I Like The Way Your Boy Plays The Game
For a few years, there was a handball tournament where different fifth-grade classes from several schools in Östervalla played against each other. I had barely played handball before, but neither had anyone else in the class, so for the sole reason that I seemed at least somewhat willing, I ended up as the head coach/playmaker/lead scorer. We did have a PE teacher but she wasn’t very engaged, not that I can remember anyway.
I can remember watching my sister’s class play a few years earlier, and they actually won and got to represent our district, playing other schools from the Stockholm area in the city. During our practices in the weeks leading up to the tournament, most of my classmates seemed to be more scared of the ball than willing to grasp it. This always pissed me off. The sheer unwillingness from some people to even try to participate in any way drove me insane. It still does.
If you make no effort at all, if you give up before trying even in the slightest, I won’t come down on you with the fiery rage of a thousand suns, but I will slowly beat you to death with a blunt ax in my head. People who have decided that “I don’t do sports,” annoy me as it more often than not turns out that they can actually throw or kick a ball rather unterribly, instead of just dropping it on the ground and looking at you as if you’ve just suffocated their mother with her own droopy tits. Just fucking try! And being scared of a ball is about as reasonable as being scared of a leaf dropping from a tree onto your head. The horror!
This of course usually applies to girls who are forced to take part in school, where they will do everything in their power, of which there usually is none, not to take part. But I have to say that playing with someone who just stands around and literally jumps out of the way when the ball comes near them like an autistic child gathering up the courage to hug a teddy bear is fucking annoying. Trying and sucking is a million times better. Indifference and fear just drive everyone up a wall and your grades down a ditch.
This was the reason I may have kept some of my classmates on the bench and never passed the ball to them once they were actually on the court. During practice, it became clear that Jakob, a tall redhead, had one hell of a shot, but no direction, only pure force. I tried to put him to use during games but I think dribbling the ball while running was a bit much for his coordination skills. He just wanted to throw the ball. One thing at a time, please.
Stereotypically, all of the girls, except Frida, who was basically a dude in terms of sports skills, were hopeless. This was long before I became a raging feminist so when Sofie, the class’s head boss ass bitch yelled “Pass to the girls!!!!!!!!!!!!” from the sidelines of the fairly large stadium in the city we had somehow made it to, I opted against it, winning was way too important. I also may have head-butted an opposing player. I admit that was going too far. When we were supposed to shake hands after the game with the opposing team, all of them skipped me.
I feel like this is how you know that you played hard enough. If the other team doesn’t hate you afterward, what did you really do? We didn’t win the tournament in Stockholm but the fact that we won against all the Östervalla schools to make it there was sensational enough. I started playing handball with an actual team when I was nine but switched to basketball after six months.
Back then, I played for Östervalla handball club and during our first tournament, I got the nickname “The wall” because whenever I put my arms up, the opposing players would usually hit my arms instead of our goal. The ball seared my skin but it was worth it. A few years later, I quit soccer and all of a sudden had time for another sport, so instead of trying something new like tennis, (apparently, I never felt like trying an individual sport, just team sports, despite the fact that I often struggled to like any of my teammates) I went back to handball.
This time, I tried Nybacka handball club, the same place where I was playing basketball, but not the same club. I don’t know why I didn’t go back to the team where I actually lived. Maybe I just liked being on buses late at night. It did give me a lot of time to think. This time too, I only lasted six months. My dad thought handball or rugby was the sports for me. There was a lot of physical contact and you really got to cream people. He thought it would fit me. I did too.
But apparently not, I did like creaming people, just in sports where you usually aren’t supposed to cream people. You see, when I started playing physically in basketball, parents of other players would come up to me and say that they really liked the way I was playing, even if I just caused their son’s nose to bleed. My dad also got that from other parents.
“Hey, I like the way your boy plays the game,” they would say right after I plowed their firstborn into a wall. Maybe they thought their boys needed roughing up, but was happy I did it for them since hitting your kids is illegal.
Dad always believed in me. He thought handball was the sport for me, I tried it twice with six years apart, just to make sure I didn’t like it. I didn’t. But he always said I could do well, regardless of sport. My belief wasn’t as strong.
“It’s not my role to be objective, it’s to support,” he said. Once when we were drunk and smoking cigars, I asked him if he had lied to me during all those years about how great he thought I could’ve been. He said he hadn’t. I believed him. He was always willing to do anything he could to help me succeed at whatever sport I was playing. Two pairs of shoe soles were molded specifically for my feet, I had two different physical therapy trainers, and I was drowning in knee pads.
But then when I quit, he didn’t seem to mind. But when I talked about maybe starting to play golf, he sounded excited. Golf clubs are fucking expensive, but I don’t doubt he’d be there for me. He was always willing to buy me things if those things demanded movement to be used. Basketball shoes, weights, barbells, balance boards, and all other kinds of shit. Laptops and video games were more difficult. For a while, I wondered if he was living vicariously through me, but I doubt that was ever the case.
The summer of the year I turned seven I started playing soccer. Initially, the team was full, but when the coach realized that his son and I had an earlier connection of some sort, he said that of course, I must be on the team. So, it’s a bit like getting a job. If you know someone, it’s gonna be a lot easier. Nepotism’s a bitch, unless of course, you benefit. Hypocrisy rules!
