire course of events, but I can't imagine what it could be.
Anyway, Jamie jumped higher. He slapped the ball - to me! After a second of shock, I turned and ran dribbling to the basket behind me.
I could hear everyone - my team, the crowd. "Go! Go! Go!"
No one was around. Nobody could stop me. I shot - and missed.
The referee blew his whistle. Everybody went back to the circle.
Jamie and the other guy were in the middle again with the referee. Up went the ball. The two boys jumped and Jamie swatted the ball to me again. I again ran amid cheers of "Go!" to the basket. I shot. I missed.
The referee blew his whistle. Everyone returned to the circle.
Jamie and the other guy were in the middle with the referee a third time.
I was beginning to wonder what was going on.
This time Jamie glared at me. He pointed fiercely at me with his pointer finger, then pointed with his thumb to the net behind his back.
And that's when I realized that the cheers of "Go! Go! Go!" were actually jeers of "No! No! No!"
What terrified me most was Jamie's pointing indicated that he planned to slap the ball my way once again.
And he did.
This time I took the ball toward our own team's basket, but I was absolutely not going to shoot. I'm no moron. As soon as I could, I passed the ball - to a guy from the other team who took it to his side of the court and easily scored two points.
Fortunately, I played for a church league. The coach didn't allow my teammates to get together and beat me up after the game.
But Jimbo's hopes were shattered. He couldn't believe I was such a poor basketball player, especially since he was simply an artist when it came to the game.
So he stopped dragging me out to play baseball in the front yard. Mom forbade him from playing football with me. And after my single-season basketball stint, he never even asked me to play that game. By my eleventh birthday, Jimbo had realized that I was completely uncoordinated and I would never become an athlete. He finally left me alone.
Well, that's not entirely true. Yeah, he did have the realization. But no, he didn't leave me alone.
When I was eighteen, Jimbo visited our parents' house where I still lived. I was sitting on the front room couch reading the Sunday newspaper when he came in. I glanced up when the door opened, but I didn't offer him any more than a nod - he came every Sunday. I returned my attention to my paper until it was heavily crushed by the weight of the baseball mitt Jimbo tossed into my lap.
"Suit up, brat," he ordered. "You made the team."
Jimbo always played softball in one of the local slow-pitch leagues. This year, he was the player/coach of a team in the Port Orange league, and he didn't have enough names to make a roster. Out of desperation, Jimbo added me to the list. I was the tenth man, or in playground terms, last pick.
Jimbo and I went to the first practice in his '76 El Camino.
Ever since my one and only basketball season, I never looked forward to new athletic experiences. The few I had were always forced on my - like this one.
We didn't talk. I was nervous, scared. I knew I was just going to end up humiliating myself and embarrassing Jimbo again. All I could think about was my ineptitude. All I could hear were the gibes of Jimbo's teammates - "That's your brother!?!"
The players were all friends of Jimbo's. All of his buddies were older than me and most didn't like me. Ken, in particular, hated me. Ken was the team's heavy hitter.
When we got to the field, I was surprised to see Sean, a guy I knew from high school. I never figured Sean for an athlete. I eventually found out that he really enjoyed and understood sports. Watching sports. He wasn't very athletic. Sean played on the team mostly because everyone liked his jokes.
It was a light practice with everyone just taking about fifteen swings at the ball, then running to first base on the last hit. While one player batted, the rest of the team fielded the hits. I was in right field fielding mostly nothing.
After the ninth player took his final hit, I started hoping Jimbo would forget that I never had my turn at bat. OK, Jimbo. You're supposed to tell us to pack up and go home. Please tell us to pack up and go home, Jimbo.
"You're up, punk."
Obviously, Jimbo hadn't read the script.
I trotted in from right field, chose a comfortable bat and took a couple practice swings. I stepped up to the plate.
Of my fifteen attempts, I connected three times. I hit two foul balls and on my last swing, I pounded a slow ground ball right to the pitcher - right to Jimbo.
And I beat Jimbo's throw!
Everyone laughed, but not only because I'd outrun Jimbo's arm. They laughed because they knew that even Jimbo, himself a fast runner, could not beat a throw from the pitcher's mound to first base. Yelling from right-center field, Sean told him so. "Hey, Jimbo! Your little brother's faster than you!!"
That was a challenge.
Jimbo, who'd put me on the team simply so he could field a team, would not easily accept that I was in any way a better athlete than him. To shut his teammates up, he called me back to the infield.
"Get back here, brat!"
The race was from home plate to first base. Me and Jimbo would run along either side of the baseline. I started on the side nearest the dugout. The team converged in anticipation.
