Playing Ball in Brooklyn

Sweep before you leap

Shawn Hoke/Flickr
Shawn Hoke/Flickr


We played on so many battered pebbled worn crumbling spattered basketball courts that finally we decided to carry a broom with us when we went to play ball. The broom was slightly too long for the trunk of the car, so we carried it inside with the handle sticking out of one window or another. Sometimes we would play ball and then go surfing, so we would have a broom and two surfboards sticking out of the windows of the car. Parking a car in cramped lots with a broom and two surfboards sticking out of the windows is a craft. We tried strapping stuff on top of the car once, but we lost a perfectly good old surfboard that way and a policeman gave us a ticket for littering, even though we pulled over and picked up the pieces of the surfboard. We asked him how we could be charged with littering if there was technically no litter remaining on the road, and he said, I will give you one minute to piss off before you incur another ticket. I remember that he used the word incur, which is a rare and lovely word.

We played on so many courts that needed to be swept before you could play that we could identify detritus by borough. In Brooklyn it was broken glass, in the Bronx it was crumbled chunks of asphalt and brick, in Queens it was sand and dirt and pigeon feathers, in Manhattan it was disgusting things that I don’t want to talk about, and we never went to Staten Island, because who wants to go all the way through Brooklyn to get to Staten Island? If you have to get to Staten Island by going through Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has basketball courts, wouldn’t you just play ball in Brooklyn? Of course you would. Which is why we never did get to Staten Island. Even today, when people find out I am from New York and mention the Five Boroughs, I always silently think, five?

It seemed to us that Brooklyn also was the windiest borough, especially down by the beach, so that even if you waited to sweep the court until you had all stretched, and shot around to get loose, and chose up teams, the court was somehow glinting with glass again even before you finished the first game. This was manifestly impossible, except that we were in Brooklyn, and all sorts of things were possible in Brooklyn that were not possible anywhere else, like a guy moving into his wife’s tomb on Bushwick Avenue and living there for 10 years, and another guy making wings out of canvas sails and flying off the Brooklyn Bridge, and 20 elephants walking over the bridge one day, all of which happened, because why? Because this was Brooklyn, that’s why.

To get to Brooklyn from our house you would take the Belt Parkway to Atlantic Avenue, passing the Aqueduct horseracing track along the way, and Evergreens Cemetery, where the guy lived for 10 years with his dead wife, and once on Atlantic Avenue we would head north or south depending on whim and the wind. One time we were driving with a new guy we had not played with much and he didn’t know the drill and he said, Hey let’s hit Staten Island and find a game, and we said, gently, that to get to the Verrazano Bridge you had to go all the way through Flatbush to Bensonhurst, and why would you do that unless you owed somebody money or something, but his question made us all envision the sea for a moment, so that day we went south and played all afternoon at Brighton Beach, where the courts were covered with sand and there were significant drifts of sand on one side of the court. When you stood out of bounds on that side of the court your sneakers left prints in the sand, which is not a sentence you see every day. But we do today, because why? Because it was Brooklyn, that’s why.


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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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