Also, he might have noticed my physical stature. Tall for my age, with hands that would soon grow into the size of bear paws, Olle Holmqvist, the father of the team’s star player Jens, wanted me in goal. He had his mind set on it. The pitch was right down by the lake where I lived, and we had one practice a week, on Sunday afternoons at three pm. When the sun was shining, as it mostly was during late spring and early summer, it could get quite hot, the only relief being the odd breeze coming in from the lake.
I started out as just another player on the field, but I was soon asked to play in goal for a game during a tournament. I argued against it, I simply wasn’t comfortable with being the guy possibly making game-deciding mistakes. However, I struggled to express this feeling as I wasn’t quite as eloquent at the time as I am today, and as a result, Olle won that discussion, purely by having a larger vocabulary than a seven-year-old.
And when I finally agreed to stand between those posts, I would never leave until I left the sport altogether. I was just too good. I’m not bragging here, well, only a little bit, but the amount of praise and coaxing that was thrown my way could only have been a product of the coaching duo’s master plan to build one of the best youth teams in the country. They would almost come to make it happen.
Soccer was problematic for me. I quickly became a vital part of the team, being the only guy who had any proficiency at keeping balls out of the net. But I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Practices were fun because there was no pressure, I could just relax while blood was streaming from my knees and elbows as I threw myself after the ball, the gravel on the ground ripping my skin open over and over again.
During practices, there was always a ball coming at you, there was always something to do, and if you let one past you, it didn’t matter. Games were the opposite. Since we were quite good, there weren’t that many balls coming at me, and when they did, a mistake would have dire consequences.
This led games to become nerve-wracking experiences where I would stand at one end of the field, waiting for the ball to come to me, but wishing harder than anything that it never would. I liked playing sports, but I didn’t like competing. Losing felt a lot worse than winning felt good. Winning didn’t make me especially happy. But losing made me sad. This was probably one of the earliest signs of my brain’s disposition to feel bad emotions rather than good ones.
Soccer was not a sport that took a break simply because it became cold, wet, and dark. This was mostly due to the incredible enthusiasm of the coaches/dads. There was Olle who convinced me to be a goalie, and then there was Leif. Not the same as hockey-Leif, but another Leif, nicknamed Leffe. Leffe coached his son Jon, my cunt of a nemesis, both in hockey in Östervalla and in soccer in Ängaby, my team.
Leffe was a Special Forces police officer who biked 20 miles to work every day and didn’t stop wearing shorts until the ground was covered in snow and the lake was frozen solid. To warm-up, we jogged back and forth across the entire field to stomp down the snow to make the field playable. Everyone wanted to be in goal as long as there was a nice layer of snow cushioning your every fall. When that layer was gone and all that was left was rock-hard ice, it was my turn to get between the posts.
The bumpy ice would leave me no grip under my feet, and when I landed, the jagged ice would dig into my hips. It felt fine until I took my clothes off before I stepped into the shower and I could see the countless bruises. Regardless of situation or sport, you never really felt the pain until you stopped running. I spent a lot of time down on that soccer field, but I didn’t appreciate how idyllic it was until I quit playing.
Going down to a game, with the sun setting over the forest and the lake was tangled with way too much nervousness and anxiety to ever be pleasurable. To some, it was pleasurable simply because they followed their own personal priorities even during games. Jakob was a defenseman when we had moved on to play on the full seven-man-field, instead of just on one half. Jakob didn’t like to take part in any offensive play.
When we were in possession of the ball on the other side of the field trying to score, Jakob would simply sit beside me on our side of the pitch, playing with the gravel, making piles and shapes, enjoying the gravel running through his fingers. When the ball finally made its way down to our side of the field, he would do what any good central defender would do and kick it as far away as he possibly could, so that he could go back to playing with the gravel.
I would shout at him to take part in the game but to no avail. A few years after I joined the team, a new kid called Leo joined the team. Leo was a relatively dark-skinned individual with a very Caucasian dad who joined the other lily-white parents with nice values to watch their sheltered kids play other kids from less sheltered parts of the general Stockholm area. I assumed that Leo, much like Arlo, was adopted. When Leo’s mom turned out to be a large, charismatic African woman, it was one of the first instances where I had my prejudices crushed like a piñata at a birthday party exclusively attended by kids with anger management issues.
Years and years ago in Sweden, the country was struggling to heat its classrooms all year round, so to solve this it was decided that every school would take a week-long break approximately two months into every new year. Since this meant the break came at the end of February, winter was still very much in fruition, and as such, when more prosperous times came, more and more people would use this week to take their families on skiing holidays in the mountains.
This break would soon be called the “Sports break.” Despite the fact that heating was no longer an issue, the break stayed put, which for the Stockholm region was every year around week nine. In fall there was a similar break two months into the new term that used to be called the “Potato break,” because back in the day when a majority of the country’s population were farmers, they needed the kids at home to help harvest the potatoes.
The break stayed where it was despite the fact that now, less than one percent of the population were still farmers, and the farmers who were left didn’t need their kids to pick the potatoes, they had massive machines for that. When I grew up, the break was called the “Fall break” and was usually used for sitting at home and watching the rain fall from the sky. Yet another opportunity for me to simply sit and think. In recent years, there’s been a push to call it “Reading break” in an effort to get kids to read more. I doubt it’s been very effective.
