I am 13.
“Do you want to see Harbor Springs from the breakwall?” mom asks. “Bill Laimbeer has a house there I hear.”
“Sure mom, if that’s what you want,” I say.
We pull down a steep hill and glide through a stop sign my mom doesn’t even see. I get out and run to the edge of the Petoskey breakwall. It juts out 100 yards long into an endless expanse of metallic white and blue. I think I can see a Bill Laimbeer rebounding for a boy in his driveway across the bay in Harbor Springs.
No. That’s not Bill, I whisper to myself. And this Petoskey isn’t a city, it’s just a cold village I’ll hate living in.
I sprint back to the car, my LA gears grinding on the snow.
“Did you see Bill? No? What did you see then?” my mom asks. “I bet you’ll get to meet him.”
I don’t say a word.
Mom drives away and I hold a faded leather basketball in my hands in the back seat, like a two-year-old holds an aging teddy bear. A binkie. A fuzzy blanket. I stare at a white glacier horizon like a dead desert running out of salt. I scan the chunks of ice for signs of life.
There is nothing.
This is like the scene where Luke Skywalker slept in the splayed guts of that icy Wampa beast. Thank God I have this and the Bad Boys*I say to myself, rolling the Rawlings basketball in my hands.
“We’re here,” my mom says four minutes later. “Let’s figure out which rooms we get! Are you ready? Yes? You’re ready my little honey buns! So brave you two are for joining me.”
I say nothing. My stomach starts to hurt as we pull into our new home. My younger brother, D2 is sitting wide-eyed next to me.
I put my bag down in a basement next to a bed, grab a pen and write out a dream on the inside flap of my trapper keeper. It reads: “Play professional basketball in Europe. Play in the NBA.” Underneath the words, inside the ink, a blood-red dream is forming, bubbling, waiting to pop inside me like the greatest volcano eruption the world has ever seen.
And no, I will not stay in Petoskey forever, I think. I will be out there, in the world, where the pure blue connects to the foreign lands, cultures, and basketball players of the world.
But does Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer** really live this close to me?
I am 14.
I pound the basketball on the maple floor of our kitchen on Bay Street. My dad is in Flint, defending the people society labels rapists, murders, and thieves. He may not be coming back, I think. No, not literally, because he will always come back to watch me play. I envision his body, the way he clasps his cinderblock hands and eyebrows together. He sits stoically. He doesn’t shout at the referees or yell at the coach to play me more. He doesn’t whistle from the crowd like Johnny’s dad.
No, Dad will let me fail over and over and take me to Charlie Paige and Joe Flynn for feedback because I’ll listen to them.
Constructive criticism is how you grow, he tells me. Correct your mistakes before they become bad habits.
My dad is a great coach, I just have a hard time listening to him.
“You ready, mom?” I yell impatiently, slamming the ball behind my back in a series of pound dribbles, staring into the driveway.
She’s alone in her room again.
Mom is quiet as she walks to the car. She drives me alone in a silent 15-minute ride to Hathaway Road. I don’t ask how she is doing, but I know I should. I see the hill of Nubs Nob cresting over the horizon. She clenches the steering wheel, willing her way forward as a small Cessna flies over us and lands on the short runway next to us. I observe how the wings tilt, adapt, and steady the frame until the wheels grab the ground.
“Did you see how that plane landed?” my mom asks.
“Yes. I didn’t think it was going to make it.”
I want to fly away from here, I think.
I still hate Petoskey because it took me away from my dad and friends in Grand Blanc.
Minutes later, we pull into the Flynn’s driveway.
“I love you,” she says, the car pulling to a stop.
I barely manage an audible goodbye and walk down the gravel road to a faded green house. “The Flynns” a piece of driftwood reads above the garage. I want to call this place home. This family. My new dad could be named Joe. My new mother is Julie. Sisters Jackie and Kelly. It doesn’t hurt they are the most beautiful women in the world.
And they play basketball.
