It had been a week since I’d found the Zone in a game up at the La Jolla Y, and at my age you don’t get that fix often. Now it was still in my arms, as if they twitched to hold a ball, bring it up off the one- or two-dribble at the wing, and fire it down that long groove of air that led to the basket. In the Zone, defenders came at me in slow motion, their fingertips waving beneath my palm as I let go at the apex of a jump shot. Let it rain!
So it rained. And on one lonely night, at at 45, 6-8, white, 230 pounds and holding, with no one watching but a teenage timekeeper, it rained again on the parched hardwood of my personal addiction. On a floor in a decent league where at least half the guys played in college 10 to 20 or more years ago, and a few in the pros, I nailed down 17 field goals, whole clumps of them in a row, in an old man’s pantomime of Rick Barry back at the San Francisco Civic, except then I was 17 and watching from the sopping, stinking air of the balcony. We could see the stretch marks in Nate Thurmond’s bunched shoulders, and we rose from our seats when Al Attles made one of his nightly leaps over the rows of spectators sitting courtside in folding chairs. Ohhh, man! Did you see that? Did you see that?
The Zone in La Jolla, 28 years after those worshipful nights at the Civic, was ruined at game’s end by adrenaline-fueled stupidity, when I goal-tended a teammate’s shot from the deep corner. Cutting in from the opposite side, I tried to cuff-dunk the ball as it came off the rim, but too soon. Zebra arms waved it away with the same motion baseball umpires use to indicate “safe,” except in our game it means basket interference. We lost by one. I walked off the court with a clear vision of the ball bouncing off the back rim. His shot was coming out, wasn’t it?
That night, home to a dark house, kids and wife asleep, I showered in the spare bathroom in order not to wake anyone up. It was almost 11:00 p.m. Our game hadn’t started until 9:45. I knew I’d be awake until 1:00 a.m. or later, channel surfing for a college game, even though I’m not all that interested in watching.
I play. I don’t like to watch. I play a contact team sport long after my days of organized sports are over. The coaches are gone. The scholarships. The Big Game nerves when I walked on the same court with Bob Lanier, George Trapp, John Gianelli, or Sidney Wicks and actually had to guard these people. The recruiting bullshit. All that’s left is the game, but that’s all I ever wanted in the first place.
You don’t give up basketball. It gives up on you. The ball, your willing servant, disappears on the dribble, stolen again by someone with younger legs, quicker hands. The rim grows smaller. Tighter. Players talk about a Lid On It. Rims have lids, like filmy trap doors that open less and less often. The knees ratchet down as if they were aging tools left out in the rain, and your Achilles tightens into a hard, inflexible rope ready to let loose with one of those sickening pops you can hear all over the gym.
One day it occurs to you that you’ve been playing the game at least two, maybe as much as five times a week since you were about ten. Today the kids start even earlier. There is no offseason. It means that I’ve played more than 4000 games where someone’s been sucking on a whistle, maybe another few thousand where we call our own. Is it too much? That night, after one of my best games in years I began to think so; and it was, for me, the ultimate admission of mortality. I sat in the dark, feeling the chill set in after super-heating my body for an hour, ready to answer my wife when she awakened and sleepily asked, “Who won?” It would be a good night to let go. End of year. Played great. Lit It Up. I also knew that the next time I played I might score only six or eight points. It seemed to happen a lot lately. But we had lost. I can’t quit on a loss.
Getting rid of the pain, however, might be worth it.
There is a morning after for basketball players of any age. The first trip to the bathroom is a slow one, crippled. You pull yourself off the toilet with the shower curtain, towel rack, or sink edge, because your knees hurt. Hurt bad. Like Earl Woolridge said to me on the phone, “My wife, she don’t like me to play no more. But I get me some WD-40 on these knees, and we’II run sometime.”
By mid-morning you’re oiled, feeling looser. The thought comes back. Maybe a game on the way home from work. Drop by the Pillbox and see who’s there. Hell, why wait until after work? Maybe sneak out of work around 11:15, tell the receptionist Big Meeting, Won’t Be Back Until Two Or So, and see who’s runnin’ at the downtown Y at noon on what is probably the oldest floor in the county! The Y is an echoing box where you can’t shoot from some spots because a banked oval running track overhangs the corners. Players sometimes call out “Rookie!” when a new player’s shot hits the ceiling.
Of course, it’s not good that you always seem to come back from your Working Lunches with a red face and damp hair, not good at all. But maybe you were just hustling down the sidewalk like you do sometimes, feeling the spring when you take the curb. You got it. Push off the left foot a little, bring the right in. Balance.
Up. Up. Tap the No Parking sign, your necktie flapping over your shoulder. Or that awning down on Fourth Avenue. The one that must be close to 11 feet up? No one looking? Leap to touch it. So close, weren’t you?
Thousands of San Diego basketball players still Got It. Long after their high school, college, or even pro careers, they can’t give it up. The game is as good as sex. Hell, it’s even a little bit like sex. Inside gyms around the city, one of them built when only two-handed set shots were being fired up, the obeisant, half-naked cultists come to kiss that round, orange ring: The Hoop.
On the outdoor pickup courts, the Run is usually three-on-three, game to 11, “by ones” (baskets count as one, three-pointers count as two), winners’-ins (whoever scored the last basket takes the ball out again). Some courts are democratic, and players run (challenge the winning team) in the order in which they show up. At others, a single player who has “winners” chooses the guys he wants on his team, even if they’ve just stepped off the court as losers. Unless you have a reputation on that court, you’ll be the one waiting a long, long time.
San Diego, like L.A. and Laguna Beach, is one of the only basketball meccas in the world where beach sand tracked onto the court is part of the game. At South Mission or Crown Point or in North County at Pillbox or Glen Park up in Cardiff, sand is blown or tracked onto the court from nearby beaches. Get it under your Airs, and you’ll go down when you stop too quickly in the Paint, down hard. The concrete doesn’t have much spring.
It’s one more reason why old men should quit. Take up golf or tennis; two sports that basketball players, because of the eye-hand coordination thing, are usually so good at. Sports that don’t have “incidental contact” every 30 seconds.
So I talk to my friends, hoping, I suppose, for approval. They’ll confirm my inevitable turn to good sense. Instead, they launch into reminiscences about their own placing days.
Imagine 200 lawyers, after sitting in their offices or court all day, being unleashed on the refs of the world. The arguments were epic. The language atrocious. The sportsmanship nonexistent,” said H., my attorney friend who’s played in San Diego’s law leagues since 1974. “Just don’t attribute any of this to me,” he said, fearful, a priori, of judicial retribution.
“When I first started, it was mainly guys my own age. The whole league was under 30. The raging debate back then was whether you could play if you were a law student. When the baby boomers grew up, they wanted to maintain their teams rather than fold their tents with dignity, so they started bringing the students in as ringers.
“Around ’78 we moved the league over to Uni (University of San Diego High School] but were kicked out three years later because our behavior was not appropriate for a Catholic facility. A priest came in one night to complain about us parking in all the wrong spaces, and a guy got in a screaming match with him.
I think that had a lot to do with it. There were ten times more technical fouls than when I played in the leagues at La Jolla or Muni. On another night a judge — a judge! — spit in the ref’s face.
