Side Spin

John McCaffrey '87

When I think back to my first day as a student at Villanova University, I think about kindness… and basketball. Each helped me overcome an initial wave of fear, of anxiety, of upset at being away from my family, of not knowing anyone, of being on my own.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find comfort in basketball when I stepped on campus – it was the reason I was there. Not to play for the Wildcats, who, at the time, were one year away from upsetting Georgetown and winning the school’s first national championship, but to watch them, to be close to a program of magnitude, a program with history. My history with the sport started as a young child, watching college and NBA games on television with my father. My favorite player on any level was Nate “Tiny” Archibald, a diminutive, blink-of-an-eye quick point guard, an elite passer and scorer, and the only player to ever lead the league in points and assists in the same year. Along with being a dynamic star, I was drawn to Archibald because I was also small in stature, always short and sleight for my age. When I think of those days and my fandom, I always remember a packet of athletic socks I received as a present on my 10th birthday, the white tube variety that stretched nearly to your knee, with “Tiny” stitched in red letters on the side. I wore them with great pride, and with the fantasy that they held power to transform my game to Archibald’s heights. But they never did, and while I made my high school team and put hours and hours into practice and playing pick-up and organized ball, I knew, when it came to college, that my time on the “varsity” was over.  

My freshman year dorm was Coor Hall. My parents helped to settle me into my room, a glorified walk-in-closet with bunk beds. It was cramped even without my roommate, who had not yet arrived, and as it was still summer, and no air conditioning to be found. But I liked the aesthetics of the space, and the dorm itself, an old-stone structure with a quiet church nestled below the floors. It looked to me like what college should look like.  

Still, I was uneasy. After hugging my parents goodbye in the parking lot, and watching them drive away, I returned to the dorm, to my tiny room and fought back tears and the idea that I had made a mistake—that I should have chosen a college closer to my home in Rochester, New York, somewhere where friends from high school were attending, where I wouldn’t feel so alone and far from family. I remember stewing in gloom and feeling sorry for myself, wondering how I would be able to make it through not just the coming semester, but that very night. And then I heard it – the thump, thump, thump of a basketball being dribbled in the hallway. My ears pricked as the sound passed, and like the proverbial “moth to flame” I followed it, opening my door and peering out in time to see a fellow student head to the stairs, carrying a basketball. I was already wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sneaks, and I closed my door and half-ran after him. I caught sight of him again outside, and I trailed him from a short distance around the back of the dorm, through the parking lot, and down to a set of outdoor basketball courts I hadn’t seen or somehow noticed before. 

It was dusk when I walked onto the court, and the lights surrounding the area had been turned on. Other than a few people shooting on side baskets, the main action was a full-court, five-on-five game. When it ended, several players from both sides left, and I and a few others who were waiting were placed on teams. We began to play. It took a moment for me to get into the flow, to shed from my system the emotions of the day, but I was helped along by the sharp pace of the game, and also because I noticed, almost right away, that a few players were unique. What I mean is they moved a bit different than the rest of us, smoother, quicker, and with more surety. They were also taller, bigger, and clearly stronger than anyone else. And while they did not monopolize the ball or dominate the action, they were in control of it, ensuring, by their athleticism, their demeanor, the way the carried themselves, that the game was played “the right way,” without argument, without selfishness, without any of the destructive elements that can ruin a pick-up contest. It was exactly what I needed, or ever needed, and with each run up and down the court I was feeling more myself. 

And then there was the pass. It was near the end of the game, and one of the players who stood out, who was on my team, snared a rebound. He began to dribble fast up-court, while we on the team fanned out and raced ahead toward the opposing goal. Just as I was clearing half-court, I saw the ball zip past. Another member of my team was almost near the foul line, with a defender trailing close behind to his left. I watched as the ball lost verticality, touching down just outside the defender’s reach and then, as if pulled by invisible string, turning at a right angle into the hands of my teammate who took it in stride and laid it in for the deciding basket. 

I had never seen such a thing on a basketball court. I was amazed at the amount of spin put on the ball to make it move so fast and true to the target, but also the creativity of the passer, the daring, the expertise needed to execute such a play. It impressed me, and empowered me. By just being close to something so spectacular, so artfully done, I felt elevated and inspired. 

After the game, I sought out the individual who had made the pass. I introduced myself, and he did the same. It was Harold Jensen, also a freshman, who would go on the next year to play a pivotal role in Villanova’s inaugural title, hitting shot after shot in the second half against Patrick Ewing and the vaunted Hoyas. I remember him as being humble and soft-spoken, and when I complimented his play, he, in return, encouraged me to come and play with them again. We talked a bit more, and then I went back to my room. But this time, I was no longer homesick, no longer doubting my choice of school, no longer sad or lonely. And with the realization that I was going to be okay, even happy, I opened my door and began to make friends, even a few who said they would join me the next night to play basketball. 

Originally from Rochester, New York, John McCaffrey attended Villanova University and received his M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals, magazines and newspapers. He is the author of two published books: The Book of Ash, a science fiction novel, and the short story collection Two Syllable Men. A former New York Times writing fellow, he teaches at the College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem, NY.

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