Jump-Shot, Wisecrack, B-Ball

THE pass is just at my fingertips, looped cross court by the guy racing down the right wing. It's not the right pass for a fast break - the classic pass is a bounce pass, timed perfectly to match the stride of the man cutting in the lane so that it eases into his hands just as he launches himself for the layup. But I have to stretch for this one, and the winch of muscle up from my ankles through my thighs across my abdomen along the length of my arm seems to create a magnetism just beyond the fanned tips of my fingers that draws the ball down into my palm. My left palm. I can't shoot left-handed. So I land with a chunky slap of rubber on wood, pivot, and fire a short fade-away jumper, the hand of the defender just a microsecond and millimeter late and under. It totters on the rim, then silks through the net. We win, 7 to 6.

This is pickup basketball as it's played twice a week in what I call the ``Over-35 Lunchtime Basketball League,'' a bunch of guys who get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays to run reasonable facsimiles of fast breaks, three-pointers from ``downtown,'' and post-ups down low. We play not only for the exercise and camaraderie, but because basketball is such a sweet, musical, and jazzy game, an occasion for even slightly balding, paunch-building men to pirouette, practice grace, and receive a brief flash of glory and commendation.

We all played pickup basketball, in one form or another, as we grew up, and we can all walk onto this court from our different lives and know instantly how to mesh and blend. In this way basketball is like rhythm-and-blues. If you know certain chord patterns, guitar riffs, and harmonica slides, you can sit down with anyone from anywhere and jam. Basketball has the same portability, the same universal lingo. Bring a basketball to a playground hoop, ask a few other total strangers if they'd like to play, and within minutes the group will be weaving and picking their riffs and moves as if their flesh had never been separated.

This occasional and fluid comradeship might appear effortless, but it's learned in an apprenticeship that carries its share of darts and insult. I saw a good example of it recently at the playground down the street.

At one end of the court were four black college-freshman-aged kids singing the basketball back and forth among themselves, showing off, mock-insulting each other. At the other end were two white kids, about 17, doing the usual get-a-jump-shot-in-get-another-shot routine. Occasionally they would look at the quartet wheeling and smart-cracking as if they expected a request from that end for a three-on-three game. None came. Finally, after three or four longing stares, one of the white kids walked the length of the court and asked if they wanted to get a game started. A short pause as the four looked at each other, then a round of nods. They played for an hour.

Meanwhile, a few other kids had wandered up to the court and watched the game. It was obvious to me that they wanted to play, but as the sextet finished one game, then another, and then another, and no emissary came bearing a summons, they gradually stopped their aimless dribbling and melted away.

The apprenticeship for pickup basketball really has only one short and clear rule: You don't get anything unless you ask because no one will ask you. But you have to ask in a way that makes it clear that you're assuming you're going to play unless someone tells you differently. You don't walk up to a game in progress, especially if the guys on the court all know each other from the neighborhood, and say, politely, ``May I have the next game?'' That disappears into a black hole.

Instead, you have to say, ``Whose got winners?'' If someone is sitting out the game and says, ``I do,'' then you say, ``OK,'' and pick up a ball to warm up. You don't say, ``Need anybody?'' because that leaves open the possibility that they'll say no. You assume that you're going to play in the next game and you put yourself in the presence. If no one's got winners, then you declare that winners is yours, with the same assurance that you own the designation until someone tells you differently.

The etiquette is simple and basic: ask, and you usually get. A few other rules apply as well. Everyone calls his own fouls, and the call is always honored, even if it seems stupid, unjust, or bogus. Games are short so that no one has to sit for long, and everyone who sits out gets to play the next game, even if it means the winning team has to shoot for players. Such democracy works for an hour or so because it's full of quid pro quo, and while there are hot dogs and whiners in every game, no one ever tries to lord it over because what you do will get done back to you if you're not careful. It's the game that regulates the ego, the brio and craft of the game that reins in pettiness.

The game: patterned and fluid, risky and deliberate, full of scoops, dish offs, alley-oops, and body-bending picks. It offers the body grace and power, flight and strategy, attack and dance. Some of my friends don't like basketball; they see it as chaotic, or at least formless, a bunch of guys running up and down the court, and usually they prefer the more sedate pleasures of baseball or the formal violence of foot ball. But the ``formlessness'' of basketball is only surface, only apparent; underneath are elegant patterns that govern flow and weave, patterns that can suddenly spring a player free from a forest of bodies for an arcing jump shot, or end in a slicing slam-dunk as three players at full tilt fill the lanes on a fast break.

The beauty of basketball also comes from how it brokers a few fundamentals - jump shot, layup, pass, dribble - into continual variation. Each time a team comes down the court using these fundamentals it creates something that didn't exist before. There's an endless menu of ways five players can get the ball into the basket.

Because conditions on each possession can't always be predicted, so much of the game's energy depends on intuition, on a ``court sense'' that lets the mind see more than the eye registers. There is constant calibration and recalibration, constant amendment of intention and expectation - which means constant surprise without wrench, innovation without decay.

And each of these fundamentals has its own delicacies. On the dribble, player and ball have to move as if there's no divorce between skin and leather; each exerts control over the other, animate and inanimate briefly wedded. The shot is most prominent because it produces the final tally, the game's end. But it has beauties of its own beyond utility: a long parabolic 23-foot jump shot hitting an opening no larger in diameter than a fair-sized trout is a marvel of physics and symmetry, as golden as any mean devised by ancient philosophers.

But where the shot finishes and the dribble prepares, it's the pass that, like a weaver's shuttle, carries the knit of the game. In a basketball game the swirl of bodies opens and closes like branches in a high wind, and a good pass finds that caesura in the action where, for a breath, there are no hands or legs or sprint. But it's not just vectors and geometry. A player can't force a pass, that is, work against the tide that provides him with opportunities. Instead, he must wait for the flow to eddy in the right way. A good pass seems to navigate of its own accord, to find that sweet interstice that, a breath later, will no longer exist.

Basketball is like quantum mechanics, composed of probabilities. Each trip down the court is unique in its form and entropy, and while the general positions of all the players can be known, place and velocity keep changing. But out of this continual mixing and kneading of variables comes the slashing dribble, the gentle touch of the fade-away jumper, the pass finessed through the vortex, the solidified game.

None of us in the lunch-time league are extraordinarily good, but that doesn't matter. We like to be in touch, no matter how imperfectly, with the energy and companionship of basketball, and so we run for an hour and a half twice a week to fill ourselves with delight. And every once in a while one of us under incredible pressure shoots the game-winner with nonchalant grace, or throws a pass that smacks of greatness. We talk about it afterward in the locker room, and then go on to our outside lives. But we'll be back soon.

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