Mad Game: Hard Knocks on the Hardwood

The other night I’m playing full-court hoops at the Sports

Club/LA under the 59th Street Bridge. They have pickup games there every night,

and this time I’m guarding the Litigator. We’re all calling him that because

his T-shirt features a three-piece-suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying alligator

of the same name. The Litigator is not fast, but when he charges to the hoop,

his cheeks puff with determination.

Someone back-picks me off him. One of my teammates, a

football handicapper for a local newspaper whom I’ll call “the Kid,” switches

over to guard him. The Litigator is trapped, but still moving forward. He puts

his shoulder into the Kid. The Kid’s arms shoot up in response, knocking both

the Litigator and the Litigator’s glasses to the floor.

The Litigator’s square frames are still gliding across the

high-gloss court when he bounds to his feet, fists raised. The Kid puts his own

dukes up and begins daring the Litigator to throw a punch. The Litigator’s eyes

blaze, and he starts stomping around the gymnasium like Chief Jay Strongbow of

the old WWWF, shouting obscenity-laced threats. The Kid stands his ground.

The Litigator closes the space between them and almost trips

on the basketball, which has rolled to a stop at his feet. He kicks it, and I

watch it ricochet off the bottom of the low bleachers. Then I look up at the

faces of the other ballplayers to see if anyone is going to step in to stop the

fight. Nobody does. They do not want to stop it. They want to see it.

I do not step in either. I, too, want to see blood.

Basketball is supposed to be a game of teamwork, creativity

and beauty. I have always considered it a fair game; it rewards hustle, effort

and commitment with success. But at the Sports Club/LA, it’s become something

far less wholesome.

I first got the basketball jones from my father. When I was

a kid, we had a short, narrow court on the side of our house, and that’s where

he’d find me when he came home from the city. I’d be working on my left-hand

dribble, turn-around fade-away or Earl Monroe–inspired spin through the lane

when, still in his suit and tie, my dad would step on the court with both palms

extended, calling wordlessly for the ball. I’d throw him a hard bounce pass

like he taught me, thumbs snapping down to create maximum backspin.

He’d grab it, turn quickly toward the basket and let the ball

fly. More often than not, it would go in. The net on our hoop was a rusted-out

chain, so instead of the usual “swish,” we heard ” ch-chink ” as the ball shimmied through. I’d get the rebound and

feed him again as he started moving on the balls of his feet from one side of

the court to the other. Bounce, catch, shoot- ch-chink! Bounce, catch, shoot- ch-chink!

The nets at the Sports Club/LA don’t make that sound. They

are mesh, and they are replaced at the slightest sign of wear. Having just

marked my 35th birthday, I joined to get back into basketball shape. But here I

am in the ultimate high-tech gym, and instead of threading a perfect bounce

pass to an open teammate, or hitting a 10-foot bank shot with defenders on each

arm, I am standing in a semi-circle hoping that someone gets decked.

The Litigator keeps closing on the Kid, and his neck muscles

continue to constrict and bulge, but he seems to be forcing the bravado a

little. If I showed a photo of his contorted face to my 5-year-old son and

asked him to name the emotion on it, I do not think he’d say “anger.” I think

he’d say “fear.”

And I would bet that fear is reflected on almost all of our

faces. An executive membership at the Sports Club/LA costs about $3,600 a year.

Many of the guys on the court are brokers, traders and market-makers who arrive

at the club within minutes of the markets closing, ready for action. Recently

one such trader, a tough man in his late 20’s with a bodybuilder’s chest and a

perma-scowl on his face, almost came to blows with a trash-talking nightclub

bartender from Jersey. The reason? After a close game, the bartender’s team

wouldn’t give Perma-scowl’s a rematch. Perma-scowl demanded satisfaction.

On Wall Street, the game’s over when that closing bell

rings, no matter how big your arms are or how bad the losses. But at the club,

our man thought he deserved another shot. And he was just about ready to fight for it, too.

But nobody ever throws a punch. We are, for the most part, a

group of men past our athletic prime. Ankle wraps and knee braces keep many of

us in the game, and in a number of years our bodies will stop getting us up and

down the court altogether. It could be decades until that happens, but no

matter; once you’ve seen the end coming, it’s always in your mind’s eye.

We know this. We also know

that if we let the pent-up anger from tense days in quiet offices push us into

throwing a left hook, the other guy might let one fly too. So even though we

really want to, we don’t. At this age, the fear of getting hurt outweighs the

desire to hurt. Still, we all hope someone else will try. It’s like Fight Club for men who are afraid to

fight.

When I was in high school, I used to break into basketball

gyms alone in the middle of the night. I was serious about it: I’d scout the

location for days, leave windows cracked, pull mats inches closer to them for

ease of landing. I was never caught. Even if I had been, it would have been

worth it. I loved the feeling of having the gym to myself. I had a routine.

Lay-ups first. Then jumpers. Foul line, foul line extended, top of the key. By

then, I’d start to sweat. I’d take the ball from one end of the court to the

other, dribbling as fast as I could without losing control of the ball. I

wasn’t a gifted player, and I was never a star on any team, but as the morning

light would begin to creep into the gym and I’d make my last couple of foul

shots before sneaking back out, I sure felt like one.

I imagine the Litigator has felt like a star too, but right

now he is running out of gas. Someone hands him his glasses. He slips them on,

and the game begins again.

As I watch him trundle back up the hardwood, it occurs to me

that each man here must have some version of my late-night basketball story. It

may not have been on a ball court, but somewhere they have all felt that moment

of athletic transcendence, of sport as an escape from the self, from the world.

It’s a hard feeling to attain, an even harder one to keep. Every day when I set

out for the gym, I am trying for it. But in the frustration of not quite being

able to turn on a dime, or handle the ball under pressure, or make the

three-pointer with the game on the line, I, like the Litigator, the Kid and

Perma-scowl, forget what it was that I came for in the first place.

Mad Game: Hard Knocks on the Hardwood