The Liturgy of Basketball
The rules are different when you play against yourself. I square my shoulders with the backboard, half-squat and spin the green and black ball towards myself, bouncing it before raising my eyes to the hoop. I try to stay light on my feet as I unfold myself, lofting a shot from the spray-painted free throw line.
Nobody is watching or will know how many times I actually repeat the ritual, counting in my head how often the basketball drops through the net. I’m here sporadically, but whenever I find myself facing the overgrown embankment sheltering the court, I keep track of how many free throws I make out of ten. As the count hits eight or nine my math becomes fuzzy if enough shots aren’t falling. Two misses in a row? The second one doesn’t count. I would initially make up excuses why, but now I create rules to redeem myself. If I drain it the next two times, that second miss never happened. If it’s still near the beginning of the count, say two out of four, I start over.
Basketball used to be a public act — I peaked in 8th grade, playing for the school and town leagues before being recruited onto a third, an Amateur Athletic Union squad that I helped place second in the state finals that year.
I practiced incessantly, proud that I was a big man who could drop a turn-around jumper or casually pull down rebounds. I exchanged my bedroom’s brass door handles for basketball-shaped knobs that remained until my parents moved. I eschewed religion, but Michael Jordan was God.
My decline at the inception of high school was rapid. Priorities shifted to music, my black Tama Rockstar drum set standing next to my MJ cardboard cutout and my trophies placed on top of a new stereo. My interests overlapped long enough that when I created a Comcast e-mail account and an initial AIM screen name, I opted for “drummer2320,” an homage to Jordan and Gary “The Glove” Payton.
I didn’t try out for the high school basketball team when I heard my classmates puked attempting to impress the coaches. I switched to ultimate frisbee, but by junior year when the captain asked me to move up to the A- team, I dropped into the recreational frisbee class instead. The only physical activity I voluntarily participated in involved marching in anti-war protests or biking to a friend’s house. I became idealistic and considered
myself better than athletes, too busy trying to shut down military recruitment centers and studying revolutionary movements to waste time on self-indulgent sports. Riding cramped trains in Boston to and from political actions and meetings, I despised the reveling Red Sox fans, knowing that if we could only convince the same number of people to protest along with us, maybe this war would be over already.
My politics remained throughout college but transitioned from incendiary anger to a more nuanced and introspective approach, and elements of my younger self slipped back. I started wearing a small, silver Jewish star around my neck, began following Boston’s sports teams and resumed eating meat. As graduation loomed, I even found friends to shoot around with occasionally.
The plan was to play in the NBA, but as I aged into a lethargic gourmand, I transferred my dreams of grandeur to writing. I will not be remembered for my finesse on a reverse lay-up — any shred of immortality must be contrived through an alternate route. I may be too dispassionate to join a recreational adult league, but I can’t stop my weekend trips to this slab of concrete that is mostly utilized to showcase sloppy graffiti and that lonely, leftfor-dead hoop. I brush twigs, leaves, broken glass and acorn bits aside and start to dribble.
I lay on the court (if you can call it that), my sweat mixing with grit until I become the mattress sagging halfway into the stream a few yards behind me. The air is so humid and heavy that sweating takes too much physical exertion. On days like this I elect to drive here, knowing I’ll be so emptied at the finish that shuffling the few blocks home will be too much to ask of myself. I pull myself up and keep going, cursing myself every time the ball ricochets off the rim and careens far to the side. I trot into the ankle-high grass, scoop up the ball and return, the temperature plunging as I move back into the shade. A few pull-up shots later, my head starts to itch as if the red ants near my sneakers march up my spine and made a down payment.
Basketball isn’t public anymore, though before the city condemned the looming apartment building across the street I performed my liturgy for tired porch dwellers. Sometimes I opt for a different net, wedged between a cemetery and a running trail where the same stream thickens. Here my only coach, a stranger biking past, says “Well done” as I sink a high, half court arch on the compact cement. Here it’s harder to score —double rims bounce more — but the sound of the metal net clinking is enough encouragement to press on. Here the path provides a fleeting audience, until a white car pulls up at 3 p.m. A drunk 46-year old stumbles out of the passenger side, two beers in hand, and challenges me to play as the car rumbles away.
When you play basketball against a stranger 20 years your senior the rules are different, especially if he’s slurring his words. The ball rolling towards the tallboys he stashed indicates a timeout and is a sign to keep drinking. Conversation is intermittent and he doesn’t make a shot for the first half hour. As much as I’ve convinced myself that I prefer to play alone, standing in the same spot and reciting my only true tradition, our non-competitive exchange reminds me of the sport’s camaraderie. I miss it. !