Charles Barkley’s Vertical Leap

Jeanie Chung

“He’s trying to be all nice, like I got to have my hand held,” I said, opening the gym door to spit out on the concrete. “I’ll show him. If I keep working, get me a real Charles Barkley vertical leap, by senior year, I’m going to make this team special. You and me, dog. Ro and Zo. Inside-out.”

Ro looked at me for a second, then bent down to untie and retie his shoe.

“What?” I said. “You don’t believe me?”

He looked back at me, then said, like he just remembered something important he had to tell me, “Man, you see KG the other night? When he –”

“Ro.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m gonna make it, aren’t I?”

“What do you mean? You made it. You’re on varsity.”

“Please. You know. I’ve showed you the list. That’s just Step One. Am I gonna get all the way there, to the league?”

“No guarantees, dog. All you can do is keep working hard. Listen to Coach. You know he knows more about basketball than both of us can even try to learn in four years.” Turned away like I wasn’t there, like the conversation was over.

He bent down again to untie the other shoe, but before he could retie it, I grabbed him, hoisted his little bony ass up to standing, and almost yelled, “He knows about high school basketball. He never played in the NBA. A lot of guys weren’t all that in high school, and they blew up in the NBA. Charles Barkley. Michael Jordan. You know what I’m talking about.”

I was looking right in Ro’s eyes, which got wide for a second: surprised, maybe. But then they set. Focused. His shoulders, his arms tensed, like he was getting ready for that rebound, to pick off that pass. I’d seen it so many times, for so many years. Ro, he played some sick defense. He’d tear you up if he had to. I stepped off, and he smoothed himself out, bent down and retied that shoe, looping every loop like it was some kind of test he had to pass.

See, Ro and I had never gotten into a fight, not once, and we’d known each other since we were seven years old.

“Hey, man, I didn’t mean —”

He shook me off, still looking down at the ground. “Don’t worry about it.”

That’s how it goes with the people who got your back.

“Ro?”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously. I know if I accidentally step in front of a bus tomorrow, I’m probably not playing in the NBA,” I said. “Shit. Be happy if I can walk. What I’m asking is, if that doesn’t happen, if I work hard enough, if I want it bad enough, can I be one of those guys?”

Ro had finally finished tying that shoe, and we were standing face to face again. It was all good, right? Then how come this time, he really did look scared: eyes bugging out, hands shaking? No. This time there was a flash of that adrenaline, that fear, and then his shoulders sagged, he slumped a little, almost like he’d gone for the ball and lost it. Like the game was over. He breathed out, bit his lip, looked down, shifted his feet.

Then, slowly, in a real low voice, he said, “Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, they’re not normal people. North Carolina wouldn’t have taken Michael if he hadn’t shown them something. Auburn, it’s not on that same level, but still. Even if I never get hurt, I don’t know if I’ll be in the NBA, and I’m —”

“A starter? A star? I’m just a normal person, and you’re the next Michael?”

“Naw, Zo,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just, I mean, you got to have a backup plan, especially when you —”

I waited for him to finish, but he didn’t. In his mind, he was untying and retying that shoe. He was just about three feet away. If he’d been that far up above me, I could’ve jumped up so we’d be at the same level.

When the car pulled up, Ro’s dad asked us how practice went, and I mumbled something. I didn’t talk to Ro on the ride, or for a week after. I could say it wasn’t the same after that, even though we still hung out. Fuck him, man. He’d never played in the NBA either. He didn’t know any more than I did.

I needed to hear from someone who’d been there, and so I sent Charles Barkley a letter, asking him if I couldn’t even start in high school, how was I going to play in the NBA? What advice did he have? Besides the vertical leap, what else did I need to get my game to that next level? Even though I knew he probably wouldn’t answer, there was a part of me that thought he would, and it turned out that part was right, because that spring, after our sophomore season was over, after the Rockets got eliminated from the playoffs, I got a letter back. Handwritten and everything.

