Presidio YMCA, San Francisco
I had an inkling. Some vague idea of what I was getting myself into. Sometimes you have to follow your urges into dark places. If you step back and think about your life, you never really know what you’re getting yourself into, do you? An illusion of predictability is what holds our sense of identity together. But let’s not dive off into Kafka. This is a story of another kind of metamorphosis. This is about choosing to play in a recreational basketball league…as an adult.
Basketball is sacred. It heightens my highs and cushions my lows. The game provides sanctuary and sustenance. As an anxiety-ridden twelve year-old, free throws were my meditation. Outside at the playground or inside on the court, my self-conscious tendencies gave way to an unfettered self. I found peace on the blacktop, with the ball spinning off my fingertips. The sounds of solo, silent practice. Dribbling echoes. The net’s rippled swish. The rubber squeak of my Converses against the pavement. The dust-filled carom off the chain-link fence and onto the dirt that bordered the craggily, paved black surface. Make three in a row, then you can leave. Within three dozen steps to the front door, this playground, these childhood memories, waves of thought, leaking back toward the surface from 1994, the end of summer, when the inhabitants of this old house on Winter Street dipped to just the two of us: me on the basketball court, mom at her afternoon Aerobics class, while our two Siamese cats waited for their humans to return.
Those formative years of identity-construction, peaking around ninth grade. The questions of confidence, self-doubt and existential angst all teenagers face. Would all the work I put in—those snowy winters and wall-of-humidity summers, those hoop camp sessions…and then finally, would the recent autumn months of brutal cross-country running—would it all amount to something glorious, if only for a moment or two?
The question within me, back then: Are these basketball dreams, or any dreams, worth holding like this, so fiercely and protectively? As I entered high school, my fourteen year-old self demanded I prove what I was capable of, through the improvisational cauldron of athletic competition—those events we call a “game.”
We won’t be taking a chronological view of things, but for clarity, in this first section, I’m 29. When standing straight, the top of my head is 5 feet and 10 inches from the ground, with a mostly proportional body in between. The average height for a Caucasian American male is 5’10’, but the average height in this men’s league is more like 6’2”. Yes, you would call me Caucasian. I’m a European mutt, equal parts Eastern and Western Europe. I’m half-Jewish, but was raised with 100% of the anxiety. My nose is large enough to be called a honker, if you’re so inclined. We might discuss the social construction of race, the ridiculous need for imaginary boxes to contain the self, and how it all plays into identity. We might sit down for hours, I’ll gladly make you some coffee, if you like…but for now let’s stick with the fact that I’m a former basketball-player, now basketball-watcher, who weighs 190 pounds.
This is not an ideal weight for a 5’10,” 29 year-old male, provided he is not the bulky weight-lifter type. In fact, my weight puts me slightly closer to “obese” than to “normal” according to the cruel math of the body-mass-index. For someone who used to win the “Race Around the Park” at Hardy Elementary School’s annual Field Day celebration, this is a depressing fact. For the record, I won the race in 2nd and 4th grade, but lost in 3rd and 5th to a red-haired sprite named Sacca, in whose family home I slept on several occasions before we became enemies in fourth grade. Yes…that fourth grade victory was sweet revenge.
I am not the bulky weight-lifter type, nor do I want to be. I do have broad enough shoulders and some junk in my trunk. That Eastern European blood from my mom’s side, gives me a good strong base for boxing out, stamina-not-sprinting calves, thighs and quadriceps, which have been maintained by playing frequent tennis over the last few years. My lungs, however have not been well maintained, and thus do not enjoy being tested. If I lost twenty pounds, kept a similar musculature, and got my wind back…well this whole undertaking wouldn’t be so daunting. Of course, if I lost twenty pounds, I would probably find them soon after. In the freezer next to the gelato, or in the cupboard next to the chocolates, or at the diner next to the French toast, or in the donut shop, a maple old-fashioned, right next to the monstrous jelly. Dessert is lovely.
