Basketball


Dome and ball

Last week, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I took a day-trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, where we visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although many people think of baseball as being America’s pastime, I think basketball more truly deserves that honor. Invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a gym teacher who wanted an indoor game that could keep students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield occupied on rainy days, basketball is played by men and women of all ages across the United States and beyond. With nothing more than a peach basket, soccer ball, and thirteen simple rules, Naismith created a game with a now-global appeal.

James Naismith with his peach basket

On the drive to Springfield, J and I listed the reasons why basketball is our favorite sport. Basketball is interesting to watch at every level: whether you’re watching professional athletes in the NBA and WBNA, college amateurs, or schoolkids shooting one-on-one on the local playground, basketball is an engaging game. It’s an accessible sport: most schools and neighborhood playgrounds have basketball hoops, and if you live far from these, it’s easy to put a hoop on your garage or in your driveway. You can play basketball as part of a team, you can play one-on-one, or you can shoot hoops by yourself: all you need, really, is a ball and basket. And whereas other sports privilege particular body types, basketball players come in various shapes and sizes, from tall and skinny centers to short and speedy guards.

Bob Cousey can fly!

When I watch football or hockey, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to play those sports: I’m too small for the former and too klutzy for the latter. But even somebody short like me can learn the rudiments of shooting, passing, and dribbling: one of the pleasures of watching the NBA, in fact, is the glee of knowing even I can shoot free-throws better than some of the pros. Basketball is a team sport that leaves ample room for individual excellence, so there’s a certain joy that comes from watching a player who is on fire and in the zone, their shots tracing perfect trajectories and their footwork transcending the bounds of mere gravity.

In motion

Although the “Hoop Hall” in Springfield preserves objects reflecting the history and evolution of the game and its outstanding players, what I found most endearing was the basketball court on its first floor. While J and I started our visit on the third floor and worked our way down, admiring artifacts such as the game’s first shot clock and lots of enormous shoes worn by the pros, local children played on the court below us, shooting and dribbling and perfecting a game that for them isn’t about history; it’s a piece of the here and now.

Click here for more photos from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Thank you, Rondo

Last night, J and I went to the TD Garden to watch the Boston Celtics play the Dallas Mavericks. When we bought tickets for this particular Celtics game at the start of the season, we didn’t know that Celtics point guard, team captain, and 2008 world champion Rajon Rondo would be traded to the Mavs right before Christmas. When we heard Rondo had been traded, J and I were saddened: Rondo was the by far the best player on this year’s Celtics team, and he was the only remaining player from the 2008 championship team. But when we realized we’d be in the house when Rondo came back to the TD Garden in a Mavericks jersey, we knew we’d be on our feet, cheering.

Rondo on defense

Whenever a former Boston sports star returns to town after a trade, sportswriters speculate about how he’ll be received. Will diehard fans cheer their former favorite, or will they greet him with boos? In my experience, diehard fans are loyal fans, especially when a player didn’t ask to be traded. In December, J and I saw the Celtics play the Washington Wizards, and the hometown crowd went wild when former Celtics captain Paul Pierce was introduced, even though it’s been more than a year and a half since Pierce was traded. When it comes to championship players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo, the adage “Once a Celtic, always a Celtic” seems to apply. Diehard fans, in other words, don’t forget what a player did to contribute to the team even after the color of his jersey changes.

Rondo!

So last night, a sold-out crowd of diehard Celtics fans went wild when Rajon Rondo was announced as part of the Mavericks’ starting lineup, and we cheered again when Rondo scored the first bucket of the game, and we cheered even louder when a video tribute to Rondo was shown during the second quarter. As the game went on and Rondo hit shot after shot, the cheers turned to good-natured groans: how could we have been so stupid to trade such a player away? (Had Danny Ainge, the Celtics President of Basketball Operations and architect of the Rondo trade, been shown on the Jumbotron, I’m sure HE would have gotten booed.)

