This article was originally published in The Houston Chronicle in 1996. It describes a harrowing episode that occurred while I was in college.
* * * * *
Being a young man in today’s society isn’t easy. Our boys are coming of age in an increasingly violent society, but instead of shunning the violence, they seem to embrace it. Several have become cold, heartless and believe that killing is a rite of passage rather a vile deed. Too many young men have made a cold piece of steel their universal problem solver; however, I never imagined that someone would use that piece of steel to solve a problem with me. My naiveté almost got my friend and I shot.
We went to a neighborhood basketball court for a little pick-up game. While we were shooting around, two guys challenged us to a little two-on-two. Although Keith had played college ball for a couple of years and I had been fine-tuning my skills on playgrounds all my life, I wasn’t sure if we could beat these guys. One of them was about 6’3″ and obviously played on this court daily. The other guy kept knocking down three-pointers as if they were lay-ups. Nevertheless, we accepted the challenged.
Before we knew it, we were down by five points. We knew we had to raise our playing levels if we wanted to win and maintain any semblance of pride.
When Keith and I were finally in synch with each other, the shots came easily. We began to dominate our rivals, but instead of raising their game to another level, they grew angry and frustrated (Playground Rule #1: Never let your opponent see your weakness because he will exploit it). Since they were getting upset, Keith and I began to talk a little trash and get a little fancier with our shots. The more we harassed them, the more frustrated they became. Maybe things wouldn’t have turned out as they did if we hadn’t taunted those guys, but taunting is a part of the game; every playground gladiator knows that (Playground Rule #2: Talk trash and back it up).
Keith noticed that his man kept taking the ball to the right side of the court, so he blocked the lane and made him dribble left. He tried to push Keith and bump him out of his way to get to the right side to score, but Keith didn’t relinquish his position. Out of frustration, the guy kept calling unnecessary fouls. Keith contested them, but I convinced him to let the guy have the ball since we were winning. As he took the ball out-of-bounds, he said to Keith, “Foul me one more time and see what happens.”
Keith ignored his threat and ordered him to play ball. When the ball was in play, Keith’s man received a pass and saw an open lane to the goal. He charged for a dunk, but Keith wasn’t giving it up that easily. Keith blocked his shot cleanly, but the guy called a foul. Keith glared at him and refused to let him have the ball. Suddenly, the guy ran to his gym bag and came back brandishing a chrome-plated .380. Pointing the gun in Keith’s face, he demanded the ball. Keith stood firm with the ball tucked under his arm. I couldn’t believe what was transpiring. I wanted to run, fight, call the cops; anything except stand frozen in my spot as this guy threatened our lives. He pointed the gun in my direction warning me not to try anything. After a few minutes, Keith relented and sat the ball next to his feet. As the guy retrieved the ball, he berated Keith and me by calling us punks and other profanities. In spite of his intimidation tactics, Keith and I kept our composure and finished playing.
The outcome of the game didn’t matter since that guy had won in his mind. His ego had been stroked and that’s all he wanted. By making Keith hand over the ball, the guy had proven that he was in control regardless of what happened on the court. With the slightest twitch of his finger, Keith and I could have been statistics. That gun gave him power when his less than stellar court performance made him feel powerless. Before we started playing, he believed he was the most dominate man on the court. When he was proven wrong, his ego was crushed. Keith and I, two smaller men, had embarrassed him on his turf. To him, that was a form of disrespect. Instead of earning his peer’s respect by playing harder, he resorted to violence. To make himself bigger, he had to make us seem smaller.
Too many young men believe that they can solve their problems with a gun. We need to teach them that violence doesn’t solve anything; it only creates more complicated problems. If they continue to learn “might makes right” instead of “love your neighbor,” our neighborhood playgrounds will become killing fields rather than oases of enjoyment. I don’t know if that guy would have actually shot us that day, but it scares when I realize that Keith and I could have lost our lives just because we could put a basketball in a hoop more times than he could.
Join the conversation: Have you ever had a life-threatening experience? If so, how did you deal with it?