Because he didn't live with us, my dad didn't know the full extent of my passion for basketball. There was irony in that, because he had been the one to ignite my interest in the first place, having taken me to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in 1968, the year they began to get good again. By the time of my 14th birthday, on April 11,I had been playing basketball for more than a year, and the Knicks, with DeBusschere, Reed, Frazier, Bradley and Barnett, were on a run that would culminate in 1970 with the first NBA championship in the franchise's history.
Like most city kids, I played outdoors—in the schoolyard and in the public playgrounds around my Greenwich Village neighborhood—shooting at net-less rims and playing through rain and sometimes well into darkness. At 5'5" and possessed of ability not nearly equal to my imagination, I could never crack the full-court games that were ruled by the older, bigger kids. I had to be content with playing at a single basket with others my size and a few bigger kids who were waiting to get into "the real game."
The real game. The distance I felt from that could not diminish quickly enough. It took too long to grow older, and taller...so I inveigled a leather basketball from my father for my birthday—the same ball used in the NBA—as if somehow that would close the gap.
In the sporting goods store where Dad and I went to make the purchase, the salesman tried to steer me toward the top-of-the-line rubber ball, an "official" Spalding Bill Sharman model. "If you play outdoors, it's the only way to go. A leather ball won't last two weeks on asphalt," the salesman said.
We were standing in front of the shelves on which the store's stock of basketballs was displayed. Brooding, I ran my fingers over the Spalding Official NBA Game Ball. The leather had a pebbly, smooth surface that seemed opulent. "Where would you use it?" my dad asked.
I shrugged, continuing to caress the leather ball as if it were the furry head of a pup in a dog pound. "I'd find someplace."
He shook his head, baffled by my impracticality. "Well, it's your birthday," he said.
So I was delivered home carrying the weight of indulgence (about 1¼ pounds, fully inflated). My mom, who knew how deep my passion for basketball ran (even if she didn't understand it), tried to muster the proper enthusiasm as I turned the ball around and around like a globe of the world.
For the next few days, when I got home from school, rather than going right back out to one of the neighborhood playgrounds, I went up to my room to commune with my new ball. Spinning the leather Spalding through my hands, I marveled at its perfect balance, the gummy channel dividing the brownish-orange leather crescents, the legal-looking writing and insignia.
Props were added over the course of a week. I fashioned a rim out of two wire coat hangers and spent hours weaving a net out of household string. Then I jammed the finished product into a crack over the closet door, chipping away the paint. After dinner I would tune in the Knicks game on the radio, riding Marv Albert's voice as in a dream, anticipating each move as if I were in the booth broadcasting the game myself. "Frazier dribbles right, top of the key, spinning toward the baseline, he drives...yessss! And it counts!"
Sometimes I would go to the foul line, a spot I had marked out five feet back from my closet door, next to my dresser, take a deep breath and look up at the coat-hanger rim. With the radio roar of the crowd swelling in my brain, I would deliberately bounce the ball, once, twice, three times—boom, boom, boom—before I took the shot.
My mother exhibited tolerance that I have only recently come to appreciate. It must have been very difficult for her, my father not around and she having only the vaguest notion of what this obsessive activity was all about. But she did not pester me as the thundering emanations from my room continued. Her forbearance only came to light when our landlord, who lived a full two floors beneath my room, knocked in distress at the door one night and inquired as to why "the whole house was shaking."
Chastened, I stopped dribbling. By then I was nearly desperate to try out the ball in its natural habitat anyway, and I came up with an inspiration: I would rent a gymnasium.
The Yellow Pages yielded little to start. I found nothing under "Gymnasiums," and the YMCA did not rent its facilities to private parties. But I was dogged, and finally I found a place on West 13th Street called the Evangeline Residence for Women that had a basketball court that could be rented in two-hour time blocks for $40. The weekends were booked solid for months, but there had been a cancellation for a Saturday two weeks away and I took it.
As difficult as obtaining my gym was, filling it was even tougher. Somehow nobody I knew shared my zeal for the game. The four bucks apiece I asked my pals to cough up didn't help either. But I wheedled and bullied until the last holdout agreed to play—and pay—if only so I would leave him alone.
The rest of my preparations were as elaborate as some people's wedding plans. I rated each participant's basketball skills, as a way of dividing the teams evenly. I drew up a game program using a ruler and variously colored Flair pens, naming the teams the Knicks and the Lakers and, without any sense of irony, listing our heights.
