Sunday, February 27, 2011


Cheech and Chong--"Basketball Jones" (mp3)

In my role as a school administrator, there are a lot of events I have to attend, some that I show my face at, some that I am expected to ride out for the duration. As you might guess, I greet those opportunities with various levels of internal enthusiasm. Always, I do my duty, but not always do I want to be there.

The exception is basketball.

Basketball is the game I played, the game, to the extent that I understand the intricacies of any sport, that I know. It is the game where, while realizing the full limits of my abilities, I still knew that that I could contribute. In every game that you play, you are very likely to have a chance to shoot, to shoot free throws, to score, to rebound, to pass, to make a defensive stop, to foul (an action that shouldn't be underrated). Any player on the court can experience the complete game. Contrast that with the specialization of football. And, if you screw up, your chances for redemption come regularly and often. A turnover is not the end of the world. Same with a missed shot.

Perhaps more importantly for someone like me who was a marginal player, it's the sport where if you warm the bench, you don't feel out of the action. You aren't hidden in a dugout, you aren't lost on the sideline. You run and warm-up with the starters, you sit with them on the bench, you play against them in practice. If you hit a long shot in warm-ups, they have to pass the ball back out to you. Even though you might never get in, you're never more than a few players away from hope.

The essence of basketball is the same as the essence of most any other sport--break down the other team's defense and score. It's just that that on a basketball court, a casual fan like me has a much better chance of seeing it develop and happen. And all of the ways that it can happen are quite pleasurable--the player driving the lane, the open outside shot, or, my favorite, the team passing that eventually finds the open man for an easy lay-up. Or the steal that leads to a breakaway.

My own career was relatively brief. I played basketball through the 9th grade, when my role as a third-string forward who didn't have a whole lot of growing left in him made it clear that I wasn't going to be moving on the the JV the following year. But my official career ended well, our team winning the District, the farthest we could go. Or, my official career did not end well, our team winning the District with one game left to play, a game that we subs assumed would lead to substantial playing time. It didn't come.

After high school and college and graduate school careers of pick-up games and intramurals, I got to enjoy a basketball renaissance here at school. Colleagues of mine formed a Geriatric Basketball Association (GBA) upon the death of "Pistol" Pete Maravich at age 44. Every one of us had the same jersey with the number 44, though it was reversible to either blue or white. We met every Wednesday night for years with a revolving cast of characters, until the league eventually died because younger faculty players wanted to play, their overwhelming desire to win overwhelming their understanding of the game we were playing. It happens.

The beauty of basketball, though, is the shot toward a stationary target. If you ever played the game, you developed some proficiency with that shot, and you always carry with you the knowledge that you can walk onto a court anywhere, any time, at any age, and get that shot back. Maybe not at the speed of the game, maybe not in competition, but when it is just you and the basket, you can always remaster it to some extent, given enough repetitions.

It is no accident that John Updike's legendary character Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's final act is to step onto a playground court as an out-of-shape older man to challenge a youngster and to show him that his skills, his game are still there. Harry's heart, unfortunately, has other plans.

Every person, man or woman, who has ever played the game and is watching from the stands has an unquenchable desire to get out there and take a few shots. They just want to remind themselves that they can still hit from inside and outside.

Perhaps this is why the NBA became such a disappointment to me. I loved it in the early 70's, when Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West would face off against Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere. I loved it in the late 70's when I was in Philadelphia and Dr. J was on the Sixers. I tolerated it during the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird years (not being a Celtics or Lakers fan). I returned to it during Michael Jordan's glory years. It was easy to jump on that bandwagon. But at some point, the NBA became something different than the game that I had played. It wasn't that the players were so astronomically better; it was that they didn't have to play by the rules that I had come to accept.

Still, I love the game enough that when my father handed me The Book Of Basketball by Bill Simmons last week, an irreverent but reverent look at all things NBA, I knew I would pick it up and start reading it. And I did. And Simmons' book treats the game as a continuum, evaluating the new while keeping the talents of the legendary greats in perspective.

I like to watch basketball, and I do that sometimes, though I don't go out of my way to catch games on television. I prefer the feel of the live game where you can hear all of the sounds that you are supposed to hear at proper volume--the clang of the rim on a missed shot, the squeaking of what-used-to-be sneakers, the almost-automatic grunt that comes after overextending for a rebound, the yells of the coach that the players probably can't hear.

But what I really wish is that I was out there.


goofytakemyhand said...

Fabulous piece! No mention of local legend John Brisker during your early 70's basketball fandom?

goofytakemyhand said...

Also, tying this post into music - Bob Dylan was inspired to write "Dignity" to honor Pete Maravich after learning of his passing.

Bob said...

Goof, I did see John Brisker play several times during the Pittsburgh Condors era. I would liken him to Johnny Callison, my childhood baseball hero when I lived outside of Philly--good, but not great. There's a Maravich biography that's come out in recent years that my brother and father have read. I'm not sure dignity is the appropriate word.