The basketball hoop in my driveway was not straight. When my mom and I assembled it, we saw the marks on the sides showing where the poles needed to line up only after pounding the poles into the cement. This guaranteed the backboard would never be parallel with the ground.
Still, I was convinced it would make me a better shooter. Throughout the summer before college, I spent many nights shooting on that crooked hoop. I shot until the streetlights came on, until almost all the lights in the house were turned off. I shot until I couldn’t see the hoop anymore. I would just let the ball rotate off my fingers and guide it from memory.
The heft of the leather on my fingertips made me feel in control. At night, in my driveway, the things that defined and confined me dissolved into the darkness. I could let go of being the first-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrants—the family translator for all things mundane and necessary—and the oldest sister of a brother with cerebral palsy. There was just me and the ball, and the satisfying sound of leather going through nylon.
We were at the neurologist’s office again. It was a weekday afternoon during my senior year of high school, and I was with my dad and my brother, Ghandy. My mom was at work. My sister was at track practice and I didn’t play any spring sports. It wouldn’t have mattered even if I did. My brother’s doctor’s appointments were always more important.
There was a routine to these visits. We would arrive on time, sign in, and wait hours; the neurologist was always overbooked. The waiting game was nothing new, and yet my dad was rustling in the waiting room chair and cursing in the timbre that I had become accustomed to.
“Watch your brother,” my dad said. “I’m going to smoke in the parking lot.”
Ghandy couldn’t sit still either. He repeatedly drove the palm of his hand into his jaw. His face scrunched up and he let out a dull wail.
“Shhh . . .” I whispered. “It’s OK.”
He hit himself again, so I stood up behind him and threaded my arms through his, supporting most of his ninety-pound frame. There were other people in the waiting room and I didn’t want us to become a spectacle. But my brother was up now and there was no way he would just sit quietly. We walked tight circles around the room, steering clear of the little girl who was playing with the maze toy that resides at every doctor’s office, the one with moveable wooden beads and a tangle of colored wires.
I felt her intruding stare. I sensed how my brother’s unnatural gait and slightly crossed eyes horrified her. My brother took tenuous steps on his toes, like a baby giraffe’s first attempt at walking. A stream of drool flowed from his chin. He made a loud croaking sound in the back of his throat. I spoke to him softly and sang him a little song. These things soothed him but embarrassed me. I hated being in that girl’s gaze. My feelings didn’t matter, though. I was Ghandy’s sister, and this was my role.
We continued to walk around the waiting room, passing the same fake plant and array of Highlights magazines. By the twentieth traverse, I realized that I had one thought in my mind: Soon, I would go to college and wouldn’t have to do this anymore. I could be normal. I could be myself.
It took only one trip to get everything from the car to my third-floor dorm room. I had one suitcase full of clothes, a green and white comforter I ordered from a catalogue sent from the school (I thought everyone would have these), and some school supplies. I hung up my clothes as my mom inspected the small room. The walls were exposed white bricks. There were two beds stacked on top of two desks. There was a small refrigerator and microwave. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet.
“So this is what college in America is like?” my mom said.
My dad walked in after finishing his cigarette outside.
“What else do we need to get from the car?” he asked.
“All done. That’s it,” I said.
I didn’t want to draw out the goodbye. I knew this was the moment a lot of parents got emotional.
“OK, I should get ready for the first day. Fill out paperwork and things.” I had no idea what I was talking about.
“All right. We should get on the road,” my mom said. “Let you get settled.”
I walked my parents down to the entrance of the dorm. I watched them climb into their car and head toward the CA-99 for their ninety-minute drive north.
I imagined my parents’ ride home was a quiet one. They had given no indication that they were overjoyed or relieved or proud, but how could they not be? What they had done the last two decades now meant something. They must have looked back on the years spent awaiting American sponsorship in refugee camps, the various Section 8 houses that sheltered us, the many mornings my dad left the house before sunrise to work the early shift at Jack in the Box and the many nights my mom worked in Asian restaurants or nail salons.
To my parents, college meant an equal opportunity for me to achieve what every other American-born kid could achieve. But the weight of my parents’ expectations became too much to bear at times. They came to this country for their children. For me. What if my life wasn’t worth their sacrifice? To me, college meant a reprieve. Basketball gave me an identity completely severed from my family.
By the time my parents left, I had already decided that I would walk into the women’s basketball office and ask to try out for the team. I didn’t tell anybody about this plan, not even my sister. Because what if, after finally being able to say what I wanted to be, I was told that I wasn’t good enough?
I sat in the bleachers and watched players run suicide drills and jump on boxes half my height. I could match players with the names and faces I saw on the roster on the school website, knew their jersey numbers and positions. I kept my eyes on Lindsay, the starting point guard from the previous year. She was from Utah and one of the best guards in the conference. I analyzed the way she ran, how she controlled the pace of the game with her dribbling.
