To the Hoop: The Seasons of a Basketball Life

Overview

What is it like to play in a pickup game with Oscar Robertson? To talk strategy with Walt Frazier? To seek justice on the court against the childhood friend who long ago took your spot on the high school team? Ira Berkow, sports columnist for The New York Times, knows what it's like, and in this remarkable book he steps out from behind his reporter's notebook to spin the tales of his life as a pickup basketball player. Ever since his boyhood in Chicago in the '40s and '50s, Berkow has played wherever he can find ...
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New York, NY, U.S.A. 1997 Hard Cover First Edition New in New jacket 8vo-over 7?"-9?" tall. 1st Ed., HB/DJ, new, 296 pp. The biography of a basketball junky, Berkow takes us ... through a year of his life as a sports columnist for the New York Times, interviews with past stars, future stars, and the current, Jordan, Byrd & Johnson. Read more Show Less

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New Ships From Canada. New Sports columnist for the New York Times. From Kirkus Reviews: Using as a backdrop his lifelong devotion to playing basketball, Berkow, a respected New ... York Times sportswriter, shares his perspectives on life, death, sickness, health, and, of course, the quest for the perfect drive to the hoop. A schoolboy hoops standout while growing up in the Chicago area, Berkow realized that his talent for the game could never match his love for it and ended up by doing the next best thing: working as a sports journalist. Now 56 years old, Berkow still manages to hold his own in pickup games with players of all ages and levels of experience on the courts near his Manhattan home. These games, most often played against strangers or casual roundball acquaintances, allow him, he has discovered, to connect with basketball and with others in a way that covering contests for the sports pages could not. While playing basketball provided Berkow with a much-desired link to others and t. Read more Show Less

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1997 New Sports columnist for the New York Times. From Kirkus Reviews: Using as a backdrop his lifelong devotion to playing basketball, Berkow, a respected New York Times ... sportswriter, shares his perspectives on life, death, sickness, health, and, of course, the quest for the perfect drive to the hoop. A schoolboy hoops standout while growing up in the Chicago area, Berkow realized that his talent for the game could never match his love for it and ended up by doing the next best thing: working as a sports journalist. Now 56 years old, Berkow still manages to hold his own in pickup games with players of all ages and levels of experience on the courts near his Manhattan home. These games, most often played against strangers or casual roundball acquaintances, allow him, he has discovered, to connect with basketball and with others in a way that covering contests for the sports pages could not. While playing basketball provided Berkow with a much-desired link to others and to his younger self, a knee injury Read more Show Less

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Overview

What is it like to play in a pickup game with Oscar Robertson? To talk strategy with Walt Frazier? To seek justice on the court against the childhood friend who long ago took your spot on the high school team? Ira Berkow, sports columnist for The New York Times, knows what it's like, and in this remarkable book he steps out from behind his reporter's notebook to spin the tales of his life as a pickup basketball player. Ever since his boyhood in Chicago in the '40s and '50s, Berkow has played wherever he can find a game: on the playgrounds, in the gyms, even in some of the most famous arenas in the world. Between games he has managed to become one of the America's foremost sportswriters, but an enduring passion is playing basketball. In To the Hoop he shares this side of his life with his readers, and the result is a wonderful and moving tale of love - for the game, for his friends and family, and for life itself. Even in his mid-fifties, Berkow still plays the game with the vigor and competitive fire of his younger days, often against opponents less than half his age. To the Hoop tells the story of a year in his basketball life, as he resolves to enhance his game and stave off the ravages of time. His travels take him from gritty Manhattan playgrounds to a sun-dappled "court of dreams" on a California beach, and back to his old neighborhood in Chicago, where a series of unexpected events leads him not simply to elevate his game, but to elevate his life as well. Through it all, Berkow finds fellowship and good humor on the hardwood, wherever he plays. He basks in the glory of making seemingly impossible shots, and tries to slink away when he blows an easy layup. He also introduces us to legendary players and coaches he has known, and their wisdom adds a special depth to the narrative. These include old-timers like Red Holzman and George Mikan; heroes of the '60s and '70s like Oscar Robertson, Billy Cunningham, and Walt Frazier; and present-day superstars like Mi
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A noted sports editor once observed that every sportswriter is a jock manqu; that particular sneaker fits perfectly New York Times columnist Berkow (Red). A high school and college basketball player, he's continued as a cager throughout life, mostly in pick-up gamesuntil now, when at age 56, he writes about the court adventures that made him refuse to retire to the locker room. He's met all the greats, from George Mikan to Oscar Robertson to Michael Jordan, and has even played ball with some of them, acquitting himself respectably, he says. Here he offers a number of entertaining anecdotes about those encounters: an amusing sidelight is his cajoling former New York governor Mario Cuomo into setting up a one-on-one basketball contest. The appeal to Berkow readers will be strong, as it will to middle-agers who still play the games of their youth. Deeply moving, although extraneous, is the author's account of his brother's illness and death from cancer. $35,000 ad/promo; author tour. (May)
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
A noted sports editor once observed that every sportswriter is a jock manqué; that particular sneaker fits perfectly New York Times columnist Berkow (Red). A high school and college basketball player, he's continued as a cager throughout life, mostly in pick-up games-until now, when at age 56, he writes about the court adventures that made him refuse to retire to the locker room. He's met all the greats, from George Mikan to Oscar Robertson to Michael Jordan, and has even played ball with some of them, acquitting himself respectably, he says. Here he offers a number of entertaining anecdotes about those encounters: an amusing sidelight is his cajoling former New York governor Mario Cuomo into setting up a one-on-one basketball contest. The appeal to Berkow readers will be strong, as it will to middle-agers who still play the games of their youth. Deeply moving, although extraneous, is the author's account of his brother's illness and death from cancer.
Kirkus Reviews
Using as a backdrop his lifelong devotion to playing basketball, Berkow, a respected New York Times sportswriter, shares his perspectives on life, death, sickness, health, and, of course, the quest for the perfect drive to the hoop.

