Two years ago, I took one long look in the mirror and decided to join a gym. There was nothing wrong with my shape. I was lean, just shy of invisibility. My diet was moderately healthy by Northern California standards, if inclined to favor cans of beer in large quantity and late-night taco truck offerings. My sudden craving for regular big-muscle activity was not so much about building a better physique as patching up an ailing spirit. In my mind, I’d spent three years out of college and I had little to show for it. I’d done some mildly meaningful paralegal work at reputable law firms, started a good band, and met a lovely lady. All the same, nothing I’d accomplished bore much resemblance to the high-flying post-grad fantasies I’d indulged during my college years. Those were generally quite indulgent times. The three-year mark found me in a bit of a pit, wildly anxious about the future, dizzied by seemingly limitless options, and dismayed by my own lack of focus and will. Work brought only stress. Songwriting screeched to a halt. Even quiet, early morning trips to the weekend farmer’s market — long a reliable refuge — failed to slice through the gloom. As I contemplated my frazzled visage and pale, scrawny frame in that smudged, cracked sheet of reflective glass, I chose a classic remedy — mental rehabilitation by way of physical pain in the name of manly competition. The next day, I left work early, walked several blocks to the Downtown YMCA, and handed over my debit card.
I’m not a runner. I’m not a swimmer. I’m not a biker. And I’m most definitely not willing to strap my legs and arms into a high-tech metal and plastic body-crafting torture device for the benefit of amused onlookers. I prefer proper sports. I’ve enjoyed them since I was a young boy. I can’t bring myself run or jump unless there’s a game to be played and competition is involved. While soccer proved the ideal cultural fit and baseball a casual focus for a few summers, basketball has always been the natural sport for me, the only one I’ve ever really managed to wrap my brain around as a player. Unfortunately, my growth spurt didn’t arrive until my prime formative playing years passed. It’s a great game to start in earnest at a young age in order to hone muscle memory for fundamental techniques. I played in church leagues and went to the camps but I never tried very hard because I was short and assuredly no Spud Webb. I was (and still am) a power-forward in a thin, weak frame, a truly talented Rodmanesque rebounder for my size with a streaky mid-range jumper, a few moderately effective back-to-the-basket moves, and, in the words of one acerbic teammate, “freakishly long arms” for shot-blocking. I had (and still have) no dribbling ability of any note, zero way of creating my own shots, a turtle-like capacity to accelerate in open court, and the kind of outside shot people just know not to bother guarding. By the homestretch of high school, my height finally caught up with my feet and rose a solid five inches to perhaps, on a good day, surpass six feet but, by then, the real players my age were much huger, and I’d left the passion for hoops behind for a full-time dedication to pursuits musical, bookish, and illicit.
Wearing tattered sneakers, shorts of an unfashionable length, and an avocado-green terry cloth headband, I walked into the gymnasium late on a windy Monday morning, signed up at the board, and thus kickstarted my comeback in the midst of the lunch-break crowd. The other players were largely older and thankfully, for the most part, not noticeably better than me. Tall, ungainly, and a bit heavy, a number resembled overgrown middle-school boys in ill-fitting gym class attire. Another contingent, closer to my age, clad in expensive Nike shoes, low baggy shorts, and a multitude of braces for faulty ankles, knees, and wrists, seemed bent on reclaiming the glory of high school seasons past. Over the months, I learned that truly great players will waste their time at the YMCA. The court’s a bit too small for 5-on-5 and the level of competition fluctuates wildly from heated contests almost worthy of the sport’s better angels to rough-and-tumble hackery bearing the promise of comic relief and broken noses. With a few dazzling exceptions in either direction, most people on the court have a few good moves, and that’s it. The rest is attitude. There’s the 50-year-old IT exec. sharp-shooter with a furry back and a penchant for loudly intoning bragadocious dim-witticisms upon hopping around two sets of picks (he needs at least one) to bury yet another open bank-shot. There’s the fleet-footed young attorney, a defensive ace with a disconcerting tendency to clumsily spill blood in pursuit of loose balls. The habit would be less irritating if he wouldn’t leap up with wide-eyed shock a la Tim Duncan at every cry of foul gasped through a victim’s rattled teeth. The habit would be less terrifying if he weren’t actually convinced of his own innocence. Only slightly less criminal might be the hotel manager with a shaved head and droopy wide-set eyes who swears by hefty morning doses of marijuana to improve the trajectory of his long-distance bombs. Judging by his recent performances, he may have a point, if alarmingly violent mid-game couching fits and oddly timed attacks of the giggles are prices worth paying for deadly aim.
