Friday, July 24, 2009

The Playground

I’ve played pickup basketball with regularity since I was about 20 years old. An athlete for life in other disciplines, I started hoop late, and paid for it. For years my skills lagged behind my physical abilities, and I paid my dues on macadam and hardwood across the country, wherever I lived, coming up to speed on how the game is played. Not just the dribbling, shooting and passing, but the way the parts moved in harmony, how 10 people worked together to create this flowing game.

Pickup is universal. Anywhere in the country, the world, anyplace where they have a ball and two hoops, the rules are the same, with only minor variations. With no refs, subjective calls and guys banging into each other all over the court, it shouldn’t work, it can’t possibly hold together, but it does. The string of the game binds the flying parts, and all 10 players subject themselves to the whole.

The rules are always similar, but never the same. The play is to 7, or 9, or 10, or 11, or 21, and by twos, or ones, or twos and threes. Different levels of contact are allowed, but always within certain bounds. You call your own fouls. Sometimes charges and blocks are called, sometimes that’s taboo. But it’s always basketball. And there’s always one element that never changes, that’s present everywhere, and cannot be escaped.

The playground.

There’s a reason it’s called the playground. All those rules of elementary school still apply here. It’s survival of the fittest, strongest, fastest. You are only as good as what you can produce today. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, the color of your skin, your size, your pedigree – all that matters is whether you can ball. It’s the ultimate meritocracy. You might have to deal with some hazing on a new court, to prove yourself, to take the heckling and the fouls, but eventually, you’ll be accepted for your ability to ball. Walk inside those lines, and leave everything else behind. It’s just you.

You and your fear.

Make no mistake. No sport is more mental than basketball. The difference in a shot going in or out , of an attacking dribble working or not, of getting a board, is all about the space between the ears. You are intimidated, either overtly or subtly, every step of the game. You are tested and berated, found to measure up or found wanting, on every possession. You are force fed an immediate gauge of your value and worth. It changes court to court, game to game. King of the court, team goat, you. All the phases, all the time.

All those childhood emotions of the playground still live here. The fear, intimidation, elation, gloating, teasing, pain, and joy, now presented for adults. All those emotions we run through everyday but never describe, and often don’t even acknowledge. They are laid bare before your feet on the pickup court. There’s a reason ballers call it the playground. Welcome to all the worst of your childhood fears.

I’ve played pickup for 20 years. I’ve just turned 40, and though I’ve always been fast, the college kids can now outquick me at times. The can certainly outjump me. My body aches when I play, but it aches more the next day. It takes me half a game just to get warm. I won’t be able to play this game forever. I’m trying to hold on long enough to play pickup with my son, who’s 7. We play all the time in the driveway. He already understands the rules. Not the rules to the game, but the rules to the playground. It’s inate, in all of us, waiting to prey on our minds. Waiting to test us.

As for me? My body is getting weaker. I’m the star of the court less and less. I’ll keep coming back to the playground, however, as long as I can, because it’s given me a gift, one of the most precious I could ever ask for.

The 20 years of constant measurement, the yardsticks, the fronting, the staredowns all have had an effect, slowly working like water on stone. The tempering that comes from that has changed me. The playground no longer owns me. All those childhood fears? For almost every adult out there, they live on, and crop up just below consciousness in our professions, our relationships, our day to day lives. For me, they’re gone. Beaten, burned and burnished out of my mind over 20 years of the playground, of facing the never ending challenges of the court, and having to learn how to survive there.

Play pickup long enough, and the ball will change you. That sliver of doubt that pulls you down, that fear in the back of your mind in the face of a difficult moment, it’ll just be gone. And you’ll stand there in that moment, in the face of your job, or your relationships, or the world, and you’ll find the moment won’t own you. You won’t be worried about winning or losing, or looking foolish, or failing – you won’t be worried at all. The moment will try to stare you down. And, in that instant, instead of wilting, you’ll find yourself starting right back at it, and answering.

“Let’s Ball.”


Blogger palefire said...

I love the spirit of this. The immersion. I am not sure I agree with the idea that the fortitude gained on the playground translates so well into real life. If it did, may of the heroes on street ball would be heroic in life, and it doesn't seem that they are.

That said, I think this raises many excellent points and gets at a major truth which is difficult to capture--the way that street-ball permeates your life. To call it a hobby or an enthusiasm is an insult to the experience (even if technically that is what it is).

The notion of playing ball till they take if from your cold dead hand is also one I can relate to.

Plimpton once said "the smaller the ball" the better the writing.

This piece is a rebuttal.

My two cents:

1:10 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I'm 52 and my left knee is killing me as I type but that's OK. My small victory last night - the (very decent) guy guarding me said after I hit three shots in a row, "somebody else stick him, he's unstoppable". The most athletic guy on the floor switched to me and did "contain" me but I still scored three more times, had three assists and we won by one. Go ahead knee - hurt all you want...

5:45 PM  
Blogger east said...

palefire makes a great point about the baller heroes.

But I think that the fortitude translates if you know how to look at it. Bohemian started playing later in life so basketball is a foil for his life rather than the other way around.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Maurice Mendes said...

Well written, I can relate.

2:04 AM  
Blogger R.Davison said...

I love this man, i started balling 5 years ago at 17 consistently. It has become a love and an addiction, and im happy that someone else out there sees the game the way i do. All i have to say is play till you can no more, I know i will. Forever "Lets Ball"

8:18 AM  
Blogger Josh Bubar said...

I get the idea of overcoming challenges, but I think the real charge I get from playing pick-up comes from those moments when 5 guys, who may never have played together before, "get it". You run off a streak of three, four, five, six games in a row not because you have the most talent on the floor but because you know each other, even though you don't. Those are the transcendent moments that keep me coming back...that and wanting to play with my 8 year old some day. Thanks for the thoughts.

10:22 PM  
Blogger sportsbabel said...

Hi to all on this the comments and couldn't agree more. As the game continually grows around the world I find it so interesting that we can share floor time together and compete sometimes without ever having to also share language.

Wanted to share a project that some of you might be interested in called Global Village Basketball, which networks together simultaneous pickup games from around the world during the course of a 24-hour period into a meta-game with one accumulated score. The game ran in 2009 and 2010, and is slated once again for June 2011.

I believe that pickup basketball offers us a way of understanding the politics of a small-scale community quite unlike that of league-based hoops......hope you can join next year!!

6:34 AM  

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