The season hadn’t started yet, so the team couldn’t officially practice. This was the fourth or fifth or sixth conditioning session I had been to. When I had asked Coach S about tryouts the week before, she’d told me the team was still undecided about having them. She had told me when conditioning sessions were. Though it was not exactly an invitation to join, I was just so excited that she hadn’t flat out shut down my request upon seeing my small hands, short legs, and 5-foot-3 stature. I decided I would just come and figure everything out later. Only now that I was here, there was no one to ask and I didn’t know what I was doing. I came. I watched. I left without anybody saying a word to me and I kept coming back, hoping somebody would notice me, give me a cue.
I felt like some kind of apparition haunting the bleachers. I was wearing the baggy basketball shorts I excitedly purchased from the campus bookstore and the shoes I had gotten years ago for a slightly cheaper price because they were in a kids’ size. They were a few games away from retirement. The flowery scent of my shirt was a taunting reminder—it smelled just as it did when it first came out of the dryer the night before.
A loud whistle indicated the session was over, and the players huddled up. After a cheer, they dragged their tired bodies and sweat-drenched jerseys back to the locker room. I worked up the courage to approach Coach S.
“Hey, Coach S. Is there any way I could join in?”
“Oh, hey, Maggie,” she said. “You know what? The team’s going to have an open gym. None of the coaches can be there, but some of the players are going to be here tomorrow at 4 p.m. You should come.”
“I’ll be there.”
I walked to the South Gym, to a court no fancier than the one I played on in high school. The freshly swept floor patiently waited for shoe treads to squeak against the grain. I sized up my competition—about seven freshmen and sophomores from the team and two other walk-on hopefuls. I wasn’t sure how I’d measure up to the players, but I knew I had to be the best out of the walk-ons.
The three of us formed a team with two sophomores. Players fell into position and an unspoken hierarchy was revealed. Each lined up against whom she thought her equivalent was on the other team. Clearly, I was not fit to be across from V-Mack, the sophomore guard who played behind Lindsay. When she realized I was the only person without a defender, she took begrudging steps in my direction. Her gait was commanding. As she got closer, it felt as if we were tethered together in a tight space; her overwhelming presence left little room for me.
I fidgeted with my shirt and bent down to double-knot my shoelaces. All the feeling left my arms and legs. I had to steady myself. I needed to run up and down the court a few times, get my legs adjusted to the familiar pattern of sprinting and stopping, cutting and backpedaling. To me, basketball was organized chaos, and we were all just charged atoms waiting for a chemical reaction. The ball was a flickering current and passing lanes were different routes on the circuit board. When the ball passed through the right circuits, the results could be electric.
We were on offense. The point guard dribbled across midcourt and passed me the ball. I was on the right side just beyond the three-point line. V-Mack backed off, daring me to make a move. I barely looked at her before passing the ball right back.
Once it left my hands, she didn’t resume her defensive stance. It seemed she had made up her mind about me. I wasn’t a threat to her anymore.
But soon the unrelenting pace of the other team’s scoring snapped me out of my reluctant play. I needed to prove myself. I decided to drive to the basket the next time I got the ball. It didn’t take much to get past V-Mack. I tried to stay calm and aim for the spot right in the middle of the square on the backboard. Easy layup, I told myself. Easy layup . But as the ball left my hands, Jasmine, the six-foot transfer from Oregon, came over and swatted my shot with her tentacle arms.
There is no act on the basketball court more humbling than being blocked, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. The other team was a couple baskets away from winning and ending the game. This was my chance and I was wasting it. When I got the ball again, I didn’t think. I just reacted.
Three dribbles with my right hand.
V-Mack got caught in the traffic jam of players in the key. Jasmine came over to make the same block, but I hesitated before I took two swift steps, flew under the rim and flipped the ball up over my head for a reverse layup. It bounced just above the spot where the backboard met the hoop.
“Ooh, V-Mack better D up because Maggie brought her A game,” one of the players said.
I tried to hide my smile as I ran back on defense.
I sat down across from Coach W, the lead assistant coach. It had been a few days since my reverse layup triumph, and I had been called into the women’s basketball office before conditioning. I still had not done anything more than sit in the bleachers and watch.
“I want you to go to the equipment room,” he said in his slight Oklahoma drawl. “And get some gear for practice.”
I sat up a little straighter. Does this mean I’m on the team? I thought to myself. I didn’t ask for clarification because I worried it might make Coach W and the other coaches change their minds.
With an oversized red-and-white reversible jersey in my hand, I walked into the women’s locker room. I felt like a timid houseguest, fighting the need to explain myself to every player who walked past, to hold the large jersey against my chest and say, “See? I am supposed to be here.” That jersey was my proof, and yet I still felt like an imposter.
I set my things down near an empty locker. The other players were in various stages of undress. I tried to keep myself from being conspicuous, but I couldn’t help noticing how different their bodies were from mine. Pronounced muscles along the ridge between shoulders connected defined biceps. Every player had clear lines popping out of their legs to delineate flesh and muscle, something I could only attain by standing on my toes.
I waited for everyone else to finish getting ready before I hastily tore off my regular clothes and threw on my jersey and shorts and dingy basketball shoes. I grabbed my things and ran after them toward the South Gym.
