Rules for Becoming a Legend

A Novel
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A spirited debut of a rising basketball star wrestling with his town’s outsized expectations and his family’s complicated legacy

Everyone seems to know Jimmy “Kamikaze” Kirkus, the half-white, half-Asian basketball sensation from small town Oregon. College coaches flood his mailbox with recruiting letters, Sports Illustrated has already profiled him, and everyone in town hangs on his every shot. But nobody can possibly fathom the weight of all this upon Jimmy’s shoulders, or the looming legacy that casts a wide shadow.

Todd “Freight Train” Kirkus seemed destined for the NBA until he impregnates Genny Mori, the tough yet fragile daughter of the only Japanese family in town. Dreams of stardom and riches are traded in for a hasty marriage and parenthood until tragedy slams the Kirkus family. Jimmy and his wisecracking little brother Dex are born into a broken family, one haunted by wasted talent, alcoholism, and death.

Like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Friday Night Lights (the book and cult television show), Timothy Lane’s debut novel uses sports as a lens to understand family, community, catastrophe, passion, and hope. Populated with complex characters, Rules for Becoming a Legend is deftly written by an author who understands basketball as well as he understands the human condition.


***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Lane

Rule 1. Value Those Who Keep Your Secrets


Monday, December 17, 2007



Look at this kid in the high tops. Purer kid you never seen. Pure in his intentions, pure in his eyes, and most important, oh top of the list for the 8,652 residents of Columbia City, Oregon: pure in his jump shot.

Jimmy Kirkus, alone in this gym. This old sweat-soaked gym people call the Brick House. This basketball cathedral tucked away to be forgotten—like the loose hair gathered behind Jimmy’s ear before he shoots foul shots—in the hilly, green folds of his small town. Forgotten, that is, except during winter: basketball season. In those coldest months the Brick House really heats up. Pulls people from a fifty-mile radius to duck in from the rain and the fog. To scream and love their team. To stomp their feet in the detritus of past games: stale popcorn, sticky candy wrappers, and crumpled game-day programs. To GO, FIGHT, WIN. Ever since four kids from Columbia City High went on to lead University of Oregon to the NCAA championship in the 1930s—and earn the nickname the Tall Firs—this town has been all about the dribble, dribble, shoot. Basketball to Columbia City is mass to church: a weekly expression of faith.

And Jimmy Kirkus was once anointed savior.

Jimmy—look at him—it’s like he’s floating in the yellow light on the edge of the three-point arc. Outside the gym he’s a fish out of water, but here and now, kid’s in his ocean. Flashing out in sparkly jumps, splashing down ball after ball.

Something’s wrong though. His eyes are filled to the brim. His nose is runny and his throat catches on every breath.

He goes and finds the breaker box. Turns off all the lights. There are far-off clicks from within the walls. Goodnight, goodnight, they say, and the whirring of fluorescent light slows and then stops. Then darkness.

The only thing lit anymore is the EXIT sign. Shines on and on. Enough light so he can still see the names he’s written and rewritten over the years on his gray basketball. One is darker and thicker than the others. Three letters. Painful to see. He grunts and throws the ball. It sails over the bleachers but bounces off something metallic. Stubbornly, it rolls back and stops a few feet away. Won’t leave him, not yet.

Right under the hoop is thick blue padding, so Jimmy lines up to the left, where bare red brick wall starts. He kneels into sprinter’s position. Puts his fingertips on either side of the out of bounds line. It’s his runway and he’s cleared for takeoff. He explodes a few steps. Then slows, then stops. He turns around, hands on his head. Back at midcourt, every sound he makes—breath or step— echoes. It’s like someone is in the gym with him, whispering something, and he can never turn fast enough to catch him.

He drops to the floor and does ten quick push-ups. He leaps to his feet. Once again into sprinter’s position. Once again an explosion of speed for a few feet and then let up, slow down, stop.

He can’t do it. He’s crying now. Face is slick with water. The wetness catches the shiny red of the EXIT light. He’s coughing and his nose won’t stop running. He takes off his shirt. He rips it in two. Listen how he screams so the echoes of the gym rise up to join him. The cold air touching his chest helps. A little. So he takes off his shorts. Over his shoes. Just in his underwear he crouches to the gym floor. He’s shivering worse than ever but he’s breathing still. If kid’s got nothing else, he’s got determination.

