It was like any Saturday. Same pickup game. Same schoolyard. Same scatter of keys and towels along the cyclone fence. Same guys, give or take — Matt, Bill, Barry, Stephen, and the two Alans.
Barry had the ball and was double-teamed against the baseline. I was wide open at the top of the key. Barry passed the ball. The next part was going to be a piece of cake. I was on my spot. I’d been hot all day. We were going to win the game. I reached down for the ball.
Everything went into slow motion at that point. The ball slowly, slowly roooolllling by me, inches from my Air Jordans, while my back seized up in such a mangle they were going to need the “jaws of life” to get me upright. As I watched the ball roll away untouched until it was off the court, I couldn’t help but feel that it was taking my playing days with it.
Already I can’t jump. It feels like I’m jumping — an upward thrust of my torso and arms, my hammies firing like two of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets — but these days, on these 67-year-old bones, when my feet leave the ground it means I’m lying down for a nap.
Running? Likewise, more self-delusion: thinking my legs are churning like Usain Bolt’s, when in reality I couldn’t make the track team at Zombie High.
And now add bending over to the list of things I can’t do on a basketball court. They say your body will tell you when to quit; mine was screaming itself hoarse. And its message was: The Saturday pickup game is over.
After all, what’s the point of lacing up sneakers, slinging a towel over your shoulder, hugging a basketball against your hip, and heading out the door if you can’t move?
Spring never comes fast enough when you’re a kid. Your house might as well be a cellblock in Sing Sing while you wait for the sun to show up and set you loose. And when the first bright days of March begin to melt away the snow and ice, I’m out the door first chance I get, heading to the schoolyard in the back of the DeSoto, tagging along with my father and older brother Jon, who has brought his basketball.
My dad, as he invariably puts it, is “working up a good sweat” in his weekly handball game. Two-a-side, the men swat at a small black ball, hard as stone, which ricochets off the cement wall sounding like a gunshot. Whenever I see my dad walk off the court in his soaked shirt, it seems to me that there couldn’t be a better feeling in the world than to “work up a good sweat.”
I have waited all winter — all my life, really — for this day: the day when I try to make a basket for the first time. Until now I’ve been too little to reach the rim with the ball, not strong enough to show I can play the games grown men play.
My mother has not helped me meet this challenge, insisting I wear what she calls my “lumber jacket.” So many things about this garment conspire against me. For one thing, I’m not in the lumber business — I’m not even 10. But even more confounding as I face this rite of spring, the jacket is so stiff I can hardly crook the sleeves close enough to wipe my runny nose on the elastic cuffs.
While Jon waits to rotate into the handball game, he shoots baskets and avoids the dark puddles that remain on the ground, spotting the cement.
“Can I shoot?” I ask my brother.
Lately, he’s been talking about getting his learner’s permit and driving, another thing he can do that I can’t. I study Jon’s face, seeking encouragement, but he gives nothing away; instead, he fakes a chest pass, both arms snapping out but not letting go, a move which always makes me flinch. Then he compliantly flips me the ball and goes into coach mode. He stations me a little more than mid-way in from the foul line. I squint up into the deep blue vaults of the empyrean. The rusty red ring of the rim is up there. The fresh spring breeze gusting from the budding woods nearby licks my ear. I cradle the basketball in my hands.
“Remember, bend your legs,” Jon says.
Underhand, I launch the ball up as high as I can. I summon everything I have; David gave no more of himself when he let fly at Goliath.
The ball doesn’t reach the rim.
Jon retrieves it. “Try again, bend your back more,” he tells me.
So I try again — “whooof” — grunting with the effort, but as before, the ball doesn’t reach the rim. It barely grazes the looped chain net below, which faintly jingles, sounding like pocket change.
“I’m taking off my jacket.”
“Mom told you not to.”
“I don’t care.”
I take position with renewed confidence after freeing myself of not just my lumber jacket, but potentially all else holding me back in the world. Under my brother’s watchful eye, I heave the ball up at the basket with all my might — “nnnnhhhh.” But no. I try throwing the ball overhand, but it caroms off the support pole and glances off my head.
It kills me to see disappointment crouching in my brother’s eyes. If you ask me, he is a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in any sport, and I want to be one too. But with each of my futile efforts it becomes apparent that he has better things to do. Like play handball with my father.
“Maybe next year,” he says over his shoulder as he joins the men’s game. I feel like I’ve been sentenced to the gallows.
