The park is hardly a block away, where lighted ball diamonds come into view on ducking through branches. There, too, is a fenced acre for unleashed dogs, a half dozen tennis courts with yellow balls flying and, close by, a game of summertime hoop under the lights, a scrambling, squeaking, stampede of sweat and bodies on green tarmac. The city park teeming on a summer night. Circus maximus.
My wife is in Denver visiting her sister. Lonely in the empty house, and having been a park-rat hoopster growing up, I meander down through the trees to take in some game. I’ve heard the players are college level, ringers driving in from out of town, a local three-point shooter home from the NCAA’s and invited to try out with the Celtics. A portable neon Scoreboard on the official’s table shows the score in red. You can sit on grass, on one side, or stand along the fence to follow the action. There are no bleachers. For seats and snacks, baseball will have to be your game, in a nearby, antiquated green box of covered stands.
Happy noise from the park, a neighbor told us when we moved in. She meant the crack of bats, the twang of metal line drives, the crescendos of hoop steals, passes, net lashings setting off outbursts from basketball spectators. Noise happy enough not to startle neighborhood old-timers choosing to watch television.
Lowering onto the grass, glancing to the side toward the playground, a curious thing happens: A guy in his mid-20s on a swing gives me a come-hither smile, a nod of the head. My eyes return front, hardly believing what just happened. I experience shock, amusement and embarrassment (having heard recently of an “old-guy fetish”) and avoid added glances in the direction of the swaying caballero. A moment later I spurt laughter. Incredible; I’m 62, gray, weighty.
Pushing to my feet, I drift to a length offence for a better view of the hoospters slamming, banging, leaping. Close-up, their size, strength, lung and jumping capabilities, their blind passes and direction reversals, their bursting with life, power, skill is awe-inspiring. Kids get ever better, I think. As play gallops the other way, I take in two women teasing a moose of a player—long faced, with awkward limbs—who stumbled to a knee and is returning to his feet. “Need a hand, big guy?” one of the women says. Old enough to be his mother, the women laugh and have me tittering, too, as much at them as with.
What’s with all this sex around a little action under the lights? After a moment, I begin to see and untangle what I guess I’ve known since about seventh grade. Sex and hoop. No doubt about it. Performing half-naked before coveys of squealing girls. A meat market on one hand, a thrill on the other. Natural selection. Women, too, showing their stuff, being identified and selected by spectators.
“She’s my favorite.”
“Don’t tell Bobby, but Number 11 is getting to me.”
Strolling on to the baseball fields, I bypass fries and dogs but submit to a Klondike to carry into the old, covered stands. Sexuality, if present, appears dormant in baseball’s sparsely attended horseshoe of bench seats above home plate. My view of the pitcher’s mound is one that only a millionaire could afford in a big-league park; the poetry of the game is palpable in the floodlit summer air and green darkness over the field. Baseball seems always to have been more reflective than explicit. Living history. Retro parks. Period uniforms. Occasional high kicks and high socks from a bygone era, restoration à la Williamsburg, staged by costumed actors.
One baseball skill diminishing through time, while others evolve, is the fine art of fielding and throwing. Rabbit balls and enhanced physiques notwithstanding, digging it out deep, turning the double play, firing a bullet from right center into the catcher’s mitt—the exquisite execution of hands and arms appears to be disappearing from the majors.
Might I add an anecdote? We’re talking sports, right? I’m a kid, 12 or 13, selling popcorn at Atwood Stadium. The Tigers come every summer for an exhibition with our AAA Flint Arrows, and every summer, on a grounder to third, the Tigers’ legendary third-baseman, George Kell, cuts down a runner like a father teasing a child. Kell is a major-leaguer. I see him up close when I hang over the dugout, and he signs a ball I won in a scramble and carried his way in my fist. His teeth are ivory yellow, the size of piano keys. From his eyes come a gloss as if from a shark visiting shallow waters, and when he waves and the ivories slide into view, I feel in proximity to a great white. In time, as always, his major-league throw. A skidding rocket is dug out at third. A runner commits heart and soul to reaching first. Kell shifts his weight like a creature repositioning in the water and, as the runner is steps away, unleashes a laser 30 inches above the ground that cuts him down— smack!—as his toe is inches from the bag. The umpire does his dramatic thing, and the stadium explodes. The piano keys glint; the shark eyes glow; the beast waves a gloved hand before slipping into his dugout lair.
Kell’s rifle arm has been replaced by Malibu boys flexing grotesque muscles, scanning their own reflections in each other’s shades, trying for one-handed catches, as balls bounce from thumbs and noggins. The big bats may go boom, but the near-forgotten craft of fielding and throwing can still take your breath away in the notes and phrases it conveys to the heart.
Hoop’s primal call hasn’t stopped pulling at my tainted old mind, or maybe at yours. “Poetry’s good field, no hit,” the poet Donald Justice liked to say in graduate school, and I only wish I’d said, in turn, that hoop is evolution, a mating game, compared to the period theater and asexual pretender that is baseball.
