The Bucks, PB&J's, and Man’s Search for Meaning
“I made sammiches, fellas.”
It came across as a weird statement. Especially given our relative state of adulthood. Especially coming as it did, one workaday Wednesday afternoon, through our office’s Slack messaging ether, a forum reserved for quote requests and shipment follow-ups and tracking numbers, for the occasional cat video, a not infrequent ponder as to the likelihood of a collective Cielito Lindo trek.
But I’d spent the previous night slathering sliced brioche with Jif Natural Chunky and Bonne Maman Strawberry Preserves, compiling a venerable stack of PB&J’s, a Ziploc bag tower of mushed bread-on-bread, berry bubbling its way through the creases like a razor-thin paper cut, feeling myself motherly all the while, getting nostalgic for childhood. Getting nostalgic, too, for high school senior year, where, despite being 18 and having little desire outside of finding beer access and listening to Zeppelin and putting distance between my person and my parents, how I had still, out of hormone-bursting hunger probably, allowed mom to make me a PB&J near daily.
Even teenage too-coolness was overmatched by the sandwich’s essence of everyday art, it’s sort of ceaseless comfort. A meal anyone can assemble, but requiring, deserving of a certain ratioed touch. Quotidian, yet satisfying. Delicious, yet healthy enough that even the most Trump-budget-military-upgrade-caliber helicopter parents can agree. A benign, toddler-friendly foodstuff, still, endless in variations (i.e. the inexplicable calculus of the diagonal cut; the bewildering game-raising of toasted bread). It’s the “Misty” of school lunches - you’ve experienced it a million times, but where’s the guitar solo going this time? Is that peach jam!?
ESPN’s recent caloric journalism flight, detailing said comfort and the prevalent addiction rampant amongst seemingly all NBA players, has indeed opened up a very general sort of reminiscence. Of sandwiches, of school day lunches. Of a now-gone time of possibility ahead. Of a day when I stood in front of my 8th grade class, and when asked about plans for the future, put stoically: “I’m gonna play in the NBA.” How I had stared down scoffs, how they all laughed. And how I had doggedly, in my mind, flashed on Mugsy, my same height back then, back when I was the John Stockton of before-school open gyms, and there was no reason my prepubescent crossover wasn’t worthy of at least a scholarship. It was a time similar to, say, about last week, when driving and scooping layups, how I had reminded myself, again, now, that I’m currently the same height of 29-points-per game Isaiah Thomas, and subsequently tried to walk with his same Pesci-like, something-to-prove swagger. It also has evoked a type of hometown nostalgia, as the Bucks top the article’s list of team’s with the most gourmet PB&J offerings. I was eventually brought back to thoughts of a near-great Bucks year toward the end of said high school sandwich days. And really, for Milwaukeeans, the way you remember that ‘00-’01 almost-Finals team says who you are: If you think of Ray Allen, your life strives toward elegance, Glenn Robinson means fierce blue-collar pride, if like me, you think of Sam Cassell, you’re an underdog. Or possibly just an unrepentant basketball nerd.
Now, given the standing of the current young Bucks, so we stand at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, in anticipatory glow of post-work warehouse 2-on-2. And we start to swivel hips and test hamstring dexterity while still in office wear. Roll out necks and hear the creaks, try to conjure up Giannis-like limberness. We eventually dribble two balls at the same time like we see Steph Curry always doing in slo-mo, collectively scoffing at our aging and aged bodies in various states of shape and debaucherous misuse. We hash out postseason Bucks impressions in pregame loosening good humor. We double check text messages to make sure our others, significant or semi, know we won’t be around for dinner. Make sure they know that when we do emerge from the warehouse’s cavernous battle bubble, that we’ll be sweaty and worn, proud bearers of war tales, much deserving of many manly beer swills.
In our core there is Gino, the ubiquitous scrapmaster all good pickup games require. As the only non-employee on today’s lineup, he’s caught off-guard by my previous night’s culinary feat. But he’s rarely off-guard, as the hustle guy, the token tough, the rugby or futbol hooligan-type that doesn’t stop, the one who’s mostly-bald skull might appear exceptionally hard. It is. And I know this because over-leaning on post defense one Friday last summer caused a cranium-connection and gaping wound that looked like the 2nd round of a Rocky fight, required nine stitches, and left a one inch scar on my right eyelid. Day’s shortly after, someone at work called me “Scarface,” and it felt like an achievement I’d never realized I was yearning for.
There is also Andrew, who couldn’t wait to get into the break room fridge, correctly noting the article doesn’t specify exactly when NBA-ers down their youthful pregame snack. Thirty minutes prior to tip was the longest we could hold out. As a guitar player he has other goals, appetites, and also has fingerpicking fingernails, that sometimes make a reach-in foul leave a bit more than a slapping sting. He likes to mime Dellevedova floaters by faux announcing “Delly!” while putting one up. It often finds net, like it almost always does anytime he’s left even a smidge of an open window downtown, his bombed three’s yielding that feeling that good guitar player’s often do - a mix of head-shaking wonder and jealous annoyance. And he has to leave at a reasonable time, for a gig, to work more, to maintain his Shepherd Express-voted status as Milwaukee’s “Best Guitarist,” to keep after continued validation that some voting systems in this country aren’t completely broken.
