Off the Rim

By Kevin Merida
Sunday, August 14, 2005

With nine seconds left in the game, I found myself guarding the opposing team's top scorer, a duty I had assigned myself out of some combination of challenge and confidence. Not that this made physiological sense. I'd guess my opponent was 15 years younger than I. Taller, quicker, more athletic.

He knew how to play, too, repeatedly maneuvering to the hoop, either scoring or drawing a foul. And so with the game on the line, our team up by two points in overtime, Mr. Top Scorer planted himself eight feet from the basket and called for the ball.

The setting was the annual Father's Day tournament sponsored by the Jelleff Boys & Girls Club in Georgetown, a long day of games for a wonderful cause. Proceeds go to a scholarship fund for kids who can't afford Jelleff's winter basketball program. If you're a hoops dreamer, you'd love playing in Jelleff's compact old-fashioned gym, with its dark hardwood floor, wooden bleachers and reputation in local basketball lore.

I'm sure Mr. Top Scorer was hoop-dreaming of a tournament championship, figuring it was his to lose. We had been studying each other for much of this semifinal game. I had scored a slew of points early, hardly missing from the outside. At one point, apparently fed up with his teammates' defensive failures, Mr. Top Scorer announced loudly to the entire gym: "I got No. 4." I could imagine what was going through his head: Why are we letting this old man hit all these shots? I'm about to shut him down. Look at him. He's wearing goggles, two knee pads. And he's, what, 5-foot-9 at best? Please.

For my part, I figured my opponent to be someone who breathed basketball. He had the swagger of a guy who had quickly concluded he was the best player in the building. Even so, I calculated that he was also the kind of player who let his emotions rule his game and that I'd be able to outsmart him in the end. But for all I knew, he was a biochemist whose first love was chess. In Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral, there's a beautiful passage about the difficulty of figuring out human beings, of battling our own superficiality as we gauge, judge and categorize one another, and ultimately fail.

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.

And what a ride pickup basketball offers.

The court is a stage of never-ending surprise, a space that defies expectations and is always testing our perceptions. Players invariably get sized up physically -- too short, too fat, too gray, too white to be any good. Wrong. You can go to the court and see someone who's built like Hercules, only to discover that, basketball-speaking, he's a bum. We all scout one another while warming up, examining sneakers, shorts, how one dribbles, the release and arc of one's shot. And yet the clues never tell us what we need to know -- only the game does that. Last summer, I watched with delight as a teammate -- born with an atrophied right arm -- completely befuddled the competition in a three-on-three tournament sponsored by Hummer. With one fully usable arm, he was the most dominant player on the floor -- the best scorer, best rebounder, best defender. And the most gracious man. He led us to a tourney championship.

Philip Roth had it right -- getting people wrong shakes us up, let's us know we're alive.

What I've gotten back from the game, even more than drenching workouts and the satisfaction of winning, when I'm not losing, is a deeper understanding of human nature and an endless supply of male camaraderie. I now play with three groups of men on a semi-regular basis, and the conversations on and off the court -- about politics, education, pop culture -- are often as fascinating as the games themselves. I wake up at 5:50 a.m. some weekdays to get in four or five games at White Oak Sport & Health Club in Silver Spring before heading to work. Warming up before playing, I like to trot on a treadmill next to fellow baller Leonard "Doc" Haynes, a program director with the Department of Education and a very wise man. Inevitably, we'll get into a raucous discussion about the news of the day -- maybe some unbelievable thing Washington Mayor Tony Williams has done or another crazy episode from the D.C. school system chronicles.

At the basketball court, I've engaged in some of the most enlightening debates about presidents and Supreme Court justices, O.J. and Bill Cosby, rap music and the fate of Barry Bonds. Just like at the barbershop, nothing is off limits at the court. Here, men embrace their freedom. They say what they really believe about women. They talk trash, tell jokes, sometimes reveal themselves in unpredictable ways.

But the surprises first come on the court.

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