They’re Playing Basketball…

…We love that basketball.

-Kurtis Blow

Hoops Trek, Part I:

I love playing basketball.

I think my affinity for basketball developed when I was young; preschool to elementary school years-young. My dad would take me to Live Oak Park in Berkeley where he would play pick-up games for hours. I would sit and watch from the side or on the bleachers for minutes at a time. Occasionally one of the guys would lift me up closer to one of the unused baskets so I could more easily toss the ball in the hoop (I was small, so making the occasional shot with both feet on the ground was less of a given, and more of a Haley’s Comet-type occurrence). More often than not, I would just go and pretend to be a wizard or a Optimus Prime on the jungle gym in the sand-covered playground off to the side of the court separated by a chain-link fence.

Yet, despite spending most of my Live Oak hours galloping around in the sand, sitting court-side watching my dad and the other guys play is still one of the memories I most associate with those years. Random moments, interesting characters, familiar sounds, and distinct scents remain deeply engraved on the stone tablet of my consciousness. It may sound strange, but nothing makes me feel more like a little kid than the smell of cigarette butts paired with the unmistakable aroma of sweat and spilled beer evaporating off of hot concrete on a hot summer day.

The cast of characters who came together to make up the weekend Live Oak basketball community could not have been more eclectic, as Live Oak Park seemed to be a point where time, space, and culture seemed to converge around one common element: half-court black-top pick-up basketball.

In retrospect, I might best describe this convergence like hippy-era Berkeley, with all of its activism and
psychedelicness meeting up with current-day Berkeley.It was where people of the more affluent Berkeley hills connected with the working-class people of the Berkeley flat-lands. It was where people of James Brown met up with people of James Taylor.

At Live Oak Park you might find the tie-dye-clad Jewish civil rights lawyer trying to post up the pint-sized Black urban high-school super-star on his way to play college ball in Arkansas, or the extremely sweaty, robust, and hairy Armenian American chef/owner of a well-known hole-in-the-wall pizza joint trying to make an entry pass while being defended by an under-sized, yet feisty Japanese Landscape Architect.

While the courts were fairly segregated–the “A” court was predominantly occupied by Black folk and a few of the more talented or more competitive non-Black players, and the other court was filled with… well everyone else (but with a decidedly tie-dye feel)–there was the occasional mixing. And despite the unspoken delineation between courts, there was clearly community amongst the players who came together at Live Oak. It was less of an “other side of the tracks” division, and more like a neighborly distinction between spaces.

The men would always gather by the bleachers off to the side drinking beer, eating peanuts, smoking cigarettes… It seemed that everyone knew everyone else, asked about each other’s lives, joked together, and talked about manly things I didn’t really understand in loud profanity laced opinionated exchanges.

Looking back, I now realized that characters at Live Oak really took care of me. Andy–who had apparently bought his nose and eyebrows at the same store Woody Allen frequented, and wore sport’s goggles and red Chuck Taylor All-Stars–would peak around the corner of the fence as I would be doing something stupid like filling my shoes with sand or pretending to fly around the playground while making jet-plane noises (“ssshhhhhhhhhoaughhhhhhh”). Dean, who never wore a shirt, and happened to be the only other Asian regular besides my dad (I remember hearing multiple guys refer to my dad and Dean as the “little ninjas.” Why do the two Asian guys have to be ninjas?), would play catch with me off to the side on occasion. I also distinctly remember a tall, rail thin, White guy with extremely short shorts, a colorful shirt, sunglasses, and a visor taking me to the Longs Drugs down the street to get beer for the rest of the guys, and a fluorescent red soda for me. He sounded like a more nasally Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now, and  while we were off to the side, he would provide commentary on my dad’s game.

"Bad things, man."

“That’s your dad, man,” he would start. Then he would drift into a stream of consciousness monologue. “That’s Tod, man… awesome. Todiovison, you know…. like his eyes are everywhere… look at him… he’s not even looking. It’s like… its like… he knows… Oh man! Tod, Tod, Todio! The hook! What a play! What-a-play… Beautiful, man…. Todiovision…”

Elongated Dennis Hopper was right, it was beautiful. Basketball was beautiful to watch, and even in a three on three half court game, there were so many details to focus on.

For a while my favorite detail was Andy. He was distinct, and I was infatuated with him. I would go through an entire game just focusing on what Andy did. In my mind, I was convinced that his goggles and antiquated red shoes were indicators of excellence, and he was the key to the game. At about five foot five, and one hundred and two pounds, soaking wet, he had a Bob Cousey set shot that was actually quite automatic when left unattended, but otherwise, he had no discernible skills. That was a disappointing realization.

I would find other things to focus on: the diversity of knee braces, the correlation between wearing pants and quality of play (pants lead to bad performance, or players who wear pants to play, tend to be awful), the connection between swearing and speed (the more a player swore on the court, the slower they became… or were).

Yet, over time, I eventually started to really observe what was going on in the game, and the reality left me in awe. I didn’t always understand why each person would do what they did on the court, but it was fascinating watching how each person would move–shadowing, twisting, mimicking, speeding up, slowing down, jumping, stopping suddenly, feinting, pushing, and each action would lead to a reaction.

Questions would linger in my mind upon observing monumental physical feats. How did he throw that ball behind his back to that other guy running towards the basket? How can he push the ball from that far away and make it fall through the hoop over and over again? How did he jump from over there, and do all that stuff with his arms while the ball was in his hands, and then land over there?

Basketball was beautiful. Basketball was connected to community. Basketball was filled with interesting characters. Basketball was the game my dad played on the weekends. As a somewhat lonely day-dreamer who wanted to do something my dad liked to do, I guess no other sport had a fighting chance of capturing my imagination.


One response to “They’re Playing Basketball…

  1. Reading this brought me back there, Simon. It amazes me how you absorbed and remember so many details about the characters at Live Oak, from their distinct mannerisms to style of talking and dress. Even though you were just a little kid, your perception of that basketball world was one of an older soul. (And I’m glad you didn’t mention that Belford actually passed out pieces of watermelon).

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