But then I moved to Manila. In the Philippines I am tall. Height, it turns out, is relative.
I am not a giant here. I do not have strangers coming up to me to find their significant others in crowds, nor have I gained an affinity for the blood of Englishmen. I am a tall person, as in, I am of above average height. This may seem like a minor, inconsequential thing, the kind of thing that can be obtained in small doses during afternoon strolls through Chinatown. I assure you it is not. Being a tall person for a prolonged period of time is different. I feel more confident in day to day situations. Even though I am a white person and a foreigner who sticks out in crowds and is an obvious target for thieves, I am sure I could defend myself against any attack by putting out my arm and holding my attacker’s head at arm’s length while they swung their fists wildly, unable to strike me.
Sometimes I reach up to touch signs and flyers posted high on walls, just to see if anyone is impressed.
Nowhere has my new found height changed my life more than on the basketball court. It should be noted that Filipinos love basketball. NBA TV is on every screen at every bar. Being a tall person in a place that loves basketball, and not one in one of those stupid countries that view height as something that comes in handy during headers, is to be tall in a place that properly respects the virtue of vertical length. This is a place where height is appreciated and celebrated.
As somebody who has always been a point guard and relied on bigger, taller people to do things like grab rebounds and put me on their shoulders so I could dunk, I was overcome with joy when I arrived on the court for my first pickup basketball game as a tall person. I was not the tallest person there, but I was taller than most. I was no longer a guard. I was a forward, a power forward even. Never have I been so invigorated by the name of a sports position. I felt powerful. And like sharks and stock cars, I would only be moving forward.
This court was indoor, hardwood, and real long, with an NBA three point line. I was ready to get the ball on the block and go to work with my arsenal of post moves. Like a black belt who can kill a man with one punch but has never been in a fight, I had been slowly developing my post moves over the years in case I ever needed them. The Josh Keefe-Kevin McHale up and under was ready to be unveiled to the world. Or so I thought.
When I got on the court I was told I’d play the back middle. Excuse me?
“We play a zone,” I was told.
A zone. Both teams played a zone. Every game was played with zone defense. This was because playing a zone saved energy when playing full court in the jersey-soaking humidity.
The thing about playing against a zone is that there are no one-on-one matchups, and you can’t really post up as you would in a man-to-man situation. You can’t take your man down to the block and enroll him in up and under school. Playing a zone also comes with responsibilities on defense. As a newly tall person, I was still not sure about playing the back middle of a 2-3 zone and protecting the rim. That was always a tall person’s job. Like a newly orphaned child with shorter younger brothers and sisters, I would have to step up.
I made it through the first game. The newly tall tend to forget they are tall and drift out to the three point line. I made this mistake a few times, forgetting that I must put my short days behind me and embrace this new world known as the paint, even though the zoning board had closed up and under school until further notice, so I had to rely on cutting through the lane on offense, much as a short person might. I was suddenly filled with sympathy for Josh Smith. When you are a tall person, the perimeter is not a lonely place far from the action like it is when you are short. It’s the edge. It’s rock and roll and sexy. It’s where the innovation happens. It’s the Silicon Valley to the paint’s industrial heartland.
Still, I scored a little inside. I grabbed some rebounds. I made outlet passes. It didn’t keep me from hating the zone. I wanted to have my first block party.
We won and our opponents for the second game wandered on the court. There was a giant among them, a 6’5 Filipino, who was not just tall, but wide. He was a beast. I saw him and was glad that I wouldn’t have to guard him, since I was a guard–
Oh my god. I am a tall person. I’m the one who has to play the back of the zone. I have to guard the giant.
I guarded him as a fly guards the tail of an elephant. I annoyed him when I was able make him remember I was there.
He got the ball outside of the paint and backed me down effortlessly. He grabbed every rebound. He would miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and it wouldn’t matter because nobody could stop him from trying over and over until he made it, like we were parents and worried about his self-esteem.
As a newly tall person, I still remembered what it was like to be a short person. And seeing someone hold the ball high above my head and out of reach, finding my face in another man’s armpit, jumping up and down over and over for rebounds like a child futilely trying to reach the cookies on the shelf, all of this seemed like a short person’s experience.
But I wasn’t a short person anymore.
Being a tall person means nobody is too tall for you to guard. With great height comes great responsibility. And that responsibility extends beyond replacing the smoke alarm batteries. It means having to stay home from school and cancel the block party when monsters arrive on the basketball court.
Thank you Manila, for reminding me I’ll never be tall enough. Thank you for reminding me that true height lies within. In the bone structure.