Published for the - New York Times
Except: Available PDF for download
Mine arrives two weeks after my brother, four years older, leaves for boarding school. I’m 12 years old, alone in the house with my parents for the first time in my life. Nowhere to go when they fight with each other or me, nowhere to hide when my father, reading constantly in a desperate attempt to make up for the fact that he never finished high school, criticizes my reading and study habits.
Like all others, the hoop is a perfect circle, 10 feet from the ground and parallel to it. It’s bright orange, mounted on a white rectangular backboard constructed from planks of 2x4, bolted to the white brick wall below our kitchen window and above our garage. 18 inches in diameter, it offers a bit more than a 9 inch margin of error for my new Spalding ball to drop when a shot is good. The ball, of course, is another perfect circle, a mirror-image but also—solid, 3-dimensional—a bulky contrast to the rim it means to enter. It is 30 inches in circumference, burnished orange in color. It smells a little like the inside of a new car. Etched into its grainy rubber surface which, according to its manufacturer, makes it “tickle-soft and easy to grip,” are a magical label—“NCAA REGULATION”—and a sweep of elliptical black lines that seem to contain and define its circularity. After passing through the rim it will fall through a white, cone-shaped webbing which is fifteen inches long and just wide enough to ruffle and make a sound like a whisper, and, ever so slightly, slow its descent.
Though I’ve begged for it for months, I’m surprised to find the goal installed when I come home from school. Euphoric, to be exact. I hurry to my room, drop off my books, change into shorts and lace my black “Powerlift” high-tops over a pair of white socks which persistent mirror evaluation has convinced me make my calves look shapely in the manner of Tom Luckett’s, the star in a high school game I saw with my father last year. It’s early September, warm and humid, so I won’t need a shirt. My ball is new, airless, flat in its box. Using the special needle that came in a small envelope taped to it, I inflate it with my bicycle pump. Pumped up, it feels huge, hard as steel, anything but “tickle-soft and easy to grip.” It doesn’t help my euphoria to be reminded that my small thick hands can’t help but be a serious deficit for anyone whose athletic fantasies—shooting a basketball, passing a football, pitching a baseball—are all dependent on the length of one’s fingers.
Wrists and arms undeveloped, I shoot with both hands for the most part, pushing hard with my legs and of course missing most of the time. I couldn’t care less. Each shot is an adventure, a question and an answer, and—though I’m mercifully free of such thoughts at this point in my life—any shot I make gives me an odd, not entirely comfortable sense that I’ve somehow completed a circle, established an indisputable connection with rim. Then too, these shots, unlike those I’ve taken elsewhere, are happening at home, in the shadow of a house and family which has been no more adventurous or inspiring or, for that matter, playful, than most others in this insular, middle class, Memphis neighborhood.
Very soon, my arms are tired and my feet sore but with a couple of breaks for water from a hose attached to an outdoor faucet, I’m still playing when my father comes home from work a couple of hours later. In the past, he’d drive all the way in, parking just under the rim, behind my mother’s car in the garage, but even he can’t fail to notice that this small patch of cracked grey concrete has now become a court, so he stops after turning in from the street to leave me room for about a 20-foot shot straight-on. Years from now, when my reading begins to equal his for desperation, I’ll understand why so many writers have used spiritual or theological language to describe the game, the play, the uncanny variations of space and time which we’ve made possible by installation of the goal, but for now I’m simply thankful for the chance to go on shooting.
Climbing the stairs toward the back door, he pauses to watch for a moment. Showing off, I miss two shots from short range, then fling one over my head in a pathetic attempt at a hook I’ve copied from Luckett.
“Have you done your homework?”
I throw up another hook that, like the first, bounces hard off the rim.
“Why so fancy?” he says. “Just shoot the ball!”
This is Memphis, Tennessee, 1948, long before TV serves up a daily dose of professional and college sports which are constantly interrupted by commercials, 40 years at least before free-agency generates multi-million dollar contracts for even mediocre players, and kids my age are scouted by the pros. Organized sports mean high school games, if I’m lucky, or college games heard on the radio in manic description which is already wired so deeply in my brain that, much more often than I like, it offers up play-by-play of what I’m doing here. “Fakes left, goes right! Shot is up! Swish!”
I shoot until my mother calls through the kitchen window to announce that dinner’s ready. Wash my hands, bolt my food, and as soon as I’m done, out again. Next day, I can’t wait to get here. In fact, there won’t be many days from now on when I’ll feel any different. Except for the recently discovered bliss of masturbation, I’ve never known an activity in which my concentration is so complete or my sense of time so absent. Indeed, I’ve never known another time when I happily chose to be alone. At 12, one is slow to notice and even slower to acknowledge such things of course, but in this deep unfamiliar solitude, I’ll realize very soon that my shot is affected by my mind. Distraction or anger, bad moods, depression, problems at school or at home—all of it will follow me to the driveway. Conversely, shooting can ease my mind or, at best, make me forget it altogether. Long before I think of such things, I’ll know that shots and breathing and reflexes and general court-sense are influenced, if not entirely dictated, by the volume and speed of my thoughts, that I always play best when I’m singleminded. Watch great players like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant and you’ll see total concentration, alertness and spontaneity, a perfect union of mind and body, in other words, an embodiment of the qualities we equate with mental and physical health or spiritual realization, the condition to which even ordinary players like myself aspire when they embrace this game.