Initially, my entire family went skiing during the Sports break, but after a few years, it was just dad and me. There were reasons for this, which varied in awfulness. Let’s start at the top. I wasn’t a skinny child, I was what you would call “somewhat chubby.” But at the age of seven, this didn’t bother me at all. So, I had a little bit of a belly, who cares? Well, my sister did. She didn’t care about my belly, she cared about her own.
In order to rent a pair of skis, you have to tell them your weight so that they can adjust the skis to fall off when you fall and are about to die. This also meant that my parents had to ask their ten-year-old daughter, who knew she was far from perfect, to step on a scale. This was not an easy task and it wasn’t long until the tears were flowing, seven-year-old me looking on without a clue of what was going on.
It was still eight or nine years until I would read the definition of feminism in the newspaper and decide on the spot that I was one, but seeing my sister cry because of her weight was definitely part of the groundwork. It was part of a larger realization that while my life may not have been super easy, in many ways it would have been even more difficult if I had been born a girl.
At least that’s what my sister’s reaction to stepping on a scale made me think. If I gained weight, I was super happy about it, as were my parents. When I stepped on a scale and it turned out I had lost a couple of pounds, my mom was concerned. However, when it came to my sister, things were different, my mom once told her “Let’s keep it here,” in regards to her weight. She and I weren’t even fat, we were pretty similar for a long time, we were ever so slightly tubby-tub-tubs. But since I was running my tiny ass off competing in different sports, it was less of an issue.
My dad would come to tell me when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, to slow down on the eating during summer as I wasn’t working out as much. I would look at him, reach across the table, and put a seventh pork chop on my plate. My overhang didn’t bother me until I felt the need to get laid, then it bothered me quite a lot, for obvious fornicatory reasons.
After a few years, we got new basketball coaches. One was Harry, one of my teammate’s older brother. The other was a short Bangladeshi dude whose name was Jesper but who everyone called Jeppe. He was the tiniest, blackest man any of our pasty butts had ever seen. And we were all his bitches.
Harry and Jeppe alternated practices so you weren’t sure he’d be there every day of the week, so when he showed up you knew Ok, I am getting fucked straight up the ass tonight. Seriously, I might have been a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, but if that motherfucker told you to run, you fucking ran. He once shouted so loudly in my face during a game that I started to cry. I was about 12.
After another game he made us do 500 pushups. We won that game, 112 to 42. Why did we have to do 500 pushups you may ask? Well, before the game he told us that we weren’t allowed to let in more than 40 points. We let in 42, therefore we had to do 500 pushups, it makes sense, right? NO IT FUCKING DOES NOT. And at the time I wasn’t that good at pushups. So, I told my dad, “You can go home, because I’m gonna be here for a few hours.”
Sure, I could’ve lied and said that I did the 500 pushups. I’m a great liar, but when he looked me in the eye, I wasn’t. He could sniff it out of you like a bloodhound, and if he got it out of you, he would nail you to the fucking floor.
Before one of our many away games, the team thought the locker-room right before the game was a great location and time to discuss who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman? This was not odd in context, since before most games, a majority of the players liked to sing along to the theme tune from Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, or the Pokémon theme song. I of course had consumed neither of these masterpieces, so I could not partake. This lack of focus always resulted in a tongue lashing from Jeppe and an infinite number of pushups.
For about three years in a row, we went to Bobby’s basketball cup in Falkenlanda, a nice town that I would never want to live in because it’s far away from everything, in the middle of nowhere and nothing happens there ever. Falkenlanda was about a three-hour drive away. On the way there it was me, Mikael Borgström, our resident adopted Bahaman, André the Greek, who also went by the name of Theofilos, and Borgström’s very white father driving the car.
André thought it would be a great idea to introduce Greek food culture into the conversation, recounting the story of the first time he ate sheep testicles. He didn’t get much further than that, as Borgström’s dad seemed to lose focus on driving and asked André to shut up.
André was the kind of person who would get really close to the only Jew on the team, Matteus Jacobowitz, a tall, skinny guy who had jumped up a year and joined us from the 95-team, look him straight in the eye and say “What’s the similarity between an old moped and a Jew? They both scream when you hit the gas.” Great guy, André was.
Flash forward to 2018, and that 23-year-old Jew is dying of cancer. Peter, who quite quickly replaced Harry’s younger brother Henrik as team captain, started a group chat with all the old guys, saying we should go see him before he goes. They did, I wasn’t able to go along, I was busy getting sloshed in my parents’ house down south with some Brits.
The boys signed an old jersey with all their names, including mine. I had barely seen any of them in seven years. Anxiety ripping me apart, I texted his sister when I got back and asked if there was a suitable time that I could come see him at the hospital. She responded saying he had been allowed to come home now, and that he just sleeps most of the day. Visits weren’t really feasible.
It had been a long time since I’d seen those boys. He passed about a week later. As per Jewish tradition, he was buried quickly, on the Tuesday after the Sunday when he passed. I decided to go. I was on a train home from a weekend trip in Gothenburg with my dad that we went on to avoid having to be in the house when my mother hosted her upper-middle-age book club meeting when the message appeared in the group chat that he had passed early that morning.
