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sporting memories
inside the athlete
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

When it comes right down to it, it’s just you and the ball.

You know beyond all doubt that it’s coming back to you, because you put it exactly where you want it to go and it’s going to bounce up or off or back. Even when you slide the ball over in the rack in the garage to get to the weed control or 10W-40 or windshield wiper fluid, you touch that ball briefly and it rises up in your palm.

Like a lover would. Like it belongs there.

No one would know it to look at you now, because it’s not an every day thing like it used to be. But, it used to be. Every single day. Without a clock, without question. Foundry dirt packing a farmhouse driveway, leaving layers of midnight soot in the webbing of your fingers and on your torn canvas sneakers with every bounce, every scuffle. A rusted rim on a crooked frame of a one-car dilapidated garage, no net, sun resting on the tips of corn stalks.

37 out of 40 free throws.
25 lay-ups to the right, with the right.
Then drive 25 to the left, with the left, because it’s harder.
Don’t think.
Just move.


You swat away the gnats and the mosquitoes with one hand as the ball yo-yos back into the other. You don’t have to look, you never look, because you know where the ball belongs, and it fits, every time. And it knows, too. Somehow.

Few understand that you didn’t live for the hardwood court as much as you lived for those nights, the rhythm, the castaway worries set adrift and the lack of thought. You rarely feel now what you felt then. The certainty of position, the absolute return, the fluid oneness of you and the ball, moving, moving, moving until the snap release, leaving the cradle of your hand only to land exactly where you wanted it to be, yards away from where the jump brought you down.

You and the ball roll differently, together. Swift. Powerful. Full of grace. There’s no reason to move like this any other time except when you’re courting that ball. You always have a hand on it, guiding it, pulsing that curve with your fingertips. It’s a syncopation of quarter notes that slides off the scale only when it’s time to fly.

Now, you watch live basketball games and basketball movies and you want to pause everything and be out there, in there. You wonder why you don’t. A Saturday pickup game is more exercise now, a forced activity, nothing like before.

But, every so often, in the resting twilight of summer, you play at the board in your modern-day drive. The board you replaced after it faded and tattered, because it seemed improper not to, regardless of the lack of play. You run your hand over the ball in the rack and it connects, north to south, fitting exactly as it always does. A preliminary dribble, a crossover, and then up.

Onto the toes.
Calf muscles flex.
Arm extends for the throw.
Don’t think.
Just move.


Just like that, it’s 9:07 as the country sun sets. You’re 13, fingernails caked with black, sweat gathered at the backs of your knees. You haven’t forgotten. You never will. An otherwise blurred outlook sharpened, intensified. The assuredness of the rise and fall, tuning out everything but that one-second report. It matches the meter of your heart, the bounce striking at the same time as the downbeat, the return rushing the blood through your veins. It’s not you and the ball anymore. You’re the same.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


tri, tri again
preparing for a triathlon
by tracey l. kelley
topic: sports
published: 6.30.10


roger striffler
6.29.07 @ 10:23a

Holy crap.
That's enough to make a boy cry.

dave lentell
6.29.07 @ 11:02a

Basketball was my first sports love. I'd rather watch football, but I loved playing basketball. I wasn't as good as some of the other kids, but it was the kind of game where if you hustled more than the talented kids, you could close that gap a little bit.

I don't play anymore. No time, no real opportunity. But you've captured why I loved it so much growing up and why I can't wait until my son gets old enough to start playing in the drive. He's only five, but you know... maybe it's time to get a backboard.

Thanks Tracey. You made my day.

alex b
6.29.07 @ 1:40p

Tracey, this brings back wonderful memories of dribbling in the park.

ken mohnkern
6.29.07 @ 2:09p

I swore off basketball after an excruciating intramural season in seventh grade. I learned then that I had cement feet, slippery hands, and no depth perception.

Though I don't like playing or watching basketball, I do love this column. For the same reason why I love the opening pages of Updike's "Rabbit Run."

tracey kelley
6.30.07 @ 11:02a

Y'all are so sweet.

I wrote an article on the Granny Basketball League, and it really touched my heart how much these older women still love the game. It prompted a lot of emotion in me, and, honestly, all that I wrote is very true.

A few years ago, some guys from work, Matt, and I used to have some fun pickup games in our driveway. We've long since gone our seperate ways, but man, those were some fun nights.

Now, it's usually just me and Matt horsing around. I may have to remedy that soon.

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