And there is Dylan, who good naturedly shakes his head at my insistence on bringing up the ESPN article, over and over, a reaction like his kid just learned a knock-knock joke that he won’t let drop. In fact, Dylan often seems the group’s symbolic father. Not because of the Harden-cum-wizard beard and his existence as an actual father of two, but because of the endless series of bank shots and shifty craftiness, crafty shiftiness. Sometimes his game is pure Tim Duncan. Sometimes it’s a type of old man one-step-ahead smirking mindfulness, where he goads you into shots he knows he can close on, block. Sometimes it’s a hard sell on a pump fake that you regret immediately as you leave pavement, then watch him go by at a casual pace for a layup that he never misses - being a dad, being a miniature big fundamental, having a personality directly corollary to his court skills, and vice versa. Like Magic Johnson - if he’s on your team. Like he’s Michael Jordan and you’re the Cavs if not.
Together, when the F-bomb’s fly, and the panting starts, and balls get smashed into the concrete floor in frustration, and you get your the first butt in the gut on a box out, and feel the familiar, exhausted hatred for a one-time - five minutes ago! - friend, we feel not so far off from what we watch on TV. From the Bucks, from the playoffs, from realizing all those school day aspirations. After all, I’m wearing Nikes. We’re all wearing Nikes. Except Gino, who is a soccer player, so Adidas are acceptable. But aside from that, anything sans swoosh seems senseless. I’m wearing the model of Cavs guard Kyrie Irving. Having decided at some point, for now, at least this year, “that’s my guy,” something moving deep within me as I watched him hit possibly the most clutch shot in NBA history, as I sat sweaty and expectant, hunkered in a dark sports bar on my first night in Rio de Janeiro, living out a different kind of dream, steps from the most famous beach in the world, amidst one of the most vibrant cities in history, thinking only of catching game 7, thinking on all the ones that got away from me, feeling late-game sympathy nerves. But now I tie and then velcro expensive Nike’s in his fashion and adorned in his ‘#2,’ and I can kind of mime that patented double behind the back dribble when I’m by myself on the court, in the warehouse. And that is something. But Irving also has the thick beard and sad eyes of my father. And that might be something else.
Now, with the sandwiches churning, leftover peanut butter chunks being tongued at in wisdom teeth nether regions, collectively we’re all even closer, thrown together in end of day release to re-live, reimagine our days of middle to middle high school ballerdom. When identity came from being good, kind of good, at something that made you sweaty. Before any of us knew each other. Before we had to go to work and get to know each other. In order to pay rent, and then mortgages, and then babysitters. To put food on a table. And then somewhere along the line it having to be somewhat healthy food. Before we had to make decisions, like whether or not it is worth it to pay for cable, so we can go home and watch more basketball.
At this point in our career we could play bald guys vs. hair guys, husbands vs. boyfriends. In alternate lineup iterations we can play dads vs. non-procreators. Oftentimes, if we go on Saturdays, we'll play through hangovers. Afternoon's, every now and then, somebody cracks a can of beer before the last game of ‘21’. And you know, when D-ing up, breathing deep sweaty man beer breath, then actually, purposefully, boldly placing your hand in the small of a back that is mostly just soaked-through dripping cotton t-shirt swatch - this isn’t about exercise anymore. At work on sore days after, we'll stand at each other's desk and bemoan sore hamstrings, treat ourselves to nachos, with ground beef, that come, today only, without guilt. We’ll play the showered, clean clothes, office game, but sipping Gatorade the whole time. Some of us - the dreamier sorts - maybe even going to a place of a fictitious postgame press conference in our head as we rehydrate like our idols.
But before games, lacing shoes too tightly, jogging in place and hoping for no unexpected pains, warming up with layups that we mostly make all of, here we are, with everything possible, with Marv Albert explaining to expectant at home audiences how “Lazarski has to be aggressive tonight,” with gentle butterflies birthing in the stomach, if only out of shared remembrance for when such athletic contests meant something. Meant everything. And there’s no difference, just like down the street, in that bigger warehouse on 4th Street, with playoff-virgin nerves pulsing. Once we start it’s all the same as it is for Malcolm, for Khris, the only difference that last-second call home, reminding again our significant others that we’ll be home late, that we’ll reek of body odor. But probably, hopefully, not bleeding, or needing any kind of ride from Urgent Care.
And tonight, I’ve missed a potential game winner. A 15-foot, pull-up jumper. My bread-and-butter, my PB&J. Staring stoically out the window of the 15, back toward real life in the night, it’s hard to let it go, to not punch my own thigh, thinking on all the times I’d practiced the shot for just such a moment. In all the driveways of my life. After school practices, with various stages of after-school friends. Solo sometimes, or in the rain like a motivational sports movie montage. On a court in Venice Beach with my uncle. With drinking buddies turned rivals. With rivals turned drinking buddies. With long forgotten one-time best pals. It all leading to this, the big moment, everybody watching, leaning forward, the time of “Kyrie for three!...”
But, we'll be back next week. If kids aren’t sick and hamstrings aren’t tight and workout clothes aren’t forgotten and anniversary dinners aren’t written in pen in the dayplanner. And I know where it went wrong, what can help. I know how to get it back. And Andrew mis-hears me on his way out, agrees anyway, says, “Yeah, it was great.” But it all seems so clear, the fix for the future, and I say it again: “next week, we’ll go with grape jelly.”