Today, I walked past a public basketball court, one of those ubiquitous chain link and asphalt affairs. Three young men were shooting hoops, shouting and posturing, probably wishing for a fourth to show up, so they could get up a game of two on two. As an old fart, I was, of course, invisible to them. A couple in middle age took a hasty glance in their direction, then hurried by. Better safe than sorry, they seemed to be saying.
Me, I was unexpectedly overcome with a flood of memories, of childhood alleyways and pickup games. Where I grew up, every block had at least one goal attached to a garage. Sometimes it was a sturdy plywood backboard, sometimes, the plies had long since begun to separate, the hoop sagging forward at an inviting angle for attempted dunks. Sometimes it was just a hoop, nailed at an arbitrarily convenient height. There was almost never a net, although now and then, a new net would mysteriously appear, the talk of the alleys for at least a week, by which time it had already begun to fall into tatters.
The only relevant attribute among these places was the presence of other kids; it was nice to play at one of the better garages, but if there was a kid or two at a lesser one, that’s where the action went. The ownership of these places was equally unimportant. Some places were attached to known neighborhood kids, but others seemed relics of bygone days; only the ghosts of children played there. In any case, I do not remember ever being run off by an owner, though it must have happened.
The skills I learned at alley ball were not directly transferable to organized team basketball. The official courts were too big, requiring way too much running, and too smooth; the crucial skill of hitting the cracks in the surface just right when dribbling had no place there. The official balls were all the same size and uniformly inflated; no critical in-game adjustment for equipment was required at all. Worse yet, you had to use the ball provided, and couldn’t bring your own lop-sided, hyper-inflated ball, the one you practiced with so earnestly at home.
But by far the worse aspect of official team basketball was the presence of coaches and referees. In alley ball, kids learned to be fine judges of character and excellent negotiators, none of which was the least bit of use to referees, who always insisted on having the last word. They weren’t even interested in hearing the opinions of the players before making a decision, which was apparently based on inflexible rules which took no account of the immediate circumstances of the game, let alone who was playing.
And coaches, as near as I could tell, were concerned only with making you run around the gym while they yelled at you.
What that was good for, I’ll never know.