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The Little Boy
At the end of my block was an old basketball court that used to be the hot spot for after-school hangouts. Now it stood abandoned, with only the occasional teenger dunking basketballs through the net. That occasional teenager was me; I was the only one who came out here anymore.
Many would say this court needed to be removed, as it was in a state of horrible disrepair. Cracks in the pavement crossed the entire court in several places. A rusty, chain-link fence surrounded it, with thick vines wrapping around the metal in a tight embrace. A few bushes had made their way under the fence, sprouting up on the court side. Despite the conditions, this court was my sanctuary.
Basketball was my escape and I came out to this abandoned court to forget my stressors nearly every night, and tonight had been especially rough. At home, my mom and sister were waging intense verbal warfare, threatening all sorts of vile things. I left before the climax of the argument, like I usually do. They didn’t notice my absence, also the usual.
The lone street light flickered, casting a dull glow of light on me as I shot hoops. A crisp, fall breeze rushed past, tingling my senses. I took a deep breath in, my lungs loving the respite from the thick smoke of my house.
As was my habit, I dribbled the basketball on the concrete before I shot. The thud of the ball connecting with the cracked blacktop echoed around the secluded court. After three times bouncing off the ground, I propelled the ball towards the net. As it left my fingertips, I watched it approach the goal. The ball hit the peeling orange paint of the rim and circled the net twice before finally tipping in.
Then I heard the sniffle of a runny nose. The sound caught me off guard; nobody ever came out to this basketball hoop. I turned to see where the noise came from. Standing on the opposite end of the court was a little boy about five or six years old. He wore rags for clothes and looked as if he hadn’t had a bath in weeks. Underneath his right arm was an aged basketball that was way too big for him to be holding.
“Hey?” I said as if it were a question.
“Hey,” the boy responded in a high-pitched voice. “Can I play?” he asked, tilting his head slightly to the right.
“Sure,” I answered, drawing the word out; I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the situation. The boy’s face immediately lit up in a bright smile as he raced across the court to me.
Before I could say anything else, the boy was teaching me the rules of the game P.I.G. “You use your ball. I’ll use mine,” he explained, taking the first shot from a few feet away from the basket. He drained it and turned to look at me, his face twisting into a mischievous smile. He backed out of the way to let me have a shot from the same spot.
I bounced the ball three times and took the shot. The faded orange ball revolved around the rim a few times before falling off to the side. The boy laughed right as the ball tilted away from the basket. “You have a P!” he chanted, already moving into position to shoot again. I grumbled, but I wasn’t concerned about the score.
He then moved to the free throw line, which was barely visible on the court. No way he can make this, I thought. The boy brought the ball down by his knees and, with both hands, launched it up towards the basket. The basketball made no noise as it swished through the net. The boy looked up at me with a playful smirk.
I took my spot on the free throw line and shot the ball towards the net. It bounced off the backboard and the rim before finally finding its way into the net. It was a messy basket, but it counted all the same. The boy nodded as if he were a recruiter surveying my skills.
For his third shot, the boy stood on the three-point line to the left of the basket. He launched the ball, but didn’t have the same accuracy he demonstrated earlier. The ball didn’t even make it to the net, falling short of the goal. The boy stamped his foot on the ground, but otherwise kept his temper.
“What you got?” the boy taunted as I prepared my shot from the free throw line. Before I shot, I brought the ball back down.
“I’ll try this,” I replied, stepping back to half court.
The boy’s eyes got big. “No way!” he called out. I dribbled three times before attempting the shot. The ball crossed the court and gracefully went through the net.
The boy was obviously impressed, his eyes big and his mouth gaping open. He turned to me with a smile that nearly touched his ears. As I looked at the boy and his contagious smile, I felt happy, a feeling I hadn’t had in years.
Suddenly, from the opposite side of the fence, a gruff voice called out, “Anthony!”
The little boy’s face broke into a state of panic. He looked around frantically and threw his ball into a nearby bush.
A man in a stained wife-beater burst onto the court, his eyes immediately homing in on me and my basketball. “Were you playing basketball with this little s***?!” the man yelled, getting right up in my face. The stench of alcohol on his breath was so strong that I could taste it.
“I, well, he” I stammered, my mind unable to process a response in the heat of the moment.
“Well, don’t! I don’t ever want to see you here with my boy again!” the man spat, retracting his face from mine and forcibly grabbing Anthony by the arm. The boy winced, but made no struggle.