Hoop is the true national pastime. March madness, women’s hoop, male/female action on the playground, water-cooler debates, passionate loyalties in high school and college. Next to hoop, baseball is less about sport than about a gaggle of billionaires willing to spend money in obscene amounts. Little League presents problems, too, in the hands of adult could-have-beens. One field over—where I pass often throughout its brief season—Little League is played during dinner hours alone, given that it belongs not to the players but to fathers who are otherwise occupied during the day. Kids never play on their own. Standing at a fence, you can watch the dads pitching, catching, hitting grounders and fly balls and, most often, talking out their lifelong disappointments to benches of dumbfounded 11- and 12-year-olds. Compare those lectures and harangues to driveways and half-courts filled with hoop spontaneity, solitary imaginations, sexuality and intense excitement, girls in shoot-arounds on dates, games of horse and dragon, mixing it up three-on-three, full-court pick-up, and, as the day winds down, hard-driving summer league under the lights.
I’m astonished that I knew as a young player (without quite knowing at all) that sexuality was integral to basketball. The game’s power was gripping and, unlike baseball, it could be played alone and within your imagination. When the dog days of summer came on, when no one was interested in even a game of catch, any park rat could enter a hoop dream of one’s own making, or could scramble in a game of half-court as the sun dipped beneath tree lines and into nights of perspiration, passion and glimpsed possibilities.
Girls played then, too, though a different game. When the lights came on and you were in your zone, you could glance around in wonder as lipsticked beauties ducked into view like exotic moths with electrified sensibilities—though years would pass before I’d see how much more sophisticated and inclusive their game was than my own. Their curvaceous appeal triggered a desire in me to return to school in the fall, to wait breathlessly for try-outs to be announced and practices to begin. For despite having logged all those summer hours dribbling, shooting, and perfecting moves, basketball remained a winter sport. My first experience before a full house, in seventh grade, was an aural sensation unlike anything I had ever known. In time, sighs of sex and love proved as exciting and life-changing as an oceanic crowd at a game. Still, when identifying sounds I wish I might hear again, I can think of none more magical than that first full house—girls from my school leaping and squealing.
Parents and teachers stood and sat close as we auditioned, half-naked, just before them. Bleachers were unfolded along the glistening, golden surface of the floor, and there were shouts and waving hands, and then, alas, the chanting of my name. As a 13-year-old yet to shave, I was their man! I learned to avoid eye contact with anyone in the stands and to close my mind—if not my ears—to teases and cheers hooted from one side or another (If he can’t do it, nobody can!). The next day in school there would be shy smiles from girls, comments from women teachers, gestures of friendship from boys and men teachers. Self-esteem, confidence, cockiness (what a word!) soared.
By ninth grade the game intensified several times over. If electricity sparkled on summer nights when girls slipped into view between branches, a thousand spectators overflowing the stands was full electrification. Once more, the crowd was as intoxicating as any whisper or moan. You knew (or you wouldn’t have been there) that you were expected to show your stuff, display your speed and quickness, your brains and judgement, your courage and decisiveness, your inner strength. The prettiest and most popular girls, education and money, honors and invitations all might be yours. Your flat nose and crooked teeth, your bony shoulders and knobby knees might re-emerge as strong and good, as manly and capable in the eyes of those who had previously viewed you differently or not at all. Muscle, grit, imagination. Pulling air into your nostrils and executing intricate and convoluted calculations, taking courageous chances and having your way, exposing all but all of yourself, you might persuade others to take you, to let you take them to where none of you had ever been. Hoop magic. Talent and hard work. Now there was a lesson truly learned in the learning years.
The gathering around the green tarmac has thickened. Half a dozen young women approach below, as if to test my reading of hoop and sexuality under the lights. They enter, not from between trees, but from an adjacent parking lot and gather, talking and laughing. They assemble not far from where I stand. Two light up and puff smoke— they are luxuriant young women, a pleasure to see and hear. They crane their lovely necks, speak with their bodies, sway and inhale, convey their own magic of breasts, hips, hair and hands. I recognize one of the nonsmokers as a local tennis champion. One of the shorter women flags her hand but, failing to gain the attention of one player standing near a time-out circle, draws an outburst of hilarity from her cohorts.
“Teddy!” she shrieks. Hearing my childhood name sends a shock through my veins. One of the young bench players, circling his teammates as before, sends her the faintest of side-passing grins, acting, as do I, undistracted. My heart (and his, too, I suspect) reels.
Sensuous summer nights. Hormones nosing the gates, banging their heads like fìngerlings intent on the unknown sea. As a homely, red-haired kid with freckles and crooked teeth, I have to tell you, I never once managed to pull off a romantic encounter with a girl in the bushes or trees. I came close once, when the lights on the court had gone out for the night. I gripped, as a 12-year-old, a 12-year-old’s little breasts, in the darkened lee of a practice tennis wall. I’d have devoured her on the spot had she not run from my hunger.
The next day, I know, I returned to practicing my shot, a razzle-dazzle twist-in-the-air drive into the lane with a release over the shoulder (putting it out, taking it back, twisting through the air before letting it go). Returned, really, to making my play for nothing less than the stream of existence. The shot, one I practiced ten thousand times, could bring spectators to their feet, gasping, sighing, loving, minds changing about everything they had ever known. I can’t help but wonder what it might do for this old dog today if I could lay it off the board, off the page, off the back of your mind, dear reader, with just the right touch of sweet bounce and English.