Jeppe, my old coach, said he was collecting some money to give to a cancer charity in Matteus’s name. I sent a bit more than I thought I should have to rid myself of the guilt and anxiety I was feeling. The beer I was drinking in the train cafeteria was another aid to the same end. My phone said the first transfer didn’t go through on that weak train Wi-Fi. I sent another. It went through.
Later, it turned out they both had gone through. So now I had sent too much money, twice. I was never going to ask Jeppe to send some back, I’d rather have died of a brain tumor myself. I picked up my old teammates Adrian and André on the way to the funeral that Tuesday. It was a bit awkward, but it was nice to see them again.
We met some other old players at the graveyard. Joel and Askiner were there, as was the coach for the 95-team Olof Haglund, Jeppe, and Mikael Holm’s mother Michelle. We waited outside the synagogue until Matteus’s parents arrived and people started filing in after them. I took a kippah out of a basket on my way in and placed myself between Jeppe and Olof at the very back.
The synagogue was small and rustic, there was no heating and no lights, the place was lit by candles and held up by pillars. There were a number of older gentlemen in coats and hats which added a certain weight and extra Jewishness to the occasion, especially for us non-Jews in the back of the hall. One of the men, the rabbi, got up to speak behind the lectern behind the coffin at the front of the synagogue.
He said a few words, but quickly invited others to speak. His older sister got up to speak. She spoke in English, she said it was out of respect for all the people who had come from Israel. The synagogue was small but packed. It must have been more than a hundred people there. Considering that her brother had died two days ago, she was strong as fuck. She got through her jokes, her sweet anecdotes, and her praise without missing a beat.
I recognized the dad, sitting with the rest of his family on the right, next to the coffin. He moved like had been severely wounded in battle. It was like he was being mortally shot every fifteen seconds. He gingerly got up to speak after his daughter had taken her seat beside him. This fit, healthy, barely 50-year-old man, was dangerously close to needing help standing up and taking the one or two steps up the lectern.
Grief had doubled his age since entering the synagogue and he moved like a man who had just celebrated his hundredth birthday. He proceeded to tell Matteus’s life story, taking long breaks to climb out of the abyss he kept falling into. He described Matteus as “our superhero,” and that even after they had gotten the news about his brain tumor, Matteus never gave up the fight, not until the very end. It was a strong, touching, heartbreaking speech, and I once again surprised myself by only engaging on an intellectual level.
The emotion just wasn’t there. I would have let the tears fall had they come, but they never did. Religious as this family was, Matteus’s father spoke directly to God about all that he had given him and what he now had taken away. He talked about how he longed to see Matteus again when it was finally his time to join him.
It was surprisingly easy for me to let my atheism fall to the floor, roll out the door, and wish that this father would get to see his boy again. I stood at the back of the hall, shooting warm thoughts towards the man in front who looked about as solid as a puddle. His entire being was in flux. He finished his speech, not a dry eye around. Except for mine of course. I didn’t think I’d be this unemotional, but I was.
There’s always a role to play at a funeral and I think I found mine in the quiet, stoic isle. He finished the speech by recounting the last seconds of Matteus’s life. They hadn’t left his side for the entire week that he had spent at home after leaving the hospital when the doctors had decided that there was nothing they could do.
Seconds before he passed, Matteus had flared his eyes open, staring into his father’s eyes, as if asking for help and gasping for breath. I’ll admit, that part was devastating even for my dead soul. Matteus’s little brother seemed to be the family member who was falling apart the least, at least on the outside. He was the last one to pay tribute.
He grabbed his guitar and sat down on the left side of the coffin and said the following:
“I’m gonna play a song by Eric Clapton, called Tears In Heaven. If you wanna cry, cry. If you wanna sing along, sing along, it’s all okay.” Was it stereotypical? Yes. Was it cheesy? Yes. Was it beautiful to someone with a beating heart? Probably, but how the hell would I know?
The coffin was carried outside by men in coats and hats who couldn’t look more Jewish if they were all hanging out in a New York bagel shop. We were at the Jewish burial ground just to the north of Stockholm, at least half an hour’s drive from the Jacobowitz’ house. Had they been Christian they would have to drive a total of four minutes to the closest protestant church.
The men lowered the coffin into the ground. I hadn’t expected there to be a coffin at all. Everyone seemed to get cremated nowadays. The rabbi turned to the crowd and said: “We’ll end the ceremony here, as this will put a real strain on the family.” “This” being literally burying the kid. The rabbi seemed to say that it was time for the people who weren’t close family to leave but not a single person did.
We all stood there as the family, starting with the father, a man I hadn’t seen in seven years, put three shovels of sand and some flowers on top of the coffin. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do. Were we supposed to leave? To stick around? Slowly but surely a line to the coffin started to form. People lined up in front of the grave and each person in line placed three shovels worth of sand on Matteus’s coffin and hugged each member of his family.
The line started with close family and ended with teammates who hadn’t seen the now dead man in many years and thusly the hugs started out being embodiments of shared pain and love and ended up being two strangers hugging each other because they ended up on opposite sides of a spectrum ranging from having lost a son or a brother, to having lost someone they used to play basketball with a long time ago. I hugged a couple of the sisters, a woman who I assumed was the mother, and then I got to the dad.
“Big guy, how are you?” He said in his broken Swedish. I was surprised at how genial he was with me. It was like he was happy to see me, despite everything. He looked like someone who hadn’t slept or eaten in a month. The bags under his eyes suggested insomnia, or something close to it. We hugged, I held him for a second longer than I would have in any other situation where hugging was necessary, and we broke apart.
