WE PLAY BASKETBALL on Monday nights, five or six of us. From spring until fall we play outdoors, behind a school in the south end of Peterborough. In the winter we rent the gym of an old crumbling brick public school, across the street from the imposing GE plant, also brick, which is skirted in barbed wire, and where local rumour holds that dark, dangerous, nuclear things are done. We’ll play for a couple of hours, until the time-outs get harder to come out of and our knees and ankles and lungs have had enough. Then we’ll make our way slowly toward the door, and sometimes we’ll wind up at one of the awful bars here in this awful town, still sweaty in our American t-shirts. We’ll order pitchers and run our foul mouths. And I will look around the table at the reddened faces of the brutes I call my friends and wonder what it is that we have in common. It won’t take long, feeling the way I do — my still loose muscles, my head ringing, a beer in me, and an endorphin-borne sense of wellbeing having washed over me — before I conclude that we have these Monday nights, and that’ll do.
In due time we’ll run out of things to say, so we’ll order another pitcher and maybe a basket of suicide wings, and suck the meat from the bones and drain the beer from our glasses, toss a few insults, mean none of them, and then head for the door. The drive home will take me through parts of this town that look like the early stages of a slow-motion disaster. The decay and neglect will seem fitting for the same reasons that I count those guys as friends: because we’re shaky prospects, mid-thirties and fading, we’re nobody’s heroes. We’re flailing a bit, and we all hear the clock ticking. Phil installs kitchen cabinets and fights with his subcontractors. Randy’s a designer in a town that has little need for graphic design. Chris plays in a half a dozen bands while holding down a day job. Jay’s in HR for a company you’ve heard of, has fired more people than you can imagine, and has a baby on the way any day now. As for me, that novel I was going to publish ten years ago sits in its drawer, where it should forever remain, and now I stay home with the three kids asleep in that house that I can’t keep clean, with the lawn I never bother to cut, the filthy minivan in the driveway, and the weedy, unwatered vegetable garden out back.
I get home on Monday nights and I have trouble sleeping, though the muscles are knotting up and getting sore and I am exhausted, because those hours we just spent playing ball are two of the best hours of my long week, and I know the others are in their homes, pacing, standing before the TV watching NBA highlights, taking long showers, describing our game to their patient wives or girlfriends, laying awake and replaying it all, and generally feeling the same way I am. “It’s the best night of my week,” Chris has said, while we all stood nodding our heads in agreement.
GROWING UP IN SUBURBAN OTTAWA I would play with the boys who lived nearby: two Chinese kids, a pair of Pakistani brothers, and me. We reflected the kind of global cultural panoply that the NBA and FIBA now spend millions trying to promote, but that didn’t factor in the equation for us; we played basketball because basketball was inescapable. It was simply in the air. We breathed it and we adored it.
We played all the variants and iterations: one-on-one, 21, H.O.R.S.E., pick-up two-on-two or three-on-three. We’d play in someone’s driveway – two of the boys across the street had nets over their garage doors – or head up to the park and try to rustle up a game. The mosquitoes were bad at the park, so you had to keep moving; legs churning, arms swinging wildly. Mostly we’d just shoot around; drive, lay up, finger roll, go up and under. Or we’d stand three-quarters of the way down the driveway and launch the ball skyward. Sometimes it’d clank off the rim and skitter away. Sometimes it would fall short and make a big boom, leave a crater in the aluminum garage door. On infrequent and glorious occasions that ball would fall nearly silently through the hoop. That earned you “respect” — you got to say the word out loud: “Respect.” Meaning respect my skill, meaning honour the solemn code, meaning pass me the ball so I can take the next shot, and the next, until I miss.
There were times you could not miss. You found an elusive stroke, the right placement of the fingers on the ball, the flick, the power from your knees, the follow-through. You would effectively cancel out all thought and you would go on a run, the other boys feeding you the ball after every successful shot. Then you’d probably get cocky after you’d hit maybe a half a dozen in a row. You’d attempt a turn-around, or a fade-away, and it’d go banging off the metal hoop or the fibreglass backboard, falling harmlessly flat. Then another boy would take his shot, try to start a run of his own. We’d pass afternoons like this, entire days, until the sun was gone and the streetlight cut a cone into the inky summer evening air.