I walk in without knocking. Julie is on the couch. Is she knitting? Reading? She says hello, smushes the oversized glasses to the bridge of her nose, grinning white, and asks if I want some of her famous fried shrimp. Take it all. I tell her thank you. She’s always trying to feed me. Always giving me a place at their dinner table.
I’m grateful for Mrs. Flynn. Truly. I know there is food in my house, but we don’t have spots around our table like this anymore.
There’s a grainy, textured VHS playing on TV. It’s an old NCAA game — Seton Hall versus Villanova. Johnny’s my new twin brother and he’s got a quart of Murdick’s ice cream in his catcher-mitt hands. He hasn’t said a word, eyes fixated on the pixelated players running across the screen.
Joe bursts through the front door holding a car battery, his thin salt and pepper wisps of hair flipping over his head, a smudge of dirt on his chin. He plucks his pinky finger into his ear and pops it out.
“Hey boys, you want to lose in Seven-up, just call me!”
I giggle and something in my heart opens like an orchid in summer heat. Seven-up is a shooting game he plays with us. Johnny or Joe typically win. It works like this. If you make a shot, it adds points to the pot and whoever misses the next shot at that spot gets however many points are in the pot. If you get to seven points, you’re out. To be honest, I rarely win, if ever.
“Mr. Flynn, you don’t want to start your day with a loss, do you?”
Johnny nods, “Dad, you can’t beat us. Stop it,” he says, smirking sideways.
Joe whistles loudly, “OH, LADS, NOW YOU KNOW BETTER.”
I giggle again, louder this time. Joe and Johnny constantly trash talk in a good way, in a fun way. Joe’s a ball of energy. Always moving. Always bantering. Maybe it’s the Irish ancestry — the competitive spirit and survival instincts passed down from the Great Famine. As Joe walks away, shoulders rocking back and forth, he abruptly stops. Spins. Whistles again. Then shouts, “You see that shot boys? Now that’s a shot!”
Joe glances at Julie, who doesn’t stop knit-reading and then looks back to the game. He squints his dark, glinting eyes and we all stay there, all four of us, mesmerized, listening to the screech of rubber on wood, and the bounce of a ball.
Then Joe’s gone, standing on the green, manicured bluff overlooking the light-blue waters of the Little Traverse Bay that separates Petoskey and Harbor Springs.
Summer is why we live here, Northern Michigan people say. The wait is worth it.
“You wanna go downstairs?” Johnny asks, scooping the last bite of ice cream into his beak-like mouth.
“You eat that whole quart?” I ask.
“Why even ask?”
His basement feels like home. Basketball posters hang on the walls. A rim and ball arcing through air: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” MJ spreads his arms wide holding a basketball in another. A few basketball trophies rest on the cinder block partitions where the floor trusses connect.
I glide down to the bed and flip through photos, basketball cards, and photo albums of Johnny’s life. This is where I prefer to sleep most nights now. I don’t even think twice about it.
My new sisters are listening to David Matthews upstairs. Their music wafts down through the heating ducts: “Crash into Me”. I try to forget the nostalgic melody, but I hold the glossy picture of a happy family in my mind’s eye just a second too long.
I am 15.
I have a girlfriend from Harbor Springs. She’s smarter than me. She talks about Led Zeppelin like they’re her friends, and she’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. I can’t call without my hands shaking, mostly because I have to ask her father if I can speak to her.
Mom isn’t around much, and I roll a faded orange leather basketball in my hands at all hours of the day. I dribble to the park. I dribble to school. I dribble my bad thoughts away. Mom tries to put me into therapy and immediately, I say no. Mom tries to get me braces and I pull the rubber band spacers from my teeth with forks. Mom makes me breakfast alone and pats me on the head when I leave to shoot before school. Why does she want to hug me? I feed most of her over-cooked eggs under the table to our golden lab Zeus.
“I love you more and more each day,” she says, as I walk into the darkness.