Rondo!

Basketball is a business, and both teams and players have to keep their eye on the bottom line: gone are the days when a player spent his entire career with a single team. But just because team owners and player agents remain hard-nosed when it comes to the business of basketball doesn’t mean fans can’t play favorites. Paul Pierce just doesn’t look right in a Washington Wizards jersey, and Rajon Rondo doesn’t look right in Mavericks’ blue, either. In my mind and heart alike, Pierce, Rondo, Garnett, and the rest will always be a part of the team that won another championship for Boston.

Thank you, Rondo

Apart from the first and last photo, which I shot with my phone last night, the other photos illustrating today’s post come from past games when Rajon Rondo played for rather than against the Celtics.

Pregame huddle

The couple in front of us arrives soon after we do: he in a puffy black jacket, she in a leopard print scarf, sleek ponytail, and large hoop earrings. Immediately they snap pictures of their raised beers, carefully posed. Later she brushes crumbs from his lips, an act both intent and affectionate.

Sideline report

Three rows ahead of us sits a slim and angular young couple with asymmetrical haircuts. He snaps a photo of his food, which looks like macaroni in a white cardboard carton. They share one pristine black ball cap that she artfully arranges, first on her head, then his, then hers.

Strike a pose

A grown man and his elderly father sit next to me. The younger man gently helps his father out of his coat and pats his knee. “These are pretty good seats, aren’t they?” The father nods and looks around, more interested in the crowd than the game. The younger man occasionally leans to ask a question: “You’re not getting tired, are you?”

Snapshot

The family behind us keeps a running commentary throughout the game. “Post it up, Sully!” I never turn around, so they are invisible to me, just a row of voices straight behind and to either side. “Ref, he traveled!” When I stand at halftime, their stray peanut shells crackle under my feet. “Hey, that’s a foul!”

Sea of screens

Twenty rows ahead of us, the sportswriters sit tightly packed behind a sea of screens. During the first half, those screens flash tweets, game stats, and highlights from other games. At halftime, the sportswriters’ fingers fly as they tap out updates, reports, and other missives: everything that’s happening here and now.

Jump ball

We leave at the end of the third quarter in deference to my still-weakened lungs; the elderly man beside me seems surprised when we rise to go. As fans flood into the crowded concourse in search of beer and snacks, we silently glide down a wide, empty stairway, slipping unnoticed into the night on our way to the train.

This is my Day Eight contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Bill Russell statue

Yesterday on our way to the New England Aquarium, J and I stopped to take a few photos of the new statue honoring Celtics legend Bill Russell. I knew the statue was located somewhere on City Hall Plaza, so as J and I weathered the brutally cold wind on our walk from Government Center to Faneuil Hall, I told him to be on the lookout for a seven-foot statue, figuring it would be impossible to miss.

Bill Russell statue

Bill Russell is by far my all-time favorite Celtics player. He has the distinction of having won two NCAA championship titles, an Olympic gold medal, and more NBA championship rings than he has fingers to wear them on. Russell was the first African-American to coach an NBA team, serving as a player-coach for three of his thirteen professional seasons, and he revolutionized the way basketball is played by excelling at both defense and rebounding. Before Bill Russell, centers were instructed to play flat-footed, as if jumping were unseemly for a tall man. Bill Russell ignored this advice and became a shot-blocking and rebounding machine, his agility as impressive as his height.

Bill Russell statue

Boston has a fondness for erecting statues of sports heroes. There’s a statue of Bobby Orr flying through the air outside the TD Garden, a statue of Doug Flutie preparing to release his famous Hail Mary pass outside Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, and a statue of Red Auerbach–the Celtics coach with the foresight to acquire Bill Russell–sitting with a victory cigar at Quincy Market. But all of those statues focus exclusively on sports, showing their subject in a quintessential moment of victory. Bill Russell’s statue, on the other hand, focuses on his community work as much as his athletic ability: surrounding the bronze image of Russell in his #6 Celtics jersey are stone plinths with quotes from Russell’s stint as an outspoken advocate of civil rights and community mentoring.