“I’m good, how are you?” He gestured towards the hole in the ground where his son lay six feet below.
“Good,” he said. “He would’ve wanted me to say that I was good.” I quickly hugged Matteus’s little brother and put my hand on the father’s shoulder, looked him in the eyes and said: “He would have.” Now I wanted to be the one in the hole in the ground. How are you? Fucking really?! HOW FUCKING ARE YOU?
How much of a fucking socially incompetent retard do you have to be to ask a man who just put his son in the ground how he’s fucking doing? The answer is pretty goddamn obvious: NOT FANTASTIC, YOU UTTER DIPSHIT. I agonized over it for roughly 48 hours even though he probably just thought I genuinely cared about how he was doing even if the answer was pretty obvious.
That didn’t stop the endless inner monologue telling me how unfair it was that I was alive when I had been rather fond of death for a long time, meanwhile, Matteus, a guy who seemed to take the utmost joy in life, was dead and now literally also buried.
After everyone had done their bit to put Matteus in the ground, his father stepped out from behind his grave and said: “We’ll be sitting in Shiva (Shiva is the traditional seven-day period of mourning following the burial, when mourners stay at home and receive guests to offer them comfort and participate in daily religious services, and yes, I very much had to google that) for the next week, so if you want to come by to talk, eat and drink, please come by. And if you don’t know the address, don’t come,” he said with a glint in his eye. The gathered crowd laughed.
I didn’t know his address, but I did know roughly where they lived. But I wouldn’t be going. I had done enough damage already. I hugged Olof, Holm’s mom, a couple of guys from the team who were a year younger than mine, the team Matteus had left to play with us, since he clearly was too good a player for them.
We walked slowly back to the car. I was going into town to go to work, the only one going in the opposite direction was André. He grabbed his backpack out of the trunk, and hugged everyone goodbye.
“Take care,” he said as we broke apart. It was an acknowledgment that it was unlikely that we would see each other again. I’d never really found a good way of saying goodbye to someone I was unsure I’d meet again. I’d always say something like “I’ll see ya when I see ya,” which was just a chicken shit way of saying “Bye bitch, have a nice life!”
André walked towards the bus stop as the rest of us jumped in the car and I drove us towards town. We reminisced, complained about the traffic, and talked about what we were doing nowadays. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t awkward, but it wasn’t electric either. Not like it used to be.
Jeppe was studying to become a teacher and played lower league basketball in a smaller town in the middle of the country. Joel sold electricity. Askiner managed interpreters and sent them out on jobs. Adrian worked in IT-management. I was both physically and intellectually far away from people to whom I had once been incredibly close.
Some of them seemed to still be close. And that was okay. Things change. Lives go on. Most often for the better. I dropped them off at the closest subway station. Jeppe put a hand on my shoulder as he was about to exit the car, I grabbed his hand and said “It was nice to see you,” before they all ran off.
I meant it, which was rare for me. It had taken me a long time to figure out how humans and their emotions work, but I think I was finally about to become one myself, a human with emotions that is. I drove on to work. I was working the 2 pm to midnight shift and I was about an hour and a half late. I had informed my boss why, so it was fine.
One of my colleagues inquired as to why I was wearing a suit, and I had to go all buzzkill and tell him it was because a 23-year-old guy had got a brain tumor and died. He looked bummed. It was a stressful night at SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster.
When I had been at work for five or six hours, there was a shooting in Strasbourg and I was alone on the online video desk. Let’s just say I went home that evening with a ball of anxiety in my stomach and a roiling headache pounding in my head. And that was that.
Back to 2005. We went on to win that tournament in Falkenlanda. I got a nosebleed in the final and bled all over one of the dad’s shirt. It was all rather fantastic. After we got beaten in the same tournament a few years later, Jeppe announced that he was no longer going to be our coach. Borgström put on his sunglasses to hide his tears.
Apparently, Jeppe and Mikael had been a lot closer than I had first thought. Jeppe had even been to talk to his teachers about how he was doing in school. I thought Jeppe and I were pretty close since he coached me one on one for hours and hours one summer, but I didn’t feel it warranted tears when he announced he was going to leave.
The gym we played our last game in that last tournament with Jeppe was a few miles outside of the town and the school where we were sleeping on air mattresses in a classroom. We took the bus out there but decided to walk back. I liked that decision.
I plugged in my earphones and listened to Strawberry Swing by Coldplay on repeat on my old, lime green iPod Nano. I think I acted rather brooding. I walked much faster than anybody else and I didn’t speak to anyone, and if anyone spoke to me, I wouldn’t have heard them because I had Chris Martin in my ear singing about swinging strawberries or something.
I must’ve seemed moody. But I’m not so sure I was that upset. I mean, Jeppe meant a lot to me as a person, but he wasn’t like a big brother to me, like he seemed to be for Borgström. There was a time when I was arguably too emotional, and all of it coming out as rage didn’t exactly help. But now, it was like I was acting the way I thought I was supposed to act and not the way I was actually feeling.
Teenage guys who can walk naked through a locker room with confidence impress me, but I also despise them. Because if you look good as a teenager you were probably born that way. I, however, was not born with a six-pack and a baby’s arm for a penis, I was born in the shape of a 45-year-old man who spends his Sundays eating ice cream and jerking off until he passes out on the couch.
