“Knee Jerk,” New Era, Jan. 1992, 36
Guilt forced me onto the jayvee basketball team. The fact that I was an embarrassingly tall ninth grader factored little into my decision. The coach, who said my height made me a shoo-in, and my mother, who repeated something I’d heard in Sunday School about developing my talents, combined to make me feel I had no choice.
Actually, I could think of a lot of good reasons to become a star athlete. I wasn’t the fame and glory that made me hesitate; it was something much more basic—my legs.
Playing basketball would mean exposing my skinny, white legs with their bulbous knees to the entire world. My knobby knees, my skinny thighs, my fleshless calves would lose their protective veil of pants. The shiny white skin, long hidden from the sun, would be burnt by hundreds of eyes, including the eyes of the prettiest girl in the tenth grade—Debbie McCulley.
I had spent many hours trying to convince myself my legs did not look that bad. After all, a tall, skinny kid would look funny with short, fat legs. I repeated the arguments over and over, but tryouts came and I still hoped I wouldn’t make the team.
But, because I was the second tallest kid at the tryouts, making the team was surprisingly easy. And, best of all, we were allowed to wear sweatpants, so all that stuck out beneath the ankles of my sweats were my feet.
The sweats kept everyone from laughing at my legs. The sweats and the fact that they were busy laughing at my clumsiness. I spent most of the time discovering how slippery and hard a wood floor could be.
But as the opening game approached, my basketball skills were improving. I bounced the ball on the floor instead of my feet; I made lay-ups instead of fall-downs; and I rarely missed the backboard when I shot the ball. Still, there was no real danger I would be a starter. I wasn’t that good. However, I might get subbed into a game, if it wasn’t too close or if several people got injured. So exposing my legs was still a threat.
The day of our first game came too quickly. As the hours before the game passed, my tension mounted. In the locker room I noticed my legs looked whiter than usual, and I blindfolded them with the team sweatpants before going out to the court for warm-up drills.
I had hoped to sprain an ankle during warm-ups, just a minor sprain that would heal in time for the stake dance on Saturday night. My legs, as a whole, liked the idea, but the ankles wanted no part of it. After all, they had socks to hide behind. Besides, getting injured while warming up is not without its own level of embarrassment.
But the drills went well and even provided a level of encouragement. I managed to avoid missing any lay-ups and, since I only took close shots, I was able to at least hit the backboard. I also had the presence of mind to formulate a plan for avoiding substitution into the game, my strategy of “inconspicuous bench warming.” I would do nothing extreme. I would root louder than my quietest teammate and quieter than the loudest. I would be neater than the sloppiest and sloppier than the neatest. I even applied this strategy to the bench itself, deciding not to sit right next to the coach and not at the far end either. With some judicious maneuvering after a silent pregame prayer (during which I asked for the obvious), I managed to plant myself near the middle of the bench, but not exactly in the middle.
We lost the game, but I felt satisfied—the coach did not even talk to me.
Then the first home game approached. The coach told us the other team looked even weaker than us, and if the starters could run up a quick lead, everyone might get into the game. I managed a weak smile and tried to appear anxious to play, but not too anxious, as I felt my heart sink to my knobby knees.
The next morning started early. I couldn’t concentrate in seminary or school. I spent the day looking at each of my classmates, picturing them laughing at the sight of my outlandish legs. Soon I would be in a gymnasium full of people—including Debbie McCulley—and they all would fall from the bleachers laughing at me.
Eventually it was time for the game, and luck seemed to be with me as the score stayed close during the first half. With no big lead, the coach would want to keep the starters in, so I started to feel much better and resumed a moderate amount of cheering. With less than a minute to go in the first half, my position on the bench looked mighty secure.
Then, as if in slow motion, our center, Josh Pasquali, went down grabbing his ankle—maybe I was too smug and this was my punishment. The coach helped Josh off the court. Suddenly I was the tallest player on our team.
“Get that warm-up suit off, Kendall,” the coach barked. “You’re in for Pasquali.”
My mind raced to think of a way out of this nightmare.
“Kendall, hurry it up!”
I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes, and took off my sweatpants. I listened carefully for the peals of insane laughter I knew would follow, but all I heard were some scattered cheers and applause. I opened my eyes, laid down my pants, and checked into the game. Could the stands be filled with blind people or could they just be here to watch a basketball game and not my knees?
I made my basketball debut lining up to rebound a foul shot. My teammate missed, but I got the rebound and quickly put my first two points on the scoreboard. Some more cheering came from the stands.
The final minute of the first half went by much quicker than I had expected. Soon I was back in the safety of the locker room, pulling on my sweatpants. On the training table sat our injured center, with the nurse looking at his ankle. She poked and twisted the injured joint for a moment. I felt sorry for Josh as I watched his grimacing face. As I gazed at him, his big feet caught my eye.
“I may have knobby knees,” I thought to myself, “but at least I don’t have to walk around with swim fins for feet.”
I pretended to listen to the coach’s pep talk, but my mind flashed to Debbie McCulley cheering for my basket. True, I did not actually see her do this, but it was her job as a cheerleader to cheer. And besides, I was almost certain I could hear her voice yelling just a little bit louder for me than she did for the other players. Maybe if I could get a few more points, she might not laugh at me if I asked her to dance at the stake dance.
By the time the second half was ready to start I was almost anxious to strip off my sweats and play ball. I had taken my warm-up seriously, even practicing to rebound the shots my teammates missed. I saw sports herodom within my grasp. Then I saw Josh Pasquali come back out on the floor, take a few shots, test his ankle, and check in for the second half.
For the rest of the game, I sat next to the coach and tried to deafen him with my enthusiasm. With a close score the entire game, I did not get back in to play. After the final buzzer sounded I started for the locker room. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Debbie and two other cheerleaders behind me.
“Nice shot, Matt,” Debbie said as she slid past. She had noticed me, and I didn’t even do much that was noticeable.
“Thanks,” I blurted out. “Um. I can dance, too.”
“Great,” she said, heading through the door. “Save me a dance this Saturday.”
“Okay,” I said, and bounded joyously up the stairs to our locker room.
I sat down next to Josh in the locker room, thinking about the dance. I took off my sneakers and tossed them on the floor. They landed beside Josh’s pair. My joy of anticipation for the dance turned instantly to dread as I noticed my sneakers lying beside Josh’s. Good grief! They were the same size! How could I ever go to a dance with such big feet?