Hoopiness

Salvatore Vuono. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Salvatore Vuono / freedigitalphotos.net

I love the feel of a basketball in my hands. Recently, I was reminded of how much I’ve missed it.

I was on the road, teaching a seminary course in Phoenix. When one of the students came to pick me up in the morning, we noticed a small half-court behind the hotel. Was that for the use of the patrons?

After a full day of lecturing, I decided to find out. To my delight, the hotel concierge produced an old leather ball, worn to an almost flannel-like softness.

“We need to have the ball back by 9 PM,” she warned.

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’m not going to last that long.”

I went up to my room to change, alternately cradling the ball and spinning it in my hands. I resisted the urge to dribble until I actually got on the tiny cement court. But then it came back to me: the sound, the feel. It was like visiting with an old friend.

To be clear: I’m no athlete. Not even close. I didn’t play basketball in high school or college, and I don’t think I’ve ever played more than three on three. Nearly all the basketball I know took place in our driveway, one on one, beginning when my son was about 8 or 9 years old.

Those were precious days, and I miss them.

But there’s more to it than that. Putting a ball through a hoop, being rewarded with that unique nothing-but-net sound… It may not be very high on the scale of Matters of Eternal Significance, but it’s one of those simple gifts of created bodily existence, a minor miracle of skill to be enjoyed.

I’m no Steph Curry, the NBA’s reigning MVP, a pure shooter who this season has already led his Golden State Warriors to the best starting record in NBA history. Curry can strike quickly from anywhere on the floor — including from half-court. The good news is that I can still make about 70 to 80% from the free throw line, which isn’t bad for a guy pushing 60.

The bad news is that I’m probably about 10 to 20% from anywhere else. Trotting about on that miniature court, I found myself getting frustrated that I couldn’t hit shots like I used to 15 or 20 years ago. (Go figure.)

And then I received a bit of unexpected encouragement.

A group of boys, probably about 10 to 12 years old, showed up with their own ball, wanting to use the court. One boy walked up and just started shooting; I asked him politely to wait until I was finished, and said that it would only be a few more minutes. He backed off quietly.

But now I had an audience.

Oh, great.

I went back to my free-throw shooting routine. I could hear one of the boys counting: “Whoa! That’s seven in a row.” (Possible subtext: “Wow! I didn’t know people your age could do stuff like that.”) I turned and smiled at him: “Think I can make it ten?” Another boy answered, probably echoing something he learned from his coach: “Sure, man, but only if you believe.”

I believed, and made one more. Then I clanged the next, declared myself in retirement, and yielded the court.

When I first stepped on the court and began missing shots, I was annoyed, thinking of my younger, fitter, and more practiced self. And I definitely did not want anyone watching me. But something about that one boy’s “Whoa!” provoked a shift of attitude. I could just enjoy the moment: the feel of the ball, the sound of a clean shot.

Some professional ballers insist that it can’t just be about competition and winning: you have to play for the love of the game. That, some believe, is one of the secrets to the Warriors success: coach Steve Kerr consistently tells his guys, Whatever you do out there, have fun.

That’s my problem. My competitiveness, even with myself, means that I sometimes gripe about what I can’t do instead of appreciating what I canObsessed with what isn’t, I blind myself to what is

Joy, it seems, is like that sometimes: simple, subtle, a matter of appreciating the moment that is right there in front of you. It would be a shame to miss the miracle.

And who knows: I might get all of eternity to work on that jump shot.