The other night, after I escorted my sons to the swimming pool at a local university, I walked across the hall to the basketball court. The boys enjoyed being on the swim team so much last summer that they asked if they could swim year-round. We signed up for two nights a week, sandwiched around other sports, Scouts, school and, oh yeah, free time. The workouts are tougher than the summer and there is less team camaraderie, but I am hoping they will see some improvement and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.
Rather than sit in the bleachers and read or chat with other parents, I decided to get a workout of my own while the kids are in the pool for an hour. Like most universities these days, this one has a beautiful, state-of-the-art fitness center with a three-story climbing wall and rows and rows of exercise machines I don't even know the name of, let alone know how to use. Of course, these facilities are for the use of the students, who deserve at least this much when you consider what tuition goes for; people like me, with no real affiliation with the institution, are not welcome. Which is just as well because I'd rather play basketball anyway, and there's no electronic ID reader at the door of that gym.
I've played pickup basketball since I was strong enough to get the ball to the hoop, and even though I have reached an age where my fitness needs would be better served on a treadmill or in a swimming pool, I still choose the court. One of the great benefits of my job at Johns Hopkins University was the noontime hoops game with the other guys who worked in the Athletic Department. We played one game, fullcourt to either 30 or 35 points. Everyone knew each other, nobody got too upset, but nobody wanted to lose either. It was usually Old Guys against Young Guys and every now and then somebody would set a point spread.
There was a similar situation when I was an undergrad at Cornell. Lunch League was full of players who set and called out screens, passed the ball, and played defense more often than not, concepts foreign to the And-One mix tape crowds that often populate the courts now. During my senior year, I made sure my schedule gave me at least three days without classes from 11:00 - 1:00.
The court I grew up playing on was at Lyon Village playground, a mile or two from my house in Arlington, Virginia. We just called it the Park, although I hear the kids now refer to it as the LV. There was nothing special about the Park; it had a playground, a small covered pavilion, and an open field that worked for football, as well as two tennis courts and the community center, but mostly I spent my time there playing basketball.
I remember some great runs at the Park. Maybe it was the lights that stayed on late or the proximity to Lee Highway, a major artery from D.C. to Northern Virginia, but there was almost never a shortage of players. And, like all great courts, the Park had its regulars and characters.
There was a guy named Carl, who played tennis and basketball all day and inspected restaurants at night. He was an excellent shooter and better passer who would find you whenever you cut to the hoop - even if you didn't know you were open. He wore white hightop Chucks and Penn State sweats and t-shirts because his mother worked in the bookstore there. And there was Pierce, the best pure shooter I ever saw there, whose team never seemed to lose. And George and Lou. George didn't looked like much but he scored big with a hanging jumpshot, and Lou pinballed around the court wreaking havoc on defense and usually on his own team's offense as well. Between games, they would scan the daily racing charts.
But of all the regulars, the one that stood out the most was Halfcourt Harry. Halfcourt was probably in his late 40s or early 50s, with Elvis-length sideburns and gray hair always pulled back in a bandanna. He wore sweatpants and kneepads regardless of the temperature and he never played in any games. Instead, he would shoot some layups and jumpers and then go into an angry basketball tai chi routine the like of which I had never seen before or since. Positioning himself in various spots around the court, he would catch the ball as if receiving a pass and execute a complex series of pivots and fakes before shooting. As he whirled and jerked about, he would slam the ball against his palm with a force that made you think the ball might explode. He was also known as Slap-Happy Harry (I'm not even sure Harry was his real name), but the nickname we used more often came from the hookshots he would shoot from halfcourt at the end of his ritual.
Maybe he was a nice guy, maybe he was competely deranged, I don't remember anyone who ever tried to find out. We watched Halfcourt from a safe distance, and when he left, we would crack each other up trying to imitate his manic maneuvers.
I hadn't thought of Halfcourt for a long time, until I returned to the basketball court the other night. I warmed up, stretched a little, watched a game in progress, figured that I could probably play without substantial risk of injury, and got on the team that had next.
I had played several times this summer with a group of guys in my neighborhood, just enough to raise my expectations but not enough to raise the level of my skills. They were hard-fought, competitive games, but the average age on this court was about 25 years younger than the neighborhood game.
As we matched up to start the game, one of my new teammates asked, "Do you want the big guy?"
"I want the slow guy," I replied.
I ended up with the short, quicker-than-he-looks guy who also turned out to have a pretty reliable jumpshot. After he made one, I came out a little further to guard him. He dribbled right and when I moved to cut him off, he crossed over to his left and drove towards the hoop. I recovered just enough to get a fingertip on the ball as he released it. A few years ago, it would have been a solid rejection, but I was happy to get a piece of it.
I was not happy to find that one of my teammates had slid over to help and knocked my left foot out from under me. I had really hoped to land on that foot, but instead, I came crashing down on both knees. It was loud, and moments later, quite painful.
"Are you okay?' he asked, looking at me the way you look at an elderly person who has had a bad fall. Actually, they were all looking at me like that.
I was fine, just some bruises, broken skin and near critically wounded pride. I finished the game, but as I limped off the court, I suddenly remembered Halfcourt Harry, and I thought to myself, "I am going to need some kneepads."