Bill Russell statue

If “all” Bill Russel had done was win eleven championships as a member of the Boston Celtics, that might have been enough to earn him a statue. But it is his commitment to social justice and political activism that earned him a 2010 Medal of Freedom, and it is these same qualities that are commemorated in the stones that surround his likeness on City Hall Plaza. I’d like to think that long after Bill Russell’s exploits on the basketball court are forgotten, young people passing his statue will stop to consider the tall, lanky man who encourages them to reach higher than they ever thought possible.

Bill Russell statue

This is my Day 25 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Wall at Central Square

It’s finals week at Keene State, which means I spent all last week and much of the weekend reading and commenting on student essay drafts.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve often said that the end of a typical semester is like the final two minutes of a well-matched basketball game. The final two minutes can see one team pull further and further ahead, or it can see a stunning come-from-behind rally. Anyone can win in the final two minutes, and you can see that in the eyes of veteran players, who know to steel themselves against exhaustion in order to get it done when it truly matters.

Wall at Central Square

In theory, no well-matched basketball game needs to last more than two intense minutes…but in practice, it takes almost four full quarters of play before that “get it done” mindset kicks in. The same seems to be true in any given semester. I’ve seen a lot of students “come from behind” during finals week, finally kicking into “get it done” mode after spending much of the semester approaching their paper topics tentatively. It isn’t a question of whether you can play two intense minutes of basketball, or whether you can produce decent last-minute revisions: it’s a question of whether you can play two intense minutes or produce decent last-minute revisions when you’re already sweaty and exhausted.

Wall at Central Square

Now that it’s finals week, I feel like a coach on the sidelines watching those final few minutes of play. I’ve spent the semester shouting and gesticulating, drawing up plays and patting players on the back. I’ve spent the semester repeating “Keep going,” “You’re doing a good job,” and “More of this, and less of that,” and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said some version of “Good try, now try harder.” Now it’s time for me to take a seat, hold my breath, and see what kind of game my “players” have during this week of all-nighters, caffeine mega-doses, and foxhole conversions. I have vivid memories of all those semesters when it was me doing last-minute revisions over unhealthy amounts of Mountain Dew, the “midnight muse” of procrastination my main inspiration. Now it’s time to see what kind of fancy intellectual footwork my students are capable of.

Wall at Central Square

In the meantime, I keep thinking of the photos I shot the last time I walked down Modica Way, the graffiti wall there reminding passersby that regardless of how well you do in school, business, or life in general, “you’re still gonna die.” As strange as it may sound, I find the sentiment oddly comforting, a reminder to keep things in their proper perspective. In any given semester, you play to win the game, but regardless of whether you (or your students) win or lose, eventually your play will come to an end: game over. In the meantime, how intensely can you pour yourself into your life, spending every last drop of sweat and leaving everything out there on the court, holding nothing back for “later”?

Pierce vs. Durant

As a die-hard Celtics fan, the first thing I thought of when I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, Three, was Boston’s so-called Big Three: the championship-winning combination of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. I don’t have any pictures of the Big Three together, unless you count this team photo from the 2008 NBA Finals, a picture I snapped from an oversize, illuminated version on display at the Boston Sports Museum. Although I clearly remember the 2008 NBA Finals, I watched the game on TV at home, not at the Garden with the Big Boys.

Nobody can guard KG

The Big Three play three different positions, so it’s rare to capture all of them in a single frame. And looking back on the various Celtics photos I’ve taken, we’ve often gone to games where one of the Big Three hasn’t been playing due to injury. So in the spirit of today’s Photo Friday theme, I’ll have to show you three separate pictures of the Big Three in action, and I’ll leave it to you to connect the dots.

