The kid from Maple School broke away and dribbled down the court. Just five steps ahead of me, he had a wide open lane for an easy layup. As he lifted the ball for his shot, I plowed into him, sending the two of us into the padding against the gym wall. The ref blew the whistle on me, but I didnâ€™t care. I knew this guy would never make his free throws. I had saved our team two points. And there you have the crowning moment of my basketball glory days on the Chestnut School seventh-grade basketball team.
I suck at round ball, although it took me awhile to admit it. When the seventh-grade coach took me aside to ask why I wanted to play basketball, subtly implying that I would never play because, yes, I was terrible, I only got more determined to prove him wrong. Nope, he was right, and I never joined the basketball team again. Still, for a couple years after that single season of pre-teen basketball I lived with the delusion that those four months qualified me to hold my own on the court. What was I thinking? Iâ€™m a hack. Iâ€™m not even a good hack; I foul out of games in the first quarter — or I would, if I still tried to play basketball.
My best friend Steve was on the varsity team in high school, so I spent a great deal of time in his driveway trying to guard him as he drove to the basket around me, or over me, or he just did a fadeaway jumper while I dove with my arms flapping like a lame pigeon. Steve nearly always made his shot. Sometimes Iâ€™d get a hand on the ball, or his wrist, or his back, or in his face. Steve would never complain. In fact, heâ€™d even throw out the occasional â€œNice D.â€ Good friends will do that — prop you up when you both know youâ€™re not very good.
It seems like whenever we werenâ€™t hanging out in the basement or cruising around in the Whomobile, Steve and I were tossing a basketball at his hoop while a tape deck spun the Who, Kinks or Blues Brothers. Since there wasnâ€™t much of a game being played, the two of us would joke around or talk about everyday events. I also did my best to wow him with my encyclopedic knowledge of useless pop culture information. Then there were days when we would reveal our fears and concerns about girlfriends, school, or what the future held for us. Whether the biting cold day of autumn, or the cool, sunny spring, I treasure those afternoons in North Olmsted that were the foundation of our friendship.
During the summer of â€™89, Steve and I rejoined the North Olmsted Board of Education summer maintenance crew to paint school rooms, mow lawns and perform whatever menial labor the bosses had lined up for us. Our cohort, Jeff, was back from Purdue, as was Stacey, our crew chief, one of the nicest people Iâ€™ve ever met. The other three had all played ball in high school, and during our breaks we would play pickup games. I held my own; didnâ€™t make many shots, but heard a lot of â€œNice Dâ€ from the other guys.
When I hear a rubber ball smack against pavement, giving off that high-pitched whine, or sneakers squeak on a hardwood floor, images of my friendsâ€™ faces are conjured in my head. The determination. The petty arguments. The high fives. The camaraderie.
Besides the gyms and driveways of my childhood, â€œThe Old Playgroundâ€ can also be found on side two of Bruce Hornsby and the Rangeâ€™s sophomore effort, Scenes from the Southside. My cassette of the album received regular play during the sticky, hot summer days of 1989, as Jeff and I were both loyal Bruce Hornsby fans. His composition is an ode to the game he loves, combining the hip-hop beats youâ€™d expect to hear in the background of an inner city basketball game with the down-home, jam band style of his brightest songs. Itâ€™s rare to hear a jazzy, piano-based song about a basketball in rock and roll. Girls, yes. Cars, you bet. Even dead dogs have a slew of songs devoted to them. Hornsbyâ€™s fervor come through loud and clear making it one of his most delightful numbers. That must be why â€œThe Old Playgroundâ€ retains its magic to me. Hearing those opening synth beats or Hornsbyâ€™s syncopated solo or the line â€œJust call your own fouls when you break the rulesâ€ make me wish I could go back to the old playground for one more pick up game and one last chance to see my friend, Jeff.
Last year we bought a basketball hoop for Sophie and Jacob. It sits in our driveway right outside the front door. I have no delusions that either of our children will want to play seventh grade basketball (if they do, Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll excel at it, unlike their father). The hoop is there for fun. On nights when itâ€™s not too hot Iâ€™ll sometimes play a game of HORSE with Sophie or lift Jake high in the air so he can slam-dunk the ball. There are times when Iâ€™ll sand just inside the house and hear Sophie outside with her friends, shooting baskets and talking about how their day was. In those moments I imagine the future when Sophie or Jake are playing one on one with their best friends and an iPod is playing music in the background. I imagine them revealing their fears and concerns as only friends can do with each other, and telling each other â€œNice D.â€