The basketball is slippery and waterlogged from bouncing in the puddles. My fingertips have pruned. My hands are blocks of ice. No matter — I’m determined to prove my brother wrong. Over and over, I keep at it. I will not stop trying, not ever, even if it takes my whole lifetime. But it is impossible for me to reach the basket. Blinking back tears of rage, I kick the ball as hard as I can against the cyclone fence, making it ring. My father hears the sound, looks up and sharply glances my way, but only for an instant. Then he goes back to his game. He is drenched in sweat.
Six decades later, I am, too — bent over, gasping for air, watching the dripping beads speckle the blacktop. This is the joy of my Saturday schoolyard game. You can call it a dopamine rush, but I like Pavlov’s term, “muscular gladness.”
I’ve been in this game 20 years. Once you commit to a weekly game, it becomes what you set your watch to. The rest of life is just what goes on in between or threatens to interrupt the Saturday ritual. I have blown off Staples tickets, Dodger games, Philharmonic concerts, lectures, garden parties, screenings, a wedding, a graduation ceremony, and too much else to enumerate; incidentally insulting countless people, because I have a previous, standing appointment with something more important — a basketball.
This game tipped off during the Nixon administration. In the 44 years since, it has migrated from Hollywood to Santa Monica, with a couple stops in between. The game has included many different players over the decades, including a few well-known names; but the most consequential, the one constant, is Matt. He has played since the beginning. He’s the guy who stays in email touch. He makes the go no-go decisions if the weather’s dicey, say, and we trust him to divvy us up in equal sides.
Guys get hurt. They take a week or two or more off to heal up. Then they make it back. Or don’t. Chuck used to play until his knees gave out. Larry used to play until his back collapsed. So-and-so is recuperating from chemo. And I have my own issues — the usual dings, sprains, separated shoulder, broken finger — but have healed and kept playing, even though, as of late, it takes half the ensuing week to get over what hurts. Pretty soon Saturday rolls around, however, and I suit up and stretch, groaning with pain. I grab my dirty old Spalding ball with my fading initials on it, a water bottle, a white cotton hand towel that reads “Strahan 92 Once a Giant Always a Giant,” and head to the courts at Will Rogers elementary school.
A large photo-realistic pastel of an empty basketball court hangs over my fireplace. A gray sky dominates the scene. The court occupies the lower left quadrant, and is angled so we see the blank square back of the nearer backboard. Beyond the farther hoop, the surrounding grass recedes, fading to a margin of modest houses, not much more than dim shapes and trees towering above them in the mist. The viewer’s perspective — eye-level and maybe 30 feet away — plants me precisely at the tipping moment: pushed and pulled between playing and finding reasons not to.
It could be any court or schoolyard.
I feel that I can walk into this painting and play, and not give a shit if it’s getting dark. Which is the way we always played. I want to get a good game and work up a good sweat, and not let life pass me by.
My father and brother brought me to such schoolyards so I could learn to contend with men. The ballgames were fitting-out exercises for the wider world, an education in how to carry yourself.
And the schoolyard was where, decades later, I was first jolted by my father’s mortality. I can’t remember why I was visiting home, but with time on my hands I decided to shoot baskets, and my 70-something father came with me. I was shooting around, just loosening up. He said he wanted to take a few shots.
Although his favorite sport was handball, my father grew up playing basketball. I imagine he played in dingy basement gyms with low ceilings, where 9-6 was the typical final score. He took his “outside shot” with both hands, arms extended over his head, kind of like a soccer throw-in. It was an antique style. It was risible, but I’d seen my dad regularly can them from out there.
No longer. That day he shot and couldn’t reach the basket.
“What the hell? Gimme that again.”
I bounced him the ball.
He shot. Again from high over his head, two-handed. It didn’t make the rim.
“Holy hat,” he said. “Will you get a load of that? Hold it a second.”
He took the cigar out of his mouth and put it down on the cement. Then he took off his raincoat. He returned to the court and advanced a step closer to the hoop for another try. I passed him the ball. He shot and fell short. Shot again and couldn’t reach the rim.
‘Well I’ll be —!” He looked mortified. “I don’t believe it. Did you ever hear of such a thing?”
Old age had spit in my father’s face. The moment seemed to call for something from me that would lighten the mood, or at least break the silence. But I was at a loss for words. My wonder at watching him fail to reach the rim eerily mirrored my amazement decades earlier when, on this court, I’d made my first basket.
I think of all those things when I look at that painting over my mantel. Maybe it has to do with a dreaminess inherent in pastels, but when I look at that empty court, it always poses a question: “In or out?”