Here in the driveway, good shots, the perfect “swish” which is always the goal, of course, unless one purposefully uses the backboard, might be a bit more important than on other courts because any ball that hits the rim or backboard sends a twang or thud throughout the house, eliciting no end of complaint from my parents who, failing to understand how much one yearns for the ball to drop without a sound and how rarely, given my rudimentary skills, I manage it, seem to think I make the noise on purpose. For some reason—perhaps because its monotonous slap-slap-slap is as much White Noise to them as me—they never complain about the sound of the ball as it’s dribbled on the concrete. In any event, their complaints do not deter me. I’m not what you’d call a cocky kid, but within a couple of days, the desire to be here is inarguable, a kind of autonomy I’ve never known before.
Three days later, Kent Rush, who lives down the street, stops by to shoot a few with me. He’s about my age and I’ve seen him on the block, but until today, we’ve never spent time together. Like two players anywhere in the world, we quickly fall into the habit of helping each other out. When he shoots, I stand near the basket, retrieve the ball, and—sometime as many as ten or twelve times in a row—pass it back to him. Then he returns the favor. I don’t know that cooperation has ever come so easily or unconsciously to me or so clearly displayed its logic and efficiency, but I do know that it’s a private act we’re sharing. At the moment of shooting, I’m still alone, but now he’s helping me do it. Except for an occasional “good shot!” we hardly speak, but even at 12, I’m aware that I’ve never felt quite so friendly with him before. Next day, he brings his older brother, and on the weekend his brother brings a couple of friends. On the following weekend, and most weekends after that, there will be ten or twelve of us, sometime more, from early morning till the light goes. Now we play a different sort of game. Like Kent and I, we’re shooting together as we did alone, but “together” means the group—guys we know or don’t know, like or don’t like—and the game is not just putting the ball in the basket but keeping score, winning or losing, “beating” or “being beaten”, and the court on which it all takes place is a complicated social world rather than the solitary haven I know when I’m alone. Altogether, it feels like basketball as it’s meant to be, completion of the circle which begins when I shoot alone, more and more of the happiness I felt when I first saw the hoop in the driveway.
We have space for two-against-two but not three-against-three. Teammates and matchups are determined by the toss of a coin or shots from a crack in the concrete we’ve agreed to call our “free-throw line”. In any event, 20 baskets win and, since winners keep playing, games are literally a fight for survival. We laugh a lot while we play but there’s nothing unserious happening here and, safe to say, not too much in anyone’s mind beyond the game and its demands. “Fouls” are on the honor system. If you say I hit your arm when you were shooting, I don’t argue or aim to get even. Your ball out. Keep the game going. We take it for granted that the whole of our world is on this court, all time contained in each of these moments. Every Friday, on my way home from school, I buy cookies for us. My mother puts out fruit, pitchers of iced tea, paper towels for the oceans of sweat we’re generating. Kent and his brother bring potato chips, soft drinks, more cookies. Often as not, girls from the neighborhood appear, watching us from the ledge that borders the driveway. Showing off for them, our games become more intense, sometimes nasty. Among the crowd, wearing tight shorts and a T-shirt just beginning to show her breasts, is Marlene Curtis, a 12-year-old from down the block who a year from now, on an evening after she’s watched us play, will be the first girl I kiss and, when she moves my too-small hand in the direction of those breasts, “feel up.”
By now, that hand is so often on the ball that the feel of it never leaves me. I keep it in my bedroom, often stroking or tapping it while doing homework, spreading and stretching my fingers as if I can overcome their deficiency. The Spalding is smoother now from endless pounding on the concrete, but the comfort I derive from its tacky rubber surface seems every day a little deeper and more necessary.
Leaner and taller, puberty feeding basketball and vice versa, I’ve begun to understand the rudiments of arc and backspin and have a pretty good sense, when a shot leaves my hand, if it’s good or not. Last week, I had a day, shooting alone, when I entered a space I’d never known before. For no reason I could fathom, the rim seemed bigger and my hands and eyes almost connected to it and so many shots were falling that I felt I’d gone into a trance. Of course, I thought I’d finally become the player I was meant to be, and I was shocked and depressed when I found myself, next day, as mediocre as before. This won’t be the last time basketball will show me that my vanity is groundless. Even the greatest players, of course, spend endless hours shooting alone, but the realities of the game are anything but indulgent toward fantasies of the sort that solitude can spawn.
