Before the 2017 season, I wrote a Pounding the Rock piece we called “Ode to Basketball”. As the start of that season approached, the piece detailed all the parts of the game that I was looking forward to enjoying. I have stolen parts of that piece for this one — but is it really stealing when I wrote the first one?
As we live through these strange times, I have thought back to that piece. In October 2017, we could all look forward to the upcoming season — not just the NBA season, but also college hoops, the local high school team, and for those of with younger kids, boys and girls learning the game with their club teams or Saturday morning leagues. And for the lucky among us, having the chance to coach one of those teams.
For those of us past college age, we enjoy city leagues or playing “pick-up” ball. In my case, I have Thursday night and Sunday morning games. For those games, we rent a high school gym for two hours, get 12 players together, play games to 19 by twos and threes, rotating teams and players after each game. Winners stay on, losers must make free throws to play again. Winning matters, but not as much as the opportunity to keep playing the “beautiful game” together with friends.
The term “The Beautiful Game” was applied to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. After the teams split the first two games, the Spurs’ collection of players from around the world played three “beautiful games”, both offensively and defensively, as the Spurs rolled to the crown. As a good friend (and fellow gym rat) emailed me after Game Five:
“Somewhere on that court John Wooden, Red Holtzman and Dr. Jack were standing side by side with big smiles. Big win for basketball!”
But “The Beautiful Game” is much more than that Spurs team. Instead, all of us miss the various moments, the sights and the sounds, that make the game of basketball so beautiful.
Right now, I miss that feeling of walking into an empty gym before my weekly games — yes, I am almost always the first to arrive.
The empty gym is silent and still when I arrive. The floor shines, the nets invite the soft swish of a perfect jump shot, while the rims stand ready to reject errant attempts undeserving of the net. I miss that different, equally special, feeling comes when entering the gym for a local high school game, or walking down the stairs into an arena for a college or professional game. I miss seeing the fans, many in team jerseys, already in their seats, players on the court in colorful warm-ups getting loose in lay-up lines, the rhythmic sound of bouncing basketballs everywhere.
I miss the final preparations moments before the game. In our pick-up games, we set the match-ups, talk trash, and shoot to see which team gets the ball first. In an NBA game, the players greet each other like old friends at the center circle – and invariably ask the referee to allow them to touch, bounce or squeeze the ball at least once before proceeding. And then the moment of anticipation before the opening tip, with fans settling in – and leaning forward – as the action finally starts.
Small moments during the game have a beauty all their own, and I miss all of them.
The perfect pocket pass to a player cutting back-door. A defender stepping in to take a charge – followed by teammates sprinting over to offer a hand back up as the referee points the other way. A great screen freeing a shooter to let one fly.
The ball swinging quickly from player to player, the final pass hitting the shooter in rhythm, who immediately rises to shoot before the late-arriving defender can meaningfully contest. The team gathered around the coach drawing up an in-bounds play on a clipboard, and the bench rising together as the play creates an easy basket. ”Nice call, coach!”
A defender locking down the other team’s best player.
The star player dribbles the ball back and forth between the legs at the end of the quarter, watching the clock tick down, and then attacks the rim in a burst. The post player seals his defender, catching the entry pass and laying the ball off the glass in one movement.
The rising hum of the crowd as a shooter catches fire – and the shooter holding the right hand high in follow-through, back-pedaling to defense even before the shot splashes through. A three-point play, the old fashioned way: The referee emphatically signals that the shot counts, the scorer springs off the floor after the foul to accept high fives, and drains the “and one”. (Yes, players do in fact shoot 100% on the free throw to make the “and one”.)
A hustling defender chasing down the seemingly uncontestable break-away, swatting the lay-up away before the ball can bank off the glass into the basket. A free throw shooter knocking down two free throws, with disdain, as if to ask why anyone required the formality of the actual shots.
The pump fake which causes the defender to fly by, helpless. The extra pass, turning a good shot to a great one – and the scorer points to the passer in appreciation and acknowledgement.
The spin dribble into the twisting lay-up. A guard fighting over a screen, or ferociously fronting the post player after a switch. The squeak of shoes on the floor. The kick-ahead pass. Anyone diving for a loose ball, leaving a damp streak of sweat across the floor. A dunk in traffic. A blocked dunk in traffic — all ball.
And, of course, we all miss the game winning play. The shot in the air as the buzzer sounds, the ball hitting the net to win the game. Or the defensive team — our team — coming up with a final stop to preserve the narrow win. All followed by teammates being teammates, coming together, whether in celebration, or commiseration, since only one team can win.
Teammates coming together, in victory or defeat, is the most special moment, because basketball is, after all, truly a team game.
Damn, I miss the Game. I miss being with my team — or rooting for them — and all the beautiful moments in the Game.
I miss seeing games live, watching them on television, reading about them the next day, whether on line or in the newspaper, and talking to friends about everything about the games — pro, college, high school or pick-up.
And most of all, I miss playing the Game. Knowing I get to play that evening makes the whole day better. Knowing I want to play well when I get the chance to be on the floor makes it so much easier to do all those workouts to stay in shape. Even now, knowing that my next opportunity to play may be months away, knowing that “this too will pass” continues to motivate me.
When the Beautiful Game returns, as it certainly will, I will be ready. We all will. And that Beautiful moment can’t come too soon.