Hoops dreams

At 9:14 a.m. last Friday, by the clock on the wall of the main court at the Alpharetta Community Center, I hoisted my first 3-pointer in a good six months. If not particularly good, it’s been a long six months, anyway.

I’m not saying the shot went in. OK, I will say it. It didn’t go in. But I think it drew iron.

And that, I consider, is a start.

***

On any given day in Willow Grove, Del., there’s not a lot to do. When I was growing up there, we hung around the front of Schulties General Store, across the street from our house. We’d maybe ride our bikes out to the Willow Grove racetrack, a dirt oval that was a mile down Mud Mill Road. We’d pedal down Church Road. Nothing was there. We did it just to ride.

And when I got 9 or 10 or 11 or so, if the weather was decent, we’d shoot hoops. On a dirt driveway near my buddy Steve’s house, with whatever ball we could find, aiming at a backboard nailed to the side of an abandoned house, we’d play. Steve, me, my brother Jim once in a while, Steve’s brothers Rusty and Butchie. It was a way to kill time.

If I needed to kill more time — honestly, there is nothing to do in Willow Grove — I’d shoot by myself. Sometimes for hours.

We played other sports, too, my brothers and I. Tackle football and whiffle ball in the front yard. Catch, with whatever we could find. We played Little League Baseball in town during the summers.

But, more than anything, I remember shooting hoops in Willow Grove.

Before that old backboard fell down, and we moved to the back of the house to shoot at a freestanding hoop — the “court” was dirt back there, too — we’d take turns trying to dunk, getting a running start and planting a foot against the side of the house to help us up. The house was covered with old roofing tiles — I guess that was cheaper than painting — so if you slipped, you were almost guaranteed to get a nice sandpaper-burn on your leg. Still, I think I finally got to the point where I could eke a tennis ball over the bent rim.

I never could beat Steve one-on-one.

***

Phys Ed West today at ASU.
Phys Ed West today at ASU.

I first found the joy of true pickup hoops in college. I probably wasn’t in town for two weeks, just hanging around the dorms trying to find which guys I might want to befriend, when I was invited to go shoot at the old gym on campus, near the Memorial Union. And there we were, a bunch of guys I didn’t know — tall, short, athletic, not — together, killing time.

I wasn’t any good at first. I’d never played more than two-on-two, I think, and only then when I could talk Jim and Rusty into it. But with these new friends from Arizona, Illinois, California, Rhode Island — all sorts of places — we played. And we shot. And I learned to pass. And defend. It was awesome.

I can still picture the games. My old friend Phil had a set shot from the baseline that was a killer. Pat was quick to the rim but he was smaller, and I can remember that, if I timed it right, I could block his layup. Jim was a skilled player — maybe the best of us — who wasn’t in great shape but could shoot. Billy was not very athletic at all — he’d say, probably, that he was more of a lover than a jock — but he was game. There were more guys, too, who came and went. In that first year, we played a lot.

I finally played in a game with real referees that year, or maybe the next, when I joined an intramural team. I can remember being totally outclassed, feeling like the ball didn’t want to bounce off the floor into my hands, looking up at a rim that was always 20 feet away. I remember a guy guarding me, not closely because I looked like such a doof, and me putting up some impossibly long, unintentionally two-handed set shot that went in. Next time I got it, I did the same thing. Barely looked. Swish. Next time: airball. I stopped shooting.

I got away from pickup when many of my buddies and I decided to move to off-campus housing. But it never really left me.

***

When I moved to Hawaii, after graduating from Arizona State, my brother hooked me up occasionally with guest passes to his gym in downtown Honolulu. Like many places, this gym had a dozen or so racquetball courts. Like now, this gym didn’t know what to do with them. So one was converted into a basketball court. I shot there.

I moved to Guam the next year. Around midnight every night, after we’d put the paper to bed — that’s some journalism talk there — a few of us would drive down to the outdoor courts at Paseo Park, turn on the lights and play until 1 or 2 a.m. Tony and PJ and Richard and I, and several others. The first time there, I stole a pass, raced downcourt, looked up to lay it in — after I had left my feet, mind you — and realized that I had taken off a good six feet too soon.

Airball layup. I’ve had more than one of those in my life.

I moved to Pensacola, Fla., where a bunch of friends played at an indoor court at the University of West Florida. I came off a pick once, went to stick a jumper and some big galoot crashed into me in midair. I went down. Broke my wrist. Had to drive myself to the emergency room.

I played at the downtown YMCA in Cincinnati when I moved there. Two-on-two once with my buddy Gary against Boomer Esiason and one of his friends. We got killed. Played with a bunch of scribes in a cul de sac in front of Jack’s house. “Coveball,” he called it. We played at West High in Price Hill, on Cincinnati’s west side, every weekend for a while. Got stuck in a snow bank getting there once with my friend Joe. We still played.

And when I moved to Atlanta, a bunch of us played at another revamped racquetball court at the Turner Athletic Center at the CNN Center. It was one of those too-short courts where the 3-point arcs practically touch each other. But it was great. Benji once beat me one-on-one there 30-something games in a row. He was bigger. He backed me in when he got behind. It was hardly fair.

For the past three or four years, I’ve played in a Sunday morning outdoor game, when the weather is right, and a Wednesday night indoor game at a church gym nearby. My friend and neighbor Mike — good passer, nice hook that is impossible to defend — set it up shortly after he moved into the neighborhood. We have a good group of guys. A doctor. Salesguys. Mike’s an actuary.

Most of them think pass first. They don’t always pass first. But they at least think it.

***

I want to put in here what I like about pickup, why I still play, and I feel like I should get all philosophic about it; about how, when I’m on the court, I can forget about any problems, any pressures, any stress and all that rat. And that, certainly, is true enough. On the court, you think basketball. You react. You run back. You press forward. That’s it.

In the end, though, what I like about pickup is all that, sure. But it’s also just something I’ve always done, and something that I’m happy — maybe even a little bit proud — that I still can do. To some lesser degree now, for sure. But I can still get out there, still get back on defense, still pass, still make a basket once in a while. I think.

***

My road back from surgery is almost complete. I feel good. My weight is about where I want it to be. I’m working out almost every day. I can’t lift as much as I used to — and I didn’t use to lift a lot at all — but, you know, that’s kind of to be expected.

The last step, physically, is pickup. And that, I figure, is just a few days away. This Wednesday night. Crabapple Baptist Church, Alpharetta, GA.

I don’t expect a lot when I get out there (8:15 tip, if you’re in the area). Which, again, is about right because when I used to get out there I didn’t expect a lot.

The point, though, is I expect to get out there. To run up and down the court. To set a few picks (ouch). To run through a couple more (yikes). To play again. To shoot.

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