“Many of the teams are made up of players from the same firm. If you’re a member of that firm, you must play on their team. It may be one of the reasons you were hired. Even though you’re an A player, you may find yourself playing in a C league. I’ve seen partners in big firms show up just to watch. We don’t play for money, though. No side betting. I’ve played a couple of games for a case of beer, and people almost got killed. You can’t play for money.
“We had a legendary team,” he continued, and you could hear the nostalgia for a time of higher jumping, quicker cuts, faster hands. “We won the league for seven straight years from ’76 on. Then we won again three years ago with a couple of ringers. We were the last civilians to play on the floor with the Clippers. Played our finals game before the Clippers’ last game, then the lights went out.”
Even this nightmarish description was recounted with a fair amount of fondness. Amid the insanity, there were friends to be made, legends to pass on. You build reputations in this city that are hard to shake, however, and the law league had — and still has — one of the worst.
The law league may be the only league in San Diego that still carries on what was once a hallowed tradition — team sponsorships by firms willing to exchange the cost of league and ref fees for a little publicity. In 1942 the Consair “Americans” played the legendary Phillips 66 Oilers when they came to town with Angelo “Hank” Luisetti, the Stanford All-American who popularized the one-handed jump shot. Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft (later known as Convair) had dozens of great teams over the years, dating back to the days of Tommy Johnson, the “best all-around athlete San Diego has ever produced,” according to several news clips of the day. Other early teams in San Diego were Bridgeford Meats and Baranov Jewelers. Players usually came from the San Diego State Aztecs.
When I searched for the story of San Diego basketball in Balboa Park’s Hall of Champions, I circled the room twice. Nothing. Finally, in one corner near the exit and a display called Stars of the Year, I spotted a poster-size blowup of a 1900 San Diego women’s team. Three of their sweater jerseys were emblazoned with “RUSS,” the Russ School, which became San Diego High School. Faces, almost life-size, in black and white, had that impassive serenity so often seen on athletes asked to stare into the camera. Eyes accustomed to moving...were still.
At the time these young women were photographed, the game of basketball was nine years old.
A few steps away, pinned to a temporary panel divider, small black-and-white glossies of young Bill Walton at Helix High School chronicled the beginning of San Diego’s best-known basketball legend. A yellowing clip from The Sporting News April 7, 1973, heralded UCLA’s national championship, a game in which Walton went 21 for 22 from the field, 2 for 5 from the line, 13 rebounds. Many still call it the finest individual collegiate effort ever, and I would agree. Only Bill Bradley’s consolation game in an NCAA Final Four might be close, and it wasn’t for a championship. Walton’s box score headline read, “No Haltin’ Walton.” Like most basketball players and fans born before 1960, I can remember where I was when I saw that game: in a Sears store in Palo Alto, watching it on a few dozen color televisions of various sizes, along with about 30 other customers.
There was also a photograph of Steve Copp, SDSU center on the 1976 NCAA playoff team. An ’82-’83 San Diego Clippers team photo. Oscar Foster, San Diego High, 1967. Elvin Hayes as a Rocket in ’68. And a photo of Clipper Terry Cummings in 1983, the NBA Rookie of the Year. Compared to other sports, the entire basketball display was a pathetic afterthought.
Upstairs, curator of awards Frank Kern sat in a swirl of tobacco smoke. I asked him if he thought big-time basketball was dead in San Diego since the Clips blew town.
“Maybe it’s a non-event here because of climate,” Kern said, shuffling through a filing cabinet behind a desk stacked with memorabilia and sports sections. “Basketball survives best where you have to be indoors. And the fact that baseball and football are played year-round here by kids at all these camps doesn’t leave basketball with a season to call its own.”
I asked if the NBA might be back in town soon.
“As much as I love sports, if I was sitting on the city council, I wouldn’t vote for a new downtown sports arena. Hell, they’re asking S44 in Dallas for the lowest-priced hockey tickets! Who in San Diego is going to pay that kind of money? Who’s going to buy sky boxes in a branch-office town?”
Kern went on to say that there was a “thirst out there” for basketball, however.
“When SDSU under Brandenberg played North Carolina close down to about the four-minute mark, I thought, oh boy, we’re going to turn a corner here. And Coach Hank Egan was doing well up at USD. Then everything went into the dumpster.”
Whatever the fate of the NBA in San Diego or the fortunes of SDSU and USD (our college programs, despite USD’s astonishing defeat of Notre Dame at the Sports Arena last fall, are struggling), it was obvious that San Diegans don’t come to the Hall to see Ball.
Several hundred yards from the Hall of Champions, however, in Balboa Park’s Muni Gym, three days after Christmas at 1:20 p.m., the call was heard.
“We get somethin’ started? Come on. Come on. Let’s run.”
Beneath the skeletal white rafters of an airplane-hangershaped building, ten men and boys — some of them not much older than 16 — coalesced at the south basket of Muni’s center court. One of them, in his early 30s, dressed in red trunks and T-shirt with white trim spelling out the letters BSA, yo-yo dribbled the basketball near the top of the key. He looked familiar. I thought I saw him down at lack Murphy Stadium’s parking lot when I was playing in the Gus Macker tournament, but I couldn’t be sure.
I was the only white guy in the gym. No, wait, there was a guy out there, maybe Hispanic, but over six feet. Maybe he was white. I didn’t know.
Personally, I long for a racial mix in every game, every league — idealistic late-’60s graying-haired liberal that I am. You keep thinking it can exist in basketball — brothers in sport, neutral hardwood, that kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons many of us play — to break out of our neighborhoods and meet characters and talents we’d never see on our home courts. The reality is that many of the leagues and pickup venues in San Diego are either predominantly black or white. Occasionally there are teams with a balance between the two — not to mention some of the great Hispanic and Asian players in town — but it is rare. According to H., for example, the law league “was the whitest league in the history of San Diego basketball for about ten years. Even now there are less than ten black players in it.”
I wasn’t at Muni to play. I wanted to watch and pay my respects to a great gym and some equally great players. I ran at Muni a few times when I first arrived in San Diego, back when I was 30 and still liked a little bloodletting. Playing pickup ball at Muni is like saying you bodysurfed the Wedge in Newport Beach on a big day. Maybe you did it only once. If you play pickup basketball, you must pay your dues at Muni, just as Walton did when he was young.
No more for me. Anyone who’s played at Muni on a busy, top-player day has seen game after game where players will challenge controversial calls with an invitation to fight. Taking a charge or blocking out on the boards is considered a declaration of war, not a fundamental. As old as I am, all you have left to rely on are fundamentals. As big as I am, that causes problems, and I can’t, and won’t, back down and watch someone take it to the hole unchallenged. It isn’t a black-and-white issue, but a stylistic one.
On that day no one suggested the old-fashioned method of dividing teams into “skins” and “shirts.” It was cold in Muni Gym, and the north door was wide open. Cold, however, had nothing to do with dress code. Part of this game was having an elemental sense of who was on your team and where they were on the court (“court sense”), even if you were midair and still undecided whether to pass or shoot. When it happened to the better athletes, recognition of a teammate cutting toward the basket at the very fringe of peripheral vision would be instant. Colored jerseys, numbers on a chest, shirts and skins were unnecessary crutches, the inventions of a bygone era.