A schoolboy hoops standout while growing up in the Chicago area, Berkow realized that his talent for the game could never match his love for it and ended up by doing the next best thing: working as a sports journalist. Now 56 years old, Berkow still manages to hold his own in pickup games with players of all ages and levels of experience on the courts near his Manhattan home. These games, most often played against strangers or casual roundball acquaintances, allow him, he has discovered, to connect with basketball and with others in a way that covering contests for the sports pages could not. While playing basketball provided Berkow with a much-desired link to others and to his younger self, a knee injury sustained while playing, and the death from leukemia of his younger brother, Steven, forced him to confront, or at least rationalize, his own mortality. Describing the loss of his brother, Berkow movingly articulates his sorrow and frustration about "how much more my brother and I could have shared—and would have shared, if he had survived this." When describing his relationship to the game (and the fear of losing his abilities before he loses his will,) however, Berkow shows a considerably less tender side: He absorbs and dishes out bumps and loosened teeth, and occasionally resorts to talking trash, as in his battle of wits and words with the former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, with whom a proposed one-on-one match never materialized.

Touching, inspiring, funny, and never self-indulgent, this is a sporting memoir that will connect with readers on many levels.

CHOICE
One of the best sport books to appear in many years...filled with humor, humanity...thoroughly readable....Highly recommended.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson
A wonderful book—not just for basketball fans but for everyone.
Bill Bradley
An extraordinary look into the art of pickup basketball. Who would have guessed that, along with his writing talents, Ira knows how to play the game!
George Plimpton
Ira Berkow is one of the best sportswriters around, so it is no surprise that his basketball odyssey is one of the best sports books of this or any other year.
Booklist - Wes Lukowsky
A fine book by a fine writer and a wise man.
The New York Times - Charley Rosen
Berkow has a rare understanding of the subtle protocols of pickup basketball.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465084951
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/1/1997
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Pulitzer prize-winning author Ira Berkow has written sports and occasional features for the New York Times for more than twenty years. Among his other books are The Minority Quarterback, Hank Greenberg, and Red: A Biography of Red Smith. He lives on Manhattan's East Side.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Home Courts

It's a tight full-court game as the October dusk descends and the nearby trees with their lemon-yellow and russet leaves darken. From the basketball court behind the New York University Medical Center on the east side of Manhattan, the players in their motley array of shirts and shorts might see the cars and hear their rumble and honk on the close-by F.D.R. Drive. An occasional toot from a tugboat on the East River, the whir of a helicopter landing at the 34th Street heliport, an ambulance siren heading for the emergency ward at Bellevue, a block south, all add to the ambience. Some cars have their headlights on, and the lights in the hospital windows are also beginning to glow. The warmth of the late day meshes with the fumes from the automobiles and copters as the players run and sweat and hustle for the ball and for position, oblivious to nearly everything else around them.

A handful of guys are waiting for the next game, standing or sitting along the chain-link fence, and the losers will have to sit while the winners take on the newcomers. So there is pressure to win. There is no referee, of course, and players call their own fouls and infractions. Players are free to dispute calls, and they do so frequently.