Ken was the starter. He held up his meaty arm and counted. "One. Two. Three." He dropped his arm. "Go!!!"
And we went. We were close. Tight. Everyone was yelling, laughing.
Then, through a white-wall tunnel, I saw the clay-tinged base, still forever away. I heard Jimbo's steps. Or were they mine? We were in perfect stride.
Jimbo and I'd been running for a while. John Henry against the steam hammer. We were driving hard.
Two steps per heartbeat - and our hearts were beating fast.
Closer. Jimbo pulled ahead. We were out of step now.
I saw the canvas bag, and I saw Jimbo's foot nearing it.
Jimbo's foot first, and then mine.
Then Jimbo's foot. Then mine.
Then Jimbo's. Then mine.
Then Jim... Then mine.
Then Ji... Then mine.
Then spa-paff!! The sound of two feet hitting the same pillow of heavy, stuffed cloth almost simultaneously.
The race was close. So close that nobody knew who'd won. Nobody, that is, except for Jimbo and me. And desperately gasping for air, I couldn't say anything. Jimbo, also panting too hard to speak, just laughed without smiling. He put his hands on his hips and walked away shaking his head.
It was then they knew.
Silence followed. Shock. Regardless of their taunts, no one actually believed Jimbo would lose – whether I was faster than him or not. They all knew he'd call on something from somewhere.
Ken recovered first.
He turned his head and spat tobacco on the clay in front of his right foot. He kept his head turned while watching Jimbo stalk toward center field. A boyish, mocking smile crept across his lips, into his eyes.
"Hey, Jimbo," he called innocently. "Who won?"
When the season began, I was number eight in the lineup. I had only one strategy to call on - hit a ground ball.
I hit grounders that usually didn't make it out of the infield as consistently as Ken hit long flies that often flew over the fence. I had more hits than Ken only because I wasn't immediately out as soon as the opponents caught my hits. They had to throw - and there were very few players who could throw the ball to the first baseman before I got there.
About a third of the way through the season, Jimbo moved me to the lead-off batting position. Ken didn't like that at all.
"He's a bad player, Jimbo!"
"He gets on base."
"Christ! He's only got one hit!"
"You've only got one hit."
".572 batting average."
"He's only got one hit!"
"You've only got one hit."
The argument - just those six points in varying order - went on for about fifteen minutes. Ken finally, grudgingly relented once Jimbo mentioned that, by batting first, I was at least once per game unable to force out the base runner ahead of me.
Jimbo asked me to play on his team for the next couple of seasons. When he had enough defensive players, he made me a designated hitter. I was happy with that. So was Ken. He seemed to believe that I was intentionally trying - with my comically offensive defense - to give him a heart attack.
One afternoon, Jimbo took me out to shoot some baskets. That was a surprise.
I didn't realize it before then, but Jimbo still wanted me to learn the game that he most loved. Maybe he thought that since I enjoyed and had even developed some meager skill at softball, I was ready to learn other sports.
So Jimbo took me out to shoot hoops.
After I lobbed the ball up at the net - and missed - a couple times, Jimbo gave his first instruction. "You don't throw the ball. You push it away from you with the hand that's under the ball. You keep your other hand on the ball just for balance." To demonstrate, he took several single-handed shots. He made all but one.
He passed the ball back to me.
After about twenty minutes of practice, I was able to hit standing shots pretty accurately from anywhere in front of the free-throw line.
"Of course, in a real game, punk, you won't have any chances to just stand there, take your time and shoot." So Jimbo taught me how to do lay-ups. He explained that I should run, jump as high as I could, then nudge the ball over the rim. Again, he demonstrated a few times before passing the ball to me.
I tried several times. I failed miserably each of those several times.
Between my attempts, Jimbo gave me advice in his very demanding way. "Watch your timing." "More speed." "Jump higher."
Eventually, I made my first shot. Then I missed the next four.
"Watch your timing."
I hit a couple more times, but I still wasn't consistent at all.
Again and again, I went up. But I still had more misses than hits.
"I'm tired, Jimbo."
"I said, I'm tired!"
That pissed me off. I started my lay-up determined to jump as high as I could and miss anyway just to shut him up. Just so I could say, "I told you so."
Just to say, "You know I can't play this damn game anyway."
I ran fast, I watched my timing, and I jumped. When I reached the hoop, I let the ball roll from my fingertips into the basket.
After I landed, I turned, ready to confront Jimbo with a sarcastic "Was that high enough for you?" But when I saw Jimbo, I couldn't say anything. I was shocked.
Jimbo stood with his hands on his hips. He laughed without humor, turned and took a few steps away from me shaking his head.
Why's he mad? I made the shot.
He faced me and ordered, "Do that again!"
