These last years have been the first period of my life where I felt dedicated to watching basketball even though I do not currently play regularly, semi-retired due to this bum shoulder & a general distrust of my own ability to not get hurt in competitive action. In the past, when I did not play regularly--say, that fiften-to-sixteen year-old period when I wooed my first significant other or those early post-collegiate days when the shoulder first imitated a wet noodle--I found my desire to watch hoops, even my beloved Pacers, dwindled in tandem with my lack of playing time. Or maybe it had to do with confidence, anxious some meatball might call me a poser, or fearing my lack of up-to-date-in-the-game experience might zap the punch out of my ability to usefully watch a game, whatever the heck that means.
Last night was the first Pacers game of the 2019-2020 season, a nine-point lost to our rival Detroit Pistons, & I can honestly say my lack of playing time has not deleted my ability to understand the game’s complexities (duh). Without our superstar (Victor Oladipo), as the Pistons (Blake Griffin) were, too, the Pacers showed what I suspected they might:
Domantas Sabonis hustling all over for rebounds, loose balls, & shifty buckets (more on him soon)
The continued growth of Myles Turner’s offensive game (that between-the-legs-step-back-three was fire)
An early-season eleven-man rotation as coach Nate McMilllan figures out his lineup (I love how he won’t give up on TJ Leaf being a rotation player)
New point guard Malcolm Brogdon’s quiet 22 pt / 11 ast debut (stay healthy, please!)
A streaky offensive output (what’s new!)
Communication troubles between new teammates (I think Jeremy Lamb bumped into more teammates than he scored points)
Turner’s terrible footwork / chasing blocks thus allowing layups & dunks (I’m so tired of this!)
Sabonis’s three bloopers (two late-game airballs, one off the backboard pass, yikes)
Giving up two thirty-point games (one to freaking Luke Kennard!)
TJ Warren’s faceplant (glad to see he’s okay)
Still, I was distracted much of the game by a burning question. Not the “When will Oladipo return?” or the “How will the new guys fit?” or even “Can Turner & Sabonis play together?” (hopefully by the new year; mostly well, I think, in time; yes, absolutely,). My burning question is, “Who would be Wendell Willkie’s favorite Pacer on this lineup?” I think the answer is Domantas Sabonis; he’s a tough hustler, a good sharer (with the ball & the spotlight), & he doesn’t quit (on his team or the play).
When it comes to sports, those were the attributes I might contribute, too; I’ve always been “not bad enough”: second guy off the bench on the b-squad of the middle school basketball teams, a collection of mental attitude awards from various leagues (given to the player who sucks but plays hard & has a good enough mindset to not quit), the disc golf player that occasionally can shoot with the best of them but who anytime he actually plays a tournament ends up on the bottom of the scoreboard. When I played football in sixth grade, my coach told my parents, “If I had eleven Tylers, I’d have the hardest-working & kindest team ever; we’d lose every game, but it would be a pleasure to coach.”
I grew quickly, reaching my current height in middle school, living off the lore that my parents were told I’d be at least 6’6”. From an early age, I understood my physical limitations--strange body shape, three-inch vertical leap, lack of ligaments in my knees--& instead focused on utilizing my emotional & social components, such as an intense desire for everyone to get along & a frenetic energy for getting stuff done, to contribute.
Here are some of my highlights of my playing days, following quickly by the lowlights:
Like my basketball-playing self, the Pacers face their own natural limitations. In the NBA, outside of internal player development, there are three ways to improve--at the draft, via trade, & in free agency. Unfortunately, each option is limited in its own way for this team. The Pacers are never bad enough to get a good draft pick, not having drafted in the single digits since the late 80s, instead happening upon their best players in the late lottery or beyond, such as current starting center Myles Turner & recent hero Paul George. Without high drafts & the top prospects that come with them, they often have little trade leverage, only acquiring current starters like Victor Oladipo & Domantas Sabonis through trades gone better than expected. As for free agency, it’s even harder, as big stars choose large markets, leaving us with third-tier guys hoping to make the leap to stardom (like Malcom Brogdon) or cagey veterans making their way around the league (like TJ McConnell & Jeremy Lamb).
