Courting Friendship

Basketball is a body language, and those who speak it are kin. On that cool autumn Saturday morning, it was a surprise to find that the language of basketball could bridge both a gender gap and a generation gap.

Three of us - Julie, Patrise, and I - had been rotating at shooting and picking up each other's rebounds, and shouting an encouraging ``Good shot!'' Then I noticed another group of three shooting at the hoop at the other end of the schoolyard court.

I know that some guys go to neighborhood basketball courts looking for the rough and tumble of a pickup game. I'd been hoping that we'd be alone and that there would be no young-but-seasoned players on the court.

Well, there they are, I thought, and here we were, eyeing each other warily - at opposite ends of the basketball court.

``We'' were three white females, two in their 30s and me in my 60s, each a rank beginner at basketball, each in her sweatshirt, shorts, and Nike hightops. I was wearing new sports goggles. We were taking turns at dribbling the ball toward the basket, passing it twice and shooting: a drill.

At the other end of the court were three black males who turned out to be 14, 15, and 16 years old, but who, at that moment, looked older and very athletic. In their Nikes, sweats, and shorts, they were catching rebounds and moving in smartly for layups.

Without saying a word to each other, Julie, Patrise, and I seemed to escalate the action at our end of the court. Julie attempted a couple of layups; Patrise grabbed Julie's rebound and tried a layup, too. Inspired, I snatched Julie's rebound, tried an abortive layup but quickly retreated to the free-throw line to work on my two-handed set shot.

At the other end of the court, the action escalated too, into successful layup after layup. Then the tallest of the three boys moved behind the free-throw line, back toward the centerline; he began to try, and mostly succeed, at three-point shots.

We all got the message. Our counterparts had probably been handling basketballs since they were toddlers.

My worst fear was that they would preen and strut and that they would assume they had prior title to not only one hoop but both hoops, perhaps to the whole court.

And they did strut a little. I watched the biggest, strongest of the three run to the right of the hoop and time after time, with one strong jump, dunk the ball. I felt intimidated.

``Good shot, Marcus!'' the one with glasses called, as he attempted a shot from the three-point range, outside the key, and missed.

``You need more practice, Tony!'' Marcus called, as Tony ran for his own rebound, picked it up, shot at closer range and missed again. A little less intimidated, I got on the free-throw line to try a set shot, two hands, and made the hoop.

I heard applause from the other side of the court. ``Good shot,'' Tony called.

Did he mean me? I looked across the court and the youngster with glasses was dribbling his basketball but looking right at me.

It didn't take long for me to flash a smile across the court, try again, miss, get my rebound, and make my next shot. Again, applause from the other court.

I turned to Julie and Patrise. ``Let's ask them if they'd like to run drills with us. I mean, should we?''

I felt a little trepidation, but was clear that the answer should be ``yes.'' Within five minutes, we all were at the same end of the court.

There were the brothers Marcus, 14, and Tony, 13, and their 16-year-old friend Derek. Marcus, the tallest, looked as if he worked out; Tony was a little stocky, serious but friendly, and wore glasses; Derek was small, wiry, and quick. None of them was nearly as tall or as muscled as they all had seemed from across the court.

And there were the three of ``us'': Tall Julie, who is focused and thoughtful about everything she does, including basketball; Patrise, built like one of Matisse's larger dancers, who tends to want to organize and direct activities; and round, energetic, grandmotherly me.

We made a few false starts. Tony thought ladies could have two chances at everything, unlike ``the guys,'' whose advantage he clearly understood. Firmly, we ``ladies'' said no. We wanted equal opportunity, no more.

And Tony was looking straight at me when he said, ``I've never seen anyone old play basketball before.''

First, we did some drills: We paired off, rotating. Tony, Marcus, or Derek, paired with Julie, Patrise, or me, taking turns guarding, trying to shoot or pass, or giving a little advice. Marcus slam-dunked a few out of turn. Tony and Derek reined him in.

Finally, we organized into three on three. We had a pick-up game. And nobody intimidated anyone. Nobody chased anybody off the court.

OUR communication was just fine. Not a lot of words, just a lot of basketball - about two hours of basketball. Then it came time to go. We all live in the neighborhood, we said - on different sides of the schoolyard, but in the neighborhood.

Would we be back next Saturday? they asked. We said we thought we would.

And we were. All of us. Tony and Marcus showed us schoolyard basketball games such as ``Around the World,'' in which each player takes a series of increasingly difficult shots from numbered spots on the court. And ``Horse,'' in which each player gets a letter for each basket made, and the first with ``horse'' wins.

This time we stayed on the court for three hours.

We shared a ``language.'' According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, language is ``a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures or marks having understood meanings.'' It can be ``the suggestion by objects, actions or conditions of associated ideas or feelings,'' as in ``body language.''

Passing, running, shooting, layups, slam dunks, guarding, giving advice, acknowledging a good shot - the six of us shared a lot of conventionalized signs, sounds, and gestures with understood meanings.

If we hadn't converged on that basketball court on the same Saturday morning, we - three white, middle-aged women and three black teenage boys - never might have met even though we all live in neighborhoods near the same schoolyard. We might have passed on the street. On the street, we most likely would have walked past each other - perhaps quickly.

But the street is not a basketball court. And the language of the street is not the language of the basketball court.

On the court, we have a language all of us can speak.

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