Without realizing it, I measure my growth and strength, not to mention my autonomy, by control of the ball, balance and speed on the court. Next year, in eighth grade, I’ll be “third string” on my Junior High team. The following year I’ll be a starting guard. Basketball is five-against-five now, a great range of talent, style, and competition, but still, when you go up for a shot, you’re doing it alone. Brightly lit and cavernous, its hardwood floor glossy as a mirror, gymnasiums feels like movie-sets. The speed of the game seems exponentially increased, almost, at times, impossible. Practice is pressured, physically exhausting and completely dependent on ego and self-confidence, and games of course, attracting crowds even on a Junior High level in Memphis at this time, are as much about grace-under-pressure as skill on the court. We wear green and white uniforms with numbers on the back and chest, and the crowd cheers when, after a somber pep talk from a barely articulate coach who is the reigning authority figure in my life just now, we come onto the court through a pair of swinging doors behind the basket. The stage is set for heroism, but the sad truth is I don’t find a lot of it in myself. I’m slower than I need to be, thinking too much, too much aware of the crowd. Sometime I feel as if not quite in my body. All those hours in the driveway have made me a pretty good shooter, but in games, more often than not, my shot deserts me. In effect, basketball is fast becoming a source of frustration and disappointment. The days aren’t rare when I dread the thought of it. Puberty after all means self consciousness too. Where will you see the cost of it more than on this court, in this game, against players who—the best of them anyway—seem devoid of it? What once generated and nourished my confidence and optimism is now a measure of innocence lost, my first clear taste of impermanence and even—to use a word I’ve not discovered yet—mortality. Four years later, as a back-up guard on my high school team, I make a very bad play in a crucial game before a huge crowd that includes my father, my new girl friend and the school principal who, after we win the game, will come into our locker room and congratulate everyone but me. Finally, my fate is clear: I can’t pretend I’m much of a ballplayer. Who knows why? Small hands? Not tall or strong or quick enough? Did I not, in the end, practice hard enough or am I finally, in the end, too self conscious to be an athlete? Whatever the reason, when I return to the driveway to heal my wounds, I find that shooting alone is not what it used to be. After five-on-five, before a crowd on a movie-set, solitude is loneliness, sad measure of my failure. Fantasies of heroism and perfection? Nothing annihilates them like basketball. Among its endless lessons, none will be, when I leave home and the driveway behind, more beneficial.
During college, a few years later, I find another solitary practice. It’s called writing. At first it leads to diaries and journals which are not a little like shooting alone. Sound and rhythm, precision, description, explanation, analysis—when I get the words right, I tap into sensations not so different from those I felt when I connected to the rim. A sentence or even a word completes a circle. Sometimes, by taking up my pen, I can make time disappear or find my way to sentences that seem, like an instinct-shot in the heat of a game, independent of my brain. It isn’t long however before the diary seems incomplete, half the circle writing aims to be, like shooting alone after five-on-five. Of course—again like shooting alone—getting it right in your diary is pure and somehow complete, but as Wittgenstein says, language is a game, and some games, like basketball and the one I’m playing at this moment, have to be played with others. It’s true that writing is always solitary, but one needs a reader as a ballplayer needs a teammate or an opponent. If you aren’t, right now, retrieving the ball for me or playing defense against me or getting the ball to me when I’m open under the basket, you are somehow, by understanding, appreciating, criticizing, rejecting or even just reading these words, completing the circle with me.
Its hardly surprising that my first published novel is about a basketball player or that, when I turn to journalism, my first articles will be about basketball. Not surprising either that, when I begin to carry a camera around, the “shots” I take are most often of basketball goals. Wandering in Hudson River Park in 2001, I shoot a goal at the foot of the World Trade Center two days before the buildings are destroyed on 9/11. In New Mexico, I find a hoop attached to an open gate, facing the San Juan Mountains, across the street from a cathedral made of tin cans. On vacation in Crete, a goal near the beach is the only relief from barbarous tourism. Driving alone through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I almost cause an accident when I brake at the sight of a hoop which—speaking of mortality—stands like a weed in a meadow without a net, a court or even a house nearby. In Memphis for my mother’s funeral, I catch sight of a goal on the way to the cemetery and return next morning to shoot it. Once again, I’m shooting alone, completing circles. In the beginning, I’m selective, searching out beautiful landscapes and odd juxtapositions, but eventually, the circle expands. Any goal is interesting to me. I collect them as some collect stamps or coins or vintage post cards. The circle grows bigger when friends recommend goals or send their own pictures or point me toward pictures of hoops by great photographers. It’s true that, as a photographer, I’m not much better than I was as a basketball player, but when I aim at a hoop, I’m asking it questions. Who played here? Were they alone, with others or both? What sorrow was alleviated here, what insularity escaped, what connections found between shooter and rim? Were the shots taken as imperfect as mine or as exquisite as Michael Jordan’s? Was it innocence, mortality or both that was discovered here? The question I don’t have to ask, of course, is whether there were players here or whether, if they’re not here now, they were deeply affected by the days when they were.