It would be nice to say that I pattern my game after someone, but I don’t have enough game to do that.
All there is to note about my game is that I’m left-handed.
I have one go-to scoring move, but it doesn’t work. And I’m not sure that a “move” that never actually works can even qualify as a “move.” Moves should have a statute of limitations. Suffice it to say, after you’ve tried a drop-step for 15 years against the same five people, the only person it trips up is me.
That’s the book on me.
There’s no confetti in my game. No championships won; no headlines. Not so much as a line of agate. Not a single “greatest moment.”
I’m not one of those players you’re going to see behind a microphone at a jam-packed press conference, tearfully announcing his retirement, millions of throats catching when he tells us it’s “time to shut it down.”
Such athletes lend their names to eras in the cultural calendar. The Tom Brady era. The Magic Johnson era. When they speak of “shutting it down” it has a sniff of grandiosity. We concede them the phraseology partly due to our admiration, if not awe. There’s so much raw will and fire inside someone like Roger Clemens, he might as well be a nuclear reactor that has powered a large city but whose fuel rods are spent and now must be “shut down.” Generating plants, institutions, dams, vast government bureaucracies, electric grids — big things like these are what we “shut down.” Things so big they seem to take on a life of their own.
I was never a force on the court. I never won anything.
Say simply that I made my first basket on a chilly spring day outdoors on a cement court at Waverly Park elementary school in East Rockaway, Long Island, and am still playing six decades later (although my shooting percentage is hardly better).
I’m a “decent” player. I accept this rating proudly because it was bestowed by one of the most tenacious players among the thousands I’ve played with — Bob Kaufmann, a forward against whom I scrimmaged on the JV team in high school 50 years ago. He went on to play varsity. We crossed paths decades later, men of 60, an age when reminiscing tends to include taking stock of things. I asked him what kind of basketball player he thought I was at 16. I wanted to have it straight and I knew he’d be honest.
The basketball hasn’t always gone wherever I’ve been, but it has always found me and bounced into my life after not very long. Boston, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Philly, Colorado, San Diego, Seattle, Baltimore, Vermont, and beyond.
Maybe it will be in the middle of a crowded city, on a scorcher, when all other life has seemingly vanished, and the bouncing ball is a lone and heartening pulse beat against the drone of the air conditioners.
Or maybe it will be somewhere out in the country. A few Labor Days ago, at Squam Lake in New Hampshire for a wedding, I was walking back from a hike with my wife and daughter and passed a basketball court. A few guys in the wedding party were shooting around. They were in their 20s, and all showroom quality specimens of fully-packed and loaded American male. I asked if they wanted to have a pickup game.
It didn’t matter that the court was bumpy or full of fallen leaves or that the basket was canted crazily and way over the regulation 10 feet off the ground. What mattered was getting a pickup game together. That moment, when everyone consents to a bigger, common purpose, is good for the soul. It may be the only sign you’ve had in weeks or months that not every single person on the planet is a fucking idiot. Doesn’t everyone realize that you need a critical mass, at least two-on-two, to make the game come alive with passing, cutting, feinting, setting screens, boxing out? Now you start to have flow, “ball movement.”
Which means people start crashing into each other. Fighting through picks or going for rebounds. Let’s just say decorum is easily breached, particularly when strangers face off. I got into a game in Manhattan’s Riverside Park once, hit three straight shots, and when going up for a fourth, took a malicious elbow in my solar plexus. A few minutes later, after I’d caught my breath, I was low-bridged going for a rebound and landed on my back on the cement.
I’ve gotten away easy over my basketball life. Torn meniscus, dislocated and broken fingers, a broken nose, multiple facial gashes, a separated shoulder, bruised ribs, torn hamstring, sprained ankles, an impinged tendon in my arm, many black eyes, and many more busted pairs of eyeglasses. It’s never held me out of the game for long. So far, at least.
Snippets from games whirl in my mind, a blur of shapes and colors, clothes tumbling in a dryer. A basket I made in my elementary school gym and my utter astonishment to see it go in. Racing down court in middle school, leaping to defend a fast-break layup, my hand smacking the backboard; and I can look at my open palm today and feel it sting again, proof to my clouding memory that once I could jump that high.
And, of course, the pickup games with my brother Jon at the West Side YMCA on 62nd Street off Central Park. He was already a successful Manhattan attorney by then. I’d graduated college and was finding a path; on my back a knapsack full of words.
