I wasn't conscious of any pain or unusual exertion as I rose from the blacktop. I was fairly certain I'd just had a heart attack, but I felt completely refreshed and physically carefree.
"Your pain should be gone," Death said. "Your transformation is complete."
Strange, I remember thinking, that a stereotypically skeletal Death should be wearing Chuck Taylors, the classic Converse canvas no-frills foot covering. The Chuck Taylors seemed to float unattached to bones or flesh underneath the heavy black robe.
"My transformation?" I gulped heavily. "You mean IímÖ dead?"
Weíd been in the midst of a late morning basketball game, four-on-four full court, when it happened. The other players ó kids really, none over thirty years of age ó had watched my struggle and expiration with detachment, as if I were an old horse whose time had come.
"I donít want to be dead! Why now? I was exercising more, watching my cholesterol. I thought I was over the hump, yíknow?" I was whining, but I didnít care.
Death said nothing, merely watched impassively.
"Whatíll happen to my kids? My wife?" I wondered aloud, looking for sympathy. If this was Death (and I was pretty sure it was) maybe there was room for negotiation.
"Sheíll probably remarry and buy a bigger house with the life insurance money," Death replied. "Your kids will lose focus, drop out of school, and sell your vinyl jazz collection." It pained me to think that he was probably right.
"Was this really my time to go?" Having quickly grown melancholy at the thought of no longer living, I was now appealing directly to Death for some hope of understanding the unknown.
"Actually, I just plucked you out because Iím sick of seeing you weekend warriors trying to relive your glory days against kids half your age. I was just shooting around over there when I noticed you." Death pointed to a court that had been left vacant and unused for months, a ragged pavement full of cracks and bubbles. The courtís rims were bent forward slightly, probably owing to excessive rim-hanging by overadrenalized youths in days of better court conditions.
Who knew Death could be so spiteful? So whimsical? I begged for clarification, and got it.
"We do have some discretion over such things as timing," Death said. "But you were asking for it anyway, werenít you? Saturated fats and the rich manís diet, then pushing yourself to exhaustion on the weekends to try and compensate ó it just doesnít work. Canít you people grow old gracefully? Flopping around and sweating through your clothes ó itís embarrassing just watching you. You should stick with the old-timersí game."
He referred to, I assumed, the 8AM weekend standstill shooting festivals that took place at these very courts. It was the hoopstersí graveyard, where one-on-one games went to die; where the definition of taking it strong was modified to mean dribbling inside the key before stopping and sizing up for a jump shot; where the jump shots themselves involved no jumping whatsoever. It was the equivalent of an adults-only swim at a public pool, a chance for the veterans of schoolyard play to use the facilities without the threat of challenges to their carefully crafted delusions of ability. Afterwards, the middle-aged basketballers would sit around and tell tall tales of past athletic achievements like a group of anglers stuck on a fishing boat with a case of beer and fishless waters, outdoing one another in the quest for the ultimate fish story. I had to admit, Iíd considered the old-timersí game on several occasions, but I was determined never to acknowledge defeat by gracefully transitioning to the elder level of play. I preferred an ungraceful transition, thank you very much.
"I never did get the hang of getting up early," I told Death, with gritty humor I donít think he appreciated. "Iím more of a night owl, myself."
"Me, as well," said Death, unsurprisingly.
"So anyway, you just took me on a whim, thatís what youíre saying?"
"Yes. And donít come crying now, either ó you asked for it. Youíre the one who challenged Death by pushing yourself so hard and not taking better care of yourself."
Letting Deathís third-person reference to himself pass without comment, I stewed for a moment over the unfairness of it all, when I seized upon one of the words Death had used: challenged. I thought of The Seventh Seal, the old film by Ingmar Bergman, in which a manís fate is determined by a game of chess versus Death. I also must admit to a mental connection with Bill and Tedís Bogus Journey in which a similar chain of events unfolds. Perhaps by presenting these precedents, I could give myself one last chance at living.
"I challenge you to a game of one-on-one, half court, for my life. Winner takes all."
"I already have your life," Death observed, correctly.
"Whatsamatter, you scared?" I wondered nervously if traditional goading tactics would work with Death. Was it even possible to get a rise out of him?
