I’m fighting with someone for a loose ball and we get tangled up. “Jump,” I say. “Jump ball.” A player on the other team scoffs.
“There are no jump balls in streetball,” he says.
He’s been calling fouls on me the whole game, and now this, so I get even more aggressive. Defense is when I can really be myself, when I can hurl my body with abandon, when I don’t have to worry about making mistakes. People think I’m so sweet. Like sometimes that’s all they see. “You’re too nice,” people say to me. I like thinking back to a long time ago when someone once wrote that I was “a fiery guard with a mean streak” in the stapled pages of my summer camp sports newspaper. Even if there were only a fistful of copies, and even if they were emitted by a second-hand office Laser Jet 2000, this is how I see myself.
I haven’t played pickup basketball in a long time. I work remotely for my job, and a lot of that time I just work in bed, sometimes for so long, I feel like Charlie’s idle grandfather from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—hardening into human furniture. But now I am here.
Lighters fall out of pockets. Tiny candies scatter over the cement. None of us knows each other—we have to find our own rhythms, quickly develop our own chemistry. On the high walls of the fence are four plastic sculptures, yellow banisters pretzeled into people. Their circle faces loom above us, always there, always playing. Often when I play, I am just the color of my shirt.
“Pass it, Blue.”
“Don’t shoot that, Red.”
It’s a vacation from all the rest of it, when I have to be more than a color.
I’m still guarding the same guy. He’s dribbling, and I steal the ball. He starts whining that I reached in, that I fouled him again. He is so angry some of the other players have to hold him back. He’s threatening me, and I can see across the free throw line that he is starting to tear up. I can’t help myself.
“There is no crying in streetball.”
We are playing three on three, and one guy is by far the best. It seems like he never misses. He raises the ball up slowly into his stance, shoots—swish, every time. He is a beautiful machine, a magic trebuchet of basketball. There is no net, so the ball just goes through. I find ways to get him the ball. Bounce pass. Hand off. Down low. Guy never says a word, but we win every game. I say goodbye and he waves. The third player, I don’t even remember. I only remember the shot. My own style is awkward—I can’t shoot unless I’m fading away, a runner in the lane, a tough post-up. I don’t take jump shots unless I’m off-kilter, veering left so my body is a diagonal. If I miss, I can blame that. No one ever cares, but I can blame that.
Many of us who play here are afflicted by these minor basketball diseases of the brain: Someone was told he dribbles too much, so all he does is pass. Someone is afraid to take layups, even though they are the easiest shots, since he was scorned for missing a few gimmes in a row. He’ll pass backward or he’ll retreat to take a much deeper shot, a Hail Mary. His stance is unusual, the ball held above his right shoulder, like a shot putter. But he does not go for layups anymore.
The same night, I’m going out to get food, I’m on my corner, I see the shooter — the shock of seeing any one stranger twice.
He had such a magical shot, I want to know what he sounds like, how he speaks, to see how far the fluency goes. He seemed to be free of the court hangups plaguing the rest of us. The shooter turns and recognizes me, but doesn’t know what to say. For the first time, it feels like the ball is rattling around the rim.
“You live around here?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, but he seems a little paralyzed, like he can barely speak. Or he doesn’t want to, not with me.
I know I won’t ever see him again. I raise my hand in a final salute.
“See you out there.”
I only really go when I’m down, when there’s little else. When what I need right then is to be just black, to be just blue. When I am walking to the court, from the angle on the street corner, I can only see the two hoops through the fences. Nothing below, just the rings of iron. It is the same every time: I don’t see the basketballs, just the hoops, and I think maybe no one is there, maybe there will be no one to play with. But as I get closer, as I wait, there they are, still no hands, no bodies, but the ball fires upward as if by a cannon, one and later the other—this is the sequence, this is how it goes.
There are just three guys on the court farther from the playground. I start shooting on the one next to them. After I put my keys down, I see him. The guy, who months before, we almost came to blows, who told me there’s no jump ball in streetball. I am pretty sure it’s him; he keeps looking over at me. Every few seconds, it seems. Maybe he remembers what I said to him and he has just been biding his time. Maybe he sees that I am all alone.
Or maybe he just wants to see what’s going on, is simply looking because I am all there is to look at right then. Maybe he is hoping for a 4th player so they can run two on two.
I don’t know which of the two worlds we’re living in, and I can’t focus until I find out. I ask if they want to play, to will the world I want into reality. Or at least to get the other one to reveal itself. It turns out their 4th is coming; he is right over there parking the car.
But we can squeeze in a quick game first, they say.
I’ll be on his team, I think to myself, it’ll be some progress, some grand reshuffling. We’ll win, high-five, be our own Stockton and Malone. Later we’ll laugh about the jump ball. But I am not picked for his team. He’s guarding me. I’m guarding him. Again. We are right back where we were.
In these games, and in this one especially, it strikes me how error-prone we all are when keeping score. After every few points, if there’s not one person who is the de facto scorekeeper, someone tries to remember what it is. Each time it is this new remembering. 12-7 becomes 11-8. 16-14 becomes 17-13. The score is the story of the game and we are constantly getting it wrong. Sometimes it works out; if a team gives themselves an extra point, someone will subtract a point a while later, some karma of the basketball court. But often, it’s just wrong, and we all accept this new reality. We just play on. As my man goes up for a shot, my hands are up high.
“Nice defense,” he says.
Later, he makes a jumper.
“Nice take,” I say.
After a while, he’s anyone else and so am I. I still don’t know for sure that it is him, if he too has traced the zigs and zags of such a small history. All I know is that each game is its own.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/@mopictures