Now that the football season has ended for most teams, many sports fans will begin to shift their attention to basketball, the next spoke on the sports wheel of fortune that spins throughout the year. As a former hooper, I, too, look forward to the second half of the basketball season and the postseason tournaments, but I also find myself looking backwards. As I watch the games being played today, I find myself reminiscing not only about my modest high-school participation but also about the games that I played before high school in the backyard basketball courts of my youth. Five courts come immediately to mind.
Andy’s Court in the East End. I was born in the East End of Amsterdam, New York, and I lived there for about five years until we moved to Wilson Avenue which was part of the Market Hill neighborhood. Even after we moved, though, our family returned to the East End often because my grandparents still lived there, along with some aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that’s where I first remember playing backyard basketball.
My grandparents lived on Sweeney Street, so during family visits, my cousin Andy, who lived nearby, would drag me down the street a house or two to shoot hoops with some of his friends. The one-car driveway, as I recall, was extremely narrow and not paved, so it wasn’t really conducive to actual games of two-on-two or three-on-three. So, instead, we played shooting games like “21” or “HORSE,” or we simply tried to see who could make the most consecutive foul shots. Like the driveway, I was not a good fit for the game at that time either. I was tall, yes, but I was extremely thin, weak, and uncoordinated, so much so that I wasn’t even concentrating on making my shots. Quite honestly, I was just trying to hit the rim that was attached to the old garage, a rim that seemed to be a mile away. I didn’t mind missing all of my shots as long as I wasn’t being laughed at for shooting “air balls.”
Bernie’s Court on Wilson Avenue. By the time I reached age ten or so, I began playing basketball more seriously, and I played often at my friend Bernie’s house across the street. There, we typically played two-on-two with our friends Larry and Kenny, but the two-car driveway had an unusual feel to it. Again, the rim was attached to the garage, but because electrical wires ran from the garage to the house, the hoop was off center, above the garage door on the right. As a result, all the real basketball action was crammed into that one side of the court. Only Bernie’s big brother, Tim, who was three years older, was big enough and strong enough to dribble off to the left and shoot over the wires from the corner, a shot he perfected and one that earned him a spot on the varsity team at our high school.
Larry’s Court on Bunn Street. Two years later, we all had afternoon paper routes, and delivering those newspapers cut into our basketball playing time. To compensate, we shifted our games to Larry’s backyard because we could keep playing while we waited for our bundles of newspapers to be dropped off in front of Larry’s house. The court wasn’t as big as Bernie’s, but we didn’t have to deal with electrical wires; still, this court had its own idiosyncrasies. The driveway sloped downward a bit, the rim was a bit lower than the regulation ten feet, and the left side of the court looked out over a neighbor’s gardens. As a result, we spent a fair amount of time trying to see who would be the first to jump high enough to actually touch the rim, and once we started playing games, we spent just as much time chasing errant passes that flew over the small fence and into the vegetables and flowers below. Who actually chased all those errant passes? We had a rule for that. According to Larry, who was the first in our group to learn how to swear, “Whoever s*its it, gets it.”
Mike’s Court Next Door. When we hit high-school age and earned our spots on either the freshman or junior varsity teams, we had to give up our paper routes because they conflicted with team practices. Also, since we were a bit bigger and stronger, we were finally allowed to play with some of the older boys in the neighborhood. Thus, we left Larry’s court and began to play next door to my house at Mike’s court when some of his varsity friends came to play. We were typically overmatched by these juniors and seniors, but the better competition was good for us, and the court was our best one yet: a wide-open, freshly-paved, two-car driveway with an unobstructed hoop attached to the garage at the appropriate height. We played many games there, and I gradually developed a little hook shot which allowed me to score some points against these tougher kids who tried to use their muscle to push this still skinny kid away from the rim.
Jim’s Court. Finally, during the summer before my sophomore year, the Madison Square Garden of backyard courts opened for business in my very own backyard. My dad had previously knocked down the big, old barn that stood on the property. Then, he paved over the area where the barn had stood, and he installed two large, curved, metal posts, set back from the court just a bit, to hold the backboard and rim, the first backyard court we played on where the rim was not attached to a garage. That meant we no longer had to run into the garage, or into the garage doors, after shooting a running layup. In addition, my dad also put up a large spotlight, so we could play at night, he put in a small water fountain near the back porch of our house, and he placed a wooden picnic table nearby, as well. Once word got out that the new court was ready, everyone wanted to come by and play. During especially busy days, we’d have games going on at our court and at Mike’s court next door, and every spring during Easter vacation, we actually hosted the LaBate Invitational Tournament: a double elimination event with 16 two-man teams. The atmosphere was electric as the overactive hormones of all these young boys crashed into one another and exploded on the court.
I can’t help but smile as I remember those bright, spring days, days full of excitement and optimism and unlimited possibility. We were all so young and so full of energy. Today, my 67-year-old bones creak and ache, and the idea of shooting hoops in someone’s driveway sounds more frightening than inviting. Still, when I drive through a neighborhood today and I see the kids playing, or even when I watch the games on television, I smile again — and I remember.