There is an ownership when playing videogames—you are simultaneously outside of the game, but also within. When we die when gaming, we claim the deaths as our own—we do not often say that our character has died, instead we say that we have died: I’ve been hit. I fell in the lava.
This is where I stood: top of the key, towering above the world like a scaffold whose building has long since been erected. The game happened around me while I was standing still. The ball would be passed around the perimeter, but never towards the middle. The slick kids would take the ball in the backcourt and dribble into a corner—away from defenders until boxed in. This is something that I knew would happen, but was powerless to do anything about. I would tell myself to focus—that this would be the best game I’d ever played, that I would take over, that I could become all things, that nothing would ever be the same. That all calls for the ball would not echo off the pushed in bleachers—that this would all mean something more than an exercise in what the body is capable of witnessing.
I was never one to run the court quickly. I was always the last to get in position on offense—I would give up faster than the other children solely because it took me longer to get back on defense. I would look for bad shots and turn and run, knowing that there is no foot race that I can win handily. I never shot the ball except when it was absolutely necessary: when the ball would bounce into my hands, arms immediately go up, eyes locked onto mine, calling for the ball, all voices ready to shame me if I dared to take a single dribble.
To win at the game, you have to do the heavy lifting: you have a teammate, who will run the court—they will always inbound the ball to you—they will never look for the shot. You can tell them when to shoot; when to pass the ball. Other games are not like this: most sports games allow you to embody as many players as you wish, your ghost-like presence indicated with a green arrow floating above their heads. Here, it lets you know where you stand: your initials tagged to your body, outsiders with the words “CPU” floating in front of theirs.
The majority of the game is beyond of your control. You can choose which team you want to play as. You can select which of the two players you want to possess. Beyond that, there is nothing but variables: shots that seem like they should go in without a problem clang off the back of the rim. Opponents grab miracle rebounds. Your teammate gets shoved to the ground without shoving back.
There is precedent in “creating one’s shot,” in basketball—the ability to drive past a defender to an open space without the help of your teammates; to rise above the person in front of you and shoot over them, to reduce the game to one-on-one. The strategy in the game is to take the ball off the inbound and run to the other end of the court as fast as possible in order to beat your defender back—to score as many points as possible in a short amount of time, as the game will always battle back.
The Sixers, as we know them here, are never for the choosing. They are perennial opponents; only being chosen by Player 1 out of loyalty for a franchise, a father living just outside of Philadelphia, a love for the glory years of Moses and Irving, Chamberlain and Greer. Here, journeymen, trade pieces to make larger deals work, good shooters when left alone in space, when found by a driving force for a kick-out three in the corner.
At some point, players must look at themselves and ask them what they must do in order to stay in the game: after a torn left calf muscle, after the cartilage is erased from years of jumping—bone grinding against bone with every step. Jeff Hornacek is the head coach of the Suns now; Hersey Hawkins is the director of player development for the Trail Blazers. How lucky I must have been to have my knees intact, my body not broken with the exception of a few fingers that bend inward. This is not a lesson that I ever needed to learn; there’s no need to hang it up if there is nothing to hang—all the hooks rusted and dangling.
I’d like to tell you that I was born to coach this game—that I had a keen eye for running in space despite standing still like a monolith, that I could guide men stronger than I am away from the flood. Despite all of this, basketball is a game that happens in the moments where it happens—it is too quick for anything else; coaching occurs when the game does not; over summers in hot gyms, when the clock is stopped. I told you I’ve never had enough power for this; I could never dictate the world. The game never slowed down for me. I’ve never seen a bounce pass come to me in slow motion, never felt the power spring from my calves to my wrist. The only control that I have is the knowledge that things are beyond my control, yet I’m still too stubborn to not believe in anything.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He is the author of So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, & Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games. He has two books forthcoming in 2015, i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), a memoir in the form of a computer virus, & Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), essays on NBA Jam. His works in progress deal with professional wrestling and long distance running (not at once).