When I moved to Austin, I found a binder of letters I had written to NBA executives giving my pre-teen / barely-teen opinion on upcoming draft selections, trade ideas, & free agency hopes. This activity had entered the blur but then it bubbled forth, recollections of me sitting in the passenger seat on the drive down to North Carolina, flipping through issues of SLAM Magazine & ESPN the Magazine, jotting down my silly thoughts. I wasn’t going to impress anyone with my cross-over or my hops, so I felt it necessary to impress with my knowledge of the game, its inner-workings & trappings.
I also impressed (read: annoyed) my peers with my vast basketball trivia skills. On the bus to field trips or games, I’d nudge my classmates to quiz me & if there were no takers, I’d spend the travel reading the backs of whatever stack of basketball cards I had convinced mom to let me bring that day. My college sweetheart’s friends came to visit the first time & all I remember about meeting them is they laughed at the stack of books I had on my bedside, which included Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley & Tip-Off : How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy. Even to this day, I listen to multiple basketball podcasts a week -- The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Lowe Post, The Mismatch; I made one friend at my last job in Austin & it was because I informed him of the historical significance of Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 game winner last year, a fact I am sure I borrowed from The Sports Guy himself.
It is probably self-centered, me just moving back to Indiana & all, but I have high expectations for the 2019-2020 Pacers season. I am stoked to watch them grow as a team with Oladipo out, young fellas like Edmond Sumner & Aaron Holiday getting lots of fieldwork in & Brogdon getting reps as “the guy.” I am stoked to see Turner’s improved shooting (4-7 3pt FG in opening game) & rim-protection (league leader in blocks last year) side-by-side in the starting lineup with Domantas Sabonis’s reliability (11/15 from the field last night / 8th in the league last year in FG%) & hustle (team leader in rebounds the last two years) in an expanded role. I am stoked about these new players coming in: Brodgon showed a willingness & capability last night of running the offense, Jeremy Lamb is our most-tenured player, TJ Warren was aggressive, at least offensively, & TJ McConnell came in crafty in limited minutes. Additionally, I was happy to see Justin Holiday playing on the same team as his brother & Gogo Bidatze looked good in his tracksuit.
Problem is, the same things that get me stoked about this team are the ones that make those expectations so shaky. As we saw last night, Sumner can play some aggressive defense & get some sparky buckets, but he’s very limited both in size & skillset. Offensively, Turner & Sabonis shot well, but Sabonis seemed winded in starter minutes, leading to those two airballs & that bonehead turnover, while Turner was chasing blocks on the other end instead of moving his feet & being intelligently aggressive, both getting dominated by Andre Drummond. The new guys did not impress me with their defense, though McConnell was surprisingly pesky. D-Rose & freaking Luke Kennard were getting to their spots & being left wide-open, respectively. Despite the loss & the questions, I still feel like this is a solid mid-standings playoff team with the chance for a Conference Finals run; they should reach between 44 to 46 wins, for the fourth or fifth seed in the East.
I guess the question I’m left with now is who my favorite Pacer is now that Thaddeus Young is gone. We could always count on Thad to guard one of the top guys on the other team, get his average stats, & keep the bonehead moves to a minimum. Historically, I have gotten most stoked about players like that--hustlers, dependables, & just the right amount of butthead. See also: David West, Antonio Davis. If I was a betting man, I’d say my answer will be the same as the one I predicted for Willkie: Domantas Sabonis.
My dad stops by often these days--to drop off a deal he snagged on the last day of the Glass Festival, because our house is the turning back point of his Friday bike ride, just to say hi, hello, how’re y’all--but this last random visit was different. I was layered in dust, sanding the rust off the side garage door, a door my dad actually installed on this house, my grandpa’s house, a couple decades ago. “Probably right before that party,” my dad suggests as he gestures to the HAPPY HALLOWEEN sign, metallic backdrop to its pumpkins, which still hangs in the garage. The door has rusted thin after twenty-plus winters of piled snow, salt beatings, & in the most recent years, abandonment.
