And it’s not until I’m in the locker room, pulling up shorts I bought that afternoon at Dick’s over a pair of high-tops I haven’t worn in over a year, that I remember how much I hate playing basketball, mostly because I suck at it. It’s not that I’m unathletic — I competed in state tournaments in high school cross-country, and was a four-year starting fullback on the soccer team — but I can’t dribble or shoot, my vertical leap has all the height of boucing bowling ball, and I don’t like the physical contact required for effective defense and rebounding. These guys from work play every week, and if they’re as competitive as Murph is when playing chess, I’m in for a long evening.
But as I walk out onto the bustling hardwood courts, I remind myself that basketball’s not what’s brought me here tonight. I’m going to play another game this evening, one that’s very different, an intelllectual rather than physical challenge. And when I see Murph glide for a layup in a far court, I know it’s time to start that game.
The large gym has four courts, two of which have games in progress, with another game about to begin on a third. Three men are at the near end of the fourth court, shooting brown Spauldings at the bright orange hoop. Murph is by himself at the other end; it’s several minutes before seven, and my hunch about arriving early appears prescient. I’d seen a couple nameless faces from work appear as I’d exited the locker room; I’m only going to have a few minutes alone to interrogate the source of this mystery.
Murph sees me coming, then bounces a pass in my direction. My athletic instincts take over, and my hands slap onto the rubber sphere, as my legs push up from the floor and arms extend up, the basketball propelling from my fingertips and ascending in an arc, until the force of gravity takes hold and the ball descends down, towards the circular opening at which it had been aimed.
And then continues falling, several inches short of the goal, touching nothing until it finally falls, landing on the court with a pamb that sounds like an exclamation point to a cry of disappointment.