Pick-up basketball in Pacific Beach – no coaches, no whistles, no uniforms

The center of my heaven, P.B. Rec Center, is at the corner of Diamond and Gresham

My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right?
  • My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right?
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Listen. I’m a basketball extremist. Maybe it’s the rhythmic, elastic whump (ring)s, whump (ring)s — thuds resounding echoing overtones — leading me into reverie every time, the odd expectant tempos, down the block, passing my street-side windows. Or perhaps it’s the quickening squeaks of quicker shoes, erratic guttural grunts, and yells. But something makes me think I heard the trumpets of paradise in a soundtrack for the 21st Century.

Pacific Beach Rec Center

Pacific Beach Rec Center

I listen. So much the better! Those common clamors come from countless fenced-in blacktops, ordinary noise on given city corners, from hordes of outsized guys geared up in gaudy shoes and baggy shorts. Just look at ’em, dancing in feints and slants, passing and bouncing that spherical, orange, whumpringing thing, launching it, then leaping at the elevated facing stanchions. Ten towering Goliaths tilting to a special set of rules, competing between drawn arcs and outlines of otherworldly significance: the aliens have landed here.

And I’ve arrived as well. To join them at their wild game.

Pacific Beach Recreation Center. I’d been more or less anonymous on the courts of P.B. Rec for the better part of almost three years.

Pacific Beach Recreation Center. I’d been more or less anonymous on the courts of P.B. Rec for the better part of almost three years.

Hit the court, and your hands start to sweat, a Pavlovian response, no doubt, and the ability to use our mother tongue drops by grade levels. Perhaps my gift of expression’s bestowed to the bouncing ball, exchanges of energy neither gained nor lost, my good words becoming blunt thumps. Whatever. Suddenly I too am grunting, reduced to that question of questions, “Who got next?”, but I don’t pronounce the t, it’s “nex,” jus “nex,” and then, “Yo, I run wit you?”, no extra syllables, yo, yo, what up kid?, got yer five?, foul, mine, face, brick, broke, glass, got it, switch, pick left, pick right, nice run…the vaunted litany of the game.

Lenny tells me that P.B. Rec's seen a who’s who of Southern California players. Swen Nater, who was a forward for the San Diego Clippers in the ’70s; all of Bill Walton’s kids; Jelani McCoy; Sean Rooks; Michael Cage; Mark Jackson; and a lot of NFL and ex-NFL players: Craig Whelihan, Steve Grogan, Freddie Jones, and Tony Banks.

Lenny tells me that P.B. Rec's seen a who’s who of Southern California players. Swen Nater, who was a forward for the San Diego Clippers in the ’70s; all of Bill Walton’s kids; Jelani McCoy; Sean Rooks; Michael Cage; Mark Jackson; and a lot of NFL and ex-NFL players: Craig Whelihan, Steve Grogan, Freddie Jones, and Tony Banks.

But this is pickup ball, yo. As in, pick up the players you can run with, and then run with them. (Games of B-ball are run, not played.) And it’s “B-ball,” or just ball, as though no other ball games exist. And when you run with the team you picked up, or the team that picked you up, you got to win to stay on.

It’s no coaches, no whistles, no uniforms. Come as you are and run till you lose. Game’s to 9, 11, 13, or 15. Depends on where you play. Back East is by-2, play a zone, showboat, talk trash, pass only when you can’t just jack it up; in the Midwest it’s old-school, pick-and-roll, pass-and-move, no flash, team-ball technique; in San Diego anything goes, Hollywood or Hoboken, dish and dash, beach-bum-mellow hand-in-hand with steep-ski-slope severe.

Yes-s-s-s, this is pickup basketball, bayy-beee, and it’s an established country. A language, a culture, and a territory, with the obligatory odd inhabitants commuting in. This is one nation, under sport, no social or economic or racial boundaries, where all the talent levels, ages, and even the sexes can come together, vastly different partners in a single common realm: the Game.

I live there.

For me, arriving in San Diego was an entrance unto heaven. (I really don’t believe I’m overstating this.) I came here from the Bronx, vaguely the equivalent of going gourmet after years of charred meat. Sunshine, people who look you in the eye, broad smiles, wide spaces, I mean, it’s novelty versus cliché. And not to mention, indoor pickup basketball. As in: soft, flat wooden courts instead of hard, cracked blacktop, and year-round day or night games unmolested by the seasons and the weather. You’re lucky to run B-ball 50 times a year in the Boogie Down back East, unless you pay for it, ten bucks a pop, just to see the light of a gymnasium. Or you can shovel the courts, take off your mittens, and get some other fearless friends. How about this: just three years here in P.B. I’ve played maybe 700 afternoons. See what I mean? An f—ing dream.