I played against Jon for what might be the final time a few years ago in my regular Saturday game in Santa Monica, where I’ve lived for 34 years since I began writing for TV. He was visiting. I was in what might be very loosely and charitably termed “game shape,” and as far as I knew Jon hadn’t played in 20 years. He was getting the senior discount by that point, and I told him to take it easy for fear he’d hurt himself. I, of course, intended to go all out, pumped by the prospect of evening the score after all these years.
Matt put us on opposing teams. I wound up guarding Jon. A couple minutes in, he rolled his ankle, stumbling over another player’s foot. He went down and it was minutes before he could stand and put his weight on it. He tried to walk it off. He was limping terribly. But he insisted he’d play, huffing and gimpy.
The game went to sudden death. Jon had the ball at the top of the key and I was all over him. Fuck my brother’s injury — I was determined to beat him. Knowing Jon’s bag of tricks, hard-learned lessons over a half-century of dismal losses, I overplayed him so he couldn’t dart right for one of his lethal bank shots. I forced him to drive left and to push off his bum ankle; and yet, as if to prove that some things never change, Jon banked in a ridiculous runner to beat me.
One thing changed, though. I didn’t kick the ball against the chain link fence this time. I laughed.
The mist shrouding the basketball court on my mantel has turned into a gray-white fuzzy blur on a picture of a different kind — an X-ray. Dr. Michael Gerhardt is studying it closely. He is middle-aged, experienced, attentive, to-the-point yet thoughtful. He wears a white doctor’s coat.
Dr. Gerhardt is part of the team at the Santa Monica Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Group. It treats the U.S Men’s and Women’s National Teams in soccer. It ministers to the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS as well as athletes in the Pac-12.
I can’t stand up straight. My spine has become italicized. Fetching a bag of groceries from the car or shouldering my guitar for a weekly class at McCabe’s or cutting my toenails are all acts of reckless abandon liable to land me on the end of a morphine drip in the ICU. Clearly, I need to address this. I want to be a boon companion to my wife and friends and daughter. I want to walk with a grandchild through a zoo or a museum or a park to fly a kite, or maybe stroll the beach collecting shells. I want to take them down to the schoolyard. I want all of that, don’t I?
Except it boils down to one thing:
“Can I keep playing basketball, doc?”
Dr. Gerhardt directs my attention to the white Milky Way swirling around my skeleton. He tells me there’s a lot of stenosis. He says I have degenerative disc disease. And the white fog is arthritis. He says I don’t have a “happy” back.
And that’s not even why I’m here. Gerhardt is a hips guy. He points out on the X-rays where the top of my femur looks like ground meal, mashed in a mortar and pestle.
“I see vascular necrosis here,” Dr. Gerhardt says.
I’ve known about this for years. Both hips are for shit. I was told all exercise should be low-impact. I’ve been good. Well, not on Saturdays.
When Gerhardt says the words “hip replacement” I shouldn’t be surprised. I can see it on the film at last, although it’s been staring me in the face for years. And if I didn’t feel the sharp inhibiting stabs of pain that leave me in a cold sweat and seeing spots and unable to turn over in bed, I wouldn’t be here on this table in this small darkened examining room. Nevertheless, for long dilating seconds there’s a power outage in my brain, as if I’d been told something that could not possibly be.
I hear Dr. Gerhardt talking about MRI results and “options.” I hear him say it’s possible to play basketball with a hip replacement. Yeah, right. Then he’s gone, leaving me to face the end of the line.
My way out passes one busy waiting room bay after another. Specialty by specialty. Shoulders. Back. Hips. Knees and legs. Hand, wrist, and elbow. Ankles and feet. Golf. Cycling. Soccer. Tennis. This is where big-time athletes from every sport are returned to their pursuits of glory. Their signed, framed jerseys adorn the walls as I head for the elevator. They are superstars, like those I’ve seen at press conferences saying it was “time to shut it down.”
No such press conferences for me, obviously. No microphone or camera to weep into. It’s not even worth a Facebook post. It’s meaningless.
But before I head to the parking lot outside the clinic, I’d like to ask that 37-year-old millionaire superstar, the one who stands at a bank of microphones — after he’s consulted with his trainer, his coaches and manager, his agent, his physios; his corporate sponsors, brand managers, and family — and informs the world, with quavering voice, that it is “time to shut it down.” I ask you: Have you played more games than me? Have you put in more time? Are you leaving more of your heart behind as you go than I am? You’ve played for a career. But I’ve played for a lifetime. So weep for me, motherfucker. Weep for what’s being taken from me, vanishing into the mist on that film in Dr. Gerhardt’s examining room.
