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Patrick Hruby

A Father's Day Carol

Dad, driveway basketball and the cold, indifferent universe

My dad and I have never played catch. Not in the backyard. Not at a local park. Definitely not in an Iowa cornfield. Truth be told, I've snagged more popups in gym-class softball, thrown more strikes to golden retrievers.

Now that I'm penning a Father's Day column, I think this might be a problem.

Magical baseballs. Sacred gloves. Aloof, emotionally distant dads and wounded, acceptance-hungry sons. Such is the sappy, heartstring-yanking stuff of the typical Father's Day sports ode, a literary subgenre in which manhood, life lessons and unconditional love are explored and celebrated through spirited sessions of soft-toss -- or, in a pinch, walking a favorite golf course.

My story has none of the above. I'm not even sure if it has a point. It involves a single game of basketball. And it ends with me bleeding.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Growing up, I played a lot of hoops. And I pretty much sucked. This was largely the result of sub-mediocre physical gifts -- I had size 13 feet in sixth grade, yet lacked the height to match; for perspective, try executing a defensive slide while strapped into cross-country skis -- but also due to a lack of guidance.

Sure, I shot countless driveway jumpers, joined a YMCA league, even attended Lute Olson's summer basketball camp, where I watched a preternaturally mature teammate who would later star for my high school take 95 percent of our squad's shots. (Looking back, he probably didn't shoot enough.)

Thing was, none of that seemed to matter. I was stuck in a sandpit of lousiness. Because I never had anyone to push me. Coach me. Berate me. Stick a basketball hoop in my crib; take a personal, vicarious, ego-fueled interest in maximizing my God-given lack of athletic aptitude.

That's where my dad comes in.

Don't get me wrong. I love my father. Terrific man. Caring and warm and compassionate. Just not cut from crazy tennis-parent cloth. He's a university professor, a research scientist. He rides a bicycle to work. He often would come home to find my prepubescent self sweating and toiling in the late-afternoon Arizona sun, honing my signature in-and-out free throw.

Dad always said hello. He usually asked about my day. But he never stopped to play me, teach me, correct my outward-jutting shooting elbow. He simply went inside to make dinner. At the time, I thought nothing of it. The man spent his days surrounded by test tubes; his nights hidden behind desk-high piles of grant proposals. What did he know about hoops?

Besides, I had the help of my two older brothers. Sort of. Er, not so much. The oldest, Tim, took karate sparring classes with me. (By "took" I mean "watched me get my face kicked in way before MMA was cool.") Otherwise, he didn't play sports. Tim was super-smart, had waist-long hair, favored ratty jeans and alt-rock T-shirts, spent a lot of time reading German philosophy and even more time playing "Dungeons and Dragons." It was only much later that I realized he had been a stoner. My middle brother, Steve, was a better athlete. He nearly pitched his Little League team to a city championship. He played high school tennis. He funded his college spring break beer-drinking by winning beach volleyball tournaments. When we were young, Steve beat me in just about everything -- pingpong, darts, attempting to throw each other into the family swimming pool -- and I have no doubt he would have spanked me in basketball as well. Except for one thing: He was handsome. Which meant girls liked him. A lot. Which meant I hardly saw him once he reached junior high.

Point is, I was on my own when it came to basketball. Anything I would learn, I would have to teach myself. Or so I figured. Until the day I found my father's trophies. Not just any trophies. Basketball trophies! I was digging through his desk, looking for stamps. (Dad likes to hoard and hide postage; it still drives my mom crazy.) And there they were, buried and forgotten in the bottom right drawer: a couple of rusty bronze statuettes, frozen in mid-jump shot.

Are these real?

I had to know. I immediately questioned my parents. Turns out my father had been … something of a jock. In high school, he won a set against future Wimbledon champion Stan Smith; at Cornell, he participated in grad-school intramural hockey with Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Dad also played two years of college basketball at Valley City State University in North Dakota (he then transferred to the University of North Dakota), and while he was never more than a sharpshooting benchwarmer, he still played two years of college basketball.

I was excited. Ecstatic, even. If my father could excel at hoops, surely his son could be equally good. Or at least better than utterly terrible. And Dad would tutor me. Show me the way. He'd play Yoda, the elder master dropping pearls of wisdom; I'd be Luke Skywalker, standing on my head and learning to levitate spray-painted Styrofoam rocks. (At the time, I related everything in life to "Star Wars;" more than two decades later, I've moved on to "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I consider this a sign of maturity.)

First step: ask my father to play one-on-one. To my surprise, he accepted. The game took place before dinner. I remember it was hot and dusty, because our driveway consisted of unpaved dirt and gravel, which is highly non-conducive to jump stops and spin moves, not to mention basic dribbling. I remember my dad wearing his work slacks and a white undershirt. (I'm not sure if he switched from dress shoes to sneakers.) I remember getting the ball first. I remember thinking this was the start of something big.

From there, I mostly remember getting my [expletive] kicked.

My father is not an especially large man; just over six feet tall, maybe 185 pounds. Compared to me, however, he was a mash-up of Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. And I felt the disparity. Did I ever. Dad terminated my from-the-hip push shot with extreme prejudice, stuffing me repeatedly and remorselessly. He grabbed every rebound, just by being taller. He nailed a few jumpers -- coldly -- but scored most of his points in the easiest, most direct manner possible: backing me down, almost into the menacing metal support pole, before shooting two-foot jump hooks over my helplessly outstretched hands.

Only that wasn't the worst of it.

No, the worst of it was my dad's ruthlessness. He didn't care that I was his son. Or that I was puny. Or that I was dying to learn something. When Steve and I competed, my brother always let me hang around. Keep things close. Big bro won in the end, but he didn't spank me start to finish; didn't crush me simply because he could. Not so with my father. He played all-out. Never stopped to offer encouragement. Didn't give me a single pointer. He barely talked. And he was physical. He banged me with his hips, bumped me with his butt, cleared rebounds with his swinging elbows out. More than once, he knocked me on my rear; by the end of the game, my hands were bleeding, likely because they had sharp bits of gravel stuck in them.

I scored one basket, maybe two. That was the first and last time we played driveway basketball.

To this day, I still play hoops. Pickup ball, less of it over the years, and not as much as I'd like. After facing my dad, however, I never again harbored hopes of being a good player, or even a particularly competitive one. The gap was too great; the beatdown too complete. Picking the rocks from my palms, I made peace with my limitations, learned the wisdom of doing so: No matter how plucky or determined or clever you are, a bigger, stronger, better opponent is going to wipe the floor with you. Vigorously. To the point that you're better off finding a more appropriate field of play. Because life is not a Father's Day column, any more than it's "Rocky IV."

Hmmm. Come to think of it, there's probably a reason I ended up writing for a living. And I doubt I would have found it playing no-contact catch.

Thanks, Dad.

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