"The ball hit the top of the backboard, it's out!" cries one player.

"Top of the backboard is in play!" shouts another.

"It isn't!"

"It is!"

Another player gets bumped while taking a shot from the top of the key.

"Foul," he grunts.

"Chump call," says his defender.

"Careful," says the first guy, "or yourmustache is goin' in your mouth."

There's also the desultory pat on the ass for a good move. "Nice take," says an opponent.

The players, like their wardrobes, are also a mixed bag. On this day there are some medical students, a radiologist, a cardiologist, a cook from the medical center's kitchen, a lab assistant, a security guard, and a few teenagers from the projects about a half mile away. Some in the game have played college or high school ball, some haven't. They range in size from S to XXL. There are blacks, whites, Asians, even an Indian from Bombay. Most of the players are in their twenties, a few in their early thirties. One is over fifty.

I'm the only player in long sweatpants, since I'm somewhat self-conscious about wearing my brace. The gray at my sideburns is enough to reveal age, or infirmity, and I don't need a bulky brace to add to it. Sometimes under the boards I'll bump knees with someone.

"What the hell was that?" he asks.

"My brace," I tell him.

Another time I was running up the court, and a teammate, ambling alongside me, asked, "Do you have a mouse in your shoe?"

I said, "No, why?"

"Because something is squeaking," he said.

"Oh?" I said, and kept on as if I had no idea that the unseen brace under my sweat pants needed oiling.

In my white New Balance sneakers (I wear this brand since it is one of the few that has widths and not just lengths) I have placed orthotics because I once had heel spurs. Nobody sees them, either.

This is the court where I frequently play my outdoor pickup games. It is a long, full court with nets on both baskets, always a plus for a pickup player. One basket is regulation height, but the other is slightly shorter—the winning team has its pick of baskets and usually chooses the lower one, a somewhat easier target. A standard game can be from eight to twelve baskets wins. In this game, it is twelve. There are no free throws in pickup hoops. There is a small hump in the cement near midcourt, and the regulars there know to avoid it. A new player has a surprise bounce in store. Most of the players are regulars, though, and the personalities and talents are quickly discerned.

I've been coming to this court for twenty years, and I've made friends. Some know I write for a newspaper, some don't. But once you're on the court, nothing matters except the quality of your game. As in most pickup games, play is serious, especially when the losing team must leave the court. The established rules of courts often just exist, like a joke you hear going around. No one quite knows how it originated, but there it is. And on this court, the first five guys to arrive have the next game, no matter who they are.

At some courts the next guy waiting can pick any four he wishes, including four who were on the losing team. I prefer the way it is at NYU because everyone gets an opportunity to play right away, and more guys play sooner. Also, when you play with younger, faster, and stronger players, they tend to pick other young, fast, and strong players.

There have also been occasions, though, when a urologist, an anesthesiologist, and a cardiologist have come to my apartment building, which is about a block from the courts, and have called up for me to go over to the courts with them and play as a team.

If I can finish my writing by four o'clock or so—and have no other duties, from either my newspaper or my spouse—I try to get over to the court. You never know what to expect. Sometimes the court is empty. And I shoot alone, giving myself a good workout for about forty-five minutes. Sometimes one guy shows up, and we have a one-on-one. Or we get a two-on-two, or more. Sometimes the place is crawling with players, and, as on this day, full-court games may follow one another into the night.

I always bring my ball—I buy a new Spalding NBA indoor/outdoor ball every few months—since I like to make sure that there will be a ball there with a good grip.

On this October afternoon the game is tied at 11 and is on the line. My teammate Mike Attubato, a dark-haired cardiologist, a friend, and an excellent player, takes a spill. He grabs his right knee, moaning on the concrete.

"Mike," I say, bending over, "are you hurt?"

"No," he says, "just mad."

"Mad? Why?"

"Because," he says, "that was my last healthy joint."

Several other doctors and med students, those in the game and those watching, hurry over to take a look at Mike. They ask about fibulas and tibias.

"I'm OK," he says. He gets up and is able to continue. I've seen guys sprain their ankles, and the doctors and students will gather round and diagnose: half will say keep the shoe on, the other half will say take it off. It doesn't always inspire me with confidence in the medical profession. In Mike's case, though, it is universally agreed that he will survive nicely.

I had hit a few outside shots early—one on a crossover dribble that I hadn't made, or attempted, in quite a while—but I had not contributed as the other team caught up from 10-7 deficit. In fact, I had thrown a bad pass that resulted in a basket for the other team and had dribbled the ball off my foot, which also resulted in another score for the opposition. It is now 11-11. One more basket wins—there is no deuce, or win by two, as on some courts.

