Court and Sparks


Why I am so inclined to tell you the finest bit of high school ball playing I have ever seen I’m not exactly sure, though I am, and given as I have seen in my days a lot of ball (funny, that sounded like an old man talking, which I am not, and I have enough old friends and relatives who have earned the designation so let me not diminish their designation by claiming it), you might listen up. And you know, at the same time, grain of salt. 

He was nearly uncoachable—a hothead, bristly, pouty, so sensitive that my partner Stephanie reminds me I spent hours on the phone with Loco (the head coach, I was Robin) trying to figure out how to communicate with him, how to coach him without him feeling picked on or criticized or demeaned or diminished or dismissed or dogged or chided or chastised or clowned or condescended to or shit on or put down or put upon or humiliated or, you know, feelings hurt. Dude was sensitive, goddamn, a hothouse flower, we put in hours, annoying though it could be. Which, in retrospect, this is a revelation, maybe a reach, maybe beside the point, but it might have been good practice for poems, trying to figure how to communicate You’re overdribbling or Go to the basket or Box out without wounding this kid’s fragile ego: best words best order, etc. Good practice, too, for being a human being. Like the rest of us, he mostly knew and didn’t feel great about when he made a mistake, and mostly he liked being told when he did good. Duh.

But it didn’t matter that day against Rahway, or Elizabeth, or Irvington, one of the nearby schools whose kids he would’ve grown up around, maybe he went to middle school over here, maybe some AAU stuff, some little fires smoldering already in the layup lines, some jawing and puffed-up laughter and Yeah we’ll see that made the refs take notice, Easy now, easy, before the ball was even tossed up. That day he would’ve been better on the court than Dajuan Wagner; he would’ve been better than Kyrie Irving. The ball was glued to his hand as he danced through a collapsed zone to the rack. He had a nice midrange game, and he wasn’t missing. He was feeding our big guys no-looks, and rifling one-handed three-quarter-court bounce passes to the streaker. At least twice he shot and started trotting the other way before the ball went through the hoop. It was that kind of game. But that wasn’t all.

He was also talking shit the whole time. I don’t know what he was saying—I mean, I can guess, ballpark—but his shit-talk reached its embodied zenith when he ripped their point guard at the top of the key and, sailing to the other basket and taking his last dribble, looked back at the kid chasing him and held the ball on a platter, like You looking for this, like, Not today, before laying it in. The refs kept getting on him, and getting on us to get on him, for all this jawing, this flamboyant chatter, but he couldn’t stop, I remember watching and giggling and thinking, He can’t stop, he just can’t stop, for he was elated, and his elation was elating, and Lord let me best as I can never be the asshole rips the wings off an elated kid.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Two!, 1966–67, oil on linen, 44 x 44". © Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Barkley L. Hendricks, Two!, 1966–67, oil on linen, 44 x 44". © Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


It was, to say the least, an odd—no, that’s wrong, familiar, or at least familiarish—intense feeling, fantasy maybe it’s called, picturing throwing this dude through the plate-glass window at the front of the Fitness Club on Grant Street in Northeast Philadelphia where I was in a very good league with a very solid team in my mid-twenties, a team on which I was the baby, but also the brawn. (Turns out my skill set has often been brawn.) Anyhow there was some dustup, nothing big, maybe dude got into me, maybe I shoved him, dime a dozen, it got loud, there was an intervention, there was a warning, it was over. But as we trotted down the court—of course we were still talking to each other, little threats and postures, the burden of the scrotum—dude said, You’ll be spitting teeth for weeks. With some suggestion that it would begin in the parking lot immediately after the game.

Though I probably betrayed no such feeling, inside I was like, Damn, that’s a little much, don’t you think? It wasn’t quite a nuclear option—I’m going to cut your head off after the game—but it was close. I mean, for weeks? I only have thirty-two teeth, all of whom I kind of love, but they were also cared for and beloved and much a source of pride for my dear mother, who would happily bake you the finest oatmeal raisin cookies you’ve ever had, especially if you were to spare her baby’s teeth, and which she probably somewhat considers her teeth, and which, to be sure, she sometimes thought was the only thing I had going for me. 

Anyhow, obviously this was an affront to me and my mother’s teeth, and so I did the only reasonable thing I could—I prepared my own near-nuclear defense, which involved throwing this dude graphically (leave it at that) through the plate-glass window where the attendant sat beeping fobs (it was actually a laminated card they stuck in some kind of box—this was preindustrial), which for her would’ve been, though I wasn’t considering it at the time, such a drag. The body and the glass, which you never really get all the way up. 

I was about three or four years into my Ph.D. program at the time, I was just starting to publish poems with regularity, I was teaching introductory writing to college students and grown people, all of which some benevolent spirit reminded me of as I was defenestrating the dude in my mind, probably missing even more foul shots than usual on account of it—Dude, don’t you think it’s about time you stopped throwing people through windows in your imagination? 

And just like that, though nothing is and just like that, I kinda started walking away, or trying to. I heard myself saying things like, Man, it doesn’t mean that much to me. Which I only kinda believed, until I completely did. Which, even writing it today, twenty years later, I can feel my heart rate go down just a touch, much like it did after the game (which we won—that team almost always won), when we were dapping up, good gaming, and dude shook my hand as though I had not just had a conversion experience, as though I hadn’t used to be named Saul, and he said, with a friendly smile, Good game man

It’s called getting into your opponent’s head. It’s called, Oh, he was an angel.


In the event you are not familiar with breaking bottles, it is, on some pickup basketball courts, a form of emphatic nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, refusal, in response to a call so bad (which is probably an accumulation of bad calls) that the aggrieved feels it impossible to carry on with the game, the gears must be stopped, life like this is unlivable, and so retrieves whatever bottles are available in the nearby metal barrel trash can (from which, side note, every once in a while, a squirrel will poke her head, and might actually momentarily startle the bottle breaker into a smile). Then he smashes them on the court.

In my experience the breaking of bottles is always preceded by a warning, which is actually an invitation to preserve the integrity of the game, to stop fucking it up. And if the person threatening to break bottles is not a goddamned lunatic (in my experience, a bottle breaker never is; in fact, in my experience, they are among the most reasonable players on the court, and always offer an alternative, a way out), it is an opportunity for the offender to reconsider what the game means. Which is also a good time to note that bottle breaking tends not to be retaliation for a personal grievance, but for a grievance to community. To the game. You’re fucking up the game is the refrain.

And if the warning is not heeded, and the court becomes a glittering mess, maybe beer-stinky, the largest shards of brown and green rocking like boats, then we all get to reconsider what the game means, and how it is played—not just the one fucking up the game, but the whole lot of us. What we are willing to take, and what we are willing to give. What we owe each other. How we need each other for the game to go on. And what the game needs of us. 

And that’s why we need refs! a moron might say. Or a child. Or a citizen. 

But the truth is, that’s why we need brooms. 

Ross Gay is the author, most recently, of the poem Be Holding (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), and his book of essays, Inciting Joy (Algonquin Books), is forthcoming this fall.