I was too confused to argue about being tired - I'd even stopped thinking about how tired I was. I was just trying to figure out why Jimbo was mad.
So I did another lay-up. I made the shot again - easily - with the ball again rolling down into the goal. Maybe I got it right this time.
I looked over at Jimbo.
He still had his hands on his waist. He shook his head and turned around. But this time, he didn't walk away. He faced me again, but his angry smile had been replaced by a sarcastic one.
Then I smiled tauntingly back as the realization hit me.
Jimbo's five-foot-nine-inch, midget kid brother - a moron when it came to basketball - was able to dunk. That's something that Jimbo, even with his six-foot-two-inch height, had never been able to do.
That's why he was mad!
Jimbo tested me a few more times in a vain attempt to disprove his observation. He had me do lay-ups with full intent to dunk the ball. I tried, but since I couldn't grip the ball with one hand, I'd lose control and miss every time.
Then Jimbo told me to try once more using both hands. My stomach muscles ached from being stretched so much, but I tried once more, and ...
The next weekend, Jimbo took me to a card game at Ken's house.
As we started up the sidewalk, I noticed Ken, Sean, and two of Jimbo's friends who I didn't know sitting on the porch. They all put on wry smiles when they saw me.
Ken squinted at me as though trying with his stare to somehow alter a fact that he didn't want to be true. When I reached the screen door, behind which the guys were sitting, Ken half asked, half demanded, "You can dunk a basketball?!"
With my affirmation, Ken laughed and shook his head. The other guys laughed too.
"He's the next Spud Webb." That was Sean. Being shorter than me and not a talented sportsman himself, he really enjoyed the irony in my ability to outrun and outjump these guys who lived only for sports.
During the card game, Ken checked several times whether I could really dunk a basketball. Every time I said yes, everybody laughed.
Jimbo boisterously added to my replies.
"The little brat can't palm the ball, so he can only do two-handed dunks."
"You know, if you'd learn how to grip the ball, punk, you wouldn't have to jump so high."
"You won't be cool until you can do a tomahawk dunk."
Those were compliments.
Amazing! Jimbo was actually beaming with pride over my new-found talent.
Jimbo began dragging me out to the court every chance he got. Then, one day when I was coming home from work, I saw Jimbo and Dad as they'd just finished installing a basketball net by our driveway.
Jimbo went to the garage, grabbed a ball and asked, "Wanna play with your new toy, punk?"
But I was still useless in a real game. I couldn't shoot if anyone was on me. I couldn't pass. I couldn't even dribble! And although Jimbo was apparently trying to teach me more, he actually didn't seem to care if I learned basketball. He just loved to watch me dunk.
I joined the Marines the summer before my 21st birthday. While in the Corps, I never played sports. I just did the basic Marine Corps training - calisthenics, long-distance running and weight-lifting. I augmented this exercise program with large quantities of beer.
When I returned home on leave, after having been away for three years, everyone was surprised at how heavy I'd become. I had a lot of muscle buried under a bit of fat. Me and Jimbo weighed about the same - but I was still five inches shorter than him.
While I was in town, Jimbo took me out to play softball with his current team. During the pre-game warm-up, I realized that I hadn't lost anything in my years away from the game - I was as lousy as ever.
The game began. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't the lead-off batter. I had to wait a couple innings before I got my chance.
When my at bat finally came, I stepped nervously up to the plate. I waited for my pitch and knocked a ground ball right to the pitcher.
I took off.
But the baseline - it came to life! It reached up and grabbed my ankles, held me, slowed me down. No matter how hard I tried - how fast I pumped my legs, I couldn't speed up.
The pitcher's throw beat me by about ten minutes.
I went back to the dugout. Jimbo was standing there penciling my latest statistic into a notebook. I walked slowly along the bench. I glanced at the eyes of my teammates. Looks of shallow pity from those who knew me. Looks of deep contempt from those who didn't.
What was Jimbo going to say? I had to go over there - it's where I'd been sitting before my non-hit. I'd been joking around with Sean. If I sat anywhere else, Jimbo would know I was avoiding him.
I decided. I went to where I'd sat before.
Jimbo glanced at me as he tossed the book onto the bench. It landed by my left leg. He turned back to watch the game. His hands were on his hips.
After a quick grip of seconds, he spoke. "You lost a step."
He faced me again to assure himself that he'd been heard. He was smiling broadly.
Smiling!?! My aggressively athletic brother? It was unthinkable that he'd consider my new slowness as anything but a personal affront.
Then I smiled too. I understood.
I'll never dunk another basketball or beat another throw to first base, but that doesn't matter now.Jimbo saw me when I could.