In the past I have dreamed about playing basketball. Sometimes it is in a challenging situation, pitted against others; sometimes I am alone and am only practicing. But
usually it boils down to one shot, and that shot is not an easy shot; perhaps it is from a long distance, perhaps it involves intricate moves to accomplish – but whatever is involved in that particular situation, invariably I make the shot, I wake up, I remember that I have been playing the game and… Well, I have to admit that I am not always able to equate what happens in dreams with what happens in real life.
I don’t remember when I first started playing basketball, but I remember playing it for hour upon hour in the alley behind our house when I was a teen in high school. We had a
basket rigged up on the side of our garage there in the alley, and the odd thing was that the alley was not level but slanted, so that on one side the basket seemed much higher to shoot at than on the other side. It didn’t matter though. It was easy to take such a peculiarity as a matter of course. Because I did not play basketball out there in the alley to prepare to help a team win. No. I played for myself. I played because so many other things in my life were not complete or did not make sense. I played because I could go out there, outside the house, outside, as it were, the usual order of things, and better myself in some way. I could work on my balance, my strength, my coordination. I could allow that which was unacceptable in my life to slough away, to forsake it in a sense, at least for a time, to put it aside for something that was more important. And as I concentrated on what I was doing, as I focused my attention on perfecting the art of basketball, at another level my mind could wander, but it would not wander to the mundane but to the sublime. It would go where it was not able to go in everyday life; it would think thoughts it would not normally
think; it would soar to places that would not normally be able to be reached.
Of course, I was not always alone. Sometimes my brothers were there, and sometimes neighbor kids. When my brothers were around I’d play them games of one-on-one or free throw shoots or twenty-one, and I’d always win because I was the oldest and I practiced more than they did. There were two kids up the alley who had a basket on their garage too; sometimes for variety I’d go and play there. One boy, Ric, was my age and the other, Vic, was slightly older. We’d play two-on-one, Ric and I against Vic, and Ric and I would always win because we had the advantage of being able to pass off; Vic couldn’t stand
to lose and he’d try like a son-of-a-bitch to catch up, but he could seldom come close. Their family was considered a little odd because their dad was a sailor and built boats and walked with a funny limp; in addition, they were the only ones in the neighborhood without a TV set. But basketball was a common denominator that could break through all that. Anyone could play basketball, even eccentrics, especially eccentrics, I might say, as long as they weren’t too proud to lose. And if they did not want to play, they could stand around and watch. I am reminded, in particular, of the kid from the end of the block,
Daniel I think his name was, who occasionally strolled by and stopped to talk but never participated. He was slim, soft-spoken, polite, and struck me at the time as fairly level-headed. He was also slightly younger than me, but it didn’t matter anymore, as at the time I was past teen-hood; I’d moved out of the house on my own and back in several times; I made my own decisions and expected others to do the same. This fellow, Daniel, who I’d only known in the past as a classmate of one of my younger brothers, would stop and chat and then stroll on, like a ripple in a lake due to a falling leaf or a fish jumping, and the surface would calm again and it was as if it had never happened. But later I found out that he, while still a young man, in his parents’ house at the end of the alley, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out – and I never had a clue why, certainly not from his polite, soft-spoken, sincere conversations. Perhaps he never consciously considered it before he did it; perhaps what was bugging him was churning around on the inside yet never coming to the surface even in his own mind. I do not speak facetiously or flippantly when I say that perhaps he should not have just passed by as an observer; perhaps he should have joined in and become an active participant; perhaps he should have grabbed the ball, focused his attention, taken aim, and let fly, not just once but over and over, until everything else sloughed away, including the cares and burdens that he carried in the deep recesses of his subconscious where they were rotting away and turning cancerous.
I would go out alone anytime, in any weather. It was almost always drizzling or outright
raining in Seattle, so one could not be too bothered by it or one would never do anything. In sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers I would grab the ball, get out there, and start shooting. When the weather was extremely cold I’d have to move fast to warm up, because a coat impeded movement, so I never wore a coat when I played basketball. Even when the street was slick with ice I’d shiver and shoot, shiver and shoot, until my blood started pumping faster and I’d loosen up and wouldn’t notice the cold anymore. The slanting of the alley was useful in the rain because puddles wouldn’t collect on the ground, but still
I’d become spattered with muddy water; when the ground was only slightly damp a
dirty residue would cling to the ball and get on my hands so that they’d turn almost black. These slight inconveniences were small prices to pay.
