Notes & Essays

Everything We Learned (or Didn't) About Sports, We Learned From Our Fathers

There are things we pick up about life-about grit, about our names, about manhood-even for the least athletic of us.
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I’m told there are four sportsmen of the apocalypse, and as a bookish man I’m underequipped to name three of them. The fourth one is familiar to me: He is my father. 

Like many fathers, he took me to the school courts on warm, vacated weekends and taught me to free throw Rick Barry-style, with an underhand toss that made us look embarrassing to the other father-and-son teams playing H-O-R-S-E around us. He was giving me easy entry into the world of sports, I suppose. I also remember us watching Gillette’s Wide World of Sports on our lone TV, and I’ve always wondered if he was really interested in Mexican cliff-diving and cold-war era figure skating. He also took me to watch sports movies, that turn-of-the-’70s trend that included The Bad News Bears, One on One, and Gus. I can only vaguely remember those movies—Bad News Bears was about a burnt-out baseball team, One on One was about a beat-up basketball player who fucked his tutor, and Guswas a donkey that was inexplicably admitted into an American football team. About the only thing I picked up from this episode was Seals and Croft’s song “Fair Share,” which up to now I associate with fucking one’s tutor.

Later on we left our rented apartment and moved to our own house, where my father put up a basketball hoop in our backyard and declared our first summer to be “sports season.” But whenever he tried to get me to play a quick half-court one-on-one, I would feign an injury. Luckily, as we were moving in, I thought I would take my brand-new bicycle out for a spin, and as I freewheeled down the gently sloped streets of my new neighborhood I became mesmerized by the spinning spokes of the front wheel and idly stuck my big toe into the blur. The ensuing carnage left me with a badly twisted foot that would take weeks to heal, but the bent bicycle, still under warranty at Arcega’s, was on its wheels in no time.

Few things feel lonelier than hearing a basketball pound the backboard and bang against the rim as your father plays solo into the sunset. Throughout that summer, I didn’t dare head out into the yard—not because there was any danger of being forcibly drafted, but because I couldn’t bear to see him playing alone. 

Still, I don’t know how much he really enjoyed sports. Though I do think he was trying to be my mentor. I knew he knew that in sports, as in all rites of manhood, one must lead in order to teach, and by leading it meant being good at what he was trying to impart to me. The defining moment of this approach was perhaps when he joined his company’s sportsfest. They gave him a proper basketball uniform for this: a sando and basketball shorts with padding on the hips, both in lush, dark green. It bore his corporate number, 11, which I had only previously seen handwritten on interoffice memos and payslips; on the back, carefully spelled out in an arch of fat, serifed capitals, was his name—our name.

The tournament, as he proudly referred to it, was held at one of those country club basketball courts with actual parquet flooring. The audience, evenly split into opposing factions, sat on risers on either side of the court, which gleamed as if it had been given an extra coat of Yco Floor Wax the night before. We’d been told to dress in our team’s colors: green, which my father declared was the color of strength and vigor and vitality. 

True enough, my father’s teammates, some of whom we had had as guests at our housewarming a few weeks before, seemed to be in the prime of their lives and their careers. They came to the house bearing flower vases and fondue sets. They came with their wives, young, slim, and dressed in the latest springwear from Rustan’s or Vogue Patterns. They came with their kids, clean-cut, schooled, and bearing Atari cartridges and remotecontrolled Mercedes Benzes.

My parents were bungalow-proud; they fed the guests pickled onions and folded pieces of ham as they sat in the cane furniture. Even then they had been talking about the upcoming tournament. My father took them briefly out back to show them his half-court setup. I was grateful that it was evening and the backyard spotlights that my father had been promising to install were still on their way.

On the court, my father’s team looked springy and erect. Some of them wore headbands and wristbands, signs of just how much they invested in life’s every venture. My father’s main investment were shiny new shoes that he had purchased with a credit card: the store clerk regarded him like royalty, tenderly asking him to please be seated while she shuffled off and returned with the imprint machine. He signed the paper with a generous motion, flicking his hand with the same flourish he used whenever he executed a perfect Rick Barry free throw.

The other team, which was composed of employees from another department, was in red, which I instantly associated with terror and sadness. That other department was composed of messengers, janitors, and support staff. They were a motley bunch: a couple of tall ones, a couple of fat ones, the rest of them short, dark, and stocky, looking like they played hard street ball all their lives. Some of their faces looked familiar, too, I remember. I remember having to ride home with one of them when my father could not pick me up from school. He would send one of the messengers instead, he said.

The messenger had come up to the school curb, fully helmeted, on a motorcycle. He took off his helmet and put it on my head. I was alarmed by how much it squeezed my head and how much it limited my field of vision. He told me to sit behind him and keep my hands tightly gripped together. He told me to lean left when he leaned left, and lean right when he leaned right. By “he,” he meant himself and the motorcycle. He reached backwards to grasp my head and bent my face forward, and told me to keep my body down and pressed forward against him. He told me not to let any part of me touch the exhaust pipe because it would instantly burn my skin off.

It was the most terrifying ride of my life. Almost as terrifying as the game that was about to start before me, the players spread out for the opening tip, my father’s team frozen in alert silence, their counterparts itching to beat them at the game.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

 

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Sarge Lacuesta
Editor at Large, Esquire Philippines
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