I have the ball again, and I'm dribbling at the top of the key when I see that our husky black guy with cornrows, Tyrone Flowers, a clerk in radiology at NYU, has the inside under the basket on the man guarding him. I am to the right of the key, Tyrone just to the left of the basket. I loft a pass that goes over the outstretched hand of the center defender. Tyrone catches the ball, turns without even taking a step, and lays the ball in for the winning basket. There are high fives and congratulations all around. Nice to help win a game with an assist. We hold the court, win two more games, and then lose the third.

I also try a couple of drives, as I begin my quest to amplify my game. Driving is primarily faking, quickness, and strength. And mind-set. You look for the defender leaning, and then go. Or you try to split the seam between two guys. Easier said than done, at least for me, and at this stage.

I see an opening and drive across the lane, but the ball is slapped away. Another time I dribble hard along the baseline, but there are too many defenders to enable me to go straight up for the shot, especially since I don't quite spring like a jack-in-the-box. I give a couple of pump fakes and lay the ball in off the backboard for a score. It's not the great drive I had in mind, but it is a step in the right direction.

And in our four games my winning team shows a nice little cohesiveness to it. At some moments, with our passing and movement, there is even a sense of a jazz quintet, all of us playing together and combining improvisation with harmony.

"Life is beautiful," I inform Dolly as I come into our apartment, swinging my gym bag.

I had played four full-court games, and, feeling achy but happy, took a long hot bath. I rested the next day. When I was younger, I needed no bath—just a shower—and could have played another round of full-court games the next day. Not anymore.

The calendar was getting late into fall, and the weather was getting cooler, so the games went indoors, to a nearby gym. In one game, with the score tied at 7-7 in an 8-points-wins game, I hit a jumper at the top of the key to win. But in games a few days after that, my shots were off. Not only that, but the guys I was guarding seemed to be hitting all their shots. It was frustrating. One afternoon the gym was particularly crowded with players, looking like rush hour at Grand Central. The pressure was on to win, because losing meant sitting for about a week. I hit a couple of shots, and the game went to 7-7. I got the ball on the side. Two guys were on me, and they realized that there had been a mix-up. So both went for the unguarded man, leaving me alone!

I measured my shot, a one-handed push—we've all seen Scottie Pippen do this many times—and missed! The other team went down and scored to win the game. "C'mon, man," one of my teammates said to me as we walked off the court. "You gotta make those shots." This wasn't news to me, even without his unnecessary remark. I felt like a bad citizen, like a jerk. I had let my team down.

I left the gym discouraged and came through the apartment door with what must have been a transparently hangdog expression. Dolly was in the kitchen preparing dinner. She looked up, brushing her hair from her face, and saw me. She knew immediately. "Basketball is supposed to be fun," she said. "You'll do better the next time."

"If there is a next time," I said. "I'm prepared to quit."

"Again?" she said.

And that night I had a dream: a rottweiler was biting my ear. He and the owner were on the sidelines of a game at Sullivan High School in Chicago, where I had played as a teenager. I was without sneakers and in stocking feet. The owner said, "My dog will stop biting your ear if you promise not to play anymore."

I said, "OK, who wants a rottweiler biting your ear?"

End of dream.

Isaac Herschkopf, a Manhattan psychiatrist and fellow pickup basketball player, interpreted the dream for me:

"Your ears represent your testicles," Ike began. "You felt very emasculated on the basketball court. It was something you've been good at, and proud of, and you were playing with younger guys, and yet on this day were not able to compete to your satisfaction.

"Rottweilers and Doberman pinschers are known to go for the balls. The dream expresses your anxiety, but it does so in a such a manner that it doesn't wake you up because it disguises it.

"The only two pairs of organs that dangle from your body are your earlobes and your balls. The earlobes are wonderful symbolic representations of your testicles."

Ike was rather matter-of-fact about all this.

"It's classic," he said. "When playing poorly, you feel less of a man. When playing well, you not only feel immortal, you feel omnipotent. The owner of the dog obviously represents the guy on the court who you felt was insulting you. It's like saying, `If you stop shooting I'll stop insulting you.'"

But for me to stop shooting would be the same as to stop breathing. It would be curtains.

I would try again. Rottweiler or no rottweiler.

