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  • Joanna

When Max Had to Pivot


It took Max sixteen years to grow into her teeth. And her personality. And her dreams. Also, her hair. But that’s another story.

She came of age in the '90s—the time of stick-straight blow-outs and handkerchief tops and blue glitter eyeshadow. Fashion was for the daring. Fame was for the tortured.  Fortune was for the great. And none of this was lost on Max. It was part of her twelve-year-old, suburban New Hampshire, seventh-grade existence. Because she was a dreamer. In fact, dreams were her most time-consuming hobby.

She dreamed about a growth spurt that would stop Mike O‘Clair from calling her “Maxie Two-Backs.” She dreamed of being the next Clarissa Explains it All or Alex Mac on Nickelodeon. She dreamed about owning clothes like the models in Sassy Magazine, about walking red carpets and being fawned over by Joan Rivers. But, most of all, Max dreamed about being a basketball star.

Now, Max was not tall. She wasn’t particularly fast. And she wasn't even remotely coordinated. In her dreams, none of this mattered. Max’s world had been fully formed and influenced by underdog sports movies. She watched Bad News Bears so many times that she wore a physical hole in the VHS tape. She loved a (now socially unacceptable) movie called Ladybugs with Rodney Dangerfield and watched The Next Karate Kid on a literal loop. In her mind, there was a world where, despite having two academic parents who both hovered slightly over five feet tall and having a very hard time catching the large, orange ball, she would be the first female to ever play in the NBA. 

These dreams were so all-encompassing that Max didn’t let one- possibly one very important- fact sink in. She was objectively terrible at the sport. And, basketball, with anyone else watching, caused her debilitating anxiety.

This is why her dreams were such an escape; her reality was a constant reminder of worst-case scenarios. Her dreams were perfect snapshots of a life where a knot in her stomach didn’t clench with every life decision or social interaction or time in the game. And this is why, during the infrequent times that her coach actually put her on the court, and the even less frequent times that someone would actually throw her the ball, Max’s anxiety took hold of the little skill that she did possess and forced her to immediately throw the ball to someone else. Hopefully, that person was on her own team. Oh, Max…

But this didn’t stop our heroine from going after her goals with the drive of a much more talented athlete. Every evening, for the entirety of the cold New England Autumn, she would finish dinner, put on her team sweatshirt, go outside to her uneven driveway, and shoot the ball at the hoop mounted above the garage until her small hands were frozen solid. Night after night she would drag herself outside, practicing her lay-ups, free throws, and distance-guessed three-pointers. She not only lacked skill. She also lacked focus and would spend these hours daydreaming of swooshing in the winning shot in front of an all-state crowd while, in reality on those cold nights, the ball careened off the rim or shattered one of the plate-glass windows lining the old garage door. 

She imagined an assist from one of the three Katies on her team: Katie S, Katie P, or Katie R, the three best players who only seemed to pass to each other. She could see them high-fiving her with screaming smiles for sinking a three-pointer. The image was so vivid that Max could practically smell the girl’s Tommy Hilfiger perfume. What was her reward for this dedicated discipline? It made Max so, so, so much worse. Why?

It turned out that Max’s home net hovered exactly two feet lower than regulation height and she’d been practicing on a hoop that only had a distant relation to the ones mounted at actual basketball courts. 

Oh, Max…

Now, during this delightful daydreaming and despicable dribbling, Max actually dealt with an issue that real basketball players had to address. It was possibly the only thing she had in common with the starting lineup of the Bulls. She had a knee problem. But, not like a super serious one.

She remembers, at the most random of moments, her knee just locking up. It wouldn’t move. Her parents took her to doctor after doctor and eventually settled on physical therapy since no one could diagnose the strange medical occurrence. And that was where Max received the largest knee brace that her 75-pound body could carry.

This wasn’t a cool compression slip insinuating a hardcore athlete, endurance runner, or a player suffering from excessive dunking. No. This was a tan, medical-grade, tri-strapped device with a lot of velcro. It probably did nothing. That’s not true, it did something. It made her look like even more of a loser.

So there she was, the big-toothed kid on the 5th-grade team with the tangled, fro-adjacent, curly brown hair, the freckles that made it look like she had just been splattered with mud, the coordination that made it appear as if she were running around with her eyes closed on loose roller skates after downing six Mountain Dews, and the one player who had scored zero baskets three-quarters of the way into the season. To add to all of this, she was now the one player in a giant knee brace that looked like it was holding her entire leg together.

But, you gotta hand it to the kid, she kept going. She kept showing up at practice, trying to impress the Katies. But still, she wasn’t sinking baskets, catching the ball, or throwing it to the correct team member. As her reality got less appealing, her daydreams became more and more vivid and more and more involved. While she was riding her bike to her theater group, Max found herself in the most unbelievable imaginary situations:

Like the doctors, while performing an MRI to figure out what in the heck was really happening with her knee, found a newly identified super-tendon that would allow her to ace a four-foot vertical jump, thus allowing little Max to be the first twelve-year-old girl to dunk. She would close her eyes and physically hear the crowd going wild, her parents leaping up in pride while someone pouring a tub of Gatorade over her head screamed. And it didn’t stop there.