The center of my heaven, ninth cloud and pearly gate, the perfect place for me to be is located at the corner of Diamond and Gresham, and its official designation runs something like “The Pacific Beach Recreation Center,” though hereinafter I shall refer to it by its appropriate street tag, “P.B. Rec.” Basketball at P.B. Rec begins most days around 1:30, and the schedule’s a veritable certitude around which I mold the rest of my life: basketball-time, then writing-time, then work-time, and now that I’m a newlywed, my home-time has to find time too. But it’s basketball first and foremost, as I’ve had to make my editor, and then my boss, and now my good wife understand.

Early in our courtship I introduced my sweetheart to this old Wilson “Solution” of mine. I told them both, gently but firmly, that one could be my wife, and one could be my basketball, and they would have to reach an understanding for us to live together happily. You might think this is funny, or that I’m joking, and although I do mean it somewhat figuratively, in truth I’m as serious as the angle of a skunk’s tail. By that I mean: basketball takes my time, I love it, and therefore it catches some of my best attention. That’s how it is, I’m sorry, so live with it. Of course my wife, with her characteristic wit and energy, suggested the three of us play together, a full courtship with no pun intended, a sort of one-on-one ménage à trois. Nice idea. Didn’t work out. They couldn’t get along with me there, you know, hogging each other’s concentration, getting defensive, funny bounces, jealousy, and all that. Still, I’m glad we tried it. A little adversity makes any relationship stronger.

This is to say that, by now, my relationship with my own body should lift rivers and move mountains. It’s been adversity after adversity ever since I turned 30. Playing all that B-ball again after my Bronx hiatus earned me, let’s see: three twisted ankles (twice on the left and once right), a pulled groin, one strained abdomen (try sneezing, or standing up from a chair), and eight or nine bouts of inflamed and blistered toes, including one blood-poisoning incident (contaminated through a toe blister — the doctor told me I was two days from “multiple organ failure”). And now that youth and quickness and dunking are the stuff of memory for me and my body, I’m become a shadow of what I was, no doubt about it.

But I wouldn’t change a thing. (Except for the part about the dunking. Being able to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot hoop — and, by the way, I’m a shortish, 5-foot-10 white guy — lends one a kind of infallible authority, as in, “You didn’t listen to me before, but when I throw this fucker down, uh-huh, now I represent represent!”) It’s kind of funny, but the past four years or so, since I hit that mythic, hated 30, most older fellas I’ve seen I’ve thought: “Is that me, maybe, 20, 25, even 30 years from now? Therefore go the vanity of I? Is that my slouch, the way I’ll negotiate a swinging door, or sit in a cozy chair, when I get there?” Seems as good a way as any to learn what my character has in store for me, the kind of old man I’m fast and soon to become. Once time has its way with my muscles and bones…

You know there’s this great moment at the beginning of a book I never read except in translation, and actually never finished reading at all, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, or Dante, as in, just Dante, right there in its first part called Hell. On page one, Dante’s where I am, midway through his life, and he gets chased by all these crazy demons (actually, in his story the demons look like animals — a leopard, a lion, and a wolf — but in mine I think the demons are my bum ankles, busted toes, and aching back). These demons run him into despair, right through the gates of hell, and just when everything starts to seem really desperate, Dante meets the older version of who he might become, the hero he’s always emulated but hoped to surpass, who shows up in his time of need to guide him. It’s the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. As in, just Virgil. So the old poet leads the young poet through the underworld, up to purgatory, and then into heaven beyond.

This is my way of widening the scope somewhat. Saying, “This is about more than basketball, more than little old me.” (Hey, no one likes to be alone in celebration or in suffering.) And what I’m saying is…well…it’s like this. My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right? I just moved here from New York City, it’s December, and I can play basketball outdoors, so shouldn’t I? Not one to waste a privilege, I worked it, finding my game again where the waves roll in, but also jumping and cutting and defending again for the first time in years. And that concrete, let me tell you. Every step you take counts for three strides against the lifetime-total your feet and ankles and knees and back were ever meant to take. That concrete’s hard hard stuff. And by the time I found P.B. Rec, with its softer wood floor, I was already well into my own personal hell, far on my way to 40 or 50 outdoor-basketball years. Yes, I discovered P.B. Rec, and there I met what very well may be a distinct older version of myself, my Virgil…Lenny. Just Lenny.

