It all started in Mr. Bunderson’s civics class. I don’t remember the details, but imagine it went down something like this: I sat by a girl named Anne Marie Farr, who I had known since kindergarten. We weren’t friends per se; our relationship was characterized by a kind of affectionate antagonism common to boys and girls who have grown up together: on the one hand, we had always mistrusted and loathed one another, but on the other, we had been mistrusting and loathing one another for quite a few years and had, for better or worse, developed something of a shared history. Anne Marie was on the girl’s basketball team, and my natural generosity prevented me from selfishly withholding from her my insights into the intrinsic silliness and futility of women playing basketball. Unfortunately, Anne Marie’s personal attachment to girl’s basketball rendered her blind to the obvious truth of the matter, and she responded by asserting that she was better at basketball than I was.
Now, had she had claimed that she was 50% as good at me, we would have had an argument on our hands. But the claim that she was out and out better than me was so apparently false, so outrageously absurd, that I simply laughed. This isn’t to say that I was some sort of star athlete. I wasn’t. I wasn’t on any of the athletic teams of the junior high and high school I attended, mainly because the selection process for these teams was so incredibly biased in favor of kids who were really good athletes. When the coach comes into try-outs with his mind already made up that he’s going to pick the most talented kids to be on the team, there’s just not a whole lot you can do when your talents are somewhere in the 50th – 60th percentile. Politics.
I was never going to be the first kid picked for a game, but I wasn’t one of the last, either. While certainly not spectacular or dazzling, I was competent, solid, and steady. Knowing that I wasn’t ever going to be the all-around all-star, I developed – and touted – specialized skills: my can’t miss 8-foot jumper from the baseline in basketball, my perfect sets in volleyball, and my . . . well I never really found something like that in baseball. Heckling the batter, maybe. Anyway, my natural gifts were modest, but I was always competitive and scrappy and tried to make up for my weaknesses with a lot of hustle and by telling funny jokes during huddles and time outs. But all of this was relative to boys, and we’re talking about my skills relative to a girl. A girl.
Mr. Bunderson took note of the commotion towards the back of the class, and after asking us what was going on and assessing the situation, he suggested that the easiest way to settle it was by Anne Marie and me facing off in a game of one-on-one. I laughed, and then realized he was serious, causing a feeling of puzzlement to come over me. I guess we could have a game to see who was better, just like we could have a spelling bee to settle the question of who was the better speller between me and a hamster. At this point though, the whole class was watching, and a game seemed like the only way to help Anne Marie see the light, so I agreed. Indeed, in order to put the matter beyond the reach of any excuse or rationalization, I offered her incredibly generous terms – we would play to 21, and she could have a ten-point lead.
In my heart of hearts, I was hoping my Dad would be the kind of Dad who, when coaching his son’s team, would give his son a position and playing time that were well above his abilities. Turns out he wasn’t that kind of Dad. Which is why I won’t turn out to be the kind of son who doesn’t send his Dad to a “working” rest home in Guatemala.
We met on a warm spring afternoon at the the Compton Bench chapel, where the parking lot had a couple of old hoops. Like seconds at a duel, I brought my friend Darren and she brought her friend Christie. Rather than warming up, Darren and I chuckled as we watched Anne Marie get ready, heckling her shot and enjoying the inherently ridiculous spectacle of a girl playing basketball. We reviewed the terms of the game, and I offered her first possession, which she took.
It didn’t start out the way I had anticipated. Although I could tell I was better than Anne Marie, I wasn’t better by as much as I had thought I was. My shot wasn’t on that day. And I felt like a bully playing hard defense against her, a fact she began to mercilessly exploit. And then there was the issue of my starting the game ten points behind.
After a few points where I missed my shots and Anne Marie hit some difficult ones, it suddenly dawned on me that she could very well beat me, a prospect which prior to that moment I literally had not considered. The precise moment at which this possibility entered my mind was the precise moment at which the game was over. All I could think about was the impact such a loss would have on my standing among my friends and my prospects with the opposite sex. I wondered what my new school would be like.
Considering all this was the equivalent of looking down when you’re crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight wire. A fevered, fearful weakness came over me. Half of my mind was in the game, and half of it was at school the next day. I’d get the ball and just dribble, too afraid of missing to take the shot. Sensing my distress, Anne Marie went in for the kill. She caught fire. The smirk on Darren’s face seemed to have jumped right over to Christie”s. I watched her score the winning basket from outside of my body, hoping that this meant that I was dead. Christie and Anne Marie hugged and laughed and jumped up and down. Darren regarded me with a mixture of shock, sympathy, and disgust.
That I was elected 9th Grade Vice-president after losing a basketball game to a girl is a tribute to my incredible political and interpersonal skills. Or to the student body’s empathy for the emasculated.
Well, of course Mr. Bunderson was eagerly waiting the next day to hear the results of the game, and Anne Marie was happy to report them. The girls in the room erupted into a cheer. I stared straight ahead with my face burning, telling myself that I may be able to recover from losing to a girl, but I wouldn’t be able to recover from losing to a girl and then crying about it in class. I considered arguing that I’d had an off day, and pointing out that I’d given her a 10 point lead, but I could sense how these arguments would be treated by the cruel, shrill mob that was jeering at me, so I held my tongue.
Thankfully, the damage seemed to be limited to Mr. Bunderson’s class. The story never went viral, making it’s way throughout the entire school the way it had when Matt Nielson and I went diving in some puddles during gym class and, realizing that our underwear was too wet and lacking any spares, put our school clothes back on without any underwear. Someone accused me of not wearing any underwear, and I lied, saying I had just put my wet underwear back on, and man, it was so uncomfortable! Matt cheerily admitted the truth and was forced to fend off a mob of 50 kids chasing him with the intent of pantsing him. I believe Jeff Hirst saved him by pacifying the hungry mob with a stirring speech about how we all had days when, figuratively, we weren’t wearing any underwear.
The most amazing thing about my loss to Anne Marie is that as I sat down to write about it yesterday, 20 years later, I considered not posting this because I actually still find it embarrassing. So, please be gentle in your comments. I’m still tender. And please remember that I gave her a 10 point lead. Seriously, that’s huge.