At fifty-five, I was still seeking to prove that I belonged on the court and could meet the competition. But as I've gotten older, I've gotten slower, by degrees, and it was hardly noticeable until I discovered that the pickup in my engine needed an overhaul that I was now unable to give it. I tried to compensate, making careful passes, playing defense with deft feet, and of course sneaking the occasional tug on my opponent's shorts.

My slowing down had surely been happening over a period of years, but it struck me most forcibly about ten years ago, when I was invited back to Chicago one summer to participate in a charity basketball game in a suburban high school. I was forty-four years old at the time.

The game was played between a team made up of Chicago Bears football players, some of whom were high school and even college basketball aces, and a group of so-called former North Shore all-stars-while I was a starting guard on my high school team on the North Side of Chicago, I was something less than a varsity star, but I wasn't about to quibble. The Bears team featured such young and swift and hefty people as the linebacker Otis Wilson, the wide receiver Willie Gault (once an Olympic sprinter), and the cornerback Leslie Frazier. (They were among the standouts on the Bears' Super Bowl championship team the following year.) In the charity game, which was competitive, I started for the all-stars. My parents came to watch. I did reasonably well, particularly in the first half, when I sank five outside shots.

"I watched you and you played well," my dad said to me after the game. "But at one point I thought that you were running kind of slow. Then I reminded myself that you weren't a kid anymore, but a forty-four-year-old man."

"Anyone would run slow next to Willie Gault," I protested lamely. But I pictured what he had been seeing.

At one time I played in leagues and in tournaments. But my travel schedule as a journalist was so erratic that I missed games, lost a starting position, and began not to feel a part of the team. Better just to walk into a gym or onto an outdoor court and ask for next. I played an average of twice a week, if I could, sometimes taking my brace on the road if I knew I would be gone for an extended period. I wouldn't hazard playing without it.

I no longer have a regular indoor game in summer. I've tried a few in which guys rent out a school gym on a particular night once a week. Two problems with that: One is, at my age, late games jumble my nerves too much, and I can't settle down and get a good night's rest; for another, I like eating dinner at dinner-time, rather than before going to sleep. That jumbles up my digestive tract.

I first moved to Manhattan in the fall of 1967, and shortly after arriving I began playing regularly at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street. I had left the Minneapolis Tribune, my first job in journalism, to be a sportswriter for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a national feature syndicate, and the Vanderbilt Y was just a few blocks from my new office.

The Vanderbilt Y gym was a mecca for observing, in condensed fashion, the mind and quirks of much of New York, if not all of America, as players sometimes literally bounced off the walls—the gym is a small full court, and the sidelines are so close to the four walls that a normal-size person sitting on the floor with knees bent and back against the wall will have his feet on the court.

At one time or another people from the four corners of the world seemed to come through the doors of that gym. "You just missed Burt Bacharach," a guy told me, shortly after I joined. "He gave up playing here a few months before you came. Went in for a shot and got low-bridged while in the air. He fell hard and hurt his hands. He makes his living with his hands. He decided it was better to give up his career in basketball than risk his career in music."

I remember seeing a lawyer argue a call with a passion he might have reserved for another court. He wore a torn T-shirt, blue shorts, and sneakers. He was overruled, his brief rejected not by a judge but by a knot of his peers.

He had been supported by a pal of his, both of whom frequently made outrageous calls that rankled most of the others. On this occasion both grew so mad that they quit the game. Others looked on as they stalked off. "Well," someone said, turning to me, "there goes flotsam and jetsam."

Some talented players were regulars through the years. Bill Butler, who had been a standout forward at St. Bonaventure with Bob Lanier at center in the late 1960s, wore rubber sweatsuits in order to battle a weight problem. Dave Golden, an all-American high school player in Illinois, captain of the Duke team, and the last cut of the Indiana Pacers, was as smooth and swift a player as ever entered that gym. And there was Jeffrey Newman, a play-making guard with behind-the-back moves who had been all-Ivy League at the University of Pennsylvania—and who left the gym to make a fortune, I learned, in the stock market. Newman had been at Penn the same time Candice Bergen was going to school there. "One day I decided I should call Candice for a date," Jeffrey told me, with the implication that he was a pretty important guy on campus. "I got her number and phoned. A woman answered. I said, `Candice?' She said, `Yes.' I said, `This is Newman.' She said, `Paul?'" In telling the story now, Jeffrey raised his eyebrows. "I shrunk to about three feet," he said, "and I gently hung up the phone."

