You begin by bouncing a ball--in the house, on the driveway, along the sidewalk, at the playground. Then you start shooting: legs bent, eyes on the rim, elbow under the ball. You shoot and follow through. Let it fly, up, up and in. No equipment is needed beyond a ball, a rim, and imagination. How simple the basic act is. I'm not sure exactly when my interest turned to passion, but I was very young, and it has never diminished.
When I was a teenager, alone in the high school gym for hours, the repetition of shooting, shot after shot, became a kind of ritual for me. The seams and the grain of the leather ball had to feel a certain way. My fingertips went right to the grooves and told me if it felt right. The key to the fingertips was keeping them clean. I would rub my right hand to my sweaty brow, then against my T-shirt at chest level, and then I would cradle the ball. By the end of shooting practice, the grime had made its way from the floor to the ball to my fingertips to my shirt. After thousands of shots, my shirts were permanently stained.
The gymnasium itself was a part of my solitary joy. I took in every nuance of the place. It was a state-of-the-art facility, with retractable fan-shaped glass backboards. The floor was polished and shining; when I moved, it glistened as if I were playing on a mirror. The only daylight streamed in from windows high along the sloping ceiling. The smell was not of locker room mildew but of pungent varnish and slightly oiled mops, the guarantors of floor quality throughout the years. The gym's janitor insisted on one absolute rule: no street shoes allowed on the floor. It was sacred terrain, traversable only by the soft soles ofConverse or Keds.
Then there were the sounds. Thwat, thwat! The ball hit the floor and the popping sound echoed from the steel beams of the ceiling and the collapsed wooden stands that stacked up twenty feet high. Thwat, thwat, squeak--the squeal of your sneakers against the floor, followed by the jump and then the shot. The swish of the ball through the net, a sound sweeter than the roar of the crowd. Swish. Thwat, thwat, squeak, swish!
I couldn't get enough. If I hit ten in a row, I wanted fifteen. If I hit fifteen, I wanted twenty-five. Driven to excel by some deep, unsurveyed urge, I stayed out on that floor hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I played until my muscles stiffened and my arms ached. I persevered through blisters, contusions, and strained joints. When I got home I had to take a nap before I could muster the energy to eat the dinner that sat in the oven. After one Friday night high school game, which we lost to our arch rival, I was back in the gym at nine on Saturday morning, with the bleachers still deployed and the popcorn boxes scattered beneath them, soaking my defeat by shooting. Others had been in this place last night, I thought, but now I was here by myself, and I was home.
When I practiced alone, I often conjured up the wider world of basketball. Maybe I had just seen the Los Angeles Lakers play on TV the day before; I'd try to remember a particular move that Laker forward Elgin Baylor had made, then imitate it. I would simulate the whole game in my mind, including the spiel of the announcer. "Five seconds left, four seconds, three, Bradley dribbles right in heavy traffic, jumps, shoots--good at the buzzer!" I dreamed that someday I'd experience that moment for real, maybe even take the clutch shot in the state finals. In my dream, of course, I'd hit it and we'd be state champions.
The passion of solitary practice was matched by the joy of playing team ball. The constant kaleidoscope of team play was infinitely interesting to me. For every challenge thrown up by the defense, there was an offensive counter. Having the court sense to recognize this in the flow of the game produced a real high. The notion that someday I could be paid to play a game I loved never occurred to me.
You could always tell that Magic Johnson loved to play. He smiled, grimaced, and pushed himself and his teammates. His gusto honored the game. Some players these days seem more angry than joyful, yet the great ones still have a zest. Grant Hill's pleasure comes from his game's completeness and his own unflappable composure. Hakeem Olajuwon exudes a delighted confidence when the ball goes into him at the low post. Clyde Drexler, like Dr. J in earlier years, conveys an effortless joy when he has the ball in open court and heads for the basket.
Even the controversial Dennis Rodman evinces a love of the game despite his antics. His game within the game is rebounding. He studies films to see which way a shooter's shot usually bounces. He keeps his body in top shape. He uses his body only after he uses his brain and his eyes, and then he makes a second, third, and fourth effort. When he gets the ball, he smiles the smile of someone dedicated to something well beyond himself.
The women's game in particular is full of a kind of beautiful enthusiasm. On many teams each player seems deeply involved in her teammates' spirits as well as their play. I used to love to watch Kate Starbird spark her Stanford team with her tenacity, intensity, and 3-point-shooting skill, but the epitome, for me, is Chamique Holdsclaw of Tennessee, the female Michael Jordan. She has a winning combination of zeal and ability that allows her to generate excitement in the crowd, dedication among her teammates, and fear in the minds of her opponents. Her sheer love of the game becomes infectious.