Editors note: I wrote this originally for a quarterly newsletter for Intel Finance in Oregon. Marc thought I should share it with the rest of you.
There are really only two plays: Romeo and Juliet, and put the darn ball in the basket. -- Abe Lemons
Why Basketball Matters
P.S. Don’t call me a Hoosier, that slur is reserved for the rednecks from the wrong part of the state
I grew up in Indiana and I am tall. My fate was pretty much sealed right there. My wife knew when she married me I would always have a mistress on the basketball court. She patiently indulges my passion – why is anyone’s guess. Basketball has kept me from my wife on Valentine’s Days for most of the 12 years we have been married, including our first six; I left the hospital ten hours after our firstborn to go play basketball; my wife looks forward to her mid-June birthday not because she is excited about another birthday, but because it means the long NBA season is drawing to a close. My wife understands that this is part of the deal. I come with basketball.
When I was a boy, I would race from my house bouncing a lopsided, discolored Voit™ basketball. The ball spinning against my little fingers, I aimed for the chipped, bent hoop at the end of our cul-de-sac. Though the pavement was cracked and sometimes filled with gravel or grass, whenever I passed the Archibald’s house the court transformed itself into a basketball palace. The rim was no longer 9’10” on one side and 10’ on the other, the net was not gray and threadbare. It was a gleaming glass rectangle with a perfectly painted rim and brand new net, the kind that made the authentic swish sound and popped back through the rim like a raindrop on a pond. The Norman’s house transformed into a grandstand filled with adoring fans, the oaks and maples that filled the ravine behind the hoop cheered for me too. I was no longer a marginally coordinated kid heaving jump shots from my hip; I was Magic Johnson spinning down the lane to make a game-winning shot or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flicking in a skyhook to defeat the hated Boston Celtics. I played in the summer when the Midwestern humidity would leave the ball slick with sweat and I would play in the winter when the snowplows had pushed mounds of snow underneath the hoop that allowed me to make believe I was James Worthy tomahawking the ball through the rim.
I have since played basketball on the sandy blacktops of a Southern California beach on parquet courts in - of all places - Boston and on baskets hung off of barns hidden off of country roads and in glossy college arenas that almost lived up to my childhood dreams and even on courts as far flung as the Arctic Circle in Sweden. I have gone to the gym to shoot away the tension of an uncertain job prospect. I have banged in the low post after a frustrating day of work. I have cut through a 2-3 Zone to forget, for an hour, the pain of a lost parent. I have played basketball to honor the last day of school. I celebrate my annual reunion with my brother with a particularly spirited one-on-one battle, elbows flying and gums flapping.
Basketball hasn’t always treated me kindly. Games have left me with a variety of floor burns, jammed fingers, sore and strained muscles and occasionally with stitches or twisted ankles. Those physical injuries are easier than dealing with a poorly played or lost game. I can still remember vividly the details of an intramural game I lost nearly ten years ago and that’s to say nothing of games from my high school years that I can remember or, perhaps even worse, games from the past couple of years when I should be wise enough to use my limited gray matter more effectively. “I should quit,” I think occasionally. But it is not a real thought – I can’t quit basketball.
I can’t quit basketball because I love making those quintessential basketball plays – the kind seen on highlight shows and the kind even the most casual observer would recognize as a basketball play. I’ve dunked on people (yes, even on regulation rims) and been dunked on. I’ve hit game-winning jumpers and watched other teams hit those game-winning jump shots. There are other moments, though, that only the most ardent fan and player would recognize much less appreciate: the perfectly executed backpick to free a teammate for an open basket; a pass feathered just past the defenders’ outstretched fingertips; outleaping and outwrestling an opponent for a loose rebound; rotating to cover a cutter on defense; the sustained eyeballs-on- belly-buttons, crouching with feet and arms spread wide to turn away to frustrate a good offensive opponent for an entire game. The kind of uncanny closeness that can only be forged on a basketball court, the kind that allows me to throw a pass without looking and know that my teammate will not only catch the pass, but that he was expecting it. These are the moments that have seared basketball to my heart
And so even though I’ve (mostly) outgrown my youthful fantasies about being an NBA player, stepping onto a basketball court remains a transformative experience. As my responsibilities pile up – work, parenting, being a spouse, keeping the house from falling apart, civic and church duties, and so on – it takes longer and longer for those externalities to completely fade away and basketball’s grip to fully overtake me. But as I step onto the court and dribble the basketball, feeling that ball spin against the palm of my hand, I can feel it spread from the tips of my fingers into my shoulders, releasing the tension held there, and into my feet, gently pushing me onto my toes, ready to compete. Ready to play.
When I was a boy and called home to dinner, I would make that slow transformation back into the ungainly boy with the rubber ball. I still make that transformation today when I leave the courts, piling my gear into my car and driving home. I do it knowing that I will be back in a few days to set another screen, hit a driving layup and tip away a pass. And I know the basketball will spin into my hand and give me another hour or two of devotion.