A while back, for the first and only time in my life, I hit six free throws in a row. I was alone on my side of the court, so I looked around to see if anyone had taken notice of this, the pinnacle of my basketball life. I longed to hear the crowd going wild. At the other end of the court a couple of kids in their teens took shots from around the perimeter with a third fellow, a stocky guy in his mid-20s decked in a sweat suit emblazoned with the official seal of the University of Minnesota. The younger teen, sporting a smudged Knicks jersey, appeared to be about 16. He and I were about the same size and build, a lanky 5 feet 10 inches. His 18- or 19-year-old pal, a bean pole draped in an oversized T-shirt with the words “Shaq Attack” on it, had a good two or three inches over the rest of us. The threesome shared two very well-worn basketballs.
“You wanna run?” the Shaq-man called out. Street talk has changed since my day. It sounded like a sincere question, lacking any threatening tone to suggest he was telling me to scram. It sounded almost like he was asking me if I wanted to play.
I am 38 years old. I have a slight paunch, which is why I started going to the solitary basketball court in the park next to the yacht basin around the corner from my apartment. I live but a few short blocks away from the Gulf of Mexico. I imagined pleasant afternoons shooting hoops by myself, perhaps in the presence of the slightest of breezes, the traces of salt and seaweed borne lightly to cool and soothe me in repayment for my exertions.
I have my routine: I bend and stretch on the lawn next to the court for 10 minutes or so; then I try layups for another 10 or 15 minutes. Lastly, loose and limber, I shoot exactly 100 free throws before calling it quits.
I love shooting free throws. Shooting free throws is one of the few activities that allow at one and the same time intense concentration and a full play of the imagination. I imagine it must have been basketball that gave us that wonderful all-encompassing metaphor “on the line” as in “with one second left and his team down by a point, Berberich steps up to the line to shoot one and one. Holy moly, the championship is on the line, folks!” Concentration and imagination, that’s all it takes, concentration and imagination. A bloke can get away with saying things like that on the day he nails six free throws in a row.
If I get off to a late start I am sometimes chased off the court by young teens just getting out of school. As for the three guys at the other end of the court, Shaq-man and Minnesota Man were old enough not to be in school if they didn’t want to be. I decided that the Knickerbocker Kid, however, must be playing hooky. Either that or he dropped out of school so he could play basketball all day long. There have been days I would have liked to do the same.
To tell the truth, I am never actually run off the court by pubescent Charles Barkley wannabes. I know that I do not belong on the court with boys. I am not one of them. We play for different reasons. They play because, in a sense, they have to. Mother Nature has them running on high octane, whereas I run on regular unleaded. I just want to drop a few pounds and keep the oP heart thumping at an accelerated pace for an hour or so three or four times a week to keep the doctor from giving me a hard time during my annual checkup. Still, I wondered, should I run with them?
I didn’t recognize any of these guys. On those days when the neighborhood crew shows up after school but before I have finished my hundred free throws, I simply take shots from the corner, not leaving until I sink one from 15 feet or so. Who knows, I could be run over by a bus or struck by lightning before my next workout on the courts. I would not want to die knowing I had missed the last shot at the buzzer. There are times when you get to write your own rules, and since such times come few and far between in real life, my rule is that no one runs me off the court ‘til I sink a game winner from the corner. Mission accomplished, I depart—usually grumbling something about kids not having enough homework these days. Never before had I been invited to play.
On those occasions when I completed my hundred free throws, my best performance came on a glorious, windless, sun-drenched afternoon when I knocked down a deadly 35 percent. I was so excited I went straight home and even before showering pored over the paper to see where I would rank in the NBA if, say, I had made my 35 of 100 free throws while playing for the Houston Rockets. Of course, Hakeem’s got nothing to worry about, but maybe down at the bottom of the statistics there was some benchwarming lunk I could boast I was better than.
So on the day when I made six free throws in a row, this young man asked me if I wanted to “run.” I hadn’t played in a street game in 20 years, at least.
“I’m just an old, out-of-shape guy,” I proffered. “I’m no good.” íf that charming piece of fluff, “White Men Can’t Jump,” was good for nothing else, it at least made studs on the street look upon such claims as mine with a modicum of skepticism.