Or, as is often the case in pickup basketball games here and anywhere, there wouldn’t be a pass. Whoever had the Rock would go one-on-one and shoot, unless shut down completely by his defender as he approached the House. You get that shit out of my House! This is my House! Don’t bring that in here!
The first time down the court BSA’s team was on defense, and soon one of his teammates had snatched the rebound. A loud whoop cut through the din; BSA had already broken toward his basket at the other end. A long down-court pass was perfect. BSA caught it, dribbled twice, and threw the ball underhanded on a lazy, high arch toward the basket as he crossed the top of the key at full speed. Freed from his fingertips, the ball seemed to float, hanging at the apex of its trajectory until his two hands, like talons, suddenly rose to grab the leather sphere again and slam it through the net.
“Yaaaahh!” he screamed, and hung on the rim. It snapped down, absorbing his weight on a special spring before the bolts might have sheared, the metal bent, or, worse yet, the glass backboard shattered.
“I’m so sorry! So, so sorry! Whoo Murphy!”
Play continued. Another rebound, another down-court pass. This time the dunk came off BSA’s pass to himself by lobbing it off the top of the Square (the painted target square above the rim). As he caught it midair, his body spun and he reverse-jammed, pulling himself up on the rim until his head rose into the net. Like a hanged man, his legs jerked reflexively, knees coming up almost to his chest. The 6-1 BSA was now almost four feet above the scarred hardwood.
On the cold, ribbed-aluminum bleachers near half-court, one spectator turned to another and said, with that knowing laugh of all players who have seen the show many times but never tire of it, “Dunk fest?”
There would be three more slams before the 15-minute game was over.
Still, there was something different about this Muni game, and it was probably because of BSA His bald head made his face look ancient and baby-like at the same time. Wisdom and humor mixed on that face, and he set the tempo. Everyone was smiling, and nothing was too intense. BSA did a little Showtime, partly because the competition wasn’t anywhere up to his level, and his good nature had the place smoothed out.
Muni sweats history. Signs at each end of court say “No Dunking. Court Subject To Closure.” The building is all wood, floor to roof, and diagonal two-by-sixes sheath the open studs in a chevron pattern. Like most gyms, its color scheme seems to have been selected by an athletic director or park administrator who snagged a good buy on leftover paint from the Navy. A hornet’s-ass swath of bright yellow circles the gym, with blue below. Everything else is white.
Built in 1935, the gym is classified as a national historic landmark. Despite that status, it was proposed at a council meeting last year that Muni be torn down.
One council member in particular rose to its defense. “There’s something that happens at the Muni Gym that’s bigger than a basketball game,” said Christine Kehoe.
On that day Kehoe became the patron saint of pickup basketball in San Diego. Her opponents, stripped of the ball, quickly backpedaled and won approval in a save-face move to build a $5 million “activity center” at Inspiration Point. Whether the game will shift to that location, if built, is another matter. The game in any city is wherever the underground of top players says it should be.
Pinned to a Muni bulletin board by the door, a newspaper clipping immortalized Kehoe’s half-court stand, but few stopped to read it on their way in or out. The players kept running. A Charles Barkley look-alike, about 6-5, went in for a soft lay-up off the break. Another player, shirt off, ran up behind him. “How tall are you?” he screamed, but with a smile. “Oh, man. We don’t do lay-ups here. Six-five, and you lay it up?”
Sometime in the mid-’80s, PBS (the open league at Pacific Beach Recreation Center) became the city’s dominant game among the long-established leagues. Some players theorize that P.B. was neutral turf, not too far north or west outside the inner city, but not too close to Muni either. Black players such as Zack Jones, one of the dominant forwards in city league ball in the ’80s, brought teams into P.B. (Jones, a prolific scorer, once averaged 45.2 points over a seven-game stretch in the 1987 Supreme Court league at Memorial Rec.) Teams of ex-pros, ex-USD, ex-State, and ex-UCSD players did well at P.B.
The court there is a little short, but its three-point line is now outside the present NBA line. The games were and still are running-clock, 20-minute halves. Refs tried to keep the foul calls to a minimum because players didn’t want to waste floor time standing around shooting free throws. The bitching was intense at times, hut emotions were under control. Fights were few, and the homeless weren’t walking across the floor in the middle of games to use the restrooms and showers (an unavoidable distraction at Muni).
One P.B. and La Jolla league legend was George Young, renowned for his three-point shooting from unbelievable distances. At about six feet tall, white, and over 40, Young didn’t fit anyone’s image of what a dominant player should look like. He wasn’t physically chiseled or “cut” like modern players and didn’t jump high. Former NBA player and Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal has been a friend of Young’s since they met one afternoon at the La Jolla Rec outdoor courts. Young likes to tell the story that Westphal still refers to him as “a professional basketball player trapped inside the body of a general manager.”
Quick. That’s what Young was, particularly in his shot release.
The release was everything. Young’s defied the human eye. Coming off a pick or just lulling a defender by being far outside the three-point line. Young would suddenly leap into the air, releasing the hall simultaneously.
Now “retired” because of a career-ending shoulder injury, Young went out in grand style. He competed as one of four finalists in the International Hoop-It-Up three-point championships, finishing second to a guy from Philly. Young won the LA. three-point shootouts three different years. He also played on well-known three-on-three teams, often with former USD stars Nils Madden and Boh Bartholomew, UCSD alum Andy Wagstaff, and the great three-on-three player from Pt. Loma College, Kevin Kennedy (whose team with Wags won the last Macker open division in San Diego). Young teams were often in the open national finals up at Venice Beach (where they came in second three times) and finished first at many other regional Macker and Hoop-It-Up open divisions around the Southland.
“There’s only four ways you’re going to miss a shot in basketball: to the right side, to the left, too long, or too short. I’m always online and aiming for the back of the rim. That eliminates most of the variables right there.”
Legend has it that Young once hit 17 three-pointers in a single P.B. open-league game. As a shooter, he “loved that court.” San Diego players watched him routinely fire it up one or two steps across half-court at the La Jolla Y’s shorter-than-regulation court, a distance still well outside the NBA line. I hadn’t seen shots that far out since I played in an Oklahoma City college tournament that included Pete Maravich’s LSU team. Maravich launched several shots from half-court as regular, part-of-the-game field goal attempts, not as “buzzer beaters." No one on his bench seemed surprised at all, including his father, the coach.
I had lunch with George Young one day in Cardiff, along with his teammate Alan Russell, a big man known for his rebounding. (“Alan can rebound with his face,” said Young at one point, admiringly.) Young sat on the deck of Taco Auctioneers. His Ray-Ban sunglasses stayed on. The hair was mostly silver, and he wore warm-up pants and jacket. When he was playing, he often sported a wide headband that slipped far hack on his head, giving him a surprised, open-eyed look during games.
“I never imagined in a million years it would be a shoulder,” he said, his right hand going to his left shoulder as if to give it a rub. “But it’s really not that tough to take. If you do it right, you don’t have any regrets when it’s over. Some could say it was absolutely ignorant of me not to accept my age. But six months ago I felt like I was 25 years old. People who accept their age shouldn’t be playing. They should he shooting around with their kids. If they ever show up and say, ‘I can’t run, I need to take it easy,’ they shouldn’t be there. You have to go to every game thinking that this is it, the big game. I thought I would quit at 70. I quit at 42.
