My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right?
  • My first month or two in San Diego, I played outdoor pickup, on the beach, because, yo, I could, right?
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Listen. I’m a basketball extremist. Maybe it’s the rhythmic, elastic whump (ring)s, whump (ring)s — thuds resounding echoing overtones — leading me into reverie every time, the odd expectant tempos, down the block, passing my street-side windows. Or perhaps it’s the quickening squeaks of quicker shoes, erratic guttural grunts, and yells. But something makes me think I heard the trumpets of paradise in a soundtrack for the 21st Century.

Pacific Beach Rec Center

I listen. So much the better! Those common clamors come from countless fenced-in blacktops, ordinary noise on given city corners, from hordes of outsized guys geared up in gaudy shoes and baggy shorts. Just look at ’em, dancing in feints and slants, passing and bouncing that spherical, orange, whumpringing thing, launching it, then leaping at the elevated facing stanchions. Ten towering Goliaths tilting to a special set of rules, competing between drawn arcs and outlines of otherworldly significance: the aliens have landed here.

And I’ve arrived as well. To join them at their wild game.

Pacific Beach Recreation Center. I’d been more or less anonymous on the courts of P.B. Rec for the better part of almost three years.

Hit the court, and your hands start to sweat, a Pavlovian response, no doubt, and the ability to use our mother tongue drops by grade levels. Perhaps my gift of expression’s bestowed to the bouncing ball, exchanges of energy neither gained nor lost, my good words becoming blunt thumps. Whatever. Suddenly I too am grunting, reduced to that question of questions, “Who got next?”, but I don’t pronounce the t, it’s “nex,” jus “nex,” and then, “Yo, I run wit you?”, no extra syllables, yo, yo, what up kid?, got yer five?, foul, mine, face, brick, broke, glass, got it, switch, pick left, pick right, nice run…the vaunted litany of the game.

Lenny tells me that P.B. Rec's seen a who’s who of Southern California players. Swen Nater, who was a forward for the San Diego Clippers in the ’70s; all of Bill Walton’s kids; Jelani McCoy; Sean Rooks; Michael Cage; Mark Jackson; and a lot of NFL and ex-NFL players: Craig Whelihan, Steve Grogan, Freddie Jones, and Tony Banks.

But this is pickup ball, yo. As in, pick up the players you can run with, and then run with them. (Games of B-ball are run, not played.) And it’s “B-ball,” or just ball, as though no other ball games exist. And when you run with the team you picked up, or the team that picked you up, you got to win to stay on.

It’s no coaches, no whistles, no uniforms. Come as you are and run till you lose. Game’s to 9, 11, 13, or 15. Depends on where you play. Back East is by-2, play a zone, showboat, talk trash, pass only when you can’t just jack it up; in the Midwest it’s old-school, pick-and-roll, pass-and-move, no flash, team-ball technique; in San Diego anything goes, Hollywood or Hoboken, dish and dash, beach-bum-mellow hand-in-hand with steep-ski-slope severe.

Yes-s-s-s, this is pickup basketball, bayy-beee, and it’s an established country. A language, a culture, and a territory, with the obligatory odd inhabitants commuting in. This is one nation, under sport, no social or economic or racial boundaries, where all the talent levels, ages, and even the sexes can come together, vastly different partners in a single common realm: the Game.

I live there.

For me, arriving in San Diego was an entrance unto heaven. (I really don’t believe I’m overstating this.) I came here from the Bronx, vaguely the equivalent of going gourmet after years of charred meat. Sunshine, people who look you in the eye, broad smiles, wide spaces, I mean, it’s novelty versus cliché. And not to mention, indoor pickup basketball. As in: soft, flat wooden courts instead of hard, cracked blacktop, and year-round day or night games unmolested by the seasons and the weather. You’re lucky to run B-ball 50 times a year in the Boogie Down back East, unless you pay for it, ten bucks a pop, just to see the light of a gymnasium. Or you can shovel the courts, take off your mittens, and get some other fearless friends. How about this: just three years here in P.B. I’ve played maybe 700 afternoons. See what I mean? An f—ing dream.

The center of my heaven, ninth cloud and pearly gate, the perfect place for me to be is located at the corner of Diamond and Gresham, and its official designation runs something like “The Pacific Beach Recreation Center,” though hereinafter I shall refer to it by its appropriate street tag, “P.B. Rec.” Basketball at P.B. Rec begins most days around 1:30, and the schedule’s a veritable certitude around which I mold the rest of my life: basketball-time, then writing-time, then work-time, and now that I’m a newlywed, my home-time has to find time too. But it’s basketball first and foremost, as I’ve had to make my editor, and then my boss, and now my good wife understand.

Early in our courtship I introduced my sweetheart to this old Wilson “Solution” of mine. I told them both, gently but firmly, that one could be my wife, and one could be my basketball, and they would have to reach an understanding for us to live together happily. You might think this is funny, or that I’m joking, and although I do mean it somewhat figuratively, in truth I’m as serious as the angle of a skunk’s tail. By that I mean: basketball takes my time, I love it, and therefore it catches some of my best attention. That’s how it is, I’m sorry, so live with it. Of course my wife, with her characteristic wit and energy, suggested the three of us play together, a full courtship with no pun intended, a sort of one-on-one ménage à trois. Nice idea. Didn’t work out. They couldn’t get along with me there, you know, hogging each other’s concentration, getting defensive, funny bounces, jealousy, and all that. Still, I’m glad we tried it. A little adversity makes any relationship stronger.

This is to say that, by now, my relationship with my own body should lift rivers and move mountains. It’s been adversity after adversity ever since I turned 30. Playing all that B-ball again after my Bronx hiatus earned me, let’s see: three twisted ankles (twice on the left and once right), a pulled groin, one strained abdomen (try sneezing, or standing up from a chair), and eight or nine bouts of inflamed and blistered toes, including one blood-poisoning incident (contaminated through a toe blister — the doctor told me I was two days from “multiple organ failure”). And now that youth and quickness and dunking are the stuff of memory for me and my body, I’m become a shadow of what I was, no doubt about it.

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