Uncle Tito had been living with us for the past two months. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world having him at the house. But Mom and Jerry didn’t want him to move in at first. They said it would be like taking care of another kid because of how sick he was. He had lost his house, his car, and his pride. So Mom gave in.
In October I made the freshman basketball team. On the night of our first game, I rode to the gym in the backseat of the Volvo. Jerry drove and Uncle Tito sat shotgun. On the way to the game Jerry had to drop Uncle Tito off at the Y for a meeting. If Uncle Tito missed one meeting he was done. It was Jerry’s rule.
Uncle Tito wore a wife-beater under his cigarette-scented flannel and a gold Jesus-piece around his neck. He carried a plastic water cup in his hand. He could never keep his hands still. He wore his sunglasses everywhere, even at night and indoors.
Uncle Tito drummed his fingers on his thighs. He was self-conscious of people looking at his hands when they shook, so he always kept them moving. Jerry leaned forward over the steering wheel and tried to ignore him.
Why are you so jumpy over there Tito, said Jerry. You didn’t mistake the Grey Goose for water did you?
Very funny Jerry, said Uncle Tito.
Uncle Tito smiled and tried to brush it off, but he’d been working hard to try and stay sober, and Jerry knew how to get under his skin.
Uncle Tito looked at me in the rearview.
You excited for your first game, squirt?
He doesn’t like it when you call him that, said Jerry.
He doesn’t like it when you call him that, mocked Uncle Tito. I tried not to laugh but I couldn’t help it. Uncle Tito smiled and Jerry looked back at me disapproving.
I’ve known the boy longer than you have, said Uncle Tito. I’ve been watching him play since he started back in the third grade. I can name every team he’s played for. I can’t even remember the last time I saw you at a game, Jerry.
I forget that you don’t know what it’s like to have a job, said Jerry. Or responsibilities.
I’m excited, I said. I wish one of you guys could come watch.
I know buddy, said Jerry. I’d be at every game if I didn’t have to work. Your mother is proud.
I don’t think he likes being called buddy, said Uncle Tito.
Jerry tightened his grip on the steering wheel. We pulled up to the curb in front of the Y.
This is your stop, said Jerry. Don’t stumble in there now.
Uncle Tito ignored Jerry. He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to me. He lowered his glasses and looked at me with his yellow-tinted eyes.
Lights out tonight kid, he said.
Uncle Tito winked and jumped out of the car. He closed the door and I climbed to the front. He waved at us as we drove by. I waved back and Jerry floored the gas.
Prick, Jerry mumbled.
I think it’s awesome having Uncle Tito around, I said. He’s been doing really good with us.
Don’t expect it to last, said Jerry.
I got home from school the next day and Uncle Tito had moved the futon from against the wall to right in front of the TV. Our house only had two bedrooms and one bath. The living room had become his room and the futon had become his bed.
Uncle Tito was smoking a cigarette and taking big gulps of his water. He was watching a Celtics game that he had recorded the night before. He never watched basketball for pleasure. He was constantly studying each game with unbreakable focus.
I was on the way to my room when he called for me.
Hey big head! Come sit down. I want to show you something from this game.
I went in the living room and sat down next to him. The smoke was unbearable and he kept taking drags.
You can learn so much from these guys, he said.
Uncle Tito had gone to the same high school I went to, and back in the eighties he was the star point guard. He was only five-foot-ten and a hundred and fifty pounds, but he led the state in scoring, assists and steals three years in a row. He was named the state’s Mr. Basketball his senior year.
He was on his way to a full ride to Fresno State before he tore his ACL in the state semi’s his senior year. After the injury, he lost all the speed and agility that made him a star, and Fresno State lost interest. He played half a year of ball for a junior college in Illinois but he had to drop out because he flunked all of his classes.
Uncle Tito put his arm around me and pointed to the screen.
You’re a good shooter kid, but you’re letting too many opportunities slip away because you’re not attacking the basket. Look here.
He paused the game.
Look at the ball-handler here. He doesn’t do anything special. Just a quick one-two dribble to get his defender off balance. Then he drives to the basket. Easy lay-up.
