Working out on a strange new machine at the Y (it felt like a combination of cross-country skiing and goose-stepping) the other day, I got a chance to watch a pick-up basketball game in the gym downstairs - and it was much more interesting than the poker game or magic-knife infomercial on TV. In some ways pick-up basketball has not changed since my day, or James Naismith's. The play is crisp at first, sharp passing, good defence, high-percentage shots, but after about fifteen minutes the action slows down and gets sloppy: random shots, showboating, obvious fouls; and then someone (in our day it was always a kid named Willie who had a small bladder -- Wee Willie, we called him) has to go home.
The game I watched while my legs rose and fell and sweat poured down my back looked pretty familiar. But there were some differences. For one thing, there was a girl playing. She was the same age as most of the guys -- fourteen, say -- and the same height. But clearly a girl. In my day she'd have been on the sidelines chewing gum and looking bored. I was pleased to see her dribbling up court, quarterbacking the play for her side. And there was a little kid playing too -- couldn't have been more than eight or nine. He didn't seem to be someone's baby brother who was there on sufferance, ignored by the big kids except when the ball rolled way out of bounds and he hurried to get it. This little guy with a brush cut and ripped t shirt was part of the play, going up for rebound after rebound as if the eighteen inches he was giving away meant nothing. By the time I was ready to drop from fatigue (the Nazis had questionable morals but, man, they must have had thighs of steel!) we were at a crisis point on court. Someone's dad was on the sidelines checking his watch. Looked like one of those Next Basket Wins moments.
Play was very intense. Hip checks, slapping at the ball, fighting for rebounds. The girl was in trouble, double-teamed at the top of the key. She fired a safety out to the little kid, who panicked and launched a bomb from way beyond the three point line.
I stopped my own workout to watch as the ball soared, dropped, hit the rim, bounced straight up, and went in. Play stopped, and the kid's side cheered. The kid tried to look cool, but you could tell he was tickled. The best player punched him on the arm. The girl punched him on the arm. The dad made Come on gestures from the door. I got a cloth to wipe down my machine, and when I returned the gym was empty.