Tonight J and I have tickets to see the Celtics play the Atlanta Hawks: our only Celtics game of the season. Judging from the number of Bruins and Revolution pictures I post, you’d probably guess that hockey and soccer are my two favorite sports, but actually basketball is my far and away favorite. In high school gym class, basketball was the only game I didn’t completely stink at. When I was a kid, my mom used to shoot baskets at the neighborhood playground while I played on the swings and jungle gym, and whenever my dad would come with us, he too would shoot hoops. Once when I was probably around 10 or 11, my dad asked if I wanted to join them, and I remarked that I was too short to play basketball. My dad immediately explained that you don’t have to be tall to shoot a decent basket, as long as you know the rudiments…and he then showed me how to hold, shoot, and follow-through with a basic free-throw shot. Once you know how to make a basic shot, he explained, the rest is just finesse.

Ray Allen shoots a T

Although I never had enough “game” to play in high school much less college or the WNBA, basketball is the only sport I can watch and imagine myself playing. When I see a precision shooter like Ray Allen take a free-throw, I always notice the basics my dad taught me: a balanced, grounded stance; a solid hold on the ball; a limp-wristed follow-through. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a playground with a basketball, but I’m sure I’d remember the rudiments once I worked off the rust. Even though my “game” is limited to shooting some occasional baskets with my parents at the local playground, my muscle-memory recalls those moves and revisits them when I watch the pros play, as if I could borrow their bodies simply by watching.

Earlier this week, I watched video footage of injured veterans from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center playing wheelchair basketball at the White House. It seems my dad was right about basketball. It doesn’t matter how tall you are; it’s a matter of remembering the rudiments.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Three.

Drive it up the court

On Friday night as we walked back from Boston College, where we’d gone to see a women’s basketball game, J asked me if I’d ever dreamed, back when I was a graduate student at BC, that a few decades later I’d be living part-time just a few miles from campus, walking to sporting events there. The answer is no.

DE-FENSE!

When I was a graduate student at Boston College in the early ’90s, I was married and hungry, starved for both food and affection. Those years were a crisis of faith for me: marriage was nothing like what I’d envisioned it to be, having believed the priests (celibates all!) who said both marriage and sex were sacred, sacramental things. Finding myself married, no longer virginal, and living some 700 miles from my family, I also found myself no closer to God–only poorer and more lonely–than I’d been in Ohio. I had no idea making a living could be so difficult and the slippery slope into hungry poverty so easy. The thought that I’d one day, only a few decades later, be well-fed, single and re-coupled, and living part-time in the very neighborhood I could have no way afforded at the time would have been literally unimaginable.

Jump ball!

I had no idea then–I literally could not have conceived the possibility–that I would someday find the courage (the willful audacity!) to divorce. The possibility would have horrified me then. I considered my marriage vows to be a sacred promise, unbreakable in any circumstance. And if I couldn’t manage to feed myself with the help of an employed spouse, how did I think I could feed myself on my own? Hunger is crippling not only to the body but also to the imagination. Given my crimped, impoverished belly, how could I have found the psychological strength to envision the possibility of abundance?

Rafters of glory

C.S. Lewis, like William Wordsworth before him, was surprised by joy, and in my life, I have been surprised by abundance. Yes, the Universe is ample and capable enough to bless you with not one but two lives, the second granted as a kind of amnesty: a chance to do better, this time, the things you did badly before. The Universe is ample and capable enough to find another way–one you’d never have envisioned–to give you things you never knew you needed in a place you never thought you’d be able to re-inhabit. Unimaginably, the Universe is rich in prizes and second chances, doling both out even to those of us who didn’t previously have the wherewithal to believe.

This is another lightly edited journal entry: more proof that a handwritten journal can be a boon to blogging. Click here for the complete photo-set of images from Friday’s night’s women’s basketball game at Boston College, the alma mater I never imagined I’d re-visit.

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