One-on-One over a Basketball Card

Article excerpt

Children create worlds small enough for them to feel very big in. I recall, when I was 9, having spent virtually the entire summer in a front-yard sycamore. I had subdivided my branchy realm into distinct subregions and sensed that I was in command of a universe through which I passed with ease and enterprise. I clearly believed that beyond my tree there was no other world.

My son, Alyosha, now 10, has also acquired a world of his own design. In the past few weeks he has developed a passion for basketball cards. I hold my tongue every time he takes his allowance and speeds out of the house to blow it all on yet another pack. When he returns home he pulls out his collector's album and, sitting at the kitchen table, audits and adds to his collection with the silent concentration of a monk. I once disturbed him in the middle of his serious task, at which he threw up his arms and exclaimed, "Aw, Dad! Now I have to start all over again!" And he did exactly that.

The other day I awoke to a thundering of feet above me, accompanied by a fall of books and the slam of a closet door. I made my way to Alyosha's room and found it a mess, and he with a look of panicked despondency on his face. I asked him what the matter was. "You wouldn't understand," he said, still scanning the room with his laser eyes. "Maybe I would." "OK," he said, turning to me. "I lost my Hakeem Olajuwon." "Your what?" I asked. My son shook his head in disappointment. "See," he said. "I knew you wouldn't understand. It's a card, Dad." And then I made the type of misstatement for which parents are famous. "Well," I said, "it's only a piece of cardboard." I immediately recognized my error. But it was too late. It was as if my mother those long years ago had told me, "It's only a tree." Alyosha flung himself down on his bed and wailed, "You don't understand!" Oh, but I did, and I do. I was just a victim of the parental impulse to minimize the catastrophe. The next day, one of my son's friends came for a visit. If Alyosha was the prince of basketball cards, then Zac was the emperor deluxe. Alyosha's collection amounted to a mere 51 cards, while Zac boasted a king's ransom of 400. He was Alyosha's hero of the moment, a co-inhabitor of the world of basketball cards. Zac immediately understood my son's situation and offered the comfort and affirmation that I did not. He suggested that the two of them integrate their collections into one giant album, which they could pass back and forth from week to week. Alyosha apparently saw this as an opportunity to create the illusion of basketball-card wealth, while Zac may have been simply acting out of friendship and charity. …

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