Eli McCann: My three, long, troubled years playing Junior Jazz, where I didn’t make many friends

I didn’t make many baskets either, but one of them was truly memorable.

Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune

In 1996, I was recruited for Junior Jazz basketball. That makes it sound like I had athletic talents and was discovered. In reality, an acquaintance of my parents told them they were looking for another boy to join his kid’s team, named “Redwood.”

At age 12, my sports history was already checkered. This included a couple of years of T-ball. The only photographic evidence my family has of my T-ball career is of me holding two doughnuts, my participation trophy tipped over and neglected at my feet.

Then there was my short stint in machine pitch — evidence of parental malpractice, considering they signed up their 8-year-old to swing at a flying ball after having never successfully hit an immobile one off a tee.

Eventually, I joined my neighborhood friends in a soccer league. We lost every game. My best friend, Sam, and I would sit in the middle of the field and make our team play around us while we gossiped about pop culture. We’re both openly gay now.

So, no, it didn’t make sense to sign up to play on the Redwood team. But sign up, I did.

I never became particularly popular among my teammates, and I’m certain none of them ever learned my name. I can’t blame them. I wasn’t exactly an asset. I spent every practice and game like I was in a dodgeball tournament, simply trying to stay out of the way.

As the season concluded, I felt relief — no longer would I have to dread Saturday games. But as our participation trophies were passed around, so too was a sign-up sheet for the next year. I must have misinterpreted my teammates’ enthusiasm as peer pressure because I then registered to be on the Redwood team again, much to the surprise of my parents who, having attended every game, were also counting down the days until this nightmare was over.

Seasons two and three

The second year of Junior Jazz went like the first. And when that season ended, I asked one of my teammates whether we were going to sign up for a third year. He told me no — the Redwood team was splitting up.

I was so elated that I skipped all the way home. Home was a mile away. That made this the most athletic thing I had done in two years.

But mere weeks later, a neighborhood child from our failed soccer team called me and said he wanted to pull the old crew together for Junior Jazz, and since I had already played for two years, he thought I should be team captain.

Flattered, and delusional, I accepted, and began my third year of Junior Jazz.

Unfortunately, on my new team, I was an average player. During games, my friends and I would fight over who had to sub in next, and we would regularly beg the coach to pull us out as we ran past him on the court.

The coach was Jake Anderson’s father. He didn’t know anything about basketball. He mostly just had us engage in team-building exercises, so our practices looked less like children in a basketball league and more like ropes courses for corporate employees.

We lost every game. In fact, the score would be so abysmal by halftime that the refs would simply announce we had forfeited.

When the season’s final game arrived, we were thrilled we had only one more day of this embarrassment.

Inside the gym that morning, we looked across the court to the team that would be beating us. I noticed those players were shooting hoops. I noticed they were huddling around their coaches, receiving instruction. And then I looked more closely and realized these boys were familiar.

This team, the one we’d be playing that day, was my old team. The Redwood team.

Those players had told me they were splitting up. Evidently, they failed to explain they were only splitting up from me.

The lies. The betrayal.

The revenge matchup

As I looked at these, mine enemies, traitors, my dramatic gay little heart concluded I had no choice but to beat them. Yes — this was going to be the day I finally played basketball.

I called my friends into a huddle and explained the situation. They gasped. And we all decided we were going to destroy the Redwood team for what it did.

Four minutes later, we were losing 20-0. I realized I couldn’t rely on my friends to help here, so I made a new plan: We wouldn’t win, but I’d at least score one basket to show the Redwood players the talent they had shed.

For the next several minutes, I did something I had never done before. Instead of treating this like a game of dodgeball, I began running toward the ball to try to get my hands on it. It was very difficult. And before long, I was sweating. It made me wonder if this was why my old teammates were always so wet after every practice and game.

Finally, with the score now 40-0, the ball happened to fall into my hands. I was standing behind the 3-point line, a nearly impossible shooting position for me. But I knew I was not competent enough to dribble the ball into easier territory, so this was my only chance. And with my eyes shut, I launched the ball upward and forward.

The ball flew toward the hoop in slow motion. It seemed that every person in the gym fell silent. I felt the drama, the looks of shock from my former teammates, the surprise from my parents in the stands. The ball slowly descended and descended and descended toward my retribution and vindication until, finally, it fell straight through the hoop.

I began a victory lap around the gym before the ball hit the ground, screaming and reaching out for reluctant high-fives from the stands. When I finally returned to my teammates, still standing on the court and staring at me, one of them yelled, “Eli! You scored for the wrong team!”

Apparently, I did not realize when the ball fell into my hands, we were on the other team’s side of the court.

The buzzer rang, announcing halftime. The refs declared we had forfeited. The score: 43-0.

After three long years, I finally scored a basket for the Redwood team. The only problem: I was no longer a member of that team when I did it.

We were sent through a long line to shake hands and congratulate the Redwood team on its victory.

When I approached the last child, the one who had told me the prior season the team was splitting up, he reached his hand out to mine. I prepared to confront him about his lie. But he spoke before I could.

“Do I know you? You look familiar.”

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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