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by Brian Doyle
Probably the funniest basketball game I ever played in was the Senior Camp Counselors versus the Otters, the Otters being kids 5 and 6 years old in their first summer at the camp high on a hill over Long Island Sound, so high that you could see Connecticut on clear days, sprawled on the horizon like a long green dab of paint.
One of the Otters, in fact, a silent boy named Aram, actually lived in Connecticut, and was driven to and from camp every morning in, I kid you not, an enormous town car with a massive driver in a meticulous black suit. I asked Aram once what he did during the drive, which must have been almost two hours each way, and he said mostly he slept, but sometimes he and the driver played games having to do with spotting license plates, or the colors of cars, or counting the number of other drivers smoking cigarettes, or noting the species of birds spotted along the road or remembering the best meals they had ever had. The driver was from Trinidad and Tobago, said Aram, and mostly his, the driver’s, favorite meals had to do with fish stuffed with fruit.
Aram was one of the Otters, as were a slew of other spindly boys whose faces come back to me now when I see their names before me in books and newspapers and billboards and street signs: Elijah and Isaiah, Jesus and James, Aaron and Adam. I remember once giving a speech to the Otters about the remarkably Biblical cast of their nomenclature, the primarily desert provenance of their given names; how rare and lovely to find a room full of young men bearing the names of legendary characters from that one tumultuous region of the world, eh, boys? And I well remember the way they stared at me with not the slightest idea what I was saying, as usual. It was Aram who once said to me, by the archery pit, that he and the other Otters often wondered if I knew what I was talking about when I delivered one of my speeches, which still seems to me an excellent question.
The Senior Counselors versus the first-years was a camp tradition, attended by not only all campers and staff but many parents and families. It was held late in the afternoon of the last day, and was followed by an awards ceremony and picnic. As the senior Senior Counselor that year, I got to hand-pick my team of counselors. I chose all those who had never played basketball, for entertainment, and also arranged the Otters in groups of five, to be shuttled in and out every few minutes, so that they would all get to play, even Aram, who was so scared of the ball that I had let him sit under a tree and doze during Basketball Hour all summer.
The court was at the very top of the hill. It was a hot windy day, and the stands were packed, and the game was hilarious, and no one got hurt or embarrassed. The Counselors racked up probably fifty turnovers, so that the Otters, playing as hard as they could, won the game by four points, although the final score was something like ten to six. And while I vividly remember Aram’s face when he hoisted up a shot and I accidentally tipped it in for him, it is the ripples and tides and swirls and eddies of laughter on that windy hot summer afternoon that I remember best now; the way the Otters giggled helplessly, and the way the Counselors, each of us trying to play worse than the others, laughed so hard that our cheeks and bellies hurt for days afterward, and how Aram’s driver, in his shining suit, leaning up against the shining town car, laughed so uproariously, so un-self-consciously, that his cap tipped back and, as I watched, fell off. But he reached back smoothly and caught it with one hand, and a few minutes later, as he welcomed Aram into their car for their last ride home, he looked over at me and tipped his cap, a lovely and subtle gesture that I hope I never forget, as long as I live.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of various books.