Growing up in an Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American family in the suburbs of Long Island, less than an hour outside of New York City, my older brother Ravi and I often felt out-of-place and alone in a community more interested in categorizing and containing identity instead of embracing it. Our parents had moved us from Queens when we were young, and although our homelife was culturally rich, the outside world wasn’t as welcoming.
Before I even had the chance to question who I was in the world, Ravi had a head start whether he wanted it or not. He developed his passion for basketball before he reached ten years-old and used it as an olive branch. Through pick-up games at public parks and the local Y, he not only made a few friends but earned respect for his natural talent.
On the court, it didn’t matter what he looked like or where he came from, but his ability to sink baskets. He loved the style of streetball most as it allowed him to be more creative on his toes, like an improvisational dancer. He’d practice tricks on the cracked pavement in our backyard then apply them during games.
I was the stand-in dummy for him to test his techniques. He’d dribble under my legs, behind his back, around my back while I guarded him. There was an artform to his skills.
His hero, Allen Iverson, was plastered all over his bedroom wall from pages he tore out of each SLAM and Eastbay magazine. Whenever an AND1 VHS mixtape dropped at the local Foot Action, he found a way to get his hands on a copy, even if he had to swipe from a stack sitting on the register counter.
He’d watch those tapes over and over again, admiring original moves by Skip To My Lou, Half Man Half Amazing, AO, and Hot Sauce, and trying to emulate them in his daily ballplaying life. As a teenager, he snuck out of the house to get the AND1 logo tattooed on his bicep. Our mother was livid. It would be the first inking of many.
Although he was always picked first in local gatherings, his gifts never seemed to be appreciated by high school scouts and coaches. Perhaps he was too flashy to fit into the dull, uniform mold they preferred. I knew the rejection hurt him for having been denied the validation he sought and also deserved, especially among his own peers who were inferior to his abilities.
As puberty took hold, he was teased for having bad odor as well as weight gain. At school, he could laugh through nicknames like Ravioli and pretend not to mind when kids teased us for our father’s Indian accent, but I know it bothered him inside.
Although he was cool and calm on the surface, I saw his sensitive, vulnerable side at home. The verbal put-downs from classmates and ostracism from team sports never deterred his passion for basketball, however. I wanted to be like him so badly that I played in our local Christ The King recreational league.
In our age bracket, I stunk and was klutzy with the ball at best, while he was able to shine in a group setting. I’d also join him and our dad at Knicks games, sitting high in the rafters, trying to get a glimpse at Ewing, Sprewell, and Houston from afar, just to feel connected to him.
After he graduated high school, my mom and I watched Ravi from the sidelines as he tried out for the NBA’s D-League. He was swift and jovial on the court, but for some reason, he didn’t make the cut. Though he’d felt that rejection before, it stung even harder this time. Maybe because he knew that was his last shot of making some sort of a profession out of the sport he loved.
As my brother turns forty years old, I admire his continued commitment towards playing ball in local leagues and in his community’s parks. It keeps his mind and body healthy, and he still finds pleasure in the game. Though my interest waned about twenty years ago, he’s never given up. I hope he never does.
Raj Tawney is a writer whose work is largely influenced by his Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian American heritage and New York upbringing. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and many other publications around the world. His debut memoir Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience is due out this fall through Empire State Editions/Fordham University Press.