We were 12 years-old, 14. We might have played until we were 16, I don’t quite remember. We would start playing in the spring when there were still snowbanks bracketing the driveways, and errant rebounds sent you knee deep into the dirty, granular slush. You’d retrieve the ball, then spend a moment shaking the snow out of your Nikes or Converses. We played in the rain, in the cold. As the dark fell and the streetlights flared on. Hungry, playing with blistered hands, playing on twinging knees. We’d play until the snow fell again in November.
It was 1988, or 1990, and Michael Jordan was the ideal. He was everything. Our shoes bore his name, our t-shirts his likeness. It is difficult to describe how important we believed this man was. I was a Lakers fan because of Magic Johnson, but everyone was primarily or also a Bulls fan. You paid attention because you wanted to see what he was going to do next, what incredible and heretofore unheard of thing he would pull off. That he’d pour in 30 was a given, the question was how would he do it?
So we dreamed of Jordan, and we played. We played all the time, and I suppose I thought things would always be kind of like that, inasmuch as I thought of it at all. That basketball, and the time to play it, would be a constant in my life. But soon, before I ever really had a chance to realize it, the whole thing was over. We had hit an age where playing hoops in the driveway wasn’t at the top of our to-do lists. School work, I guess, and busy social lives. For me, the unremarkable details of moodiness and yearning, staying in my bedroom all hours, listening to music, reading. Girlfriends, or the pursuit of them anyway.
Every once in a while I’d look out the window and see Paul or Will — over whose garages those backboards hung — shooting a ball and I’d scamper down to take a few shots. When I was 17 or so I completely immersed myself in the music of R.E.M., hung a photo of Michael Stipe on my wall, broke up with a girlfriend, quit playing football, and shaved my head stone bald. In light of all this unusual behaviour, I sincerely believe that my parents thought I might be gay. Knowing my parents as I do, I’m certain they’d have been okay with that in time, had it turned out to be true, but it seemed obvious to me that they thought I was in the grips of a discovery about myself that was painful and confusing, and that perception caused them some measure of anguish. At the very least they were worried, as all parents might be, that I was quickly becoming moody and self-absorbed and strange. The plain truth is that I was just being 17, though I am ashamed to admit that the whole thing amused me a hell of a lot.
One warm afternoon that moody spring I’d caught Paul shooting hoops and gone out to join him, and then spent an hour getting good and sweaty and rehearsing my rusty jumpshot. My father came home from work, and when he got out of the car, across the street from where we were playing, the look of relief on his face was unmistakable. He waved, and stood a moment in the opposite driveway, briefcase in hand, just watching. Later he told me, “It was good to see you out there.” Soon thereafter he and I talked football, and this seemed to further reassure him.
From then on chances to play basketball were the exception. Overall, we were done with the game. We had put it on a shelf without a thought for when we might pick it up again. And the long years since then have for the most part seen me get along without the game of basketball, and basketball get along just fine without me.
IT WAS ALL RANDY’S IDEA. We got to talking about basketball over the winter — this was when we were both still working at a music store in the mall — talking about the players we’d loved, about how we used to play pickup with friends, and me on my middle school team, Randy right on up into college, until he broke his ankle.
At first it was good just to have someone to talk basketball with again. We talked about how we hadn’t played in years, though never really gave up on the idea of playing. And we agreed to meet for a little one-on-one as soon as the snow melted.
It was early May when we headed out to find a court with a decent hoop. The one we settled on had to have the dust and sticks and leaves swept from it. The pavement was wavy and buckled. We began to shoot around. It was a good feeling, something distantly remembered and happy, though to say that our skills were rusty would be putting it kindly. We wheezed through a couple of games of one-on-one, lungs aching, shots falling short. It was a shaky start, but it was something.
By the end of May everybody at that store wanted in. Randy and I would be talking trash, or trying to schedule our next game, and our coworkers would listen attentively. Like all of us they’d played a little here and there, thrown shots toward a hoop somewhere as a kid, then forgotten they’d enjoyed it and gone a decade or more without touching a ball. Over the May long weekend we all got together and played a big game at a court in the north end of town. The skill level was uneven and some were not well versed in the rules, but it was nevertheless apparent that Randy and I had struck on something; the providential mid-30s return to something so many of us loved as kids. The feel of the ball, the sound of it bouncing off tarmac. Playing until the light is gone, until the tips of your fingers are raw. The loose, warm sense of your body on a summer night as the sun sinks and the light drains from the air, coolness coming on, sweat pouring, muscles beaten, head spinning. Hour upon gloriously mindless hour of basketball. To lose oneself in something so devoid of reasoning and negotiation, such a happily disorganized thing.