“I played 150 games in one year. More than an NBA schedule. I was in four leagues. Last year alone I trained by playing one-on-one full-court several times a week to a hundred with Kevin Kennedy, Jim Peterson, Jeff Lamp, or Andy Wagstaff. After a knee injury a few years ago (tom patellar tendon], I was in physical therapy for nine months but came back stronger. My body finally broke down. I never thought it would, hut it did. A year ago, if you said you thought you could beat me, I’d say, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
If a league has a number of older, mid-30s players on most teams, an outsider might think the games would be slower, not so serious. Young would disagree vehemently. “I’ll tell you this,” he said, leaning forward, palm trees reflected in his lenses. “We play 40 minutes’ running time. We’ve had the pros in after their full season when they’ve taken a month and a half off. They come play with us, and they’re looking at me saying, ‘George, time out. I’m dead. ’ Forty minutes’ running time is a hitch. You’ve got to get your shit off in a hurry if you’re going to get 30 or 40 points. Some dorks will stand on the foul line 30 seconds catching a blow. We’ll score 110 points a game. No one (who doesn’t play at that level) can understand how we did it. One of our unwritten rules is you don’t freeze it. Just play. With the exception of a few individuals, hoops is a gentleman’s game.”
Young surrounded himself with exceptional athletes, and he was quick to compliment them all. “I’ll tell pro players I know, current and ex-, about the guys I play with. And the pros will run with us and later say, ‘Hey, George, I think Rich [Schwartz] is better than even you think he is, and Kevin (Kennedy] hangs with the best of them. And I don’t know many guys like Alan who can get you 15 rebounds every time.’ It’s serious hoops. I think Maurice Cheeks is probably better than Rich, but not by a whole lot.”
The teams, with the exception of Young, were also big. Other than Swen Nater, when he played around town after leading the ABA and NBA in rebounding, there haven’t been many San Diego players as physically imposing as Nils Madden, who led the P.B. league in scoring, even when Zack Jones and other legendary scorers were in the league.
“Nils is 6-8,240. Whatever statue they’re showing over in Greece or Rome,” said Young, “Nils should get a kickback or something — they made it after him. And he has a big heart, too. Incredible to play with. There are so many great big men in San Diego. We think of Fitz (Mark Fitzner, who played at Stanford] as an off-guard because of the way he shoots outside, and he’s 6-8, 250. The NBA has its big men, hut most of them can’t throw it in the ocean from a boat.
“People have a tendency in basketball, even in the pros, to try and force it down low. They moved in the three-point line this year, and guys are going to have a worse percentage. They’ll think, ‘Wow, I can take this,’ and it’s still out of their range. This year, more than ever, it’s apparent that they [college and the NBA] recruit and have preference for superior athletes. Everything looks great until players shoot it. Take the Knick game against Orlando. I’ve never seen athleticism like that. It looked like every hall was stolen. But then when it came time to shoot, it looked like they were doing it with their feet.”
A subculture of the city league game in San Diego is three-on-three, especially the tournaments. It’s also the game of choice at most parks.
“Everyone thinks they can play three-on-three,” said Young. “Everyone thinks they’re the greatest. Then you get out there with the wind and sun. It’s not five-on-five, so every possession is valuable. You take shots in five-on-five that you should never even consider in three-on-three. Many guys out there haven’t processed that thought yet, and you can just blow them away. You have to have four Most Valuable Players [tournaments usually allow one substitute]. If one teammate, when it comes his turn to step up, doesn’t, you’re going to lose. Foul shooting is so important, too. We came in second up in L.A. at the best tournament I’ve ever seen. We had it in our pocket, and we missed five foul shots out of six. The game was ours because if you missed the foul shot, the other team got the ball. In the Macker, if you missed it you got it back. That was a stupid rule. Each foul shot was the equivalent of a basket. We had just worked everyone in that tournament, and to lose like that....”
I asked Young what he thought allowed him to play on that level, despite his physical stature.
He finally took off his sunglasses, leaned over his queso futuiulo, and said, “If you run as fast as you can all the time, you’re going to beat somebody who’s faster. He’ll rest before I will.”
It’s tempting to look at basketball as a life metaphor. It’s a mistake. When you start believing basketball is life, a player, coach, over-expectant parent, or a rabid fan is destined to create the stereotypical protagonists and antagonists of the recent documentary movie Hoop Dreams about two Chicago high school phenoms (and one very nasty coach) or the characters in The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, a new book by Darcy Frey about a Coney Island high school program.
Ex-Clipper Jim Brogan, who plays in the La Jolla over-30 league with a team of friends, told me, “Anytime you get a chance to play a game, you forget about worries and inhibitions. When you grew up, you played any chance you had, didn't you? That’s what still brings us together.”
The game is just that — a game, as the older guys playing city league ball have discovered, or rediscovered. That, and the exercise it provides, are the only reasons we’re out there. Victor Crawford, a San Diegan I played with in college, starred at St. Augustine High School in the mid-’60s. He was one of the smoothest players I ever saw and could light up a scoreboard with anybody. Our freshman team, in fact, averaged more than 100 points a game back at a time when freshman were not allowed on varsity. Each of us on the starting five averaged close to 20.
But Crawford didn’t buy into any myths. “In the black community we’re not in Forbes magazine. Nobody owns a high-rise building. Nobody owns a pro team. It seems the only avenue that figures is for you to be a player. My dad brought me up differently than that,” said Crawford, now a dentist in San Diego. “Once you make it to professional? You’ve made it to heaven and back. In the black community it’s the end, where other racial groups treat it as a means to an end. You’re in heaven already. They treat professional athletes like they’re gods. These guys just live on that. The only guy who doesn’t live that way is Phil Smith (a friend of Crawford’s]. I tell him, ‘You know, you’re the only guy who played in the NBA who never mentions the NBA.’ ”
Smith played off and on for various San Diego city league teams and, like Brogan, could only have been out there because he enjoyed it. After all, there was nothing left to prove. Other NBA players have not made the transition to city league ball as easily. For about a year one former all-star, a guard, was every referee’s nightmare and was thrown out of several games. On the court he frequently accused players of trying to hurt him (although he was physically stronger than most opponents after a decade of NBA training), and every call was put into question. Off the court, however, he seemed a gentleman.
Refereeing the city leagues, for San Diegans like Barry Alman, who runs a confederation of refs that whistle most of the city league games in San Diego, is equal measure pleasure and pain. Alman moved to San Diego from Boston in 1979 and began reffing almost immediately. He has been doing it nonstop ever since, although now he spends a good deal of his time scheduling instead of blowing the whistle. Business is good, but not as good as in the ’80s. San Diego’s poor economy has had its effect on the number of teams playing city league ball and on the players themselves.
