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A Game to Grow Into

THE OTHER day I was at home, flipping back and forth between a Lakers game and a North Carolina game, when my 2 ½-year-old daughter came sprinting into the room. She slid to a halt, looked at the TV and, as if announcing the winning lottery ticket, proclaimed, "Daddy watching basketball!"

"That's right," I said. "Daddy likes basketball a lot."

She cocked her head. "Why?"

"Well," I said ... and then pondered what to say. Do I talk about watching the game or playing it? About college or the NBA? Should I use props—as any parent knows, props kill with two-year-olds—or just hand her a copy of A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee's profile of the young Bill Bradley, and tell her to get back to me in 10 years?

Or maybe I should start by telling her what it's like to fall in love with the game, as I did when I was only a few years older than she is. I could tell her about Nerf hoops, and growing up a fan of the sad-sack Warriors, and how, to a six-year-old, Julius Erving seemed more Afro-adorned god than man.

I could describe the hoop outside my parents' house, the one at the end of the narrow, slanted concrete path with a bulging hedge that, if used correctly, acted as a double-teaming defender. I could talk about shooting by moonlight, when the ball becomes a ghost hissing through the air, and about the day that all those figure-eight drills paid off and that dusty piece of leather went from stranger to friend, something to be directed, not contained.

Or I could focus on why I love the game now. I could talk about underhand scoop shots that rise like helium balloons, and the way college kids swarm the court—as if a dam had burst 60 rows up—after an upset win over a ranked team. I could tell her about nine seconds left, the floor spread and the arena roaring like a 747 as Kobe Bryant holds the ball at the top of the key, about to break thousands of hearts. I could describe how being in the bleachers at Cameron Indoor Stadium feels like surfing a tsunami and how, after a lifetime of pulling out a little pump fake to the right before shooting a jump hook, my father still does it every time he plays, not because it works (though it sometimes does) but because it's like catching up with an old friend. I could explain how March Madness has the power to propel men off bar stools as if from ejector seats and make them perform windmill high fives while yelling, "PITTT-SNOGGGGGLE!!!" And I could confess that I've spent an hour talking to someone at a dinner party and never made a true connection like the one that comes from running a seamless give-and-go with a stranger during a pickup game.

I could warn her that, sure, there are flaws in the NBA game—like thud-thudding isolation plays, and guys who can hit their heads on the rim but can't dribble lefthanded, and Timberwolves versus Clippers in late January—but all it takes to make me forget them is to watch Steve Nash make a one-handed lefty push pass through a forest of arms.

I could describe seeing a play on the highlights Saturday night, then seeing it again Sunday afternoon at the playground; or I could tell her how Ray Allen squares up on his jump shot so perfectly that, were he on sand, he would spring up and, upon returning to earth, land precisely in his footprints.

I could hold forth on reverse layups with so much spin that, when the ball hits the backboard, it shoots sideways as if yanked on a leash, and on the Nooooo! ... Yesssss! shot, and on the way bench guys stick out their arms to hold each other back, as if saving one another from oncoming traffic, because the last play was just too damn exciting.

I could tell her how the pick-and-roll might be the oldest play in the book, or even the only play in the book, and teams still can't stop it, and go on about the value of listening to Hubie Brown teach the game. ("Now you ask, What does that mean, teach the game? Uh-kay, I'm going to tell you....") And I could tell her how one day I'll sit her down to watch an old Princeton game so she can see the most beautiful play in sports, a perfectly executed backdoor cut.

I could tell her all these things, but she wouldn't understand, at least not right now. Props wouldn't help, either; even if I had Elmo running the half-court trap on our living-room rug, it would be lost on her. After all, basketball's a game you have to grow into, and with luck you'll never grow out of it.

So instead I decided on the simplest explanation. "Daddy likes basketball," I said, "because it makes him happy." I paused. "Especially when the Lakers lose."

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I could tell my daughter about underhand scoop shots that rise like helium balloons, and how college kids swarm the court after an upset win over a ranked team.