Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist, is the author of “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”
Last Thursday, at five in the morning, they came for the basketball hoops. In an effort to encourage New Yorkers to stay indoors to fight the spread of the coronavirus, the staff of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation actually took down the metal rims bolted to the backboards on 80 of the city’s courts.
Those hoops — in Forest Hills, Queens, along Booth Street between 68th Avenue and 69th Drive, on the playground at Russell Sage Junior High School, P.S. 190 — have figured large in my life. I’ve played on the five basketball courts there ever since my future wife and I moved into an apartment nearby in November 1977. Losing my home away from home is painful. But in a crisis where the things we love most can kill us, this is the right play.
In the 42 years since I started getting into games on those courts, I’ve joined teammates and faced opponents from generation after generation. Those games brought me into contact with every imaginable kind of New Yorker — young and old, male and female, native and foreign, tall and short, fast and slow, weak and strong, rich and poor, smart and stupid, able and disabled. I’ve seen all the colors of the ethnic rainbow that shines so brightly in the borough of Queens, playing alongside not only fellow Jews but also, increasingly, immigrants from Asia, Israel, Russia, India and elsewhere. The players represent a wider spectrum of people than anything in my life except the riders of the New York City subway system.
But then, that’s just how it is with pickup basketball. You go out to the courts looking for a game. Maybe at first no one is around yet. Then one guy shows up, then two, then three. Now you have the makings of half-court two-on-two, a quorum. So you choose up sides. Later, as the afternoon sun warms those stubbly gray asphalt courts, more guys head over and call “Next!” Soon you make it three-on-three. Eventually more contestants appear, and you hit the full court to go five-on-five.
Anyone is eligible to play, whether friend or stranger. It’s equal opportunity at its best, a perfect democracy. All you need is a ball — and a hoop.
I last shot buckets on those courts, alone, on Sunday afternoon, just as the citywide quarantine went into effect. I practiced my dribbling, my drives to the basket, my jumper, lay-up, floater, turnaround, hook, taking aim from the left side, the right and straightaway, popping from five feet away — then 10, 15, 20 and 25. It felt good. It felt like home.
Now 80 basketball courts around all five boroughs of New York City have gone hoopless, dismantled by the coronavirus. And even where the hoops remain, we can only look at them with longing: Last Wednesday, all the city’s playgrounds were closed.
At first I bristled at the news. Those courts have served as my sanctuary. There, on those courts, I became a tribal elder, trying to set an example to promote teamwork and sportsmanship. In my list of priorities, b-ball ranks behind only family, health, work, money and friends.
How dare the city deprive me of my civic right to go hooping it up! I pay taxes, right? On top of everything else — the infections, the hospitalizations, the deaths, even the closing of my beloved bagel store across Queens Boulevard — now this.
But I soon came to my senses. All around the world, we have to stay six feet apart from each other so that we can all still be alive together later.
And few sports bring us as close together physically as basketball. Dribbling into the paint, boxing out for a rebound, setting a pick, guarding an adversary, we players swipe away at each other — grabbing, elbowing, shoving, hips banging into hips. We go skin to skin, breathe face to face, sweat on each other, and sometimes bleed, too.
So, as much as it hurts, this trial run is a good call. Even if we have to go rimless all over the city, even if we have to win ugly, it’s more important to vanquish the virus. As our mayor rightly said, April will be tougher than March for hoopsters like me, and May tougher still. But we’ll make do, and it will do us good.
Soon — however long soon takes to arrive — the hoops will be up again, back where they belong. But for now, on the basketball courts and everywhere else, we have to take our best shot.