Ghosts of Basketball Courts Past

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Every so often I drag my old bones out to a basketball court and try to relive the glory days. I tell myself I’m just going to shoot around since I’ve got a fragile back, but inevitably someone asks me to play a game. Hoisting an orange ball toward a metal rim you find yourself in the company of people you might never talk to. Now I’m an elder statesman, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of the young whippersnappers.

Those years when I spent every possible moment on a basketball court, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, most of the regulars were my age or a few years older, but there were a few oddball adults. There was Jerry who must have been six foot six and looked like an eagle and John Lithgow had a lovechild and there was Paul, a foul mouthed guy who if you left him open long enough would pretend to pick his nose before he took the shot.

As the years passed and basketball went from an obsession to a hobby to something I rarely do, I can’t say I thought too much about either of them. But not too long ago I heard that Paul had passed away.

Hearing he died kind of jarred all these conversations over the years we had loose. I think most of this dialogue was after my first year of college. I was supposed to have gotten a job that summer, but I was thrifty enough to avoid one and spent the afternoons playing basketball. Paul who had kids just a few years younger than me felt comfortable giving me advice beyond putting more arc on my jump shot. I remember him telling me (his fellow Jew) that Miami would be a great place to live if it weren’t for all the Jews and Cubans. I also remember him telling me it was better to live in nature than in the city, because cities you eventually get bored of, while in nature there’s always something new, a new swimming hole, a new trail to walk.

I remember us making a bet about the NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls had just won a record number of games and I bet him ten dollars that the Bulls would win the best of seven series in five games or less. The Bulls won the first three games and my bet looked good, but then somehow lost the next two games, before closing the series out in six. In other words I lost the bet and as a thrifty guy without a summer job, I wasn’t too unhappy that I didn’t run into him at the courts before I went back to school.

When I made it back the next summer he was never there. I don’t know if I asked what happened to him or it just came up, but the story was he got in an argument when he called a foul. The opponent disagreed about the call and punched Paul square in the face. I had seen Paul get obnoxious in games, one time he didn’t like a call and punted the ball fifty feet away, but as an eccentric character he could get away with it. This time that wasn’t the case. He didn’t fight back, he left the game and walked off the court never to return. There were disputing stories of who threw the punch. But I’d like to think it wasn’t one of the regulars.

That was almost twenty years ago.

Now when I go out to the courts and I’m the one dispelling wayward youths unsolicited wisdom, I kind of marvel at however slow the days might go, how fast the years pass. Off the top of my head I don’t have too many regrets, but one is that I skipped out on the ten bucks I owed Paul. Now I’ll have to wait until the game in the big basketball court in the sky to pay my debt.

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