The games start at noon and end a couple of hours later when the last few players decide to head back to work. Until then, all the hallowed cliches of amateurish gameplay are on display. Round plodding men try to play the point. Unlike Steve Nash’s magic bullets, their slo-mo no-look behind-the-back passes are more likely to sail out-of-bounds than into the sweaty palms of someone who can manage to make a lay-up, much less dunk the ball. Little guys rejoice in posting up even littler guys, throwing bony elbows and clumsy hip twists as they seek to exploit a perceived mismatch, attempting absurd interior maneuvers even Kevin McHale in his prime would have found hard to pull off. Trash-talking, especially in the later games when exhaustion inhibits actual play, is unsurprisingly rampant, even among well-educated men of advanced standing in high-powered professions. Commonly, a player on one team will encourage any number of players on the other team to head over to the Jazzercize room. Indeed, good sportsmanship is not a given. It’s not unusual for a game to end with a losing player succumbing to frustration and drop-kicking the ball full-force in the air, through the gym doors, and out into the hallway where non-participants stand, sweating, blinking calmly, caught in the crossfire en route to less unruly athletic preoccupations.
I’m not poking fun just for the sake of doing so. Instead, I’m marveling at how the YMCA pick-up tradition, despite being strange, silly, and, at times, infuriating, inhabited by its cast of absurd characters, and quietly steeped in those preposterous postured trappings of competitive sports on which only inferior players find time to focus, has somehow managed to inject a steady flow of pure pleasurable abandon into my life at a time when I’ve needed it badly. And I imagine it has done the same for others too. By now, the notion of a good workout nurturing both body and mind is familiar. Many neuroscientists tell us athletic activity releases the body’s endorphins and boosts activities in the brain’s frontal lobes and hippocampus but I suspect the people most outwardly preoccupied with the well-established mind-body connection tend to prefer engaging in solitary meditative and benevolent group exercises — they’re the long-distance runners, lap-swimmers, and yoga practitioners of the world. There might be more than a touch of zen in the sweet release and lovely arc of a perfect jumper but YMCA game bears more frequent witness to grittier moments, like frantic scrums in the wake of a bobbled pass, with knees and elbows bouncing off the hardwood like popcorn and grotesque pile-ups of uncoordinated big men under the basket, leaving behind sedan-sized slicks of sweat. Noses do, in fact, break. As do teeth. Tendons tear. Players swagger one minute and limp the next. In light of such brutality, the YMCA hoopsters can see their self-help fix couched safely in the game’s macho ethos, a far cry from the daintier routines they disdain, a way to build muscle and release tension in the middle of a workday without sacrificing pride in victory and agony in defeat.
One of my favorite players at the Y, a large jovial fellow known for showing a lot of heart on the court, was sidelined for a long time with a massive tear in his Achilles tendon. It was a serious injury that required surgery and months of physical therapy. Eventually, he returned to the gym, not to play but to jog, stretch, lift light weights, and pop over to the court just to check up on things. There’d be a game in full swing but he’d come say hi anyway, pace restlessly on the sidelines as he watched, and take a few awkward one-legged shots here and there when there was a break in the action. The game would end and someone would gently ask him how he was doing. “Oh, I’m okay,” he’d shrug, before elaborating without provocation. “I’ll be back soon though, just give me a few more months. You guys won’t know what hit you.”