I was walking circles around my high school track, aimlessly obeying my PE teacher, when I heard my name called.
“Johnson!” a teacher yelled, “bring it in.”
Consulting a clipboard and checking boxes with swift pen strokes, he told me to change clothes and report to the office.
“Crap,” I thought. “All of my class-ditching had finally caught up with me.”
High school was a struggle, as I tended to be the angstiest, most discontented person in any given classroom. I constantly sought to understand the “why” behind everything we were learning, but was never told. So instead, I let my mind wander and play in other realities and get lost in books and music…and NBA basketball.
This was a year when the Sacramento Kings franchise was starting to turn around.
We had a quick-dribbling, slick-passing point guard in Jason Williams.
Chris Weber was beginning to carry the team on his 6’ 9” frame (and developed a smooth spot-up jumper from the corner of the free-throw stripe).
Vlade Divac was a center that dished the ball out of the low block and consistently looked for the pass before the shot. His gargantuan white body and Eastern European features made him stick out like a sore Serbian thumb.
Divac’s pal, Peja Stojakovic, came out of nowhere and became one of the purest three-point shooters in the league.
Doug Christie was a curly-haired shooting guard that kissed his hand and raised it to the sky throughout the game, signaling love and faithfulness to his wife off-court.
Oh yes, and the bench mob. Some of our second string players were Bobby Jackson, Jon Barry and Hedo Turkoglu. And of course, there were the ever-changing pony tails and beards of former Kansas Jayhawk center Scot Pollard. These players checked in at the scorer’s table as the crowd shouted and clanked on cowbells.
Ah, the glory years.
These Kings were like a second family to me during the early 2000s. NBA basketball became an escape for my troubled mind.
You see, I was in the thick of a dark stint of depression during that time. Hope felt dangerous. I was disconnected, withdrawn into the sterile security of fabricated realities. And as I drifted, basketball was an anchor to the living world.
To feel more human, I watched every single game.
My parents were concerned about me (as any loving parents would be) and they encouraged me to receive counseling, but I was stubborn and hurting and too angry to go. I started skipping classes, but still maintained good grades, so it was hard for them to really be mad at me. Much of high school seemed like a silly hoop that I was being forced to jump through without any good reason.
I’d dress down in gym clothes, check in for PE roll call and then make a run for it. I'd go on explorations through the canyons near my school. I was like an escape convict, wearing a shirt with my name written across the front in sharpie instead of an orange jumpsuit.
The Kings were having one of their best seasons in years, finishing 2nd in the Pacific Division and facing the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. After going up two games to one, the Kings would travel to play game four in Phoenix.
Suns fans didn’t love their team as much the Kings faithful fanatics and the Sacramento media made a call out to Sacramentans letting them know they could still snatch up tickets to see the game down in Arizona. Southwest advertised cheap flights to lure the loyal following.
Meanwhile, I was trying my best not to run away from PE class. One more absence and I’d be declared a truant, which is like parole for minors. That’s when I heard my name called.
Knots formed in my stomach as I racked my brain over what recent stunts I’d pulled that would get me in trouble. With suppressed trepidation, I walked over to the secretary’s office. She was nothing but smiles, so I forced one, but it made me feel awkward and I felt my face turn hot.
“Sign out right here,” she said, handing me a pen and clipboard. “You’re a very lucky boy.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but I signed my name on a line that freed me from school that day.
“Your Dad is waiting outside,” she said and pointed to the door leading to the front quad.
I started thinking that something was wrong, but my Dad was standing by his pick-up truck waiting for me with a mischievous grin across his face.
“Hey Dane,” he said casually and without any indication that he was going to explain anything.
“What’s up?” I asked, feeling more emotion than I’d felt in months.
Two suitcases were packed and stacked on the back seat. He began driving toward Sacramento on I-80. He kept smirking, but not explaining.
We listened to the radio for the half-hour drive that eventually led to the airport and a hope I’d not felt for years.
As we checked in at the Southwest counter, the pieces fell into place. We would be traveling to Phoenix to watch the Kings compete for their first round-one playoff advancement since 1981. We were flying down to witness Sacramento basketball history in the making.
Right now, I could look up stats and run you through some of the highlights of that game, but my mind distinctly remembers other things:
I remember watching Jason Kidd, the star point guard for the Suns, as he broke his foot fighting Jason Williams for a loose ball rolling out of bounds. As he limped off the court, a sadness fell over the arena as they watched an athlete in his prime visibly deteriorate before their eyes. (I also remember he had bleached blonde hair.)
I remember Jason Williams strutted off the court at the end of the fourth quarter, once it was clear the Kings were going to advance to the second round, and high-fived Rick Adelman and the bench before he sat down.
I remember two young boys sat near us, cheering on the “Sunnies” with their mom.
I remember the Suns fans being silenced.
I remember thinking that my Dad was pretty awesome for having rescued me from the prison of the public education system, if only for a day.
I remember feeling a vague hope. And for the first time in years, I had the thought that perhaps life wasn’t without its surprises and that obscurity can be overcome by brief moments of triumph.