It’s post-Thanksgiving and Christmas is right around the corner. Time to think about Santa paying me a visit and I frankly haven’t been all that good this year. A list of my bad traits includes:

  • Refusal to give loose change to aggressive panhandlers outside the Blockbuster Video on Bundy and Santa Monica Blvd.
  • Inability to swear off french fries and other foods high in trans fats.
  • Tendency to look at reflection in all mirrors encountered.
  • Unchecked desire for overpriced denim, chunky Swiss watches, and German luxury cars.

A negative trait that will never make it on the list: refusal to pass the ball. It’s been four weeks and I’m averaging the fewest shots taken among the starters. No matter who it is, if a teammate flashes open, I feel a compulsion to get him the rock. Our ball distribution is still a bit of a concern, though we won our last game convincingly. I fire off an e-mail to a novelist friend who is a former professional boxer and collegiate baseball player to get his advice. He understands these dynamics and responded thusly:

Reading your last e-mail, a strange and horrible darkness fell upon me. If it were possible that a heavy blow could alight on the brain without touching the skull, such was the sensation I felt.

You deserve the ball. It reminds me of my days as a youth in Aurora, Illinois, as a greaseball kid at the playground. Looking back on things, back in the day I’m basically glad I chased a lot of girls. Much of it necessary life experience but after a while it’s like saying, boy, I’m glad I smoked a lot of crack cocaine. Fifteen years on the shit and never a dull moment. Didn’t feel empty or repetitive either. That all changes tho—it’s difficult for existential types to find meaning in life and usually doesn’t happen. What they find, instead, are addictions. Here are some good ones:

working out
eating healthy food
sensory isolation tanks
deacon at the church
meal preparations at the salvation army kitchen
adopting a stretch of roadway and keeping it spotless
listening to others with empathy
practicing a jumpshot

He tends to get off-message and, as I read the e-mail, I’m not really sure what he’s talking about. It doesn’t exactly impart a strong mission going into the game. I start to worry that I’m like a varicose vein: superficial and useless. The Heat win the opening tip and I decide to try and make an impact on the game by setting picks, passing, and getting rebounds if I can’t score. The dirty work, basically. A Dennis Rodman redux. Things that don’t always show up in the stats but presumably help the team win.

We begin the game the same way we opened the season: our guards—Coach’s Son, in particular—dribbles with his head down and then lofts 3-pointers with a defender in his face. The defending-champion Heat match us shot for shot. They dump the ball in to their big center, a television agent at the premier agency in Hollywood, and he carves out space in the paint with his large frame. He’s doing damage, so we substitute Bigs, our UPN actor, and he bodies him up. It’s a good move and it largely neutralizes him. We settle down, start circulating the rock, and slowly begin to build a lead.

In the second half, Date Show Host is left open twice in a row at the 3-point line and he arcs both shots, hitting nothing but net. The next time down, fueled by the confidence from hitting his jumpers, he tries a runner and flails, the ball caroming off the side of the backboard. The Heat aren’t shooting well and I try to hit the boards and make long outlet passes to our horses who race down the floor and press the action. Our lead grows and grows until it’s nearly 20 points late in the second half. The game is seemingly in hand and eyes wander toward the stands—a girl group in Daisy Duke shorts and what appear to be blouses made of dental floss, there to watch their music producer, is bubbly in the first row.

We cruise our way to a second straight victory, and the commissioner tells us that other teams have begun to handicap us as the odds-on favorite to get to the title game along with the New York Knicks. How quickly fortune changes. And with it, disgruntlement. This time, Date Show Host has homed in on a teammate and e-mails the Captain that he feels like he, Date Show Host, should be starting. The Captain tells me he won’t make a change but he will bring in Date Show Host earlier in the games to run with the first unit. The next game is an expected victory, but we don’t want a letdown. My parents are coming into town and haven’t watched me play in two decades. Needless to say, the nerves have already announced themselves. Sure, it’s absurd, being a grown man and being anxious about a recreational basketball game. But I am. I don’t want to suck in front of my folks. I decide to sneak out of the office early for the next week to play pickup at UCLA and try to fine-tune the rusty game. We’ll see if it works.