Street basketball reigned at elementary school recess. If fate sent the ball into my hands, I would freeze in the confusion and exhilaration of everybody suddenly calling out to me. Cindi, pass the ball! Pass the ball, Cindi! Cindi! Cindi! Cindi! It was heady stuff for an invisible 11-year-old with delusions of grandeur. Dribbling would get me nowhere. Shooting would result in shame. So I clutched that orb of attention as long as I could, savoring my moment of glory. And then I passed. It would always be a letdown, my name forgotten as my classmates played on without me.
But that was elementary, my dear. Athletic distinction can’t be found on a playground, after all. It happens on official fields and courts with coaches, i.e., teachers paid to make sure everybody gets the ball. And now that I was headed into seventh grade—the first year of junior high and organized school sports in my hometown of Arlington, Texas—I would get my chance. I could finally be part of a team. Wear a uniform. Share in that camaraderie known only to athletes who sweat together.
Suiting up in the girls locker room before volleyball tryouts, I was enthralled by the realness of it all. Young hormones, tangy industrial cleaner and decades of grimed-in sweat swirled together in a musty stew of late-summer humidity. A cacophony of excited girls’ voices—still strangers to me—bounced off the cinder-block walls and quickened my heart rate. Soon, my medals would join the trophies of yore, forming an unbroken chain of ever-loyal purple-and-gold Chaparrals (Go big Chaps!). My face would one day peer out from a team photo that had grown yellow with age. Some future student—who might even resemble me, a little—would stare at it, contemplating my old-fashioned uniform, wondering what my life was really like. … That is, if I did well at this tryout. Not that I doubted my abilities; I was too young for reality.
When the volleyball team roster was posted, I scanned the names, certain mine would pop. I looked a second time. Slowly. Reading every name so that, this time, I wouldn’t miss a “Cindi.” But it wasn’t there. Not even on the ‘B’ team. Turns out my enthusiasm couldn’t overcome one small shortcoming: I was afraid of the ball.
While the cool girls practiced setting and spiking, I was exiled to offseason.
This calisthenics hell mainly consisted of running the perimeter of the school grounds, endlessly. But the year was young. So while offseason pained me, it did not deter me. Forget volleyball. Basketball would be my game.
I didn’t spend as much time scouring those roster postings.
On the first day of basketball offseason, Keilah Smith, a girl from my honors classes, ran beside me. I kind of stared at her, then blurted out, “But I saw your name on the list. You made the team! What are you doing here?”
“Turned it down.”
This seemed absurd, unfair. To make the team and not even take the chance! “Why?”
“I can’t dribble.”
If we both couldn’t dribble, then how come she was chosen over me? Was it because she was tall and black, whereas I was short and white? “Who cares,” I finally told her. “You made the team! Run with it!”
“But, Cindi, I can’t drib-ble.” She drew out the “can’t” and hung on both syllables of “dribble.”
Despite really trying to understand, the best I could muster was sour stoicism. So Keilah repeated the phrase, making the words longer and sillier each time, until we were both laughing.
From that day on, we ran together, planning elaborate junk-food feasts between jagged inhalations.
“Oh, the french fries (pant) I’m going to have when I’m done (pant)—with the crispy on the outside (pant) and the salt that sticks to your fingers.”
“Burger King (gasp) or McDonald’s (wheeze) fries?”
“Both (pant). We’ll have (gasp) earned it.”
Through all this running, a troubling paradox emerged: What if there was only ever an offseason and never an on-season?
In the smelly basement weight room, I was struggling to bench press the bar. Coach told me to stop clowning around, that if I wasn’t going to take it seriously, I shouldn’t bother. Since I was being unfairly scolded anyway, I gathered the courage to ask: “Coach, if this is offseason, then what is on-season?”
That’s how I finally made a school team. Coach still wasn’t letting me do anything that required hand-eye coordination. But at last I got to wear a uniform, pose in the group photo and befriend the cool athletic girls. My biggest triumph was getting the popular Analisa Perez to explain the entire plot of a Univision telenovela as we rode the bus to a meet. She talked while my stomach churned in anticipation—not because I had any hopes of winning, but because I dreaded the torture of running. This was camaraderie!
Coach invited Keilah and me to run cross country again in eighth grade, where the distance would increase from a mile to a mile-and-a-half. But Keilah was done. Could I run the extra length without my best friend? I stretched my legs on my mom’s mustard-brown couch and flexed my quadriceps. Up popped a hard, almost geometric muscle that I’d never seen before and have never seen since. I flexed and released, flexed and released. This is what I’d be giving up. Was it worth it?
When Keilah and I quit cross country together, Coach seemed genuinely disappointed. She went on about our talent. Perhaps if it had been the beginning of the year, I would’ve believed her. I saw Elma Barrera’s talent—she was a wisp of a girl who could run forever. But me? The clumsy one who was only on cross country because I couldn’t make any other team? Don’t patronize me, Coach.
“Did you hear they’re going to tear down your junior high at the end of this year?” This was my mom, last week.
“To build an athletics complex.”
“Hah,” I snorted. “Now there’s no place for 12-year-old me.”
“You know, you really did have talent in cross country,” she said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you even finished sixth in a district race. You were mad you didn’t place in the top three.”
I’ll have to take Mom’s word for it. Either way, my very first on-season did its job: I’m no marathoner, but Keilah Smith is still one of my best friends.