I met Steve when I was 19. I was a freshman, living in the Lander Hall dorm at the University of Washington at the time. Beneath the residence hall was a covered basketball court where I would shoot around in my free time, usually on days when I wasn’t feeling up to making the trek across campus to the gym. It was there that Steve and I first became acquainted.
My buddy Charlie and I would spend our afternoons playing one-on-one on the cracked asphalt of this court. Occasionally, we’d find a wayward soul to join us in a game of 21. On the rarest of occasions, we were actually able to pick up two-on-two, or even three-on-three. But most days it was just the two of us, killing time with layups and jumpers and friendly trash talk.
One day we were in the midst of a less-than-epic battle when Steve sauntered onto our turf like he owned the joint. Dressed in jeans and an oversized pink polo shirt, balding, and with an undeniably crazy look in his eye, Steve asked if he could join us. Politely, we obliged, setting aside our game for this forty-something-year-old, short, stubby, Caucasian transient who wouldn’t pass the look test at a blind man’s convention.
Steve introduced himself and then proceeded to set the rules of the game before we had a chance to rebut. We would play 21, essentially, but not keep score.
*Side note: For those of you who don’t know how the game of 21 works, it’s basically a contest of one-on-one-on-one, every man for himself, where the winner is crowned when he reaches 21 points.
I’ll admit that when Steve first implemented these guidelines, I was a bit perplexed. Who doesn’t keep score in a game of anything? Isn’t the point of a game to keep score and determine a winner? Befuddled, and slightly afraid of pissing off the crazy guy, we went along with Steve’s insane rulebook.
Once the actual game got underway, we came to realize that Steve had some talent in that old timer’s body of his. For one thing, he employed an unguardable hook shot that he relied on about 90-percent of the time. On top of that, he was physical as all hell, playing defense like a cracked-out Bruce Bowen, fighting for rebounds, and refusing to give up easy buckets. If that weren’t enough, Steve made a point of telling us over and over again how he used to kick Nate McMillan’s ass on the hardwood. Who knows if any of Steve’s ridiculous Nate McMillan claims were at all truthful. But after seeing the guy play, I wouldn’t entirely discount the fact that he maybe could have quite possibly run with Mr. Sonic at least once or twice in his life.
Our pseudo-game was going along swimmingly at first, but that quickly changed. Apparently, I made the mistake of taking too many jumpers, which in turn led Steve to flip out.
Now in my own defense, I have a pretty good jumper. I’m a shooter, first and foremost. Long range, mid-range, short range, doesn’t matter. I’ve always been able to hit. So I tend to rely on my jumper quite a bit.
My jumper, however, didn’t seem to enamor Steve the same way it enamored me. After I had launched one too many 19-footers, Steve stopped the game.
“Wait, wait, hold on,” he said. “Why are you shooting so much? Take the ball to the hole. You’re big, you’re quick, drive the basketball.”
At this point, I was stunned beyond belief. Few people had ever accused me of being a) big, or b) quick. I stand 5’9″ and weigh about 195. Back then, I was probably closer to 185. The most frequent term used to describe me is “stocky.” Stocky people aren’t usually referred to as big or quick, let alone both.
I looked at Steve and wondered what the hell was going through his mind at that moment. Perhaps he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. Perhaps he was high on PCP. I’m not really sure. All I know is that the words he had given me were fuel, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I was motivated.
Acting as judge and jury, Steve altered the rules of the game once again. Not only would we continue to play 21 without keeping score, but Steve would play defense exclusively. Charlie and I would compete on offense. But only after I took the ball out on roughly 10 straight possessions, driving on two defenders and settling for zero jumpers in the process.
Steve checked me the ball and told me to drive. I drove. He hacked me.
“Take it stronger,” he proclaimed.
I took it again. He hacked me again.
“Stronger,” he demanded.
I didn’t say anything, which is generally a good indicator of my brewing anger. Steve checked. I quietly fumed, then dribbled, plotting my attack. I saw my opening and coiled. I bounced once, twice, then exploded. I thundered through the gap like a fullback, reaching the cup and laying the ball off the rickety wooden backboard with relative finesse. I had performed thousands of layups over the course of my lifetime. But this one was different. It was new. Earth-shattering. Like the first time I had seen the Thriller video. That theatrical masterpiece had put to shame all the other music videos I had ever paid witness to, just as this layup had put to shame all the other layups I had ever converted.
Steve told me to do it again. I did it again. And again. Eventually, he just got out of my way. No more hacks. No more defense. I wasn’t about to be stopped.
We finished up our pseudo-game. Steve thanked us for letting him play, then wandered off. I would see him again maybe two more times in my life, only in passing, and only from a distance. He was as good as gone. In essence, a ghost. Barely more than a figment of my imagination.
I confided in Charlie that while Steve wasn’t entirely right in the head, he had changed my game for the better that day. I was more of a complete player. I wasn’t settling for treys and fadeaways. I was imposing my will on the defense. Something clicked between Steve and I. He appeared and disappeared like a guardian angel, of sorts, turning me into his pet project before moving on to something else.
To this day, when my game suffers or I sense that I’m not doing what I need to do on the court, I remember Steve’s words and channel the fire he brought out in me. Yes, he tweaked my physical approach to basketball, but more than that he recrafted the belief I had in myself inside the lines. I had been timid and cautious and hesitant before. He made me stronger, tougher, angrier.
Fact is, we all have people who coach us to our full potential, be it in the realm of sports or any other life area. My coach just happened to be a homeless guy in a bubblegum pink polo shirt.
As goofy as it sounds, if I could find Steve today, I’d thank him. And take him out for lunch. And buy him a new shirt. No one would ever mistake me for the most talented basketball player out there, but my game improved dramatically after receiving Steve’s guidance.
So wherever you may be, Steve — and I sincerely hope that you’re doing well — please allow me to say thanks. If we ever happen to cross paths again, your meal is on me. I owe you one.