Now for all of you who haven’t written a newspaper article, I have to tell you something. It’s hard hard stuff too. It makes you look closely at the life you’ve been living, which can throw that life out of balance pretty quickly. It’s like the difference between walking along, and trying to walk along while you’re thinking about walking. Makes it tougher to take normal steps. Isn’t easy being super-self-conscious.

I mention this because I’d been more or less anonymous on the courts of P.B. Rec for the better part of almost three years, just the big mouth with the up-and-down game; some guys knew me by my first name, and that was it. Fine with me. There’s this distance a highly competitive person must maintain to compete. It’s a kind of psychological edge, and you find it only if you really want to tear the heart out of your opponent and parade it around and keep it beating on your mantel. Because one great thing about sports is, if you’re in the game, and you’re not on my side, then you’re definitely on the other. Not so in the business of being a writer. In writing, you have to get intimate, try to see things from both sides, from every side, if possible. It’s a bitch, but it’s what keeps you honest. And now I was going to have to cross my loyalties, to tell some of the P.B. Rec guys that I was writing this article, doing a story about the enemy, and about the gymnasium where we play. I would, in essence, have to admit that I can pronounce the word “gymnasium.” Three syllables too many.

It did occur to me that I could conduct unofficial interviews and write an exposé, behind the scenes, “The Real P.B. Rec,” and do the whole thing under an assumed name, a nom de basketball, if you will. But that wouldn’t be fair. Another thing you learn when you write a newspaper article is that you can’t hide, at least not entirely. Because honesty’s your first asset, and if you don’t use it here, then you can’t get anywhere near the Truth. And the Truth is where you have to at least try to be.

Although I did realize how I could pull off this writing thing, with all the requisite honesty, without shaking up too much of the rest of my life. There was only one interview I would have to do. The rest I could more or less assemble myself. And if I got enough dirt on Lenny, my lone interviewee, then he wouldn’t be able to blow up my spot, not without me blowing up his spot too. Perfect. So I collected my tape recorder, and swallowed humble pie, and set out to admit my apprenticeship.

At this point I had never shared more than snatched words with Lenny, always on the court, usually negotiating. “So let me get this straight. You take the six-eight nimble giant, and I get the blocky, cumbersome klutz?” Never an extracurricular remark with Lenny, hardly a hello. All business, by my choice. But now that I was writing a newspaper article, I’d have to learn Lenny’s last name and admit to myself why I’d resisted getting to know him earlier in the, oh, 650 previous games that I’d played with and against him.

Which got to me only because, hey, I’m like any intensely competitive guy, giving myself over to the Game in the name of all else: it’s not about camaraderie, or exercise, or diversion, or even winning. I mean, I just like to play, in italics. And I know how to, and I’m not afraid to tell you what the game’s about, whether or not you want to hear it. Which does mean that I’m the asshole with the big mouth, and so what? Some of the guys understand me, or so I think, like Adam, who’s so good he can afford to hear some critical words now and then, or Lenny, who turns a deaf ear to my talking because who cares if I think I’m the coach-on-the-court: Lenny’s a coach-on-the-court too, but he’s better at it than I am because he’s a quiet coach. Leads by example.

Now you should realize that almost every observation I make about Lenny is going to apply to me as well, positive or negative, and whether I intend it or not. It’s like what my mother always told me: we only notice those qualities in others that are already true about ourselves. Our own “alienated majesty,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, our talents coming back to us disguised as other people’s talents, surprising us because we no longer recognize them as parts of ourselves.

I remember this stuff about Emerson and my mother because I was about to write that I don’t dislike Lenny, but I really dislike his methods…he’s just too much of a politician. But then I realize that I’m pretty scheming and sly as well. Of course, I respect Lenny, in that old-sportsman-to-old-sportsman, political-rival-type way. And because of my own recent travails with my body, I recognize the core of Lenny’s significance for me: anyone so dedicated, who wills his body to do things it no longer wants to do, well, they are the people I got mad props for.