Today, I am capable of working out on an elliptical cross-trainer for nearly 35 minutes, if I keep it under maximum effort. After last night, it is clear I am nowhere close to sprinting, and barely able to run up and down a basketball court at close-to-full-speed for more than about five minutes at a time. At least not without fear of vomiting or collapsing due to dizziness and lack of breath. I last played in an organized basketball game (co-ed intramural) in 1999. I have not played in a full-court pick-up basketball game since 2003, when I lived with friends in Waltham and we would use the Brandeis gym and play other clumsy Caucasians, a bunch of Asians and Jews. It is 2009. This should be interesting.
Basketball shouldn’t involve much jogging. The sport demands sharp, quick movements, instant acceleration, lunging, jumping, and constant change of direction. Defensive positioning requires great footwork, a straight back and bent knees (imagine a crab scuttling along a beach). All the while, one’s arms should be extended and flailing in order to be a productive nuisance. To move well on a basketball court, lateral movement, footwork, and jumping ability are key. Without stamina, you are nothing.
I’d like to have enough wind in my lungs to do this without turning bright red and losing oxygen at a dangerous rate. I’d like to avoid huffing and puffing and dragging my exhausted carcass around the gym for the entire second half of each game. I’d like to be able to move without the ball, use short bursts of speed, get back quickly on defense, jump for rebounds, and not make a complete fool of myself on the court. Another goal, and probably the main reason I’m bothering with this likely disastrous experiment, is that I believe I can find my shot. My shooting touch is hidden in there somewhere.
Having illustrated my own fears and limitations, what follows is a description of the YMCA Magic, a name given to us by the jocular director Robert Martinez. The Magic will be referred to here as the Misfits, as we’re more like a pair of hand-me-down shorts than any group of illusionists. Our team is a collection of eight young-to-middle-aged men, half of whom have no previous experience in this league. The other five teams are affiliated. Either they work together, hangout together, or seem to be actual friends. At the very least, they’ve played pickup games together.
Our team is still trying to remember each other’s names. Two of the eight of us are named “Mike,” and another pair are named “Dan.” We arranged to meet once before the season started. Call this our “training camp.” Five of the eight of us were present. We played 2-on-2 at a windy park, nestled in the Twin Peaks section of San Francisco. The practice can only be described as tragic.
*Last names changed to protect the innocent, weights estimated. No, I didn’t actually weigh my teammates. **Notice that we have no center (both metaphorically and in terms of position; positions are so 1990’s)
Daniel Chu PG 5’6″ 170 lbs
Michael Wilson SF/PF 6’0″ 220 lbs
Kevin Collins SF 6’0″ 195 lbs
Dan Studebaker SF/PF 6’2″ 170 lbs
Michael Cummings SF 6’0″ 175 lbs
Tate Nash PG 5’9″ 160 lbs
Jason Rosenblatt SG/SF 5’10’ 175 lbs
Jonah Hall SG 5’10” 190 lbs
Unlike an NBA roster, this assemblage of names and weights illustrates just how imperfectly human our bodies are. We are not professional basketball players. We are mere homo sapiens, with our various shapes, our bruised egos, our old sneakers, and various health concerns. And yet, we will struggle against the weight of reality, and play basketball against taller, leaner, more confident, and more able humans.
