Charles Barkley’s Vertical LeapJeanie Chung
Ro and Charles Barkley were right, and I did make varsity. Step Three, becoming a starter, was going to be harder. In the meantime, I put a big x on my calendar for January 18, 1998, when the Rockets were going to be in town. A Monday night, too, so we wouldn’t have a game. Ro said Charles Barkley had just been playing with us — he probably told everybody he’d leave them tickets — but I knew better, and sure enough, when we got to the United Center there was an envelope at Will Call with two tickets for “Roosevelt and Lorenzo.” I didn’t even care that my name was second. He left us locker room passes too, which was why we barely noticed who won, since all we could think about during the game was what we were going to do afterward. We walked in trying to look like we’d been there before, but everyone knew we hadn’t, so we dropped that act and let ourselves be like little kids for a minute, pointing and staring.
“We’re gonna make it here someday, right, Ro?”
Ro was barely listening to me, just looking around with his jaw hanging open.
“Yeah, yeah, we will,” he said finally.
You never would have known he’d lost from the way Charles Barkley was joking and laughing. I mean, he’d scored thirty-five points, more than anybody on the floor except Michael, and kicked in fourteen boards. He had on a sharp gray suit, holding court over in the corner, a bunch of reporters and other guys standing around him, joking and laughing right along with him. As soon as he finished with them, he came over and threw his big bear arms around us.
“Y’all made the team, right?” he said, laughing. I nodded, but Ro didn’t have to. All you had to do was pick up a newspaper and you’d know about him.
“You got any pointers for us? Show us a few moves?” For one of the best sophomores in the country, a guy who signed autographs and had been since he was fourteen, Ro was really pretty shy, but a lot of times it was easier for him with people he didn’t know well, especially when he wasn’t the most famous guy in the room.
“Shit,” Charles Barkley said. “Lemme see if they’ll let us back on the court.”
Because he was a grown man and an NBA all-star, he didn’t have to ride the team bus back to the hotel or anything — he’d get a car sent later. And because he was Charles Barkley, they let us go back on the court for a little one-on-one-on-one.
I’d been on that court before, for the frosh-soph championship. I was planning to be back for the City Championship at least once. But that night it was different. Michael Jordan, Scottie, Dennis Rodman, they’d been out there not two hours ago. I swear, you stood in the right place, you could still smell the sweat.
Only the lights right above the court were on, which made me feel a little like we were inside a cocoon. A cage, maybe. Then, I started to think of those lights like a spotlight. This was just preparation for where we were going in a few years. Where Charles Barkley already was, and where Ro and I were heading. Except there would be thousands of people out there in that darkness, and we’d go from there to fancy clubs, then go home afterward to fancy houses and champagne and steak. No more plastic-tasting bologna with ketchup. I just stood there, smiling like a fool, until I heard dupp, dupp, dupp: Ro dribbling.
With all of us in street clothes, you’d think old Charles would pound us, but on top of the fact he’d just played an NBA basketball game, he had some kind of fancy dress shoes with that suit, which he didn’t want to wrinkle. So Ro took it to him.
“Whoo. I’m too old for this,” Charles Barkley said. “Listen, Lorenzo. Whyn’t you show me how you rebound? We’ll work on the box-out.”
He watched as I got my feet set, nodded. Asked Ro to brick one from distance. The ball clanged off the rim, and I jumped. I had the ball — and then it was off my fingertips, in his hands, coming down right in front of a big sweat stain on that nice silk shirt.
“Not bad, kid. Then he looked at me again. What’s your vertical up to now?”
He looked serious for a minute. “You’re still young. Keep working. You’ll get there.” He looked me up and down. “You hit the weights, get a little of that killer instinct. You gonna be a monster.”
He had to leave after that, probably to some fancy NBA party, but we didn’t care. Ro’s mom was outside to pick us up, like we were little kids, and we didn’t care. We had to go to school the next day, and we didn’t care.
Keep working. You’ll get there. You’re gonna be a monster. I wrote those words on a piece of paper and taped it right on that Barkley poster, right next to the list. I had two down. More really – not only did I get advice from Charles Barkley, I got my own little demonstration. He didn’t have anything like that when he was a sophomore in high school, I bet.