Lenny can’t run much anymore, or jump at all, or even bend over very well, but he makes up for it in savvy ways that leave a fellow ex–alpha male at least a little spiteful. I mean, Lenny won’t pick me for his team unless he has to. And he’ll make everyone in the gym wait if he can’t put together just exactly the squad he wants. He finagles. Works the forum, like a wily senator. And I’d never tell him to his face, but I’ve learned a lot from him. And if I see, in Lenny, some version of the older man I’m to become, it’s not by choice…just reminds me yet again that we don’t choose our parents, and they don’t get to choose us either. The universe is the one who plays the best practical jokes.

So now I’m assigned this newspaper article, and I realize I’m going to have to become really conscious about things; I’m going to have to look closer at Lenny and figure out what it is about him. I’m going to have to approach Lenny and we’re going to have to become at least somewhat human to each other. I mean, I much preferred battling against him and his assembly of handpicked supergiants every afternoon and then sauntering off into the sunset, leaving the game where it belongs, back there in the dim lights of the gym.

But perhaps I haven’t been clear enough about this yet. I haven’t mentioned why, pray tell, I will have to get to know Lenny. Why is Lenny the one, the significant other upon whom my newspaper article must hinge? Well, it all comes down to one fundamental fact: Lenny is P.B. basketball. You can’t run at P.B. Rec without confronting Lenny, and you can’t write about it without interviewing him. Been that way for, like, 30 years now, ever since I was even born, and it’s that way now. It’s that way even if you’re like me, if it still gives you pleasure to vanquish, and to score in the face of, an opponent who limps and is 20 years older than you are. But you still look to Lenny when it comes time to play that afternoon’s first game, and you always let him be captain and pick the first team, if that’s what he wants. The guy’s the patriarch of the place. So be it.

Lenny’s always one of the first guys in the gym. He saunters in, this huge athletic-supply bag slung over his shoulder, heads for the same spot, at half-court, hangs his bag on a hook, and sits down underneath it on the wooden floor. Then he watches. You can see him, feeling the place. Later he tells me that he can sense when certain players are going to show up. He says he can intuit how the games are going to be that day.

His long polyester gym pants conceal three different kinds of braces and supports on his right knee, the one that’s had the six surgeries. Eventually he’ll change into a good pair of Nike basketball shoes. Usually he plays in some kind of faded old T-shirt. Not the best-dressed guy in the gym, but a man who knows how to dress usefully, instead of dressing for show. Lenny understands what’s important.

Not that I ever thought about any of this until now, but Lenny’s rather good-looking, I guess, more or less: deep eyes, face wisely lined, good skin with that kind of half-grizzled, darkish, permanent tan. Really sort of masculine. (Not a big guy, though, my size, about 5'11", maybe 185 pounds.) And his hair’s always messy in an unkempt way that says, “I didn’t look in a mirror yet today because I know I don’t have to.” But after B-ball, after he showers, you can imagine he cleans up real well. Not that I know what I’m writing about. I mean, it’s difficult to want to emasculate an opponent whom you’ve looked at closely enough to notice that he probably cleans up well. The two concepts just don’t fit together, when you think about it. But that’s what writing a newspaper article starts to do to you.

When I sat down with Lenny, finally, a tape recorder between us, in one of the side rooms of P.B. Rec, after a Saturday that I rested and he played all morning, Lenny seemed more comfortable with the interview idea than I was. Almost as if he’d done this kind of thing before. Real easy with the spotlight on him, sort of. And sure enough, I found out that Lenny Thompson, ahem, Lenny, I mean, just Lenny, was an actor and a model in his previous life (that is, the life before this moment right now, before I was getting to know him).

The first thing Lenny tells me is that he’s “the all-time leader in P.B. Rec history in scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals. Everything except turnovers.” I don’t tell him that I think he must be catching up in turnovers as well. He doesn’t let me know exactly how old he is, disclosing, “I’m in my 50s.” And I realize that this is precisely how I don’t want to talk 20 years from now, clinging to my bygone vitality, but it’s a way that I’m sure I probably will talk: less specific about the undesirable stuff, ready to toot my own horn with whatever air I can still muster in my wheezy lungs. Hell, I already do talk this way, somewhat.

But Lenny’s got more of a storied past to protect than I’ll ever have, at least athletically. He tells me he played a couple of years in the ’70s with the Denver Broncos. A defensive back. “I’m pretty much retired now. I actually made most of my money in acting and modeling.” And that’s about when I let myself realize that Lenny is a more or less attractive guy. (Not that I’d admit it unless I was writing a newspaper article. Honesty, I keep telling myself. This is about honesty.)

