The trip back to PA last week was pretty tolerable, especially considering it was two days before Christmas, and the bus was full of the usual suspects who make that once-a-year trip. What made it nice was the sun was out, and it looked like they got a lot less snow than we did in NYC – a few inches as opposed to a foot. The fields and farms between Easton and Lehighton were coated a perfect white and put me in the right frame of mind. And my morning run on Christmas Eve was the same: sunny, brisk and unbroken white fields everywhere I went along the backroads.
Of course, it pissed a cold, cold rain the next two days, I ate like a hog, and the cat hair drove me so nuts in the dead of winter that I had to leave a day early. Of course, it’s all gravy compared to the Christmas of 2004 when Dad passed on. But a real mixed bag nonetheless. One thing that struck me, with that small patch of nice weather, and the sight of so many unattended basketball rims in schoolyards and driveways, was how much I used to play basketball as a kid.
Basketball came in on the tail end of football in our neighborhood sports world, which meant early December. We’d all just put down the football and spend more time getting into basketball games in the local schoolyard next to our house. Football, after a certain point, would only occur if it snowed, and we could indulge in those much-loved “snow games” which were fun. (I really didn’t enjoy playing football after awhile – I could see we were all getting too big to be doing this shit without supervision or protection, and didn’t see the point of getting my head kicked in to prove what a bad-ass I was in the neighborhood.)
I loved basketball simply because I was good at it. Football and baseball, I’d usually get picked just above or middle of the pack. We were all reasonably good players. If a kid wasn’t, he simply stopped playing after awhile. Thus, there wasn’t that “last guy picked” vibe so many disgruntled adults complain about regarding their youth. Basketball, I was the one. I either picked the team or was the first picked. For one reason only: my set shot was literally about 80% accurate, some days closer to 90%. Sounds outrageous? It was. I could score from anywhere on the court – the farther away, the better. Put two guys on me, and I’d still score. It was a rare game where I’d screw the pooch and make my team lose by errant hot-dogging. And we’d normally play to 50 or 100, by ones, depending on how much time we had. These games would get nutty, like a board game that drags on for hours and finds the fortune of the players changing dramatically over time. One team would be down 75-40 and end up winning 100-97. Just crazy shit sometimes.
Did this prowess on the court transfer to high-school ball? No, despite the fact that the coaches I had in junior high and freshman year saw I could put the ball in from all over the court. We’d have free-throw practice at the end of each practice, the object being keep going until you miss a shot. I’d normally go through 30 shots or so before missing. When I got into games, again, I could hit from anywhere.
The problems? Defensively, I was a pretty average player, surely nothing special. And I didn’t understand plays, as we never used them in neighborhood ball. Plus, the plays always seemed designed to get the ball as close to the rim as possible – I wasn’t nearly as good inside as I was out. Still, my specialty was swishing the ball from the side court just outside the three-point line. Another thing I had to realize was there were other guys in the school who were just better than I was, this guy Nick in particular, a great guy who’s now a state cop, just a great all-around player who was an even better long shooter than I was, too. I would back him up after the coach toyed with starting me, but put me down when he saw I wasn’t fitting into the other roles – too short to be a center, not quick enough for guard, and the other forward was a great defender, if nothing special offensively.
So, I said fuck it after freshman year and stopped playing for the high-school team. What do I remember most about that season? This time of year. Steamed-up school buses driving through the snow, to cramped rural gyms, wearing our uniforms under our clothes, so we could strip off like Superman and be ready for the court. And Billy Joel’s album The Stranger. One of the kids had it on eight-track and played it incessantly. (Think it came out in the fall of 1977, but rest assured, it was still being played to death a year later.) The album is burned into my mind for that reason. Every time I hear the title track, I feel like it’s the winter of ’78 and I’m on my way to a game in Tamaqua or Mahanoy City. We even nicknamed the cute cheerleader/starting guard couple “Brenda and Eddie” after the characters in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Another thing that occurred to me later: I was simply more geared towards the rim, type and height, of the backboard in the schoolyard, which was a rusting old hunk of metal on an uphill incline. It was probably about three inches or so shorter than a regulation rim, and bent down in front. Understand that I’d spend hundreds of hours practicing on this rim. So my touch was geared towards that very specific type of shooting, which does make a difference when playing on a regulation-length basket on a flat wood surface. I was still a pretty good shot, but not the dead-eye I was on that shitty schoolyard court.