“Short and Thick” Daniel Chu
PG, 5″6″ 170
A recent YMCA member, Chu claims he has never played in an organized basketball game before this week. Berkeley alum (obviously not on the hoops team). Recently joined a successful Bay Area tech start-up. Decent, if bizarre, outside shot in warm-ups. Seems as if nobody ever taught Mr. Chu where to hold his guide-hand on the jumper. Missed several 3s in the game. Got whistled by the referee to “Play Safe!” when he accidentally took out the opposing team’s PG in a fast break collision. Dan undercut the athletic young man, causing the poor fella to land awkwardly on his back. Got stuffed several times recalling Luke Ridnour in an ill-advised rim attack on Dikembe Mutombo. We’ll call him “Short and Thick Dan.” Survived the first game. NBA equivalent: none
“Big Baby” Michael Wilson
SF/PF 6’0″ 220
Blond-haired with a wide-body and barrel chest. Michael is our version of Glen “Big Baby” Davis, minus nine inches, boatloads of athleticism and footwork. Michael is the team organizer. He’s trying to get us to meet up and practice “once in a while.” He says the team went 2-5 last season, but that we “lost our best player.” This confuses me, because it seems like only three guys know each other. His email is from a company that produces construction tools. I guess he’d be our “five-tool player” if we were a baseball team. Michael likes to be physical, and doesn’t mind “mixing it up.” Volunteered to take the middle (paint) of the 2-3 zone, as if we had other options. If he were three inches taller, we’d have one big guy. He suggested we try playing a box-and-1 zone, rather than a 2-3. I’m pretty sure half of our team has never heard of a box-and-1. I think explaining it might do more harm than good. After one game, our 2-3 zone leaves a little something to be desired. We’ll call him “Big Baby Mike.” Survived the first game, though he was seen limping out of the gym. NBA equivalent: rookie version of Glen “Big Baby” Davis
“Kool” Kevin Collins
SF 6’0″ 190
Kevin looks like someone who knows how to play. He probably played in high school. He has a dragon tattoo on his shoulder. He works for the SFPD as a blood lab technician. Yes, he watches Dexter. Does he look capable of leading a double life? Tough to know. He’s got the rugged good looks of a high-scoring swingman. Unfortunately, he’s the only guy on the team whose lack of conditioning rivals my own. The thing is, he’s not fat. It just seems like he hasn’t done much running in a few years. If we could set some picks on this team, Kevin might be able to hit some open jumpers. He knows where guys are supposed to be in a zone defense. Kevin gives our team a glimmer of hope. We’ll call him “Kool Kevin” because it’s easier than “Blood Spatter Kevin.” Maybe in his double life, he’s a YMCA Men’s League superstar. In this life, he tries hard, knee braces and all. Survived the first game, barely. NBA equivalent: aging Xavier McDaniel w/Boston circa 1995
“Tall and Skinny Dan” Dan Studebaker
SF/PF 6’2″ 170
Played with Big Baby Mike and Kool Kevin in the same league in the spring. Pleasant fellow. Not too strong or wide. Says he’d prefer to play guard, but happens to be the tallest guy on the team. Perhaps he’s afraid of being killed if he has to rebound or defend one of the other team’s big men. Before the opening tap, he says to me “I guess I’ll take the tap, but I’m not promising anything.” Dan hit a few shots, grabbed a few rebounds, and his grim expression warned of a solemn acknowledgment of his roundball fate. Dan seemed to be saying, “I know I’m supposed to defend our rim, but I also know nobody is intimidated by me, so what the fuck, I’ll be here with my arms up. Please don’t dunk on me.” The opposing team’s very lean and athletic wing players drove to the hoop and scored easily. He’ll be referred to as Tall Dan, or perhaps Skinny Dan, or, on occasion, Tall and Skinny Dan. Survived the first game. NBA equivalent: Travis Knight (wow, was he lucky to make the NBA before centers had to shoot)
Michael “Mole Mike” Cummings
SF 6’0″ 175
Michael has solid fundamentals. He had the ball on a break-away, pushed the ball, came to a jump-stop, pump-faked, and got the basket and a foul. It was beautiful. He’s a quiet guy. Not going to demand the ball. Slim. In shape. Has a decent mid-range game. Like most of our team, is not all that physical, though he uses his body a little bit better than some of the other guys. He just had a mole removed from his chest. This has left him with several stitches and sidelined him for a few months. May shy away from contact because of this. Solid role player, good attitude. Survived the first game. NBA equivalent: Eric Williams, end of career.