“Large companies like General Dynamics had a big enough in-house league to rent their own gym. Not anymore, to my knowledge,” said Alman one morning over breakfast. “There used to be a huge commercial real estate broker league, and it’s now down to maybe seven or eight teams. Back then (the mid-’80s), when the money was flowing, those guys would all show up dressed nice. Then the bottom fell out. You wonder why they’re getting so many technical fouls in a game? They were not doing well in their life. They take out their frustrations on the referees.”
Alman sipped on his fifth or sixth cup of coffee and continued. “For some strange reason, basketball players want to blame somebody. But there were a lot of nice personalities. You’d see the same guys in the loop maybe three, four times a week. Remember Kevin McCarthy, who ran the league up in L.J.? You’d see him all over town. And there was Nate Ferguson, a former football player at SDSU about 6-3, 190, in very, very good shape. More a shooter than defender or rebounder. A basketball junkie. I’d see him Monday night playing in O.B., Tuesday at Muni, Wednesday P.B., Thursday La Jolla, and if you happened to go somewhere to a weekend pickup game, you’d see him there, too.”
Alman, after reffing a thousand games in the last 15 years, had seen just about everyone play, and he had definite opinions about who was the best.
“Back in the days when the pros were playing in P.B., the level of play was very, very good. One time I remember Cliff Levingston getting a rebound and finding himself out near the top of the key guarded by two defenders, one on each side of him. In the same motion that he was about to dribble the ball, he took the ball behind his back, between his legs, threw it forward about eight steps, caught the ball and dunked it. It was unbelievable! But that stuff is so rare.
“I’ve seen a bunch of memorable dunks. Bam Webster comes to mind first. He played some CBA (Continental Basketball Association] ball. He got his nickname Bam from his dunking. I’ve seen him, many times...do some crazy, crazy things where you’d swear the backboard was going to get shattered. The other guy who comes to mind is Percy. He’s a legend. That’s a guy who should have been in the NBA. I saw him taking balls off the top of the square. He won a dunk contest at a three-on-three tournament called Prime Time down by the Star of India. There were some pretty good dunkers down there, but Percy didn’t even take off his sweat suit. He was doing 360s with no warm-up, nothing! He had incredible hang time. I think Bam is coming up on 30. Percy 36, 37. They can still do it.
“Long-distance shooters? George Young. It was symbolic that when he played in the rec leagues, the number on his jersey was three. He’s the first that comes to mind. An amazing shooter. Tim Rapp, who played UCSD, was exceptional. Pete Dufour was uncanny. Jeff Altman, left-handed, 6-1, was named a Jewish All-American by Playboy magazine or somebody when he was at NAU. He’d be in my top five for the last 15 years. He had a little bit of a funny spin on the ball. Kevin McCarthy was as accurate as anybody, but I don’t think anybody can hold a candle to George.
“Kevin Kennedy might have been the best all-around non-professional to have played in this city in the 15 years I’ve been here. Kevin is a wide-body, bigger than he looks. He has the ability to use either hand. He can drive or shoot outside.
“Of the big men. Bob Carrington was a great scorer. He had — still has — the nicest jump shot. Bob was All-American at Boston College. You could see the confidence in his eyes and his body movement. For 41 years old, man, he can still stroke it.
“We worked a game last fall at the Sports Arena before the Laker game when the Dragons of Tijuana played against Zack Jones and his buddies. Los Dragones is a professional team, and they’re allowed two Americans. There’s a loop of seven or eight pro teams in Mexico.
“I don’t know all the logistics, but I think promoters wanted Kareem to play as the draw. Zack, being well-known locally, was asked to provide a team for Kareem that would be competitive. As it turned out, he invited his contemporaries and probably should have also asked some younger guys. Most who played were in their 40s or late 30s, like Phil Smith, Bob Carrington, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A great team, but they got beat. I think there’s going to be a rematch.
“Rebounding? Chris Dudley. Can’t get much better than that. Percy Gilbert and Nils Madden were also great. Bob Bartholomew was an excellent rebounder, but of the old school, the Paul Silas school, where it’s not how high you can jump, but how much space you take up. If you can box out, you can get a lot of rebounds. Back in the older P.B. days, Michael Cage and Swen Nater were exceptional rebounders.w
I asked Alman what was the greatest city league game he ever saw or reffed.
“When the Clippers were here, one game had the finest talent I’ve seen on a court at one time. There was a team called the Wind Machine. They were the perennial champions in P.B., year in, year out. The Machine had a guy named Dick Tout, who actually coached. Brought a bag of basketballs, everything. On that team I remember Jake Poole, Bobby Carrington, Lionel Hollins, Bill Walton (occasionally), Gary Earle, Steve Copp, and John Service at 6-11, and he brought a guy from Europe who was 7-1! They were better than anyone by far. But they lost in the championship to Swen Nater, Michael Brooks, Jim Brogan, Tom Chambers, Richard Anderson, Paul and Pete Dufour, and four other guys who were studs. Unbelievable. It was Chambers’s rookie year. Swen led league in rebounds that year. Michael was the third pick in the NBA. You had some players. And this was rec league!”
Scorekeeper Cory Dunkirk, who estimates he ran the clock at more than 3000 games in the ’80s at Muni, P.B., and other leagues around town, confirms Alman’s recollections of P.B.’s strongest players. Dunkirk, unlike most scorekeepers, was also in charge of organizing many of the leagues. “The best thing about that time of my life,” he said, “was getting to know so many guys from so many walks of life still willing to pay to play. I loved being a scorekeeper. If somebody’s good at the table, the whole flow of the game can be smoother. If not, the game can be a mess.”
The differences between A, B, and C leagues could often be determined by scores, recalled Dunkirk. “The A players, even with a 20-minute running clock, would score 80 to 90 a game. The Bs averaged in the 60s to 80s. And the C players and below — I called them the cab drivers, the hack leagues — they might score only 30 to 60.”
Another of the best all-around guards to play at P.B., according to Alman, was Peter Dufour. Dufour now runs a fitness gym in P.B.
“I play handball now,” said Dufour. “You don’t have the bodies colliding. You can control the motion around you. In basketball there are random collisions, landing on a guy’s foot, that kind of thing. You’re reacting to another person’s moves, and your body has to be able to do that quickly. I’d had two surgeries on my knee by ’86.
“I miss it,” he continued, “but the thing is, I can get better at handball because ft’s a new sport for me. In basketball you get older. You get diminishing returns on your emotional investment. That’s frustrating for me, because I had to put everything into it as opposed to just showing up and running up and down the floor. It was my whole life when I stopped playing, but I couldn’t be running around playing hoops four hours a day, four or five times a week.”
When he asked, I explained to Dufour that I never played in the P.B. league, content to stay in the La Jolla open league throughout most of the ’80s. But then something happened in our conversation that occurs almost every time two players talk ball.
“So where’d you play college?” asked Dufour, who played Division II at Merrimack, near Boston.
“University of the Pacific,” I said. “UOP ’71, back in the days of John Gianelli. I started at forward for a while, or backed him up at center."
And we were off. There’s a genealogy to basketball that links all serious players. They’ve either watched or played with several notable players that you know well — or at least played against yourself. In the case of Gianelli, who won his NBA championship ring in ’73 by getting a lot of playing time with the Knicks in the days of Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and Bill Bradley, Peter Dufour was a fan who saw the Knicks’ last game against the Chamberlain-era Lakers.