But Borgström had that confidence. He had the six-pack, the big arms, and the massive penis swinging between his thighs like some pendulum or a church clock. He also had huge scars on his back because his biological dad wanted to eat him and thought it would be best to cook him first. Or something like that.
The abuse made his adoption by an old white couple in Sweden possible. They were probably scared to death when their new little kid turned four and finished puberty by growing a beard and a penis like a baseball bat. The diaper changes must have been a bit weird, they’d probably tried to remove what looked like a long, smooth turd and realized that no, that’s a medical miracle of a penis.
We would come back to Falkenlanda another time, but I didn’t play because of my bad knees. We made it to the final but lost, Jeppe, who like Borgström had also been adopted, turned over his team to his father Patrik, who took over as our new coach. He said we lost that last final in Falkenlanda because we acted like a bunch of cunts.
The old man could paint with words, I’ll give him that. The season we had Patrik as a coach, my knees were in such a bad state I barely played at all. I came back for one last season with yet another new coach, Hendrix McDonald. Yes, his name was actually Hendrix, but I never saw him play guitar, just shout at people. He was large, 6’5, 350 lbs at the very least, and a mustache that fit his ever-expanding charisma.
Hendrix was an Estonian-American but still somehow also Swedish. One moment he was joking around all nice and funny and a second later he would be an inch from your face laying out a very strong case for why you should kill yourself.
Let me be clear, for a basketball coach, that’s the norm. They’re supposed to be that way. My father would come to hate him, as Hendrix enjoyed singling out and humiliating sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys in front of the entire team by screaming about how pointless their existence was.
My dad saw when Peter got his face covered with saliva flying from Hendrix’s grey mustache. He never saw it happen to me because he was only there for the games and I spent the games on the bench. He did do it to me during practices though, but I never hated him for it. He was a basketball coach, it’s what they do.
Spending time on the bench made me realize that I really didn’t care enough about basketball to keep going. When you’re on the court, you’re on the court, but spending a few games feeling my ass grow accustomed to the wooden bench beneath it, I started to think about what a giant waste of time all of this was.
I could’ve been watching Scrubs, I could’ve been writing something, although back then I didn’t exactly know what. When writing is becoming more important than basketball, it’s time to really think about if you want to keep going. Another reason my career was coming to a rapid end was that going to practice made me want to kill myself.
Before each practice, I was nervous like before a game, this massive cloud of anxiety that I had never felt before a regular practice descended upon me. I would come to feel it again and again over the years when walking into a gymnasium, regardless of the occasion or my reason for being there. The physical manifestation of the anxiety was brutal.
My bowels would empty themselves so thoroughly that my asshole was retching air, with nothing left to shit, but my stomach was adamant that there was something that had to leave my body. Only, you can’t crap out anxiety, now can you? Now, the only thing that makes me crap like that is my morning coffee.
My colon has never been in great shape, to say the least. Winter was coming. I was 17. I emailed Roland, the coach for the Ensby Moose, the biggest club in the Stockholm area and our main rivals. They were better than us, but only barely. We had beaten them several times. They were a bigger, better club and team.
I asked Roland if I could try out with them. He was surprisingly positive. You see, I don’t expect people to know who I am. But in the basketball world, players and coaches on opposing teams seemed to know who I was. When I was going to the tryouts for the national team for fifteen-year-olds, one of the guys on the bus down to Jönköping asked “Aren’t you that guy with the hook?”
All I could really say was “Since that’s what you know me for, I must be.” I didn’t know I was “the guy” with anything. I was flattered and shocked that a guy my age was complimenting my athletic ability, or you know, freakish ability at throwing a massive ball into a hoop using one hand without really looking.
I distinctly remember one of the better players, Charles Henderson, shouting “Kobe,” referencing the basketball great Kobe Bryant, at the weirdest occasions. Like for instance when peeing, he hit the urinal, just like Kobe drained those shots, which of course was an apt moment to shout “KOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOBE!” It all made some kind of sense.
I had a good few years, though this was the last of those. It was all downhill from here on. I got sorted into the second tallest practice group, which meant we would be doing completely different drills than the tallest freaks. The only thing was, that while I may not have been tall enough to be in the tallest group, it was in those drills I excelled.
I asked our Latvian coach if it mattered that I wasn’t in the tallest group despite being a purebred center. He said it didn’t. He lied. I walked by one of the freak practices and they were doing the exact things I would’ve killed at. Namely, using your body as a bulldozer to get through the defense and put the ball in the basket.
But since these freaks were all height and nothing else, basically walking sticks, they had nothing to bulldoze with. And there I was, with the short midgets, a bunch of fifteen-year-olds who had only reached about 6’3 so far, basically all hobbits, trying to run around people. I don’t run around people. I run through them.
Needless to say, I didn’t get picked for the U15 national team. Not a huge bummer. That was the same year I played in the Swedish championship. We got fourth. Hendrix was the one who put the medal around my neck. An odd piece of foreshadowing two years before he became my coach. And no, I don’t know why they gave medals to the people in fourth place. We were fifteen, we didn’t need participation trophies as if we were children.
