Probably my favorite part of playing basketball was not the actual basketball game, but all the hours behind and before the game: practice, which I loved, and drills, which I loved, and rehabilitation after injury, which I loved, perhaps for masochistic reasons. But most of all, best of all, for me, anyway, weirdly, was the prelude to the game—the hour or more we will call, for ease of nomenclature, warmups.
Let us say that the game begins at seven in the evening; which means that I will be at the gym by five or so, strolling happily into the school, and without fail finding the gym doors locked, and having to track down the custodian, who opens the doors grumpily, and then stomps off muttering about crazy people, but I do not take offense, for he is essentially right about me, for the first thing I do is walk around the court feeling out the floor, and dribbling my basketball in spots that look suspiciously dead, so that I have the geometry and landscape and topography and stratification of the floor in my mind, and can, if necessary, take advantage of that dead spot in the far right corner, and steal a ball if the time comes when we really need a steal.
Then to the bench, or rattling old steel chairs along the sideline, to gird, to tape my ankles meticulously, to lace up my sneakers properly, to stretch carefully; and then the delicious moment in which the ball and I wander out onto the floor to begin the mindless pleasure of warming up. First there is dribbling, the hands and the ball becoming reacquainted; dribbling while walking, dribbling while running, dribbling while spinning, dribbling between the legs and behind the back, dribbling with either hand; and then there is shooting layups, and then short jumpers from the corners and the key, and then short jumpers from the elbows of the key, and then set shots from eight selected favorite sports, and then hook shots, and then a brief fling with shooting left-handed, just in case the occasional desperate chance arises in the game; and then free throws, and the reverse layups, and by now the gym is filling with other players, both my teammates and the opposition, and there is chaffing and greeting, and razzing and teasing, and brief unserious one-on-one tilts, and if we are in a gym with lower baskets on the sides, as so many elementary school gyms are structured, there is dunking, and laughter.
Finally there are formal warmups, which are informal, and usually consist of layup lines and more stretching, and then finally the referees indicate with a nod of their heads that it is time, and the players wander out onto the floor, shaking hands and nodding to acquaintances and friends, and the centers step into the center circle for the initial jump ball, and the game begins; but to be totally honest, I can never remember a single game that I enjoyed as thoroughly and consistently as I enjoyed all the preludes to the game, which were intent and relaxed at once, and were so often, for me at least, timeless and formless, hours in which the body and the ball and the basket and the dusty gymnasium and the mullioned windows and the squeak of sneakers and rattle of dribble and panting of player were all easy cousins, having nothing to do with loss and victory and conquest and conflict, and everything to do with an energetic unconscious joy. Even now, many years after I had to stop playing basketball, what I miss most is not games, much as I relished them at the time; it is the hour before a game, when basketball was loose and free and unaccountable, measured only in units of silent pleasure.
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