"Iím not scared," Death said, with a touch of annoyance.
"Scared of this? Huh?" I grabbed the basketball from Death and swatted it violently, indicating what Iíd do to any stray shots that came within my reach.
"Youíve got to be kidding," Death said calmly.
"I do not, I am not. Iíll stuff you like a Swansonís Frozen Dinner."
Death was hesitant to reply, and he walked quietly to retrieve the ball, which had bounced a good distance away.
"Come on," I called. "I win, I live again. You win, I go with you peacefully." I nervously watched Deathís back for some indication of whether my challenge would be accepted.
Death returned to face me ó Death, figure of lore, decked out in a black hooded cloak and sporting a facial structure and complexion that combined the worst elements of Edgar Winter, Keith Richards and Karen Carpenter. He held the basketball in his hand, palm up, at eye level, while beckoning with his free hand.
"Come for yours," Death said.
The goading had worked. I still had a chance.
Death recited the rules as I prepared to shoot a free throw and determine who would take possession first. "Game is to 11, straight. Winner takes out, anything from behind the line is 2 points."
My shot clanged off the front rim ó a bad omen.
Covering Death on defense was no easy task. His herky-jerky movements made it difficult to anticipate his moves, but they also made him a poor shooter Ė not having any muscles, sinews, tendons or ligaments will have that effect, I suppose. Despite the lack of skeletal apparatus, Death still managed to sneak a couple of quick points before I really got into the game. Heíd been shooting on the court before and was accustomed to the rimís peculiarities.
The first shot I released was a long-range jumper, launched as much out of frustration as strategy, after my first few aborted attempts at driving to the basket. While Death was an ungainly opponent, he was tall ó at least 6 inches taller than my own 6 feet ó and his long, flowing cloak served to cut off a wider range of the lane around him than his defensive abilities would have on their own.
Death whirled and charged the rim to grab the rebound. "All boards!" he shouted, clutching the ball close like a farmer with a prize hen.
He dribbled the ball back to the takeout line, and I snuck behind. Taking advantage when his robe momentarily tripped him up, I stole the ball. I drove furiously for the basket, not taking anything for granted now, as Death struggled to untangle himself back at the foul line. I laid the ball up off the backboard, watching as it softly banked in and through the shredded and worn net.
"2-1," I said, chucking the ball hard at Death with a two-handed chest pass. Death caught the ball surprisingly easily, and sent it back the same way. We exchanged these passes a few times, with increasing velocity ó the basketball equivalent of a pissing contest ó until I reached the foul line and took the ball out again.
I feinted a couple of times, hoping to catch an opening in Deathís defense. Death was having none of it, however, playing me tight and close and looking for an opportunity to steal. Death, strangely enough, had long, claw-like fingernails ó to complete the fearsome appearance, I guess. Scratches appeared on my arm as Death swiped at the ball and met skin instead.
The ball was inflated to near bursting, and if not checked at each mid-bounce by my hand, would have been floating up somewhere above my head. My frustrations mounted as I felt the pressure of Deathís weight upon my back, and my troubles handling the ball increased. "I canít dribble with this crap ball! Itís too airy!" I complained.
"You suck, thatís your disease," Death countered bitterly.
Death was right. Not about me sucking, I mean ó but that there was no place in this game, or any other, for excuses. I had to find a way to win, no matter what the obstacles.
I decided to step up the level of trash talk.
"How long have you been playing basketball?"
"Since the game was invented," Death answered.
"Are you sure you didnít take some time off?" I asked, with fake sincerity. Death sniggered a little, but made no reply.
"9-8," I called out the score. Up by one, I was cautious but feeling confident of my chances. I wouldnít hazard any shot but a lay-up; Iíd wait till the pressure got to Death and he cracked, leaving an opening for me to penetrate to the basket.
"Have a beer?" Death suddenly offered. "Wine? Cocktail?"
"No thanks. Everyone knows alcohol dehydrates you." In the strange dimension we now inhabited, this cross between the physical and the metaphysical, Death was trying everything he could think of. I wouldnít be swayed so easily, though.