Once I tried joining the high school team. I figured that had to be the ultimate goal of it all: to wear a real basketball uniform and appear in official games. But I couldn’t unwind. I didn’t have the loose confidence I felt when I played alone. It was like selling my soul, like turning traitor. I ended up as a benchwarmer, showing up for the practices yet never appearing in the games. Finally, though, during one of the final games of the season our team was so far ahead they decided to let the substitutes in. I got in the clear and began dribbling down the court, chased by an opposing player. It was an easy lay-up, but I missed so badly that though the other player had never touched me the referee called a foul. My first free throw didn’t even come close to the hoop; it fell far short. The second
bounced around and around and finally went in: that was the one point I ever made in an organized game, and that cured me forever of wanting to participate in organized sports. Playing alone was a grand, glorious, liberating experience; playing on a team for the glory of God-knows-what was a degrading, humiliating experience – and I think it is so not only for me but for all, even for the ones who attain to stardom. What do they really accomplish when they win a game? What do they do it for? Fame? Money? These things are so shallow when compared with the profundity of playing for its own sake, every shot
a life-changing experience; I might even say an artistic experience in the true sense of the word. Such an experience can keep you sane in an insane world.
Later, much later, during my literary wanderings, during the time of my life on the road, I took a temporary job in a firefighting camp on the Northern California coast. I was
surrounded by redwood trees as well as redneck people. The rest of the crew was ex-military men, martial arts experts, gang members, and so on. They were certainly not the type of people to take kindly to a pacifistic poet. So to put on a show of bravado I started lifting weights; in addition, as I would everywhere I went, when I had free time I’d go out and shoot baskets. The weightlifting gave me extra strength, and the amount of time on my hands gave me a lot of practice. A few of the guys caught a glimpse of me popping them in regularly from thirty or forty feet out, and after that nobody would play basketball with me anymore. They figured they didn’t have much chance of winning, so they didn’t want to risk their macho standing in the camp community. That was fine by me. It made them keep their distance and overlook some of my obvious defects for which they would otherwise have harassed me. And once again, basketball was one of the things that stabilized me in a difficult situation. I could get out there and concentrate on what I was doing and forget about the people I was surrounded by, my frustration with my writing, and my incessant agonizing loneliness. That was the worst thing: the loneliness. There at that camp in the middle of nowhere I think I called every girl whose number I had, even ones in France and Belgium and other faraway places, looking for some connection, some offer to come in off the road and stay awhile. That offer never came and I left the camp as alone as I’d come, but at least when I played basketball I could forget it all; I could concentrate on the ball and the hoop and my balance and form and aim, and I could think otherworldly thoughts, harmonized thoughts, thoughts that came together in order and symmetry.
Recently I was reminded of all this when I went across the street to shoot a few baskets with one of my young sons. He spotted his older brother nearby and ran off to him, and for a while I was left alone on the court with the basketball. It was a warm evening, but there was a slight breeze. The sun was about to set and the sky was deep blue above and flaming red to the west. I began to shoot one shot after another, concentrating on what I was doing, consciously considering my balance, position, angle, flick of wrist, strength of jump, and so on. Sometimes I missed and sometimes I didn’t, but that wasn’t very important. As I kept it up, though, more and more started going in; the whole process became more automatic. My mind began to drift, and I began to recall those times in the alley, at the firefighting camp, and in many other places when basketball would be a way to ditch whatever was bugging me and grab a few moments of eternity.
I don’t have the strength I used to have, and I never will again. Sometimes I feel the years
weighing me down, leaving me exhausted, disillusioned, depressed. Sometimes I’m so busy and so laden down with responsibility that I wouldn’t be able to grab a basketball and shoot a few hoops even if I wanted to. But those glimpses I have had of something that is anything but petty, anything but mundane, anything but mediocre have made me a better man than I was before. And if any of you readers are skeptical, if any of you think that it is ludicrous to ascribe such greatness to a simple act of tossing a ball through a metal hoop, I suggest that you give it a try. But alone, remember, all alone. And not just for a few minutes but over and over and over again.
On the other hand, let’s face it: I’m not naïve enough to think that basketball is the way to salvation. For you it might be something different. Eternity is a big place; it can be gotten at from many angles. And there is the point as well that when I’d put down the ball and leave the court, all that I’d temporarily forgotten or forsaken was waiting for me again. But a part of that experience remained, and will always remain.