One minor detail about this championship was that I wasn’t playing with my own team. Our local rivals, Östgrund, were gearing up to play in the championship, but as they did so, one of their best players, Casper, left the team for Linnäs. Their solution was to recruit five players from Nybacka, just for the national championship.
One player out, five players in, makes sense doesn’t it? I think they knew their team wasn’t good enough to compete, so they used this one guy leaving as an excuse to make the team competitive. It was me, Borgström, Holm, Gioberto, an Italian who would actually go on to play for one of the Swedish youth national teams, and Peter who were recruited.
We would go to Östgrund to practice twice a week. It was a faraway hellhole. It was winter, it was dark, and sitting on the train for an hour, having to switch after going the wrong way for twenty minutes, and then wait some more in the cold, made me fucking lose it. One dark night I was running between stations to catch the next train after having, in my exhaustion, got off the train a stop too early, the shoulder strap from my duffel bag digging into my shoulder. I missed my next train and even my mind went dark.
I was so tired of everything. The long bus rides to school, the long bus rides home from school, the long bus rides to practice, the long bus rides home from practice, the super long train rides to Östgrund twice a week, the super long train rides home from Östgrund twice a week. And now it was even longer since I had to wait for half an hour in the cold to get home on the next train, which was invariably late when the tracks froze over and the electrical lines snapped in the cold.
When I got home, I was just done. I got into my room, closed the door, dived headfirst into my couch, and didn’t get up for a while. I didn’t even turn my head, it was to remain buried, blocked from all light. I finally got up and got in the shower. I was so tired. I let the water pour over me like in Casino Royale when Eva Green has just seen a few murders for the first time in her life and she just sits there with her enormous-cleavage-dress still on, but then Daniel Craig comes and sucks on her fingers which always makes everything better.
I didn’t have Daniel Craig there to suck on my fingers, so instead, I allowed myself to slide down the wall and when my butt reached the floor, I relaxed and promptly started touching myself. When I exited the shower, everything may not have been okay, but they were significantly less shit. It was my last year at the Gert Fredriksson school, the sports school I switched to when I had had enough at Härnöstuna.
Östgrund’s best remaining player, another guy called Matteus, also went there. We were friends, kind of. He borrowed my phone once and pulled all of my texts over to his phone with some code. This was before iPhones, and the most advanced phone game was snake.
Matteus was the kind of guy who would have impeccably shaved balls, then call you gay when you were playing close defense, making him actually have to work for his next bucket, not allowing him to spin the ball around his body like a hula hoop before he laid it in.
He said he thought I was trying to touch his dick when I was trying to steal the ball. If I was trying to touch his dick, he would fucking know. His mom, Irmeli, was the coach. I got the impression she beat him when no one was looking.
She was never happy with anything, she was constantly yelling, so much so that soon enough you didn’t react anymore because it was the norm. Kind of like a Russian women’s volleyball team “listening” to their coach verbally abusing them every two seconds of every game ever. It gets dull.
We played in Östgrund’s jerseys but under the name Östgrund/Nybacka. There were significantly fewer Nybacka players on the team, but out of the players who actually got to play, we were a strong majority. The constant verbal abuse was enforced by Stefan Svärd, who used to be the coach of Nybacka’s under-18 team.
They used to have their practices right before us when I was younger. I remember one practice when they had just after an important game that they had lost. It was obvious what was going to happen. “Can anyone here run 4 kilometers?” He asked the group in general, quite loudly. A few raised their hands. “Good, because that’s what we’re going to do today.”
For the next hour, we watched as the young men, ran a lap around the court, laid down on the floor, face down, did ten pushups, then ran another lap, Svärd standing in the middle of the court, watching menacingly. “I heard one them threw up in the shower after one of his practices,” whispered the Greek. One of the guys on the U18 team was nicknamed “The Horse.”
“Because he’s got a horse’s dick,” said the Greek. Thanks, André, I think we got that.
During that year with Östgrund in the Swedish championship, I don’t think I’ve ever played so much basketball in my life. I had practices every day Monday through Friday. Jeppe said that since we had extra practices with Östgrund we could skip one of the practices we had with the team who was a year younger.
But since no one else who practiced extra did that, I couldn’t really either. I remember falling flat on my face during a dribbling drill, from sheer exhaustion. Jeppe walked up to me and bent down to where I was lying on the floor.
“If you’re so tired, it really is okay if you go home,” he said, in a friendly yet somehow still menacing way. Me being a stubborn little bitch, I got up and carried on with the practice. Peter and Holm were the kinds of people who practiced even more on their own. As did Rikard, a guy who joined the team later than most who were on it, but practiced till his hands bled.
The last time I saw him, he had gained about another self, as in he had gained as many pounds as he weighed when I first met him. He had literally doubled in size just in muscle. Holm and Rikard became very close, I even blurted out to Holm’s mom that Rikard was like the son she never had, the joke being that she already had one. “You’re very quick-witted,” she said.
“Yeah, but that’s about the only way he’s quick,” Holm responded. Touché, Holm, touché.
How Peter and Holm could’ve kept up with the things in their lives which weren’t related to basketball, I’ll never know. I was also one of the players on both teams who played the most during games. This is a humblebrag, but I guess it’s not so strange that I would be gone the entire next season because my knees gave out.
