I’m parked in a folding chair in a dollhouse of a YWCA gym, sitting on the sideline, wearing my official NBA-logo socks. Voices rise and fall, sneakers squeak, a ball pounds the vintage hardwood floor—the familiar sounds mingle in the stuffy humid air with the smells of floor wax and ammonia and the rising stink of men past their athletic primes spilling vainglorious effort into headbands and knee wraps and reversible jerseys, a vital piece of equipment necessary to the orderly commerce of the Regular Game. Nobody wants a sweaty man boob in his face.
Out on the court, the action proceeds, five-on-five with a couple of subs, the usual Monday night suspects, a game that has been convened here for almost a decade.
A big guy with twinkletoes anchors the paint. You can tell he’s been working on his drop step; the hook is pretty eccentric. A white guy in orthopedic knee-high stockings makes a lot of shots—all of which have zero arc and barely clear the rim. There’s a dark, handsome guy; someone mentions later he’s a male model. He has a sweet release with perfect backspin, but his knees are wrapped like a mummy’s; running up and down the court, his Ultra Brite smile winks on and off like a neon sign, switching between pleasure and pain.
An Asian guy with a red mouthpiece chucks three-pointers. A mixed-race guy in low-tops works his handles, ping-ponging around the floor, dishing unselfishly to less mobile teammates. A skinny guy with jet-black hair plays point guard. He keeps stealing the ball for breakaway layups. Nobody tries to catch him.
I’m here because I’m visiting a friend. His name is Peter. He’s my age, 57—probably the oldest guy on the court. This is his regular game, one of two he attends religiously every week. Peter stands about six-foot-one and had some hops in his day, one of those lanky wing players—a Jewish kid from New York who still takes his game seriously. Right now he’s guarding Twinkletoes in the post. Peter’s irregular nimbus of longish white hair is flying every which way. His face is a mask of indignant determination; two plays ago he caught an elbow in the mouth. He’s already made a couple of blocks and a bunch of rebounds; a little later he’ll pull a nice up-fake for a put-back in heavy traffic and then hit a three. On his shin he’s sporting a pair of Band-Aids. Last Monday night a ball was headed out of bounds. It had to be saved because… he doesn’t remember why it had to be saved. Or what the score was. Or who was on his team. Or even what happened on the play, other than the fact that he barked his shin on a cabinet and shins tend to bleed profusely.
The ball was going out of bounds, for Chrissake. When you’re a player, you play.
Even when the little things become problematic.
Like lateral movement, stopping and starting, bending your knees, running up and down the court…
Growing up, sports were my life. I was that boy who always had a ball in his hand. The glory of a perfect head fake was never more than a bike ride away. Absent others, I could amuse myself for hours at a time shooting baskets, practicing bicycle kicks or playing catch against a wall with my lacrosse stick. During the winter, my pal Boots Friedman and I would spend entire days playing one-on-one in my basement with a tennis ball and a piece of metal strapping we formed into a basket and screwed into the cinderblock wall.
As it happened, all that practicing paid off. Despite a 2.8 GPA in high school, I was invited to attend Emory University and to try out for the soccer team. I made varsity as a freshman, sat mostly on the bench for a year and then quit to pursue a more well-rounded agenda, which included a career as a writer.
But I continued to play sports; it couldn’t be any other way. Intramurals were my first taste of the spirit behind the Regular Game, where people make a special effort to come together for the love of playing and also for the personal glory, that sense of self you get from completing a perfect no-look assist, catching a high pass on the sidelines and keeping both feet in bounds, smacking a walk-off homer in a company softball game—those great little moments for the personal highlight reel.
Twenty or 30 years from now, nobody will remember.
In the Regular Game, you’re always LeBron.
Peter takes a pass under the basket, gathers himself, fakes a shot on Twinkletoes and throws it back out to Knee-High Stockings on the perimeter. As it happens, I’ve been guesting at Peter’s regular games since we were both in our 20s; my favorite was the Tuesday night game in the tiny gymnasium at PS 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on 81st Street between Park and Madison. After playing, we’d always hit a diner, four to a booth. In high school and college, if you’re lucky, you make good friends and learn to appreciate the value of male company. Forever afterward, as life changes and contracts and becomes more work- and family-oriented, you feel the loss. On these nights of the regular game, I once again had fraternity—a primal need a man never outgrows.
Back then, a number of decades ago at Peter’s regular game, I was the guy on the perimeter, on the receiving end of one of Peter’s passes, thrown now as then with a good dose of hot sauce, the mark of a real player. I remember one night in particular. I was new to the mix. I’d spent the whole night passing. Now the game was on the line, and I had the ball. I feigned the shot (my trademark head fake), shook the defender, drove for the basket… and surprised everyone with a perfect running hook shot that floated above the outstretched fingers of the big guy in the middle. It wasn’t a conventional choice of shot—more of an old-school move, something I learned from my father in the driveway, perfected during my long hours of one-on-none. I can still remember my teammates’ hoots of ironic appreciation—a fucking running hook! Game over.
On this night, Knee-High Stockings is too eager to shoot. He forgets to catch first; the ball slips through his fingertips and bounces out of bounds, right to me, sitting on a folding chair, watching the action in my NBA-logo socks.
For a moment, I’m that boy again.
Standing on the sidelines at the high school court watching the big guys bang, wanting so dearly to touch the ball, to be asked to play.
But instead, I’m this older guy with a bunch of injuries, most of which are related to sports. About a year ago, a neurosurgeon told me, “You’re one face-plant away from paralysis.” I’m sure he was being glib. You know how some of these surgeons are. Look at me. I’m upright. So what if I can’t turn my head very well, much less head fake. I have my reel of personal highlights to remember. And nearly every day I walk four miles in the steep hills around my house. Or sometimes I walk the boardwalk. There are lots of college girls around here who like to run in the afternoon.
I just have to make sure I don’t get distracted and trip.