Stand Like a Tree

By Dan Upton, student, Center for Distance Learning

April 5, 2011

I would stand at the line for hours. Shot after shot, dusk would bare its dimming head before I would go inside. Basketball was my life. I would wake at six in the morning and play all day until my parents finally got irritated enough at the bounce, bounce, bounce of the ball in the backyard.

“Danny get in here already!” My parents didn’t understand. They didn’t get the fact that the rubber ball, the rickety old backboard that was nailed to our old run-down garage, the sweet whishing sound, all of it meant everything to me. Everything that they never provided for me, the life lessons, the friendships, the morals, especially the morals, I learned from the game and not from them. When I finally got good enough to play on a team, I was the happiest I had been in my adolescent life. I loved the way that everyone on my team stuck together, and although we all had different backgrounds and upbringings, on that court, we were all brothers. Our coach, Mr. Robinson, was like our father and we obeyed every word he said.

“Upton! Stop standing there.” Mr. Robinson screamed. “You look like a tree. Do you know what happens to trees, Upton?” he asked me.

“Um, they...” I tried to think as he interrupted me.

“They get pissed on! Dan, do you want a dog to piss on your leg son? You keep standing there, like you do.” Mr. Robinson barked like an army general.

Mr. Robinson was a tough coach. He called every one of us his kids, yet at times it seemed his only intentions were to ridicule, embarrass and humiliate us. At times, I wondered how he treated his real kids. All three of them have grown to become fantastic athletes. They all had great grades when they were in school and all of them went on to college. Even more impressive was the fact that they all stayed in their father’s life. They idolized this man. He was god-like in their eyes.

As I stood at the line, Mr. Robinson would comment on how I wasn’t bending my knees. He would discipline me for not following through with my shot. How the heck was I supposed to learn anything from this guy if all he did was yell and scream? At first that is what I thought. I thought about quitting. I thought about how if I didn’t go to practice next Tuesday, he wouldn’t notice. He would move on to tormenting another kid on my team.

Tuesday came and Jimmy and Dave, my two best friends, showed up at my door to pick me up. I told them I was sick, I had “mud butt” was the exact term I used. They got my point as they backed off my porch and headed to Jimmy’s dad’s ‘86 Chevy Malibu.

I walked past my parents as they sat in the dining room. I swear it didn’t matter what day it was, if it was after five p.m., both of my parents could be found sitting at the table: my mother working so contently on her 2,500 piece tiger cub puzzle and my dear old dad sitting next to her, similar to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Not a sound, motionless. I wondered if they even knew that I wasn’t going to practice. Perhaps they were too mesmerized by the way the little tiger cub was now completely visible with the last piece of the puzzle finally placed, to realize I had been staring at them for a few minutes, unnoticed.

When the phone rang, my mother seemed a bit irritated to realize that it was Mr. Robinson on the line. After he spoke to her for a few moments she handed me the receiver so I could without a doubt, get yelled at for missing practice.

“So I missed you today.” He started the conversation sounding almost paternal. Sounding almost like he really gave a crap that I faked a case of diarrhea to my buddies to skip the definite lashing that he had in store.

“Yeah, they served burritos at school today,” was the only excuse I could think of.

“Well I hope you feel better for Thursday’s practice. We have a game this weekend and we need you better. I was just telling your mom how much you have improved and that we were going to have you start the next game for us.”

I was speechless. I stared at my mother as she stared at that damn puzzle. I waited for her to acknowledge that she was proud of me. That all the hard work was finally paying off and I was showing results for my disciplines. I waited until I became rather uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear to stare any longer so I promised my coach that I would make the next practice and hung up the phone.

As I stormed up the stairs, I heard my mother mumble something to my father about me still wasting my time. At this point in my life I felt like a lost child. The support and motivation that I expected, heck that I demanded, from my parents was a wash. It seemed that no matter what I did, how hard I strived to make them proud, all I did was annoy them.

I decided to run away. I thought about it. I started packing my favorite things: my basketball uniform, my Boston Celtics jacket, a few old Playboy mags that I swiped from my uncle’s collection several months back, everything I owned. Then I thought about where I would go. What the heck would I do? I thought about going to Jimmy’s house. His parents always let me sleep over there, heck I practically lived their one summer vacation. They were good people. They were good parents. They would call my folks, I was sure. Then I thought about my parents’ reaction when they got that call. I’m sure they would be seated at that table, my mother probably working on a new puzzle since she successfully completed the last and my father, well, yeah. I thought about how they probably wouldn’t care that I wasn’t there. Jimmy’s family wouldn’t want me to live there on a semi-permanent basis, so my plan most likely wouldn’t work out.

I stayed. I stayed up in my room the rest of that night tossing my basketball in the air for hours. The next day I awoke and rushed downstairs imagining a great congratulatory breakfast. Praying my coach’s words infiltrated my parents’ impression of me, urging them to see how far I had come. My thoughts of my parents’ acceptance came to a halt, when I quickly noticed the dirty dishes from the French toast my mother cooked for my father were soaking in the sink, and I was standing in the kitchen all alone. They had left for work without even a goodbye.

Thursday’s practice went well. Mr. Robinson must have sensed that I was disappointed or he possibly felt a bit sorry for being so tough on me the previous week. All I know is that he told me he was proud of my decision to come back to the team. He informed me that I was missed and then had me run 20 suicides for my faking sick.

I almost cried while I ran. I tried to remember as far back as I could. I think I made it all the way back to kindergarten graduation. I remember how I had looked out in the audience for a familiar face. I saw Dave’s mother and father. My Principal was there as well. Everyone was so happy for us little scholars; we were barely able to tie our own shoes and could hardly remember that 5 plus 5 was ten without counting our little fingers. So young in fact that I didn’t realize it was strange for my parents to not be in the crowd with all my other classmates’ parents. Before I was winded from the punishment that my coach made me endure, I started to smile. I smiled during the rest of the practice. I tried my hardest throughout the rest of the season because I knew that Mr. Robinson truly believed in me. He was proud and not only did he tell me, he showed me.

A few months passed after the season ended. The spring had melted all of the snow that covered the outdoor basketball courts and I planned a pick-up game with some guys from the team. Dave and I rang Jimmy’s doorbell after making the three-mile walk to his house on the way to Spratt Park. When his mother answered the door, she told us about Mr. Robinson’s death. She told us very delicately how my coach, the once stern yet passionate man, had fallen to cancer. How they found it very late, but how he had lived a fabulous life. She hugged us as she insisted that he felt no pain in his last days and that his wishes were to not worry any of his boys. Even on his deathbed, Coach had the best interests of his boys in mind. He was a great man.

I had dealt with death before. I had gone to my mother’s uncle’s funeral when I was younger. I even had friends whose parents had died, so I somewhat knew what to expect. What I didn’t expect, however, was how I was suddenly overwhelmed with loss. I couldn’t help but remember all that Mr. Robinson had done for me and how he taught me more about myself and life in general than he ever did about basketball. I recalled how he was relentless at making me learn something, anything from my mistakes, regardless of how small and how he always showed me the light at the end of tunnel.

As I stood there with one of my closest friend’s mother’s arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders, I noticed a young maple sapling, barely blowing in the brisk spring breeze. While the surrounding tree’s branches swayed side to side this sapling stood still, waiting for a dog to piss on it.

Dan Upton

Dan Upton

Other work by Upton:
The Basement Door