There was a beauty to the games, something artistic that maybe I cannot convey in words: The thud of the ball against the gym floor; the riotous squeaks and squeals of hightops on lacquered hardwood; the dim light, the frayed nets hanging from the rims.
This was the downtown Phoenix YMCA through the 1990s and the beginning of this decade, a lunchtime basketball game that I rarely missed for a dozen years running.
It was the best hour of my day for years, a time of sweat and trash talk, of hard-headed competition, and of men (and the occasional woman) of all backgrounds, all cultures and colors, all degrees of education, all walks of life, content to play five on five to 11 by ones.
I miss those days and the people that populated them the way I miss my youth. Down to the marrow of my bones.
The old downtown Y basketball game bears mention now because I wonder if such a gathering could still exist today, in 2020, amid our time of infinite points of division. Is it possible for a gym in this Valley to draw together human beings so utterly different to play pickup basketball without an argument, a fistfight or a riot breaking out?
If there is such a game, I’d love to hear about it.
Back then, it wasn’t just possible – basketball at lunch was an absolute.
I’d plan my day around it, as would 20 or 30 other guys, men between the ages of 18 and 60-plus, guys who’d played in high school and college, guys who could drain jumpshots from 27 feet and guys who could barely make a layup.
Friday was the big day, when everyone showed up. Frank, built solid as a hunk of stone, a deadly outside shot who’d played quarterback in college. Ricky D., the TV cameraman who’d played at Grand Canyon and had unlimited range.
Austin, whose drives to the basket ended one of two ways – with him scoring or him calling a foul because someone had breathed in his direction.
Can you tell maybe I held a grudge?
There was Adrian, slender as a tree branch, his hair often in tight cornrows, his speed and handle with the ball something few could match.
And Ralph, a 20-something, loud, profane, a baller. The last I’d heard, he’d become a boxing ring announcer, which seems like a perfect match of braggadocio and professional skill.
Reporters from the Republic would play, like John the martial artist and Craig in his Oregon Ducks T-shirts.
So would Paul the prosecutor and Bob and Pete, the defense lawyers, and Manny and Michael, a father and son team, and Danny, the Samoan NFL nose guard, and Jaime, my buddy from Hell’s Kitchen, and a guy everyone – himself included – called Fat Mike.
If it sounds like a random crowd, it was. Which is my point exactly and the beauty of disorganized sports back in the day.
These games weren’t about making a cultural point, which is itself a cultural point: It is possible to connect with other human beings, to get to know them, to play with them and against them, and to learn respect for one another, in settings besides a classroom or work.
So much of what I know about people who look nothing like me came in these unguarded moments, when they quite literally guarded me.
We played. We won and lost. We argued. We sat on the sidelines and waited to have the next. We spoke, we learned.
I lived it myself once, for real, in a gym downtown. I wrote it down so maybe you’d believe I’m not making it up.