The gym became a kind of oasis for me, or so I thought. And while we all imagined that we had left our lives behind us as we played, it wasn't true. We brought all of what we were and had become into the game. All the frustrations and anxieties, as well as the pleasures and experiences. The businessmen, the theater directors, the writers and actors, the architects, the doctors and lawyers showed up, cutting schedules, missing a rehearsal, changing a meeting.

Charlie Miron, one of the older players at the gym, believed he could tell by the way guys were playing—pushing, elbowing, arguing—that there was some kind of trouble at work or at home. "I bet that guy's having a problem with his marriage," Charlie said at one point. Turned out the guy was going through a nasty divorce.

I would slip away from the typewriter before 4:30 and for the next hour and fifteen minutes play frenetic full-court basketball games. A nucleus of about twenty guys—some regulars, some transients—generally made their appearance in this game between shirts and skins, as the teams on the court there were differentiated. It seemed we were all there for a purpose: to live a little for today. But also, perhaps, holding on to the past a little as well, and maybe more than many of us wished to admit.

Some of us never learned the full names or the actual names of the people we played with for years. This imparted a sense of being an auxiliary of the French Foreign Legion.

There was Green Pants, because he never changed his shorts. And Wristbands and Headband. There was Big A1 and Little A1. A guy with a wide-eyed, gaunt look was called Orphan Annie. Diogenes got his name because he read a book while waiting for next. (It was obvious, however, that he never read a book about how to play basketball.) And Junior Jive was a young guy with a lot of fancy moves, his most consistent being a behind-the-back pass that routinely bounced off the wall or, once, the ceiling.

J.J., as he was generally called, was a teenager from the Bronx who had finished high school and was self-employed. That is, he was a ticket scalper. One evening I ran into him at Yankee Stadium, where I was taking part in a television production. A limousine had been made available for those in the project, and so I offered J.J. a ride home. He agreed, and he loved being ensconced in the limo. But when I asked his address, he said that we should drop him off about two blocks away from the apartment he shared with his mother and two sisters. "If people see me pull up in a limo," he said, "they'll be trying to break into our apartment to rob us."

On First Avenue one winter day someone hollered my name. It was a panhandler, in a black knit cap and frayed coat. I looked closer. He was jumping up and down in the snow and appeared to be imitating a jump shot. Mine! "You the man with the J," he called out. "Still got the J?"

It was Fuzz. He had played at the Y and had had a decent game. He also had charm.

"Fuzz," I said, genuinely happy to see him, "`S up? You haven't been to the gym in a couple years."

"Been away," he said.

"Anywhere I've been?"

"Coxsackie."

Coxsackie is a New York state penitentiary.

"For what?"

"A little break-in kinda thing," he said.

I nodded in understanding. "Still got a game?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Played a lot. Was unstoppable in the joint!"

There was a guy in the gym named Animal for his aggressive style of play. I once brought a friend up for a late afternoon of basketball, and afterward he suggested that everyone up there be called Animal. Animal 1 through 20. My friend never returned.

Then there was Monster, whose style of play was not unlike Animal's. One time Monster and another player were discussing a transaction dealing with Knicks tickets. The other player's name was Sly. He always thought he was putting something over on everyone, and his very slyness made him appear suspicious and thus transparent. This time, though, there was nothing tricky, just a matter of a sale of tickets. Monster told Sly to call him at home.

"But I don't know your real name," said Sly.

"Oh, just ask for Monster," came the reply.

Sly called, and a boy answered.

"Can I speak to Monster?" asked Sly.

The boy shouted past the receiver, "Da-a-a-d!"

One problem I've had at that Y and in pickup games generally is that since I had played some organized ball, and since, as a sportswriter, I keep up with rules, I've argued too many calls. There are times when it hasn't been worth the trouble and the headache, trying to explain to someone who won't listen to the difference between a basketball right and a basketball wrong.

It's amazing the ignorance—and the adamant ignorance—of so many people, people one would think might at least admit to simply not having knowledge of something. All of the players considered themselves experts on every phase of the game, and at the top of the list was kicking the ball. What is kicking? "It's when the ball hits your foot," is commonly the answer.

Ah, but of course not. The rule book reads, "Kicking the ball or striking it with any part of the leg is a violation when it is intentional. The ball accidentally striking the foot, the leg or the fist is not a violation."

I once saw a guy I'll call Roach throw a pass downcourt that hit the sole of a sneaker of an opposing player running with his back to the passer. "Kicking," Roach called. I said, "It's not kicking." And I was on Roach's team! An argument ensued between him and me. The other team supported me, which was hardly a surprise since they retained the ball.

I have long concluded that the only thing dumber than arguing with an ignorant person is continuing the argument, which I've done on numerous occasions.

