Basketball…In Memory of Mr. Payne

This was written April 28, 2020. With the recent passing of my former basketball coach, Mr. Payne, I felt compelled to share…

I had a rough day. There was a lot on my mind, and it thwarted every attempt I made to work. The words did not flow from my fingertips to Microsoft Word at the rapid pace I am used to. When I tried to edit video, the cuts were not up to snuff. I could not play notes into a progression which made theoretical sense.

As a creative, I have acquired many rituals and practices to clear my head and stimulate my brain and some sense of sensory deprivation. None of them helped or worked that day. My mind, heart, and spirit weighed on several topics. In time, I gave in and said “Fuck it. It’s not happening today.”

After I told myself the day was a wash, I had another idea. “Grab a ball and your phone. Just go outside, shoot some hoops, let that Summer ’98 playlist on Spotify bang, and let’s kick it like we used to;” so I did.

Basketball used to be a lifestyle of mine. I used to practice in my grandmother’s backyard for hours at a time; damn near all day. For thousands of hours, I took shot after shot after shot while a boombox played cassette tapes of hip hop and r&b music I’d ripped off the radio or from other cassettes and CD’s.

A lot of time had passed from the days when I used to ball. I was a couple of inches taller, about 100lbs heavier, and way more shots clanked out of the rim than I was used to. When this was a ritual, the internet was brand new; but now, the web and the world were at my fingertips from my cell phone that could play every song I ever listened to in 1998 and I never had to stop to rewind or flip over a tape. Yet somehow, with each brick I laid, I sunk further and further back into time and began to remember the kid who believed his hard work could get him into the NBA, or at least college.

Music was, is, and will forever be my first love. But basketball was the first love I pursued. I’d sang in choirs for years and took both piano and saxophone lessons; but I didn’t practice. This was a discipline I truly believed in; it made me happy because nothing else in the world mattered when I was out there putting in work. I was able to see tangible results and they inspired me to practice even more. I would not say I was some superstar in the making. Nonetheless, there were not too many courts in Queens where I could not hold my own amongst my peers, or from the stands, you’d say “Oh, that kid can play. He has potential.”

Middle school was when I began to see a different trajectory for myself. I began to think less and less of myself becoming a shooting guard in the NBA that took Tamia from Grant Hill and more of a music impresario who had a hard decision to make between Beyonce and LaToya Luckett. But I hadn’t made one beat or penned one lyric yet, so basketball was still in the forefront, as far as passion and practice went.

As I continued to hoop in 2020, the songs that played reminded me of different times I practiced in my grandparents’ backyard and summer tournaments where these selections rang off in parks. I attempted to daisy chain these events and figure out how they connected. Then I took one turnaround jumper, one I’d mastered decades ago and I remembered a quote from my former coach, Mr. Payne.

“It saddened me when you stopped playing ball, Chad. Of everyone I’ve coached, I felt like you had the most potential” Mr. Payne lamented. I was seventeen, we were at a funeral in Philadelphia, and the two of us conversed at the repast. It was the spring of my senior year in high school and I was pretty much waiting for Morehouse College to tell me I was accepted. I’d told Mr. Payne about where I was headed and that if I put some work in, I would possibly try to walk on for the basketball team.

Mr. Payne’s words hit like a ton of bricks, in a good way. His words were heavy, and I felt validated. I remembered the times Mr. Payne would take me to the park and work on extra drills. When I was in seventh or eighth grade, he advised I began practicing with the high school team for another four hours after three hours with my middle school division. At end-of-season award ceremonies, he’d tout a little over me to the rest of the kids because in elementary school, I played in more than one league. Mr. Payne truly believed in me. I was able to put my what-ifs behind me. Hell, I didn’t even give basketball at Morehouse a second thought.

Then, I thought back to 1998. Shot after shot after shot for hours which equal out to months-perhaps a solid year-was where my relentless love of the labor came from. I thought to myself “If we didn’t live in an apartment and I had a hoop in my driveway, I would have been out there all day, every day and done a lot more with basketball than I had.”

That was the moment a second bell rang off in my mind; the “Aha!” moment. When my family moved to Nassau County, in the fall of 1998, I left basketball in Queens. A year earlier, I professed I wanted to have my own record label. I listened to the music and followed the culture with intent; but did not have the confidence or know-how to take the first steps towards my vision.

Then eighth grade happened. It was a transitional year where I lived in two different worlds and both coexisted. My sister, Courtney and I were shuttled from Long Island to middle school in Queens, every day. I still played basketball for Mr. Payne, my middle school team, and even a tournament team or two; but what was more important to me was whatever went on in my headphones. SLAM Magazines had been replaced with The Source and ESPN was slowly phased out by Hot 97.

December 27, 1998, I pulled out a marble notebook and began to write my own raps. A few months into 1999, I began to program beats and composed songs I hoped to record one day, if my dad let me do so in his studio. The same amount of time and focus I put into cuts to the basket and finishing (I could dunk by then) was the kind of effort I’d put into rhythmic couplets and somewhat witty rhyme schemes.

I played in a couple summer tournaments in 1999; but I did not care. The headphones from my Discman blared rappity rap shit, as I carried my little rhyme books with me everywhere. I began to pantomime how I would use my hands in music videos the way my friends and teammates pretended to dribble and flick their wrists into their shooting form. As soon as I thought of a line, it scratched it into a page.

When I started high school in the fall of ’99, I did not fashion myself at all as someone who wanted to be remembered as a ballplayer. Before my first day of school, I told my dad “Before I finish high school, I’m going to record an album.” I did it my sophomore year.

I tried out for the JV basketball team. My head wasn’t in it freshman year and I didn’t expect to make the team. In tenth grade, I killed from four different positions, I mobbed on everyone, even with a banged up knee. I balled so hard, people who sat through tryouts had told my sister I could hoop. I knew what I was capable of because I’d played against many guys who were on the varsity basketball team and held my own; they too thought I had what it took. Baldwin is a basketball town, so these words about my abilities gave me solace; by then, I could go months without a basketball in my hands.

When I didn’t make the team (politics) my sophomore year, I was over basketball. I threw my sneakers into the back of my closet and started working on my first EP. I really did leave basketball in Queens and hip hop became my life in Long Island; that’s exactly how it happened.

I have written well over two million words between this 2019 evening and the last time I’d shot hoops, by myself. I’ve whiffed, sniffed, and flirted a little with success. Said words have been read and listened to around the world. Beyonce, LaToya, and Tamia may be off the market; but let me tell it, I’ve found better.

I owe a lot of who I am and what I will become to that ball and basket in my grandmother’s backyard. It gave me a relentless attitude and appreciation for the process of perfect practice. The funny thing is what was most important was always there. I toiled away with that ball in my hand and it was the cassettes, the accompaniment, the soundtrack, relegated as background noise, waited its turn for me to pay it attention, knowing once I did, I’d put that ball down, forever.

Mr. Payne is now in his eighties. He doesn’t remember a lot. But whenever I see him at church, I tell him hello and he greets me with a hello and smile. Once or twice, I talked to him about basketball. I know his mind isn’t able to recall a lot; but I know, deep down, it’s still all there. So I told him about my nephew and showed him some video of 2.0 putting in some work. He smiled.

Mr. Payne would also be happy to know, less than three months from my 36th birthday, I can dunk again.

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