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...