I try to control myself. But then someone calls the top of the backboard out—it's out only if the ball bounces over and behind the backboard—and I am trying to explain the error of his ways.

One time a guy called traveling when another player bobbled the ball without moving his feet. "How could he travel if he didn't move?" I asked. A few days later I generously brought a rule book to show the idiot who had called the bobble. Naturally, he refused to look at it.

Then came the notorious out-of-bounds play. A guy threw the ball and it hit an opponent who had tripped, and his body was out of bounds. The passer said it was his ball because it hit the guy on the other team. I said, "Impossible, you idiot. The guy was out of bounds."

Big argument. I don't remember who won it. But that night I went to the rule book. Oh, shit! The son-of-a-bitch was right! This time, I didn't bring the rule book into the gym. And I never mentioned it again, either.

I made several friends in the gym, and some of us had social functions and dinners with our wives and girlfriends. But after twenty years, my time at the Vanderbilt Y came to an end when I had embarrassed myself to an extent that made me feel uncomfortable. It is a story that remains painful for me, even nearly ten years after it happened.

In my two decades at the Y, I had the occasional altercation. Usually words. I had never come to blows with anyone, though others had, and fights were broken up when passions and bad calls got out of hand. Then one afternoon Roach seemed particularly out of sorts. Something happened—I don't remember exactly what it was—but it was an accumulation of things, to be sure. Maybe I had turned down his invitation to his Thanksgiving Day party. Or maybe—and this is hard to believe, even for me—but maybe I was somewhat at fault, as well. Roach had had other problems in the gym. He was very physical and when racing for a loose ball would throw a body block at his competing opponent. At one point several other players presented a written complaint about him to the Y's athletic director. Roach received a warning.

But on this afternoon there was a disputed play, and then I was to take the ball out of bounds. Roach held onto the ball. I asked for it. He was just a few feet from me and threw the ball at my face. He only grazed my head, which was the same kind of accuracy he showed in shooting for the basket, and I charged him. We scuffled and tumbled and threw punches and he bit my finger and drew blood. I was active in some other fashion, particularly around the area of his ear. Then we were pulled apart. Shortly after, one of the new players came over to me and asked if I was the same guy who wrote a column for The New York Times. I was taken aback, and felt abashed. "Yes," I said.

Later, I thought about what had happened. I was forty-seven years old and getting into a fistfight? It was the first fistfight I had engaged in since I was a teenager. And while sometimes one daydreams about punching someone out, the reality of it took on a different hue when I reflected on it.

I had been going up to the gym for two decades, or as long as I had been in New York, and old habits are hard to break. It took me several more months, but I decided to take a rest from that gym—it turned out to be a permanent rest. Some other players had left as well.

I found a place to play even closer to where I live, at the NYU courts, which does not seem to be as great a magnet for such a mad array of humanity as the Vanderbilt Y—perhaps because of the security guards who sit in the lobby nearby and who occasionally patrol the area.

While the games can be aggressive, and invariably there are antagonisms, I have seen no fistfights. I finally gave up the Vanderbilt Y because while playing basketball is something I've enjoyed all my life, I was now an adult. Or liked to believe I was. And the notion of me fighting like a punk didn't quit fit that self-image.

Over the course of this past summer, I played in the NYU school yard with a young, thin, dark-haired Puerto Rican kid named Kenny Garcia, who was close to six feet tall. I later learned that his parents were separated and that he lived sometimes with his mother and sometimes with his father. He was seventeen and going into his junior year at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He traveled to NYU by bicycle, cap turned backward, and often with a black friend and classmate of his named George. Kenny had a cousin named Junior who worked in admitting at the hospital, and he and George played in the games as well. There were times when the four of us were on a full-court team together, and I enjoyed playing with them. They had a good attitude about the game—they passed when they should have, worked at defense and rebounding, and were skillful on offense as well. Kenny had a point guard's mentality and knew how to give me the ball in a way that I liked it for my shot—chest high, crisp, in my rhythm. One day we held the court for several games.

"You're in pretty good shape," Kenny said to me, "like my father."

"How old's your father?" I asked him.

"Thirty-nine," said Kenny.

"Kenny," I said, "your dad's a young man."

"How old are you?" he asked, his voice rising.

"I'm a hundred and sixty-seven years old," I said.

He looked at me closely. I thought he wasn't sure what to believe.

