Serious Basketball

My preparation to play basketball begins the night before the thrice weekly game when I pack my gear: shorts, shirt, socks, towel, jock. I bought shorts and socks made of polyester mesh especially for playing basketball; they won’t stick to my body like cotton. And the socks are dedicated to basketball too: extra thick to cushion the pounding my legs will take. I suffer from tendonitis in both legs, around the Achilles tendons, which began the Spring before being introduced to this basketball game. After treatment from a sports doctor and physical therapist that included three weeks in a Frankenstein-like walking boot, deep tissue messages, ice massages, ultrasound, stretching exercises, and strength-building exercises, I still hurt a year later. Especially in the morning before the blood circulates to my lower legs, I walk downstairs to the kitchen like a fifty year-old retired hockey player, hobbling along on my tender pins. Preparing these legs for basketball begins with four tabs of ibuprofen in the locker room, jumping rope five minutes, fifteen minutes of stretching, then a brief round of shooting jump shots—only to lessen the pain I’ll experience during the first five minutes of play. Yes, putting it together is an ordeal.

The fifteen to twenty men who play regularly, not including the undergraduate students who may join us—have their own preparation routine. Anyone who is not an undergraduate student stretches, some more than others; most take ibuprofen to abate swelling in the legs; some sprint forward, backwards and sideways, to loosen creaky knees; and we all take jumpers, testing and calibrating our shots before the game begins. These men—we’ve had some women play and welcome anyone with the desire—have many court miles on them and a history of injuries. Injuries are part of our reality. When playing basketball like it matters, injuries happen. Recently, while warming up for a game, this new guy came hobbling into the gym, receiving warm greetings from some old-timers, while others shook their heads incredulously, mumbling something like “holy shit, what the hell is he doing here.” Another what the fuck happened to this guy moments. With a hitch in his step, skipping up and down the court favoring his left leg, he had hip replacement surgery not long before—based on how he was running, not very long before—and he was back. Considering his gait made it appear like he was wrapped in a full body cast, it was obvious this dude had game. Without much lift from his legs, his shot was off; he couldn’t cover a fast break on defense; and his angles on defense weren’t the best because of poor lateral movement; but moving without the ball—which players are doing eighty or ninety percent of the time in a game—was his strength. Court sense, vision, seeing the play, are all part of being a good player without the ball; knowing where to be and how to get there—moving without the ball—is critical because you can either catch the ball for an easy basket or set your teammate up for an easy basket with good movement. Navigating the court well without the ball is the difference between being in a mosh pit and ballroom dancing. Players with significant experience in organized basketball move well without the ball, while others, like me, are less than consistent.

The regulars in this basketball game aren’t former professionals, nor even former collegiate players, though we take it that seriously. We can’t play like your favorite basketball celebrity, above the rim, shooting with equal abandon from the left or right hand, but we think it like such. Playing the game is important because it’s us, we’re in action on the court, not the latest sneaker endorser.