First Day

The solace of a ball and an empty court

By Brian Doyle | October 3, 2014
Flickr/Ross Pollack
Flickr/Ross Pollack


When I went to college I carried a battered old green canvas duffel bag. My dad had stenciled my name on it in white paint at his basement workbench. The old black steamer trunk, shipped to college ahead of me, was waiting in the basement of my hall and I remember hauling it up the basement steps to my room just like a man would haul a recalcitrant walrus, with all his might and with no help whatsoever from the walrus. Other guys were hauling their trunks to their rooms also, and one guy offered to help me—I will always remember his face because he was the first person to help me on my first day at college, even though he didn’t know me at all and I was only a freshman. The hallway smelled like wood chips and wood shavings and paint and turpentine and the shaggy musty smell of rooms being opened and aired after being shut tight all through the roaring American summer. My room was small but tall, and I claimed the bottom bunk as well as the desk by the window, and after I unpacked my stuff, my roommate walked in. He was from Missouri and carried a banjo. I had never seen a banjo before and said so, and he said he would play it a lot—which he subsequently did, sometimes at dawn, which was a mixed blessing. He went off with his family, and I sat at my desk for a while fidgeting and pinning up photographs of my family and then even though I should have made the effort to be friendly and meet the other guys on my floor, or reviewed my class schedule for the 100th time, or hit the bookstore to get a running head start on syllabi, I did none of these things, for I was rattled and frightened and near tears for reasons I did not know. So I opened my old black trunk and got out my worn gleaming basketball and slipped out of the hall without saying anything to anyone and ran down toward the lake where I knew there were basketball courts because my brother had told me about them. He had been a student at this college years before, and when he was lonely and rattled he went to the lake. Somehow having my ball in my hands and spinning on my fingers and whipping around my back on the dribble and bouncing between my legs occasionally was soothing and nutritious. Who would have ever thought that bouncing a basketball for an hour would be the mysterious food you needed at exactly that hour in your life? But it was so, and I shot baskets and ran through my ancient mindless drills for an hour there by the small glistening lake, with its fringe of reeds like a prickly fence between land and water, and when I was done, when I was dripping and tired and something had been burned away and I was released, I hit a last shot, because you can never, never, leave a court without hitting your last shot, and then I dipped my hands in the lake and splashed my face and walked slowly back to my hall. On the way back, people on the pathways smiled and said hey, and I smiled and mumbled, and when I got to my hall two older students on the steps said hey, and asked me my name and shook my hand, and one of the older students said, Hey man, grab me tomorrow and we’ll get some guys and run full-court down by the lake. I said, Okay, sure, thanks, great, thanks, and I walked down the hall to my room feeling some kind of different, like maybe just maybe things would be some kind of okay.

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