Lenny’s got these far-off, grayish-blue eyes and dignified weathered features that make me believe he probably was a successful model in his day. He carries himself well, like a man who knows his own body, what it can and can’t do.

The thing that Lenny simply can do, better than almost anyone, is pick a good team. This is one art he’s got down. The guy can’t walk, but he’s run on more winning squads than I have, more than probably anyone, week in and week out. So how does he do it?

“Well, the old rule, you know, a good big man beats a good small man every time. So you have to center your team around the big man. But I don’t necessarily take the best guy in the gym. I’ll take the guys who work well together, who play fundamental ball, because most kids don’t play fundamentally sound; they want to shoot the three-pointer or take reverse layups. But I’ll choose the guy who hustles, who works hard, follows his shot, goes to the boards, hits the open man, is basically fundamentally sound. Even if I lose then, I don’t feel as bad as if I picked up a guy who was real flashy but doesn’t play defense.”

But enough about Lenny. What about P.B. Rec?

“Well,” he says, “I started coming here, actually, when I was coming out here on vacations probably in about 1970, and then after I moved here to the beach area, oh, for about 30 years, I’ve been playing here ever since. The place was pretty old even then.” (I’ll eventually check the city records and discover that the land where P.B. Rec is located was acquired by the city on September 3, 1946, and the center itself was built in 1954.)

And then Lenny tells me that this old court’s seen a veritable who’s who of Southern California basketball players over the years. Swen Nater, who was a forward for the San Diego Clippers in the ’70s; all of Bill Walton’s kids; Jelani McCoy; Sean Rooks; Michael Cage; Mark Jackson; and a lot of NFL and ex-NFL players: Craig Whelihan, Steve Grogan, Freddie Jones, and Tony Banks. And nowadays you’ll be likely to run against Doug Flutie as well. Flutie’s pretty good too, I can tell you: very athletic, of course, great big hands, and the heart of a winner inside that famous small body of his.

So we’ve got quite a list of celebrated players who’ve graced our humble gym. But is that what makes the place? How does a building get its ghosts, if it has them? It’s an interesting question, and Lenny and I start to consider it. “I’ve played everywhere there is to play in the city,” Lenny starts in, gazing through a high window nostalgically. “When I first came to San Diego I lived in Ocean Beach, so I played over there, but the court is so small, you take the ball out, turn around, and you’ve got a three-pointer. I’ve played at Muni Gym, and up at State, and at all the park and beach courts. But this court, this P.B. court…” His voice is a slow baritone, and when it trails off it shifts keys, major to minor.

I’ll try to describe this P.B. court for you.

The activity rooms and offices of P.B. Rec rest adjacent to the main room, truly a Great Room, which accommodates one regulation basketball court. Two glass backboards with orange hoops and white nets drop down out of the rafters, and these backboards can be drawn upwards to convert the gym for nonbasketball events. The court itself runs north-south. At the south end, four concrete steps climb to a low, indented stage area. That’s where guys who got next can sit and watch.

The floor of the Great Room is a deeply lacquered wood. It shines a little, mostly shades of brownish-gold, and gets refinished every summer. Its multicolored lines suggest an alien geometry. And when it’s damp, the floor conveys this melancholy, musty smell, like an ancient vault.

The concrete walls run light blue, and then, maybe seven feet up, they switch to off-white. Down here in the blue parts of the walls, the required protective gym cushions intermittently protrude. And four extra baskets, with wooden backboards, face east and west across the main court, up there where the walls turn white.

The ceiling’s leaked some, over the years, but it doesn’t now; they fixed it. And it’s not too high, which is key. It drops through angular metal rafters, low enough to feel indoors, you know, that intimacy, but high enough that only very poor long passes hit the crossbeams. Among those crossbeams, 17 bell-shaped lights descend, only 14 or 15 of which usually work. A few of them buzz, faintly and persistently.

On the highest part of the west wall, below the white rafters, a simple modern scoreboard hangs, flanked by two big flags. The flags are inexplicably framed and under glass: one American and the other from the state of California. And running down from the ceiling, over each of the four doors, one in every corner of this Great Room, above the green “Exit” signs, silver heating ducts give way to suspended metal heating fans. When these fans are on, a few days maybe in the San Diego winter, they rumble complacently and make the corners of the gym the comfortable places to stand.