“Dear Lorenzo,” it said. “So somebody’s better than you? What are you going to do to change that? You probably know I didn’t have it easy for awhile in high school either. Neither did Ro’s boy Michael Jordan. We hung in there, though — we stuck it out and look at us now. Speaking of Michael, they’re about to win another championship in Chicago. Make ’em feel better and at least try to cheer for them when they’re on TV.

“As far as your game, there are no shortcuts. You just gotta do all the things you’ve been doing. Stay in shape. Watch game film. Watch us. Learn from the best. Listen to your coach. Roosevelt is probably a good influence on you. Keep close to him. Work hard, and you can achieve some great things. Look at me. I promise you, if you work hard, good things will happen. You’ll learn things from playing basketball that will help you your whole life. I promise you that.

“What I can’t promise is that if you work hard you’ll be in the NBA. There are no guarantees, not for you, your boy Roosevelt, or anybody. Honestly, you can do better. When I talk about how I’m not a role model, I don’t just mean kids should look to their parents and their community for examples of hard work and decency. I mean basketball players, football players, we aren’t the ones who are running this world, much as it seems that way sometimes. You don’t need to run around like some kind of trained monkey in front of a bunch of old white guys in ugly sweaters. You’re smarter than I am. Be something useful, like a doctor or a lawyer. Or the first black president. If you play in the NBA too, that’s gravy.

“Look at that! This is the longest letter I have ever written in my entire life. If you can command that kind of attention from a superstar like me, just think what else you’ll be able to accomplish.”

“Your friend,

Charles Barkley.”

Now, what do you suppose Charles Barkley would have said to that when he was sixteen? When he didn’t make varsity, did he decide to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or run for president? No. He kept working, kept trying, and ended up proving the haters wrong. Vertical leap isn’t about luck or talent or being special. It’s about who wants it more.

Charles Barkley was — is — a great man, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t know everything. For sure he didn’t know much about Lorenzo Bailey, if he thought I’d rather be president than play in the League. Hell, he didn’t know much if he thought I could be president. Now, I did hear he wants to run for governor someday, after he’s done playing. That’s different. If anybody voted for him, it’d only be because he got famous playing basketball.

That’s what I told Charles Barkley — some of it, in a nicer way — when I wrote him back, but I never heard from him again. I understood; he had bigger people to talk to than some bench-warming high school kid. That was just how it was when you were in the NBA.

A few weeks later, we watched Michael, Scottie, Phil and the rest of them lift that trophy on TV---all of them and all of us knowing it was going to be for the last time. I saw Michael with his two hands in the air, six fingers raised. I saw Dennis Rodman jumping around with that green leopard-looking hair.

“Six championships,” Ro’s dad said. “You boys don’t realize it, but we’re not going to see anything like that again for a long time. Maybe not ever. Lucky if you get there once.”

Ro just stared at the TV, watching Michael hug Phil Jackson, who probably had tears running into that big gray beard of his. I saw the Utah players walking right through that celebration, on their home court, just wanting to get the hell out of there. I saw Bryon Russell, the guy who was guarding Michael, who let him walk right past him to cut the Jazz lead to one in that last minute. I couldn’t see his face, but I doubt he was smiling.

Those guys — Russell, Karl Malone, John Stockton — what did they have to be sad about? To be playing for the championship, on TV, all those people watching? Standing on the same floor as Michael and Scottie? Charles Barkley, he knew how to appreciate that. When he played for a championship, he was joking and laughing. He didn’t need to win one championship to be happy, let alone six. Man, when I get to the League, even if Michael’s not there, or Charles Barkley either, if it’s me and Kobe or me and Shaq, and Ro, you better be damn sure I’m gonna appreciate it.

I still got a long way to go on this list, I know. I still look at it every day. If I learned one thing from watching that championship game, from watching all those games, from meeting Charles Barkley, it’s that those guys, they’re normal people. They’re not superheroes or something. They ain’t God. No, sir. Ro doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I never made Step Three, but it doesn’t matter now. My vertical leap? It’s up to thirty-six, maybe thirty-six and a half. I’m still on track, man. Just you watch.


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