Dinner with Anonymous


The other night, my wife and I were with a few other couples having dinner out – Mexican, and that’s not foreshadowing or anything else, it’s just that I like Mexican. Eventually the subject turned to the kinds of philosophical questions that happen from time-to-time amongst our dinner group. And, because I couldn’t instantly come up with an answer, this one really got me thinking. The question was, “If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose?” And while everyone was choosing the famous from Gandhi to Madonna, or a family member that had died too soon, my mind started to flip that question over and over. Now, had I been asked that question before I was 35, I would’ve certainly answered with the name of some famous basketball star. But, age and experience have given me a different perspective. I’ve worked and mingled with several hall-of-fame NBA players. Interesting enough, all of them. I’ve interviewed a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Couldn’t see sharing a booth with her though. Met famous actors and musicians. Good candidates, for sure. All of these people flashed like mug shot candidates in my mind as I pondered the dinner question. And then an almost forgotten incident triggered in my memory. My fantasy dinner choice became clear. And the really interesting thing was, I had no idea of his name.

Basketball. Looking back on it now – from all of my 5’9” – it wasn’t the wisest passion to have as a kid. I was certainly never going to turn professional but when I was 11 years old you could have never convinced me. I was smitten.

So, I shot hoops in the driveway. And, I shot. And, I kept shooting long after everyone else – my two older brothers, and every friend I had whose passion for basketball couldn’t match mine – drifted away, bored. I shot in the summer. And I shot in the winter. Solo. I shot from the time I got home from school until well after dark.

On this particular day of shooting, it was late fall and the weather had turned cold. The kind of crisp Kansas day that made my hands hurt no matter how much I used them. It’s hard to shoot a basketball in skigloves no matter how good you are. I’d tried, and I certainly didn’t need another shooting handicap. So, I shot with cold hands – literally and figuratively.

This was in the early 1970’s when outdoor basketballs (at least the ones I could afford) were made of dubious materials. And I had a ball that bounced fine in temperatures above 65 degrees. But it was 35-40 outside, and my basketball thudded. It didn’t bounce. Still, I shot. And shot. And shot. And the ball thudded whether it hit the driveway or the rim.

I was so lost in my obsession I barely noticed a car drive by. And, if I barely noticed that car the first time it drove by, I hardly gave it a thought the second time. And when it circled around again, and then parked across the street, I just figured it was someone looking for directions or trying to find a nearby street.

I kept shooting. Even as this young, hip, cool, athletic looking guy got out of his car, crossed the street and walked toward me, I kept shooting. He didn’t say much, as one of my shots careened off the rim and toward the street, he just grabbed the ball and passed it to me, and I kept shooting. It was as though he’d been playing hoops with me all day, only he’d just walked up. It was all oddly unassuming how he just jumped into the scene in the middle like that. There he was, a really cool 19-20 year old guy who was clearly popular – you could just tell - and he was playing basketball, with me. With, 11 year old, obsessed, awkward, me.

I didn’t question him. And I didn’t question it. I didn’t ask him his name, and he didn’t offer it. And that seemed both fine and perfectly natural on that day. It just went on that way, him passing me the ball, me shooting – thud. Him rebounding the ball and passing to me again. Me dribbling. Thud, thud, thud. Shooting again. Over and over it went this way. Every once in a while, I’d pass the ball to him, and he’d shoot – and he was good. His shot looked the way coaches taught shooting. Perfect form, and the ball didn’t seem to thud when he shot it. It swished.

Eventually it began to get dark, and the way I remember it, he left pretty much the way he’d arrived, without much discussion, but pleasant with a

smile. What he did for an 11 year old kid was a really great thing. Simple. Pure. The anonymous gift of time and attention. Honestly, if he’d stopped and given me a thousand dollars I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. And oddly, somehow, I suspect he knew that. Just as I knew he was so much more than just a basketball player. He was really good.

I never saw him again and that too, seemed appropriate. This was the kind of “special” that just happens once.

No one in my family saw him come and go that day except me. In a family with two older brothers and a younger sister, the things you don’t have to share are filed away and treasured. And I treasured this until the memory faded slightly and got shoved behind other more recent memories until it was at the bottom of a pretty high stack.

So. The one person I want to have dinner with, living or dead, is that guy. I don’t really want to know his name, and I’m not sure I’d ask him the kinds of questions that could make my memory any more revealing. I don’t need to ask him why he stopped that day.

I’d love to just be sitting in a booth at a Mexican restaurant all by myself and have my anonymous friend walk up and sit down quietly in the booth across the table from me. We’d order tamales and drink iced tea. Maybe I’d find out that he had travelled the world helping refugees. Or that he played in Europe for a while and then moved back home and became a teacher, or a computer analyst. Or, maybe he wouldn’t say much of anything. Maybe he’d pass me the salt. And eventually leave quietly just like he came. And the memory of just how special I felt that day when I was 11 years old would be fresh once again, if only for awhile. And, maybe I’d head home and spot some kid shooting baskets on my way and stop the car, park it, and head across the street and feed that shooter the ball for a while before I’d leave – without saying my name.

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