“Knicks won the title,” said Dufour, “and the irony of it was that after the game John and Henry Bibby are across the street from the Garden ordering at a McDonald’s. I can still remember his voice. He yelled, ‘Hey, Hank. You want mustard on your hamburger?’ Later I saw him play in Italy in the European finals in ’83. They won that game but lost in the best of three.”
You reminisce to get your sports fix. For many players the camaraderie is the main reason they play the game. At the Above the Rim Classic high school tournament over the holidays, it was a gathering of the clans in the stands. Players from all over the county, now in their 30s or 40s, were bumping into guys they’d either played with or against for years. I spotted David Miller, a guy about 6-5, standing near the team bench side on the mezzanine, watching future superstars Shea Cotton and Stephan Marbury light it up. Marbury was from the same school, Lincoln, profiled in The Last Shot.
“You see that pass Marbury just made past three guys’ heads?” he said, not taking his eyes from the court. “That’s Magic Johnson stuff.”
I asked when he started playing city league ball in San Diego.
“About ’77. We were a bunch of white guys right out of law school and we signed up at Muni. We were young and it was pretty cool being the only white team there. We made it to the finals a few times by running that Indiana passing game where you’d just set picks up and down the key. After three or four passes somebody would have an open shot and make it. We played this one game where I thought I was intentionally fouled and yelled at the ref. He changed his call and sent me to the line for the free throws. They had coaches in those leagues back then, and this guy was so incensed he jumped off the bench and hit the ref from behind. Broke his jaw. They had to call the police. The police chased the coach around the gym for about ten minutes, finally got him in a corner, handcuffed him, and dragged him out. They kicked his team out of the league. Later on that year another guy got shot in the parking lot. That was the end of my Muni career.
“Back then the legend of Muni wasn’t Zack Jones; he’s way too young. It was Bosco Robinson. He’d average 35, 40 points a game easy in leagues all over. Got a tryout with the Clippers but sprained his ankle. He could drain the equivalent of three-pointers all night, and if anyone went out to guard him he’d go by and slam it.”
Miller’s team did have one year where their point man was Eddie Davis, a black guard from Harlem who played like Tiny Archibald. It “didn’t matter if you were 6-10, he could shoot over you. He was a stud.”
I looked down at Miller’s wrist just to see if the nasty scars were still there. I remembered hearing about how he shattered it in the O.B. league when a guy who had about a six-pack under his belt low-bridged Miller on one of his typical, flying, semi-out-of-control drives to the hoop. Another big-man friend of mine, Gus Colachis, once described playing with Miller, who never strays far from the basket, as “impossible. It was like we were joined at the waists by a chain nine feet long.”
“I haven’t played in three months,” said Miller. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m retired.’ Not that I’m going to be away from it much. I just put a court into my yard. But I will miss the camaraderie. Shooting the shit. Going out for beer and pizza. As I got older I migrated to teams that would go out and bullshit. You relive the game you just played. My old team called me up and said, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t have to play. Just come down with us and go out after the game.’
“A friend of mine once said, ‘You know, David, basketball’s not a gradual decline. It’s like you fell off the table.’ "
Injuries are a part of basketball that serious players ignore, unless the wound, break, or tear is career-threatening. In one year I broke my nose, cracked a rib, cracked a clavicle, and broke a finger at the knuckle, an injury so routine that few players can get rings past bent and arthritic-looking fingers. The only injury that took me to the hospital or doctor was the nose. I couldn’t get the bleeding stopped. I feared an ignominious end; bleeding to death after having my nose smashed to one side.
The next day, visiting an eye-ear-nose-throat man, he told me, “Well, we can fit you in for surgery sometime next week or we can take care of it right now.”
I said, “What’s the difference?”
“In surgery you get general anesthesia. Put you under. Straightening your nose is pretty painful, so that’s what we usually do. Or, we’ll do it right now. You’ll experience about 30 seconds of the worst pain imaginable, but then it will be pretty much over.”
I said, “Now. How bad can it be?” I don’t like pain, but I did have a playoff game coming up in two weeks. He prepped me by swabbing a topical anesthetic up each nasal passage, then pulled out a big stainless steel rod that looked like it was designed by a contemporary of Madame Curie. He inserted it up one nostril, to give him leverage I guess, then firmly cracked and crunched my cartilage back into place.
He was right. It was incredibly, almost exhilaratingly painful. But I was back to playing in two weeks. There is no disability pay in city league ball.
Dale Yahnke, a six-foot guard, who played with ex-Clipper Michael Brooks in the La folia open league almost a decade ago, is married to aivemergency room nurse.
“One time Goggle Man — you remember him? — sticks out his knee as I’m going through his screen and catches me right above the knee. I go limping home, thinking it’s a typical charley horse. I just got off a pinched nerve in my neck. Julie, my wife, looked at me and said, ‘I don’t even want to hear about it. No blood, no foul.’ In the morning the knee was so swollen it looked really injured. Three times normal size. She felt terrible. I went to the orthopedic, and he says I basically tore the quadriceps. Just a muscle, so that was good news, actually.
“We used to be called the Rockets,” continued Yahnke, a financial manager. “I had the jerseys the real Rockets played in — Calvin Murphy, Tomjanovich, Hambone Williams. We’d wear them in the Sunday open league. I knew a guy...who used to coach the Marine or Navy team here in town and the Rockets passed down a bunch of jerseys for them. He gave them to me later. I’ve got some of them still.”
“We’re all one injury away from never playing again, said another friend, on hearing of Yahnke’s litany. “But where else can you get the release that basketball gives you? I think the thing that people miss most when they quit is the contact.”
Yahnke also created one of the more interesting bits of basketball trivia in San Diego by inviting Ann Meyers, the UCLA All-American and sister of All-American Dave Meyers (both family friends of Yahnke, who once lived with the Meyers household), to play on his team in the La Jolla open league. Married to the late Don Drysdale, Ann Meyers would come into town with her husband and played a few times. She was the only female player ever to have a rookie contract with an NBA team, the Indiana Pacers, where she was cut during pre-season.
“She did well for us in La Jolla,” he said. “She’s a hell of a player and holds her own against men. But she’s a point guard and I’m a point guard, so we kind of got in each other’s way out there.”
The next day after talking to Yahnke, at a noontime game at the Y, I plant myself near the free-throw line as a guard comes careening toward the basket. He crossover dribbles, but his body slams my chest, his knee sledging into a corner of my pelvis just above the groin. The kid — a guy in his early 20s — yells that I fouled him. I say no, it was a charge, I didn’t move. I don’t let on he hurt me, partly because I’m already revved up and loose, and the pain just never seems to get you until later.
Andy Kurz, a 40ish gym rat who lives in North County and has a custom-made court in his back yard, said, “I love competing against guys who are friends. You beat the hell out of each other, then walk off and laugh about it. I think that’s unique to basketball among sports you can play when you’re out of school. I went through a five-or six-year period when I was injured every day. It’s a small price to pay.”