During the season with Jeppe’s dad Patrik as our coach, all I did was physical therapy. Boring exercises, no weight, just endless repetition. I needed to be able to run again, not deadlift 400 pounds. But I’d rather do the latter, it’s cooler. After the season of physical therapy, I was in the fall of my 17th year on this earth, ready to make my return.
But after being gone for so long, I was behind. I wasn’t as good as I used to be. I didn’t get to play, and as such, basketball wasn’t as fun as it used to be. It’s crass, but things are much more fun to do if you’re good at them. Hockey was my true love when I was a kid, but I was stunningly mediocre, so I quit. It was now about to happen all over again. But I didn’t want to make a hasty decision.
I hadn’t been happy to go to practice in more than a year, and that doesn’t work long-term. So, I thought: I’ve never played to have fun, I’ve played to go pro, and the natural step is to go to a bigger club and see if you can make it there. That’s why I decided to try out with the Ensby Moose. If playing with them didn’t make me excited about basketball again, I knew it was over. Roland was excited to have me, which felt good.
I explained my situation of having been gone for a long time, and he seemed to understand. During my first practice with them, he was on my ass constantly. I did some big man drills with their 6’9, also injured, center. He was constantly complaining about me fouling him. I wasn’t gonna pussy around. I think Roland liked that.
During practice, Roland was always quite aggressive.
“Run, you little shit, RUN!!!” Not exactly like that, but you get my point. After practice, he told me that under the circumstances, I looked really good. I was surprised. We had about an hour of strength training to do after practice was over, and after that, Roland wanted us to stay and watch the men’s game in the top tier of the Swedish basketball league system. I said I had a long way home and had to go. He understood.
That was just the thing though. Traveling by public transport, Ensby was so far away. It took so many hours out of my day. And with the way I was feeling about the sport, I wasn’t about to spend those hours on trains and buses for a limited return. I decided to at least finish my week with the team. It was the longest week of my life.
By the time Friday came, I knew that day’s practice was going to be my last. Fortunately, it wasn’t. The day before was. It was December, and on Friday, everything froze over. Train tracks were covered in snow and ice, buses were slipping off the roads one by one. I texted Roland and said I couldn’t make it to practice, the trains weren’t running.
Roland asked if I could hitch a ride with someone. I thought for a second, then texted that I couldn’t, without really asking anyone. To be honest, I didn’t really have anyone to ask. I told him how I felt. I texted Hendrix a similar message. It was over. I was no longer an athlete, in any shape or form. I had spent the last decade spending all my free time on sports. It had finally come to an end.
I had seen people masturbate in public, shit in the middle of a soccer pitch in the middle of the night, the same guy actually, unsurprisingly. I had been chased around a parking lot in Gothenburg by a guy doing the helicopter with his fairly large penis.
Not the same guy this time, but this guy’s dad killed himself, so I guess he was supposed to be weird. In short, I had experienced a lot of weird shit. But it was over now, and that was okay. A few months later, I started to write. It was absolute garbage, but it was a start. A start of something new. Complete and utter shit, but new.
It was the 27th of March 2011. It was a Sunday. I had officially been without a team for three months, for the first time in ten years. I had replaced this new reality, this extreme decline in physical activity, with long walks in solitude. That Sunday night, I was out on one of those long walks. It was cold, and snowing heavily. I was listening to Caribbean Blue by Enya on repeat. It seemed fitting in the cold darkness.
I had the idea, not on my way back, but as I was walking further and further away from home. But I kept walking, thinking. I wrote the first ten pages that night, in Swedish. It was the worst piece of drivel I had ever had the misfortune of reading. Months later, after retiring as a writer at the old age of seventeen, I decided to try again, this time in English.
I had printed out the ten Swedish pages as a reminder of my own disgusting shortcomings. I can’t tell you it was that which did it, but once the language was my second and not my first, the words seemed to flow more easily and I wrote words that would never come out of my mouth, not in the formation they appeared on my screen, anyway.
These words too, would come to haunt me as my criteria for what constituted good writing and what constituted emotional teenage bullshit would change drastically over the coming years, sometimes in just a few months, sometimes the morning after when I read what I had written the previous evening. The day after a night of drinking I would wake up, look at what I had written the night before and proceed to be absolutely repulsed by my own pointless writing.
However, I would always have unwavering confidence at the moment I pressed each key. Before I had some distance to my own creation, I was a genius, creating phrases no one else would have been able to spawn, which wasn’t much to celebrate since they were all abhorred shit. What started to become something a little bit more than just abhorred shit, came out as something like this:
It was August in a northern Stockholm suburb, in a municipality which had more horses than people, or so the people in the neighboring borough described it, with a glint in their eye that made them feel a bit superior and made everyone else feel as if whoever said it was a giant asshole. Unless you had grown up there, like me.
Which made it okay for me to say it. It’s a bit like the N-word, if you’re white you can’t say it, but if you’re black it’s your word to play around with. Although slavery is a bit worse than an overrepresentation of horses. A bit. There weren’t many black people in this specific suburb, and the few that did live there had been adopted by white people.
This sounds incredibly racist, but the reality was that there was one black kid from Ecuador and that was about it. The vast majority of immigrants lived on the other side of the capital, they all bunched together in certain areas where the place names would become synonymous with migrants.
The few white people who did live there either lived in massive villas right next to miserable apartment complexes full of immigrants or in the apartment complexes themselves. Although these were considered to not have done very well. Segregation is fucking awful.