THERE'S A PARTICULAR type of shot you see the old guys put up at the local gym, a flat set number from about 10 feet, cringingly awkward and graceless. The ball clanks off the rim like a cinder block; an ugly afterthought of a shot attempt. In my youth, we called attention to such shots, usually jacked up by older men in knee-high tube socks and running shoes. After they left the court, we would dodder around, mimicking their awkwardness, accepting as baseless fact that our jump shots would never get that pathetic. It seemed clear to us that we would always have the time to play ball and get better as we went along. We weren't going to let our skills, as slight as they might have been, slip away from us.
Okay, so here's the thing about being young and arrogant: Payback's a bitch. I'm just beginning my thirties, but I can already detect certain things affecting my game. I can't jump, for one thing. Never a soaring player, now I'm rooted to the ground like a Ficus tree. My release is getting all gummed up. One day during the summer I got my basketball out of the closet for the first time in months and went to the local court to shoot some jumpers, just to see what I still had. Shots were scattering all over the place, I was tripping over my own feet after rebounds, blowing lay-ups left and right. I couldn't hit worth a damn, and worse yet, the little punks on the next court were checking me out with big, sloppy grins on their faces. It began to dawn on me that my game, such as it was, had moved on and left no forwarding address.
OUR PRODUCT IS not teaching people how to play basketball," Glenn Millar tells me. "It's giving people a second chance." Until recently, Millar was the president and CEO of Hoops University, a now-defunct program that gave adults the chance to re-learn their games, get in touch with their old jockish selves, and generally have a good time messing around on a basketball court again.
When we first meet, at the JCC at River and Dodge, practice is going on all around us. Older men and women are running motion offense drills, practicing low post moves. We have to move upstairs to the mezzanine just so we can hear ourselves over the din. Millar himself is a young-looking man in his mid-thirties with dark brown hair and the demeanor and bearing of a born enthusiast. Apparently, though, he couldn't play a lick. "I was the worst ballplayer in the entire world," he assures me. "I was a two-handed shooter, I didn't know where to stand. To me it looked like everyone was just running around, so that's what I did. It's not an easy sport."
Being enterprising, Millar took his disappointing basketball experience and turned it into a business, helping other people get their game back together. "It's much more of a psychological thing than physical," he tells me. "Here, people come to a non-intimidating place where they're with people of their own level. They don't have to worry about being embarrassed--they can throw up an air ball and it doesn't bother anybody. What we're really selling is a chance to get away from the old demons, if you will." It's a convincing case. I sign up for what turns out to be Hoops University's last class.
SHON NEAL IS one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet. He's soft-spoken, good-natured, the type of man you instantly trust and feel comfortable around. He's also built like a Frigedaire and sets a mother of a pick. I discover this the first night of class. We're running a little 3-on-2 drill, offense/defense. I'm trying to stick to my man and Shon moves to the top of the key, blocking me out of the way. Well, actually, flattening me out of the way. I'm on my butt, my ears ringing. Somewhere off in the distance I'm dimly aware of my man scoring an uncontested lay-up. "I'm sorry about that," Shon says, with genuine concern. I can't move my lips to answer him.
The class I'm in (advanced level) is broken down this way: 16 men, one woman, two coaches. We've got all types here: slick ballhandlers, imposing centers, fast players, slow players; but we're all missing something, and, as if in a giant pawn shop, we're negotiating to get that piece back. The coaches sit us down after the first practice and give us a standard pep talk. Tom Matthews is the older coach, a little grizzled, with a handlebar mustache and glasses. Ken Urdahl is young, a little more saucy. Both have coached high schools. Tom is retired for the time being; Ken is coaching women's ball at Green Fields Country Day School. We're invited to go around the circle and talk a little about why we're here.
A lot of similar stories, people just wanting to get back into shape, get their games together. They'd all played before, had a lot of fun doing it, and now, for whatever reason, they want it back again. The lone woman, Robin Bennett, turns out to have been an all-state player her senior year in high school, some years before. She's finally ready to get back to playing again. Shon is one of the last to speak. He's quiet, you have to listen hard to catch what he's saying. It turns out he wants to be able to keep up with his kids, to show them their old man can still play this young man's game.
