The ancient gym at a Presbyterian church in North Philadelphia is so small that a staircase down to street-level juts into the basketball court and eats up a huge chunk of the corner.
You can shoot a 10-foot jump shot from the left baseline with your lower back against the half-wall that’s meant to keep you from falling down the stairs. A cheap-shot foul could easily send you tumbling to a broken arm or a concussion or worse. That never happened when I played there; these were friendly games, after all. Even accidental fouls were usually followed with a quick ‘Sorry, my bad.’ But an errant pass or a brick off the back rim did send one or more of us chasing the bouncing ball downstairs many times.
The ancient gym has no climate control, so in the winter, we’d play in sweatshirts, our breath hanging in the air, visible. In summer, it was so hot and humid up there that the court would be covered in a thin layer of sweat and condensation no matter how many times you wiped it down with a spare t-shirt. It was no surprise one night when an overly-aggressive (and slightly uncoordinated) player slipped and tore his ACL. We had to sign liability release forms.
To keep my basketball sneakers dry and clean, I would drive each Wednesday night across the Ben Franklin Bridge from South Jersey in flip-flops or low-tops, then change when I got there. I would be shoeless for a minute, socks on the hardwood. That was suitable — this terrible gym is holy ground. It’s appropriate to show some respect, like Moses taking his sandals off in front of the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Miracles happen there.
Not basketball miracles. Except for the one night I hit like 20 jumpers in a row and my friend John threw his arms up on the sideline and shouted in semi-genuine amazement after the last bucket went in. No, we were too washed up for basketball miracles even if the omnipotent Lord had wanted to use us as vessels for superhuman athletic achievement. Age and gravity worked against us and they are undefeated.
The actual miracle was that I made real friends in my 20s, after college during that how-do-you-even-meet-people-now stage of life, in that gym and others like it, playing pickup basketball.
The church pastor sometimes played. A couple guys from the halfway house across the street came every so often, telling stories about their old playground hoops days right in the middle of the game, talking and dribbling. One lovely Canadian expat had this truly wild running, off-balance jumpshot that went in a shockingly high percentage of the time, something any junior league coach would’ve drilled out of him if he’d grown up playing basketball instead of hockey. He also always said “game on” instead of “ball in” when he checked the ball after a stoppage, still the only person I’ve ever heard say that.
At another gym I played at, this one supreme lefty, the best player around, would snap you the ball and hit you right in the hands if you were in the right spot at the right time. He never missed an opening and he never had to look at you for more than a split second to make the right play, even if you were half a court ahead of him on a fast break. The astounding generosity of a perfect pass when this dude could have just scored every time was never lost on me. Any time I’d miss a shot immediately after a pass from him I’d feel genuine remorse for squandering his gift.
A great passer like that on your team can let you hold onto the court, victorious, for three, four, five games to 11 in a row until all your legs give out. The other most valuable player is someone who will bang for rebounds and who will set screen after screen on offense. One older guy who realized I could shoot pretty well if I was feeling confident would seek me out to set monster pindown screens, effectively wiping my defender out of the play and giving me an open look at the basket. He didn’t say anything to me in these interactions, but he didn’t have to — the screens were tacit encouragement. Get open, shoot the ball, be free.
You get to learn the other guys’ habits and idiosyncrasies like this over months of playing together. You start to see that all these plays, the passes and the rebounds and picks, are unselfishness in motion. Nowhere else do I experience so many little unselfish acts as on a good night of pickup hoops. Maybe this is why it’s a good petri dish for friendship. For it to work, you have to communicate a lot and take concrete actions that put the good of the whole over your own desire to get buckets for yourself.
Of course not every guy you meet on the pickup court is an angel. Ironically, two of the roughest guys I knew who sometimes came to blows were named, and I’m not making this up, Angel and Christian. But the good-vibes-only culture of that particular gym didn’t allow their unruliness to last long. The lefty passing genius, widely respected as the de facto leader, would call them out. This was a very healthy community, I realize now.
A few years ago, I moved out of state and away from my favorite gyms and had to find a new game. I checked Facebook, and it turns out some guys rent out the neighborhood elementary school gym once a week. It’s almost as hot as the Philly gym but the rims are soft and forgiving. I do not tell the others I am there to make friends. I don’t want to be awkward or come on too strong. I hit my jumpers but try not to overshoot. Give compliments for nice plays, bump firsts, tell stupid jokes. I ask about their kids. And on the holy ground of that court, I once again find community, and my new neighborhood feels like home.