Still now, whenever we describe our weekly games to men our age, they invariably express envy. It has been too long since they played, they will say. They will mouth the names “Jordan,” “Bird,” and “Magic.” We will invite them out to play. “Monday nights,” we’ll say, but they will be regrettably unable to come.
WHEN THINGS CAME TO A HEAD in 2008 and the unsupervised malfeasance of the world’s bankers (squandering your retirement savings and my kids’ education funds like it was all play money) finally bore its only logical fruit — that is, crippling debt for most of us, insane bonuses for the bankers who squandered the most, like it was a race to the bottom — the conservative Canadian government loosened the purse strings. They spent to stimulate spending. Canada’s Economic Action Plan, they called it, and commissioned a logo that they could put on signs in front of building projects greenlighted under the auspices of the program. One such site was on Simcoe Street in Peterborough, where a playground and scrubby lot were turned into a pair of deluxe basketball courts, with benches, new light standards, a quick draining surface, and adjustable plexiglass backboards.
And the ballers came. I would drive by on my way to the library on the next block, and the courts would be busy, day and night. It looked to be the spot where Peterborough’s serious players would congregate and hastily arrange full-court games, bringing their balls and their squinting eyes and their slouching shorts and their beautiful shoes. Where they would dribble, and crossover, and pass, and dunk; where groups of men would stand and shuffle their feet, toss balls skyward, laugh, smoke cigarettes, cobble together a team, then say to the players on the court, racing by on the break, “We got next.”
Those early days, when our group was still in flux, we met there on an soft summer night, five of us I think, hoping to get in on a game. But a serious game was in full swing on one court, and a confident bunch of guys were shooting around on the other nets, seemingly uninterested in including new guys — old guys — in their recreation.
So we went elsewhere. We didn’t want to wait, and there may have been an element of intimidation there, atop the new surface, with the dying sun glinting off the plexi backboards. We settled on another park that sat empty, and we fell into something regular. The group soon boiled down to more or less the same guys every week, and we came to a common understanding of the ground rules.
The court we eventually found, behind Roger Neilson Public School[i] in the south end of town, is a rectangular patch of pavement ringed by six hoops, the two at the most distant ends standing before painted keys and three-point arcs. We play at one of these ends, a half-court game.
The unalterable rules are these: you clear the ball by stepping both feet over the arc. Buckets are a single point, or two if shot from behind that line. Games are to 11 and must be won by two, up to 15. Fouls are called by the honour system. If you score, you retain possession. Otherwise, they’re the same rules anybody would recognize. You can’t travel. You can’t go out of bounds. You can’t double-dribble.
That’s our game, and that’s where you’ll find us every Monday evening, enjoying the camaraderie of sport and those small, sensory parts of it we have missed without recognizing it. The smell of the ball, of the pavement. The hot breeze.
Of course the real value of the game, I have found, is in the constant demand it places on you. Either you always have to be available to a teammate or, if playing one-on-one, you alone are responsible. There is no place to hide, no respite, no letting up.
And so we spend the first half of the evening sinking baskets. Then, if it all works out, we retire to the bar and sink pints for the latter half. In this way we pass the summer, one Monday at a time.
WHEN THE COLD MONTHS began to get close we started to look around for an alternative. Our Mondays had become so integral that it became obvious to all of us that taking the winter off was not an option. The YMCA has good gyms, but isn’t cheap for non-members. There are men’s leagues, but there is a sanctity to this group that none of wish to see spoiled. We want these same games to continue.
Jay unearthed our solution, connecting with the local school board and arranging the rental of a gym for two hours on Monday nights. The cost was cheap, after an initial outlay for insurance coverage. Jay is our point man, collecting the cash and dealing with the board. Our fixer.
So we met in November at Prince of Wales Public School (built 1919), made our way down the stairs and along a corridor, through the old gym (which looks like a dance studio, with built-in benches lining the walls, and beautiful thin-plank pine floors), and into the “new” gym, which looks to have been added on in the ‘60s, with its stage and four basketball nets. We dumped our things on the stage and made our way onto the floor. The gym filled with the sound of bouncing balls.
