complex simplicity

When my two separate weekly pickup basketball games were cancelled because of Covid-19 back in mid-March 2020, it seemed like a necessary, and hopefully short, interruption of a longtime tradition. I’d been playing with one group for 15 years, the other for at least 4.

As the weather warmed, some of the regulars returned to playing outdoors, but I stayed away until I was able to get vaccinated. I missed basketball, but men breathing and sweating on you isn’t a selling point at the best of times; with a pandemic raging, it seemed like a no-brainer to opt out. Thus, what started as a precautionary pause turned into the longest basketball layoff of my adulthood.

Basketball has occupied an important place in my life, even though my introduction to the sport, in a local league when I was about 9 years old, was an ignominious experience, marked by one basket made during the entire season. For that, I earned the Most Improved Player award, which goes to show the value of keeping expectations low.

In high school, I rediscovered the sport through local pickup games, and devoted much of my free time to playing and hanging out at the schoolyard. Friendships were made and solidified on the court, and whether those friends now live in Staten Island, Hamilton, or elsewhere, we still recall fond, usually funny, memories from the courts at P.S. 32 and P.S. 8.

It’s said that organized sports teach skills like self discipline, communication, teamwork, and leadership. But pickup ball teaches you a lot, too, and maybe more. For one thing, you’re drawing from a wider, more diverse range of personalities, from the would-be superstar who didn’t have the grades to play on the high school team, to the weird, quiet guy who can’t run or play defense, but hits three-point shots with mind-boggling consistency.

During my prime days of schoolyard ball, I played with a Vietnam vet who also taught us obscure card games and allowed me to raid his extensive music collection. There was a kid from Uruguay who gave me my first, and to this day, only real experience using my high school Spanish education in actual conversations; his arrival also confirmed to one of our geographically-challenged companions that Uruguay did in fact exist, and was not something we “just made up.”

Another guy earned a solid 15 minutes of fame not through his exploits on the court, but those in the court, years later, after running a meth lab and leading police on a cross-country chase. He paused during the pursuit to call and inform the media, as well as any police who happened to be paying attention, about his intended destination: “I’m on my way to sunny California, baby!” This is not the kind of person who earns a varsity letter.

I also met an older guy, about 50 at the time, who possessed a bowling-ball gut, a decent bank shot, loads of unjustified confidence, and B.O. that could stop an elephant. For obvious reasons, we called him “Smelly,” though never to his face.

Thankfully, he never took his shirt off, as many older guys did on hot days; apparently, even a guy nicknamed “Smelly” can retain a modicum of decency. He didn’t need to repulse us with bare skin, though—even through a T-shirt, Smelly knew how to use his gut, and his stink, to keep defenders at a distance.

His favorite unsportsmanlike behavior was goading opponents into mistakes via trash-talking. He’d say almost anything to distract or intimidate the competition, but perhaps his favorite line was the classic “Lookin’ for a little humble?” I once wrote a story about a guy who challenges Death to a basketball game for the fate of his life, equally inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and of course, Smelly.

A few years later, another foray into organized basketball proved a disaster when a fellow graduate assistant and I gathered together a bunch of misfit undergrads to go up against the frat house teams in the St. John’s University intramural league. It sounds like the plot of an inspiring underdog sports movie, but actually it was a dark comedy at best. Authority issues, personality issues, teamwork issues... we didn’t just need more practice, we also needed a team psychologist.

Since then, I’ve kept formal commitments to a minimum, playing at parks, schools and church gymnasiums in Hamilton and virtually every town within a half hour’s drive. I’ve played with ex-cons and ex-Olympians, engineers and educators, and even a future NBA pro. I’ve teamed up with Catholics, Jews, evangelical Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, not to mention Trump supporters, Trump haters, and everything in between. I wouldn’t necessarily tout basketball as the perfect bridge to tolerance and understanding, but if you pass, play defense, and aren’t a jerk, the rest usually falls into place.

There are a number of books that purport to teach life philosophies through a particular sport, and basketball is no exception. But while many of these books will take a common coaching phrase like “Don’t miss the easy lay-up” and cast that metaphor wide, applying it to work, romance, and parenting, I choose to find wisdom through the sages of schoolyard ball.

Smelly’s “Lookin’ for a little humble?” is the perfect invitation to basketball, any other sport, or yes, life in general. As with baseball, even pro basketball players fail most of the time: the average NBA player’s field goal percentage is about 46%. But more than stats, the very act of putting one’s aging, often injured body up against players who seem to get younger and quicker every year demands a level of modesty; being an aging athlete is nothing if not humbling. And yet, echoes from ancient ballers answer my complaints, bluntly: “This guy’s an antique. He’s older than the park,” and “You suck, that’s your disease.”

Many who’ve played have experienced the glory of being “in the zone,” when all your shots seems to fall—until, all of a sudden, they don’t. Basketball drives ego and is often ego-driven, but inevitably, it confirms that everyone has limits, and that it’s about the journey, not the destination, or—sorry, Sixers fans—”The Process,” and not the results.

Even the best ever—whether you consider that a reference to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or someone else—can only say “I WAS the best,” past tense. Personally, I avoided radical reassessments by never scaling such heights to begin with. No one ever confused me for the greatest, but I always had fun trying.

With Covid-19 and its variants currently in check in New Jersey, I recently returned to playing regularly. Some rust showed in my game, and my muscles were tight for a week afterward. Then, last week, I was shooting alone when an eighteen year old asked if I wanted to play HORSE—the simple game of matching another player’s successful shot. He was an ex-high school basketball player, now a football wide receiver and safety in college, and as we played, I demonstrated some of the more imaginative HORSE shots I’d learned years ago, from a certain musically-inclined Vietnam vet. After a couple of games, I suggested switching to one-on-one, even though I had a pretty good idea how it would go. Sure enough, the kid’s three point shooting skills, along with a quick first step off the dribble, proved tough to handle. But it was fun to try.

I told him about facing guys who didn’t bathe, or used their sweaty, shirtless bodies to repel defenders into granting some extra space. I’d showered the day before, but stripped off my shirt anyway. Some things never change, and we antiques need all the help we can get.

Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His latest work, “Call Waiting,” will be available to view at idleink.org Aug. 8. His book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).