I don’t respond. I skunk-face into the cold mornings. I am too angry to speak to her. Too angry to think.
Some days, I ignore her; other days, I miss her with all my heart. I remember as a kid how I’d crawl onto her bed and snuggle with her and ask if she was okay. If I could help. I never like to see people cry, especially my mom. My life gets turned upside down. Just as I love one bedroom, mom moves us again. Why does she keep doing that? Why does she keep moving me? I miss my last bedroom. My friends in Grand Blanc. My dad.
I don’t want to move again, I think.
To make matters worse, my brother Jeremy is mad at the world. I have to pick my battles with him. One day, our battle is about our dad’s old recliner. He goes upstairs to grab a bowl of Lucky Charms and I jump into his spot. It’s a Saturday, and Saturday means morning cartoons.
I don’t care if he’s coming back, I still love my cartoons.
He tells me to get up.
No, I tell him. I don’t move. I hold tight, my milk-white fingers clutching father’s leather from our Grand Blanc living room. You left and didn’t save your spot, I say again. I bravely stare out at the window. It’s summer, and I’m thinking about how all the trees are so bare in Petoskey’s winter. It’s cold here, even in the summer. It’s too cold, I think.
There is a long breath.
Suddenly, I’m levitating head first into a basement floor of cement.
The impact knocks me out. I wake up with the recliner on top of me. Later that day, he moves downstate in his ’89 teal Camaro. I don’t want him to go. I’ll be fine, I whisper as he slumps past me. But instead of telling him my thoughts, I steal the size-12 Strength Shoes out of his trunk as he packs and run into the woods to call Johnny.
I risk my life stealing the shoes so I can jump higher.
My hands are shaking again. My other brother, Johnny, hears me crying for the first time.
“My brother. He’s going back to Flint. Can you and your dad come get me?”
I am 16. I can drive now.
Petoskey is mostly White. When I go downstate, I live with my dad, and my friends are Black, Indian, Asian, and Mexican. I go to a birthday party with Rohit and Matt, and I get jumped by some varsity football players, because I’m the new guy, I guess. My brother always stops hurting me when I give up, but these guys don’t. I’m on the ground, rolling away from the hard bones pummeling the soft parts of my face. My Grand Blanc friends can’t help. They are skinny soccer players.
Nothing has broken yet, I note, between blows.
Time slows. Fear is beating my chest like a bass drum. Then I see my chance. There are four of them. Their dark rotten eyes flashing. I get up, slide out of my t-shirt backwards, a move I learned from wrestling my older brother. I see lights. I take direct hit in the face and barrel roll through a muddy, shit-infested ditch and sprint out of it without missing a step. They leap after me. But it’s too late. I feel flecks of mud flicking up my back as I sprint. I hear breathing. Loud, labored breathing. Cussing.
They can’t catch me. They won’t catch me. I tilt forwards and fear pushes me into the night. About a hundred yards out, I turn, run backwards, and feel a smile peel across my bloody face.
The party’s over.
Dad picks me up. I’m quiet in his navy blue Cadillac, peering out the window. We roll along Dort Highway, past Dale Gray, his barber friend who owns a mountain lion, past Deja Vu, past a few homeless people waiting outside the instant cash stores.
“Why’s your lip bleeding?”
“I got beat up.”
“Why?” he asks.
“I dunno. They wanted to beat me up.”
Dad pulls the car over and looks me in the eye. He tells me about the time he had to fight the upperclassmen at Albion College. Sometimes you have to stand up and get your ass kicked. And worst of all, you have to take it before they respect you, he says.
“I ran dad.”
“It’s okay. Next time — don’t.”
I nod my head, and watch a world so unlike Petoskey blaze by the window.
“Trevor, sometimes you have to stop running and fight for what you believe in,” I hear him say.
And he’s right, but I can’t admit it because I can’t admit how scared I am.
I am 17.