As hard as I thought it was going to be getting to meet Charles Barkley, it was simple compared to breaking into the starting lineup. I was too slow, not a good enough ballhandler, to play anywhere but down low. Which meant I had to beat out Mo Chambers, who was bigger, and, let’s face it, better. If I was jealous of anybody, it was him. Now, it’s not like I was uncoordinated, like you’d tell me, “Move your feet like this and your arms like this” and I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t always know when to move them in what way. Not like Ro. Not like Mo. I didn’t have it naturally, like they did, but if I worked hard enough I knew I could get it.
Really, Mo didn’t deserve to be a starter. He didn’t want it like I did. He did what Coach said — otherwise he’d have been out the door pretty quick — but he did as little as he could to get by. He was pretty smart, so he was gonna qualify for college, as far as grades and scores, but again, he did the bare minimum.
He was six-ten, which helped, don’t get me wrong. Still, he wasn’t some big goon out there waving his arms around and knocking people over. Naw, he made it look easy. His man would be all over him in the post, and he’d just take that little pivot step away and have a clear shot to the hoop. Really, his laziness worked in his favor sometimes, because that extra bulk made him hard to move if he didn’t want to. He was in good enough shape for a high school big man, and when he had to, he’d get into good enough shape for a college big man, and that would be enough for him. He’d never make it to the league. Didn’t want it bad enough.
“You know how Mo’s got that drop step down low?” Ro would ask. “Maybe you try working on something like that.” So I did. After practice, I stayed extra to work on my shooting, rebounding, my drop step. Boxing out to get the rebound. It doesn’t sound hard, and it’s not — you make a wall with your body, get between your man and the ball when it comes off the rim. You set your feet so you take up a little extra space, make yourself into a big, tall box he can’t get around. The thing is, you have to balance yourself just right, so your guy can’t just push the side of the box in, collapse it and get to the ball. Or go right past the box, if you haven’t set it down in the right place and can’t move it the right way. But once I got that vertical leap where I wanted it, I’d put it all together.
Coach gave us an off day, and I asked Mo to work with me. Just the two of us. He let me take it out first. I drove him down under the basket, got down low, gathered my strength just like Charles Barkley, and went up strong to the hoop. Got a little bit of air, yessir. I laid that ball right past him and in. He stared at me for a second, then took the ball, bounced it like he was making sure it was real.
“All right, then,” he said.
He bounced the ball higher, trying to make his own alley-oop on me, but I sprang up, swatted that mess right out. All afternoon, in that empty gym, I worked that boy over. He was sweating, and I didn’t even feel like I was breathing hard.
“Now we got something to show Coach,” I said.
Mo smiled. He was lazy, but he wasn’t a bad guy. If I was better, if having me start meant that we would win, he was all for it. Which was why, at practice the next day, he told Coach to let me work with the first team. Coach turned toward Mo, trying to stand so that I couldn’t see him frowning, thinking Mo was just trying to take it easy.
“We’ll try it. But I better not see you doggin’ it over there, Mo.”
Mo grinned and turned his jersey inside out from the blue the starters wore to the bench red. I switched mine the opposite way. Here we go, I thought. I can cross off Step Three.
When Coach blew the whistle, I ran down the court and set up under the basket while Poochie brought the ball up. Mo stepped in front of me, arms out. Poochie dished to Ro, whose shot clanged off the rim.
“All you, Zo,” he called out, even though I already knew. I got my feet set, sprang for the ball, ready to jam it home, and felt — nothing. Except just a little bump against my ribs, which wasn’t even close to a foul, especially on the West Side. No, my hands were empty, and Mo was coming down with the ball, which he passed to Tony, and before I knew it he was rolling on down to the other end of the court. Tony passed to Delano Brooks, who zipped it right over to Mo, who laid it in for two.
“2-0, Red!” Coach yelled. “Y’all pick it up out there.”
I would tell you what happened after that, but I still don’t exactly know. I was doing everything I should be doing, but somehow I was always a step or so behind. Mo, on the other hand, he was always right place, right time. And however lazy he might have been when he had the ball, when he’d D up, forget it. He was all over me like I was the last piece of pie.
After ten minutes, Coach called me and Mo over. Mo was sucking wind, but I bet I felt worse. Coach looked from one to the other and shook his head. We turned our jerseys inside out again.
Yeah, hustle beats talent. But hustle and talent beats plain old hustle without even trying.
“Son,” Coach told me after practice. “I’m proud of you.” Told me I was an important part of the team, and how special we were going to be when Ro, Poochie, Mo, and I were all seniors. I told Ro about it when we were waiting for his dad to pick us up.
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