It has been a tad under four months plopped back into my beloved hometown of Elwood, IN, the Heart of Hoosierland, if you believe the sign a second country mile up the road from this house. At times it needs some resuscitation, left behind to flail in a changing industrial / agricultural landscape. This place (population about eight-and-a-half thousand) where I lived the first eighteen-years of my life, along with another two-year pit stop post-college-post-divorce-pre-Austin, is often described as the middle of nowhere, or Hellwood, if you are feeling extra cruel & minorly clever. For me & a lot of the folks I love most in this world, it is home, the place where our formative years molted, where we were made, both our parts & our whole.
It is also the land where my family blood on my mother’s side, runs deep, this area being home to my grandfather, besides his time away for Army training, for his eight-nine years, as well as for my mother all her sixty-some-odd years. My grandfather has traced our family roots here back to the early-19th century; besides just that, the farm & land we have lived on is at least four-generations running. Even my dad, who was born & raised on the end of a dirt road in North Carolina, has called this place home for the past thirty-three years.
Being back in this mud has reaffirmed a separated feeling I carried in Austin. “Just got back,” both a literal & summarizing message I’ve tossed out these last months to lifelong family friends, long-lost buds, & former school teachers as I encounter them in the grocery store, on the disc golf course, or at the school I cannot seem to escape, the first exposure into this current self I am wielding. Back in late August, we had our first dinner party, inviting a couple I went to high school with, who now live just a couple county roads down, over for dinner. I made a weird joke about “this is the bathroom my grandma died in,” a quip to which one of the guests replied, “Maybe you should leave that part out.”
But you see, that is the thing I cannot (& probably don’t want to) escape: it is the bathroom where my grandma died, & I would argue a significant piece of information. You see, as much as I love this place, I am also pulled back because quite frankly, my dysfunction started here & I need to face it head on right here. When I say I moved into my Grandpa’s house, I could more accurately say my Grandma’s house, as it has remained essentially the same since her passing in the mid-1990’s. The hallway carpet still imprinted with her wheelchair marks. The garage pantry still stacked with her bowls & pots & pans, unused since her death. The bathroom where she died, the bathroom where I predicted she’d die only a couple days before she did in fact die there, the walls & tile still pulsing Pepto Bismol pink.
That is till we moved in & began transforming it into our home. My Grandma in the grave & my Grandpa firmly in an assisted living community, saying “it’s your house now,” we have freed the hardwood floor from the stained carpet, we have put the kitchen back to good use, & we have accented the pink tile & pink countertop of the bathroom with white walls, a vibrant shower curtain. Neighbors & passersby, family friends & family themselves, have been commenting how they are happy to see life back on this property, bursting forth from this house--the dogs chasing each other on the edge of the field, my shitty drumming rattling the barn walls, Diana painting the front door an out-of-place teal.
It does my mind well, too, climbing through memories, bringing the pieces here back into the whole world. I am wearing shirts & hats my grandpa’s left behind. I am collecting the games I once played with my grandma to play with the kiddos who came after--my cousins’ kids, my friends’ little ones, children yet to bloom. I have dedicated myself to weekly visits with my Grandpa. I did an okay job of calling him every once in awhile while I lived in Austin & I did a better job of seeing him when I was in town for holidays & special trips, but these visits are different, now that I am living in his house, now that his death is so close (his words, not mine). I am getting to know him again, the core of him, removed from farming, from independent living, & in many ways from being the patriarch of the family. Our relationship now seems to hinge on passing on the tips & the tricks, the wheres & the whats, of his eighty-nine years in this town, lessons I am grateful for, a gratitude I’m trying to show better than I might have in the past, more reasonably than I could in the future after he is gone, through what the present requires--patience, reliability, & mutual interest.
