It was 1997 and video games had not yet entered my household. Entertainment was simple in uptown New Orleans. A small backyard with a chain-link fence was a great source of adventure. The banana trees were intriguing. They never reached full growth because I picked them before they were through growing.
The fence was perfect to use as a soccer goal. I stood between one post and saved my brother’s penalty kick attempts time and time again. He rarely scored.
Sometime during our family’s time in New Orleans I started waking up well before the rest of my family, wandering into the living room and watching SportsCenter on ESPN. I was fascinated by every sport and I wanted to play every one of them. I tried to watch any game that was on television. I memorized the team each player played for and each player’s name.
Before we moved to New Orleans my parents bought me and my brother a Fisher Price basketball goal. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t real, but it made me feel like a superstar. I imitated Jordan as I soared through the backyard with my tongue out, slamming the inflatable basketball through the terribly small hoop.
I practiced the technique Mark Price taught me in a Sports Heroes book I read that year. One hand on a side of the ball, one hand on the back, aim for the square in the middle of the backboard and shoot, allowing the hand on the back of the basketball to follow through until the ball leaves the fingertips. I was Ray Allen before I even knew who Ray Allen was, and it was awesome.
My earliest memories of basketball are like most 20-something-year-olds in the 2000s. Michael Jordan was at the tail end of his career in Chicago, and his status as the league’s best player was already pretty well cemented. I watched with interest, albeit minimal, during the 1996 NBA Playoffs. I remember Shawn Kemp’s monstrous dunks and Detlef Schrempf’s funny name. His hair was my favorite part about the SuperSonics.
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman won a title in six games that season. My family watched nearly every game. I’m not sure why we were attracted to basketball, as none of my family really seemed to enjoy it otherwise, but there was something about watching Michael Jordan play that made any game seem special.
I watched the next season as the Bulls won the NBA Championship again, this time against the Utah Jazz in six games. Jordan was magnificent. The Finals MVP averaged 32.3 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His otherworldly talent had not quite registered in my youthful mind. What exactly was I watching? All I knew was the Bulls were winning championships, Jordan was the greatest player my parents had ever seen and I couldn’t wait until the next season started.
The television coverage for the NBA really wasn’t as extensive as it is in 2012. If it was, I just didn’t notice it. I stayed up-to-date by reading box scores out of the Times Picayune. Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott were my greatest sources of information on television; their one-liners and phenomenal descriptions of each highlight reel fed my sport-hungry appetite.
By that time I didn’t have a particular team that I supported. Like many casual NBA fans during those years, I wanted the Bulls to do well so I could watch them on television when it mattered most — the playoffs.
That year, my parents hired a babysitter from a local university. Her name was Miss Leanne and she, like probably any babysitter would, let me and my siblings do whatever made us feel most comfortable when she watched us. The first night she babysat us we sat on the couch in our living room, ate popcorn and watched the Bulls play basketball.
She commented on how magnificent Michael Jordan was and then continued to let me eat popcorn in peace and watch basketball. It was pure bliss. The game finished and we ended the evening by watching music videos on an old VHS my parents had left. I didn’t miss my parents, probably for the first time when experiencing a new babysitter, and I couldn’t wait for the next time Miss Leanne would watch us.
When my parents arrived home from wherever they had been, they immediately made us thank Miss Leanne for watching and taking care of us. She was extremely grateful for the opportunity.
She babysat for my family another time and basketball was once again on television. We watched it, and Michael Jordan didn’t fail to disappoint. My parents returned, Miss Leanne left and my life continued as usual.
Until one day in February. My parents informed us that our babysitter was missing. She had been taken, kidnapped and her whereabouts were unknown at the time. I didn’t care about basketball or any sports on that day. I was worried. I had to know where Leanne had been taken.
Later it was revealed that Leanne had been kidnapped, raped and murdered, her body thrown in a ditch and abandoned. I was still young and did not understand much of what was going on at the time, but I was sad and terrified. My cool babysitter that loved sports was gone, but more importantly someone had lost a phenomenal friend and a terrific daughter.
As I grew older my love for basketball grew. My most vivid memories of basketball remain of the times Leanne sat on the couch with me and my siblings and watched the Bulls play. And as I grew older and my love for all sports merely increased, there was always a connection to basketball.
Never would I step foot on a court as a member of any organized team. I was always too small, or so I thought. Muggsy Bogues put those thoughts to shame, but by then I was well involved in soccer and baseball.
Still, my love for the game of basketball was constant. Jordan’s final shot as a member of the Bulls over Bryon Russell was something I will never forget watching on television.
The Spurs won the title the next season with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. I was hooked on the sport. I soaked in every piece of information that I could and watched every game that I was allowed to during those years.
And that youthful love for the game has never faded. My graceful feet have never done more than take up space on the hardwood floor. My tiny hands and bony arms have never been more than a fifth option during pick-up games.
That doesn’t matter. A love for the game of basketball that began in my youth and blossomed after an awful death will never leave me. All I want to do is thank Miss Leanne one last time.