I found glory on the pickup basketball court
I found glory on the pickup basketball court
Everything is collapsing. The senators are insider trading. The algorithm is relentlessly selling the most tepid, flavorless version of your life back to you. The last remaining industries are meal delivery apps, “cloud software,” and threadbare money laundering schemes. Your account has been deducted a fee and you’re just now hearing about it for the first time. We fluctuate between rage and limp nihilism and back again, and while this column won’t fix that, it will provide you with a small good thing to appreciate, a recognition of something weird and valuable and beautiful, despite it all.
For four years I have played pickup basketball every chance I get. I play with just-graduated college kids who pull up in gleaming Nissans, carrying Bluetooth speakers. Middle-aged men in DIY sweat shorts whose uncoiling jump shot looks like a medieval trebuchet launching and who each have a sort of curated arsenal of ancient, strangely effective post moves. Nineteen-year-olds who move with the agility of arcade characters and will obliterate your entire afternoon. Guys in their 30s who move with a weary creak that seems to startle them all over again each time their knees do not cooperate. We play on half-courts across the road from golf courses, at fenced-in courts next to churches, courts next to dog parks, YMCAs, poorly ventilated rec centers that stink of decades-old fermented sweat and rubber wrestling mats. Mixed-age intramural leagues against carpenters and plumbers whose torsos have the immovable heft of old cigarette machines.
I am not very good; I am a courageous and focused rebounder, if I had to make my case. But I think about basketball all the time. I am working on it. I watch videos of Allen Iverson from the 2002 All-Star Game. I watch Instagram videos of ex-junior college players demonstrating in and out dribbles, one-dribble pull ups, Eurostep reverse layups. If I go to a court and no one is there I devise bizarre drills for myself, which I have determined are useful for no reason besides that I am uncomfortable attempting them and that confronting this repeatedly must be a kind of powerful crucible. I shoot 10 shots from each of the 3-Point Contest locations. At the gym I do one legged box jumps to improve my vertical leap. Whether any of it is successful or not or if such a pursuit is deranged is irrelevant — here is the rare place where my trajectory is at least temporarily in my control, refining the physical self in a time when we have very few moments of identifiable progress otherwise. Repeat something relentlessly, see microscopic improvements over time. It has a sound logic.
There is something pure about it all, this shared and deeply-understood sublime mediocrity.
All of it functions for me the way golf, marathons, blown glass or the piano might for someone else — a hundred tiny confrontations with the limitations of the mind and body, the capacity to focus, the tolerance for exhaustion, all the time carving out expanded territory in my Skill Empire. Eventually you can play the entire song.
There is no greatness in these games; there will be brief moments of miraculous coordination but otherwise mostly the sobering grind of acrobatics crudely mimicked. But there is something pure about it all, this shared and deeply-understood sublime mediocrity, no one really fighting against the idea, modest passes and setting picks, everyone feeding a teammate during a fleeting, gorgeous hot streak. “Endurance” anywhere else in life is fancy corporate brand speak for “someone wringing more out of you than they are paying you”; in basketball, on the third consecutive game, while your quadriceps hilariously ignore every request to operate, “endurance” feels like something to admire and even close to heroic.
No one looks nimble or explosive or resembles any common perception of a basketball player. Everyone is heaving and drenched. I develop an ailment that I do not believe is dire but have diagnosed as “an Achilles thing.” At times pick-up basketball is something closer to poker — strategic use of a limited resource and on the fly attempts to read someone’s tendencies. But then, inexplicably, I execute for the first and only time all day an exquisite crossover that makes me feel as if I have conjured some distant, rumored-to-exist magic. Strangers will lunge in the opposite direction, I have deceived them in a way that is not just tolerated but celebrated and they will gasp that it all happened.
Everyone out there barely knows each other, and this itself can be exciting, adapting to each other on the fly, performing in a way that is very much within yourself but also something like micro-combat, a provocation, challenging some idea that someone has about me, very suddenly proving them wrong and even occasionally myself. Shoot a jump shot from 14 feet and have it carom off the backboard and clean through the net as the lean middle aged guys with sharp kneecaps think, this son of a bitch, and it feels like I am a perfect instrument and I bow to all the box jumps. In my brain is a tiny congregation and they only know my name. I am the last man alive and for hours they are shouting and I can’t hear another voice.
Somewhere beyond the smothering torment of ambition I have settled into the cruising altitude of simple dad-adjacent pleasures.
Everywhere else in life is entirely at the mercy of bald thieves, conglomerates, scams pretending to be car companies, car companies pretending to be infrastructure projects, predatory interest rates. Wins are rare and meager; the ones we do have are half-wins. Wins that come at some tremendous hidden cost. Peel back every piece of carpet in these times and beneath it is termites and rotting wood. Your favorite sports franchise is owned by a third-generation oil scion and anyway the broadcast of their games has been abruptly blacked out because of some vague Dispute With A Cable Provider.
Somewhere beyond the smothering torment of ambition I have settled into the cruising altitude of simple dad-adjacent pleasures. I watch 32 minute videos from low-subscriber YouTube accounts of people resoling and polishing leather boots with the meticulous tiny-brush care of the Sistine Chapel fresco restoration. I revel in a perfectly fried egg. I drink five beers and assemble Target furniture with Columbo repeats on, the hammer sitting on the manual pages so the ceiling fan doesn’t disturb them. Shooting a ball into a basket is honest work and no one can tell me it didn’t happen. It can be maddening but not diabolical. It has never heard of Ron DeSantis. Do it enough and on some days I even feel pretty good at it, remarkably accomplished, like I have accessed a powerful zone and I believe I will never miss. All of it approaches, in small but steady increments, some mirage shimmering on the horizon, the mastery of something minor but mostly insulated from the assorted scams.
I am never thinking these things in the moment. In fact, my mind is sort of vacuumed clean immediately after. This is the beauty of being out there, all the madness and ambiguity and malaise in life is gone and my mind is smooth as marble. But in the gas station on the way home, leaning on the hood of the car as Rod Stewart plays over the most bombed-out intercom speakers and the sweat on my forearms pools on the trunk, I will remember that it happened and know that it’s out there. It doesn’t last, but I’ll be back for it again tomorrow. The crowd goes wild.