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Off the Rim
On the basketball court, the more you think you know your opponent, the less you probably do

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.

When I initially started playing with Pierre Godette at my local gym 10 years ago, I pegged him as a junk-talker, someone who was full of himself. As I recall it, the first time I ever saw him in the gym he was on the sideline wolfing about how he was going to halt my offensive production when he took the court.

Now there is hardly anyone I'd rather play with. What I most like about him is his honesty as a player (no fraudulent foul calls) and his generosity (even though he's often the best player on the floor, he always tries to get his teammates involved regardless of their talent level). This speaks to his character, as does his interest in others' lives. He is usually one of the last to leave the gym, too busy nurturing conversations.

As Roth observed about human encounters, we create in our minds these fictional characters, mangling the real people with our ignorance. If you're patient and don't judge too swiftly, you can see a man's inherent nature unfold in his game.

"You can tell a lot from the way a person plays basketball," says Godette, 35, who has played on the national team of his native Guyana for 15 years and is an assistant coach of Archbishop Carroll High School's Lady Lions basketball team. "I think you can almost see into somebody's soul by how they play -- how hard they play, how badly they want to win and how they want to win." This latter point is crucial. "I want to win," says Godette, "but I'm not willing to sacrifice my dignity to win."

Not all basketball relationships are about basketball.

Tom Downey didn't seem like a threat when I first played against him -- he barely lifts off the ground when he shoots. But Downey is dangerous if given even a whisker of room to get off his jumper. He knows how to pick his shots and has the quickest of releases. I got him dead wrong. But his basketball marksmanship has nothing to do with why I love playing with him. Downey is fun -- on and off the court. He is part of a group that plays at Georgetown University's Yates Field House on Saturday mornings. He reminds me that the game, however competitive, doesn't have to be taken too seriously.

"I enjoy the fact that at age 56 I can still play," says Downey, who is a shade under 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. "Maybe I wasn't great when I was young, but I'm gonna be great in my age group."

A former congressman from New York and now chairman of a Washington lobbying firm, Downey is never without stories to tell -- about catching foul balls at Yankee Stadium, about Al Gore running for president, about playing in the House gym with Magic Johnson.

Another Downey story: Bill Bradley, he notes, the former New York Knicks star who went on to enjoy a long career in the U.S. Senate, wouldn't play in the House gym. Some of the congressional regulars would ask why Bradley never joined their games. To which Downey would reply: "His number is hanging in the Garden. He doesn't have to play in the House gym."

Which brings me to a story of my own. The first time I ever set foot on a court with Jerry Bembry was during the 1986 National Association of Black Journalists convention in Dallas. We didn't know each other, but I remember his intensity, how we jawed back and forth during a pickup game. Now, I count him as one of my close friends.

About 15 years ago, we started playing together with mutual buddies in three-on-three tournaments, and I figure we've won at least a dozen of these things together. He's freed me for more wide-open shots with his picks than I can process. Over the years, we've shared countless meals together, traveled to different cities to ball, talked for hours about our careers, our families, our futures.

But as close as we are now, upon initial inspection I got Jerry wrong.

I had no idea that he was as strong as he is and could rebound like Ben Wallace. Like me, he has been hampered by ailments that can deceive -- gimpy knees, and a bad back in his case. But at 42, 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Bembry is a warrior in the paint. Plays like he's 6-6. No matter how big the opposing team's biggest man is, Bembry can guard him.

He also has the pickup game's most underrated commodity -- a high basketball IQ.

"I love to go up against the young guys and sometimes come out on top of them," says Bembry, a senior staff writer for ESPN the Magazine in New York. "You use your brain."

So even as his body begins to betray him, the intellectual challenge continues to fuel him.

For me, it's a lifetime of basketball memories that have sustained my passion for the game, a passion that has endured a scratched cornea, a torn Achilles tendon and the gradual fraying of both knees. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember every significant moment of my basketball-playing life. I recall taking my first jump shots on a playground at my Southeast apartment complex when I was, oh, probably 7. There was no basketball goal, just a swing set on one end and a monkey bar on the other. Hitting the top of either with a shot was counted as a bucket. That was my introduction to James Naismith's invention.

I went on to play for my junior high and high school teams. I've competed in countless summer leagues, intramural leagues, rec leagues, YMCA leagues, corporate leagues, and on many playgrounds throughout the District and its suburbs. I've played with and against high school All-Americans, college All-Americans and even a few pros. I've played in fiercely competitive three-on-three tournaments from Virginia Beach to Minneapolis, from Philadelphia to Fort Worth.

But I never played college basketball. I've always wondered how well I would've done at that level. Could I have played in Division I? If I had gone to a smaller college just to play -- my high school coach had suggested a couple of possibilities -- would my life be different now? Not long ago, one of my high school teammates, William Jones, sent me a faded copy of a 1975 clipping from The Washington Post, now my employer:

Crossland reeled off 12 straight points early in the fourth quarter for a 62-48 lead at home and Potomac never recovered. Kevin Merida scored 21 points in the second half, mostly on 15-to-18-foot jump shots and layups with assists from Willy Jones. Jones finished with 11 assists and four steals. Merida hit 13 of 17 field goal attempts.

I finished with 27 points, the best performance of my high school career. I've often thought about that game, how it reaffirmed my faith in my own abilities. Receiving that clipping, though, sent me back to that could've-been, might've-been state of mind. When my father died unexpectedly during my senior year in high school, I put aside any notions of competing on the college level. I figured I'd just concentrate on trying to become a journalist. But I played pickup virtually every day in college, sometimes descending to the raggedy basement court of a Boston University dorm at 4 a.m. to play after partying.

And I've never stopped. How can I, as long as my knees hold up, my shot stays true and there are fellow ballers to get right -- and wrong?

With nine seconds left in that Jelleff tournament semifinal, I knew the ball was coming to Mr. Top Scorer. I could almost hear what was in his head: I got him. That's when I tapped the knowledge I've gained from 35 years of playing organized basketball, coaching youth teams and following the sport almost like a social scientist. At just the precise moment when the pass was in the air to him, I gave a little forearm nudge to the small of his back, just enough to throw him off balance. He watched in disbelief as the ball sailed over his head.

Game over.

That time I'd been right. But I'm sure I'll be wrong tomorrow.

Kevin Merida is an associate editor of The Post. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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