Shaq-man said, “We need four. We can’t run with three.”
I hesitated. Sensing my reluctance, the Knickerbocker Kid blurted out, “I seen you shoot”
That did it: I, the guy always picked last on any team, the guy who the high school RE. coach once called “Meat”—the wit of which was not lost on the rest of the class who cracked up laughing and called me Meat for the rest of the year; I who had never lettered in any sport in my life, who had once been stood up on a date by the prettiest girl in the school only to discover, when I went to the movie alone, that my dream girl had slipped into the movie just after the lights dimmed and sat through the movie in the back row making out with the catcher on the baseball team, a lummox whose fingers had the shape of cucumbers and whose greatest intellectual achievement was that he invented the classroom entertainment of taking a pea shooter and shooting spit wads at the blackboard to see if he could dot the “i” before the teacher could.
The teacher in that class, Ms. Effie Griswold, was an aged and infirm but kindly dowager, so it was never quite certain who would win the race to’dot the chalked “i” In fact, once after she dropped her chalk on the floor and stooped to pick it up we held a contest, with the whole class shooting little white flecks of chewed paper to see who could come closest to dotting the “i.” By the tinie Ms. Griswold got back about the business of dotting the “i,” the blackboard looked like a map of the Milky Way with an entire galaxy of spit wads clustered around the “i” in a great, looping swirl that would have made Carl Sagan proud. Looking at the bespeckled board, Ms. Griswold stopped suddenly and turned slowly toward the class. Then she set the chalk down, removed her glasses, took out a handkerchief and commenced wiping her lenses. Turning back to face the board, she paused, started to set the chalk down again, stopped, sighed, and at last, with an almost palsied hand, set about completing the sentence on the board. At any rate, I was no good at that sport either.
You understand, then, just how susceptible I was to the flattering faux pas by the Knickerbocker Kid. I had made six free throws in a row and, to top it off, someone in the world had noticed! Surely this was my day. How could I refuse to run? How could life get any better?
“So how do we choose up?” I asked, long out of touch with street etiquette.
“First two,” Shaq-man replied, bouncing a worn pee-wee-sized ball twice before canning a perfect shot which dropped through the’ broken chain net with a nice ka-chink sound. I stepped up to the line, balanced the ball in my hands, twirled and bounced it once, raised it, cocked, released, followed through, and watched the ball hit the left side of the rim, rattle around inside the hoop a couple of times, and fall to the side, thus ending my streak. The shot was close enough that I had saved face, however. “Bad luck,” the Knickerbocker Kid said. He still thought I could shoot. Some things truly are eternal, and I remained thankful for one of those verities— that young men are tenaciously unwilling to give up their illusions.
Minnesota Man, the mid-20ish fellow, uncorked a shot from the top of the key. His was a smooth, fluid shot, and though his shot hit the front of the steel and caromed right back to his hands, clearly he had a natural touch. The Knickerbocker Kid, my deluded admirer, quickly knocked down a jumper, and the teams were set: It would be the young guns versus the old bums. Heck, I was easily at least 10 years older than anyone else on the court; I pondered, Was this what it felt like for Kareem in his dotage? Would my very first game in the big time also be my farewell tour?
The match-ups needed no discussion. I stacked up well against the Knickerbocker Kid, if for no other reason than he was still under the illusion that I could shoot. I wondered how long I could keep him fooled. Minnesota Man would guard Shaq-man, mostly because he had far greater upper body strength than I, undoubtedly developed by many long winters of shoveling snow.
“Which ball?” I asked, utterly convinced they would choose mine. It was by far the newest ball, and it was the only one that was properly inflated.
Shaq-man quickly discarded the pee-wee ball. My new teammate, Minnesota Man, took my ball and unleashed a perfect swisher from his favorite spot at the top of the key. “It feels a little slippery, but it’ll do,” he said.
The Knickerbocker Kid passed my ball back out to Shaq-man who, without a dribble, lofted a 12-footer that swirled around the hole before spinning out. “I like this one better,” he said, picking up the velvety soft but somewhat underinflated third ball that the threesome had shared while shooting around.