You haven’t been to any of my games this year, I said.
But I’ve watched every single one. They come on public access. If I’m at a meeting, I record them and watch them after. Look.
Uncle Tito switched to a recording of my last game and we watched the first few minutes.
Man, he said. When you dribble up the court, your hair bounces on your head just like mine did.
I was about to ask him something when Mom stormed in the house. Uncle Tito tried to ash the cigarette before she came in the living room. She stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
Goddamnit Tito! she yelled. I told you a million times not in the house! Jerry is looking for any reason to throw your stupid ass out. And in front of your nephew?
She came and snatched the cigarette from his hand. I don’t understand why you always have to act like a jackass, she said.
Mom turned to me and cocked her head.
To your room, now, she said. You have homework. And you, she turned to Uncle Tito. Get your lazy ass up and help with the groceries.
We both stood up, a little ashamed, and followed our orders. Before I went to my room, Uncle Tito patted me on the back.
We’ll watch it after dinner tonight, he said.
I closed the door to my room, too excited to start my homework.
One night Uncle Tito’s meeting got cancelled. That same night we had a game against our rivals, Alderson Catholic. Mom agreed to take Uncle Tito to the game with me since she had a babysitting gig and couldn’t stay to watch.
In the car Uncle Tito didn’t shake as much. He rubbed his hands together and said things like, It’s going to be a good one tonight. He acted like he was going to suit up himself.
Do you have your water cup? Mom asked Uncle Tito.
I’m just making sure. And you know the school is a smoke free zone, right? No smoking outside the gym door.
It’s a two-hour game. You don’t think I can make it two hours without smoking?
I’m just reminding you Tito.
Mom pulled up to the gym entrance.
I’ll be back around nine-thirty to pick you guys up, she said. She rubbed her hand on my knee. Good luck, honey.
The boy doesn’t need luck, said Uncle Tito.
We walked to the big glass doors. Uncle Tito was behind me rubbing my shoulders. When we went through the doors into the foyer Uncle Tito looked up at the high ceiling. The lights were bright and he looked out of place in his old school.
It feels different, he said. He stood in the middle of the foyer.
The gym is this way Uncle Tito.
He continued behind me but kept looking around, up at the ceiling and over his shoulder.
On the wall just before the gym doors was The Wall of Excellence. It was a glass-display of the school’s best sports teams and athletes over the years. There were pictures of the old football team before it was disbanded in ninety-four, and there were pictures of the current state quarterfinalist in tennis, Sarah Hash. But no section was as coveted as the basketball area.
Our school had never won a championship in anything, but the basketball team was the closest we ever came. Uncle Tito stopped in front of the display and pulled his sunglasses down. An official game ball sat in a case with two jerseys hung above it on either side, one white and one navy blue. Both had the number 6.
My fucking jerseys, said Uncle Tito. He sounded surprised and upset at the same time.
It’s the only number no one is allowed to wear, I said.
Uncle Tito looked around the display case and spotted a wooden plaque with gold lettering. Above the words was a picture of a young man with sharp cheekbones and curly hair who posed like a soldier in his jersey. Uncle Tito nearly dropped his water cup.
This plaque is a symbol of recognition to Tatum “Tito” Petrola
School and State leader in points, assists and steals
Tatum is a first team all-state selection, as well as an academic all-state member
I watched him study the picture and the words under it. I felt proud to be standing next to him and his plaque. My friends loved to remind me that was my uncle in the picture. But Uncle Tito didn’t even smirk at it. He threw his sunglasses back on his face and continued to the gym.
They need to take that shit down, he said. My records were broken seven years ago.
After the game, we sat on the curb outside and waited for Mom to pick us up. Uncle Tito was trying to think of something encouraging to say.
It is what it is kid, he said.
We lost by thirty-four, I said pitifully.
Yea. The team sucked tonight. But you had twenty points tonight, so you didn’t suck, right? Man, I swear you’re getting better.
I was past the point of frustration. I was tired and the sweat on my body had dried and made me cold.
