Commentary

During the pandemic, there are no winners in pickup basketball

Here’s one hooper’s dance with delusion as he struggled to just say no

This goes out to every basketball player who refuses to leave the gym without making their last bucket. To everyone who has peeled off a blood-soaked sock after a run, who has been late picking up their kids because of a game, who needs to hoop like birds need to fly. As the coronavirus pandemic continues with no end in sight, I’m sending a distress signal to my brothers and sisters in Hoop World:

Yes, ball is life. But in these times, ball might be death, too.

A confession: I have played pickup basketball during the pandemic. About 10 times. With strangers. In our suddenly upside-down world, I can’t decide if this makes me an OG or an idiot. Either way, I hope my story can help all of us hoopers who are fiending for basketball. If we lean on each other — metaphorically speaking, with masks, from 6 feet apart — maybe we can make it through.

When the coronavirus fully shut down the country in April, I resolved to avoid pickup games and weather the quarantine at my usual outdoor court in a Pittsburgh suburb. Solo workouts had been my routine for years, anyway, and my secret to competing at a high level past age 50. I also had my Division I daughter and son to play with. Yeah, the governor had ordered everyone in Pennsylvania to stay home during the red-phase lockdown, but I wasn’t hurting anybody. I only slipped up once, when some guys showed up at my court questioning why we needed a quarantine. I beat them in 21, made a game winner again, and sent them home with two Ls. No masks were worn. I promised myself it would be a one-time thing.

April became May. Coronavirus cases remained low in my county. We moved from the red phase to yellow, which allowed gatherings of up to 25 people but required masks in all public spaces. Indoor gyms remained closed. More players started trickling into my double-rimmed haven. Everybody was maskless, of course. I stayed by myself on the far end, working on my hesi, my pull-up, my 3-ball, my …

The basketball courts at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, California, were closed due to the coronavirus.

Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

“Hey, Mr. Washington, we got nine. You want to play?”

I relapsed faster than Pookie in New Jack City. A bunch of my son’s friends had come to the park, my park, and wanted to run 5-on-5 full court. If you’re the 10th guy, refusing to play will brand you as a sucker for life. I did what I felt any real hooper would do: splashed a game winner, then went home intending to keep the game to myself, especially since I had been telling my son not to play pickup on that same court. When I walked into the crib, the young fella was standing in the kitchen. “My boys texted me from the court and said I should come down there and guard you,” he said.

That should have been the end, right? Instead, it was just the beginning.

Better players started coming to my park. Avoid competition? Never. I enjoyed every heavy-breathing, face-to-face moment, rationalizing all the while: I’m not playing in a gym where virus particles linger in the air. Cases are low. I have to rock out now because I might not be able to dunk much longer. I’m a hooper, this is what we do. Kobe wouldn’t let some virus scare him.

In June, with cases decreasing locally, it felt like the end of pandemic restrictions was in sight. The playground games were glorious. The YMCA reopened, and on a rainy day, I gave a couple of guys in there the business. I wasn’t denying the science or making a political statement. In my mind, I was making a basketball statement. Like when I drove 10 hours for a game of 21 or challenged a Twitter troll to one-on-one. There’s just no way, I told myself, that I could not play basketball until a vaccine is found.

But after the games were over, my conscience twinged along with my knees. I could asymptomatically infect my wife and children. I could damage my heart or destroy my lungs. I could kill my mom or my in-laws.

I called some Hoop World fam for support.

Too many of us told ourselves it was OK to gather at the beach, the bar or the basketball court. We are not accustomed to giving up things we think we need and tell ourselves we love.

My dude Damon Young will understand. He’s 40, played Division I, still gets buckets with ease two or three times per week. He knows how intoxicating it feels to bust up a dude half your age – we’ve done that on the court together. “It’s cathartic, for one,” he said. “Just playing, being out there, crossing people up and talking s— and bumping people. Part of the joy of playing is the bumping of bodies and sweating and mixing it up. The camaraderie-building. The physicality of it.”

Word to Uncle Drew. So where you been playing at, Dame?

“As much as I miss playing, it’s not worth taking that chance right now,” he said. “Playing pickup basketball is one of the most high-risk activities … I hate not playing, but I feel like I would hate getting sick more.”

Forget Dame, his game trash anyway.

Amber Batchelor should have my back, she got married under the basket at Goat Park in New York City and runs the Ladies Who Hoop organization. “My world revolves around basketball,” Batchelor said. “I had spent so much of my life in close personal contact with people. Team huddles, high-fives. Thinking about what the future of basketball looks like, not just being not in close proximity to people, but the idea that my close proximity might get them sick and kill them. That was probably the only thing that could keep me away from basketball.”

Wait. Keep you away?

“It wasn’t too bad where you are. Here in New York, within a week, four people I knew had died.”

Lord, have mercy … but she said it wasn’t too bad where I’m at. Let me get the green light from my doctor. He has treated my war wounds for years. He knows I can’t survive without this game.

“I am afraid you may not like my answer,” Dr. Richard Hogan told me via email. “In your case, I cannot recommend any activity where you will be breathing hard in close contact with other individuals. I think the risk is too high. I think you could practice if you keep your distance from other people, but the concept of playing in a basketball game to me seems unwise.”

A view of removed basketball rims to prevent group sports in Sunset Park during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.

Noam Galai/Getty Images

All righty then.

“To tell you the truth, J,” my man Gamal Napper-Preston said, “what you did could be perceived as a selfish decision.”

I played with and against him for years when I lived in Philly. He tested positive for the coronavirus on April 10. He lost his sense of taste, felt aches, chills and fatigue. He went from working out several times per week to not having enough strength to get out of bed. Three months later, he still isn’t back to normal.

“You didn’t make that decision in a vacuum,” Napper-Preston said. “By proxy, you cast a vote for everyone in your family as well.

“Your love of the game is unbridled and unquestioned.”

I’ve been obsessed with basketball since sixth grade, when I first ventured to the playground in my projects and tried unsuccessfully to call next. It took weeks to get on the court. Then I had to convince the other players to pass me the ball. Then I had to get good. It took years to get the respect and fulfillment that I’m still chasing every time I lace up my sneakers.

Now, for the first time in my life, I’m stopping.

My county recorded its most new cases ever on July 14. Pennsylvania is headed back to the yellow stage. America is being ravaged by the virus. It has become painfully clear that many of us, even people who have not been politicized into ignorance, were lulled into apathy. Too many of us told ourselves it was OK to gather at the beach, the bar or the basketball court. We are not accustomed to giving up things we think we need and tell ourselves we love.

How long can I live without the competition? Will I be able to resist the temptation of people showing up at my park? I don’t know. I’ve never turned my back on the game before.

“For people like us, playing basketball is extending our lives, or at least enhancing their quality,” my friend Young said. “The irony is, now this thing that is enhancing our life could possibly ruin it. Or end it.”

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.

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