In June of 1995, I turned 16 and had a massive growth spurt. In about two months I grew from 6-1 to 6-5. For most of the summer I walked around my house in Upper Darby, Penn., with ice packs on my knees because of growing pains. By early August, I returned to our local court with a newfound ability: I could dunk a basketball. Dunking is like a mundane superpower. Kids who had barely spoken to me for years now asked to watch me throw it down.
I was only a couple of years removed from being obese. Size runs in my family, a race of gingers at 1 3/8 scale. "Oh, look at that. I guess Sasquatch is Irish Catholic!" people internally exclaimed as our family walked through the King of Prussia Mall. In 8th grade I had been curvy, 5-10, 240 pounds, probably a full C-cup. I also insisted on wearing red every day. Everybody in my neighborhood called me "Red Delicious."
Now, through a startling metamorphosis, I was tall and lean and able to dunk. My intention was to maximize this sudden popularity, to ride the wave to a girlfriend, friends with cars and those weird permissive parents who let you drink on the deck, and a college scholarship. I was certain Dean Smith or Coach K would hear the legend of the freckled kid in suburban Philadelphia who could two hand jam. The full ride was a near certainty. (Ten years later, Kyle Singler would get to live my dream.)
My own fantasy of playing top-flight hoops lasted till one afternoon in Narberth, Penn. When I showed up, a classmate who hadn't seen me in months did not recognize me. I was lithe and now able to rock the rim: two hands, one hand while running, the full repertoire of Vanilla Thunder. I was throwing them down in warmups, begging to gain the attention of my coach and the other team.
Our coach took notice. He assigned me to defend the other team's best player. "All the big-time programs are recruiting him. He's just as tall as you. If he plays out on the perimeter, you've got guard help. Just keep him out of the lane. I need you to be in this guy's shirt. All game."
Great. Let's ball, coach! Did that guy see me in the lay-up line, powering them down with an Ostertag-ian authority? Don't sleep on me!
As we walked toward mid-court for the tip, a teammate told me this guy's dad played in the NBA. I wasn't aware of whether that was supposed to help or hinder me.
The value of NBA genetics quickly became apparent. This guy was killing me. Prior to this game, I'd never really confronted genius. I always assumed if I just worked hard, I'd be able to forge myself into anything I wanted to be. It's the American way.
This guy was preternaturally talented. A lifetime of lifetimes dedicated to playing basketball would never provide a semblance of his natural ability.
He was also talking a lot of shit. I had curly hair parted down the middle and worn a little long. This guy ferociously blocked my shot against the backboard and erupted: "I just pinned your shit, Rony Seikaly!"
My response while running up court was, "Whatever. Your dad was a shitty NBA player." In hindsight, I'm happy he didn't know who my Dad was. Because if he'd responded, "Ed Cunningham does a shitty job of running an employees-only credit union." I probably would have cried and walked off the court.
By halftime, my teammates and coach had seen enough. We'd rotated into a full-time double team on this one guy. I still took most of the blame. "Yo, your guy is destroying us. Knock him down. Do something. Why are you talking to him? If you're going to make fun of him, make fun of his name."
"Yeah, what kind of name is Kobe?"
Kobe Bryant's high school team won a state championship. That team was Kobe, one other dude who could play, and six guys who looked like A.J. Daulerio. Those other guys, the future lawyers and dentists and possible dong shot connoisseurs, enjoyed telling you how good they were while Kobe was doing all the heavy lifting. As my shot got comically blocked into the jungle gym 40 feet from the basketball court, one of Kobe's teammates in a puka-shell necklace yelled, "Don't try weak shit with us, Rony Seikaly!"
As the game wound down, my own teammates abandoned me, yelling requests from the bench for particular dunks they'd like to see Kobe perform as Kobe had the ball on breakaways. I was furniture against which Kobe's talents could be best presented, like being a piano at a piano bar.
In one of the final plays of the game, Kobe caught an outlet pass. I had not hustled back on offense so we were in a one-on-one situation near the top of the key, just inside the three-point line. Kobe took a hard dribble right and I tried to halt the drive. In a blink, he was almost past me, so I attempted the concession clutch-and-foul-grab him, stop the easy layup, and keep the margin of defeat under 20 points.
As I went to swipe at him, Kobe launched himself skyward. I slapped a pair of knees as they went sailing by my eyes. I then heard a "KA-BOOM!" as he dunked and hung on the breakaway rim. I was underneath him, so he stayed there for a moment yelling, "I own you Rony Seikaly! I fucking own you!!!"
As he came down off the rim, I wanted to get him back. So I looked him right in the eye. And I told him my SAT scores.
Kobe cursed at me in what I assume was Italian and told me he'd be a millionaire in less than a year. He may have won the game but I bet Kobe's never had the pleasure of working with Drew Magary.
I didn't end up playing basketball in college. I realized that day that I did not have an elite or even passable level of talent for Division I ball. However, I did play for my high school team. The next year, we were playing Roman Catholic, a noted Philadelphia powerhouse. Future NBA players Rasual Butler and Eddie Griffin both dunked on me in that game. I don't know if they had spoken to Kobe or not, but they also called me Rony Seikaly. What did future NBA players have against the former Syracuse lottery pick and Miami's No. 1 trance DJ?