Ball Was Life, and Sometimes It Still Is
What basketball has meant to me lately, years after it meant everything.
In absolute terms, I have never been good at basketball. In relative terms, my peak was around fifth grade, the year I made the All-Star Game of my Brooklyn neighborhood league.
I remember looking over the rosters in the school gym, after our games one week. I was frustrated. My team had Jaytona, arguably the best player in the league. But the other team was stacked. They had Daniel, and Brett — who even at 10 somehow had the armpit hair and shoulders of an adult. It took a moment to realize that, in the eyes of the league, I was good enough to anchor the Blue team. If Jaytona was Kevin Garnett, I was Stephon Marbury.
I scored 10 points that game, which was a lot in those days. I fed Jaytona the ball down low, watching the ball float in space and into his waiting hands for an easy two over and over. I played hounding defense, yelling out incoming picks to my teammates and talking elementary school-level trash, such as “That’s off” and “Nah,” whenever a shot when up.
I think we lost. It didn’t matter. I competed and played well. I was on my way to something bigger.
Yes, around this time, I had dreams of going pro. At recess and after school, I was always playing pickup on the concrete playgrounds — when I wasn’t trying to “roof” someone’s handball, or look over the shoulder of my friends while they played Pokemon on their Gameboys. I’d sit in my bedroom and toss a rubber ball into a hoop over the door and tell myself stories of beating Michael Jordan in epic fashions — last-second shots flung with the off-hand, while falling into the adoring crowd. I even practiced my post-game press conferences.
It didn’t end up working out that way. Jordan retired when I was in high school, and by that time, I had mostly given up organized sports. Even baseball, a sport that I was more naturally gifted in, fell away as I started dating, listening to the Beatles, and underage drinking.
But basketball was always my first love. I painted my room orange and blue. I attended basketball-themed summer camps. I would play in gym class, on weekend afternoons, and even at night, dribbling a ball outside my apartment building until our upstairs neighbor yelled at me. (The game still has an outsized role in my dreams: Recently, I dreamed that I was walking back to the courts behind P.S. 321 — but when I arrived, the concrete was covered in winter slush. The ball in my hands was deflated. What does this mean?)
My love, however, was mostly unrequited. As I got older and my shot mechanics got worse and my handle didn’t improve, my All-Star Game glory days disappeared, and I was often relegated to benchwarmer status. On the court, I felt startled, unable to misdirect opponents or penetrate the zone. It was all I could to do to stay in front of my man on defense, and on offense I’d typically slide to the corner, out of the way, waiting for someone else to shoot. I was a long way from my dreams of leading the Knicks to a championship.
The adult years weren’t much better. I’ve played pickup various times over the last decade-plus, and nearly every time, I leave the court not just emotionally drained but physically injured: a chipped tooth, a rolled ankle, a mysterious pinch in my shoulder that led to visits to a physical therapist and a chiropractor. (Years later, I can still feel this if I lay too long on that side.)
What does this mean? It means I am too out of shape, uncoordinated, and bad at the game to play it at a high level, or even without getting hurt. In my late 20s, I stopped playing altogether — because, I told myself, my health insurance wasn’t good enough to cover me in the event that I got injured badly. I had a “Catastrophic” Obamacare plan, and basketball was no longer worth a catastrophe. I played frisbee golf instead.
I had other reasons for unofficially giving up the game. Mainly, I hated going to the courts and aligning myself with a group of strangers, only to embarrass myself as my first shot clanged off the backboard, or as my awkward crossover ended in a turnover. Even when I wasn’t messing up, I’d spend entire possessions with my hands on my knees, huffing air with all my might. It didn’t feel good to be so bad.
When you’re a kid, you don’t think about being “in shape.” You get tired, but you don’t think about words like exercise, or heart disease. You just play. I played for hours at the courts behind the local schools, and in the gyms, without much effort.
Similarly, you don’t think of an activity like basketball as an outlet. It didn’t register that I was able to express myself differently in a game than I could at home or in school, where I tended towards shyness. The pursuit of that sound — the perfect swish, nothing else like it — doesn’t feel like therapy, not consciously, when you are in middle school and your parents are splitting up. The real therapists my parents sent me to, I raged against. I would sit in their heavily cushioned offices without speaking. I’d look over their heads as they tried to elicit a response from me other than caustic anger. I can still see the sunlight streaming through the windows of Dr. Singer’s office, the golden beams beckoning me outside.