As I dribbled, I tried to stare down my opponent, but it was impossible to be intimidating against Death. Heíd had much more experience at it, and wasnít about to take any of my charades to heart. My attention lingered a little too long trying to find a point to fix upon in those cavernous eye-sockets, and when I next expected to feel the ballís smooth surface against my fingertips, instead I met only air.
Death dribbled to the basket and spun around to face me as he gently lifted the ball toward the basket with both hands for a lay-up. It was the groundbound equivalent of a two-handed tomahawk dunk, and in the world of the vertically challenged, it was every bit as awesome a spectacle.
"Smooth like smooth butter," Death nonchalanted, flipping the ball to me for a check.
9-9. I couldnít take any more chances. I had to stop Death, right here and now.
I played bump-and-grind with the skeletal harbinger of doom as he tried to back me down toward the basket. I gave no ground, and he turned to face me head-on, trying to head-fake me out of my Adidas hi-tops.
I was losing track of him as he shook and danced back and forth, feinting first left, then right, then left again. It was ungainly, but effective ó I dizzied myself to the point where he could have pushed me over with one finger. He finally chose to drive to the right, and caught me flat-footed and off balance. I realized what was at stake ó if Death got by me, there would be just one lucky shot standing between me and a permanent farewell to the physical world.
My arm cut through the air with intentions of its own, and I watched abstractly as my fingers curled around the hem of Deathís cloak.
The distraction was enough to throw Death off balance himself. He stumbled and fell forward, the ball scooting away from him like a third-grader called in from recess by an oppressive lunchmom. Death rose ignominiously, brushed himself off, and said, "What the hell was that?"
"This is schoolyard ball," I said, trusting that would explain everything. "Take it out again, your ball."
"You canít just run roughshod over me and expect Iím going to be happy with a do-over! I demand a foul shot!"
"A foul shot? What world are you living in? You get to take the ball out again, thatís the accepted rule."
"When I played in Death camp, you got fouled, you got a foul shot, that was it."
"Well, youíre not getting one."
"I can wait here as long as it takes."
It took a few minutes until I decided he meant it ó I had assumed that Death would be busy, fully booked to reap the lives of those whose time had come. But he made no indications of being in a hurry. On the contrary, he appeared to have all the time in the world. I thought of the reference to Death camp ó were his duties split evenly among a number of other qualified Deaths? They must be, I finally decided. After all, he had been wasting time shooting around before all of this started, perhaps as part of a union-designated break. A Death union, I thought ó now that was truly frightening.
Anyway, back to the situation. Perhaps I should have been more patient. Maybe with a little more resolve I could have won our stand-off and gotten Death to agree to take possession in lieu of that foul shot. But at the time, I couldnít restrain myself. If Death wanted a foul shot, fine. He hadnít shown any supernatural skill with his shooting so far, anyway.
"Go ahead," I relented.
Death trudged over to the foul line, slow enough that I had to assume he was exaggerating his injuries to make a point about the physicality of play. I didnít buy it for a second. Death had to have more resiliency than that.
He held the ball down by his waist with both hands, while arching his back so that it appeared he was trying to touch his butt with the back of his head. He took a deep breath, and I shivered at the corresponding drop in the local temperature.
As Death crouched down, bending at the knees and holding the ball like it was a two hundred pound caber, I realized Death was about to shoot the oft-ridiculed, yet highly effective, underhand free throw. It stood to reason, I suppose, that such an old-timer as Death should have embraced such an unfashionable yet practical means of putting the ball through the net.
I coughed as Death released the ball, hoping to distract him and cause an errant shot. His motion was smooth, though, and my efforts got me nothing but a fearsome turn of Deathís head in my direction, and a gesture, the sliding of a bony finger across his neck, side to side, that was impossible to misinterpret. I tried to play off my coughing fit by pounding my chest with my fist a few times, and shaking invisible cobwebs out of my head.
The ball was only then returning from its upward arc, and it fell with impossible accuracy, dropping through the 18 inch circular metal rim like a meteor navigating a hula hoop.
"10-9," Death croaked. "Game point."
This was it óclutch time. Death had the ball, and needed only one more basket to claim my human form, and bragging rights.
I had to turn up the heat, and the trash talk as well.
"This is it ó one measly shot, thatís all you need. What time is it? Is it choke time? Feel the pressure?"
