Father’s Day

My mom told me it was a gift that keeps on giving. For some reason, I instantly pictured a gum ball machine with a giant bow. My parents insisted my birthday present was NOT a gum ball machine. At 11 years-old, my mouth was already filled with metal: braces, expanders and a retainer on the way. Adding six cavities to the list was not an option.

I was somewhat disappointed when the big day came and my mom and dad handed me a manila folder with big smiles on their faces. What kid gets a manila folder for his birthday? Was I getting a present or quarterly reports here? Perplexed, I opened it. Inside was a calendar from October to April that my mom created by hand.

“Flip through it,” she said.

One day of each month was marked with a little star that read “Sixers vs Knicks” or “Sixers vs. Sonics,” and finally the big one: Friday, March 12: “Sixers vs. BULLS!!!

“I’m gonna see Michael Jordan!?” I screamed, asking as if it weren’t true.

My family got me an eight-game partial season ticket plan for my eleventh birthday. Not only that, I was going to be in the same building as my idol M.J. Twelve posters. I had 12 posters of Jordan scattered throughout my wall in my room. I never took them down, even during his sabbatical from the game. I knew he’d be back. I just never thought I would see him in person. I remember sitting in social studies bragging to my friends that I was going to see the Sixers play and eventually Jordan. They were never as impressed as I was.

Before he was a cultural icon

My first Sixers game was November 1, 1996 against the Milwaukee Bucks. I still have the ticket featuring Jerry Stackhouse, Clearance Weatherspoon and a young rookie named Allen Iverson. (Philly’s version of the Big 3, I suppose). My NBA career happened to coincide with Iverson’s. This gave my dad and I a special connection to number three. This was before the tattoos, cornrows or shooting sleeves. Hell, this was before Larry Brown. Johnny Davis roamed the sidelines for A.I. his rookie year. Back in 1996, ask my dad who his favorite basketball player was and he’ll tell you Dave DeBusschere. Guaranteed.

We were still learning, trying to wrap our minds around this little point guard who shoots far too much and sulked way too often when taken out of a game. Who was he? We were transfixed, like the rest of the country. But with each game, each dive to the basket risking his frail 160 pound frame from severe injury, he won us all over. Game by game. DeBusscere to Iverson in five months time.

My father has no real basketball skills, not many 5 foot 8 inch Italian guys do. Baseball was his game, but basketball was our outlet – a time for me to practice my game on the driveway and a chance for my dad to goof off and perhaps vent about my mom for a couple minutes. That was the unspoken agreement. What is said on the driveway, stays on the driveway.

“Crossover!” he would yell in his bright red Sixers sweater and jeans, inevitably dribbling the ball off his orthopedic New Balance shoes and into my mother’s garden. “Just like A.I,” I’d tease.

What my dad lacked in skill, he made up for in the appreciation of the artistry and athletic ability of the Game. “When it is done right, it is the most beautiful game on earth,” he would tell me.

Allen Iverson’s talents were far from beautiful. No one questions his God-given basketball abilities, but ask any scout or coach and they would tell you, please do not imitate Allen Iverson. His shot, often off-balance, is far from textbook. His media guide height is six feet, but a closer examination concludes he is an inch or three less. Due to his opponent’s considerable size advantage, Iverson is forced to fade away as he shoots, allowing for the proper arc of the ball to graze over the defender’s fingertips. He’ll collide with the hardwood floor, he’ll get picked up by his teammates and he’ll make the free throw. “He is all heart,” my dad would say. “Play like him.”

“Play like him.” This was code for “Never take a shortcut. Start from the ground. Build your way up.” My dad told me to watch Iverson when I was in fact watching my dad. He paid his own way through college, working three jobs. His dedication to his family and downright unwillingness to spend time on the golf course and schmooze with co-workers has been ingrained in me to this day. Calabros do the work and go home to our families. I think he saw that in A.I. too. Did Iverson always go home to his family? No. But Lord knows he did the work. No one played harder and no one was more exciting with the basketball.

The Crossover

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really remember seeing it. I remember seeing it, but I don’t remember recognizing it. Like looking up at the Sistine Chapel during a sneeze. You know you witnessed something, but you know you didn’t see it all. You have that “wait, what just happened?” look on your face. You missed the intricacies of it. The beauty of it. The balls of it. I strived to be Like Mike in every way. From the tongue sticking out, to his strut on the court, to the way he would always call basketball “The Game of Basketball.” I knew it all. But by March ’97, Iverson was our guy. Our guy took down MJ. For one moment. One play. Our guy had won. That was the Crossover.

Fearless.

Sure we lost the game, but that didn’t matter. The Sixers lost a lot of games that year. Sixty to be exact. In what became a tradition, during halftime, my dad and I would let out our frustrations by dissecting the first half and the adjustments that needed to be made as walked the mezzanine level concourse. There were plenty of adjustments. We would debate substitution patterns, whether they needed to execute more pick and rolls or play better defense. We would inevitably settle on my dad’s favorite play. The play that would define the Sixers during their lowest points, their playoff runs and their clash with the Lakers in the NBA Finals. My dad’s favorite play, “Just Give Iverson the Damn Ball and Get the Hell Outta the Way” always endured.

The 2003-2004 season turned out to be our final year getting season tickets. The team consistently increased prices on us which was especially cruel considering we were loyal customers for a mediocre Sixers team destined for the lottery or an early round playoff exit. Plus, after going to so many games year after year, they simply lost their sense of excitement – for me, anyway. Fast forward a few years and I was now a senior in high school and was more concerned about meeting my friends after the game than discussing the Sixers halftime adjustments with my dad. I would excuse myself to call my girlfriend or friends during halftime. Yes, the game is almost over. My dad and I were beginning to grow apart. There were no fights or anything dramatic, just a teenage son suddenly bored of the childish routines of the past and a father perhaps not quite ready to let them go. When we played one on one in the driveway, my dad created a rule that he wouldn’t raise his hands above his shoulders because he was always blocking my shot. Now, the rules were reversed. I was older. He was older. The game changed.

I keep a basketball in the backseat of my car. Whenever I make a turn, the ball slides across the seat and bangs into the inside of my door. The slight bump reminds me of basketball, of Iverson, of Sixers games with my dad. It reminds me to call him, ask him about the NBA Finals, or when I will see him again. It reminds me to tell him thank you.

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