When I say I played day and night, I’m not joking. Many times, I’d be up there alone, sometimes in the dark, shooting by the light of the moon, and making it. I learned to judge my shots by the feel of the ball leaving my fingers, not what I was seeing, and I’d be just as accurate at night. That wasn’t such an abnormal thing in winter. We wouldn’t play after dark, meaning after 5:00 or so in December and January, but there was nothing wrong with shooting baskets after dark, and it wasn’t like I was out there until midnight. Most nights, I’d wrap it up and 7:00. My neighbor, Pat S., who was also a pretty good player who did well on the local Catholic-school team, would come down and join me some nights.
If it snowed, I was the first one out there to shovel out the court after clearing out our cars and walkways. This is what I was thinking about most on that drive home a few days ago. None of the kids along the way loved the game enough to shovel out the court, which I did routinely back then. Just enough to have a foot or two outside the normal lines of play. And we found that the concept of showing up dressed for the tundra was ludicrous. We had rubber balls for days like this, as opposed to leather, so they’d bounce in cold weather, and we’d start playing, and surely be sweating our asses off after about 20 points on either side. The play along the lines could be intense and often ended up with guys splayed out in the snow along the sides, which was a kick if one wasn’t too embarrassed over how he ended up there.
The best nights, though, were me alone out there, shooting under a full moon, court freshly shoveled, I could see my breath in the dark, feel the cold air in my lungs, and pumping in shot after shot from way outside. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Before high-school ball, I surely thought I was going to be a star, as we all do with various sports when we were kids. I’d get the same vibe playing tennis a few years later, and would become a good player, but nothing like a professional, or even great amateur. After I gave up on the high-school version, it occurred to me that I simply liked playing the game, this way, with no designed plays and no player set to be the star of each play. Whoever had the hot hand, feed him the ball and let him do his thing – and that was usually me in the schoolyard. When I was by myself, it was simply a good way to get out of the house, get some fresh air and do something constructive, even if it had no net effect that I could use in the “real world.” A waste of time? Sure, but I wasn’t hurting anybody, and my “alone” time as a kid was severely curtailed by seven people in a house meant for four. And a neighborhood full of howling, tail-end baby boomers who were always up to some kind of semi-evil shit or another. It was a pleasure to be able to do something I was good at, by myself, on a winter’s night.
That rusty, old, cast-iron backboard came down years ago … I can’t even recall. Maybe in the late 80s or early 90s? There’s a day-care center in that old school now next door to the house back there, and that whole area where we once played all our neighborhood sports has been replaced with a playground for toddlers. In warmer months when I go back there, those kids come out every hour on the hour, running around doing their kid things, teasing each other, laughing, weeping, stirring up shit, making friends and enemies. So not much has really changed back there. I haven't touched a basketball in years and have no inclination to do so. Adult leagues seem a bit half-assed to me, and from what I've seen, most of the guys play like apes anyway, all bad fouls and mediocre hot-dogging.
Still, I can’t help but think on some winter’s night, the ghost of my teenage self is back there, in his ragged hand-me-down clothes, hooded sweatshirt and kelly-green Philadelphia Eagles knit cap, bouncing the ball, throwing it in the air, satisfying swoosh and snap of ball hitting nothing but net, ball bounces, repeat about 150 times, maybe humming an Alan Parsons Project song every now and then, coming in for some hot chocolate and a night of bad TV. I guess anything seemed possible on those nights in the middle of nowhere, even if nothing ever happened.