And speaking of basketball, a wild flood of memories washes me along grinning this morning.
First: the moment on a Brooklyn playground when I drove the baseline hard, and soared to the basket to lay the ball in above the rim with a cool little flip of the fingers, and instead I got hammered by two bigger stronger guys, a play I remember vividly as the moment I realized that (a) I was not big enough to be a real forward, and (b) there were guys who were a lot better than me in this world, and (c) I was not good enough to play college ball, as I thought I might be. If shirtless guys in a pickup game with shards of glass on the court could casually reject my best efforts, maybe journalism or crime was a better option—or both together, if I could get a job with Rupert Murdoch.
Second: a moment on a playground in New Mexico when my friend Pete and I stopped to play pickup with a bunch of Navajo boys who (a) were quicker than cougars and relentlessly energetic even after an hour of intense play, whereas I wanted to go lie down in a cold creek for the rest of the afternoon, and (b) were awed by Pete, who was a solid 6’4” and 250 pounds but unbelievably deft for a guy who weighed an eighth of a ton. The vision of those boys swirling endlessly around Pete like a river around a rock stays with me even now.
Third: a moment on a playground deep in rural Ireland where the netless basket was too high and the court was made of pitted grass and awful mud and the ball was ancient beyond belief, but my brothers and I battled all afternoon against local guys who were not great ballplayers, but good heavens, what athletes they were, not at all afraid of physical play. Afterward one of them told me they were all members of the local hurling team, which explained their epic scars.
Fourth: a moment in Australia when I stopped at a playground in Sydney and watched a pickup game among boys and girls who were maybe 15 years old, and one girl was so liquid-quick and shifty that the boys were annoyed at how much better she was. But she did not care about their annoyance and she kept toying with them, which made me unaccountably happy. By then I was too old and creaky to shuck my coat and ask to step in for a while, but I stood there under a gum tree thrilled that I could still read and feel and sense and decode and be delighted by the game even if I was not inside its glorious generous joyous swift flow any more.
Many fine things were invented in America, among them jazz and Mormonism and the blues and Flannery O’Connor and the zipper and Abraham Lincoln, but I do not forget that basketball was also invented here, one winter in Massachusetts, 123 years ago, and the game now elevates and enlivens the world, and for that, this morning, we ought to be very proud.
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