THE NEXT WEEK Shon's 6-year-old son, Shon C., is at practice, bouncing around one of those old multi-colored ABA balls and checking out his pop. Having little Shon around apparently juices Papa Shon more than usual: He's unstoppable. He rebounds over three of us at a time, scores on everyone. At one point, during a lull in the scrimmage, Shon C. runs out onto the court yelling "Alright, Daddy," and Papa beams. Every parent on the court smiles a little at the scene, at their own recognition. They all want to be able to show their sons and daughters they can still play.
Later, Shon tells me a little story about his son. "One night he was sitting at dinner and asked me, 'When I get older, are you going to look the same?' He wants me to be on his team when he grows up, but he wants me to be the same as I am now. I said, 'I'm going to try.' "
In the beginning of the program the quality of play is pretty ugly, which is typical. The class is eight weeks long, culminating in a round robin tournament, the first and only time we really get to play each other through an entire game. That's what we're working toward, but it doesn't exactly come easily to us. The first couple of weeks we spend just getting comfortable with the drills. There are a lot of turnovers, thrown-away passes, nasty-looking shots, but true to Glenn's word, the class still feels relaxed. Part of it is we're all roughly in the same place. There aren't any players hugely better or worse than anyone else.
After a couple of sessions, different personalities begin to emerge. Jonathon Reich is an attorney downtown. To see his game, you'd swear he'd be a Celtics fan: He passes, rebounds, plays scrappy defense, dives for loose balls. It ain't the prettiest thing, but it is effective. "That's my game," Jonathon tells me after practice. "I don't care if you block my shot, I'll just pick it up and try again."
I ask him whether he cares if he scores in a game. "Nah," he says, shrugging his gym bag to his shoulders, "as long as I'm contributing other things, picks, rebounds, I don't mind."
By the fourth week of class, I'm definitely improving, but aggravatingly, every night of practice I get injured in some way: One week I twist my ankle, the next week I pull a groin muscle, another week a ball slaps me in the face so hard I get a dual fat lip. I've never been so banged up from playing basketball. After the fat lip incident, I sub out and sit down next to Mark Fishbein, who's nursing his sore knee, to commiserate in pain.
He's also an attorney, with his own practice, but he couldn't be more different from soft-spoken Jonathon. He's one of those zealous, loudmouth guys, hyped up beyond measure. On the court, he's a relentless cheerleader for his team. When someone makes a shot, he screams "Nice basket!" and claps his hands together; 42 going on 12. He rankles the bejeezus out of you if you're playing against him, and gets you fired up if he's on your team. In eight weeks of playing, we're almost never on the same team.
Mark has a bad knee, he's had multiple operations on it, and still another coming in the spring. He thinks this is his last go-round for basketball, a sport he dearly loves. Talking with him on the sidelines, he's more settled down, tranquil, a busy man taking some time out from a crammed schedule to have some time to himself. "Gets me out of the home," he says, "gives me a regimen to get away from the office and spend some time for myself. When I was younger I took for granted that I would be able to play ball all the time, now I'm lucky if I get two or three hours a week."
As he speaks, his eyes scan the game up and down the court, and when one of his teammates makes a play he cheers out to them. "I don't know how much more I have in me," he continues. "If they take out that cartilage, I won't be able to play anymore. I can't do the things I used to do, but that's okay. I can appreciate just being here." After practice I watch him walk painfully over to the bleachers, wrap up his knee and hobble out.
BY THE SIXTH week, we've all made major progress. The passes are better, we're starting to work well together as a team. This is just what the coaches stress. Ken, the younger coach, is particularly animated on this subject, "I would rather have five players going for every loose ball, trying to take charges," he says, "than some flashy guy who can score a lot. He can sit down next to me."
One night we're a little undermanned and Ken agrees to play in the game with us. Mark, in particular, delights in taking the opportunity to get in his face and woof a little, bump him around, but Ken is mostly implacable. I ask him about that later and he smiles. "I just take it in stride," he says.
