What’s My Name?
I wasn’t long “off the boat” in the States before I’d become a parody of what it means to be Irish.
At sixteen, how you are perceived by your peers is everything. Even if the goal is to transgress from the flock and be comfortable as the outsider. As different. At the prep school I had been flukey enough to be offered a basketball scholarship to North Carolina, I grimaced scanning the gym at my first practice. “Whiteboys” bobbing their heads to the faint hum of hip hop. Coach placed his hand on my shoulder and led me with a sigh to introduce me to my ragtag band of teammates, all of whom but one were sitting in the bleachers, lacing up their sneakers with looks of intensity. I was there to take someone’s spot.
A pasty gangly boy with dyed peroxide blonde hair was vying for the other lads’ attention, smiling, exposing the braces on his teeth with thoughtfully arranged rubber bands. Blue, white and gold; our school’s colours. He hadn’t been aware of Coach and me approaching. He’d pulled one of his sweatpant legs up to his shin and looking for laughs, executed what was, to be fair, a pretty decent crip-walk. Oversized headphones boomed off his ears but wrapped around his neck for all to hear. It was 2001. But it wasn’t the Marshall Mathers LP blaring.
“Who Am I” (What’s My Motherfucking Name) ft. Dr. Dre by Snoop Dogg oozed and as soon as your man began barking out the profane lyric kicking off the chorus, Coach yelled at him to “Turn that goddamn” and then he uttered the N-word before finishing the sentence “shit off right now and sit down.”
I thought of that word as a linchpin but there were no conscientious objectors around, not willing to say a word anyway. Or cleverly I thought without smiling, a “lynch-pin” but Coach’s kind weren’t the ones in danger of that fate in North Carolina.
When Coach was done introducing me he went on to explain the seriousness of our home opener against the defending state champions, the all-black prep powerhouse, Word of God.
“Y’all remember what those boys did to us last year?”
Everyone nodded in unison. Even Slim Shady had stopped smiling. Word of God had broken a state record for Most Dunks in a High School Game and beaten my school by fifty points.
Back in Ireland, I’d had calls with Coach, who had spoken of the glory days when the school had come close to winning state championships. That they had a rich history of recruiting internationals. They’d lost in the final one year with a line-up that boasted the twins, African giants from the Ivory Coast, Kouame and Koffi. Coach had chuckled explaining how the irony of people pronouncing the latter’s name “Coffee” had escaped the boy. I suspected that it hadn’t.
Their point guard had been a local African American player that Coach had been scouting on the local club circuit since the boy was in nappies. Trayvon was talented and lion-hearted, Coach said. He explained that going the prep-route was the best chance a lot of them had at “getting out of the hood” and on to play big-time college ball. That was all of our dreams I thought to myself.
“Maybe you can be the new Tray” he’d joked with me, “Trayvon-Lite.”
The school had not had any recruited players for a handful of years. Coach bemoaned the criticism he’d received after being unable to secure the elusive state championship title even after being given free rein to recruit giants and the best local player for miles around. The parents of the local boys complained about their sons not getting enough playing time. A few years had passed, Coach said and the mediocrity that ensued had shifted their complaints to those of disgruntlement at the school’s losing record. Having just one recruited player with my inoffensive complexion wouldn’t cause too much of a stir. I could tell he was under pressure that first practice. I’d been made quite uncomfortable by the racial overtones of his statements about the team we were due to play.
Back in Ireland I’d been coached predominantly by two black guys, one from Tallahassee, Florida, and the other from Harlem in New York, both of whom had played professionally in Europe and settled down with Irish women in Dublin. When I was a kid, I’d gone to all their games. They’d been like father figures to me. They were the closest thing my friends and I had to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. We all listened to a lot of rap, wore baggy jeans and basketball jerseys and identified less with our classmates who played football or GAA and listened to Oasis and The Stone Roses.
I was well versed in the history and evolution of hip hop stemming from its origins with artists like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, which impressed my coaches Ed and Jay, who’d dubbed me an “honorary brother” as a result.