Up onto fingertips.

Toes dug in.

There he goes. Away from being Jimmy Soft and toward becoming Kamikaze Kirkus. Squeak, squeak, swish, swish, away with the old and in with the new . . .

It takes him fourteen full-out strides at the fastest he can muster to get to that brick wall. He plans on meeting it with open eyes. But. Some things you can’t plan for. Sweat for one thing. Automatic reflexes for another. He closes his eyes at the last second, puts up his hands—the coward. Jimmy Soft. His head does hit the wall, but not full on. It hurts, but not enough.

There’s a weakness in him and he wants to shake it loose, bang it out. He stands back up. Dumb kid. Gonna try it again. Same spot he started from as before. Sprinter’s position. Just twelve long strides this time. Eyes open. Brick wall coming. He does it. Keeps them open the whole while. Hands down at his side, helpless to help. Amazing, his eyes stay focused on the wall as long as they do. Cracks and textures of it. From four feet, from one, from six inches.




Let there be light . . .

Hit is something he hears and doesn’t feel. Or the other way around? He can’t tell. It scrambles his senses. Makes a shape in his head bone he thinks he can smell as metallic. He feels blinking white light rain from every eave inside his head. Like when his pops spent an entire curse-soaked Sunday cleaning out the gutters of their house. Everything that had ever been blown up there came down. Then, on accident, he knocked the Christmas lights down too. They blinked on their way to the ground.

It all drops. And so does he. A knife of hurt thrusting into the front of his head so big his skull can’t hold it. Not even close. He rolls to his back and stares up into the blackness, vents some of the pain in a crying jag. There’s a security camera somewhere in the Brick House, but Jimmy thinks with the lights killed, it’s too dark to pick him up.

After three times into the brick wall, Jimmy moves slower, but he’s figured it out. There is always a moment before he hits when he can still put up his hands. If he gets past this moment then bravery has nothing to do with it. The hit is coming. He gets good at getting past this moment. His head throbs and the blood hesitates at his eyebrows before mixing with sweat and running faster to his chin. Everything is red. He can’t focus. He’s singing to him- self, a Paul Simon song of all things. He’s tuneless and spotty with the lyrics. “People say she’s crazy, got diamonds on her shoes. Lose them walking blues.” A teenaged dude singing Paul Simon? Must be something very wrong with him.

Back at midcourt he spits bloody, mucus-filled saliva onto waxed wood floor. Lines up, runs again. Slips a few steps in and slides painfully on his bare chest. Worst Indian burn you ever saw. Turns the skin see-through to the blood and muscle beneath, some of his chest hair ripped off. Hurts in the same rhythm as his heart.

He stands up and tries to blink his vision clear enough to see the brick wall. He’s only five or six steps from it. There’s something wrong with his balance though. He sways. He coughs but vomit comes up. He tries to keep it down by closing his mouth, and it erupts through his nose. Mixes with the blood of his chin and then dribbles to the floor.

Oh damn, our kid’s a mess.

He shouts up into the blackness. “With Dex Kirkus in the. Middle. Jimmy outside. The Fishermen, Fishermen are a lock for Clatsop title! And Jimmy Kirkus shoots. He shoots. He SHOOTS, he SCORES!” He’s crying harder. It’s for everything. For Dex, his mom, and even himself. “Fucking sand toads,” he murmurs, “all bitten up from sand toads.”

He decides, fuck it. Runs from there. The wall is in the ether distance. He’s determined to give it the beat down. Give it the knowledge. He runs at it, as fast as he can. A dogged trot, he’s a pub brawler gearing up for a head butt. This wall. This stupid, fucking wall. He brings his head forward at full speed. Crunches into the red stone. Forehead, poor forehead, smashes the bricks and the cut grows bigger. Big enough to swallow. Jimmy falls for the final time that night. She’s got diamonds on the soles. His brain too haywire to instruct his hands to save him. He smacks the back of his skull. Feels like frayed wires are trying to pass electricity inside his head. Explosion of sparks. Jimmy gone down.