Behind us the doors flew open. The three referees who called our game came out, all of them talking. Two of them went to the right towards the parking lot. The third, a tall, skinny guy, walked towards us. He was parked in the student parking lot on the other side. As he passed us him and Uncle Tito made eye contact. He stopped and a smile spread across his face.
Son of a bitch, he said. It’s Tito Petrola! You’re Tito Petrola! He put his hands on his head in disbelief. I knew that was you up in the bleachers man!
Do I know you? said Uncle Tito.
I played for Hillsborough back in the day man. I was, like, a sophomore when you were a senior. You dropped forty points on us in the playoffs! No one could guard you man!
Oh yea, I remember that.
I can’t believe you’re sitting in front of me. Everyone used to talk about you. You’re the best player this state’s ever seen. Man!
Uncle Tito folded his hands to keep them from shaking. He didn’t look all the way up at the man.
Then the man pointed at me, like he hadn’t noticed me the whole time.
Wow, and now your son’s out here playing ball too, he said.
I waited for Uncle Tito to correct him but he didn’t. Instead, he just smirked.
Tito, your boy’s a spitting image of you. He turned to me and pointed to Tito. Hey kid, when your old man was your age, no one he played against could stop him. Every shot he put up found the net.
The man felt around for his keys in his pocket and turned his truck on with them. He drove a new, white Ford and he started to walk backwards towards it.
Tito fucking Petrola, he said. Man. Make sure you come to the next game and say what’s up.
He turned around and kept walking.
Tito Petrola, I heard him say again. Then he got in his truck and pulled off.
Uncle Tito didn’t speak. We sat there like the encounter hadn’t happened. He tried to clear the phlegm from his throat but couldn’t. Then he lowered his head and threw up between his legs. It was mostly bile mixed with a few chunks of the pasta we’d had for dinner. I stood up and backed away.
I’m fine, he said. He waved his hand in the air to confirm it. I just need a damn cigarette. Where the hell is your mom?
A few minutes later the Volvo pulled up. It was too dark for Mom to see the vomit on the ground.
Don’t tell her a damn thing, said Uncle Tito before we opened the doors. He got in the back seat.
You’re taking the back Tito? said Mom.
The boy played hard. He deserves it. But he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Tough night, huh? she asked me.
I said he doesn’t want to talk about it.
All right, all right, damn, said Mom. Are you feeling ok Tito?
Tito didn’t respond. He was upset but I couldn’t tell if it was about basketball or that guy bugging him, or if maybe he was actually sick. But I didn’t think about it too much. He would feel better tomorrow.
Uncle Tito didn’t let me mope around after the game. He told me to quit being soft and put in the extra work to make sure a game like that never happened again. Every day we didn’t have practice I was putting up shots in the backyard. Uncle Tito would smoke and watch me.
Shoulders squared, he would say over and over. Elbow in. Come on now.
One day I struggled with my shot and Uncle Tito yelled these things over and over. I put the ball down and held my hands on top of my head to breathe.
You’re exhausted, he said. That’s why you’re not shooting consistently.
Hey Uncle Tito, how come you never shoot hoops anymore?
Uncle Tito crossed his arms and thought about it.
Well, he said, I just don’t anymore, I guess. I don’t know. I’d probably throw my back out if I tried.
I picked up the ball and held it towards him.
I bet you still got it.
Not anymore, kid. Haven’t touched a ball in years.
Come on Uncle Tito. How are you going to coach me if you can’t lead by example?
Don’t get smart, kid.
Just a shot or two and I’ll leave you alone. Deal?
Uncle Tito hesitated but he finally took a deep breath and stood. He popped his neck to the left and right and clapped for the ball. I passed it to him. He came to where I was and put the ball down to stretch his arms across his chest and both of his shoulders popped. He picked the ball back up and spun it on the tip of his middle finger and let it spin like it was a muscle on his body he was flexing. Then he tossed it from his finger and caught it in his hands and put his forehead to it as if in prayer.
Prepare to be disappointed, he said.
His beer gut hung from the bottom of his shirt and his shoulders were slumped forward. He moved like he was thirty years older than he was. He barely bent his knees and his feet barely left the ground but the shot he put up was graceful when it left his fingertips. His elbow extended smoothly and the flick of his wrist was like a cherry on a sunday.
