I REMEMBER THE MOMENT when I realized that the coronavirus was going to unsettle our lives in unexpected ways. On the evening of Saturday, March 14, I texted my friend Nate to ask if he would lace up for our regular Atwater Village basketball game the next morning. “You gonna play?” I asked.
“I probably won’t,” he responded. Had the median age of people in our game not been around 45, we might have included emojis.
Neither of us played Sunday morning, and that evening Mayor Eric Garcetti stunned L.A. by announcing the halt of dining at restaurants and the shutdown of all bars, theaters and many other businesses due to the emerging threat. From that moment on, the doors to the court we reserved each week were locked. Except for a few April and May outdoor shooting sessions with my son, I haven’t played ball with another human since then. Actually, I haven’t put up a shot since August, when I arrived one morning at a local park to see that the rims had been removed from the backboards, a response to all the unmasked games happening. It was the same at every other city-run park I visited.
We have all lost unfathomable amounts in the year of COVID-19. More than 20,000 L.A. County residents have died from complications related to the disease. Paychecks have shrunk and too many jobs have evaporated. Kids have been robbed of any semblance of normal youthful socialization because of the onset of distance learning.
The basketball that I no longer play is nothing in the grand scheme of all who have suffered. But it’s from 9-11 a.m. every Sunday that I most pine for the way things were. You can video-chat a book club or a cocktail with a friend. You can’t Zoom playing basketball.
The Sunday game has been part of my life for more than a decade, as well as the anchor of my (otherwise paltry) exercise regimen. It’s a heart-pounding full-court run, and by the end I feel sorry for the guy guarding me — not because I’ll dust him on my way to the hoop but because he may have to touch my sweat-drenched T-shirt.
To be clear, I’m not very good at basketball. I average about one three-pointer per year. A feisty jackrabbit could out-rebound me. I sometimes worry that my shot might dent the backboard.
Still, I love the game, and I play hard. I care about defense more than many weekend warriors.
I’m quick and can dart to the basket for easy lay- ups (which I still might blow). I can make myself valuable enough to belong — at least when the competition is other men in their 40s and 50s.
I miss the exercise and the competition, but what I have realized in this long year is that I also miss the moments before and after games, and the times when I take a breather and chat with guys who started as opponents and slowly became friends. After enough time the conversation extends beyond, “You see Kawhi drop 30 last night?” We’ll talk ball, but bang under the boards with a sweaty 200-pounder enough times and you lay the groundwork to discuss kids’ birthdays, work troubles, personal challenges and, well, life.
As men age it becomes difficult to build new friendships, particularly if you don’t play golf — and I abhor golf. If you’re lucky you might find common ground with someone from work or a dad at a kid’s school.The beauty of my weekly game is the game, but also the fact that I have grown friendly with people I would otherwise never meet, guys who work in a plethora of fields. Sunday basketball means exercise, but hit the court with the same dudes year after year and you develop a competitive camaraderie, something of an organic roundball community.
Like everyone, I’m waiting to get the vaccine, for life to return to normal. My kids need to be back in a classroom. My wife needs to see her friends. We all yearn to go to restaurants, movies and concerts again.
But as much as anything else, I’m looking forward to those two hours each Sunday on the hardwood. I can’t wait to get some exercise and see people I never expected to miss so much.
I’m counting down the days, though there is some trepidation. I worry that after this time away, my shot now might actually dent the backboard.