A basketball story for my dad. Happy birthday.
The black asphalt is sleek and wet from the rain last night, and small ponds of rainwater dot the uneven surface. There’s nobody else on the court, so I can get a basket to myself. I used to be pretty good at this. Today, I’m terrible. I start with a couple of slow lay-ups, and I miss both. I miss at least ten free throws before I make one. An old Jewish couple—the woman in an enormous pink hat with flowers and the man in a suit—sits on a bench just outside the park, and I’m sure they’re not only watching me but silently criticizing my shooting form, which, by the way, is pathetic. I’m using my off-hand too much to guide the ball, and there’s no spin. I’m not shooting at the basket; I’m just throwing the ball. It doesn’t help that the ball is wet and still a little flat. My ball-handling is not much better; the ball keeps getting away from me. I get winded chasing after it when I brick. Passing children and homeless people too, I’m certain, are laughing at me.
I walk by these basketball courts in my Brooklyn neighborhood daily, and although I haven’t been much interested in sports since I was a teenager, I always stop for a couple of minutes to watch whoever is playing, appreciating the ballet of the bodies in motion, the grace with which the ball is delivered from one pair of hands to another to the netless hoop. Before today, I haven’t so much as picked up a ball myself in about five years, and I haven’t played seriously since I was fifteen, more than half my life ago. I bought a ball a few months ago with the intention of shooting baskets for exercise, but today is the first day I’ve used it. It had gone half flat sitting in the closet, so I had to fill it up. Luckily, when I bought the ball, I also thought to buy an air pump.
Is there intrinsic value in rediscovering an activity in which one once excelled only to find one’s skills much diminished? Is there really any joy in just playing the game for its own sake and not because one is good at it?
I was practically born with a basketball in my hands, and for a short white kid from Alabama, I guess that’s something unusual. This was my father’s doing. He played in college. When I was three days old, he gave me a small inflatable ball and a plastic hoop that hung over the side of my crib. My father is 6’4”, and my mother is 5’2”. Naturally, I got my height from my mother’s side. By middle school, I had a bookshelf full of trophies, and I’d spent part of every summer I could remember at some basketball camp or another. By high school, it was clear that I wasn’t going to break six feet, and the growing aggression of other guys on the court was becoming annoying. I was becoming much more interested in music, books, politics, and recreational drugs—less interested in a game at which my peers were quickly starting to surpass me. They took it more seriously than I did.
Earlier today, when I approached the playground, I realized that basketball gave me the only superstition I can remember having. If I miss my last shot before I’m going to leave, I have to shoot again. I have to go out on a make. The phrase sounds a little off key grammatically to my writer’s ear, but that’s the way I’ve always said it, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t make it up. I’m not sure what would happen if I went out on a miss, but in thirty something years, I never have, and I don’t plan to go out on a miss today either.
After a while, the ball starts going in the basket a little more frequently. I try the trick shot behind my back, which I cultivated as a teenager. Not even close. I used to be able to pull that off with some regularity. It’s always an effective secret weapon against a new opponent. Usually, though, you can only do it once, so you have to get it right the first time. I try it over and over. I can’t get it right. Oh, well. At least my jump shot still works some of the time.
I can still spin the ball on my fingers, do all the fancy dribbling moves, between the legs, behind the back. I’m like a friggin’ Harlem Globetrotter. A couple of teenagers hanging on the fence make point and yell that I suck. It’s getting hotter out. There are some Rastafarians in the corner behind me smoking pungent ganja. They must be fifty feet away, and I can smell it as if I were smoking it myself. I almost feel as if I’ve been smoking it myself. The first half of my life, the half when I was a basketball player, is flashing before me in hazy spurts.
When I stopped playing in eighth grade, I was one of the top five players in my league. For most of my life, I had been one the best two. But my league in small town Alabama wasn’t that tough. Here in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see that the kids that play on these courts daily are literally fighting for their lives. In Alabama, basketball is just something people do between football seasons. Here, in inner city Brooklyn, basketball is your ticket out of the hood, a possibility of college scholarships for many and piles of cash if you are one of the lucky few who go pro.
A guy enters the gate, a black guy about my age and height, in jeans and a flannel shirt. He’s not dressed for ball, and he looks pretty stoned—he has a faraway, glassy look, like he isn’t all there—so I assume he’s going to ask me for change, which I don’t have because my gym shorts don’t have pockets. Instead, he claps his hands once in the international symbol for “pass me the ball.”
So I do.
He makes his shot, so I pass him the ball again, as basketball etiquette dictates. I notice right away that he’s a lefty like me. He makes one more, then misses. I miss my shot, and he takes the ball back. It goes on like this for a little while. Next thing I know, I have the ball, and he’s guarding me. I hadn’t planned on getting into a game, but I think I can hang with this guy. His ball-handling is mediocre. His shooting is only slightly more consistent than mine. And he’s stoned out of his mind, so he’s not going to move around too quickly. I fake right and then easily go around him on the left for a layup, which I miss.
“This is Madison Square Garden,” he says as he dribbles, fakes a shot, then dribbles again to the basket, missing a right-handed hook shot while shouting “Eddie Curry!” When I rebound and put it in, he says, “Hey, who was guarding that guy?” He keeps saying names I don’t recognize: Curry, Marbury, Crawford, James.
Suddenly I realize that he’s doing what I used to do when I was a kid, pretending to be a whole team, having a fantasy game. When he picks up the ball and then dribbles again, he’s not double-dribbling but passing to an imaginary teammate. I’m playing against the entire roster of the New York Knicks, or alternately, the Liberty, New York’s WNBA team. I haven’t followed pro basketball in years. In my day, it was Dr. J., Kareem, Magic, and Bird. Michael Jordan was just becoming known, and now he’s retired.
Gradually, I figure out that his references to the Liberty are reserved for plays that he doesn’t consider very impressive. I don’t acknowledge the misogyny, which isn’t difficult since he’s talking enough for the both of us. Also, I’m concentrating, really concentrating on the fluidity of my motions. I’m working on letting the ball roll off my fingers. I don’t even care if it goes in the basket, but it usually goes in anyway. I don’t know what time it is, and it doesn’t matter. I’m in the zone now. I even try my behind-the-back shot, and it works this time. My opponent is duly impressed.
“Oh, hell no,” he says.
So many factors are involved in a simple shot: force, spin, angle and direction. Obviously, you can’t make these calculations on the fly; you have to estimate, based largely on instinct and experience. And to do this while trying to maneuver around someone whose goal is to prevent you from successfully completing that calculation. When I think about it, it seems like a much bigger challenge than I’m typically interested in facing.
But don’t get the impression that we’re competing all that vigorously. Our defense is half-assed at best, and most of the time, we’re still just standing around watching each other. Maybe every ten minutes, one of us has a burst of energy and shows some “hustle” for a few seconds. Mainly, it’s the guy’s commentary that keeps the momentum going.
After an hour, my back and legs are starting to hurt, so I say, “I’m wiped out. I need to go.”
“A’ight,” he says as he gives me the ghetto hug and handshake that I’ve seen guys do out here but never participated in until now. “One more shot. I have to go out on a make.” I pass him the ball, and he sinks a ten-footer, scurries off contentedly, flashing me a peace sign. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with that superstition, and I didn’t make up that phrase. I go out on a make too.