Noe Valley Voice October 1999

Two Short Stories About Basketball


1. The All-Purpose Word

I PLAY BASKETBALL every weekend morning at James Lick Middle School. It's a physical game, full of people half my age and twice my size for whom basketball is war, not fun. Every week I take a shoulder or two under my chin that brings jelly to my legs. Don't let sedate Snowy Valley fool you: this is one tough game.

I'm 53 years old. I've got no business running with these bulls. But I love it too much to quit. My wife and I moved from L.A. to Noe six years ago and the first thing I did, before finding a bank, post office, or school for my children, was ask around until I heard about a great pickup game. Everybody here feels the same way. Some of these guys have been playing every week, on this same court, for over 25 years. And some weren't even born when the game began.

A pickup basketball game is a world unto itself. You've got to learn a few rules, and the lingo. The lingo is easy: There are only two words, shee and muh. Shee is used at the beginning or end of sentences. Muh is the all-purpose word and can be used anywhere, as a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective, sometimes all in the same sentence. For example: "Yo, muh! You muh hacked my muh arm, muh! Shee!"

The rules aren't hard either. The first rule is Melvin. Melvin is 6829 and close to 300 pounds, and he's got volume. Whatever he says goes, because he will yell louder and longer than anyone else.

"Foul, Melvin."

"That was no muh foul, muh!"

"Shee, you elbowed me in the muh mouth, Melvin!"

"Elbowed you? That was just a love tap, muh! You don't want love from Melvin, you stay outside with the little people! Shee!"

A few years ago a Russian guy who didn't speak much English played with us for a few months. He kept getting everything backwards. He'd say "Hum!"

Melvin had to correct him.

"It's muh, Boris, not hum!"

"Is muh? You are sure, Melvin? Is not hum?"

"I'm muh positive, Boris! Shee!"

Boris got pretty good at it. Then one Saturday he just didn't show up anymore. Nobody knows where he went. But that's not surprising. We don't really know anything about each other, unless it relates to basketball.

Last New Year's Day I was reading the newspaper, and I saw a familiar first name -- one of the guys had committed suicide and made the front page. It was really a shock, because Hayden had been playing ball with us just a short time before he died. We still don't know what happened. If this had been a women's group we might have known all about his interior life, maybe been able to counsel him a little bit. But all I knew about Hayden was: "Likes to spin, drive, go to either hand, good rebounder." I think he had two kids, but I'm not even positive about that.

Yet it's perfectly natural to us that we know nothing about one another's families, jobs, or even last names. That's rule number two: Don't ask. It's not important. The game is what counts. Is somebody a lawyer or a security guard? Doesn't matter. Do they prefer to go left or right? Important. Are they white or black? Not important. Can you rile them up? Important. Tangibles don't matter. Intangibles do. Rolando is intense, don't mess with him. Scoop is self-conscious about being short, try to make him mad. Tico is somebody who will always take the crucial last shot, and usually hit it. Get him on your team.

They all know I'm hypersenstitive about being the oldest player on the court. I get nonstop flak about it.

"Hey, old man!"

"Muh can't hardly walk let alone dribble!"

But when I hit a sweet little jumper from the corner?

"Shee! Muh can still score, I'll tell you what!"

Saturday after Saturday. It's how we measure our years. I head for my car armed with dreams for the week, smiling like a muh.

2. Intim-muh-dation

SATURDAY MORNING basketball at James Lick Middle School is really noisy. At some point during the morning Rolando will get furious at me for something or other, which will cause Scoop to scream at Melvin and Ramon to threaten to run to his car to get his gun. It never fails. And it doesn't mean a thing. It's the way the game is played.

Intimidation is to playground basketball what sauce is to ribs. You can eat them plain but they taste a lot better with some heat. It usually starts with Melvin's face two inches from Ramon's.

"Shee, muh!"

"Say that to my face, muh!"

"Can't find your face, muh! That your face or your booty?"

"I'll muh kill you, muh!"

"I'm quakin'! You see me quakin'? Shee!"

White, yuppified 25th Street, with its manicured Victorians and tony nail parlors on Castro, looks out its Saturday morning window and isn't so sure it likes what it sees. It doesn't matter that our game is completely mixed -- Melvin, Tico, and Li are from the Avenues; Scoop, Sam the Sham, Roland, and his brother Mo all went to McAteer together; Kevin and Brian went to St. Philip's and their families have been in Noe Valley for 75 years -- the neighbors perceive what they fear the most.

So every few months a cop car pulls up with his siren on, and one or two apologetic policemen shuffle over and tell us to please remove our cars from the sidewalk. That's what the words say, anyway. The cops are usually black, and what they communicate, with raised eyebrows and shrugs, is that they understand. Our game is a lot more of a sociological experiment than the neighborhood is.

But it's not racism that's the culprit, it's muh. Muh, especially when it's shouted at top-gun level, scares the hell out of people. But it has to be screamed because the louder it's screamed, the more force it carries. In our game, the biggest guy with the loudest voice usually wins the day.

That would be Melvin. Melvin is like Teddy Roosevelt, except he speaks really loudly and doesn't need no stinkin' stick. The worst part is when he hits the winning shot.

"Yeah! Yeah! Muh Muh Muh! I told you! I told you! I am the greatest! You can't stop me! Yeah! Muh Muh Muh!"

Ramon doesn't always take kindly to Melvin's strut. Ramon is shorter but heavier than Melvin. When the two of them stand side by side, they can divert fog.

Ramon had some problems when he was younger, and he's still got the glare and the attitude. Melvin's huge and loud, but even he wouldn't like to get Ramon any madder than he has to. But they both love to goad each other right up to that point.

Ramon drives the lane. He was probably a very good player when he was a hundred pounds lighter. He spins one way, then the other, and runs right into Melvin, who is standing firmly in Ramon's path like the base of the Transamerica Building. There's a huge thud and two loud muhs. Dishes break in a few houses across Clipper Street.

"Foul, blood!"

"You got to be kidding, Ramon."

"No, I ain't kidding, Melvin muh, you hit me cross my muh arm, muh!

"That's not your muh arm, Ramon, that's your muh leg. That can't be an arm!"

"Shee! Melvin you are such a muh!"

"Shee! Ramon, you are a muh-ing muh!"

"Muh-ing muh? Why, I'll..."

The cop car spins up on 25th Street, hits his siren. Ramon and Melvin stop spitting at each other and stare across the street.

"Good morning, Officer," Melvin calls, sweetly.

"You boys okay in there? We had a few calls."

"We're doing just fine, Officer," says Ramon. "But thanks for comin'. You have yourselves a nice day."

The cops stand there a few minutes, drinking their styrofoam coffee, until we can get the game going again.

"Muhs must be out of muh donuts," says Scoop.

Doug Konecky is a songwriter, movie reviewer, essayist, and jump-shooter who lives on Sanchez. Ask him about his composition and lyric-writing workshops (, or look for him Saturday mornings lying under piles of huge people.