Bernard King: A lifetime of hard-earned lessons on and off the basketball court

Bernard King: A lifetime of hard-earned lessons on and off the basketball court

Excerpt

Bernard King: A lifetime of hard-earned lessons on and off the basketball court

Excerpted from Game Face: A Lifetime of Hard-Earned Lessons On and Off the Basketball Court by Bernard King with Jerome Preisler. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

You never forget the first time you fall in love, the feeling of being swept up into a lofty realm you never knew existed. A world where paths merge in an unexpected journey, and you are made anew, soaring so high you can kiss the moonlight over the mountaintops.

No matter how many other loves you have as time goes on, that memory, that euphoric joy, occupies a special, untouchable place in your heart.

I was a third grader at P.S. 67 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when love struck me. The backboard and hoop were at one end of the cafeteria—a large space that doubled as a gym when they pushed the tables against the wall. Fixed on a stanchion, it rose ten feet above the floor . . . regulation height.

We had other baskets out in the schoolyard. But we could use this one winter or summer, rain or shine. I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye. After eating my lunch, I would go over to it with some of the other kids and try to make shots.

I was eight years old but tall for my age. I was also awkward and swaybacked, with a high waist and rear end.

Each day I went to school knowing I’d be mercilessly teased by the class bullies. Even the girls got into the act, calling me Blueberry Hill, after the Fats Domino song, because of my large, wide-browed head. It didn’t help that my mother cut my hair, but with six children, five of us boys, and barely enough money to pay the bills, she couldn’t afford to send us to the barbershop. And it showed.

As shy and nervous as I was at school, those feelings weren’t caused by my young tormentors. I carried a hidden darkness, a secret pain that was both emotional and physical. And it originated at home.

But I didn’t think about those things when I stood beneath the cafeteria’s backboard. Didn’t think about the teasing and feelings of shame.

When the ball was in my hands, I just wanted to make a basket. Nothing else mattered.

Early in my childhood, I’d seen the older boys on the basketball courts at the front and rear of my building. Those teenagers controlled the courts, and there was no room for younger kids unless one of them was empty.

That was hardly ever the case. Basketball was an inner-city game, the one athletic outlet that kids could afford. You didn’t need expensive football or baseball gear to play. You just needed a ball, a blacktop court, and a hoop.

I wanted to compete. But before I could do it, I realized I needed to figure out how to put the ball inside the rim.

It wasn’t easy. I was a big kid, sure. But eight’s still eight. The hoop was a good five feet above me, the ball large and heavy for someone my age. I would heave it up underhanded, mustering all my strength.

I was drawn to that rim, and kept returning with my classmates. One by one, they took turns trying to make a shot. And one by one, they became exasperated. They either couldn’t throw the ball up as high as the hoop or couldn’t get it to go in. After a few tries, they all walked away in discouragement.

I didn’t walk away. Something inside me refused to quit. I was single-mindedly focused on my goal.

How do I shoot the ball into that basket?

How?

I’d always been proficient at math, and I started to approach my objective almost as I would my homework assignments.

Do I aim for the backboard? Or for the center of the rim? Do I need to throw it high?

I finally realized the begin-point was touch. That meant getting a feel for the ball in my hands, then figuring how much upward thrust I needed to cover the height and distance between me and the basket.

This wasn’t conscious, not at first. But on some level, I was developing a studied, analytical approach to the game. It would evolve into a methodology that carried me through high school, college, and my entire professional career.

Driven to make a basket, I kept trying each day after lunch, learning through trial and error, processing it all.

One day, finally, it dropped in.

I jumped with exhilaration. A shy, reserved kid who was used to keeping his emotions in check, I couldn’t restrain myself.

And that was it. The moment I fell in love with basketball. From that point on, I’d use every chance I got to practice and perfect my shooting. Under the basket, I felt liberated, like a bird freed from its cage.

As I mentioned, it was a different story at home.

Excerpted from Game Face: A Lifetime of Hard-Earned Lessons On and Off the Basketball Court by Bernard King with Jerome Preisler. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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