I left the doctor’s office shaking my fist at the world. I sat down with a drink and glowered at the painting of that empty court on my wall and couldn’t fathom how I would ever tolerate not being able to go down to the schoolyard if I got a bionic hip or two. No matter the doctor’s rosy claims.
I can’t fully accept that I’m falling apart. When the ball stops bouncing I’ll flat line.
To go forward, I realized over the ensuing days, I needed to look at that painting in a new way — not as some beckoning call, but as a memorialization of a great passion. I had to “see” an abandoned court at dusk, when day’s end means it’s time to leave. But could I leave regret behind with it?
When I first glimpsed the pastel through those eyes, I suddenly recalled when my father stopped going down to the schoolyard. It was a weekend morning a few years after I’d graduated from college. I was living in Manhattan, and if I needed a car I’d procure one from my parents on Long Island.
My father was sitting in our den at the end of a sofa next to a table with a lamp. He used to read there, a heap of books from the public library beside him. And he could watch TV from there. That was his spot. When I think of my father, dead now 20-plus years, I think of him sitting in that spot. The only time he wasn’t to be seen in his spot was when he was down at the schoolyard.
There he was, though, exactly where he never had been at this time of day, occupied with his nail file. He was constantly paring under his nails, working his cuticles in a way I never see men doing now.
I asked why he wasn’t playing.
“I can’t get a game anymore,” he said. “Not enough guys. I was playing lousy anyway. I couldn’t get to balls . . . easy kill shots, ones I used to put away easy as pie . . . ”
He shrugged. I scanned his face, trying to find some sign that this was the death I imagined it must be.
“Can’t work up a good sweat anymore, Dad?”
“Nah. I’ll play some golf,” he said.
He’d played his whole life, but there was no longer a game. Most memorably, there was no anguish. It was as simple as that.
Recalling that as I tried reconciling myself to a similar fate, I imported my father’s attitude. And I could almost hear him, as if he was a ghost from the abandoned schoolyard, offering solace through the painting, saying:
You go from court to court, from pickup game to pickup game, as you go through this life. And sometimes you hit a patch where you just can’t get a good game. That’s what this is. That’s all it is.
The ball clangs off the iron and kicks out long, heading out of bounds on the other side of the court. I had been following up on this, the latest in my flawless string of lousy shots, so I have a little momentum going in the general direction of the rebound.
What the hell, I figure, so I take off. And by “take off” I mean about half as fast as a golf cart going up a cliff.
It’s another Saturday afternoon. The same scatter of keys and towels along the base of the fence. We’re playing two-on-two. Ten points wins, which makes the games shorter. Today we’ve got five, so the odd man gets in more often.
It’s how we cope when six guys don’t show. Three-on-three is optimal. Two-on-two is doable. Fewer than that is like shrinking the game to its cube root.
We’ve been stretched thin of late. And on some recent Saturdays there have only been three of us. We’ve had to resort to a few rounds of 21. In other words, this game, which began in 1973, is on the endangered species list.
Maybe we all are, but that makes it no easier to tell the other guys that I might be sidelined for, well, maybe forever. My absence cuts down on the margin for error, especially since Bill’s announcement last week that he’d be spending the summer out of town. How can I turn my back on Matt, Barry, the two Alans, and Stephen? It makes me feel like a traitor.
Maybe that spurs me to chase down the rebound before it goes out of bounds. Most likely, it’s the painting on my wall, reminding me to enjoy a good game while I have one. I’ve been pushing myself a little harder the last few Saturdays.
I save the ball and turn toward the basket. Barry has planted himself at the foul line, ready to be a pivot point for me to wheel around. That is, if I can wheel. I’m supremely exhausted after my audacious, balls-out, lung-busting 12-foot dash to save the ball. I pass it to Barry and speed-hobble to that spot on the left wing.
Barry leads me perfectly with a bounce-pass, and this is when a long-dormant voice awakens and takes to the internal airwaves. It’s that breathless, fanciful announcer’s voice inside every little boy’s head. Taking the pass in stride, I opt to go right up for a satin-smooth catch-and-shoot — rather than come to a full stop and take my time. It’s harder this way, when sweat is stinging your eyes and it’s make-or-break. The interior play announcer’s voice from my youth isn’t counting down the time clock, “5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . ” or, “This one’s for the title,” like so many times at so many schoolyards and at so many courts and through every decade of my life. Now, as I go up with the ball and sight the rim, the announcer’s voice in my head says, “This could be the last basket he ever makes.”