Around this time, I took up writing as well. This became my hobby, my passion, and — again, without realizing it — my outlet. The character I was in my stories didn’t resemble the “real” me, but a “me” I aspired to. After a while, I took on some of the characteristics I wrote into existence: confident, funny, loud, maybe a bit too loud. A braggadocious trash talker. Too bad I didn’t write a story about a consistent jump shooter.
I carried these two passions with me into adulthood. And these days, basketball for me is a lot like writing:
I love it, and I hate it.
It’s often much more enjoyable for me to watch someone else do it than try to myself.
I know I am not “bad,” but I could be better if I practiced more diligently and consistently.
My love of the craft dwarfs my ability to practice it.
Even though I smile and greet others who arrive at the court to shoot around, if I see they are better than me, I secretly despise them. It’s nothing personal — I just hate that I am not great, too. I feel similarly in writing classrooms and at open mic nights.
In both fields, as I’ve gotten older, I have withdrawn little by little from engaging in it publicly. Outside of my work, I barely blog (hi) or publish much writing. And even before the pandemic, well before the NYC Parks department removed the rims from the playground courts, I hadn’t played pickup in some time. For a while, I told myself, I just wanted to work on my shot, to see and hear the ball go through the net, like old times. I thought about going to a court early — like, sunrise early — to have a hoop to myself. Life, and laziness, got in the way of that.
That’s how I found myself on a court in the small upstate town of Catskill, NY recently.
Well, that’s not exactly why I was on that court. It’s not like I drove 2.5 hours north of the city just to get shots up. After surviving the worst of the pandemic (so far), I decided to move up here with my sister for a few months — to be closer to family, to have some space, to breathe.
Catskill High School is a quick walk over the nearby creek from where I live now. When I first got here, it was August, so the school and grounds were dormant — and at the time, it wasn’t clear that was going to change anytime soon. There’s a running track, some tennis courts, and a slab of concrete guarded by hoops on either end. The hoops have padded stanchions, backboards that resound when the ball clatters off them, and bright orange double rims. Double rims are the worst. It’s tough to get a good bounce on them. But they’ll do.
Walking onto the court for the first time in a long time, I felt the tingle of excitement return, the way it always does when faced with an open path to the basket. I dropped the ball from my hip, and when it came back up my fingertips met it, felt it, caressed it, then pushed it back down. It was a bit awkward at first — I could feel my fingers and wrists trying to remember the movements, the subtleties.
But it did come back to me, and it comes back faster each time I visit the court these days. I push at the ball with my fingers, bring it between my legs, around my back. I step in one direction, then cut back the other way, the ball bouncing off the ground at an angle to meet me where I’m going. Another dribble and I’m near the rim, so I scoop the ball up and lift it towards the backboard like I’m placing a book on the top shelf. It spins off the square and into the hoop, the net letting loose a quiet swish in response.
Little else but putting the ball in the basket goes through my mind in these moments. My focus on my shot mechanics (they need work), my handle (it needs work), my footwork (not great) consumes my attention. It’s not as distracting as a full-court game, where I need to follow my man on defense, box out on missed shots, move without the ball, and decide between shoot, pass, or dribble every time the ball finds its way to me. But it’s enough to quiet the thoughts. The anxieties over an uncertain future. The loneliness that comes with living far from your family, your friends, your old life.
Here, forced to shoot by myself, I am transported to another world. One where I didn’t give up. One where I grew to be 6'6'’ rather than 5'11'’, on a good day. One where I can dunk, and I do so a lot, especially over Jordan. One where ball is still everything, still life.
There are few silver linings to a global pandemic. I need to get my joy where I can these days, since I cannot travel, see my aging relatives, go to a bar or concert, date freely, or do anything in public without a mask (which, while I am happy to do to protect others and myself, still sucks). So the chance to shoot around in relative peace feels like one of the few things to be thankful for.
Among everything I do for my mental health, basketball remains my most therapeutic endeavor. Nothing beats the feeling of having worked up a sweat, and for a single bead to run down and off my nose as I clutch the ball to my chest, leaning over and forward. I take a jab step, another, then explode towards the basket, or so it feels. My body is not the athletic little thing it once was — like my spirit, it has aged, and now that I am in my 30s, it’s possible that it is halfway, or more, on the path to somewhere or something else. With each stride, I am pushing back against the inertia, the fear, the literal and metaphorical weight that often keeps me grounded, unwilling to let go and fly.
The ball goes up. Like something I’ve written — a piece that feels inspired and meaningful — it has purpose, moving towards a goal. It settles through the rim, almost in slow motion. Looking up from under the basket, I can see that this one has found the mark. I sigh in relief. Then the ball drops through the net and falls, silently, back into my waiting arms.