When Harlem Globetrotter Derrick Canada arrives in my backyard, he’s wearing the team’s flashy warm-up suit. We shake hands and I give him the basketball. He swishes a 15-foot shot as casually as yawning.
Still, I’m not intimidated – especially after his second shot (a miss!), when he seems perturbed by the telephone pole wire running across my slightly slanted driveway court.
We’re here to play H-O-R-S-E, a playground game that adds a letter each time you make a shot the opponent doesn’t.
It was my idea, my chance at hoop glory. No one asked, but other than pickup games, my organized playing career ended at adult league rec games.
I initially declined the public relations guy’s invite to interview a Globetrotter, who would be in town promoting tonight’s show at the Coliseum.
Later I called back: How about a game of H-O-R-S-E at my hoop instead? I expected nothing … until Globetrotter management approved it! The game was set.
From that moment, I trained more rigorously than a Duke recruit. Even during the week before the match, with snow unmelted, I was in my backyard shooting jumpers in a ski cap and layered clothing.
By game day, I could whistle “Sweet Georgia Brown” in my sleep.
“Let’s play,” I say to Derrick, who let me go first.
I step to the corner, launch a nervous jump shot – and it hits the rim harder than if I had slapped a hammer against a garbage can lid.
We both miss shots until Derrick finds his range. I’m behind H-O-R to nothing after his one-handed shot.
Then I get hot. Two long-range jumpers, a free throw and a bank shot from college three-point range go in. Derrick’s attempts circle the rim and fall out.
I’m up H-O-R-S to H-O-R. I’m one shot from victory.
Suddenly I’m 8 feet tall!
I’m the man!
I can’t miss!
This is my court!
I consider trash talking (if only I knew some) – until I miss a jumper. Derrick responds with a dazzling bank shot that I miss.
He wants to seal the victory in style. With his back to the basket, he tries to bounce it between his legs into the hoop. It misses narrowly.
I opt for the only trick shot I know. From the free-throw line, my back to the basket, I toss it over my head.
It goes in.
I’m so elated I high-five Derrick. Even the PR guy shakes his head smiling.
Derrick’s attempt hits the front of the rim. I win – and somewhere Al Michaels shouts, “Do you believe in miracles?!”
“Rematch,” Derrick insists.
I grin and offer to let him go first.
From there, Derrick enters a zone usually inhabited by NBA stars with Nike TV ad contracts.
He hits a jump shot from 28 feet away, a spot on my driveway I never tried for fear of sending a basketball through my bedroom window. Then he takes advantage of my nonexistent hook shot.
Later he drives to the hoop, whirls the ball around his back twice and lays it in. When I attempt the shot, I land behind the basket in yoga position.
I’m sunk when Derrick drills a set shot from my porch. He wins H-O-R-S-E to zip.
Afterward we shoot the breeze while he knocks down a dozen jump shots.
Spinning the ball on his finger, Derrick describes his hoops background: played at Division I school Iona; tried out for the Orlando Magic; spent time with a professional team in the Philippines; and joined the Globetrotters four years ago.
After a day of sit-down interviews, school appearances and radio station stops, Derrick says he enjoyed the games of H-O-R-S-E.
Still, something bothers me. Judging by his incredible shooting prowess, I ask: How much leeway did you give me in the first game?
He smiles and tosses another shot through the hoop. OK, I understand – he’s a good enough shooter that he was able to miss convincingly and let me win.
“But I gotta admit you surprised me with that shot over your head,” Derrick says. “I wasn’t expecting that to go in. That was definitely a special shot.”
When he leaves, I still feel 8 feet tall.