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By Doug Konecky
In August 1993, my wife and daughter and I pulled up roots in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco. After loading into our 100-year-old home in Noe Valley, the first thing I did was look for a local pickup basketball game. Anyone who is a devoted baller like I am will understand that finding a new local game was more important to me than learning where the grocery store was.
When I walked onto the asphalt outdoor courts at James Lick Middle School on the first Sunday after our move, I was joining a work-in-progress, a game that had been a fixture on weekends since the late '70s. The guys played on both Saturdays and Sundays, and started early -- if you weren't there by 7:30 a.m., you'd miss the first game. I sat down on the wooden bench, watched a few minutes, and decided I was probably good enough to play.
"Where you from?" someone asked.
"L.A.," I said, not realizing yet what a bad answer that was.
Then, my very first shot in my very first game got swatted hard left by a gust of wind and missed everything -- the rim, the net, the basket, the pole -- and rolled all the way down to the school building, bounced through the gate, and continued down 25th Street, where it lodged under a car.
I had to chase the ball down, then run back with it, red-faced. "Don't shoot no jumpers into the wind," someone said. "This ain't L.A."
Sunday was less intense than Saturday. It took me a while to work up to playing on Saturday, where the players were younger, the games were tougher, the trash-talking more constant, and disagreements on the court occasionally threatened to lead to altercations off the court. But we were all younger then.
Actually, I wasn't. I was 48 years old in 1993, and most of the other players were in their 20s. I could still move pretty well and had the advantage that nobody knew my game yet, so I could fool 'em with a crossover dribble and finish with my left hand. It became obvious very quickly, though, that if I were to compete with these guys I would have to outrun them.
That's when my bicycle regimen began, which I have kept up to this day. I hate it like liver. The only good thing about riding up Sanchez is that Noe is worse. But while it has been deflating to watch my basketball skills deteriorate year after year, one after the other -- passes bounce off my fingers, I dribble the ball off my foot, I can barely outjump a cranberry scone -- the one thing that has kept me on the court is that I am in better aerobic shape than most of the other guys. I'm still short and pathetic, but I don't get tired.
For more than a decade, faces changed but the core remained. There was a rotating mix of perhaps 25 guys, some who showed up as religiously as if they were going to church, and some who might come one week out of four. These were blue-collar guys: Muni drivers, house painters, truck drivers, night watchmen -- plus a few lawyers and teachers, a manager of a cheese steak shop, and one entertainment writer for America On Line.
That was me. Sometimes I'd try to talk about movies I'd just reviewed, but I was always the only guy who had seen Sideways. Nobody missed Zodiac Killer, though, or anything with Lethal in the title.
But all of this is in the past. Now, the deeply gouged asphalt courts at James Lick, where you could hear the foghorns blow a true B-flat when the wind rushed in from the north, have turned quiet on weekend mornings. After close to 30 years, our basketball game appears to have fluttered, sputtered, and died.
Why? When people first started playing ball, most lived in the neighborhood, or Eureka Valley, the Haight, or the Western Addition. Several of the black guys had gone to McAteer High School, and quite a few of the Irish and Filipino guys had gone to elementary school at St. Philip's. A few were already minor playground legends in the Mission or in the Panhandle, but since we were all average-sized people, the smallest maybe 5'6" and the tallest 6'3", nobody dominated every week. Everyone got a chance to be the hero once in a while. Even me.
Once, in a tie game, I stole a pass and flew up the court on a fast break, with only Greek George between me and the basket. Just as I was ready to spring to shoot, my back foot caught in the uneven asphalt, which pushed my weight to my front foot. To keep from falling over, I had to hesitate and double-clutch before I kissed the ball off the metal half-moon backboard and into the basket to win the game. Greek George shook his head disbelievingly and said, "You'd better put that shot into Doug's private highlight reel."
I did. I can still see that sweet move in my mind's eye, and it has never lost an ounce of sugar.
But Greek George is gone. He left with quite a few of the guys, like Jump-Shot Joe, Left-Hand Reb, Bicycle Ike, Big Lou, Tall T and his brother Quick Nick, Tommy the Carpenter, and both Eddies (Eddie Comcast and Eddie Jazz), after a few maybe-yes, maybe-no incidents.
I say maybe-yes, maybe-no because when black guys and white guys play ball together, there can be racial undertones. But that doesn't make every incident a racial one. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
It's true that the young guys picked on the old guys, but that was natural. And Scoop used to accuse me of fouling black guys harder than I fouled white guys, which was pretty funny since I fouled everyone all the time. It was the only way I could stop them.