It’s July and Dad takes me to play basketball at Mott Community College in. Flint, Michigan. I play against Mateen Cleaves. Against Nick Stapleton. Against some of the most athletic JUCO and D1 players in the world.
Steve Schmidt is their balding, big-bellied coach. He waddles up to me. Measures me. He only lets me play after my dad goes into his office alone. I feel that fear banging on my chest again.
“You think you can hang, huh kid?” Coach asks me.
“Yeah, coach. I can hang,” I lie.
I sit three or four games before Coach puts me on. Does he see my dreams? He played in college. He must know. Dad clutches a towel and pulls up a metal chair next to him while I play.
They are not friends.
I airball my first three shots. My hands are too sweaty. But after a few minutes, I lose myself in the competition. I’m guarding Mateen. I stop him from driving on me. I get a steal and dunk the ball on the other end. I’ve never played with this much adrenaline. With this much focused fear.
The team I’m playing with wins. We win again. And again.
For the first time, I feel like my life has been validated.
My dad is smiling, chatting with Coach. They shake hands before we leave. I’m still shooting by myself, tearing around a chair and pulling up over and over and over.
“Trevor. Let’s go,” my dad yells.
“One more dad. One more.”
I am 18.
Every August, after living with my dad in Flint, I go North.
Back to Mom.
Each time I come back to Petoskey, I drive to the breakwall to think about my summer.
Petoskey is beautiful now. I love my friends. I love my coaches. I love Batch. Johnny and I have reached the Final Four and now we are going to win a state championship together. I love playing in Central gym. I can smell the popcorn. Hear the echo of rubber shoes. Envision the mile line waiting to get in.
Basketball is part of me now.
It’s my identity.
I don’t really care that the pretty girl from Harbor broke up with me. I’m too busy with basketball. With playing. I think about the people that made me cry as a kid. The adults. Kids. Coaches. Godly men.
Why did they tell me what I can or cannot do?
The blue reflection of Lake Michigan meets my gaze.
I touch my face and wonder who I’d be without basketball and Petoskey Michigan.
I am 40 now.
I’m done playing ball in Europe. Done with trying to get into the NBA.
People say dreams die hard. But no, not for me.
They die soft.
I let the healing come naturally. I love my mom. My dad. We can talk about our Huffman past, and sometimes we cry, snobby-like too, about our gloriously, imperfect broken home. I can watch the water of Lake Michigan forever and think about the characters that saved me. My mom and dad, even at their lowest points, made huge efforts to love and show up for me. Joe and Julie Flynn and their panache mashed with unconditional love for me. My brothers, Johnny, D2, and Jeremy. I would have never made it without their tutelage and brotherly bonds. The Flynn sisters (well, because every teenage boy has a crush to impress). The Starkeys. The Hewitts. The Tamms. Batch. The Petoskey teachers and coaches that cared enough to help grow my dreams.
It takes a village, they say.
And it does take a village. We must help the ones closest to us. We must lend a hand when there is opportunity.
What have I learned at 40, traveling all over the world, playing and coaching the game I grew up loving?
That we’re all interconnected, that each action you take to help one person matters, because a million small actions can add up.
They do add up.
This type of thinking can literally save or change the direction of a life like it did mine — of any race, color, religion, or gender. I hope I can help people as much as they helped me.
I hope I can love as deeply as my mother and father loved me.
And if you’re young, reading this, and growing up in a broken home, remember: things won’t always make sense.
The whole forest isn’t burning down because of the few trees you see on fire.
Oh, and by the way, my older brother eventually found those football kids that jumped me that summer in Grand Blanc.
Each of the football players called and asked for forgiveness.
The one that never called?
Well, once in a while, we all have to take a little ass kicking when we stand up and fight for what we believe in.
*Based on a true story — the Detroit Bad Boys were my bread and butter in early teenage years. Joey D, the Microwave, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley.
**Bill Laimbeer did have a cottage home on the richest point and community of Harbor. I never actually met him. I heard rumors of him being a prick to kids at video stores that asked for autographs.