I had a revelation at a party the other night, and as a rule I don’t like parties. But this one came to me when my host introduced me to a tall guy and we started to talk basketball.
This was the revelation: that basketball’s the greatest sport ever invented.
Especially if you’re over 18 and your chances of playing college or professional sports are nil.
First, let me eliminate other sports from the running.
Football and hockey are too dangerous and require too much equipment.
Baseball consists primarily of players standing around tugging at the themselves while waiting for the pitcher to throw the ball.
Tennis is expensive. Golf is more expensive. Polo requires the purchase of a $15,000 pony just to suit up. And getting the pony to the polo field isn’t cheap. It’s not like you can call Uber and get Flicka to the match on time.
Lacrosse is an excuse so privileged, private school kids play a varsity sport. Everyone knows these lads could never make a public school basketball or football team.
Boxing’s goal is to steer angry young men into gyms where they can be mentored and trained and kept from a rough and tumble life on the streets.
The only good thing about bowling are the tri-colored rental shoes.
Swimming is monotonous to do and even more monotonous to watch.
Badminton is silly. Table tennis is a parlor game. And no one really understands the point of curling.
Handball is a good sport because all you need is a wall and a ball and an eight-year old to chase stray balls. But it’s not a great sport. You don’t have to be strong, run long distances or jump high. You just have to be good at geometry.
Soccer would be the greatest sport ever invented except that only the goalies can use their hands. Is there any other sport where players can’t use their hands except for throw ins? Hopscotch? Bobbing for apples? You can even use your hands in ring toss, whack-a-mole and busting open a piñata.
Soccer is the second greatest sport ever invented.
Track and field are beautiful except for discus, javelin and shot put.
Ever picked up a shot put?
I have. And my first instinct was to put it down. And leave it there. Forever.
I’m in awe of sprinters, long distance runners and long jumpers. And might rank track as the greatest sport ever invented because all you need is a pair of shoes, but I was always a slow runner and envy people who can run fast, so I’m ranking track right a notch below soccer.
I am not qualified to judge hunting and fishing for I don’t engage in them. Plus, I think of sport as a physical competition in which players or teams compete on an even playing field and abide by the same rules. Ducks and deer and trout don’t stand a chance against rifles, scopes, knives, and hooks.
I rarely know what to do at parties other than stand in the kitchen and offer to help serve or take out the trash, but at this particular party, Dan, the host, was talking about his regular tennis game when the tall, lean guy whose name was Tod said he had played in his weekly basketball game that afternoon.
“Basketball?” I said and he nodded.
Until five years ago when I retired, I played in the same Sunday afternoon game with the same guys for 26 years.
I told Tod that and he said his game was in its tenth year. And we started to talk about the beauty of the game.
First off, basketball players can work on multiple facets of the game while all alone. Dribbling, free throw shooting, lay-up, bank shots. Shots from every spot and every angle on the court. The fall away, the fade away, the hook shot, the buzzer beater from mid-court.
Can’t be alone on a football field and send yourself out for a thirty-yard pass.
Basketball allows its participants to perfect the game in the privacy of one’s driveway. Or alone on the court. Try fine tuning your 3-iron shots in the driveway and see what your neighbors say.
And in what other sport can you lace up your Converse All-Stars, walk to the nearest playground and be certain to find a pick-up game underway. Call “Next!” and in no time, you’re playing 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 with strangers who immediately welcome you into their game.
There’s no equivalent for, say, sumo wrestlers.
Can’t go to the nearest park expecting to find a half dozen beefy fellows itching for a chance to pin you to the ground.
Pick-up basketball is unique in a number of ways, including this: no matter where a baller goes, everyone plays by the same rules.
Whether you’re playing in rural Iowa or inner-city Philly, it’s winners’ in. Turnovers and air balls have to be taken back behind the three-point line before you attempt a shot. Three-point baskets count for two. Two point baskets count for one. Offensive team calls its own fouls. And no one, ever, ever calls a charging foul. You do that and we slit your tires or steal your shoes.
But the true beauty of basketball is in the instant connections ballers create on and sometimes off the court, connections that may continue hours or years or a lifetime.
Tod told me what he loves most about basketball is passing. He can shoot, but the pass, the anticipation of where his teammate will be in two seconds or two-tenths of a second and delivering a chest high pass to the open man is why he plays the game.
Not to win or score a lot of points, but to hit the open man.
The Open Man—The Championship Diary of the NY Knicks, written by Knicks Hall of Famer, the late Dave Debusschere, defines the beauty of moving without the ball and selflessly passing the ball to the open man for an uncontested shot. It’s the sacred text and sacred belief of true ballers.
Saying the words “the open man” is to ballers what saying “Jesus loves you,” “God is great,” or “Shabbat Shalom” is to people of faith. It’s the code we embrace, it’s the path to enlightenment.
In that one brief conversation, Tod and I, long past the days when we could actually elevate six or eight inches off the ground when attempting a jump shot, knew that we belonged to the same fraternity: the brotherhood of ballers, comrades of the hard court.
I am not sure I’ll ever see Tod again but I will always value our brief conversation. After all, how often does one meet a person who seems to understand the core of another within a five-minute conversation?
I don’t have war stories, or LSD stories, or how-I-made-millions-in-the-market stories which will instantly connect me to a stranger.
But I have 60 years of shooting hoops.
I’ve played with and against hundreds of friends and strangers, who for decades or for an afternoon were teammates or opponents, and I can remember many of their moves, their shots, their on-court idiosyncrasies as well as I can remember my childhood friends.
And I cherish them every bit as much.
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