Right before the man made it to the gate, he stopped in his tracks and knelt down so he was eye-level with Anthony. Before any words were said, the man slapped Anthony across the face. The boy’s head turned with the slap, but he kept his composure. His father then started yelling something in Spanish at him, and concluded his rant with another violent slap.
My knuckles turned white as I balled my right hand into a fist. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about starting a fight, but I couldn’t now, not when I was so close to the end of my probation. My mentor had worked with me a long time to get me to this point, and I couldn’t blow my last chance by starting a fight with the man. I just stood there, feeling helpless as I watched the scene unfold.
As the man dragged him off the court, the boy turned to look at me. From his eyes alone I could tell he was thanking me for the night. I didn’t even have a chance to say anything before the man and the boy were off the court and into the darkness.
After they left, I set my ball on the bench and started rummaging through the bush for Anthony’s. I found it caught between some branches and pulled it out. Sitting down on the bench beside my ball, I started examining Anthony’s. It was very old, almost ancient. The small grip projections across the ball had faded entirely, leaving a smooth surface. I turned it over to see ‘Anthony’ written in black Sharpie, with three letters capitalized and the ‘h’ written backwards. A faint smile crept across my face, but left as quickly as it came.
As I held Anthony’s basketball in my hands, my mind was replaying the scenario over and over. Was obeying my probation worth watching Anthony take a beating? Why does that boy have to suffer the same things I do? I thought. I couldn’t make sense of it all.
The next night, I was back on my court, missing baskets like it was my job. Starting to get frustrated with all my misses, I sat down on the bench. I set my ball down next to me and picked up Anthony’s, which I had brought with me after taking it home last night.
I looked at Anthony’s signature on his ball and let out a sigh. Then, like last night, I heard a sniffle. I turned to see Anthony standing by the gate in the same raggedy clothes as before. I also noticed he had a large, purple bruise under his right eye, from where his father slapped him last night.
“Is that mine?” he asked, pointing at the ball I held in my hands.
“Um, yeah,” I started, taking another glance at the ball and then bouncing it to Anthony. “I picked it up last night for you.”
“Thanks, mister!” The boy cheered, showing a radiant smile. He began to dribble his ball, obviously glad to have it back in his hands. “Hey, can we play again?” the boy asked, putting his ball under his arm and locking eyes with me.
I hesitated for a minute while I thought about my response, the scene from last night still fresh in my mind. “What about your dad?” I finally asked.
“Not home tonight. He can’t hit me when he’s gone,” the child answered shyly, averting his gaze to a thick shrub growing outside the fence . I could feel my heart drop below my stomach as I looked at Anthony.
I was having a hard time determining how to respond. “Does he hit you a lot?” I questioned, a lump beginning to form in my throat.
“Only sometimes. When he is mad at mom he does. Or when I play basketball,” Anthony answered, as if it was no big deal. I could feel my eyes start to water and I had an urge to hug the boy.
“Are you sure basketball is a good idea, then?” I suggested, not wanting to earn the boy another beating.
“But, I like it. It’s fun,” Anthony replied, bouncing the ball on the ground with both hands. Despite the sadness of the situation, I felt the corners of my mouth turn up in a faint smile. I was inspired by the boy’s indomitable spirit; it seemed like he was incapable of feeling sorry for himself about his life. Suddenly, my life’s problems seemed insignificant and I had an overwhelming boost of courage, all from the little boy, who was the strongest person I had ever met.
Suddenly, as if looking at Anthony’s radiant smile triggered a thought in my brain, I had an idea. I remembered a conversation I had a few months ago with Charles, my mentor who helped me turn my life around, about how he had a friend in the police department. I could tell him about what I witnessed with Anthony last night, and he would bring it to the attention of his friend, who would get Anthony into a loving family.
“You know what? Let’s play!” I announced, standing up from the bench and dribbling my ball. Anthony’s face lit up in a smile. “You remember how to play P.I.G, right?” he asked.
“I remember, you taught me!” I answered with a smile.
“Good, then I’ll go first!” Anthony declared. As I watched him drain his first shot and look at me with an expression of joy, I had a feeling that I don’t experience very often. A feeling of warmth spread through my heart because I would get this boy away from his abusive father and into the life he deserved: one full of love and happiness.