PG 5’9″ 160
Tate was a high school soccer player. He’s looking to get into better shape, which is amusing because he’s in the best shape of anyone on our team. He rides his bike all over the city. He’s from the OC, but isn’t proud of that fact. He’s spent time in Maine, NYC, and he’s now in the Bay Area. Tate is our version of Steve Nash….if Steve Nash was a significantly worse passer, worse 3-point shooter, and generally didn’t know how to run a team and get everyone involved. Simply put, he has as much potential to help our team as anyone. Tate knows the game a little, wants us to work together, move without the ball, all of the good things. But when nobody moves, he jacks up a 25 footer that misses everything but the floor. Tate talked to the ref about the opposing PG’s proclivity to carry the ball when dribbling. He wants to win, badly. This may be a tough season for him, mentally. Survived the first game. NBA equivalent: Steve Blake
“Coach” Jason Rosenblatt
SF 5’10’ 175
Jason is the lone member of the Misfits absent at Game 1. Jason has a military jaw. He works at UCSF, doing research of some kind. He lives with a small cat. He’s wearing a Ron Artest jersey, from the Pacers days. Jason is trying to convince our team to play man-to-man defense. I think to myself that it probably won’t matter what kind of defense we attempt to play, though zone is the default out-of-shape, don’t know your teammates tendencies style of “defense.” It occurs to me Jason wants to be our coach. And that our “coach” missed Game 1…and now happens to be wearing an Artest jersey. I’m not sure which omen is more foreboding. Perhaps we’re better off as a rudderless ship, passing the other five teams silently in the night. Jason survived the first game, due to absence. NBA equivalent: Bill Laimbeer
At the risk of overdosing on nostalgia, here’s my attempt at tracing my own basketball roots. Consider it an origin story, except instead of ending up at superhero, our hero ends up at a YMCA basketball gym with some extra pudding in the middle.
As a child, my mom signed me up for everything. By the time I was eight or nine, I chose basketball. I played all the time. Games of one-on-one in the driveway with my big brother (four years older). Ben always forced me to use my left hand. In our games of one-on-one, he would defend me by crouching in a way that forced me to go left. To this day, when I’m watching NBA basketball, I appreciate the importance of being ambidextrous on the court. I played before elementary school. At recess. After school. I played in our town’s recreational basketball leagues, first at the Boys & Girls Club, then winter weekends. Mom drove me to summer basketball camps, held at various colleges in the Boston area. In fifth grade, I went to a week-long sleep-over basketball camp on Cape Cod where I freaked out about being away from home. I was a sensitive kid, always observing. At this camp, I observed that I was out of my element.
By sixth grade, my friend’s dad, who’d played in college, piled the best of the club bunch up into his station wagon, and we became a town traveling team. We journeyed to neighboring towns and played at their Boys & Girls Club gyms, sometimes in a church gym. Those Boston winters. One especially snowy morning, I remember some teenagers (hoodlums!) trying to make the wagon fish-tail, hoping to swerve us off the road into a giant snow bank. The games got intense. The dedication of our volunteer coach was sometimes overshadowed by his fiery temper.
My friend, the coach’s son, played with a nearly-visible chip on his shoulder. He rebounded and defended viciously. When called for fouls or when his dad yelled at him, he would stomp back to the bench (often a row of folding chairs) and kick them over, much to the surprise of us benchwarmers. Being a member of this team was complicated. My friendship with the coach’s son had soured. Whereas we used to hang out all the time, now we barely talked. We had a teammate who was a skilled guard. He couldn’t shoot like me, but he had a great handle and made wise decisions. Instead of running as the starting shooting guard, my ass was stuck in those folding chairs. My mom didn’t let me quit the team. In retrospect, this added fuel to my proverbial fire, but at the time it was torture. As eighth grade mercifully ended, I looked forward to a new chapter: high school basketball. A different group of teammates. A new coach. No more station wagons.
About the Book
The Dusty Jumper is a collection of personal essays and reflections on the game of basketball, fandom, and identity. From childhood memories of growing up with the Boston Celtics, to playing the sport as a means of coping with adolescence, this is about basketball as a means of connection. Whether playing, watching, reading and writing about the NBA, or absorbing the intensity of being in the arena, the game has me firmly in its grasp. This book is my way of appreciating basketball and fandom.
Available in paperback, through Amazon. Also available as E-Book Blurb, formatted for Amazon Kindle Fire®, Apple iPad®, Android devices, and Mac or PC computers.
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