Oftentimes, before she went to bed, she was playing on The Dream Team for the Olympics. Yeah, there was a lot going on in that anxious, knotted, curly head.

Now, with literally no thanks to Max as she’d managed not to score a basket for the entirety of the season, her team made it to the playoffs. It was, in the context of girl’s middle school basketball, a really big deal. Katie S, Katie P, and Katie R’s actual talent had pushed the Hornets to the top of their division.

By this point, Max was still fighting the horrifying chasm between her basketball dreams and the reality of her debilitating anxiety whenever her name was called to get off of the bench and onto the court. The one place where Max excelled was leading her teammates in perfectly executed cheers she’d start from the sidelines, pounding her feet to the beat of Queen’s We Will Rock You, and generally providing a huge lift of team spirit for all in attendance at the fluorescently-lit gymnasium. Good job, Max.

Two days before the playoffs, poor Max had had another episode with her knee. It occurred at a relatively benign time, in the backseat of her father’s ancient silver Camry. But it hurt. And it always felt like some creepy, invisible clamp was taking over her joint. And Max wailed even though there was nothing to do but sit it out. Literally. Especially since she was already sitting. There were a couple of reasons for Max leaning into these episodes with her knee. One, they garnered her quite a bit of adult attention, and two, she always knew that the pain would disappear within a few minutes, so it was tolerable. But, number one, the attention was great.

The 48 hours before the game included an extra physical therapy session where Max was instructed to wear the brace for all her waking hours. Max instantly and deeply (so deeply) regretted making a big deal about the knee locking. She should have kept her mouth shut and her dramatics low. And now there was no going back.

The next morning was marked indelibly into Max’s entire family’s memory. It was one of those epic and window-shattering prepubescent meltdown episodes that makes parents regret their decision to procreate in the first place. Not a single pair of Max’s pants fit over the giant medical device and each one was thrown on the floor of her bedroom in a fit of desperation and wild anger.

“This is what we’re going to do,” stated her mother way too matter-of-factly for the highly emotional situation. And that’s when she revealed a pair of her kitchen orange-handled scissors and proceeded to cut off the left leg of Max’s most despised olive-green corduroys. 

“This is what you’re wearing. And we’re leaving.” Max might have been a highly sensitive girl and a somewhat emotional disaster but she knew she had no choice in the matter. She pulled on the one-and-a-half-legged pants, her heart beating a mile a minute, and slumped into the backseat of the station wagon.

“Ha ha, Maxi-Two-Backs is Maxi-Peg-Leg,” announced Mike O’Clair oh so helpfully as Max dragged herself as if she were carrying a small elephant on her back, into homeroom, inducing a bright red flush across her already worried face. 

With her mounting misery, stress from her knee situation, and singularly cut-off pant leg, Max was not so slowly losing it.

She was losing it all through Geometry and Technical Drawing and the History Of The Americas. This was one of those days that would never end. Each minute dragged like tin cans bouncing across the pavement behind a Just Married car; painful, denting, loud, endless, and broken. And something wasn’t working: Max couldn’t daydream her way out of this particular day. Maybe it was stress or anxiety or embarrassment. Maybe her knee actually hurt. She doubted it at this point but her head was such a mess that she didn’t even know for sure.

In the locker room, changing before the playoff game, Max stuffed the amputated corduroys into the metal trash bin. She trudged her way out to warm up with her teammates.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the Pineridge Middle School Hornets!” And with that, each member of Max’s team ran out to the court to hear their names called and the crowd cheer. Katie P, Katie S, and Katie R all beamed from ear to ear. They’d been high-fiving people in the hallways all day. Sure, Katie R was excited. She was about to beat the all-school record for points in a season. Katie S was basically an ambidextrous dribbler at this point. And Katie P had her thirteenth birthday the week before and clocked in a 5’10 AND A HALF. 

The loudspeaker momentarily jolted Max from her own personal Hell.

“Please rise for our national anthem.”

As Max turned towards the flag with her hand over her heart, she imagined herself strutting out onto the court, microphone in hand, wearing a dress like Ariel coming out of the ocean with her new legs in The Little Mermaid, belting out The Star Spangled Banner for all to hear, hitting notes that would make the notoriously unemotional referees cry. She saw herself gazing out into the bleachers, continuing her song as the mascot had to reach under his Bee head to wipe his eyes.

And the home of the braaaaaaaavvvvveeee.” As the song ended, Max’s heart sank even lower. Not because she had to shake the rockstar fantasy out of her brain but because the game was about to start. The gymnasium lights felt like they could burn holes through her pale winter skin. The crowd’s chatter and cheers were deafening to her ears. The smell of popcorn and boiled hot dogs made Max want to vomit up her pre-game Subway sandwich. 