I resented the whiteness of my new teammates. I knew I wasn’t black but I didn’t feel like one of them at all. When I got home that evening I opened up my bulging CD wallet and scanned through the wealth of gangster rap and felt sick, recalling my dopey teammate from earlier that day. I felt stupid.
As a teenager in the nineties in Dublin, I didn’t drink Guinness or whiskey. We had cans of Dutch Gold and bottles of Blue WKD. I didn’t wear Aran jumpers or farmers’ hats. I didn’t listen to trad* or have anything more than a bit of Irish, barely good enough to pass the ordinary paper in my Junior Cert. I recalled my sense of embarrassment looking in the mirror after our elimination game to bloody Luxembourg of all teams at the European championships I’d played at in France. The flag on my breast and the capital letters spelling out IRELAND across my chest meant nothing to me at the time. The only goal was to make it to America.
It had only been my first practice and my feelings had totally changed. I put away the CD wallet and found myself opening up the plastic bag my mother had taped-up safely which bore a pink sticky note imploring me to “Never forget where you came from.”
The home opener versus Word of God wasn’t for a couple of weeks. That’s all the time it took for my playlists to change. My bedroom brooded a rich aroma from the peat incense that burned nightly from the concave hollow of a carved square piece of stone that had come all the way from Connemara. The name on my locker in school had been changed from Gary to Gearóid.
It was clear that my teammates were resigned to the fact that we would be destroyed by Word of God. They joked about it. None of them had any real ambition of playing at a high level following high school graduation. Most Irish players I’d known to get the opportunity to play in the states had not made it further than one year before returning, having failed. I needed to stand out to survive, if I was to have any chance of being offered a college scholarship.
Delusions of grandeur flooded my brain before that big game. I was trying to get in the zone. I guess what I was doing before the game was a kind of meditation. Or simply having notions. I needed to dampen out the sound of the capacity crowd in the gymnasium and the boombox that was pumping out Dr. Dre’s iconic album, The Chronic, mere feet away from me in the locker room.
I had the volume of my headphones on full-blast, and lowered my head between my legs, listening to a version of “In a Lifetime” by Clannad, featuring fucking Bono of all people. I imagined myself as Gearóid, the “Spear Warrior,” running barefoot in pursuit of a deer through an Irish forest, wild eyed and unafraid.
I led the team down the stairwell as the announcer’s voice bellowed through the PA system, “And now, your Spartans”.
I burst through the paper banner outstretched by cheerleaders covering the tunnel’s exit out onto the court. I’d shrouded myself in an Irish flag and the crowd chanted the nickname I’d been given, “Lucky,” the North Carolinians’ only frame of reference being the Leprechaun in the ads they’d seen for a sugary breakfast cereal. I’d had my mother send me over a bodhrán that came with an instructional CD-ROM that showed you how to play basic patterns on the drum. This CD had been strewn aside and the drum placed in the capable hands of our Sophomore Superfan, hiding inside our school’s mascot costume, the Spartan. He ran up and down the sidelines beating it like a war drum to rile up the crowd. Eventually, soft music started to play over the enormous speakers hanging from the ceiling. The Spartan stopped beating the drum, placed his right hand over his heart and silenced the crowd with his sword.
As the American national anthem played, I tried to remember the words to Ireland’s but the best I could muster was the tune in my head. My eyes were drawn to the flag of the Ivory Coast which is essentially the same as the Irish flag, but reversed. The twins had been honoured following their final home game where the principal had raised their nation’s colours into the rafters. I hoped that one day I’d be honoured in the same way and have my flag up there beside theirs, where I felt it belonged, at the opposite end of the gym to the star-spangled banner.
By halftime, I could see that the Word of God players were exhausted. They couldn’t match my energy and hadn’t expected the flashy play and barrage of scoring I’d brought to the game. A camaraderie I hadn’t felt in our practices had grown between my teammates and I. They looked like they believed. At half-time we were leading by three points due to the shot I’d hit at the buzzer, a deep three pointer that rattled home through the cast iron hoop.