If before it felt as though we were men playing like boys, the gym, though it is a children’s space, makes us feel like we have graduated to something, become much more serious about our game. We have paid for the privilege of being here, and only paying members can take part in our ritual. We have become a league, or an association, governed by us, the members. We have stepped up a level. We are wearing shirts and shorts dedicated to basketball. By the second or third week we all began showing up with new shoes, pulling them quietly and reverently from gym bags. I spent weeks combing the city for the right pair of Reeboks (after briefly flirting with the idea of dropping far too much money on a pair of Nike Zoom IV KDs, Kevin Durant’s shoe). As we mill about on the stage before playing, I remove my wedding ring and clip it onto my keyring because it slides a bit as I dribble and shoot, a thing I learned while we played outside. I joke with the guys that this doubles as an indication of my fidelity to the game — an obvious exaggeration, but there is some nugget of truth to the idea that, as we play, there is nothing else on my mind, no attachments or connections outside the gym until we stop.
On a representative night in the Prince of Wales gym, Chris brings in his portable iPod dock and tucks it inside a podium that sits on the stage. He’ll usually have assembled a playlist of some sort (one night he blew my mind by playing Herbie Hancock and I, inspired, went off like LeBron in Game 6 against Boston).[ii]
We screw around and warm up a while, then shoot for teams. We’ll play three-on-three if we’re lucky and all of us show up, including Peter, the 19 year-old we have recruited from the store to even up our numbers, whose raw athletic ability and natural endurance pushes us all a bit, puts a bit of fire in our bellies.
Divided up, we’ll start the first game. Chris will start the music and we’ll get underway. Improbably, there are nerves. We are entering a different headspace, of a quality only exercised here, playing this game. It reveals us to be characters quite different from our everyday selves. I know these men on the court in a way I don’t in everyday life. We are all possessed of basketball alter egos.
Chris is a deep driver, though he’ll hit shooting streaks where he can’t miss from anywhere. Randy’s a slashing penetrator, always moving, the kind of guy you have to watch or he’ll race from the top of the key to grab his own rebound. Phil’s a deadly ball handler. He’ll dangle it out in front of you just close enough that you think you can touch it, then he’ll pull it back, drop a shoulder and bury a step-back shot. Jay feeds everybody else until he’s had enough and then he’ll step across the paint and hit a hook shot. I don’t feel equipped to judge my own game, but I do know that I’m better when I stay close to the net because I’m 6’3”, though I often forget that. Some nights I think myself a ball handler and a shooter, but it’s apparent to all present that this is simply not the case.
We’ll play through to 11, then stop for water, sitting on the stage or taking a few easy shots, then we’ll be back at it. We might play four or five games like this in an evening, the intensity ratcheting up by degrees when we are in tight, each team having taken two games and wanting the last one very badly. On one such night, as I drive through the lane, Phil fouls me so hard that I later have a welt on my forearm in the unmistakable shape of his hand.
“Jeez, sorry about that,” he says earnestly. “That’s on me. Take the ball or the basket, your call.” Later, the game close and the team of Randy, Peter and Phil with the ball, Randy tries to take me left, then crosses over to the right, but slips and falls to the floor. “Watch those paper ankles,” I say, which gets a chuckle.
I’ve got a cruel streak in me that I can feel growing.
WE’RE IN OUR SECOND SUMMER now, and Monday nights have become routinized. Our families know not to question it; it’s a permanent mark on the calendar. My twin boys, 2 years old, see me in my shorts and t-shirt and say, “Daddy play basketball shot?” My six year-old daughter asks me to take her with me, recognizing something in the way I talk about it that suggests magic and escape. My wife listens patiently as I describe the long two-ball I buried over Randy from the wing, amused, happy for my happiness.
But something troubles me, and it is this: why haven’t we gone back to the Simcoe St. courts?
