I was not made for the NBA. I am short. I am not competitive. When I was a kid, in the backyard shooting baskets with Danny Leman and Ronnie Fritz, we played PIG, then HORSE. Possibly we played a little one on one. In this case, it was more like one on one half. Or less.
We came out to Mariposa to work in the kids’ orchard. The idea was a week picking apples. We learned the job last year. You hang a bag on your shoulders–it’s a chestpack rather than backpack–and get right up close and personal with the trees. Tizi stays on the ground. I brave up and climb a ladder. Some varieties the fruit comes away in your hand with a little twist. Some varieties you can take down 2-3 three apples at a time. Into the bag they go. When your bag is full, you dump your load into a lug on a trailer. A lug is a plastic crate. Two or three bags fill a lug. When the trailer is full of lugs, you go to the barn and transfer the fruit to the chiller.
We were late this year. Or the fruit was early. While we dilly-dallied in Wisconsin and North Dakota and Montana, the kids hired a crew of pickers who came in and did our job. The fruit can’t wait.
But there’s other work.
The last two days I’ve been raking drops. Those are the apples under the tree. The ones with worms, the ones too bruised to make the cut. They fall, they lie there, they get walked on. They begin to rot. They host insects. You rake these apples into piles.
Raking drops is nowhere near as satisfying as picking. A picker is part of the production. Rakers clean up. In basketball, it’s like the starting five going to the bench during a time out and the schlub with the towel who comes out and mops up sweat on the floor.
David hands me a garden rake. There are 40 rows of trees, 800 trees in all. The orchard is mostly picked.
One year I played Boystown Basketball. More accurately, I went to Boystown Basketball. It was a Saturday morning thing, in the elementary school gym. I don’t recall getting my hands on the ball. I don’t recall wanting to get my hands on the ball. The closest I came to the ball actually happened before we started to play.
I was standing in the hallway outside the gym, and someone, a big guy, threw a basketball from down the hallway. It was an airball. I wasn’t looking. He might have said, “Heads up!” He might have said, “Catch!” He didn’t say anything, and the ball hit me in the head. A full jar of peanut butter weighs about a pound. A full can of beans weighs about a pound. A basketball weighs more than a pound. The ball bounced off my head, and my head bounced off it. Inside the gym I heard Terry Henley blowing a whistle. I wanted to go home.
After the rake comes pick up.
Every three or four trees, you have raked up a pile of drops and sticks, leaves and weeds. Someone, me if I’m still here, will come by with a shovel, lugs, and the trailer pulled by a golf cart, and collect the debris. But the rake will miss a few drops, some whole apples just fallen, also the dried ones like shrunken heads smiling up at you, and the over-ripe ones that bust open and ooze when the rake passes over them, slimy to the touch. So you walk the rows, grabbing these apples from the ground and tossing them on a pile. You want a good toss, one that nests the apple in the pile. If the apple bounces and rolls, which an apple will do, you have to bend down and pick it up again. Every pile gets 10-15 additional drops, hand delivered. You need a good toss.
I discovered the apple needs a little forward spin, which you execute with your fingertips. A little roll of the rotten apple, a gentle launch, it hits the pile and finds its spot. It’s a swish. Not 100 percent of the time. No one makes every free throw. Some layups, even the gimmes, can go off the rim slightly askew and not drop through the net.
Suddenly I understand the finesse of a good basketball shot, the gentle, intelligent fingertips that know their job.
Six hours on the rake I begin to feel blisters forming. It’s the lower hand on the rake handle that does the work. That hand gets blistered. I rake left arm dominant, I rake right arm dominant, both sides with the same confidence, the same efficacy, and begin to alter my grip there too, not the full-on grab, more fingers, less palm. That’s better.
So I start thinking, as one does, with a rake in their hand, what if Magic Johnson came along while I’m swishing these drops? We might have a little game of pickup.
“Me and you?” Magic says.
“You and me,” I say. “I’m Michigan, you’re Michigan. We’re practically homies. Whatta ya say?”
“All right then. Humor me.”
“You mind if I call you Erwin?”
“Magic it is. So here’s the game. There’s the pile: drops, leaves, sticks, weeds. And here’s a drop.” I hold up one of the shrunken heads. “The object is to toss the apple, to land it in the pile, no roll. Just sink it.”
“You play ball?” Magic asks.
“I played a little. When I was a kid. I just made this up.” I sink one. “Like that.”
He gives me his big Magic smile, looks around, picks up a good apple. Not one I would choose for my first shot. It’s round, almost could have gone in a lug. A little rot, a little flat helps in this game. Magic will have to learn that.
“You gonna post up?” I say.
“You don’t know what that means, do you.”
“No, not really.”
He tosses the good apple. It rolls right off the pile. He tosses another apple. Another roll. I trill my fingers, give mine a light loss, and sink it.
“It’s all in the fingers,” I say.
We play. I take a commanding lead. Magic is cool. He’s got poise. I swish three more, to his one.
“I’m tall,” he says. “Mine’s falling faster than yours when it hits the pile.”
I tell him sometimes it pays to be small.
“Yeah,” he says. “But not much.”