On basketball dreams and the courts of youth

When I was a kid, I would go to basketball camp every summer. I dreamed that if I worked hard enough on my skills, I might have a future in the game. Not in the NBA, or even at the college level; I was never the type of kid who allowed myself to dream quite that outlandishly. But I thought maybe, if I just put in enough work, I could at least play high school ball, maybe do something special on that level.
As the years went by, that dream faded. By the time I got to high school, I was already slow and overweight, with bad knees and even worse natural vision. I tried out for my high school team, but my cut was a foregone conclusion. I played a couple more years of organized basketball, then the occasional pick-up game, but I haven't gotten in a full run in years, and hadn't set foot on a court with a ball in hand since 2008.

Until today.

I had a doctor's appointment this afternoon, at which I was expecting some not so good news. I didn't get it. I wouldn't say I got good news -- I'm still a badly out-of-shape 31-year-old with two bad knees, an arthritic hip and more excess weight than Shawn Kemp after a 10-year lockout -- but when you've braced for the worst, anything less than that seems like the best. For some reason, in response to this, I was struck with the sudden urge to grab a basketball and head to a court.

And that's when it hit me: all my courts are gone.

Growing up, I played basketball in countless gyms, various parks and, on one crazy evening, the same arena where I'd first seen Larry Bird play (no, not The Garden, the Hartford Civic Center, as strange as that may seem). But there were two courts where I played most often. Well, in all honesty, calling them courts is generous.

The first was the driveway at my childhood home. Baseball may be the American pastime, but for me there's nothing in sports quite as American as a basketball hoop nailed up to a garage. The one at my house had a soft rim, a wooden backboard with flaking paint, and was probably a foot higher than regulation, but it was my hoop.

The driveway was shared with our neighbors, which meant when they weren't home, I had all kinds of extra room to practice my long-distance jumpers, but when their cars were there, I had to hustle for every rebound. On top of that, the driveway was sloped downhill, and if a long rebound wasn't chased down, the ball would eventually bound into the street, then, if I was really unlucky, down the driveway across the street, which also went downhill, and ended in a retrieval that was more than a full court away and a solid 30 feet below rim level. That downhill driveway probably contributed more to my hustle on the court than any coach's encouragement.

Even though the driveway was repaved a few years ago, I can still mentally pinpoint the two horizontal tar lines that ran parallell to the garage. The closer one was what me and my friends used to mark free-throw distance, even though in reality it was probably only about 12 feet from the rim. The further one was our three-point line, though again it was more like 18 feet. Still, the day I hit a running hook shot from "three-point" range was one of the highlights of the pickup games of our youth.

The "three-point" line was even less accurate at the other court I grew up on, at the backyard of my friend Phil's house. Again, "court" isn't really the appropriate term, especially since it wasn't even an asphalt driveway, but a cement patio. But when his mother had an adjustable hoop installed at the edge of the patio, it turned into our Madison Square Garden. We'd lower the hoop to seven feet to have dunk contests, where I usually played the role of Shaquille O'Neal -- two hand power jams to try and tear the rim down.

The court itself was tiny, which didn't matter much when we were in elementary school, but definitely became a detriment as we grew older. But when we were on it, it didn't matter that it was basically three-point distance from end to end, or that it was barely wider than a regulation FIBA trapezoid. The quirkiness of our court only led to creativity when it came to house rules: throwing the ball off the back of the garage counted as "passing" the ball, and allowed you to re-establish your dribble; stepping over the line where the stairs from the house ended was an intentional foul, which resulted in a one-and-one, and was the best way to prevent your opponent from shooting 3s in an attempt to come back (and yes, we played by 2s and 3s, despite all pickup courts on the planet going by 1s and 2s). Even the tree that overhung the court became part of the game. We called it "Dikembe", and if you could funnel your man toward the tree defensively, you picked up a great shot-blocking weapon.

Neither Phil nor I live in our childhood homes anymore. My parents took down the hoop from their garage years ago, and if Phil's hoop is still up, it's probably in disrepair -- it was in bad shape as I was finishing college, which is around the last time I was over there.

After my doctor's appointment, I grabbed a basketball and drove around for a bit, just looking for a court where I could take a couple shots. I had no delusions of jumping into a game, or even playing a little one-on-one. I just wanted to stand at the free throw line, look at the basket, and pretend it was my old driveway for just a minute. I finally found one, and when I got there, I lined up and started my free throw routine -- three dribbles, two spins, line up my index finger with the air hole, same as it's been since I was 8 years old -- and then I looked down. And just for a brief second, the white stripe of the free throw line looked like black tar. And I thought, maybe I have a future in this game after all.