Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Legend of the South End, Mr. Lee

With the exception of our varsity starting point guard, the best jump shooter at our high school is not on the basketball team. Clearly, this distinction belongs to me. I'm the real-life version of an NBA 2K video game mash-up between Stephen Curry and Jerry West. Splasshhhh! Joking aside, the top two shooters at our school are a duo of Somalian brothers who shoot the lights out from any range under any pressure. You just can't guard them, and if you try to put a hand in their face, then prepare for great embarrassment. Like the current backcourt of the Golden State Warriors, these brothers aren't just catch-and-shoot shooters, but possess the dynamism to beat a defender off the dribble, power their way into the lane, or step back and create their own shot. What's more, these Somalian brothers started playing basketball in middle school, in contrast to most of the basketball players on our team, who began playing while still in Pampers on their Fisher Price set and were reared into fundamentally sound players by the best training programs that top dollar could buy. White privilege. Curious to know the secret behind the brothers' success, I probed into their lives for that elixir, in hope that perhaps my game too could exponentially improve in a short period of time.

Mr. Lee! came the enthusiastic response of one of the brothers. You've got to meet him! All the Lee's whom I've come across over the years have been Asian, but in this case, my common sense resisted the urge to link my past racialized associations with this Mr. Lee. He was probably white like David Lee, but it's possible that, since these brothers lived in the South End, this Lee was black like Spike. No Veryl, he's as Asian as you. Sure, Asian elders existed who coached ping pong or martial arts like Bruce Lee or Mr. Miyagi, but basketball? He had to be shitting me, so I pressed his brother for the real scoop. Nah V, you just don't know. Mr. Lee is a legend in the South. For those ill-acquainted with Seattle, the South End, though somewhat gentrified over recent years, remains home to a substantial population of low-income East African and Southeast Asian immigrants. A lucky few from the South each year, such as these brothers, win the lottery to go to an academically esteemed public school like ours in the North End rather than a neglected neighborhood public school in their own community. With the pressure off of them to join a neighborhood gang, handle a gat and become sharpshooters, these lottery winners aspire to join a school team, handle a basketball and become jump shooters.

The legend goes that Mr. Lee never misses his shots. Now probably in his 70s, generation after generation of Holly Park (a neighborhood in the South End) street ballers have come under his wing. Notoriously known for the Holly Park Crips, an East African gang set, only recently have locals enjoyed the landscape of the neighborhood after gentrifying families brought along comprehensive gang sweeps a few years ago and frequent police monitoring. Unlike the cutthroat exclusivity of gangs, Mr. Lee embodies an Africa Bambaata-esque unity. His presence in the local housing project courts alone inspires commitment to the game of basketball, of which he is the very definition. Much like farmers rising to a rooster's crow, the brothers tell me that while they were in middle school, they would wake up to the sound of string music coming from their nearby project court at the break of dawn. By the time that the boys finished breakfast and arrived at Meany International Middle School in the Central District, Mr. Lee had somehow migrated from that South End project court to Meany, where he would open the gym for a zero hour basketball session before class commenced. Back in their middle school days, Mr. Lee earned his keep as a Bilingual Assistant at Meany, but he earned his reputation for his love of the game. In the darkest of nights and the snowiest of winters, Mr. Lee's court presence never wavered. I've heard it said that passion is contagious. There is no greater proof than in these Somalian brothers who, from literally no experience, ascended to the top of jump shooters in comparatively no time.

How did he teach you to shoot? I asked. Confidence. Mr. Lee taught us Confidence, came their nonchalant response as if it were painfully obvious. With selfish curiosity to improve my own game, I rephrased my question. Confidence, that's cool, but I mean, what specific techniques did he teach you? Different coaches emphasize different techniques, but nearly every single coach breaks down the shot to a science. Some emphasize footwork, balance, and posture. Others emphasize the placement of the ball in the shot pocket, the squaring of the ball to basket, and the follow through. Still others reduce the shot down to focus and the placement of your eye on a specific part of the rim. No V, you're overthinking it. The reason our shot goes in is because we know it will go in. Every single time. You can try to stop me, but I guarantee my shot is going in. As a coach myself, this sentiment is beyond absurd-- it's unthinkable! I devote a significant amount of time in practice on preaching the fundamentals. I tell my players that if they follow through on their shot every time, then they will consistently hit their jumper. I drill, Drill, and DRILL that technique over and over again. But, if it's scientific to develop theory from reality, who am I to say that the tried-and-true words from a Legend is absurd? Perhaps I should be taking notes from the sensei and simplifying my own game.

One rainy evening late last winter, I went to the project court frequented by the Legend. Just as I pictured in my head, raindrops pounded the barren concrete court. Even legends have their limits, I thought to myself. Old age had finally exhausted his chameleon-like adaptability to play in any weather. As the school year closed, one of the brothers surprised me with a video recorded on his phone. I see an image of a basket immediately followed by a swish. The camera pans over from the basket to a right arm following through from the shot, and then finally to the shooter. A small, old Asian man turns his head to the phone and, in boastful fashion, tells me, Coach, that one's for you. It's all about confidence. Tell your team to believe in themselves. You believe in them. Funny, that following summer season, the team I coached was the one to beat in Summer League. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss the hocus pocus of the street game.

There's an inside joke that the brothers and I share now whenever we play pick up ball with varsity players at the school. Every time one of our shots go in, the others would yell out Mr. Lee! As all legends do when they reach legendary status, their legacy is passed down to younger generations and transplanted far beyond their original reach. From the South End through the Central District to the North. With less than a second left, he hoists up a miracle from half court. For the win--- it's goooooddd!!! Unbelievable, and they win on the miracle shot! Mr. Lee!!!