When I was twelve, I tried out for the basketball team. But in the unlikely event that my middle school still has records of who wanted to be on the roster for the 1998-1999 season, you won’t find my name there. I skipped the requisite physical urged on us by the cloying morning announcements in the days leading up to the tryout because I thought people would want to talk me out of it.
In my PE classes, I always performed well. Our instruction alternated between a health component in the classroom and physical exertion in the gym or on a field outside. The stationary portion comprised hokey lessons on emotional well-being, rudimentary discussions of fitness, and, for a few raucous days, a survey of sex the teacher would deliver with flatfooted perseverance on an overhead projector. When we shifted to playing sports, it always offered a glimpse of how we saw each other and how we wanted to be seen. The interregnum between getting dressed in the school-provided outfits and huddling around the coach to hear what we would be doing made everyone conscious of hierarchies and where they fit in. The willowy girls would gambol out of their locker room onto the recently renovated gym floor with their dark green shorts hiked up as high as possible and flirtatiously circle around the boys they liked. The boys would gather in small groups to talk about sports or to see if anyone else thought their jokes were funny. It didn’t take much to feel like a success in those languid minutes. You just had to have someone who would reliably acknowledge you.
I lived in a decidedly unglamorous part of Greensboro that wasn’t in the school district, and nearly all my friends or the people I wanted to be friends with came from more affluent families. This strongly colored how I conducted myself during the day. In the morning, a bus with a lift for my wheelchair would come to my apartment and make stops at the homes of other disabled children who didn’t necessarily live in close proximity to each other. When we drove through the well-heeled Starmount Forest neighborhood to pick up someone with a developmental disability, I would see Adam Cohen waiting on a corner for his bus, and his gaze would meet mine. Adam was good-looking, funny, popular among students of both sexes, and comfortable with sports without being a jock. I didn’t know what his parents did for a living, but I couldn’t imagine his sprucely maintained neighborhood producing anything other than content young people. The inviting lawns, stout trees, and unassuming houses conjured thoughts in my mind of stability and support, neither of which, I was soon to learn, I could count on from my parents. I attempted, with some progress, to ingratiate myself with Adam and his self-confident buddies. Adam came to interpret our mute morning encounters as evidence that I lived near him. I didn’t correct his mistake. It felt good to close the distance separating me from the other boys.
Basketball helped with this, too. I recognized shooting was prohibitively difficult in fast-paced games. In order to give any shot a plausible arc toward the basket, I was obliged to place the ball in my right hand, reach back well behind my shoulder, and launch it before someone unceremoniously plucked it away. It would have been like a ramshackle catapult on the cusp of coming apart as it besieged a city wall. But teammates still passed to me, and I would find whomever was open without undue partiality. No one ever singled me out for criticism or went after my limitations. I was doing the best I could, and at that age and in that easygoing context it didn’t occur to my cohort that the inadequacies of someone’s skill set warranted exclusion.
Even that day at the tryout, I didn’t get any strange looks. I can chalk that up in part to nervousness all around and in part to the fact that no one, myself included, actually expected me to get serious consideration. The drills the coach put us through required more quickness and stamina than anything I had seen in PE, and I showed up simply to stake a claim to liberation. The aesthetic experience of basketball mattered as much to me as its execution in real time. I was at an age where I could discern enough of the adult world’s pleasures to feel connected to something bigger, and I felt enlivened by insisting on my worth among people who appeared open to seeing me as more than my wheelchair.
Word got around. Adam wrote in my yearbook: “Sup Ashes, I’m going to be looking for you on the Basketball team next year, you got the sweat shot.”
I felt enlivened by insisting on my worth among people who appeared open to seeing me as more than my wheelchair.
When I started having trouble moving my toes as a baby, the doctor my parents took me to at first misdiagnosed what was happening as a vitamin deficiency. It turned out to be a neuroblastoma that would leave me paralyzed. Upon realizing his mistake, he got down on one knee and begged my mother and father to forgive him for getting it wrong.