There was no winning. She would feel like a complete and utter loser if she spent the game on the bench, stomping and singing. There's nothing cool about that.  And she couldn’t stomach the thought of actually hobbling out onto the court with her skillless hands and a supposedly bum knee. What was she supposed to do? Where was the escape hatch? How does a pre-teen take control over their circumstances? In this case, they don’t.

Max tried her best to sit as far away from her coach as possible. She kept her clapping and cheering and singing to a minimum which, she justified to herself, was fine because her team was up well over 30 points. Max’s anxiety stopped her from understanding the downside of this scoreboard. With this lead, she was definitely going to play.

“Max, tap out Katie S, you’re IN!” Coach yelled loud enough that Max couldn’t pretend that she didn’t hear. Max scooted over to the official’s table, her stomach feeling like the squeegee mop in the infomercials on QVC,  and waited for the next whistle.

“Katie!” she called as she hobbled onto the court. All three impressive athletes turned to her. “Sorry!” Max waved frantically, “Katie S,”

Katie S was a good sport about being traded out for the nervous, uncoordinated cheerleader of the team and gave Max one of her signature high fives as she ran off the court.

“Good luck!” She yelled with a smile that only a person not carrying the weight of the entire universe can pull off. 

Max looked up at the bleachers which were surprisingly full for an afternoon middle school basketball game. She looked out at the bright court with shiny yellow-orange wood floors and lines painted by someone who was not there and didn’t care whether she full-on died by crushing embarrassment on this specific court. That person had probably painted a hundred courts. With no one watching or judging. Max imagined the painter and- NOPE, there would be no daydreaming because the worst thing that could happen to Max in that moment, say pooping her pants at center court, was for the game to start and for someone with very poor judgment and a matching green jersey to pass her the ball. Fuck a Duck. Seriously.

Max felt the sweat puddle across her forehead as if she’d actually physically exerted herself. Her heart hammered in her (according to Mike O’Clair) very flat chest. She looked ahead to the basket that she silently prayed belonged to her team and began to dribble down the court as if this wasn’t the worst moment of her entire existence. 

“TAKE IT, MAX!” she heard from the sidelines. And who knows what coherent thoughts actually flew through Max’s mind but it seemed to make sense that the faster that she ran with the ball, the faster this entire nightmare would be over. So she sprinted. She sprinted hard, she sprinted fierce, she sprinted without a plan. And when she miraculously ran past two opposing players and close enough to her team’s basket to have a solid nine percent chance of making a layup, something even worse transpired. She collided with an also nervous-looking redheaded girl and they both slammed into the gleaming wood floor. And that’s when it happened.

What got into Max at that particular moment? Perhaps it was actual pain. But…  no, it wasn’t.  Most likely, it was the buildup of lost dreams and embarrassment and social pressure and puberty. It was the hell that was middle school vacuum-packed into a single moment. It was having a thousand eyes on you as you couldn’t walk or dribble or shoot. It was the metal braces that always seemed to have something green stuck in them and the boys who were there to remind you of the faults of your body. It was the teachers who didn’t understand what was happening when their backs were turned and the magazines boasting unattainable images on every page. It was the mean girls and oh God, the nice boys and the clothes that were never right and the lockers that wouldn’t open and the parents who dropped her off in their bathrobes. It was the hormones and hormones and not knowing what strange alien creature would inhabit your body from one day to the next. Somehow, on the buffed floor of the Pineridge Middle School Gymnasium, all of Max’s suppressed anxiety came rushing out uncontrollably. So what did Max do? She clutched her knee and screamed.

The ref blew a whistle. The game was paused. Max’s coaches sprinted to her. Fans stood in the stands. Worried whispers filled the air. She opened her tear-drenched eyes. And that’s when, if she’d been hooked up to a polygraph with a gun to her head, she would have admitted that… nothing hurt. She was just fine. But, if she’d learned one thing in her after-school theater class was that once you were in it, by God you had to commit.

So, Max did just that. She committed as the Coach and Assistant Coach each took one of her arms around their necks and guided her off the court. She committed to her tears and stifled breath as the crowd clapped enthusiastically for her seventeen seconds of playtime. It was, secretly, the most humiliating moment in Max’s memory.

So, we know that Max sucked at throwing and catching and dribbling and shooting and even retaining a comprehensive knowledge of the rules of the game. She wasn’t a basketball player. But, she knew how to fake an injury better than any Hornet who’d ever played. It was a performance that not even a Katie could top. So, what did this mean for our frizzy-haired forward?

That game was the end of Max’s basketball career. But, it was the beginning of something else. It came as a shock to literally no one but Max that she pursued acting. She applied and was accepted to a performing arts high school across town. She got herself into Carnegie Mellon on the back of a Wendy Wasserstein monologue. She landed lead roles in one play after another and booked a role on a Nickelodeon show nine months after graduating college. She’s a working actress today. And although she’d never told this story to anyone before submitting it to Anxiety Addicts, she still considers that moment on the floor of the Pineridge Middle School Auditorium one of her greatest performances.

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