Jacob Nantz recently completed his MA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Originally from Chicago, he writes and lives in Washington DC.
The black kids called me white boy
until I sank a three so pure
the net ceased to move,
then it was Larry Bird,
then it was taunting
to test my limits.
A basketball court is laced with lines,
some you can’t cross, some you have to,
others only at certain times.
The first time I played in the projects
with Yami, I kept my toes behind the arc
where I could sit back
but respect ain’t earned
that way and cemented feet
kept me white boy,
despite how mad the name made Yami,
despite how hard he spiked the ball
off Booch’s chest, said
he has a name muthafucka.
His words had bass like the cars creeping by,
the leather on pavement howling
its hollow thump thump
thump between the skidding sneakers on gravel,
rocks kicking out like a pass I caught,
toes behind the line, still,
the whole group against me
backing into the paint,
daring me with whatchu got’s
and more white boy’s.
I looked to Yami, who gave me the nod a father gives
a son on his own;
his stern eyes softened my fear,
spurred a riot in my gut.
thumps with that leather and I jumped
through the crowd, all swinging and jumping,
slapping my skin. An elbow to my skull
shook my eyes loose,
put me down.
I stayed silent
until the rim unblurred
and Booch’s hand pulled me to my feet.
Baseline and sideline,
once you’ve crossed it
already. Calling fouls,
calling the shots
outside your block,
cowering from shit
talk on the court; talking back.
The sidewalk to the street,
dots of blood stretched 30 feet,
a red streak, the tailsmoke of a body
police tape, chalk
where the body lay,
the thin line between
sympathy and empathy
where I was told
don’t pretend like you understand this shit.
3. Shirts and Skins
When I wanted to be picked
at Farnsworth Park, I stood next to Yami,
his broad black shoulders exposed my skin’s
fragility. They saw me when they picked him;
he said hey my boy can play
until they trusted him. The day I gained identity,
finally heard Booch and Geno call me by name—twice
(I didn’t notice the first time)—
Yami and I left
to look for jobs.
Shoe stores, fast food and factories, his shorts sagging low
like his shoulders,
like his hushed voice
asking white men for work.
We stepped into an office, kept our toes at the edge
of the door. The man looked us over
like a captain choosing teams. Saw my shirt, buttoned,
pressed, our skin juxtaposed,
heard the mumbles judder
from my friend’s throat,
commanded: speak up, son. You have to speak up.
So I did for him. Later, when I raised concern, my father
explained constructs, lines
that made me wonder
if I had Yami’s back how he had mine,
that kept me smothered by the white man’s taunting eyes
inside the comfort of a desk,
stare sharp as elbows.
4. Home Court Advantage
I knew our court well,
could tell you how many dribbles it took
from the take-back line
to the hoop.
Knew the angle of the short rim,
how to feather it off the glass
from the right side.
So when we took our five
to Barbara Green Park, across the river,
I resisted new pavement:
They had no nets,
no square on the backboard or
three point line,
just guessed, argued over which shots counted
I drew a temporary dogma: stay quiet
when called out of bounds, stay cordial.
I found a spot that felt deep enough
and stuck to jumpshots, lofted them up like apologies
of a man displaced,
each time half-flicking my wrist,
half-praying I’d miss.