Of Mangled Fingers & Shaquille O’Neal’s Face

When the weather suddenly turns cold or damp, I absently massage the joints of my left ring finger. The doctor said a piece of bone chipped off and is still floating around in there. I swear sometimes I can feel it.

By fifth grade, all the cool girls were involved in sports. All the coolest girls, though, were playing basketball. My elementary school had fifth and sixth grade teams, and as fall started to creep in, recess chatter turned to who would be starting basketball that year. H., who was one of the most popular girls in the fifth grade in 1993, had, for some reason, started talking to me that school year. She wore clothes from The Gap and Adidas Sambas on her feet and had impressively thick, glossy hair for a 10 year old. She was going to play basketball because her sisters did. Desperate to be accepted by the popular girls (mostly because I wanted them to stop calling me fat) and seeing my chance, I decided that I too would play basketball.

Sports were never really my forte, but that never stopped me from trying. In kindergarten, I tried gymnastics, but I was too anxious to venture much beyond the balance beam, upon which I completely mastered walking and nothing else. My build was too stocky to hope that I would ever be any good at it, anyway. In second grade, I started playing softball. I wasn’t great, but it was a better fit for my build and I continued playing every summer (and one season for the j.v. team at school) until I graduated high school. There was kickball in 4th grade, but that doesn’t really require any kind of skill. There was a totally failed attempt at the track team in eighth grade when I incorrectly thought maybe I could throw shotput and discus. And then, much later, there were the two years when I tried, I mean really tried, to become a runner in my early 30s. I am also not built like a runner.

But in fifth grade, it was basketball. To prove I was serious about it, I asked for a t-shirt with the largest picture of Shaquille O’Neal’s face on it that you can imagine. It had to have been two or three times the size of his actual head. My mother may have questioned this fashion choice, but I was the oldest of three kids and she had a toddler to worry about, so I guess she was just picking and choosing her battles. She also bought me an Orlando Magic keychain that I begged for at the Nittany Mall, despite the fact that I had no keys. These things would obviously prove to the kids in my class — especially H. and her popular friends — that I was serious and really into basketball, too.

I’m still not sure if I have ever watched an entire NBA basketball game.

At that point, I was bigger than most of the other girls. Not only was I taller than most of them, but my parents kept telling me, despite a genetic predisposition for being overweight, that I was going to drop the “baby weight” at any time. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I never lost the weight and I’ve only grown two inches since 5th grade.

No one could really be cut from elementary school intramural basketball because that would be traumatizing. We were just divided up into teams with names like 5A and 5B. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t on the team that showed any kind of promise, but it didn’t matter. I listened to Coach Tom explain passing, dribbling, and how to shoot the ball. I went to evening practices in the junior high school gym where some of the girls from the junior high basketball team came to run drills with us. Erika was a promising junior varsity basketball star in my town at the time and worked with me on my layups. Not quite a decade later, after her basketball career failed to take her to the WNBA as everyone from our small town to her college coaches had anticipated, she would be arrested with her husband for committing a grisly double-murder in Ocean City, Maryland.

Because he was a nice guy, Coach Tom would always say that I was a good basketball player, but after a few games into the season, I knew that I wasn’t. The effort of trying to keep up with the skinny girls as they raced up and down the court was exhausting, and it didn’t take long before I’d start dragging, hearing the sympathy cheers coming from the sidelines.

“Don’t give up, Renee!” “Keep running, Renee!” “Don’t lose your hustle, Renee!”

It felt like everyone was watching me fail and I was miserable after every single game. Not only was I growing to dislike the entire sport of basketball, I also knew that it was a double-edged sword: the group of girls I wanted to accept me would see that I wasn’t truly any good at it, and if I made it clear that I didn’t even really like the sport, they would know I was a fraud and they wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore.

My pride was at stake, so I decided that I would suck it up and finish out the season. But things have a funny way of working themselves out.

One night at practice in early December, I was taking shots from the foul line. Whether I threw a ball that hit the rim and quickly shot right back at me or a ball flew at me from somewhere else, I can’t recall. All I know is that I put my hands up quickly to catch the ball flying at my head and it caught the top of my left ring finger, bending it straight back.

It turned purple that night, but my mom insisted it was fine. The next day, it was still purple and painfully swollen, but she swore it would be okay after I put some ice on it. The day after that, she reluctantly agreed to take me for x-rays. The doctor in the emergency room at the hospital informed us that my finger was broken and that the bone had been chipped and could cause me some problems later in life. He splinted it and made me an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon.

The orthopedic surgeon told me never to use the splint if I ever wanted to be able to bend my finger again and showed me how to pad the space between my ring and middle fingers with gauze and wrap it with surgical tape. 24 years later, those two fingers still naturally go together when I hold up my hand.

Returning to school, I held up my bandaged hand for H. to see.

“The doctor says I can’t play basketball until it heals in six weeks but the season will be over by then. I’m so mad!”

Coach Tom said he sincerely hoped I’d be back to play again next year, but I never did. A few months into sixth grade, I was making a name for myself as the girl who was writing a book and it was no longer important to me to be accepted by the sporty popular girls. I quietly retired the Shaquille O’Neal t-shirt and moved on.

I’m currently taking a memoir class through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree. This essay was one of my assignments from a few weeks ago. Some names have been changed and imagery and links have been added.

Photo by Mark Solarski on Unsplash


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