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Full-Court Press : Baseball May Be the National Pastime, but Basketball Makes Harry Hoop It Up

I AM VENTURING into a danger zone here. More than once I’ve derided the growing legion of writers who, with too much lyricism in their hearts, pour out seemingly unedited reams of overblown prose about the game of baseball. Knowing full well the peril of weighing down a simple game with the tedious baggage of Meaning, I write today in praise of basketball.

This is not in the grand tradition. Basketball has no hallowed ritual on the order of the Hot Stove League, sitting around during the off-season reminiscing about seasons past. If you ask me, this is at least partly because--unlike baseball--it is actually more fun to watch or play basketball than to remember watching or playing it.

But now is the perigee of the basketball year. The Lakers are all off in Hawaii or filming commercials, the Clippers are--if they’re smart--loading up on health insurance, and nobody’s playing the game, except for the millions of us doing it for sheer pleasure.

I’m not going to wax poetic on the finer points of the pro game. After a decade of Magic Johnson’s pedagogy, Los Angeles fans are up to speed. There was a time when aficionados from points East would sneer at the locals assembled in the Forum. Like the obloquy directed at Hollywood Bowl patrons who clap between movements, this sneering did have a certain factual basis, although it derived its emotional power from the fact that the Easterners couldn’t deal with not being cold.

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Watching the pros play is indeed a fine way to waste one’s time on the planet. And it is what I’m built for. But against all genetic inclination, I keep insisting on playing the game as well. And therein lie basketball’s true charms.

Not that I knew this in my youth. My childhood appreciation for any sport was stunted by as deranged a collection of Phys Ed teachers as anyone has endured this side of the Tontons Macoute. But a friend invited me to an L.A.-Phoenix game, which just happened to occur in the middle of the Lakers’ still-unmatched 33-game winning streak, and the next day he took me to a playground to begin my asphalt education. We’ve long since lost touch, but every time I leave the gym, sweat-soaked and happy, replaying the good moments and the hideous embarrassments, I pause to send him a mental thank-you note.

Basketball is a straightforward game. A small court, a few guys or gals, one big ball, a hoop. It doesn’t demand expensive equipment; it can be played virtually anywhere the ground is flat enough to build on. This democratic nature of the sport has more to do with the current domination of the pro game by African-Americans than do the genetic theories of Jimmy the Greek. But it also explains the spread of basketball far and wide, the recent injection of half a dozen talented Yugoslavs into the NBA being the most current example. Some of these players are good enough to prompt calls for breaking up Yugoslavia. Fortunately, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes are already working on it.

Because basketball is so simple and widely understood, you can play it with anyone, anywhere. You can always walk into a strange gym, or onto an unfamiliar playground, begin playing with a group of people you’ve never met before, have a great time, and a couple of hours later bid them farewell, perhaps forever. No other part of life provides for such consistently satisfying transactions with total strangers. Well, maybe prostitution, but I wouldn’t know.

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I’ve played on a court in Amsterdam, surrounded by the city’s great museums, where kids from Germany yelled the names of NBA players they’d seen on highlight tapes as they imitated the stars’ moves. “Lah-ree Bird!” a tall blond would yell as he sank a jumper from outside. This invocation of the names was the only English, or any language, spoken.

I’ve even ventured out, once, onto one of New York’s fabled street courts, where a teammate lectured me harshly for not helping him lie about the score so that, rather than face defeat and give way to the next team, we could keep playing. And I got to play against one of the most talented women players in the world on a court in Harlem. She left me more limp and useless than a tattered dishrag, but she sure was fun to watch as she glided by.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not easy to play ball in New York, even if you’ve got the guts or the appetite for humiliation. When the weather turns brutish, you might as well be trying to find a good round of pickup cricket. Once, while I was visiting, a friend tipped me to a Monday evening indoor game on the upper West Side. So I packed my gym clothes, bundled up against the November cold, took a $10 cab ride uptown, found that I had to pay a lady at a card table $5 more just to enter the sanctum gymtorum-- and then saw two dozen other guys waiting for a chance to play one game, on the one court, in the hour and a half before the place closed.

It was then that I decided New York can have all the opera and ballet companies it likes. If you can’t jump in your car and find a game within five minutes at any time of the year, you ain’t got culture.

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