The ball spiraled high in the air and dropped through the hoop and splashed against the net like water. The rim did not rattle.
Well, he said, I guess I still got it. Let me see it again.
I passed him the ball and he put up another shot. Nothing but net. I kept grabbing his rebounds for him and he kept putting them up. Out of forty shots he only missed two. I noticed Mom watching us from the kitchen window. Normally at this time in the evening she’d call us in for chores or dinner. But tonight she just smiled and let us play.
Me and Uncle Tito started a game of H.O.R.S.E but we only got to O before it was too dark to see the ball. I kicked my shoes off on the patio and looked over at Uncle Tito. I hadn’t realized how exhausted he was from putting up all those shots. He struggled to get each breath out of his throat. He was bent down with his hands on his knees. I took his arm and put it around my back and helped him into the house onto the futon.
Jerry was on the recliner reading something on his phone.
Jesus Christ, he said, flaring his nostrils. Would it kill you to hop in the shower real quick before dinner?
Suck a fat one, Jerry.
Will you two shut up? Mom yelled from the kitchen. I’m not dealing with your all’s bullshit tonight.
Jerry stood up and walked to the kitchen. He mumbled something under his breath before he was out of the room. Uncle Tito was still panting on the futon and didn’t notice. Or he was too tired to respond.
After dinner I lay in my room and skimmed through a book I had to read for a book report. It was eleven at night and I was already supposed to be asleep but I kept hearing what sounded like a cat pushing out a hairball. I put the book down and creeped over to the door and cracked it open. I realized it was Uncle Tito dry heaving.
Just lay down, I heard Mom say in a weak voice. Uncle Tito moaned and the springs in the futon squeaked under his weight.
It was just a game of H.O.R.S.E, said Uncle Tito. Is that all it’s going to take to kill me?
It’s just a headache, said Mom. You’re exercising again and you’re tired. That’s a good thing. That can be your success story for your meeting tomorrow.
Mom started to hum something. She got quieter and quieter and then stopped. He must have fallen asleep. I heard her walk to her room. Before she opened her door I could hear her sniffle. I thought she was going to cry. She went in her room and quietly shut the door.
When the weather got cold everyone’s mood got worse. Jerry started working six days a week and Uncle Tito started going to the doctor, which meant Mom had to drop her baby-sitting gig to keep up with his appointments and meetings.
One day I found blood in the toilet. When I asked Mom about it she didn’t say who it was. But Uncle Tito’s skin was turning yellow and he couldn’t keep his food down, so I put two and two together.
Uncle Tito and Jerry didn’t go back and forth like they used to. Instead Mom would give Jerry that mean look to make him do something that showed he at least pretended to care about Uncle Tito. He would refill his water cup or get him a dinner plate or a barf bag. Uncle Tito didn’t even crack jokes. They weren’t cordial but they dealt with each other, like there was some cold understanding between them.
He stopped wearing his sunglasses and he only got up from the futon to go to the bathroom. He kept a plastic bag with him just in case he got the spins. He only watched Wheel of Fortune and other boring game shows on TV but he never actually paid attention to what was going on. It was like Uncle Tito was never actually there anymore. He even stopped talking to me about basketball.
One night I sat next to him while he was watching Wheel of Fortune. His skin smelled rotted and he looked lost staring at the TV.
Is there any way you could come to our game tomorrow night? I asked. If we win we make the freshman team playoffs.
I have to go to the doctor’s office tomorrow, he said. He didn’t bother to turn from the TV to answer.
If you haven’t noticed, I can’t really go anywhere anymore.
I just thought that maybe-
Let me shoot it straight with you kid, he said. He bent over to look in the kitchen. Mom had her headphones in while she cooked.
It’s time for you to understand what’s going on. I’m going to need a new liver if I ever want to be normal again.
But I thought you stopped drinking?
I did. I’ve been sober for eight months now. The thing is, the damage has already been done. I went twenty-six years drinking every single day and I didn’t stop soon enough to save myself. I’m lucky I bought myself a few extra months by quitting when I did.