And now, even after I’ve looked at it closely and done my best to describe it, to give the place over into words, still, I’m not at all sure what it is about this court, this P.B. court.

But Lenny finds a way to say it. “Every court I’ve ever gone to has a different atmosphere, a different personality. This court here has an atmosphere, you know,” and on the word “atmosphere,” I realize Lenny hardly uses his hands at all when he talks. I see this when he uses the word “atmosphere” because he raises his palm off his leg and seems to lightly bat “atmosphere” out of the air. Then he’s immediately kind of half-slumped again, comfortable enough on a fold-up municipal metal chair, hands on his thighs. “I don’t know. It’s probably like the old Celtic court, with the parquet floor; it just has a good feeling about it when you walk in, and it’s always been competitive over the years. I’ve played in this gym for so long now, there’s little things the average person doesn’t notice, but I see them because I’ve seen this place renovated so many times.”

Like what? I ask him. “I can tell what the floor condition’s going to be, like right now, it rained a little today, so I know the baseline at the north end of the floor is going to be slippery. There’s more light at the south end, and the rim’s about two inches lower there. Plus, there’s a few dead spots on the floor, where you shouldn’t try to dribble the ball.” And I feel what Lenny’s saying, especially the part about the old Celtics gym in Boston. They used to whisper about leprechauns there, about little invisible people who could make even Larry Bird’s toughest shots go in, that the leprechauns were the ones who helped the Celtics win all those championships. Maybe P.B. Rec’s haunted in its own way as well. Maybe we’ve got our own versions of subtropical leprechauns here too. Call them Lakerchauns! Or no.

But it seems for all the haunted magic of the place, for all the history and majesty, there may be no saving the modern game from the young folks who abuse it. And Lenny and I aren’t the only ones lamenting the recent directions taken by the game of basketball. Recently in the sports pages of the Union-Tribune, Nick Canepa wrote, “Today’s basketball players play basketball. Far too much of it. When you play the game, you don’t get nearly the number of touches you’d get working on your own. Fundamentals go right out the gym door.”

You can see it everywhere. On TV. At the organized local levels. In the pickup gyms and outdoor courts. There aren’t many people who seem to understand the intricacies of the game anymore. Lenny says it this way: “My general thought about basketball is that the game has depreciated, because there’s no more 15-foot shots anymore, it’s all about dunking and three-pointers. So the game’s changed a lot. Guys more in the days when I started playing, I think they loved the game a lot more than the guys who play now. Now it’s more like a hobby: you’ve got to have the right shorts and the right shoes to play it. I remember when I started playing in junior high school, I paid about maybe eight bucks for a pair of Converse high tops and they’d last you all the way through the basketball season. Now they’ve got to have the new shoes that come out every other month. So it’s more about show than go.”

Which becomes especially frustrating to some aging fundamentalists like Lenny and me. “To the young guys, you know, anybody with gray hair doesn’t know what he’s talking about, you know, they think they’re five times better than I am, so who cares if I have anything to teach them.” Lenny sounds pretty matter-of-fact when he says this, almost as if he’s resigned a bit: that’s just the way it is.

But his tone grows a little more interested as he goes on. “If they could see film of me when I was their age, running and jumping. And what they don’t realize is most of the coaches nowadays are old guys. Sure, a lot of them played once, but now they’re old. It’s hard to coach kids nowadays. It’s like if you can’t jump up and dunk it, then you can’t tell me how to play. Kids today have so much talent and so many advantages, you know, places to play, but they’ve got no work ethic, you know, they just come and screw around for hours instead of working on their game. Back in my day you were always thinking about next year, working hard, trying to make the team and make your game better. It’s just a lot of wasted talent.”

My neck almost hurts from nodding in agreement. It’s why I’ve got the reputation I do in the P.B. gym. Why I’m the big mouth, the coach-on-the-court. These kids are talented as hell, but they don’t have a clue what to do with it. They don’t know how to play the game beautifully, how to play it with each other. And goddammit, someone’s gotta teach ’em.

Lenny finishes this portion of our conversation by articulating the following: “That’s what I wish for the people who play the game. I wish they wouldn’t play unless they learn to really love the game of basketball. I wish they would learn respect for the people who maybe had the abilities but maybe don’t have them anymore. You’d like to have people recognize the athletic ability that was competitive once.”