Death was again working his way back and forth, looking for an opening. His face was invisible behind the shadows of the cloak, and it might have been expressionless even if I could see it. But I could tell I was getting to him just the same.
Death turned to face me with new determination. I knew exactly what he was thinking: Iím going to score on this punk right now, and shut his no-longer-living mouth for him.
"Go ahead, guy," I taunted. We were far out from the basket, near the two-point line, and Death still hadnít demonstrated an accurate shot from that distance. Not overhand, anyway. "Go ahead and shoot. You could be a hero!"
The Ďheroí line always works.
Frustrated beyond his tolerance, Death reared back and let fly with a long dying quail that barely brushed the bottom of the net before bouncing out of bounds. Even though some would quibble with my definition, since in hitting the net the ball did hit something, I went with the moment anyway and cried, "Air ball!"
I could almost see the steam rising from the top of Deathís hood. I had successfully badgered him into a bad shot, and he knew it. Now it was time to show what I had on the other end.
Death checked the ball into play (I made sure to present him with it so there would be no excuses forthcoming when I blew past him and tied the game). I let my eyes go wide to warn Death of what was coming.
I began twirling, switching from left to right hand as I went, to protect the dribble. By itself, this would be nothing special. But by keeping my back and all of my limbs rigidly straight, by propelling the ball with the force such rigidity required (distance from ground to hand having been proportionately increased) and, most importantly, by flailing my free arm straight up and down in the air by way of distraction, the maneuver became something much more ó The Robot Move.
The Robot Move typically stunned the defender into submission. The full extension of the limbs made each movement more violent, and the defenderís self-defense mechanisms often kicked in without conscious thought, freeing precious inches of maneuvering space for the offense. There was always an opening created, if it was done right. However, I had never done it right before.
As in a trance, this time I carried it forth perfectly, wishing as I did that my impeccably choreographed dance was preserved for posterity by an eager video camera. As it was, Death was both victim and sole audience. That would be enough, I consoled myself.
"10-10. Welcome to my world."
"Iím playing under protest," Death said. "You canít do that whirling dervish crap."
"File it with the commissioner," I replied.
I bent over, pretending to check my shoelaces but actually stalling for time. The Robot Move had worked beautifully, but it was the ultimate one-trick pony. After the defender saw it performed once, he would simply avoid the flailing arms and spastic jerks while waiting to pounce on the weak lay-up that finished the move. If Death saw that lay-up at the end of the Robot Move again today, the ball would end up somewhere far, far, away.
Thinking back to many pleasantly wasted afternoons, I struggled to decide on a sure-fire maneuver that would tie the game. So many options, so many half-baked contrivances to choose from. But I knew, before the process of elimination had begun, which of them would be left standing at the end: the Old Navy Play.
Why it was called the Old Navy Play, I donít know ó such fabled origins had long ago faded into the mists of perspiration. Perhaps the play was created, as the name would imply, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or between shifts at the shipyards. Regardless, the Navy was a step ahead of its Army rivals in having such a glorious maneuver credited to its name.
The Old Navy Play consisted, essentially, of a pass to oneself, confusing the opponent and allowing for an easy basket when performed correctly. When performed incorrectly, it was a feeble turnover to the opponent.
The distinction of the Old Navy Play lay in its use of the rules of the game; it took advantage of the letter of the law, while expertly avoiding the spirit. It was a sort of loophole, to be exploited at will by those graced with its knowledge. A pass to oneself was illegal in any set of basketball rules, even when accounting for all of the myriad variations on the game that had been created since its birth to accommodate small spaces, too-high and too-low rims, too-large or nonexistent backboards, terrain that varied from the icy, to the dusty, to the overgrown with greenery. It was an incontrovertible rule, utterly necessary to preserve the integrity of the game. A player who attempts a field goal may not be the first to touch the ball if it fails to touch the backboard, basket ring or another player.
This rule had eliminated, from most playersí minds, the possibility of the self-pass.
Most players didnít know about the Old Navy Play.
Death seemed to realize something big was coming, having cocked his head in the curious way dogs do, awaiting further information. After taking the ball out, I dribbled a couple of times, then pulled my arms back behind my head like a catapult preparing to fire. With a great heave, I sent the red sphere hurtling through the air and toward the basket.