It was just ball. Our games were loud and confrontational and some guys got sick of it. But I loved it. The work-in-progress worked, and we all made progress. We were a piece of each other's puzzle for a few hours each week, and most of us couldn't live without one another. Everyone played to win. Guys got hot and said stuff, but it wasn't personal.
Cultural differences were only a small part, though. People got older, and started to have kids, and it was becoming impossible to buy a home or rent a larger apartment in the area. Gary, The Counselor, Scoop, and Maurice moved to the East Bay; Robby to Pacifica; Terrence to Marin; Evan to Daly City. Big Muh Melvin had a few struggles and disappeared entirely, and Tico moved all the way out to Antioch.
For a time, most guys kept coming in on weekends to play, but not every week. LaRon was working at least two jobs and never had time to play anymore. Ryan and Vance and Vegas Pete got hurt. New Mike had to give up his car. S.J. started bringing his kids, but he couldn't do that every week. Soon, Sunday disappeared entirely, and we were down to playing only on Saturday. Then there was the Christmas tree fiasco.
Every holiday season, the school rented our basketball courts to Delancey Street to sell Christmas trees, so the school could take in some badly needed cash. Delancey Street workers would pound huge stakes into the asphalt to hold their tents. So we couldn't use our courts from November to New Year's. Afterwards, the asphalt was cracked badly, and the school never had the money to fix it. The rainy season began, the condition of the courts deteriorated further, and the painted white lines became obliterated.
One January we brought in white paint and concrete patch. We fixed the court and repainted the lines. The next week we arrived to be faced by school officials demanding to know who had worked on their court. When we told them we had repaired the court ourselves at no cost to them, we expected they'd thank us. Instead, they told us we had broken the rules, and if we ever did anything like that again, we would be barred from using the playground.
It rubbed everybody wrong. "This kind of thing, it's why we moved," some of the East Bay guys said. "What if one of the school kids broke an ankle?"
Also, the neighbors complained all the time. They said it was because we parked on the sidewalk, but that wasn't it. What it was really about was volume. The neighborhood was sleepy. Big Muh Melvin and Ramon el Grande defied nap time.
Melvin and Ramon believed He Who Yells Longest and Loudest Wins. They were big men, and neither had been wrong a day in his life. If those two started yipping at each other, neither would back down. As the noise got louder and louder, windows along 25th and Clipper streets would pop open. Twenty minutes later, a police cruiser would roll up, and two officers would walk onto the court. The cops were usually apologetic about asking if we could please be more respectful of the neighborhood. We'd agree, and the game would go on. But I suspect a few of our guys never felt comfortable with even the mildest confrontation with a uniformed officer. Maybe yes, maybe no.
We also desperately needed infusions of young guys. But when they came, they were either hothead punks who wanted to fight more than play or really good players who found us boring. Once, one of our guys brought a high school kid he was mentoring. The kid was 7 feet tall. He wore a little beanie on top of his head, but I could barely see it. He would hold the ball up in the air with one hand while everyone ran around in a circle trying to do something about it. Then, he'd turn, smile, and drop the ball in the basket. He never came back either.
Too much arguing, guys getting older, guys getting hurt, guys moving away: it all added up. We tried moving the start time up to 8 a.m., and then to 9. Soon we were down to 10 or 12 guys, and then only eight or nine. You can play with eight, but it's not as much fun as with 10.
Then, The Counselor hooked on with Muni. As a new driver, he had to work Saturday mornings. That was the last straw. Soon, only four or five would show up, not enough to play. And by this spring, I would ride my bike down on Saturday morning and there would be nobody there but me.
Which is how it's been since April. Here it is almost November, and I still pedal down to Lick every Saturday at the beginning of my bike run, hoping I'll turn onto 25th Street and see the cars double-parked on the sidewalk, smell the weed, and hear the laughter. But I never do.
I've got "Doug's Private Highlight Reel." I suspect all the guys do, too. All it takes is one or two great shots a year, and you've got quite a collection. You play each shot over and over as you fall asleep at night.
I'd rather be playing ball, but the courts are empty. We're like Herb's Fine Foods. It's over.
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Doug Konecky is a writer, songwriter, and musician, who lives with his wife Barbara on Sanchez Street. He is currently finishing a collection of short stories entitled "The Rabbis of Bangkok."