The coaches have a difficult job. These are not high-school kids, wanting to be on the team badly enough to do what they're told; they're adults with big, brutish adult egos, but Ken and Tom both seem to manage things well. Not everyone listens, but it doesn't seem to bother them much. "People develop habits that are hard to lose," Tom explains after class one night. "When they get older they've practiced bad habits for so many years, they're hard to break."
I can attest to that point. I've always had a pretty weak dribble. I've been stripped more times than Shannon Tweed, yet because it was the weakest link in my game, I rarely worked on it, afraid to display my ball-handling incompetence to any living soul, including my own. The class is a place, however, where you're greatly encouraged to focus on your weak points, and I make the most of the opportunity. By the seventh week, I have a competent right and an improving left. The crossover still needs work, but it's definitely a jump forward.
Other players have improved as well. Jonathon, for one, has increased his range of shot and gotten better at bringing the ball up; Shon has improved his low-post moves; everyone is in noticeably better shape. But no one seems to have improved more than Robin. In the early weeks, she admits to being "greatly intimidated" in a class entirely comprised of men, but by the seventh week, her competitive fire seems to get the better of her and she plays with more confidence and all-around feistiness. In one series, she takes the ball up the court, drives on her man and sticks a jumper in his face as he tumbles to the ground.
After the game I go over to tell her it was a sweet shot, but she just shrugs. "Yeah," she says, "but after that one he told me next time he wasn't going to let me drive on him again." She starts to walk away and then adds, "But I don't know how much of that was just to save face."
THE LAST WEEK is the tournament. We're divided up into two separate teams of about eight each and have at it. To look at the squads, I would guess my team is clearly better off, but surprisingly, we lose the first game. As a class, things have progressed nicely from that first rough week. As the coaches watch, we run reasonable fast breaks, pass decently, set picks for each other. The second game we pull away early and make short work of it. This sets up a deciding game three.
I should say at this point, with the pressure on me, I couldn't throw the ball into the ocean from the Queen Mary. After I fire up an awful three point attempt that's so off line it smacks the side of the backboard, I finally decide I've choked enough for one evening. Rather than pout, however, I take a page from Jonathon's book and concentrate on everything else. Playing defense, rebounding, setting up someone else to shoot.
The last game is just as it should be. We play for about 40 minutes to a dead heat at game point. We're all getting tired now, the coaches have collected all the other balls and are waiting somewhat impatiently for us to finish up so we can all go out, have a beer or two and go home. But it won't end. We fruitlessly shoot shot after shot, missing left and right. The last point hangs over our heads like a distant star; no one seems able to sink it. A player for our team decides to take matters into his own hands and begins to launch a barrage of three pointers that clank off the rim.
Fifteen minutes later, we're still deadlocked. The coaches are desperate. "Someone score," Ken yells. "We've got to go." And it still doesn't happen. For every breakaway, or thrown pass, there is someone willing to hustle down court to play defense. It becomes ridiculous, but neither team wants to give an inch. Finally, after we miss another fast break chance, someone from the other team rebounds the ball and looks to clear it down court. Instead, Robin runs up to him, rips the ball out of his hands and passes it underneath for a final, blessedly uncontested basket. We win, but it's more than a mere victory; we're all aglow knowing that we've fought like hell.
Faith is a funny thing; I would never want to see that game on video tape, but in memory, I'll always be proud to have played it. A bunch of old-timers playing serious ball in the last game of Hoops University's existence.
Afterwards, there are smiles and pats on the back. We pass our phone numbers around for various league-ball possibilities. There is the genuine sentiment that we'd all like to play with each other again, soon. People head out, yakking about this or that shot. Shon picks up little Shon and puts him on his shoulder, little Shon's hand resting on his father's head. It's late, we all want to go home, but I want to ask Robin about her play, the steal that essentially won the game for us. She smiles at me. "You know that was my forte in high school," she says. "I led the league in assists and steals, so it was no surprise to me that was the way the game ended."
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