It is a selfish blessing though, all of this--the passed-down house, the “middle-of-nowhere” misperception, the supportive family. Let me be clear: I have a serious psychological disorder, which may or may not be dissociative identity disorder (my current diagnosis), which may or may not be schizophrenia (a diagnosis suggested by several professionals), which may or may not include manic depression (my original diagnosis in my early twenties). Any way you label it, this struggle has inhibited my ability to work in my chosen profession of writing / teaching, has certainly shattered some bridges & burned out some lights, among other things. Light, I knew I would come back around to this word.
In my blood, I had written it on the bedroom wall--LIGHT. In my blood, I had written on the front glass window--HANDS LET OUT THE LIGHT. It was the headline of my most recent psychotic, or dissociative, or manic, or whatever, episode, the most intense since the move & easily a top-10 biggest freak-out lowlight (see, there’s that word again) of my life. One minute I was letting the dogs out for one last piss before I went to work, a ten-minute gap to sweep the floors, one more thing checked from the to-do list. The next moment I am shocked by the power outlet of this old house, the kind of jolt that freaks one out more than it causes harm.
That is till the paranoia kicked in, the light coming through the window suddenly blinding to me, the lamps posing an imminent threat. I closed the curtains & stuffed the gaps with blankets. I locked the doors, placed the television face-down, hid my phone & computer. I gathered all the bulbs & placed them in the middle of the living room, covered in the one remaining blanket. I stared at the poetry bookshelf, as I often do in my times of panic, waiting on a book to jump forward to me. I chose one & found my place, as I often do in my times following panic, in the dim gap between bed & wall. The book was Roberty Bly’s poetry collection The Light Around The Body.
You might also say it was then a switch flipped, but I’d rather say a hand retossed the coin, landing on the other side. A few poems in, I became overwhelmed with the next stage in my spell cycle--the encroachment of the return to reality. Where are the dogs? Who is going to shame me for this one? How disappointed will Diana be when she returns to this lack of light? Still in a half-blur, I barreled outside, my head wrapped in a blanket, my hands wrapped around a pair of light bulbs, hollering for the dogs. I would later learn they had high-tailed it outta there, choosing safety down the road on a neighbor’s porch.
I do know what I did next. Still blinded by the light of day, still afraid of the electricity, still overpowered by a shaking urge to fix this, to hide what I had done, I became entangled in a delusion I could utilize the light of my body, a bastardization of Bly’s book title, to fill this house with light again. That phrase we later found scrawled on the front glass echoing loudly in my head--HANDS LET OUT THE LIGHT--I followed its push & began to squeeze. Of course, they shattered. Of course, they cut my hands. Of course, my dad, then next my mom, then, finally Diana found me there in my underwear, blood smeared on myself & the walls, my body dotted in the pieces of what I was first afraid of, those shimmers of light.
Then suddenly it was two days later & I was starting to feel stable again, the shame sucked back down, the lightbulbs replaced, the to-do list again as a mechanism for normalcy. I am coated in flakes of rust when my dad arrives, his excuse for stopping that he saw the door off & wanted to see how the project was going. Of course, he stopped to check on how I am doing, to double-check that I had not relapsed into another spell. He carries his own fragmentation, his own trauma & shame, so he is not one to press me on the details & honestly I prefer it that way. He stopped by & that is always the important part.
It is an uncountable blessing (to borrow one of my mother’s words) that I have this Future Barn where I can fracture & fail, experiment & execute, grow & share, that I have this support as I muddle through my madness, that I have been gifted a house, some land, & another’s entire life of memorabilia & materials to build my own, cleansed of the real world’s supposed markers of supposed success. You know the moment I felt permissioned to lean into the struggle? Pulling out of the driveway, my dad braked, rolled down the window, me assuming he is going to finally say something about the incident, but instead, he simply reaches out a yellow hand & says, “Want a banana?”