Kurz decided not to move to Oregon a few years ago, even though he bought a house up there, because “I’d miss basketball and my teammates too much.” He now opens his home court each Sunday at 9:00 a.m. to a group of friends that includes a number of ex-National Football League players. At six feet, he is almost always the shortest man there. Bruce Walton, Bill’s brother, an ex-Dallas Cowboy, ran at Kurz’s for years. Bob Horn, linebacker on the Fouts teams, comes every week and bulls his way toward the basket as only a linebacker can, but with a surprisingly soft touch to his shot. Jim Peterson (Tampa Bay) and Brent Boyd (Vikings) drop by. So has Mark Grace, first baseman for the Cubs and a Gold Glove winner.
I drop by about once a month. The player I most enjoy running with on the same team is an anesthesiologist named Glenn Plummer. He’s a Midwest-style player, strong on fundamentals, who sets a lot of picks. He also takes a considerable beating because of it. One day a big man, the 250-pound, 6-9 Russell, who is still capable of 20 rebounds in a P.B. open-league game, stomped hard on Plummer’s big toe. After some painful hopping, Plummer smiled and said, “No problem, Alan. I’ll just go home, fire up my Makita drill, and relieve that pressure under my toenail.”
Bruce Walton is ringmaster of an informal game every Saturday at an elementary school in Cardiff, nicknamed the Cardiff Beach Athletic Club, where the joke is that you need an engraved invitation to play. There’s an undercurrent of exclusivity in basketball that is sometimes painful but usually only pragmatic. The Saturday crew, and pickup game participants like them all over the city, know that if there are too many guys, too many guys will sit. They also like to have a little control over the personalities. If you’re known as a hothead or a whiner, you won’t be invited back.
The hotheads and the crowds, however, were the very reasons I liked playing at Pillbox (a.k.a. Fletcher Cove) in Solana Beach in the early ’80s. The game there was dominated by Gene “The Machine” Schiller, a 6-4 pure shooter capable of the only 360 degree spin-around jump shot I’ve seen employed on a regular basis — as in five times a game. Now in his early 40s and not playing more than twice a week (at Kurz’s house and in an over-30 league in La Jolla), The Machine has mellowed. In the days of Pillbox’s popularity, there might be 15 guys waiting to play in the next three-on-three game. I once counted 21 lined up on the wall. That meant you had to wait at least seven full games before you even stepped on the court. That also meant the competition would be almost criminal, and you sometimes craved that in basketball. Gene’s teams would often hold the court for ten or more games until they quit from exhaustion. An argument with Gene was a losing proposition. Like most courts, the best player there made the final decision.
As the onshore breeze found its way up from the beach, then rushed through the notch between the lifeguard headquarters building and the sandstone bluff to blast over the court’s baseline, players hacked and crashed beneath the boards. It was a home court, where the best shooters gauged wind and sun. We played each Saturday from mid-morning on. Once, when I was there, lack Nicklaus, fresh off a round at the Tournament of Champions in La Costa, dropped by with a friend to shoot a few. The man had a pretty jump shot. Sometimes former Torrey Pines High School center Chris Dudley, now playing for the Portland Trailblazers, would show up, but it was difficult for him, at 6-11 with the body of someone who did some serious lifting, to get good Comp. In summer, after two or three hours. I’d run down to the beach, yank off my high-tops, and swim out past the waves.
The only outdoor court nicer was in Laguna Beach, where I played in tournaments in the ’70s.
James Naismith didn’t invent the game with the outdoors in mind, but basketball is perfect for open-air play when married to San Diego’s coastal courts. Originally a sport devised to keep Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA trainees active and interested during long days indoors, basketball quickly caught on despite its first awkward passes and two-handed set shots in 1891. The game had strategy, athleticism, and required a dancer’s coordination and a skeet-shooter’s eye. An early dictionary definition called it a “woman’s game,” which incensed the male players who were already turning it into a fast and physical game.
Naismith also played on a football team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg in 1891. (Stagg, still revered as one of the all-time great college coaches, would later coach at College of the Pacific, my alma mater. This was further proof to me as a basketball player of the game’s small-world qualities.) He brought that physicality to his new sport but realized it had to be controlled somewhat. On January 15,1892, the first rules were printed, and Rule 5 decreed, “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking, in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made: or, if there was evident intent to injure the person for the whole of the game, no substitute shall be allowed.”
Someone once said, “Basketball is a game of subtle felonies.” The larceny began almost immediately in Naismith’s experiment. Taking a ball from an opponent was called a steal. You faked. You fouled. Yet amidst the disputation, there was this almost serene, Zen-like quality to the game. Seventy years later, when asked what made it special, Red Auerbach, coach of the Celtic teams, said, “Because the floor is smooth and the ball is round.”
The rim, ten feet up, is the diameter of two regulation basketballs squeezed through the hoop simultaneously. It doesn’t look that big, but it is. The game is played anywhere in San Diego, wherever there’s a driveway, gym, or park court. You can find a game, or at least a place to shoot, anywhere in the world. I’ve played on dirt courts in the nameless towns of Sonora, Mexico, near the coast; and in Yugoslavia, in Split, against'guys who looked a little like me and knew all about a big 6-11 guy named Kresmir Cosic that BYU imported from Yugoslavia to bolster their teams of ’69 to ’71. When they heard I guarded him briefly in a NCAA Western Regional game that we won, they looked at me as if I’d been the nemesis of their national hero. Nowadays I’d probably be shot. It’s been said that you can travel anywhere outside the United States and ask someone if they’ve heard of )oe Montana. No chance. But mention Shaq, Michael, Larry, Magic....
You can play basketball alone, one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, four-on-four, or the classic ten-man game. Halfcourt or full-court. Outdoors or in. Driveway or city park. You can play HORSE, the stand-around-and-shoot game, with your father until he’s 90. It is the only social or solitary game where you crack a sweat and always have fun doing it. And like all great sports, it creates memories that transcend lifetimes. I have a photograph of my grandfather with his St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, team taken in 1911, and just by looking at it I can picture him playing the game, the echoing slam of the ball off wooden boards, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on maple.
You can’t replace basketball with golf. I tried it once when I lived in Los Angeles. I was on a team called Galaxy that played all over the Valley and down at L.A. City College. Weekends we’d travel to places like Edwards Air Force Base, Vandenberg, Barstow, Saugus, and a dozen other unlikely places to play in tournaments. A few of us ran in the early days of the three-on-three tournaments at Laguna Beach, the First such tourneys anywhere, to my knowledge. I abandoned my wife and two children each evening (at least waiting until after the kids were in bed) to play ball. Without thinking about it, I was playing up to four or Five games a week during the winter.
When I took the children and my wife with me, often it was to strange — and strained — places and circumstances. Our L.A. team once played in an all-Indian (except for us) tournament on a reservation near Parker, Arizona. The tribes had their own Magic Johnsons, guys who could run and shoot like you’ve never seen — and never did, for they seldom played outside the Indian leagues. Mostly because I was so much taller than everyone else, I had about 40 coming down to the buzzer, but the game was tight. Suddenly my youngest son ran out onto the court in the middle of an Indian fast break. The house was packed, and not a spectator was on our side except for my longhaired blond wife and two little blond kids. There was a huge outcry as the game was stopped, as if we’d planned to sabotage this crucial moment. My wife told me later that it was like Custer’s Last Stand; she’d been vilified for not being able to keep our overactive toddler off the floor. We lost by two in the last second, probably because we subconsciously thought it might be wise. The place went wild.