The excitement I felt about participating vanished as soon as practice started. I was not good at the kind of basketball that came with instructions. I remembered how confused I was when my high school coach scribbled Xs and Os on a white board, arrows in every direction. I didn’t like confined basketball. But I had no choice now. Practice was about drills and following instructions. It wasn’t long before everything fused together and it became impossible for me to decipher the order.
Tension was high in the gym. The head coach had already thrown down her clipboard and yelled at us for not getting a drill right. The assistant coaches barked instruction after instruction.
Run to the elbow.
Pop out at the wing.
Pass right, run left.
Go to the opposite line from where you passed.
Executing meant absolute focus, but concentration had an inverse effect on me—the more I tried to follow the directions, the harder it was to understand. Louder than the voices reciting those instructions was the admonishing one looping in my head. Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up.
The one thing I could do effortlessly was run. Even though I hated sprints, I was relieved when we ended practice on something I was actually good at. As soon as I heard the whistle, my body went into a trance. I chased the feeling that came in dreams, the nexus of running and floating. It always surprised me that this extra gear was something I could rely on, something other people didn’t seem to have.
I paced myself with Lindsay, one of the fastest players on the team. I matched her stride for stride. Whenever she bent down to touch the baseline, I did too. I had studied her long enough in the previous weeks to know her tendencies. In the moment between finishing and waiting for everyone else to cross the line, I felt a rush. It wasn’t just adrenaline but the high of knowing that I could keep up. That I could be a part of the team.
A whistle signaled the end of practice. All the players gathered at midcourt and placed their hands on top of one another. I was in the huddle too, but my presence felt like an imposition. After a cheer, the players seemed buoyed; there was a collective sense of relief that I wasn’t a part of, an inside joke I didn’t get. We walked toward the gym’s double doors.
They turned left toward the locker room. I turned right toward my dorm room.
The next day, my anxiety grew rather than lessened. Each practice put another fine china plate on top of the stack that I was already having a hard time balancing. Each drill seemed like it was designed specifically to test my competence. It was no wonder sprints had become my favorite part. Not only did it mean that I got through another practice, but that I could let my guard down. Sprinting required no thinking.
During one practice, the coaches were being particularly brutal. They wanted the whole team to finish a set of suicide sprints in a minute and thirty seconds. If one person failed, the whole team had to do another one. Everyone knew who to worry about: the post players and Jasmine. Even though Jasmine was long and lanky, running did not come naturally to her. She had the same body type as Tiffany, a track runner who moonlighted as a basketball player, who glided from baseline to baseline, the angles of her knees and arms precise and her pace smooth. But what were assets to Tiffany were detriments to Jasmine. Her arms flailed. Her big feet slapped the hardwood. Her long torso swung from side to side. She almost always came in last. We were all getting tired but the coaches wouldn’t concede. We all had to cross that line before time was up.
“Baseline,” the head coach yelled out. “Again!”
Jasmine and I were next to each other. I wanted her to make the cutoff. She was the only kind player among a group of indifferent ones. She told me to keep working hard and that eventually the others would come around.
Halfway into the drill, Coach W crouched down near the far baseline to get in Jasmine’s face.
“Don’t let her beat you, Jasmine. You’re gonna let her beat you? You’re gonna let that happen, Jasmine?”
Coach S joined in too. “C’mon, Jasmine. Push. You can go faster than that.”
I can’t remember if Jasmine beat me, but it didn’t matter. In the moment, I realized what my place on the team was: the coaches’ measuring stick. Even during the part of practice in which I felt most comfortable, I was the person everybody else needed to be better than. I would always be at the bottom.
On my walk back to the dorm after practice, I wondered what this was all for. It wasn’t for playing time. Or the team. Or the coaches. This was for me. This is what I wanted. So why did it always feel like my lungs were deflated and my airways constricted? Why couldn’t I just breathe?
This was my first shot at forming my own identity, but I felt like I was becoming something by default. I was being forced into a role all over again. And then, another question. What if I quit? That word caught me off guard. It came to me in a soft whisper; the consonants resonated in my head.
The next day, I walked into Coach W’s office and told him I was really grateful for the opportunity but that I was going to focus on school.
“Are you sure, Maggie?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said as I stood up. “I’m sure. Thanks for everything.”
The rest of my first year of college came a lot easier. I grew close to my roommate. I made friends. I flirted with boys. And I played a lot of basketball. I joined every intramural team and was often the only female player during pickup basketball games.
Walking back from games late at night, I often passed the empty blacktop court just outside the resident dining hall. Most times, I would go straight to my dorm, since games usually ended around 9 p.m. Sometimes, though, the open hoop was hard to resist. I would set my things down and pick up a ball, dribble it between my legs. Juke phantom defenders. Post up as if I were two feet taller. I would remember why I hated shooting on outdoor courts. Those double rims were not as forgiving as indoor ones. Every missed shot was punctuated by an emphatic clank.
And that’s when I would take a breath that released my tense shoulders, slightly bring my right elbow up and just let the ball spin off my fingers. Those were the best shots, the ones that seemed to know just where to go, even when it was hard for me to see the hoop.