NOA - Honolulu, Hawai'i, USA
I should've shot this on a basketball court. As beautiful as Hawai'i is, a dark, musty gym or an outdoor court with asphalt under his shoes and a net-less rim above his head would've been a much more appropriate setting for a portrait of my friend Noa, who I've known longer than anyone I'm not actually related to.
Noa has basketball in his blood. As kids, he and I bonded over our mutual obsession with the game (and the L.A. Lakers), and we were both coached by his Dad: a tough, gruff, no-nonsense, yet caring man who both inspired and intimidated me. I busted my butt in practice partly because I wanted to improve, but mostly because the thought of disappointing Coach Kellett was unthinkable. Of course, like any Dad who coaches his son, Noa's dad was harder on him than the rest of us, and Noa responded by being the literal center and heart of our team, dominating the opposition in the paint in every game.
Even way back then, I had no doubt whatsoever that Noa would one day be a coach too, and like his father, he's devoted his entire life to helping kids who grow up in underprivileged neighborhoods to stay off the streets and out of trouble by keeping them on the basketball court. I wasn't underprivileged, but my parents worked hard to provide for my brothers and me, and I know there were times when, if one of my folks got sick, we would've been in big trouble. They've never owned a new car or gone on vacations other than rare trips to visit family, because they were saving up to make sure their children were taken care of, and even more importantly, I never doubted for one second that I was loved. I also worked for a while in a group home for troubled youth, an experience which deepened my appreciation for what Noa and his Dad do every day for those who have much less than I did growing up. You can read more about Noa and his wonderful family here: http://archives.starbulletin.com/content/20090524_family_finds_mission_at_ymca
For every professional athlete, there are a million kids like me, who fantasized about becoming one but didn't possess the gifts to make it happen, and thousands who might have had a shot at it but didn't have luck on their side. Regardless, the opportunity to compete in team sports reaps enormous benefits. Whether you're playing full-court, five-on-five for the N.B.A. championship, or half-court, two-on-two on the slanted pavement outside your buddy's garage, the goal is simple: your side needs to put the bouncy sphere through the high circle more times than the other side can. Every sport can be whittled down to similarly basic elements. And when you're in "the zone," whatever problems and complications that exist off the court melt away, and until that game clock ticks down to zeroes or somebody reaches 21, life becomes pretty focused: you're united with the rest of your team in that one, common goal, albeit with an infinite number of variations available to achieve it. For a little while, you forget about everything else except what you can do to help your team succeed.
Admittedly, the beauty and grace of good basketball has been tainted by the commercialization of the sport, as demonstrated by the professional basketball lock-out of 2011, with owners and players bickering over how to split up millions upon millions of dollars of profit, and I readily agree that in an ideal world, it would make sense for people who directly save lives to be paid more than athletes, but it would be a mistake to dismiss basketball, or sports in general, as a frivolous, empty activity. Young people enamored with a sport are inspired by those who play it at the top of their game, and that inspiration allows guys like Noa and his Dad to channel that energy, teaching them about the value of hard work, practice, camaraderie, working with others, self-improvement, and building memories.
While a series of consecutive injuries (two ACLs shattered, meniscus torn, shins splintered, finger dislocated, and more ankle sprains than I care to remember) led me to "retire" from my entirely unremarkable career as a basketball player, the experience rewarded me with many cherished memories: I can still remember the endless squeak of rubber on hardwood, the beautiful sound of a ball I shot hitting nothing but net and the attempt to appear nonchalant while strutting back to play defense and hoping that my parents in the bleachers (along with that cute girl from English class) were watching, the inside jokes with the guys during the bus ride home after a victory, getting reamed by the coach in the locker room after an embarrassing defeat, the simple joy of hearing the two most beloved words that a coach can utter during a practice ("water break"), the strange pleasure taken from having every muscle and joint in my body be totally exhausted and screaming in pain, the feeling of copious amounts of sweat pouring into my eyes and being too drained to wipe it away, the tears after getting cut from the team, the satisfaction of finally getting to wear Magic Johnson's jersey number as a high school senior, the adrenaline rush of knowing that, with a few seconds left on the clock during a tight game, we were all going to be either ecstatic or miserable very, very soon...
During actual games, I spent a lot of time sitting on the bench cheering for my more talented teammates, and I understand now that my body was never designed to play basketball. Any brief escape from mediocre play resulted partly from my own stubbornness but mostly from the efforts of guys like James, Byron, Duane, Gary, Allen, Dave, Mike, Dick and others: all coaches I had, who, like Noa's dad, would accept nothing less than my best effort.
While Noa and I do touch base every now and then, I hadn't seen him in ages, so I was excited to meet for lunch when I was back home for a visit. We talked about Kareem and Magic and Shaq and Kobe for a bit, but we talked more about the passage of time and our fathers and love and hopes for the future. With good friends, even if time and distance has kept you apart, when you meet you focus on what's important.
Naturally, I brought my photo gear along and insisted on doing a portrait. We didn't have a lot of time, but the lovely Ala Moana Beach Park was only a few minutes walk away, and I picked a spot and angle with a pleasant backdrop where I could augment the sun coming from over his shoulder with supplemental lighting. Almost immediately I realized that there should've been a basketball in the shot somewhere, but since that wasn't an option at the time, I moved on, doing some standard shots of Noa flashing a shaka (Hawaiian hand signal for all things good) along with his big, contagious smile, but when I asked him to imagine he was coaching his kids, I knew I had something interesting.
Yes, I know he's squinting, and the fact that he was staring into a big PLM umbrella reflecting the sun right back into his face was certainly a factor, but I've seen that look on both his and his Dad's face before. It's the look of his gears turning, of analyzing the problem at hand and searching for the right combination of solutions. Of finding the right compromise between letting his gifted players run with it and putting his bench players in at a time when they have the chance to accomplish something they'll remember their entire lives. It makes me smile to know that my friend Noa is out there giving kids the tools they need to become winners, both on and off the court.