When Larry Gondelman learned in October that the downtown YMCA was closing Jan. 1, the law partner felt himself deflating, the air leaving his body as if he were a punctured basketball.
Christine Hamma, a staffer at a philanthropic trade association in Dupont Circle, cried like she had when her dog died.
And John Holliday, an electrician for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, grieved as if he were losing a family.
They were among the regulars at the Y’s basketball courts, where hoops junkies had played lunchtime pickup games since the Y opened in 1978 at 1711 Rhode Island Ave. NW.
That’s a lot of jump shots, fast breaks and bounce passes. Mostly, though, it’s a lot of passion and, if you’re fortunate, some talent and teamwork, and — for many of the lunchtime ballers — the forging of some deep and unlikely friendships.
It’s no revelation that sports can bring people of disparate backgrounds together, but the Y’s courts became something of a public square, where a diverse community formed across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, generational and political lines.
Lawyers and government workers, doctors and personal consultants, federal agents and blue-collar workers, police and ex-offenders — even former pro athletes and politicians — showed up daily or several times a week to break a sweat. They also found, in small and big ways, that they had much more in common than the love of the game.
The idea of losing the ritual and the relationships — the Y said declining membership and upscale gyms were forcing its closure — landed like an elbow to the gut.
“It’s like a divorce,” Holliday laments. “You’re going to lose family members. You’ll still see them time to time, and there will be a lot of love, but it won’t be the same.”
On a warm December evening, 45 players, some from years ago, have gathered at the nearby Beacon Bar & Grill. Each has paid $40 to be at this happy hour Gondelman organized. And it is happy, as the group, nearly an even collection of blacks and whites, reminisces. This is their own special Irish wake. And the stories flow.
Like in 1992, when Allan J. Stypek, now 65, owner of Second Story Books, brought his 5-day-old daughter, Lena, to the Y so he could play, while his wife worked out. Lena, strapped in a car seat, was on the sidelines, and DeMarcus “Mookie” Yarborough, then a young man from Southeast, stood watch ready to swat away stray balls.
Or the conversations on race, such as whether a middle-aged white guy could use the n-word while singing at a rap concert.
Or the courtside business deals.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D), who’d played in the early 1980s, is at the Beacon.
“You find a game where everyone is generally at the same skill level,” he says. “You avoid the jerks.”
Washington’s two cities came together on those courts. Many of the downtown players are white, like Gondelman, 63, and Hamma, 26, and not originally from the area. Many of the black players, like Holliday, 34, are homegrown Washingtonians.
For Hamma, one of the few women players over the years, the game — “It’s the best part of my day, every day” — is an equalizer.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how much money you make, once you’re on the court, everyone’s there to play,” she says. “I, or anyone else, can yell at someone who’s worth millions.”
Steve Newborn, 69, one of the top anti-trust litigation lawyers in the country and a partner at the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, says the games broadened his worldviews.
He certainly knew African Americans before joining the games, mostly wealthy CEOs, business owners and other lawyers. But the Y allowed him to meet people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“It’s been such a wonderful experience to meet people who I probably never would have met, and through them, other people,” he says. “When you see people as part of your group, you see them as human beings. It’s allowed me to see people as ‘us,’ instead of ‘them.’ ”
Says Holliday: “I felt ... that all whites were bigoted and judgmental. Basketball at the Y gave me the opportunity to learn that’s not true. It broke down a lot of ignorance. I learned everyone’s an individual.”
His friend Gondelman is delighted at the turnout for the happy hour. He has spent weeks wondering about the unraveling of “part of the fabric of my life.”
He grew up in a liberal household in Pittsburgh and attended majority Jewish schools, where there were few African Americans. Not much changed during college or law school, he says. But when he started playing ball at the Y in 1986, everything did, as he met more black people of varied backgrounds as well as some Latinos and Asians.
“You learn a lot about someone by playing ball with them,” he says. “You learn their strengths and weaknesses, and when you are on the same team, you play to your teammates’ strengths and cover for each other’s weaknesses.”
The pickup games helped Kwame Callaham win a second chance. The 40-year-old had played at the Y as a young man in the late 1990s — while he was hustling, selling drugs in the District. In 2005, he began serving a five-year sentence in federal prison after he was convicted of selling powder cocaine.
After he was released, the Y hired Callaham as a personal trainer. He rejoined the games as he worked to get his life on track.
“He’d run business ideas by me,” Gondelman says.
Callaham turned one of those ideas into a reality in 2013, when, with the help of a friend, he launched Pivotal Concierge, a 24-hour errand service.
Newborn provides a glowing testimonial on the Pivotal Concierge website. Former national security adviser Sandy Berger, who died Dec. 2, was a client. Callaham considers Gondelman, Newborn and developer Chris Donatelli his professional mentors.
“If we’d seen each other on the street, we would have probably walked past each other,” says Callaham, who credits the pickup game for his friendships with the three.
Sometimes connections have been less tangible, though no less meaningful.
Gondelman, who has eclectic tastes in music, attended a Kanye West concert at Verizon Center in 2013. He returned to the Y with a question: “As a 60-year-old white guy at a Kanye West concert, am I allowed to sing the ‘n-word’? ”
A passionate sideline discussion followed, Gondelman and Holliday recall.
“It was divided, about 50-50,” among the young African American players he engaged, Gondelman says.
“Larry was just being inquisitive,” Holliday says, and it yielded a memorable exchange. “I was happy to give him my insight.”
Gondelman takes the floor at Beacon.
“I’ve become friends with people I otherwise never would have met,” he says. “If not for the Y, if I’d seen John [Holliday] or Mo or Jake [three of the larger African American players] on the street late at night”— laughter erupts before the punch line — “I would have crossed the street.”
He paused. “Now that I’ve gotten to know them, I simply don’t go out at night.”
It’s humor that for some might raise an eyebrow or two, but not here. Holliday recalls the one-liner a black player had whenever a white player mistakenly threw a pass to an opponent who happened to be black: “I guess we all look alike!”
“Let’s face it, race is an issue in this country, in this city,” Gondelman says later. “It’s not that race isn’t an issue at the Y, but it isn’t.”
Says Holliday about their group of “misfits”: “On the court we push and shove and laugh, and at the end of the day, we’ve got each other’s back.”
It’s a community Gondelman desperately hopes to sustain.
For weeks he’d been searching for a new court, along with Herbert Jones, a former top official at D.C.’s Office of the People’s Counsel who began playing in 1990, and Alex Friedman, the 26-year-old owner of the Diehard Sport blog who started playing three years ago.
At Beacon, Gondelman announces a new site. The games could continue at the Rita Bright Community Center at 14th and Clifton streets NW, about a mile north.
Some smile or nod, but the truth is no one is certain the games would withstand the logistics of travel and time beyond downtown in the middle of the workday.
Hamma says she might be able to make it a couple of times a month. Holliday says he’s going to give it a try, too.
Even Gondelman, in his Beacon comments, seems more hopeful than confident.
“I will treasure the memories,” he tells his fellow players. “I will treasure the camaraderie. If more people did what we do, the world would be a better place.”
Ruben Castaneda is a former reporter for The Post and author of the 2014 memoir “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.” He was a regular at the Y midday pickup games from 1989-1998. To comment on this story, email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.