My parents procured H1-B visas and brought my family to the U.S. when I was three in order to make my disability more manageable. Throughout my childhood, they would periodically take me to a phalanx of UNC doctors. It always seemed like the men and women in white would never run out of things that were wrong with me. We would arrive in Chapel Hill in the morning and leave at dusk at the earliest. The interval was denominated in blood tests, dexterity tests, X-rays, shots, discussions about wheelchair models, dreary questions, drearier food, and endless waiting. One day when I was eight, a doctor looked at my high-strung mother rather than me and announced that I needed spinal fusion surgery, a procedure serious enough to merit a blood transfusion and weeks of bed rest.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising I was drawn to basketball as a response to the disempowering and near constant medicalization of my body. The virtues that are most celebrated on the court are fluidity, improvisation, and versatility, precisely the traits that seem most remote for a child when the course of his future hinges on what the next doctor to come through a door is going to say or when he’s missing weeks of school because he needs to recuperate from a major operation. And if you’re playing a team sport predicated on skills —running and jumping —your genes have denied you, you’re receiving a comforting message: Don’t worry. Your body is just fine.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising I was drawn to basketball as a response to the disempowering and near constant medicalization of my body.
Basketball wasn’t very popular in India at the time, so my parents were introduced to the sport through my enthusiasm. When I would ask why I couldn’t join a kids’ youth team like my friends at school, I didn’t get much of an answer. I assumed it had something to do with money. My parents were reluctant to vocalize the lineaments of disadvantage that they faced as immigrants looking for full-time work and that I would face in a body that was unlike other bodies. But they noticed how prominently basketball figured in my imagination. I would regularly meet up with other kids from my apartment complex— many of them from poor and lower middle class immigrant families— to play sports after school in what we ironically called the Ghetto League. This appellation that derived its resonance from the racial spectrum of the participants rather than from any neighborhood decay.
My closest friend in these years was Nikola, a tall Serbian boy my age who followed the career trajectory of all the NBA players from the old country with particular zeal. If Vlade Divac was having a good season, Nikola was happy. But if the Croatian Toni Kukoc had a pivotal role in a playoff game, it was probably best not to dwell on it too much.
The Ghetto League’s basketball games were marked by a lot of groans. If you messed up in a predictable way, you would hear about it, especially if it seemed like the mistake was avoidable. As with PE at school, I stuck to what I felt most comfortable doing. My favorite perch was under the rim, where I could collect rebounds and feel the potential of new action about to develop as I scanned the court to see who was best situated to receive and do something with a pass. This was often Nikola, who could easily outmuscle or shoot over his defender. Like all children in the Sportscenter golden age, we conceived of and remarked on the plays as though their images would appear in history books with emphatic captions. On the court with my friends, I thought this was what life as an adult could be at its best, an ever-expanding series of bright concentric circles filling the vista in every direction. Grab the board. Kick it out for a three. Laugh about what happens next.
The solidarity of athletes was a portrait in miniature of how to resist these hardships: cooperation, encouragement, and a hand to pick you up when you hit the floor. Basketball imprinted on me an appreciation for the auspicious permutations of human activity.
But there was an entropic momentum to those days I wasn’t aware of. I was invited to participate in the International Baccalaureate program at Greensboro’s oldest and most esteemed high school, which would be the next destination of most of my friends. But the county would no longer provide a bus for me if we lived outside the district, and my mother was taking classes that would prevent her from being able to drop me off and pick me up. She had bought a house on the outskirts of town on the advice of an immigration lawyer who said it would help with bureaucratic hurdles, and I would have to go to a high school without a single familiar face in the freshman class.
I never saw Adam again. Nikola was given a spot in the International Baccalaureate program, and his parents made sure he was able to attend. He entered a dark mood, partly spurred by the U.S. campaign against Yugoslavia, and we soon lost touch. Bereft of deep friendship and apprehensive as the country embraced a combustible revanchism after 9-11, I was sometimes in tears before I even got home from school, mystified about everything and everyone. The ineffectuality and helplessness I felt at home was recapitulated on TV every night with scenes from the war of bombing and torture. I still have a hard time shaking that sense of destabilizing misfortune.
The solidarity of athletes was a portrait in miniature of how to resist these hardships: cooperation, encouragement, and a hand to pick you up when you hit the floor. Basketball imprinted on me an appreciation for the auspicious permutations of human activity. My presence on the court gave me a wide berth to observe and adjust to the interactions around me, and it is from the vantage point of an outsider who insisted on being treated as an equal that I thrived. Out of pleasure and necessity I forged a way of contending against doubt I now apply to adult fears—could women ever find someone with my body attractive? have my friends outgrown me?—that admit no tidy resolution. I won’t try to produce a white-knuckle tallying of how that’s going. Just pass me the ball and see what I can do.