I came to like football as a careful choice, unlike many of my friends for whom the sport was a natural favorite. Growing up, the sport that came to me naturally was basketball. Of course, there was wrestling from TV that I tried out with my younger sibling; that earned me a chipped tooth and sprained wrist, but basketball was the sport I played in my sleep. I bought illustrated books on basketball and stayed up late during NBA nights on TV. I watched movies like Blubber, Love and Basketball, and Like Mike endlessly. I became friends with Akin, the tall but otherwise uninteresting boy, and later Babs, the lanky Hausa boy who opened his mouth to reveal brown teeth and bad English, because of basketball.
Akin brought the first basketball to school and made those interested practice in the school hall during mid-day breaks. There was a tide of interested boys. But in three weeks, our number dwindled to five. The sport proved to be difficult, particularly avoiding traveling, the game rule violation everyone but Akin and Babs did repeatedly. Still, I stayed after school to practice throws, which I was extremely good at, especially throwing from the left side of the hoop.
“Maybe we should play with Loyola College sometime,” Akin said one day after break-time. He had a way of talking in an offhanded manner, leaving a listener to decide what was serious and what wasn’t.
I stopped coming to practice after that day. Babs cornered me to find out why I had been missing practice.
“I don’t like how I have been sweating and having to wash my uniform all the time,” I told him, stealing glances at his legs.
He had spindly legs like mine, only fairer and straighter. I didn’t want to tell him the thought of stepping into another school in shorts, my legs exposed and defenseless, was enough to give me a migraine. It was not going to happen.
I found I could play football with a pair of jogging pants if I wanted to. Then, I found I couldn’t play real matches with jogging pants, except as a goalkeeper. So, I became a goalkeeper.
When I was called up to stand in front of my secondary school assembly during my penultimate year and announced as the male senior prefect, I imagined that the eyes staring at my bony legs, sticking out underneath my blue shorts, were as the hair on my legs: legion and distinct.
The next week, I had two pairs of shorts made. The new pairs were a couple inches longer than my former knee-length pairs. Everyone called me three-quarters head boy. Standing in front of a long mirror, my legs sticking out from mid-calf to ankle did not look so thin.
During NYSC camp, I always looked forward to evenings and weekends when I could wear my long, oversized khaki pants. On weekdays, I pulled down my small shorts until they grazed the edge of decency. I sat in the middle row during boring lectures from NGOs and prospective employers and stayed away from crowded places like the mammy market, where a possibly inebriated corps member could spew remarks about my broomsticks legs.
Earlier this year, a female friend saw my lower legs because I was reclining and stretching my feet.
“You should wear shorts, Akintunde, you have really fine legs,” she remarked.
That day, I ordered for a wine-coloured pair of combats shorts in size 30, and then drove to work in it the day after it arrived, with a gray T-shirt and a pair of brown ankle boots. I strutted into every office and later in the afternoon, strolled down the busy road in front of the office, saying hello to a couple of people. I stared back at the faces whose eyes lingered on my form, their approval or disapproval notwithstanding, and smiled consciously. For some reason, I couldn’t drive the forty minutes home after work that day. I alighted from every one of the four cabs I took home at terminals, all busy places. Catching the fascinating glances and stares on passing faces, whose owners moments before were probably thinking of home, made me wonder whether if it had been in the morning, I’d not have returned home to wear the comfortable long denim pants; if in the morning, I wasn’t saved by the car I was in.
That evening, my youngest brother came home from school and threw me a mock salute when he saw my outfit. When he was leaving three days later, I gave the attire to him, packed in the plastic bag in which it had come.
Written by Akintunde