I’m not sure which profanity I used, but I remember swearing before the four of them entered earshot. It was unremarkable that two of them were wearing black dress pants and perfectly-pressed white shirts with name badges pinned to them. That they were approaching a basketball court—really just an elevated slab of cracked pavement along the back of an old elementary school—was cause for consideration.
I had seen them downtown before. The name badges always read Elder Something-or-other, which was funny because these kids were mostly 19-or-20 years old. They’d stop you in the street and were always polite. They weren’t Mormons, one told me before, rather their bible was The Book of Mormon. They were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
I also remember them coming to the door on Sunday mornings, ringing the doorbell, and pulling me from the heavy sleep that carries one from drunk to hungover. My roommate took a flier of theirs and pinned it above the toilet in our apartment. The sketch on the flier depicted a cross traversing the gap between two metaphorical mountains, and he’d ask guests jokingly “have you built your Jesus bridge today?”
We had finished work for the day. The sun lowered toward the front of the school and lit the court with yellow light and elongated the shadows of the backboards. Three of us were playing a game called Harlem Hustle. The game was essentially 1-on-1-on-1; you’d always be playing by yourself against two defenders.
The game slowed when I saw them walk toward us, and we stopped altogether when they got to the side of the pavement. Like I said, two of them were Mormons. With them was a heavier-set guy in his forties and a petite Chinese kid they called George—the four of them together reminded me of some Mormon Wizard of Oz. I didn’t know if they were going to try to add us to their band of travellers or just convert us and leave. Again, they (Mormons) were always polite. But the game was fun and we didn’t want to waste our after-work daylight politely refusing.
They didn’t break stride when they hit the court and asked if it they could play. You don’t say no to that, and we preferred a game of 3-on-3 to a full night of Harlem Hustle. They formed a team amongst themselves. George, the petit Chinese kid, sat off first.
Both George and the heavier-set traveller wore jeans. The two Mormons kept their ties and dress shoes on. We asked if they had a change of clothes, but they said they’d be fine in whatever they were wearing.
I was wearing a reversible mesh jersey from a tournament we played in the year before. I also had on some over-sized shorts and my Nike Zoom Kobe V’s that I bought at the outlet store in Florida when I went down to visit my father in one of those old-age communities.
Pat—a more skilled player than Carter or I—was wearing the Air Jordans he bought at a boutique sneaker shop. Carter wore the opposite side of the same reversible jersey I had on.
The ball was tipped out to the big guy in jeans. Carter stepped out to guard him, but the big guy immediately hurled the ball toward the net. He yelled “Dan Majerle!” as he released the ball, and it clanged off the rim. (Dan Majerle was a three-point shooter for the Phoenix Suns in the early-mid 90′s. I didn’t know that at the time.)
Pat pulled down the rebound and tossed it to me past the imaginary clearance line signified by a crack in the pavement. I dribbled slowly and deliberately. I handicapped my play because I wanted the Mormon guarding me to be able to set up his defense. He was a bit taller than me and looked to be about 20 years old with blond hair. He was still in his Sunday best, and I thought he probably hadn’t played much and may dribble with both hands at once.
Sometimes I dribbled slowly anyway, because the air was nice and the shadow of a moving figure set against pavement was peaceful.
I was appreciating the pressure of the bouncing ball when there was force on my back and it was ripped from my hand. The blond Mormon made one quick move toward the net and bounce passed to his colleague who got blocked by Pat on the layup.
The ball escaped toward the old bleachers where nobody sat unless they were waiting to play. Dan Majerle chased it out. The Mormon that got blocked shook his head in penance and walked to the side of the court. He removed his tie and nametag and placed them on the ground. He smiled at me and said “Ahhh—much better.”
The first points were long to get to, but the Mormons and Dan Majerle found a rhythm quickly. Dan Majerle kept yelling “Dan Majerle!” when he shot, and the baskets started dropping as he wanted. He didn’t move much inside where he was shooting. The Mormons were playing aggressively under the net. It was a clean, methodical aggression that was clearly not unique to this game; this was the only way they knew how to play, and they had played enough for the style to be rote.
The shadows of the nets grew longer. In the lull during a clearance I remember feeling one of those almost-cool, late spring breezes that come in the evening of a warm day and are mourned in the same moment they’re noticed.
The scoring was irregular at first but improved for both sides with an even uptake. It felt like short moments before the game was a quarter progressed—one team edging the other by a point when we reached seven—but it had only been 15 minutes since we started.
George cheered for both teams, his own slightly more. He eventually got into the game when Dan Majerle began panting. George was sheepish when he stepped onto the court and giggled at the novelty. I was wrong about whether the Mormons had played ball before, but there was no mistaking George had minimal experience. I lobbed the ball at him to inbound, and he dribbled by slapping it with a flat hand. He was having a blast and I decided to give him a wide birth to decide what to do.
George grabbed the ball with both hands and lobbed it from over his head to the dark-haired Mormon who made no mistake on the layup. The next inbound was the same, but Carter stood firmly in the Mormon’s way. George scrambled to the net unguarded, and the Mormon bounced the ball to him.
I would have called it a corkscrew fade-away layup, if I were to call it anything. Through Pat’s hand in his face, George’s contorting-in-jeans yielded one quick flip of the wrist at the apex of his spin, and the ball saw daylight between the opposing hands and fingers.
The Mormons jumped on George from either side and patted him on the back. Dan Majerle jumped and yelled “Georgie boy!” with his arms up and his stomach showing under his sweatshirt.
George smiled and laughed. He shrugged modestly. He didn’t seem surprised though, and it wasn’t the last time that evening George proved too slippery to contain.
We got the ball back and scored some. And they got the ball back and scored some. The game settled into a groove. It was tight and we all scored some. The Mormons grinded and played fundamental ball. So did Pat. Carter was big; I hustled. Dan Majerle could shoot from distance, but he didn’t run much. George was elusive under the net, but he couldn’t shoot or dribble.
Our team didn’t need to sub out, because there were only three of us. Dan Majerle and George got tired, and they subbed out sometimes. The Mormons would say they were tired and ask to sit out, but they breathed easy when they left the court.
The game ended and I can’t tell you who won. I think we did, but I’m not certain. We played twenty minutes more, and everybody took turns sitting out. The teams kept changing because we used the same subs. Nobody sat for long.
The sun sank enough that none shone on the court over the old two-storey school. The Mormons called it an evening and we all shook hands. They thanked us for the game and left.
In ten minutes, when I got back to the apartment, I would realize my hands had gotten cold. In an hour I would notice my knees were tired.
I’ve seen pictures of friends climbing mountains and hiking in Alberta. I’ve seen shots from the tops of snow-covered mountains, taken during snowboarding trips. I’ve run on beaches, surfed the ocean, biked the hills, and meandered nothingness in the woods. I know the majesty of western outdoors…
But there’s something about the faint smell of ammonia you get when you’ve sprinted to the point your body is breaking itself down. I know that happens in rural Canada as well, but it’s tied to something different when mixed with city smells—probably exhaust, fresh-cut grass, and other things.
There’s something about the grime that comes from bouncing a ball on old pavement for hours. It lives on after the game’s finished, until you wash your hands and watch thick layers of it swirl down the drain.