I was working off of a playground tip, and the first thing I noticed was: The gym was blue – the walls, the court – as in so much blue that when I walked out of it an hour later, the colors of the outside world didn’t seem to fit anymore. It was a Croatian who told me about the weekly pickup game, but because the men usually spoke English to each other, I gathered they came from different countries in eastern Europe.
I was wearing the jersey of a Balkan friend when I met the Croatian, and that had been my in.
I scored the first five points of the game, not so much by skill but by the fact that I happened to get the ball, and my shots happened to bounce in. The men I played with were mostly older, in their mid- to late 30s. Like typical eastern Europeans, they were quiet and reserved going up the court, maybe offering a rare slap on the back.
Except one guy.
He very well might not have been Russian, but I’m going to call him “the Russian.” He had a crew cut, and he was big and muscled – the kind of big that reminds you why you’re a literature student instead of a street fighter. They put me on his team, and I soon realized it was the price of being new.
Someone passed to me for an open shot, but the Russian suddenly turned and shouted, “Give ball.” When someone makes a request in a booming tone of such urgency, you instinctively do what they say. I passed him the ball. He then drove into the middle of a crowd and bounced it hard off the backboard. Most players would lay low after a miss like that – but not my Russian teammate.
I was barely halfway up the court when I was instructed again to give ball. After receiving said ball, he immediately put his free elbow in the air and thrust into three players below the basket, ricocheting it off the glass. I could see the resigned look in my other teammates’ eyes: Our night was over.
Once I got a defensive rebound but had the outlet pass intercepted. He shouted at me to calm down, spit flying from the edge of his mouth. Once I dropped a pass, and he roared like a beast. The rest of the game, I focused on my assigned task: I gave ball.
I see shows like Friday Night Lights where Southern high schools get exaggeratedly involved in football, but for small schools in the eastern U.S., basketball was our sport. Everyone went to the games because there wasn’t much else to do in the community. I was always nervous, as if there was something real at stake that would determine my future.
I would nearly want to go back in time, now knowing it was just a game, if not for the memory of how awkwardly I moved as a teenager. Luckily, when they published the game stats in the newspaper, they also included those who fouled out, so I always knew I could get my name in print.
There’s a travelling 3-on-3 basketball tournament that comes to a nearby town. The first few years, I played with friends my own age but, after not winning any games, they eventually quit wanting to play. To make up for it, my father got a few of his school friends, and the four of us made a team.
A team of mixed ages was rare, and they put us in a division with only players my age. None of the contests were close.
Finally, it was just my father, my uncle, my sister and I because there was no one else who would sign up with us. Our last game, we played two overweight milkmen and a son. The game was not pretty. Points were hard to come by. We were ahead 7-6 with 30 seconds left.
I was supposed to check the ball in so they could start the play. Time was winding down. I decided we needed a win more than they did, so I’m not going to apologize for what happened next.
I took the ball and wouldn’t give it back to them. After much hollering, one of the milkmen wrestled it from my arms. When he took a shot, I stood on both of his feet.
If I could assign one value to playing sports, it’s to help one realize that sometimes the things you think matter – actually don’t. Every JV player believes they’re going to be in the NBA. It takes most people until after high school to realize that they’re not. It’s easy to tell the person who gets it and the person who doesn’t because the latter plays pickup games seeking the glory he never had, taking all the shots he can as if there might be scouts watching.
The first person is more fun to play with because he’s there to have fun. He tries to get everyone involved in the game. He knows basketball isn’t life, so he can laugh at his air balls and bad passes. Everyone gets there eventually, even if for some it’s when they’re too old to run the court. Eventually everyone realizes it’s just a game – and sometimes, like life, you’re just there to give ball.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.