Playing the game connects us all.
I waited patiently for the Lord,
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me right out of the pit,
Out of my miry clay.
–Paul Hewson, “40” (1983)
The confluence of two otherwise isolated events brought an unexpected whisper of joy into my life last week.
The first came as no surprise: my 40th birthday.
Yeah, you read that right. Age 40, as far as I can tell by a look around the clubhouse here, is at least 75 in SLAM years. So you’re forgiven if you think 40 might place me well past the expiration date for SLAM writers. But for an aged Godzilla in this whip-smart Rodan world, I’m doing OK.
But enough of the codger talk. The real miracle of last week wasn’t me breaking the tape on 40, it was the belch of warm air that overtook Chicago. The result wasn’t only my first birthday spent outdoors since my Texas days two decades ago, but a call to action.
It was time to hit the court.
Now, my blacktop hoops gear may still have been packed away for the long winter, but it was easy to crack back out quickly. With Chuck T’s laced and beloved red-white-and-blue ball reinflated, I hit the damp but clean pavement.
The mercury made a miracle run past 70 degrees, and outside, on a local court for yet another run through my favorite and most familiar drills, shooting jumpers in shorts through a gusty wind that might make a native Californian or Floridian wonder if this was even outdoors weather, much less jump-shooting weather, it struck me, as it does time and time again: Basketball is a sport of beauty.
I’m not even talking about the beauty of a soaring LeBron James or a twisting Chris Paul. I’m referring to the simple motions of the game, and the ability all of us have to play it, every day of our lives.
Basketball can be played by anyone, at any time, from full five-on-five at crowded courts that make the Rucker look sedate all the way down to one-on-none, shooting off the dribble, starring you, a ball, and the court.
Alone, your own thoughts waltz along with the muscle memory that keeps you sharp and competitive between the baselines. That’s the way I played last week, on my birthday. My game, as is anyone’s who lives south of six feet, is strong on fundamentals, short on flash. It’s footwork on defense, knowing when to bounce a pass, being willing to use the glass—and, in my case, an inexplicable baby hook shot that looks as funny as it reads coming from a 5-9 guard. I may still have quick hands, but most of the time, my breaks and cuts on asphalt must look like I’m rollerskating on a waterbed.
You know those black-and-white photos of canvas-shoed players from the ’50s who seem to be taking every shot like a layup even if they’re 20 feet from the basket, frozen forever in a semi-Heisman Trophy pose? I’ve unintentionally brought that form into the 21st Century. I haven’t played above the rim since the late ’70s, when heavy storms piled snow six feet high at the end of our driveway and a snowsuited slam dunk was only a climb to the top of that mountain away.
When I’m on the court alone, I start my shooting close to the basket, darting across the lower arc of the lane to swish short Larry Kenon specials as I first learned them, as a young Chicago Bulls fan born too late to witness prime K. I pause every so often to catch my breath with some free throws—Rick Barry’s got nothing on me, I was a charity-stripe champ myself—and gradually extend my shots out to the college three. On a really good day, I’ll extend out to the NBA arc for some truly hilarious hurls, and if the barometric pressure is just right, I’m silk.
Last week, with the wind whipping my ears and every one of my misses clearly due to surprise gusts and pressure fluctuations, the little things were most striking: The soft, dull thud of the ball brushing the backboard; the gentle rip-snap of the cord when a jumper swished through; the fluttering, almost magical rotation of the ball released from fingertips; even the clang of the rock crashing into chain-link fence after a misbegotten long trey.
As readers of SLAM, we’re all players. Even if age has forced you from the floor as an active participant, or injury has kept you away but on the comeback trail, by virtue of cruising this space with regularity, you’re a player. And as players, we all have our rituals, be they superstitions, drills, or favorite shot spots on the floor. As in any game as majestic as basketball, the beauty is found in those tiny details and personal memories.
When I leave the court, I have a ritual, handed down from my dad, a Biddy basketball champ straight outta Highwood, Ill., whose cagey small-fry game could probably still fool me today. Pops taught me never to finish playing without making my last shot. I take that to a more advanced level when I play alone by staying on the court, even tired and sweaty, until I nail a long jumper, a free throw, and a layup, all in a row. And though it sounds easy, well, you’ve got enough of a scouting report on my game to know the wait can be tedious before all three shots are sunk straight.
Last week I repeated the ritual, and finished up my early hello to the outdoor season with a fourth shot, a K special. For old times’ sake.