Here are the basketball courts of my youth. My middle school had two gyms: one titled “Old” & the other “New,” although the New Gym had been around since well before I was born. The old gym was dim lit and brown, the court dusty and the wood well worn from years of pivots and jump stops. The new gym was bright and almost yellow in its construction: blue walls and light-colored wood, a Viking head painted at half-court. This is where my father played his games: where I sat on the sidelines and the scorer’s table and flipped numbers, put ticks in soft pencil in a ledger book. I learned how to cuss here: a man taking a foul too hard, accusations of it being intentional. We lash out because of fear—that an ankle could’ve twisted and popped, though it didn’t, that someone could’ve snapped a forearm, but didn’t. In the old gym was where I was in my first fist fight—no punches thrown, just a shove into stacked up bleachers after a hockey game, a stick slashed against my wrists for no reason other than the fact that I breathed too heavy, that I was ripe for the kill, that I wouldn’t dare strike back.
The most glowing character review of Barack Obama was from his brother-in-law, then coach of Oregon State’s Men’s Basketball team: that he was fun to play with, that he was an unselfish player.
There was an outdoor court near the police station by my house with stiff rims and crooked backboards: more apt for layups than jump shots, the ball bouncing too high when dribbling due to the rubber court raised above the grass. To the right, the chain-link fence of tennis courts, the occasional fuzzy neon ball escaping on a poorly angled shot and finding its way into our pick-up games. It was here where on a fast break, I sent a kid crashing into the ground: I missed the block, but got all body, his head cracking against the pipe that held the backboard in place, all kids scattering in fear of being the one caught red-handed, the ball bouncing and rolling away, untouched.
There are no fouls in NBA Jam: no solemn trip to the freethrow line, no bouncing of the ball before deep breaths and perfect form. No blood, no foul. Shoving the player is legal and your best form of defense: to hit the player as soon as they start to elevate toward the basket, to send them sprawling in an attempt to jar the ball loose.
There were the courts in college: of pick-up ball, of walls dropped down to separate games, to prevent a bleed-over from one court to another. There was the punch swung after a box out, that I was taking the game too seriously, that I would just let a kid taller than me grab a rebound simply because he towered over me—his height preventing him from getting a good angle on my forehead, him promising to fight me in the parking lot after the game was over.
My father played against Bill Laimbeer in college; he graduated from Notre Dame the year after Laimbeer was drafted. He always said he was the biggest asshole he ever played against.
The blacktop in Belgium that was constantly rain-slicked, the ball skidding off at raw angles, the long jump sandpit near by which scattered silt into the key; our feet sliding out from under our bodies. I’d like to tell you a story of language being misconstrued, of Flemish being pronounced incorrectly, of culture shock leading to violence, but it was our own who fought: head down, barreling into the lane with nothing on the tongue but aggression, of not knowing how to leave things on the court.
There’s something to be said about the character one has on a basketball court: I would vouch for people I played with—people I barely knew, folks I would see out at the bar. I would have some sort of kindred spirit with them. People would ask me what I thought of people & I would say well, I played basketball with them, as if this was a stamp of approval. In a way, it was.
The courts in Alabama, sweat-stained and warped from humidity, of a September birthday where a friend demanded he play basketball despite too many drinks at lunch, of saying the wrong thing to the wrong stranger, of being punched in the face, of refusing to go home afterward, of him begging us to keep playing while we sat on the court in silent protest.
The game, in contrast, has one court: there are rumors that there was another one based off of a fighting game—of blood and otherworlds and never realms. This was partially true: a mock-up of the court did exist, but it was never accessible: the makers of the game wanting to disassociate it from violence—that there is no room for blood or anger in the game, in basketball, in any of this.