The pound-pound-pounding of the basketball on the hardwood floors matches the rhythmic beat of blood flowing through my temples. We’ve only been playing for fifteen or twenty minutes, but the sweat is already dripping from my forehead and soaking my t-shirt — as the low-grade fever of a early July morning seep into the nominally air-conditioned YMCA gymnasium. I’m breathing hard, and my legs are burning because I’ve been playing hard. I always play hard… but when my opponent — and indeed the very man that I am guarding — is my younger brother, well… I somehow play harder. In these situations, some kind of sibling rivalry kicks in. And even though we are having fun and enjoying a bit of good-natured trash-talking (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) — let there be no doubt: we are seriously competing. Man-to-man. Against each other. Just like it’s always been. And probably always will be.
Jay’s playing better than I am this morning — which, let’s be honest, is really nothing new. Jay was always athletically advanced, beyond his age (and mine), while we were growing up. It always astounded me. And frustrated me. Except now that we’re both pushing our thirties, he’s somehow managed to flip things around and maintain the edge — now playing younger. Stronger, faster, higher, more gracefully. Nevertheless he’s frustrated, as usual, with his level of play. He always wants to be better — which is probably how he always manages to become better. But for me, I’m fairly satisfied with how things have gone so far. I made a couple of half-way decent shots. I pulled in a couple of rebounds. And my team won the first game, with a score something like 10 to 7. Sure, I was woefuly out of shape — and I needed to make a bee-line for the water fountain the instant after our team secured the first game of the morning… But I’m having fun. My Dad, my brother, and I are enjoying one of those rare opportunities to hoop it up together, instead of being separated from each other by the thousands of miles from Holland to Ohio to Texas.
And despite my brother’s athletic heroics, the team with my Dad and me is closing in on its second victory of the morning.
I check the ball and bounce-pass to my Dad on the left side of the court. I cut into the key, looking for the ball — my brother’s breath hot and heavy on my shoulder. But when one of my other teammates swooshes the tenth point of the second game, I pull up and smile at Jay. "Same teams for a third game?"
"What are you talking about?" he responds. "We’re playing to eleven."
"Nuh-uh," I come back, like an argumentative third-grader. "We’re playing to ten. That’s what we played to in the first game."
"That’s only because you took off after you got to ten," says Jay. His tone has become a bit more serious. He’s not joking. And my competitiveness steps up a notch, to keep in step. On the inside, my juices are swirling. It seems so obvious to me that he’s frustrated with the losing and that he’s trying to adjust the rules-of-play on the fly, giving him and his team a chance to stay in the game for a bit longer. It’s so typical, really. It’s so Jay. "We’re playing to eleven." He pounds the ball to me, with a sharp bounce pass. He’s checking the ball in. He’s actually expecting this game to go on.
At this point, I turn around toward the other players. I appeal with my eyes: "What do you guys think? Are we playing to ten or eleven?" But the other men turn away or register blank looks in response. It’s clear that they don’t want to get involved.
"Seriously, Eric." My brother continues. "No one in America plays to ten." The words feel contemptuous and cruel — like some cruel reminder of the fact that I’ve become some kind of eurofreak, after living abroad for five years. In the heat of the moment, I give no consideration for the spirit in which his comment may have been intended… and even though he goes on to cite examples of the Tuesday night pick-up game in Plymouth, where they play to nine… or the Sunday evening game at the high school, where they play to eleven… Always an odd number, he says… But honestly, I cannot hear his explanation. Regardless of the facts, I am infuriated. I am incensed. The pounding of the blood in my arteries is the only audio to register in my ears. In this moment, I can’t even understand exactly why I am so bothered, so angered, by this situation — but I am inexplicably cut to the quick. I develop tunnel vision. I can’t even remember what I say or do… but somehow, the game resumes.
Playing to eleven.
Somehow I play even harder than before — fueled by my incomprehensible rage. I dribble harder. I pass harder. I cut harder. I pull down the rebounds with thunder in my grip and lightning in my eyes. At some point, I put down my shoulder to throw up a shot — and to my shame and indignation, the shot is powerfully swatted away by my brother’s strong right arm, which is the classic signal that my brother’s intensity is very much mirroring my own. The circumstances of the morning basketball game have worked him up every bit as much as me. Whenever he gets fired up, he always goes extra hard for the shot blocks — those incindiary statements, those humiliating stamps of rejection, those devestating ego-busters of the basketball vernacular (I’d probably be the same way, if I had any ups)… But at any rate, after twenty years of playing basketball with the guy, I just know that the shot blocks serve as Jay’s intensity indicator. And at this point, he’s totally going for the rejection on every shot. Which makes me even more mad — and more intense. Which makes him even more mad — and more intense.
When I go up for the winning shot, from the top of the key, Jay’s block attempt misses the ball but catches my arm. And as the ball clangs off of the rim, carroming leftward, I scream at the top of my lungs, "GOT IT!!!!!" ("Foul!"), loud enough for the entire patronage of the Shelby YMCA to hear.
Jay responds with a disgusted, "Call that loud enough?" and guns the ball back to me for a check. And indeed, I am disgusted, too. I am fed up. I am furious. And after passing the ball off to a teammate, I back down into the key with 85 percent of my bodyweight leaning on Jay, as he tries to guard me. Responding to my dirty playing technique, my brother actually throws me forward, like the precursor to a NBA brawl — and I turn back toward him with hate in my eyes. I feel in this moment that I could kill.
And then, for some reason, in one instant on the basketball court — the spell is broken. I stand up straight, blinking, in posession of my right mind. I look at Jay. I look at the other men on the court, who are staring at the two of us. Someone asks us if we’re going to be all right to keep playing, and I respond meekly and honestly: "Yes." As a matter of fact, I sleepwalk through the rest of the game, embarrassed and ashamed by my base behavior. I can say nothing to my brother — and he says nothing to me — as we take turns at the drinking fountain, following the game. Almost instantaneously, the raging inferno of my anger has been replaced by a shivering, drenched, and dripping dose of reality. And for the rest of the morning, Jay and I experience a slow and silent thawing of our relationship. We guard each other loosely, in subsequent games. And we even get to play a couple of turns as teammates, passing the ball and setting each other up cordially. After we’re done with playing basketball, we get to talk a little bit.
I ask him. "You know what really got me to the boiling point during that second game?"
He knew it, without hesitation. "It’s when I told you how we roll in the States. Wasn’t it?"
He knew it. We don’t need to talk about it much further, because we both get it. We’re competitive people. We know how to push each other’s buttons. And though our emotions may still take a couple of hours (or maybe even a couple of days) to sort themselves out, this experience has only served to underscore the point that we know and understand each other deeply. Instinctively. We are brothers. And this is the way that it has been since time immemorial.