“Suit yourself,” said Minnesota Man. I fell a twinge. My perfectly good ball had been rejected in favor of a ball that had about as much appeal as a wilted head of cabbage. Of course, I took it personally—who wouldn’t?—but being the new kid on the block, so to speak, I said nothing.
To start the game, I inned the ball to Minnesota Man who, covered by the Shaq-man, swept around to the right corner and then snapped a pass back to me, darting straight toward the hoop from half court with the Knickerbocker Kid trailing from my backside. He was beat. There was a problem, though. I had to slow my charge to the net just a tad to compensate for the damn slow bounce of this wimpy ball. Shaq-man spun away from his man and scrambled to cut off my drive. I dished the ball back to Minnesota Man who set himself and knocked down the bucket to give us the first score and a 1-0 lead.
For the next few minutes we learned about one another, cutting in and out, pushing and shoving, twisting, turning and taunting. “Man, you older than Moses!” the Knickerbocker Kid whined goodnaturedly. I’ve certainly had worse said of me. I set the record straight, informing him that í taught Malone everything he knows.
The Shaq-man had quick hands and could connect from anywhere on the court. The Knickerbocker Kid preferred to shoot from the left side of the court. My earlier impression about Minnesota Man’s nice touch proved true. And with some sharp passing, I tried to delay the discovery that, as a basketball player, I was an imposter. My greatest asset was self-knowledge: I knew I was lousy, my six free throws in a row notwithstanding.
Within minutes, Minnesota Man and I were down 5-3. One of our points came when I made an easy layup, this time because Shaq- man stayed on his man, leaving me an easy garbage shot.
Already feeling winded, I suddenly found myself guarding the Shaq-man one on one. In the backcourt we crouched face to face. Suddenly he took a quick step to my left. I expected him to blow right by me. But in that instant I discovered something crucial: Shaq-man, too, had to slow down to wait for the ball to bounce back up. I reached in and tapped the ball out of bounds. What a sucker! He’d been set up and duped by Minnesota Man. My teammate had commented on the slipperiness of my relatively new ball but said it would do, and the Shaq-man, fearing some slight advantage in our favor, had insisted on a ball that took away his quickness. Indeed, I thought, old age and treachery do overcome youth and inexperience. No longer worried about being unable to keep up with my man, I commenced making a pest of myself on defense.
Something else became readily apparent. Neither the Shaq-man nor the Knickerbocker Kid much liked to pass the ball. If we double-teamed the Kid, half the time he’d toss up a brick and then mutter “Sheeyit!” when the shot missed. Collapsing our defense to double-team the Shaq-man when he got close to the bucket posed a different problem. Shaq-man liked to take the ball to the hole whether he had a shot or not. If his shot was off, with his height and vertical leap he stood a better chance of grabbing the offensive board and slamming home the follow-up shot.
Via craftiness and duplicity, we caught up with the young guns, tying the score at 8. A minute later, I deflected a shot by the Knickerbocker Kid, Minnesota Man snagged the loose ball, juked Shaq-man off his feet by feigning a jumper, and then scooted underneath for an uncontested Iayup.
We could not hold the lead. The Knickerbocker Kid quickly dropped a shot of such exquisite beauty that the chains seemed untrifled as the ball slipped through with nary a whisper. The shot was of such perfection even the Shaq-man smiled.
After another exchange of points, at just about the time the Kid had me figured out for the poseur that I was, I pulled up for a shot but had to hold back when the Knickerbocker Kid engulfed me with a smothering defense. His arms waved up and down, back and forth, and his hands reached out, almost stripping the ball from me at one point. When no outlet pass developed, I unfurled a 10-foot hook shot. The chains rattled, the Kid shook his head, and once again my team had a one point lead. He seen me shoot, all right! I think I had hit a shot like that once back in the sixth grade but certainly hadn’t hit one since then. It’s easy enough to remember such moments of glory when they only happen once every 20 years. And on a day when you hit six free throws in a row, what’s the harm in trying a rusty hook shot as well?