One player on the cam, Big Mike, was also nicknamed Pitchers for his habit of going to a beer bar after a big game and ordering two pitchers. The First one he’d gulp down straight, to hell with the mug. The second one he nursed a bit, mug by mug; ten minutes, perhaps. Mike was 6-10 and 290 pounds but had the softest, sweetest touch from the outside. He won a championship for us once at Edwards Air Force Base with a jump shot from two steps inside the half-court line. For him, it looked as effortless as making a free throw. We also had Jerry Owens, the fastest 6-6 forward I’ve ever seen in the open court, a Michael Cooper predecessor. And there was Erwin Mueller, the ex-NBA player out of USF, who would dunk so hard in warm-ups and games that his right wrist was always dribbling blood from its scar tissue. Erwin would often stop for a case of beer on the way to the game.
Many teams have a Big Mike, the guy who inspires, even demands, your fellowship during and after the game. It wasn’t until my wife heard me one night fumbling around in the closet, stuporously about to relieve my kidneys into my shoes, that I knew I’d gone too far. It wasn’t the alcohol entirely. That only happened every few weeks, after a big win. But the other addiction, the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday Fix, had to stop. I took up golf. I lasted three months. After all, 1 was still in my 20s. But never again was 1 the kind of player who hung out regularly with the guys. After a championship, sure, but otherwise it was a new pattern of arriving just before tip-off, playing the game, and heading right home for a shower.
After arriving in San Diego in 1980, I met a player named Gus Colachis at a formal gourmet dinner/reception where we were both desperate to escape a deluge of sucking, swishing, swirling wine snobs. You spot a tall guy across a room, and if he stands a certain way, walks with that roll of the shoulders, you know he was a ballplayer, or still is. Gus, the organizer-type that every team has to have in order to register for a league, had a team up at the La Jolla Y.
It was Gus that eventually christened our front line of 6-8, 6-9, and 6-6 players, the Winnebago Line, especially as we approached our mid-30s and beyond. But in the ’80s, the Meat Puppets — he named the team after his favorite Arizona band — managed to win more Thursday-night open-league titles at the La Jolla Y than anyone, thanks in great part to a guard named Richard Schwartz, a defensive demon from Boston U. who stole at least Five passes a game for lay-ups. Our strongest team had Bob Bartholomew at forward for one Final league championship. A star at USD, Bartholomew also led a number of great P.B. teams before moving to Atlanta. That was the last championship season. Three or four years have passed. We all lose track, probably because we want to. Now we struggle to win more games than we lose in an over-30 league.
Some players are the game’s historians, its storytellers, because it’s rare that league games have statisticians, even rarer that a newspaper might report a championship. Players like Earl Woolridge, now 54, have gone on to coaching high school players, helping run camps and youth league programs. Woolridge is thin as a playground pole — a friendly black man whom I First met when I was riding a bus. A driver on one of the downtown lines, he said, as 1 ducked under his bus door and climbed the steps, ”Hey, you play ball?” I sat in the front seat for the next 15 minutes and we talked. A year later, I saw him at the Above the Rim Classic in Del Mar sitting with Phil Smith, the ex-Golden State Warrior and USF star.
Wool played in the late ’50s and ’60s. Back then “basketball got you a job. You played for National Steel, and you had a job with National Steel. They were AAU teams.
I was a good defensive player. That was my game. All the big firms had teams. They got a little publicity.
“Back then you didn’t dunk a lot. The game wasn’t as fancy. Coaches would control you a lot more. Hambone (the great Hambone Williams, who played for the Rockets and Celtics] could do everything, but the coaches wouldn’t allow it. We’d say they ‘handcuffed’ you. But we had the fundamentals. We played defense with our hands up. We didn’t have Showtime. No such thing as cherry pickin’. Our big thing was get the rebound, hit ’Bone with the ball, and be the first on the wing. The coach, Fon Johnson, he was our John Wooden. His wife Audrey was team mother. She was the spirit behind all the teams. Ted Wilson was another great coach, a white guy who was like a father to all those guys in the early ’50s. He raised ’em when they were young.
“In ’67, ’68 Pat Riley and all those guys used to come to the Muni. I played in pickup games with Elvin Hayes and even sold him some of my furniture. Basketball, like 1 said, had taken good care of me, carried me under its wing, and Trapp I John Q. Trapp I and all those guys would party over at my house because I had the nice apartment.”
Today Woolridge recalls that some of the great pre-Walton, pre-Zack players in San Diego were Percy Gilbert, Carl Hunter, Tony Pinkcns, Lewis Lake, Bobby Mendoza, Leroy Brandt, AJ Catlin, Bernie Bickerstaff (now with the Denver Nuggets as a general manager), Jeflfy Coffee (played with the Globe Trotters), Tommy Shawls, one of the “best shooters I’ve ever seen,” and many more. (The names spilled out so fast that neither Wool nor I could remember or find all the correct spellings, so apologies to all who aren’t mentioned or are misspelled.)
Of all the players who have filled the rims of San Diego in the last 20 years, none is as universally revered for talent and attitude as Lorenzo Romar, now an assistant coach at UCLA. Romar could light it up to the tune of 30-plus points a game, easy. He played with Athletes in Action and some NBA ball, but, most important, he made everyone else look good. Most players would agree that he was the best passer to step onto a San Diego city league court in a long, long time. Unlike many other city legends, white and black, who scowled, trash-talked, elbowed, and intimidated as much as performed, Romar brought dignity and joy to the court.
“I remember playing one Sunday with Lorenzo,” said Colachis. “And we were behind by two near the end of a game. He was on the free-throw line. Romar made the first, then looked at me and winked as if to say, ‘Get ready.’ He missed the second free throw perfectly in a way that I could tip it in. Two points. We won by one.”
At Muni on this holiday-season weekday, there would be no heroes or villains. It was a fine, relaxed day where at one point a player — the bench birds said that he was a mailman who stopped by on his lunch — gave a double high-five to the end wall near the American flag and Do Not Leave Valuables Unattended sign, slapping his palms against the old wood after a particularly strong and graceful delivery to the hoop.
After the run, BSA, who was known by the nickname Louisville, came over to the bleachers, and we talked briefly. I told him I thought I recognized him from the Gus Macker tournament finals last November. He confirmed it. His name was Dwayne Burton, 31 years old, and he’d played all over town, including the Tierrasanta league, which he considered the strongest. The BSA logo on his chest and shorts was his own “Burton Sports” line of hoopwear.
As he packed his gym bag to leave for his job at a car dealership, he said, “Basketball should be a tool to get an education. Me, I don’t need a million to be successful. I love comin’ out and gettin’ a sweat, but when I see kids up here all day I say, basketball’s great, but you got to get an education. It was a dream I had...so close...but time flies.”
“ ‘D’ up now. Be strong!” came a cry from the court. “Big man! What’s the count?” Burton picked up his bag with his left hand, ball with his right. He walked away a few steps, then came back.
“I’ll tell you a secret. Never leave the gym without making your last shot.” He dribbled over to the north basket, laid it up, then walked out the door.