The backboard bully: the roles we see can be all the difference in who we become

In the midst of youthful basketball games and hustling for Taco Bell chalupas, lifelong lessons were learned, leading to diverging paths and ultimately tragic loss. We called him “The Backboard Bully.” He’d find his spot at or near the free-throw line and shoot the ball at the perfect trajectory for a bank shot. We hated him for it—that is, when we weren’t on his team. If he was your teammate, you loved him for it.

When we weren’t playing basketball, we were hustling. What did two twelve-year-old boys need with money? Chalupas from Taco Bell, of course. They had just come out about this time. We knew exactly how much they would cost. Despite the five-mile bike ride, on bikes not in the best condition, the thought of warm, flaky, cheesy, beefy deliciousness was the goal. The miles we needed to trek and the money we needed to earn were just a few obstacles to overcome.

We used to cut grass for money. I don’t know why or how we got the idea. Maybe it was because we had lawnmowers and free time. I remember going door to door, getting a lot of doors closed in our faces but not letting it faze us. With our taste buds set and stomachs growling, there was a bit of necessity in our efforts. I relied on the essential lesson I learned from my “pound” football coach: “Next play.” Meaning that you can’t get hung up on a mistake or misstep, or else you will never be able to win the next play or create a play for how to overcome a loss, uncertainty, or doubt. So with that in mind, we never let a closed door deter us at this time. We simply continued on to the next play or the next house in this instance. I can reminisce fondly on these youthful times, little did we know what was to come.

John and I continued to knock on doors, paying no attention to the time of day or day of the week. We had no formal plan or impressive marketing materials, just personal contact. After seeing this methodology through, we were successful, more than not, in financing a taco or two that we quickly devoured. And when a day’s work was particularly lucrative, we topped it off with dollar-store candy and soda for dessert.

One of the most important things I learned from this friendly venture with John was to put an honest effort into every task, which will pay dividends later. For example, I had one man who, pleased with our work, had hired us to come back weekly. But, when our bellies were full, we had no motivation to do any more work. As the days and weeks went on, this man’s yard grew wildly. When we inevitably needed more work to feed our junk food addiction, we eventually made our way back to his home, which could be considered a mansion on acres by today’s tiny home and condominium standards. Our neglect did prove to be a consequential issue — the tall grass meant that a plethora of snakes came to settle in his overgrown yard where they could hide and feast on rats. But, although he scolded us for our absence, he ultimately allowed us to cut his grass again because he remembered our previous work had been impeccable.

These were our middle school years. But, as we grew older, John and I also grew apart. My Aunt Gwen started offering me money for As and Bs (which, come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever collected on, hint hint). With a prize in mind, like most competitions, I started taking my grades seriously and ended up on the Honor Roll. I found that I quickly became as motivated to learn and achieve in school as I had previously been to earn my own funds. What changed in me was my ability to set more and more sophisticated goals for myself and to keep myself motivated to do the work and accomplish what I had set my sights on. But, unfortunately, John did not have anyone in his life, like my Aunt Gwen, who was invested in his success. Unlike how it was for me, school seemed to be a chore for John rather than a tool to get what he wanted out of life.

In high school, I rarely saw or spoke to John. He was hanging out with my older brother, who had already dropped out of school. They were focused on making rap music and had even signed a small-town record deal. He started to embody the version of Black male masculinity readily available to him, which he saw and looked up to, even though he had a father working hard daily as a plumber to support him and his siblings. The flash of a subculture that tempted him with ideas of gold, riches, and beautiful women was inevitably more appealing than studying in college or trade labor. To be honest, I was a bit jealous; I thought that I was missing out on this glamorous life. While I was still shooting back shots with my friend, who I now associate as a brother, he was hanging out with beautiful women and expressing himself, and I could see the talent of his poetry growing from nursery rhymes to plays on words literature world events. I felt I’d become a shadow living in libraries, chem labs, classrooms, and gyms. With no clear path to success and, worse, no guidance in this pursuit.

After high school, I went to a small-town college. I was excited and nervous as I’d been granted a scholarship which to me at the time was the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. John stayed in the place we grew up; by this time, the recording sales had dwindled, and the compensation from those sales was spent at parties. Early in my freshman year I was engrossed with calculus and biology, working out when I wasn’t studying. It was hard, but I loved it, which made it doable. But back at home, I learned John had been shot to death.

At the time, I chalked his death up to personal choices. My initial reaction was likely just a coping mechanism to help me avoid dealing with the truth. But, as I reflect today, I realize all the opportunities, influences, and expectations in his life directed those choices. Many of us believe in our own abilities. We stand where we are because of how good we are, how smart, how hard-working, how attractive, or how clever. And, yes, I am a strong proponent of work ethic because of what you can obtain through effort and mindset. Maya Angelou said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

But, there is also the village that raises the child (as well as the young adult or young man). My African heritage was never lost. My family supported me sometimes with their last dollar, sometimes with fufu and soup. So, I firmly believe that I stand where I am today — an accomplished college athlete, a husband, a father, and a physician — because of people who believed in me and supported my aspirations. It’s people who reaffirmed the values I hold dear. They pushed me to achieve; they stood with me when I failed, and held me to the highest expectations. I have no misgivings that without a few key influential adults in my life, their guidance, and influence, I could be lying 6 feet deep with my childhood friend, The Backboard Bully. Loss is a part of life, and I have lost many along my journey. I hope to offer my story not as a blemishless trophy but as a diamond

Tariq Shaheed is an internal medicine physician.

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