With us holding an edge 13-12 and me mismatched against the Shaq-man, the Knickerbocker Kid whipped a sharp cross-court pass, and before I knew it the Shaq-man was airborne. I had but a split second to make my decision. With complete abandon and selflessness I could throw my body in Shaq-man’s way, take the charge, block the shot, and hope my family spent the payoff on my life insurance wisely, or I could slide halfway out of the way and duck. I ducked. I held onto my glasses, all the better with which to see the two shoes, toes pointed downward, which floated by six inches from my face. I could smell leather. The Shaq-man rammed the ball through the steel, held onto the quivering rim with both hands, and released a primal scream. I cowered.
There was no hiding the fact any longer. As it always does, the truth reared its ugly visage. I stood exposed. I really was no good.
Minnesota Man inned the ball to me, and I swept around to the left corner. His right hand reaching toward my face, the Knickerbocker Kid stayed between me and the basket. Shaq-man and Minnesota Man jostled each other for position just to the right of the basket. Carefully guarding the ball, bouncing it low to the ground and away from my body, I shouldered my way toward center court. î stopped right at the free-throw line. Suddenly Minnesota Man cut from the front side of the court and streaked back toward the top of the key. I froze the Knickerbocker Kid by eyeing the basket and then flipped the ball blind behind my back, a perfect shuffle to my partner who swept around to my left, leaving Shaq-man in his wake. Pulling up, he banked an easy jumper. At 14-13, we were one point away from victory.
The Kid got the in-bounds pass to the Shaq-man. Hoping for a pass on a fast break, the Kid broke straight for the net but, stepping in front of him, I refused to budge. Like so many of his unruly counterparts these days, he had lost all respect for his elders. He tried forcing his way through me to the hoop. Our shoulders bumped, our arms entangled, and then í shoved him away to the outside. No matter. Shaq-man had no intention of passing the ball. Pivoting left, then spinning right, Shaq-man launched his shot from 12 feet. The ball curled from the right to the left of the rim, whipping out on my side. I had position, went up, brought down the rebound with both hands, and then flared my elbows, swinging them back and forth in my best Bill Laimbeer imitation. If we scored now the game would be ours.
With the Knickerbocker Kid between me and the hoop, I had no shot. I cleared the key. Minnesota Man wandered backcourt, waiting open for the ball. Shaq-man played him loose, giving him the open half-court shot. I considered using my hook shot again. After all, if I could hit six free throws in a row, why not go for back-to-back sky hooks? The Knickerbocker Kid pressed his left hand against my chest, his right hand waving in blocking position. His eyes darted back and forth between me and Minnesota Man. The Kid wasn’t worried about me in the least. Obviously, neither was the Shaq-man.
Minnesota Man moved all the way to the back line. Clearly the Shaq-man was willing to gamble against him taking and making a half-court shot. Should the shot miss, the rebound would assuredly go to the Shaq-man, who’d have an easy slam to tie the game. I dished the ball cleanly back to Minnesota Man, who took a couple of steps up and before the Shaq-man could get there unloaded a 24-foot bomb. Ka-chink. Nuthin’ but net!
We exchanged quick pleasantries and then almost immediately dispersed. The Knickerbocker Kid scooped his pee-wee ball from the lawn behind the pole, and then he and Shaq-man headed off, laughing and joking. I wondered about the kind of life that an out-of-school 16-year-old returns to. Minnesota Man meandered towards the yacht basin, every once in a while tossing his underinflated ball from one hand to the other. I stuck around for a few moments, first to catch my breath, then to sink my obligatory corner shot at the buzzer before leaving.
Post Script: I am no longer able to shoot free throws or “run” in pickup games. The City’s Parks and Recreations Department shut down the basketball court in the park by the yacht club. Basketball courts are nice things to have in upscale neighborhoods so long as nobody ever really uses them. Or so long as only the “right” people use them.
The Parks and Rec secretary I spoke with claimed that Galveston was just following a “national trend” in the closing of outdoor public basketball courts. In middle-class neighborhoods, that is. The stated reason for the closing of the courts was that they had become “havens for drug dealing and gathering places for young criminals.” Closing the courts was the “only” answer these imaginative bureaucrats could devise. The unstated reason for the closing of the courts, of course, is that they drew black youths into middle-class, largely white neighborhoods.
The irony is that the courts were shut down because they did exactly what they were supposed to do: They extended the “boundaries” of the neighborhood, drawing together people who would not otherwise be part of the same community. And that, it seems, is still a problem in America today.