Once upon a time, I could jump high enough to curl my fingers around a regulation-height basketball rim. Could almost dunk a tennis ball. Could bang a basketball clumsily against the hoop just as it flew from my grip.
How I craved that dunk: symbol of what I could not attain, standard I did not quite measure up to. Hands too small, vertical jump too weak, self too short. The act just out of reach.
My favorite arcade game was Punch-Out. I don’t think I ever got past Bald Bull, despite all the Saturday-morning quarters my brother and I fed into the machine at the Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue. Children of divorce, playing while our father shopped for hamburger, beans, ice cream. Glass Joe, Piston Hurricane, Bald Bull, game over.
My best year as an athlete came at age 11, starting pitcher on a second-place Little League team. The year I turned 40, I hit two home runs in a slow-pitch softball game when the wind was blowing out with the force of a small hurricane, a meaningless accomplishment I’m so proud of that it’s possible I have written this entire essay as an excuse to mention it.
My friends played circles around me on most video games: Galaga, Caterpillar, Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Qbert, Ms. Pac-Man, etc. Later, I was kind of okay at Sega Genesis golf and the early incarnations of Madden.
I don’t know how anyone is good at anything. Meaning sports and video games. Meaning anything that matters. Any contest by which we determine our worth. Something about how much fast-twitch muscle fiber you’re born with, whether your DNA is encoded with agile thumbs or strong legs. Makes me feel better to think that, lets me off the hook a little. I cannot help what I was not born with.
But then there’s NBA Jam.
For a year or so when I was in my early twenties, two friends and I ruled the NBA Jam machine at a miniature-golf place in Tallahassee, rotating among the top four spots in the rankings along with the mysterious MBH. We were between college and not-college, the three of us, caught up in various personal false starts, sometimes taking classes toward post-grad degrees we would not finish, sometimes waiting tables, mostly just waiting. We met and played whenever we could, spending our tip money, dumping token after token into a painted pressboard box containing a few microchips to render a game that pretended to be a sport that pretended to be a metaphor for some future we couldn’t quite imagine. We counted victories, tracked stats, counted ourselves awesome for unlocking new achievements or hidden modes.
The disconnect between what I wanted to do with those buttons and joysticks and what I could do faded away. The just-out-of-reach became graspable. My nom-de-Jam was ACE. One friend played as KRT in honor of Kurt Cobain; the other friend used his actual initials with a sort of hip-to-be-square irony. MBH was anonymous for months, and then one afternoon, suddenly, there he was. He was a mild-looking kid of maybe 14. We felt no more than the faintest sense of shame to discover our arch rival was in junior high, dropped off at the arcade by his mom after school. We did not think of ourselves as adults. Our then-selves would be shocked at how old we are now and dismayed to learn that we are still waiting to feel grown up, to learn how much remains just out of reach.
We all played that day, the four of us, a friend and I teaming against MBH and our other friend. In my memory, I was on the winning side. I might be inventing that part. I might be inventing most of this.
The Charlotte Hornets were the team to be, Dell Curry pouring in three-pointers and Larry Johnson stomping around in the paint, collecting rebounds and swatting away shots. Get on a roll, get the ball in flames, get the announcer roaring, and you’d feel adrenalized, empowered, invincible. If only the coach who cut me from the JV baseball team could see me now.
That invincible feeling didn’t last long. My early twenties didn’t last long. Nothing does, except maybe our doubts.
A few years ago, I bought my kids the Wii version of NBA Jam. Like most Wii games, it requires little actual skill, but my kids are impressed with my prowess and want to be on my team when we play. This pleases me to an unreasonable degree.
At some point my son took our copy of NBA Jam to a neighbor’s to play over there. The neighbor kid is a bit of a jock. I watch my son play sports with him—catch in the yard, hockey in the street with brooms and a makeshift goal—and compare their athleticism, worry my son falls just short. I am aware of the psychology behind this comparison, how little my concerns have to do with my son or the other boy.
The neighbor kid’s dad has money, connections. Pulls strings to get his kid on the Little League team with the all-stars, the good coach. Their house is literally three times the size of ours. So when my son left the NBA Jam disc at the kid’s house, it was months before I suggested that maybe we should ask for it back. I imagined standing meekly on the front porch, the kid’s dad at the door all strapping and manly and amused that I am there asking about something so silly, so small, so insignificant and replaceable.
I am happy to report that my son negotiated the return of the game disc on his own, apparently without placing his sense of self-worth on the line. Perhaps I have not passed along my dumbest insecurities.
Dunking in the Wii version of NBA Jam is a satisfying, physical maneuver. With your left thumb on a small joystick, you guide your player toward the basket. You raise your right hand above your head then bring it rapidly downward as your animated hoop-star avatar reaches the crest of his jump on the screen.
The force with which you swing the white plastic controller doesn’t matter much, but of course I rise from my seat and whoop and slam my hand down ferociously as if hammering a ball home. As if doing something that mattered.
The dunk feels best when the ball is on fire.