The Point

Trey’s head is hot and his feet hurt. His toes are wet and mushed together in his shoe, stinging where the blister has ripped loose on his left big toe. He’s afraid of changing out of his socks, soaked with three hours of sweat, because if he removes them he might rip away the puffy shell of blistered skin that’s delicately hanging on, the last line of defense protecting the raw skin beneath. Trey bounces the tennis ball three times. He catches it and holds it against his racket for a moment before he serves. He’s one point away from winning the Boys 18 and Under division at the Southern Open. He wants it to be over.

He considers going for a big serve and ending the match with an ace. Nagging voices inside his head persuade him to reconsider. Coach: Why go for the lowest percentage serve on the biggest point of your life? Mom: This is what we’ve been talking about. You can’t lose your focus on big points. Dad: What was going on inside your head? Mom: At least you learned something from your mistake. Dad: He never seems to learn. Coach: Eliminate thinking errors. Mom: Why do you complicate things, Trey? Coach: Keep your thoughts simple.

Standing just outside the fence with his arms folded across his chest, his coach hides his facial expressions in the shadow cast by the large straw hat atop his head. Trey’s parents are seated on a Carnival Cruise beach towel draped over a row of the aluminum bleachers on the side of the court. Trey didn’t go on that cruise. He was training for this tournament, for this moment, a moment that has left him confounded.

It’s his right quadriceps, which has been twitching, ready to seize up on him with a painful cramp, that convinces him to hit a safe, energy efficient spin serve to his opponent’s backhand. Just get the point started.

His opponent blocks the return back to Trey’s side of the court. Trey jerks his racket back and scrambles into position. His swing is no longer fluid but is now a disjointed abbreviation of the looping stroke he and his coach have been working on for the past four months in their weekly lessons. At least he strikes the ball cleanly, sending it safely across the net to the middle of the court.

Every point has been like this for the last thirty minutes. Neither player aggressive. Both terrified of making a mistake because an error would mean precious energy had been wasted, and after three hours of slugging balls back and forth, neither of them has energy to spare. Trey is aware of the obvious paradox. Because he and his opponent are playing safe, the points have become much longer and more grueling, but both still refuse to take a chance with an aggressive shot. It has become more of a demonstration of will power than skill. Trey hopes his opponent will take a rip at the ball and put an end to this torture. In the meantime, they continue lofting heavy topspin forehands, each shot comfortably clearing the net by several feet.

Trey has never made it this far in the tournament. The finals. His parents and coaches have long insisted that his game is there, telling him that he should be making it to the finals and winning tournaments. He’s not sure if this assertion is meant to be an encouragement of his abilities or an indictment on his failures. His mom has told him it’s just a mental thing. You have to want it. He doesn’t want it. He just doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to come close, tease his parents with success only to fall short yet again. All the money they’ve spent. Lessons, clinics, hotels, rackets, strings, shoes…

All that he wants, all that he deep down really wants, is for this third set tiebreaker to be over so he can retreat to the bench and hide his burning face in the little rectangle of shade from the lamp head hanging high over the court. But right now he’s fighting harder than he’s ever fought for something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want to lose.

In the humidity the ball has become shaggy and heavy, its black print nearly worn off. He watches it spinning at him through the air, a giant, yellow furball. He considers the color and texture of this ball so carefully that it becomes a blur. His next shot shanks off the frame of his racket, sending a painful jolt through his tired arm. He hears his mom gasp in disgust, or at least he senses it.

The ball zig-zags in the air like a knuckleball. It’s headed beyond the baseline. The score will be even again. All this effort will have been wasted and instead of walking away the champion, now he’ll have to win two more points in a row to win. He’s not sure if he wants to go through this again.

Somehow—maybe a gust of wind—the ball changes trajectory and falls straight down, clipping the baseline. Trey can tell his opponent wants to call the ball out, but the shot is too slow. All six people standing outside the court have a clear view of the line and  know the ball landed in. It’s not a good opportunity to cheat. Still, Trey expects his opponent’s index finger to shoot up in the air, indicating a call of out. A shot that ugly should have gone out. As his opponent stumbles backward to make a last second recovery, his left hand rises into the air ambiguously. Instead of extending his finger, he launches a high, defensive forehand back towards Trey.

In a way, Trey actually regrets that his opponent had not called the ball out. It would have released all the tension, relieved all the pressure. Sure, he would have dropped his racket on the ground, clasped the top of his skull in disbelief, and charged the net yelling, “No way! That was so in.” Because there are no line judges on the court, there wouldn’t be anything he could do to reverse the call, and Trey would look back to the sidelines at his parents who would share in his anger, his dad probably muttering something about what a big cheater the other boy was. But it would have been a relief, this outcome. A win-win. If he had ended up losing, he’d have an excuse, an asterisk next to his opponent’s victory. Trey would have the moral high ground. His opponent only won because he had cheated, he’d tell people. And he would believe it and sleep easier at night knowing this. But the bastard called it in. The point continues.

Trey is even more careful now, his shots landing shorter in the court while his opponent has gone on the attack. He senses his opponent is frustrated, anxious. Trey would be too if he were him. The point should have been over after that horrible mishit. Perhaps pressure has been relieved on the other side of the court. Now, if his opponent should lose the match, he could claim that Trey had only won because he’d been lucky. That’s one thing Trey has learned. Rarely are there both winners and losers in tennis. Mostly, it seems, there are those who won and those who claim they should have won. Defeat is difficult to accept and those who do toil at the bottom of the rankings until they’re so discouraged by their lack of achievement they eventually give up.

Out of the corner of his eye, Trey sees his opponent’s parents shaking their heads, gesturing with their hands, and mouthing over and over, “That was out.” They actually want to believe that Trey’s ball had been out. They had wanted their son to cheat, and they would have accepted it. Wow.

Trey is now sprinting from corner to corner, chasing down balls, trying to hit at least one defensive shot good enough so that the attack stops. He finally hits his first decent shot in the last thirty minutes, a sharp crosscourt forehand that sends his opponent scurrying towards the sideline. The shot has taken just about everything out of Trey. If his opponent hits it back, he’s done.

His opponent does get it back, a slow, loopy shot down the line to Trey’s backhand, just enough within reach that Trey has to waddle over to it. This is it. He attempts an ill-advised, poorly executed drop shot that lands barely over the net but bounces too high, giving his opponent ample time to retrieve it. His opponent races to the net and drives a backhand into the opposite corner. Trey doesn’t make a move towards it. The ball lands squarely on the sideline. In. Trey puts up his left finger and says, “out.” It’s over. He’s won.

I Confess. I Cheated.

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You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

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