Yes, I would.

So I’m starting to warm up to Lenny by now; we’ve got all these ideas in common, you know, just like I guess I thought we would. I mean, I was afraid we’d get along like this. Now tomorrow I’ll walk in the gym, game face on, and I’m going to have to say hello instead of grunt. I’m going to have to be competitive and yet cordial, an almost impossible combination. Cordiality isn’t sportsmanship, not really; I’ve got plenty of that sportsmanship stuff. But cordiality’s for the tearoom, the dinner table, the parlor. I’m starting to fear that I’ll never be able to distance myself competitively again.

So when Lenny starts to tell me how he’s really good at assessing other people’s talents, basically, that he can pretty much watch a guy come into the gym, dribble up and down the court once, and tell how good he is, “you know, by the way he carries himself, shifts his weight, and so on,” well, then I’m going to press the advantage and get the lowdown. So I ask him to assess the talents of some of the guys we play with, including Lenny’s assessment of himself, but all I really want to hear is Lenny’s assessment of me, of my game and my talents. Just being honest.

“You got good quickness,” Lenny tells me. “There’s a difference between being fast and being quick, and you’re quick. You try a lot of low-percentage shots, but you pass the ball well. You’re aware of who’s on the court. On your good days you’re as good as anyone down here.” So now I’m gratified. And because I’ve agreed with almost everything he’s said about the other guys and himself, I figure he must be accurate about my game as well. Unless he’s just blowing smoke up my ass.

One thing I can say about myself is I work hard. Always have. Practice as hard and as much as I play, always trying to improve what I can do on the court. And so I’ve learned a few things:

  1. If you can dribble a basketball well, then you’ve got a good “handle.” To have a good handle, you have to have good hands, and even more importantly perhaps, you’ve got to have rhythm. Dribbling a basketball is very much like dancing a tall and elegant woman around the room, leading her, and making her look weightless. The ball actually becomes an extension of your body, a detachable part of yourself that returns to you at the same rate you let it go. Nothing in the world looks as awkward as a guy with no handle dribbling a basketball.
  2. Shooting a basketball is an art of complex mechanical precision. Good shooters take hundreds of shots a day, standing still, on the run, falling away. Flowing into the air through a fluid seismic rising from the earth to the balls of the feet, bent legs up into the effortless lift, hips and back loose, the ball borne high on backward-cupped fingertips, guided with the off hand, head level, aiming, elbow in, arm like an L, in a motion the muscles must remember…to the release, at the top, so soft, wrist like a fluttering gooseneck, the ball away swooning in a rainbow-clean arc. It’s all about the form, and it has to look the same way every time.
  3. Passing in the game of basketball is maybe 10 percent technique and 90 percent timing and vision. You have to be able to anticipate the trajectories of bodies in motion, to see how the game works and where a particular play is developing, and then you simply put the ball where it wants to be, precisely when it wants to be there. Style is nice (no-looks, behind-the-backs, alley-oops, and whatnot), but you should always remember that a basket’s a basket, and it’s best to do what works.
  4. To me, the true beauty of basketball lies in the fact that you must keep your opponent from scoring without touching him. It’s a great concept, one of the most fundamental in the game, although of course it gets abused all the time. And how do you do it well? Hard labor. You’ve got to outwork your opponent, get into his head, get in his way, see where he wants to go before he does and then beat him there, playing the angles, with good footwork and good anticipation. And then you keep him from scoring merely by crowding his space. Otherwise it’s a foul. Beautiful.
  5. If you’re “feeling it” that day, if you can’t miss, and the rhythm of the game seems to find you and make you do something involuntary and wonderful at every turn, then you have entered what is commonly called the Zone. In the Zone, the game slows down and almost stops and you fly along, moving at the same blurred speed. Those movies about the “Matrix” had it just right.
  6. Every day when you’re going to the courts, it’s important to do the same exact things to get ready. I stretch for 20 minutes on my living room floor. Same routine, every time. I fold my socks twice down. Lace my shoes and double-knot them. Next I chew a piece of the same flavor of gum (cinnamon). Hop on my bike and ride to the gym. Then I run through these very specific dribbling and layup drills, loosening up and getting a feel. My vocabulary changes, and so does my accent. It’s not that I’m superstitious. It’s just a mindset. I’m telling every cell in my body to get ready, all ten trillion of them, because pretty soon, bayy-beee, we are going to play.

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