But I wouldn’t change a thing. (Except for the part about the dunking. Being able to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot hoop — and, by the way, I’m a shortish, 5-foot-10 white guy — lends one a kind of infallible authority, as in, “You didn’t listen to me before, but when I throw this fucker down, uh-huh, now I represent represent!”) It’s kind of funny, but the past four years or so, since I hit that mythic, hated 30, most older fellas I’ve seen I’ve thought: “Is that me, maybe, 20, 25, even 30 years from now? Therefore go the vanity of I? Is that my slouch, the way I’ll negotiate a swinging door, or sit in a cozy chair, when I get there?” Seems as good a way as any to learn what my character has in store for me, the kind of old man I’m fast and soon to become. Once time has its way with my muscles and bones…
You know there’s this great moment at the beginning of a book I never read except in translation, and actually never finished reading at all, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, or Dante, as in, just Dante, right there in its first part called Hell. On page one, Dante’s where I am, midway through his life, and he gets chased by all these crazy demons (actually, in his story the demons look like animals — a leopard, a lion, and a wolf — but in mine I think the demons are my bum ankles, busted toes, and aching back). These demons run him into despair, right through the gates of hell, and just when everything starts to seem really desperate, Dante meets the older version of who he might become, the hero he’s always emulated but hoped to surpass, who shows up in his time of need to guide him. It’s the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. As in, just Virgil. So the old poet leads the young poet through the underworld, up to purgatory, and then into heaven beyond.
This is my way of widening the scope somewhat. Saying, “This is about more than basketball, more than little old me.” (Hey, no one likes to be alone in celebration or in suffering.) And what I’m saying is…well…it’s like this. My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right? I just moved here from New York City, it’s December, and I can play basketball outdoors, so shouldn’t I? Not one to waste a privilege, I worked it, finding my game again where the waves roll in, but also jumping and cutting and defending again for the first time in years. And that concrete, let me tell you. Every step you take counts for three strides against the lifetime-total your feet and ankles and knees and back were ever meant to take. That concrete’s hard hard stuff. And by the time I found P.B. Rec, with its softer wood floor, I was already well into my own personal hell, far on my way to 40 or 50 outdoor-basketball years. Yes, I discovered P.B. Rec, and there I met what very well may be a distinct older version of myself, my Virgil…Lenny. Just Lenny.
Now for all of you who haven’t written a newspaper article, I have to tell you something. It’s hard hard stuff too. It makes you look closely at the life you’ve been living, which can throw that life out of balance pretty quickly. It’s like the difference between walking along, and trying to walk along while you’re thinking about walking. Makes it tougher to take normal steps. Isn’t easy being super-self-conscious.
I mention this because I’d been more or less anonymous on the courts of P.B. Rec for the better part of almost three years, just the big mouth with the up-and-down game; some guys knew me by my first name, and that was it. Fine with me. There’s this distance a highly competitive person must maintain to compete. It’s a kind of psychological edge, and you find it only if you really want to tear the heart out of your opponent and parade it around and keep it beating on your mantel. Because one great thing about sports is, if you’re in the game, and you’re not on my side, then you’re definitely on the other. Not so in the business of being a writer. In writing, you have to get intimate, try to see things from both sides, from every side, if possible. It’s a bitch, but it’s what keeps you honest. And now I was going to have to cross my loyalties, to tell some of the P.B. Rec guys that I was writing this article, doing a story about the enemy, and about the gymnasium where we play. I would, in essence, have to admit that I can pronounce the word “gymnasium.” Three syllables too many.
It did occur to me that I could conduct unofficial interviews and write an exposé, behind the scenes, “The Real P.B. Rec,” and do the whole thing under an assumed name, a nom de basketball, if you will. But that wouldn’t be fair. Another thing you learn when you write a newspaper article is that you can’t hide, at least not entirely. Because honesty’s your first asset, and if you don’t use it here, then you can’t get anywhere near the Truth. And the Truth is where you have to at least try to be.
Although I did realize how I could pull off this writing thing, with all the requisite honesty, without shaking up too much of the rest of my life. There was only one interview I would have to do. The rest I could more or less assemble myself. And if I got enough dirt on Lenny, my lone interviewee, then he wouldn’t be able to blow up my spot, not without me blowing up his spot too. Perfect. So I collected my tape recorder, and swallowed humble pie, and set out to admit my apprenticeship.