Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The Blacktop

In Basketball, Long form on August 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

The rhythm begins at four each Sunday, flowing out over the quiet neighborhood streets from the blacktop. It’s an outdoor court, and asphalt, so the familiar squeak of sneakers does not mingle with the grunts and dribbles of the players. Just bouncing basketballs, punctuated by the occasional clang of a bricked jumper. On this certain Sunday, the smothering heat cools the pace of the game to a languid crawl, every movement balanced against the desire for an economy of motion. Speech is a luxury in the afternoon’s dense humidity, and even trash talk is rare. The swish of the net is even less frequent.

Basketball is often compared to smooth jazz, but this iteration demonstrates the fickleness of that construct. Jazz musicians age gracefully, their craft maturing, becoming more enchanting with time. Wayne Shorter warming a smoky club late into his 70s. Basketball players creep ever upward, their spring and quickness fading as their paunches grow.

And these men were once basketball players, some time ago. Now they are lawyers, lobbyists and financial advisors, one doctor. But each Sunday afternoon they are basketball players. They are once again the Woodward High School Wildcats of 1974-75.

That Woodward High School no longer exists, it was folded into a nearby school in the 1980s and the building is now a middle school, is a fitting metaphor for these men’s basketball ability. They play as if they can still drain long three-pointers, turn their man in the lane for an easy backdoor layup, and sprint back to stifle a fast break with an emphatic block. They can’t. Shots ricochet off the backboard at unnatural angles, post play often resembles a pair of elephants jockeying for position at a watering hole, and the fast break becomes a relative term. No one seems to mind. Games are still conducted with all the seriousness and intensity of a state championship. The team never sniffed the playoffs 35 years ago, but it doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm now. They never were much good, and they aren’t now.

Except for two.

Joe was the star of that long ago squad, a lithe shooting forward, although he would lack the stature to feature in that role in the current era. He’s still able to lose his man on the wing, drift into the lane, and let go a soft floater that gently kisses the rim on its way in. His play has a smooth fluidity to it that makes him the instant focal point for any observer. And he’s respected as such. While all appear friendly with each other, there is a clear deference given to Joe. He was their leader then, and he remains so now. When the attendees divide up to pick teams, Joe is the captain of one of them, and receives the initial selection.

The other is Miguel. Miguel is a natural athlete, and it is clear the game comes easy to him. He drills long jumpers with a stroke that seems born not of intense practice but of natural inspiration. He is brutally efficient, makes nearly two thirds of the shots he takes, and plays with a calm possessiveness that no other player is able to match.

Miguel was not a member of the 1974-75 Woodward High Wildcats. He was five years old that year. When the rest of his playing companions graduated high school, he was a toddler, the eldest son of two farm workers in his native Ecuador. He came to the United States in 1994, then returned in 2001, and came back for good in 2007. His English and my broken Spanish are not sufficient to adequately relate how he came to be a regular member of this game, and nobody else quite remembers.

Class divisions have always existed strongly across the Washington, D.C. region, and Montgomery County, an affluent suburb, is no exception. It’s not a tremendous attention to status, as in New York or Los Angeles, but more an unconscious, subtle separation in a city that has long been divided. A simple pickup game would seem to be no exception.

The group gathered at the court is certainly an affluent one. One can tell that by the iPhones and watches they shed before the ball tips off. They are part of high-level, insider Washington, at least several of them commuting from ritzy enclaves in nearby Bethesda or Potomac. Political and financial influence is well represented.

After the game Joe tells me he is a pipe-fitter. He runs his own business now, and has a perfectly comfortable living, but it is a small one. Miguel works for a construction company, a good steady job after years as a day laborer on his first two periods in the United States. Their world is not that of their teammates.

Yet out on the court, it is high school again. Joe and Miguel are the center of attention, the ones around which everyone else subtly orients, socially as well as athletically. Joe, their leader from back in the day, the only one who had a shot at playing collegiate basketball. And Miguel, always with a smile on his face, quick to laugh.

The players are young once more, and not just in the absence of adult barriers. They cluster in a group, and faintly compete for attention in that manner of teenagers. Slight approval from Joe seems to be worth something. Many of the men occupy positions of some power, would never act like this in a political or corporate setting. But out on the court, they are 18 years old, free of pretensions and stifling convention.

This is not a story of the popular high school jock, left behind after graduation by those who once worshiped him to advance in obscurity. Joe is married, content, and appears to have little nostalgia for his teenage years, perhaps apart from a quicker first step.

And it’s not the tale of a newly arrived immigrant, lifted up by acts of generosity by those more fortunate. Miguel seems neither to want or need charity, and his interaction with the group ends at the blacktop.

Back on the court, the game is tight, both teams nearing the goal of 25 points. As usual, it’s Joe versus Miguel, each fighting to close out the opposition in that timeless rite of the game, no different from Dirk and Lebron apart from the setting. Miguel’s team picks up a steal and feeds him on the wing. Swish. He drains another perfect jumper and that’s it. The losers are glum, the victors celebrate wildly as if that shot is all that matters. In that moment, that’s all that does.

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