What a bloodbath.
The score was 29-2, first quarter, and the gap was only widening. In sports, there are professionals, then all-stars, then Hall of Famers ... then, at the very tippy-top of the pyramid, there's the 12-year-old Imagine School at Town Center boys’ basketball team.
And tonight, they were putting on a clinic.
"There's another bucket," I told my dad, amidst the parade of layups.
"You can tell they're well-coached," he countered.
"Not afraid to pass, either," I said.
"A real team effort."
"See that pick?" I slapped my knee. "These guys are on fire!"
It’s important to note here that my dad and I don't like basketball. We don't know basketball. But when you're at a game — and we’ve been to a ton of them together, from him showing up to coach my little league baseball squads, to him showing up today — you make an effort. Lean on lingo. "The pump-fake, the pass, the breakaway!"
This is what fandom is all about: bonding over a shared enthusiasm for a game that means nothing. Faking it in unison. It’s about angrily standing up again for the wave because you don’t want to be the only grouch in your section not standing up for the wave. (Spoiler alert: I am that grouch.)
"OK, Charlotte's team is up," I said, after Imagine School's merciless evisceration was complete. Next, Buddy Taylor Middle School would play Buddy Taylor Middle School in a high-drama scrimmage for the ages. Shirts vs. inside-out-shirts. Winner take all — sorry, I meant winner take "ball" ... back to storage, because absolutely nothing was at stake here.
Except for Charlotte's entire sense of self-worth, of course.
"If you don't shatter the backboard glass on a dunk tonight," I told my 11-year-old stepdaughter, who’d only shot her first-ever hoop last month, before the game, "you're sleeping outside."
Don't believe the lies: Parenting is E-A-S-Y easy.
Charlotte ran up and down court and touched the ball once in a “game” (that feels like a strong word) that ended 6-4. I gave her a hug afterward then took an unreasonable amount of joy in embarrassing her in front of her teammates.
"You went hard in the paint, kid!" I said.
"I saw you blocking shots, wagging your finger in people's faces like Dikembe Mutombo."
She turned red. "… Huh?"
On our way home, I stopped to get her allergy meds. Later in the week, I'd bring her for a flu shot, she’d get scared and rest her head on my shoulder, then play it off by saying she’s cold. Last week, I sat with her at bassoon lessons, then I annihilated her in Scrabble — you know, to teach her a valuable lesson in humility (and because if you have a Z, and an opportunity to use that Z on a Triple Word Score, you’d be “crazy” not to let the points “ooze” down the scorecard).
These are the actions of a father, I thought, picking through all the pesky little biological associations to that word, as I put the car in Reverse.
Being a stepparent is an oddly intellectual role — one you choose to step into like a suit that's too big for you at first. Then one day you look down to see the sleeves exactly where they should be on your wrists. Remember when the fabric used to flap past your fingers? Not anymore.
Strip “step” away from “father,” though, and it’s a label I’ve held loosely: a job title I’m half-embarrassed to say out loud, as if I hadn’t earned it yet. Fatherhood has always been a fact for me, not a feeling. It’s this mental game we play, Char and me and stepfamily everywhere, never speaking about the rules or roles but showing up anyway in full-body paint, ready to fake it in unison.
Then Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" came on the radio and, as I banged out the drum solo hard on the steering wheel — as required by Dad Rock Social Contract, Sec. 12, Clause A — Charlotte groaned at how “cringe” I was from the backseat.
That’s when I wondered if maybe Phil was right. Maybe I was starting to feel it, too: in the air between a parent and his child on their way home at night.
Mike Cavaliere is the author of The Humorist: Adventures in Adulting & Horror Movies, available now.