Saturday, August 13, 2022 Aug 13, 2022
95° F Dallas, TX

SPORTS Net Gains

Street basketball games are won or lost months before in a lonely gym.
By Eric Celeste |

That inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude.

-William Wordsworth

IT’S EARLY, BEFORE SUNRISE, and the loud smack and echo of my basketball popping against the dead-wood floor is the only noise in the gym, save for my squeaking shoes. Dribbling and shooting in solitude, preparing for this year’s Hoop-It-Up tournament, it’s hard not to question my sanity when these sounds make me think of poetry.

After all, poetry is not why I’m here most mornings before work, shooting, running, wheezing. Nor can it be why 15,000 otherwise normal men and women will traverse the West End pavement on June 21-23. I’m really not sure what brings them there. Maybe it’s the competition, the capturing of lost youth, the sexy sight of sweaty men with male pattern baldness and male pattern bellies-perhaps that’s why they come. It’s surely not to enjoy the rhythm of internal verse and rhyme.

I try to dribble the ball between my legs, and it hits off my knee and bounces into a nearby racquetball court. I pick it up, try again, then fake out an imaginary defender and glide in for an easy shot. The solitude of my exercise allows for such mistakes and corrections without embarrassment. It allows for some creativity, or at least what basses for it in my league. (A friend calls me “No-Air,” because there’s no air between my feet and the floor when I jump.) In this way playing basketball, a team sport usually played alone, is like writing: You can work out the kinks before anyone sees the final product. Therein lies its simple singularity, its attrac-tiveness to the yearly West End hordes, and even its beauty.

Basketball is the only team sport where mind games make you a better player. With football, hockey, baseball, and other team sports you need to practice or play with others to maintain or improve your game. Not so with basketball. On the court by yourself you can easily picture the defender guarding you as you work on moves that you’ve emulated by watching endless ESPN broadcasts of Far West Big 18 Conference games. You can see your two teammates (Hoop-It-Up is three-on-three) making their cuts to the basket as you run to a spot for a return pass and then put the shot up quickly to avoid having it blocked. And the amazing thing to me is that this surreal exercise can actually make you better.

It was by watching so many TV games in the quiet of my living room that I learned to play the game at all. Because I sat home most weekend nights (my blunted social life is another story), I watched a lot of basketball. After a while it was easy to see past the frantic motion on the screen and concentrate on the body movement, the incredibly graceful motions of the players. I watched how unhurriedly a shot is taken, how similarly all good players shoot the ball: bring it up with two hands from the waist, rotate so one hand is behind the ball as it reaches the forehead, then straighten the arm and flip the hand at the wrist. Swiiishhh.

And it works. Trust me, it really does. And by practicing it in a local gym, or at a friend’s house where the backboard and rim-minus the net, of course-were fastened above the garage, I actually became pretty good. By no means was I great, but a decent player; just like 90 percent of the men and women who will be at Hoop-It-Up this year. No one there has the delusion that his or her suppressed talent will suddenly blossom underneath the Woodall Rodgers overpass and lead to a five-year, $8.9 million contract with the Lakers; but it’s rewarding to play a sport you’re pretty good at, because how many things can one say that about?

And so it went throughout college: I would spend lonely mornings or nights in a local YMCA gym, shooting, dribbling, trying to make it all seem natural. Sometimes I would go with my friend; sometimes I’d sneak in alone on weekends when the gym was closed. Some mornings I would have to share the court with a Native-American woman from a local junior college team. And although I was always improving, I was grateful for the cover the dim lighting provided . In two years, I never saw her miss a shot.

But I knew that I had to leave the nest. I started slowly, playing in pickup games. Then I moved on to Saturday afternoons at the community center courts, where five guys challenged another five for the right to hold court, as long as the wins continued. It was at this point that my second basketball revelation became clear: When playing with others, it’s no fun if your teammates love themselves more than they love the game.

No matter how good your mind games are, you need those teammates. This was especially clear to me one Saturday afternoon at the Dedman gym at SMU. A friend, another guy, and I were teamed with two of SMU’s starting players. We played five small, reserved, unknown young men. In a 45-min-ute game, I touched the ball twice (made one shot), my friend touched it twice (made both shots), and the other guy once. The two stars basically played against the other five, never deeming us worthy to touch the ball. But there was justice: Our “team” was slowly, methodically destroyed by the other guys. While our stars did lots of yelling and complaining, the nobodies were quiet, locked in confidence and contentment.

And how I envied them. Because it truly is wonderful to find recreational players who appreciate the game enough to try to do all the little things right. It’s just so much easier. After all, that’s how you map out those silent games you play in those quiet gyms or on a neighbor’s driveway; in your mind game, everyone moves and reacts as a team.

Luckily for me, I was able to find a group of overworked professionals who qualified: a motley crew of Dallas Morning News sports editors (not the writers-they can’t play the games they know so much about). So last year was the first time 1 was able to participate in Hoop-It-Up.

What a glorious event, Bodies of all heights, colors, genders, shapes, talents-all there to compete in a simple game of three-on-three, first-one-to-16, win-by-two, call-your-own-fouls basketball. Our team even won a game. And we almost beat a team whose players’ diet obviously consisted of steroids, hay, and special ego-enriching milkshakes. Of course the teams with the most talent will win, but the days are filled with victors who simply love the game enough, and who’ve had enough time alone to think about the game, to out-perform better athletes. And again, how many games can you say offer that?

IT’S ALMOST TIME TO LEAVE. SUNLIGHT IS VISIble through the tiny screen-mesh windows on the gym doors. I need to shower and get to work. But I can’t quite get my shot to fall.

It’s one I’ve been working on for the entire morning. I saw some freshman sensation from West Alabama State School of Engineering use this move against his conference rivals on HSE the other night. The gym is still quiet, empty except for a janitor sweeping up his cigarette butt in the corner. I see the defender in front of me. He’s bigger than me. but that’s okay. I’ve seen bigger. It’s late in the contest, and our three-man Hoop-It-Up team is winded after playing on cracked pavement in the Dallas heat all day.

I move without the ball, then imagine myself taking a crisp pass from a teammate as I reach the top of the key, directly in front of the basket behind the three-point circle. In one motion I jump, square my body up with the basket, raise my arm, and flip my wrist. Swiiishhh.

There, that should set this guy up. We just need one more point for the win.

This time I fake a move toward the basket and come out to the same spot. This defender is good: He’s right on me. I take the ball at the same spot as before. I square myself up and raise my arms. The defender, who I now see is that poor sap Michael Jordan, goes flying by me. He took the fake! I move to my left and, at incredible speed, sweep in for a soft layup. “Oh, baby!” I scream.

I hear a giggle. I whip around and see a woman with a basketball, waiting patiently for me to finish. I don’t look at her again. I pick up my ball, confident that Hoop-It-Up will be witness to one of the greatest one-year improvements ever made by a local talent measuring somewhat less than six feet tall. I stride by, not looking at this intruder on my solitude.

Boy, I can’t wait to show the guys on my team this move. Or, better yet, if my wife has her beautiful morning-smile on, I’ll reenact it for her. After all, it’s not every day that I beat a player like Jordan. Yeah, I think I’ll tell my wife. She likes to hear what I do up here, all alone.

How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude! But grant me still a friend in my retreat, Whom I may whisper, Solitude is sweet.

-William Cowper

Behind me as I go into the morning, I listen to the rhythmic sounds of the woman with the ball as she plays her own mind games. Bam bam bam. Squeak squeak. Swiiishhh.