The second half seemed like a dream as we ran away with the game. Clannad had left my head. After hitting a decisive shot that put the game out of reach for Word of God, I flexed at their bench, all of whom who’d withered in disbelief. Our home crowd had achieved an animalistic level of fever, howling, spitting aggressively as they chanted in what sounded like tribes people speaking in tongues.
The marching band played our “fight song.” I beat my chest as the other team’s coach called a timeout. There was less than a minute left and we were up too much for them to come back from. The game was fucking over and the funny thing was, that I could believe it.
I ran over to our bench and caught up in the hysteria faced by revelling teammates, cried out “What’s my motherfuckin’ name!” with Snoop Dogg-esque intonation and began the much practised crip-walk of my youth before restraining myself after a few seconds, fearing that the Word of God guys would see me.
That, and because Coach had glared at me, grabbed me by the scruff and said “Act like you’ve been here before” and “If you ever pull that shit again, I’m putting you on the next potato boat back to Ireland.”
The Word of God point guard showed class and dribbled out the clock, dapped me-up and gave me a hug. As the final buzzer sounded I was carried off the court in victory. It was only a preseason friendly but we might as well have won the NBA finals. It meant something. And as I dipped my head before entering the tunnel, I looked back at the flag of the Ivory Coast and pictured my own tricolour being raised one day beside it.
After the game versus Word of God, I was featured prominently on the cover of the town’s sports page the following morning. Someone had pinned a cut-out of the article on my locker, and written aggressively in black permanent marker, “The Great White Hope.”
The only black athlete at the school was my classmate and friend from Nigeria, Odi, who was the star soccer player.
He shook his head, and as I pulled down the cover of the sports page, scrunched it up and said “Ah fuck off man, obviously I didn’t stick that there.”
He was winding me up and we laughed about it walking to Home Room, our morning assembly period. Later that night, I unscrumpled the page and smoothed it out on my desk, and for a second, thought maybe I was.
The dream was short-lived however. A season ending injury that followed just days later stopped the phone ringing and the mail coming from previously interested colleges. My flag would never be raised up beside theirs. Hopping to the bathroom in the middle of each night, unable to sleep, dragging a shattered foot in a heavy cast, I’d cry looking in the mirror. I had no clue who I was going to end up being.
The September 11th attacks had happened and I felt ostracised, not caught up in the fever of patriotism that had high school seniors of age haemorrhaging out of school and into the military. I definitely wasn’t black or as good as the Word of God guys, honorary brother or not. I didn’t feel white like the khaki-wearing whiteboys in my school. I’d hammed-up my Irishness, fabricating an identity I’d never felt close to before. I was no “spear-warrior”. I didn’t know who was looking back at me. He looked a bit like my father, disappointed.
I figured I was going to wind up back in Ireland having failed in America. That in a couple of years I’d be in Ibiza with my friends following their completion of the Leaving Cert. Just another dickhead with a Celtic cross tattooed on his back, drunk, talking about what might have been. Only getting slagged for it by new-friend-pillheads, for it not even having been at a real sport, like football.
But I had another whole year left of high school despite the dream already being over. My options, all-be-them subconscious at the time, were to continue to lean-into the cartoonish leaping leprechaun image and do my best whenever getting on the court, having lost my speed following the surgery and rehab. And just be well-liked and pitied. Or to reside in the silence of mediocrity on the bench, lips pursed and cheeks bitten, in the hope that they’d all just forget about who I was supposed to be.
Gary Grace’s work has appeared in literary journals in Ireland, the UK and the US. He has forthcoming work in two anthologies: The Dark Waves of Winter by Kelp Books & #SexTapeDigest by Broken Sleep Books. His collection The Nitelink was longlisted for Best of the Bottom Drawer Global Writing Prize.
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