I sat there with my mouth open trying to think of something to say.
Just don’t make a big deal about it, he said. It’s my own fault.
Dinner’s ready! Mom called from the kitchen.
I’ll make you a plate, I said to Uncle Tito. He patted my shoulder.
You’re a good kid, he said. Sometimes I wish you were my own.
I went in the kitchen and got him a small bowl of chili. I handed it to him and went for mine.
Why are you moping around? Mom asked.
I didn’t answer. I took my chili to my room and let it go cold on my dresser.
The next night was the biggest game of my life but I had no motivation to play. I walked home from the bus stop and dreaded putting on my jersey or shooting a ball or seeing Uncle Tito. I resented him for not being able to come to the game.
I got home and took a nap and then ate dinner. At six-thirty I got my gear together and went out to the car. Mom sat behind the wheel with the engine running. I didn’t notice Uncle Tito was sitting in the back until I got in the passenger seat.
I was surprised to see him. He had on one of his navy blue high school jerseys over his hoodie and his sunglasses. He smiled at me when I got in the car. It was the happiest I had seen him in weeks. There were a hundred things I wanted to ask him about from the day before but none of them were worth mentioning now, as if those problems just didn’t exist anymore.
You’re letting me sit up front? I said.
Why not? Special treatment for the star player, right?
Mom took off and Uncle Tito put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed.
I thought you said you weren’t watching the game, I said.
It’s the biggest game of the year. Just cause I can’t be there in person doesn’t mean I’m not watching.
I had spent the whole night prior making myself understand that Uncle Tito was too sick to focus on basketball right now, which made me hate the thought of basketball. Now that I knew he was watching tonight’s game I was ecstatic. And then I felt the pressure to win. I started to tense up in the front seat.
We pulled into the school parking lot. Uncle Tito reached behind his neck and unhooked his Jesus-piece. He held it delicately in the air and looked at it for a moment. Then he handed it to me.
I guess it’s time I hand it down to its heir, he said.
I stared at it and watched it glisten. He kept dangling it.
Take it before I change my mind, he said.
I took it and hooked it around my neck.
It was your grandad’s. He gave it to me before he passed away my senior year. It used to be my good luck charm.
I ran my fingers down the gold chain. I couldn’t believe I was actually wearing it.
He looks just like you, Mom said.
Before I got too carried away Uncle Tito gave me a noogie.
You’re going to be late, dummy, he said. He lightly pushed me towards the door and I got out. Uncle Tito got out and went around to the front.
Remember, channel four, I said.
I know what channel smart ass, he said. He got in and Mom blew me a kiss and they drove away. I fingered the cross on my chest the whole way inside.
The gym was so empty that it would have made the game feel less significant any other night. That’s how freshman games were. There were maybe three pairs of parents in the stands and a group of potheads sitting in the far corner. But it felt like the whole world was watching me from home. I could see Uncle Tito leaning forward on the futon blowing into his fists, Mom begging him to lean back and relax.
The boys on Denton Valley were as big as trees. Their arms were the size of my head and any of them could have passed for seniors. The whistle blew and our center didn’t bother jumping for the tip. We immediately retreated to defense.
Their center was a fourteen-year-old who was six-foot-seven. As soon as he touched the ball he bullied our center in the post, backed him in and put up an easy layup. He put up ten straight points just like that before we could get one of our own.
I was trying to get my teammates involved the first quarter but every shot they put up clanked off the side of the rim. They made a few bad passes that went out of bounds and Denton Valley’s point guard got a couple of steals and that’s how the first quarter ended. I walked to the bench ahead of my teammates and pouted.
I heard Uncle Tito in my head. Quit acting like that, he said. If you don’t want to lose then take control of the game.
I gave my teammates fists bumps on the bench and tried to act optimistic about the second quarter. Our big man set some screens for me and I hit a couple of threes. We stole the ball a few times for some fast-break layups. But we didn’t have anyone big enough to stop their lumberjacks in the post. They put up points effortlessly. Before the halftime buzzer sounded their center caught an inbound pass and dunked the ball with both hands and made the frame of the backboard rattle. I had scored fifteen points so far and felt better until I looked up at the scoreboard. We only had fifteen points to their thirty-one.