Then I dragged my mother into the picture, getting her to help me stencil my name and the number 10 (Walt Frazier's number) on a Fruit of the Loom tank top. She was amused by my single-minded-ness, although less so when I informed her that she was going to be the game's official scorekeeper. "Can't you get your father to do that?" she protested. "I'm not even sure of all the rules."
The fact that my mother and father were both going to be at the game was the cause of some excitement and nervousness for me. They had been divorced long enough by then (six years) that I harbored no illusions of their ever getting together again, and yet I couldn't remember the last time they had spent more than the obligatory few minutes talking in a doorway when I was being picked up or dropped off.
By the appointed Saturday morning, I was a wreck of nervous energy. Breakfast (prepared by my official scorer) was an impossible chore. I moved my eggs around on the plate with a fork and implored my mother to get dressed.
My father was the first to join us at the Evangeline Residence. I saw him approaching slowly from down the block, and even from a distance I could see that all was not well with him. It wasn't until he got closer and smiled that the problem was defined: His left cheek was distorted, puffed out like a chipmunk's. "Wizzum toof," he mumbled, smiling grotesquely.
I was vaguely aware of an increased anxiety, as though he might not stick around to watch me play or might be less focused than I wanted. In fact, his condition seemed to make him and my mom more relaxed; she could express an easy sympathy and he could accept it. It also meant they wouldn't have to spend too much time in conversation.
With him on hand, I had merely to worry about the arrival of my nine reluctant friends. They had me sweating it down to the last minute, but they eventually straggled in, every last one, and they seemed genuinely enthusiastic, too (except for the money).
At last we proceeded downstairs to the basketball court, a gloomy cavern with overhead lights in protective metal cages. My mother and father sat up on a balcony walkway, 15 feet above court level, while down below we began to warm up, all 10 of us at one basket because we had only one ball.
At last the game began, and I could scarcely soak up the richness of its elements. While everyone ran up and down the floor, I was thinking, "Oh, God, this is just like a real game." There were the glossy wooden floor and the twine nets and the Official NBA Game Ball. Sneakers squeaked and the ball pounded the boards with a hollow ring. Then it was passed to me, as if from a different dimension, and I found it slick, hard to hold. My legs felt clunky and spastic. I took a wild shot that hit the backboard like a brick.
After a couple more times up and down the court, however, I had worked up a sweat. My stomach had calmed, my legs worked. The ball came to me again. I bulled to the baseline, put a head and shoulders fake on my man and, as he left his feet, curled around him to lay the ball in off the backboard with English.
Backpedaling down the court on defense, I looked up to the balcony for my parents' reaction. My father's expression was unfathomable behind his swollen cheek, and my mother's head was bent to her task as she scribbled away intently in the scorebook.
Several more such furtive glances failed to satisfy me, and at the half (marked by my mother's faint cry of "Time!") I made a trip up to their perch, ostensibly to check on my stats, but really so I could accept whatever compliments they might send my way.
The two of them were engaged in a conversation about Demerol, of which my father had taken plenty for his pain. It had evidently turned him slightly dopey. He talked in thick, slagging tones, his left cheek a bumpy balloon.
I stood there, my shirt matted to my hollow chest, the Magic Marker ink from my homemade number blurring at the edges. "What did I shoot?" I asked.
They broke off talking, and my mother studied the notebook on her lap. "Your side is leading by three baskets, and you've made five baskets."
"Did you see that shot I made with my left hand?"
"I think so," she said uncertainly, looking to my father for support.
He nodded that he had seen it.
My mother made a familiar lip-smacking sound, which always signaled that she had something on her mind that couldn't be restrained. I was all too eager to hear. "Do you always stoop so much when you're playing?" she asked.
I opened my mouth in disbelief.
"It's just that I don't think it's terribly good for your posture."
My father laughed, though he stopped abruptly to finger his swollen cheek. Down below, the ball was bouncing again. I told my mother I'd give her the signal for the clock, then galloped down the stairs.
In the second half the score tightened, and in the heat of battle my field of vision narrowed. I whipped a pass, cut around a pick, shuffled left, raced right, circled back to the left, panting all the while. Sweat dripped down my forehead, burning my eyes. I bent over, hands on knees, sucking in air. Someone on my team went up for a shot and missed, and I fought for the rebound. The ball was tipped, then tipped again. I snatched it with two hands and went back strong for the deuce.
Loose as a scarecrow, I skipped backward up the court, arms extended to slap five, forgetting to look up to the balcony. Forgetting, in that moment, everything but the game.