THE NOMADS’ GUIDE TO PICK-UP BASKETBALL: THE DOWNTOWN Y, SAN DIEGO

Photo by Anna Moreno

I imagine that when the lights went off, the Ghost of Pete Maravich came out to run ball-handling drills across the battered floorboards.

On Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, the Downtown YMCA of San Diego closed its doors for the final time.

Where do all the old ballers go now? The guys with the pointed elbows, who represent the promise of full-frontal locker room nudity after the game; what becomes of the aged, shirtless lawyer in the bandana who used his low center of gravity to throw hip-shot-box-outs, or the dude with the off-balance set shot always guzzling down Starbucks before playing? Do the hairy backed rage monsters and past their prime arguers find a new basketball playing community to call their own?

How could they? Many of them had been playing on this court since Hanson was a chart topper. Their eccentricities already accepted, perhaps even admired — If Jon the Weeble had slapped cross-eyed T in the face over a loose ball in any other basketball enclave, he would have assuredly become the victim of an assault so vicious, only Jim Ross could narrate it. But at the Downtown Y, it was all part of the game.

Sure, there were better players — younger, and quicker — elsewhere, but why would I have ever wanted to play with them when I had the Downtown Y?

Opened in 1882, the gym, which shared the building with a café and hostel, had no frills, no new equipment, and at times no electricity. Smaller than a regulation court, and with a running track in the rafters, the possibility of corner threes was nonexistent — ambitious newbs jacked shots up from Ray Allen territory, the ball ricocheting off of the track always called for taunts of “rookie” from court veterans.

A Summer League Game at the Y. Photo by Anna Moreno
A Summer League Game at the Y. Photo by Anna Moreno

At one time, there was a scoreboard, then a clock, and then in the end, games were timed by cell phone.

The hoopers were lawyers, an ABA player, young transplants, downtowners sneaking away from work for 90 minutes, and of course, the unemployed.

Lunch-time games ignored the standard meritocracy, opting instead for a form of basketball socialism, where winners couldn’t play more than two games in a row if guys were waiting — every game guaranteed an argument over what the score actually was.

The characters made this place special. There was Black Mo (presumably for Maurice), Indian Mo (presumably for Mohammed,) and Old Mo (Presumably for… Morris?). There was Jim the hack, with the surprisingly young wife, whose big Halloween joke was coming dressed as a referee; Cha, who reeked of menthol and was missing most of his front teeth. You liked everybody, but also kind of hated everyone simultaneously. Guys brought out the best of athletic competition in each other.

On my sixth day living in San Diego, I ventured into the Downtown Y for the first time. At the front desk I was asked “do you like playing basketball?” Although my answer was yes, the truth was I was over it; the rejection, and inadequacy I still felt from a failed playing career – in the shadow of a deceased parent with a largely successful playing career.

Four months removed from graduation, with money to burn and time to kill, I looked for basketball because it was familiar. What I found was a passion for something that had long been joyless.

Thank god for the Y. Lunchtime ball, Wednesday night run and Saturday morning pickup were my salvation during my first year in San Diego.

The ten months between October 2012 and August 2013 could have been a difficult time. In a new city, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; instead it probably goes down as the best period of my entire life.

I needed a reprieve — time to gather myself, to re-group and heal. I found that on the basketball court, the place that had functioned for so long as my symbolic undoing.

By May of 2014 the Y was different.

Financial strain led to increased prices, the Wednesday night and Saturday morning crew stopped coming and even the lunchtime bread and butter game saw decreased numbers.

As with the unrelenting nature of adulthood, more work meant less basketball.

The lasting impact this community had on its members is obvious. Ballers came out in droves last Halloween to play one final time.

The Final Pilgrimage of the Lunch Ballers
The Final Pilgrimage of the Lunch Ballers

Guys who hadn’t been around in months or in some cases years showed up; one dude flew in from Tennessee, some didn’t even come to play, instead just to be there one last time.

Maybe it’s that mid-20s wistfulness; you’re still so young but you feel an entirety of life changes in front of you — in an instant 21 is 25 and then 30. Marriage, kids, spreadsheets, and death; how many of the older guys played their last pickup game that Friday?

We see our own mortality when a place closes: There will always be more basketball, until there isn’t.