We sat in the locker room at halftime with our heads down like the game was already lost. Our coach let us sit in silence and stared at us, disappointed. He shook his head and told us how sorry we were.
I could see Uncle Tito pacing around the living room cussing at the TV, calling us soft and pitiful. Our coach wasn’t going to say anything useful and Uncle Tito expected me to do something. So I took control of the room.
What the hell’s gotten into us? I yelled. I looked at my teammates with my fists clenched. My voice echoed around the locker room.
Why are we scared to shoot the fucking ball? It doesn’t matter how big they are. They’re too fat and slow to keep up with us. We should be running circles around them!
My teammates sat wide-eyed and some of them straightened up. Some of them nodded their heads at what I was saying.
We can’t be scared to lose. If we play scared to lose we’ll miss out on every opportunity we have to win. If they hit us, that’s fine. We’ll take the foul shots. I’ll even score every fucking point if I have to. But I need all of you to give me everything you’ve got. Do you understand?
My teammates didn’t say anything but I felt a spark in the room. They stood up and circled around me. I could feel the urgency to win. I fingered the cross on my chest and put my hand up to break it down.
Family on three! I yelled. One. Two. Three!
We came out like a different team in the third quarter. I hit three straight threes and my teammates knocked down a few more. Finally, Denton Valley was getting tired and they started to miss. We took advantage of every rebound and scored on fast-breaks. We cut their lead down to six with three minutes to go in the third.
On defense I lost my man on a screen and I got stuck guarding big boy. He could have picked me up and tossed me across the court like a tennis ball if he wanted to. He pushed me back with his shoulder and demanded the ball down low.
He got the ball and dribbled a couple of times. I tried to go for it but my arms couldn’t reach around his waist. He put his head down again and pushed me off-balance. Then he pushed again to get to his spot under the basket, but instead of trying to push back I stepped to the side and let gravity take care of him. Without the resistance he expected he fell forward with all of his weight. There was a loud thump on the hardwood and he lay there with his hands over his face. I could see Uncle Tito standing in the living room with his arms crossed, nodding his head. He had told me the most important thing you can do is play smarter, not harder.
The big man was sent to the locker room with a concussion and all of Denton Valley’s momentum left with him. The fourth quarter came around and by then it was a different game. I hit another four three pointers and my teammates kept coming up with steals that led to easy buckets. Denton Valley was exhausted and we were playing like the game had just started. We outscored them twenty-four to zero in the fourth quarter. The clock ticked down and when the buzzer sounded I looked up at the scoreboard.
Fifty-five to forty. We were in the playoffs.
We celebrated on the sideline, giving each other hugs and chanting Playoffs before the ref made us line up to shake hands with Denton Valley. They looked angry and on the verge of tears when we passed them. Afterwards I looked to my right and saw Jerry standing on the court, away from the other parents. I walked up to him, and even though he wasn’t smiling I was excited to see him.
What are you doing here? I asked him.
I’m here to pick you up.
Did you watch the game? We’re going to the playoffs!
I haven’t been here for long. We need to go to the car.
I’m supposed to go to the locker room first. We always meet in the locker room after the game.
We don’t have time kid. Get your bag and let’s go.
He sounded frustrated and I was anxious following him to the parking lot. He didn’t look at me or anyone else when we walked outside. He kept his head down and we got in the car.
What’s the matter? I said. Where are we going?
We have to get to the hospital, he said. He sped out of the parking lot and ran a red light as we left the neighborhood.
Are Mom and Uncle Tito there?
Is Uncle Tito alright?
Jerry thought about it. His hesitation told me everything I needed to know. He kept his eyes on the road and sighed.
I don’t think so buddy.
I looked out the window and didn’t ask anything else. I didn’t care about Jerry or the game we won or my new necklace. Even though the buildings and people were blurs as we drove by and we ran stop signs and another red light, it didn’t feel like we were going fast enough.