One Monday night we get some rain. Only three of us show up, the others have commitments. Randy, Jay and I shoot around a while, but never get a game started. The court’s a bit wet. There’s a sense that somebody might lose their footing, have their shoes slip out from under them, tweak a knee, an ankle, a back. So we take it easy, work on our foul shots, dribble and drive a bit, and talk. Not quite an hour passes when it seem obvious we’re just going to pack it in for the night. Jay and Randy wander away toward whatever distractions await them at home. I slump into my car and start to head home myself, but something pulls me in another direction. It has to do with the shitty day I have had, with the music on the car stereo, the feel of the air coming in the open windows, cool after a week of oven-hot days. I steer toward Simcoe St., turn onto it next to the public library, then slow down and roll by the block where the courts sit. All four baskets are busy. One teenager shoots alone, throws one up from past the foul line, swishes it. On another court a big guy with a cigarette between his teeth is dribbling a ball between his legs and laughing at something that’s been said. A serious looking halfcourt game clusters around a third net. A pair of guys are doing elaborate twisting lay ups on the fourth.
There’s a game to be had there. I could park, grab my ball and water, and make my way in. Within ten minutes I could have a game underway, 3-on-3 or 4-on-4. I could be installed at the elbow, calling for a pass from a stranger, turning, shooting. Getting pushy on defense, hands all over the ball, feet planted beneath the basket, arms folded in, bracing for collision. Get some early contact in, a bit of shoving and slapping, to let them all know I’m not to be taken lightly. Get the ball on the left block and drive across the key, counting my steps, protecting the ball, maybe get one finger roll to drop, earn a small bit of respect, let them and me know I belong here.
But I drive right on by. Get to the stop sign on the next corner with my eyes straight ahead, then accelerate the hell out of there. I drive home and go inside and shower, change my clothes, tuck away my ball and shoes until next week. I do all this because the thought of getting out of the car and stepping onto that court scares me. I won’t speak for the others, but it’s simple, unadorned fear that keeps me from going there. Not fear of embarrassment per se, but fear of not being that good, and having to realize that if I’m not good enough now, at this age, then I never will be, and I can’t face knowing that. It scares me too much. It’s far easier to keep doing what I’m doing, with the guys I’m doing it with, Monday after Monday, until I can’t even do that anymore. In the meantime it’ll be enough, I suppose, to meet these guys and dribble, shoot, sweat, to talk ball or not to talk at all, then go home feeling high and wonderful, drink a beer and hope to keep that feeling aloft for the full week, until the next Monday night, the next time we step onto a court together.
IT’S NOT TERRIBLY REMARKABLE, I grant you that. We’re essentially displaced weekend warriors. We get together, play a game, shoot the shit, drink beer. Millions do just this — on softball diamonds, soccer fields, golf courses — and never think themselves heroic. Reduced to those terms, I’m describing a commonplace thing. But if that’s all I’ve imparted, then I’ve failed to do justice to the feeling of being there, of playing this game, with these guys, and how much it has come to mean to each of us. It’s exercise, yes, and that’s no small thing. It’s a bit of time for social contact carved out of every week at a time in life when it can be hard to make that happen. It’s also a way of reclaiming something I’d assumed — probably we’d all assumed — was lost. It’s trivial, and yet it’s vital.
Our lives are blistering, they’re over-scheduled and unrelenting and frequently demeaning. They leave us with a sense that we are controlled, as opposed to in control. They find us unsuspecting; happy, yes, for the most part, and loved, but also struck dumb by where we have wound up, and by the relentless manner in which the march of seasons and years continues to take us further and further away from the visions of ourselves we once harboured, and swore we’d never give up.
But now, once a week, our lives find us standing on a basketball court somewhere, beneath the hissing trees and below benevolent warm skies, or down the echoing halls of Prince of Wales Public School, where we get to exert some small measure of control. Where only one unusually simple thing is expected of us: to play. Where we choose the teams, and we set the rules, and we determine the outcome. It’s not a lot, maybe, but it’s something. On certain Monday nights, when we are at our wits’ end and our lives are at their most quietly dire, it feels like damn near everything.
[i] Yes, that Roger Neilson. He started his career here, coaching the OHL’s Petes for ten years, and called Peterborough home thereafter, even when he was coaching the Leafs, Sabres, Canucks, Kings, Rangers, Panthers, Flyers and, for two games in 2002, the Senators. The people of Peterborough thought enough of him to name a school and a street in his honour.
[ii] We were playing one Monday shortly after Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died. An entire generation had just spent a day or two in mourning, floored a bit because an actual death gives our ceaseless nostalgia an added weight that’s hard for us to stomach. “Johnny Ryall” came on at an ungodly volume, and it was revelatory. None of us spoke, we just played. It was a beautiful moment.