Every so often I talked with Kenny about his future. He asked me how hard college was, and I told him that it wasn't so hard that he couldn't do it. He seemed bright and polite and had a way about him that made him easy to be around. While his grades were not great, and he had failed a course that rendered him ineligible for the high school basketball team, he still had been chosen as one of the ten students in the school to have a conversation with Hillary Clinton when she visited Seward Park earlier in the year.

Kenny and George and I spoke about their future. I asked Kenny what he hoped to become. "I think I want to be a businessman," he said.

George looked at him. "What do you mean, `businessman'?" he said. "There are all kinds of businessman. What kind of businessman?"

"I dunno," said Kenny, "maybe own a bodega, or a sneakers store."

Shortly after that Kenny approached me on the court, looking excited. "I saw you on television, on a sports show," Kenny said. "I almost fell off the chair. I didn't know you was a sportswriter."

I confessed. From then on, he and Junior and George would talk to me about the sports world, the Knicks, the Yankees, and the like. Then one day Kenny said, "Hey, Ira, can you get me a job at the Times?"

"We already have a publisher, Kenny," I said. "But what did you have in mind?"

"Mail room—anything to make some money," he said. "Jobs aren't easy to get."

I told him to send me a note about himself so that I could pass it on to the appropriate people. I told him to send it to me at the Times, but I didn't give him the address. I thought I'd let him use his ingenuity if he was truly interested.

Then we went back onto the court.

In November I traveled to Minneapolis for a story on Kevin Garnett, the nineteen-year-old, 6-foot-11, hugely talented forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett had come right out of Farragut High School on Chicago's West Side the previous June as the fifth draft choice overall in the National Basketball Association draft. And almost immediately he was making a solid place for himself in the NBA, alongside Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley. Fantastic. I pictured myself coming out of Sullivan High School in 1957, and then suddenly competing against Bob Cousy and Bill Russell and Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes. Then I tried to picture this after I got out of college. Then I gave up.

In Minneapolis I stayed again at the Hyatt-Regency. I wanted to return to the scene of the accident and play again, a somewhat reconstituted basketball player. I went through the same routine as I did the last time. I changed into my basketball clothes in my room—this time, however, I added the brace—and I took the elevator down to the gym. It was Paradise Revisited, and I entered with some trepidation. It was like mounting a horse that had thrown you.

I felt fortunate that I was even able to try. Bud Armstrong couldn't. Armstrong lives in Minneapolis, and he and I began working at the Minneapolis Tribune within a month of each other in the summer of 1965. (I had received a master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and then applied to some twenty-five newspapers for a general-assignment job; the Tribune was the first—and only—newspaper to make me an offer, in the sports department.) Bud and I have stayed in touch—he has remained in Minneapolis and continues on the sports desk as a senior editor and also as a frequent reviewer on the Sunday book section. And I saw him, shaved head and goateed, on this visit. He had suffered a heart attack sixteen years earlier, and while he is allowed to bicycle, he can no longer play basketball, as he and I had done together when I lived there.

Three guys were in the gym at the Greenway Health Club when I entered. We organized sides and played two-on-two, games in which there was a certain degree of bouncing off one another and scrambling hard for rebounds and loose balls. I drove, with only modest success—but I was driving.

After two games, my teammate quit, excusing himself because he had a dinner engagement. Another player said he was going to the weight-lifting room. So I played a few games of one-on-one with the remaining guy, a stocky fellow in the blue shirt, and had my workout. My T-shirt was comfortably drenched. And the especially good news: my knee held up in this gym of mixed memories. Well, both knees held up, since I have occasional thoughts about my left one buckling, too.

The next morning I went downstairs for breakfast and by coincidence the player who had been my teammate was in the elevator. We introduced ourselves, and I asked him what he thought about the games we had played. "I said I had a dinner engagement," he said, "but I really didn't. I just didn't want to keep playing against the guy who was guarding me, that guy in the blue shirt. He was too rough. He did a lot of unnecessary banging. I've seen guys get hurt."

"Yeah," I said, "I know what you mean."

When the elevator stopped at the lobby level, we said good-bye, and he walked away with normal strides, as did I. It was nice, four years later, to go about my business in Minneapolis in one piece.

THREAD of the SILKWORM


By IRIS CHANG

BasicBooks

Copyright © 1995 Iris Chang.. All rights reserved.
TAILER

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Table of Contents

Prologue 3
1 Home Courts 21
2 Chicago Style 41
3 Legends 65
4 Back to Basics 95
5 Labors of Love 129
6 Levels of the Game 151
7 Crunch Time 187
8 Legacies 221
9 To the Hoop 247
Epilogue 273
Acknowledgments 287
Index 289
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