The second the synthetic rubber left my fingertips, I was circling around Death and heading for the other side of the rim. In a movie, it would have been a moment worthy of slow motion. The ball hit the backboard at a tremendous speed and ricocheted from the left side of the court, where Iíd launched it, to the right side, where I awaited it eagerly. Watching Deathís delayed movement toward the hoop from the corner of my eye, I listened to the sweet sound of the ball grazing the metal rim as it rebounded, enabling me to grab it again without any further involvement from Death.
I snatched the ball from the air as it whizzed toward me, and gently pushed it back at the backboard from whence it came. The ball fell softly through the net, and just like that, the game was over.
"Iíve beaten you at your own game!" I yelled at Death, who had turned in the other direction and was looking for someplace to hide, so as not to suffer hearing me celebrate my win. "Get out of my house, Skeletor!"
"A cheap victory, mortal."
"But a victory just the same." I had cheated death, but it wasnít really cheating. Bending the rules, maybe. It was schoolyard basketball, after all, a casual pick-up game, and creative interpretation of the rulebook is one of those intangibles that separates the great from the near great, in my opinion.
"Very well. You have earned your life back."
"And bragging rights," I corrected.
"And bragging rights," Death grumbled.
My surroundings began to dissipate, and I felt myself floating lighter than air.
The next thing I remember was a pair of voices, seemingly disembodied, speaking to each other.
"Man, talk about your freaky days! I was outside watching people figure out the big revolving door, and I got to talking with one of the paramedics. He said that this guy was actually clinically dead for two minutes."
"Wow!" said the other voice. "I saw a special on TV about near-death experiences. Apparently, thereís this long tunnel, and lots of bright light."
Ah, but I beg to differ. It seemed I was emerging from a deep sleep, perhaps also from a nightmare created by my own imagination. Perhaps the encounter with Death didnít really happen?
I finally opened my eyes, and as my vision coalesced, I saw that I was in a hospital bed, and the two voices belonged to nurses, a youngish-looking man and a woman of more mature appearance.
"Heís coming around," the female nurse observed.
"Iíll get his wife," said the other. "And the doctor."
"Rest easy. Youíve had quite a day." The woman spoke to me in a kindly, compassionate old voice.
I tried to obey, but as I moved to pull the bedsheets up over my chest, I noticed something. Something disturbing.
There were scratches on my arm, and they were the same ones Death had delivered during our game. The encounter with Death, the one-on-one game ó it had really happened.
"Donít you remember me, Daddy?" A child was now at my bedside, waiting for a response to a question I hadnít heard. I recognized her as my six year old daughter, Elizabeth.
"And me?" said the boy next to her, my son Brian.
"You couldnít forget my face, could you?" This came from my beautiful wife, Kathy.
"No ó I couldnít forget you. IÖ I guess it wasnít a dream after all. It was real. But you werenít there, BetsyÖ or you, BrianÖ or," I said, turning again to my wife, "you."
Realizing they didnít know of my valiant battle with Death, I sputtered out details in a disorganized stream of consciousness. My visitors exchanged worried glances on my behalf.
"Doesnít anybody believe me? I beat Death one-on-one! I used the Old Navy Play! " I protested.
"Of course we believe you," Kathy said nervously. It was obvious appeasement.
"You had a heart attack, but youíre OK now. The doctor says you should be fine, but you have to cut out all red meat and saturated fats from your diet."
Death had gotten the last laugh after all. I would live, but minus my favorite unhealthy snacks. I challenged the naked air: "Damn you Death! Come on back! Right now, another one-on-one! This time for the food!"
"10 milligrams of Haldol," the doctor commanded. There was a flurry of activity in the cramped hospital room as the nurses moved to comply with the order, and I soon felt myself becoming more relaxed. I drifted off to sleep, anticipating the comforts of rivers of saturated fat, awaiting me now only in my dreams.
And Death? Back at the basketball courts, the commotion over my collapse had subsided and players were beginning their afternoon league game, refereed, timed, and with foul shots. Death would later seek satisfaction in that game, venting his lethal frustrations upon an unlucky 6 foot 8 non-dunking backboard slapper, and a teenager who tripped over his shorts one too many times.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/oldnavy.html]
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