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The Last Waltz : Y’s Closing Ends Pickup Basketball Game

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last hoop was just like thousands of others, a sweet little jumper by Louis, the guy with a quick first step and a tattoo on his arm.

As the ball dropped through the basket, the players sauntered off to the sidelines, dripping with sweat. Another Friday night basketball game was over, and it was time to go. But we lingered. A ritual that had endured for two decades was coming to an end; the downtown YMCA gym, where our weeknight pickup games had found a home for 20 years, had run out of money and was shutting down for good that night.

Nobody baked any cakes or made any speeches--there really wasn’t much to say. If the thrice-weekly basketball games hadn’t included a journalist for the past four years, the event wouldn’t have even made the newspaper.

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We stood around, shook hands and said farewell; a few players had brought cameras and snapped pictures. We acted as if we’d meet up again soon at another gym: “Where you gonna be playing now? Maybe I’ll see you there.”

Maybe, but I doubt we’ll find a game as enduring, or appealing, as those half-court workouts at the Y.

The rules of our game were simple: first eight to show up split up into two teams of more or less equal strength, next four to walk in played the winners, and so on. While there are hundreds of pickup basketball games around Orange County, this one had two particular virtues: consistency and democracy.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday--years ago, Tuesdays and Thursdays as well--you could count on a game. And no one cared where you came from, as long as you could pass, dribble, shoot, rebound or play defense, or at least knew enough to stay out of the way.

While I was a relative newcomer, some of the other players have been around since the early 1970s.

“We’ve all gotten worse together,” said Mike Meier, a 48 year-old concrete salesman from Santa Ana who grew up near the YMCA, went off to college and then Vietnam, and began playing in the evening games when he returned in 1971. “I’ve signed up for Racquetball World, but it won’t compare. The caliber will be a lot better, but there will be more bodies, and I hate that . . . . This is more of a fellowship thing.”

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Meier left the area for about five years in the early 1980s to take a job in Northern California. When he came back, he found that little had changed.

“It was unbelievable,” Meier said as we sat on the bench out of breath one night last week, waiting for our turn to get back in the game. “I came back and geez, the same guys were still here! It was as if I’d never left.”

Until I asked him last week, I had no idea what Mike’s last name was or what he did for a living--despite the fact that we’ve been bumping and shoving each other on a regular basis for the past few years.

What went on outside the gym’s doors was nobody’s else’s business; first names were plenty, occupational titles unnecessary. Lawyers who drove up in gleaming German cars and wore handmade suits shared the court with guys who were lucky if they had a car that started--and, sometimes with YMCA residents just out of jail, or maybe trying to kick a habit.

We didn’t always get along so well. We had our arguments, our shouting matches, even an exceedingly rare fight. But a foul, or a disputed call, was soon forgotten, and for two hours, the only thing you had to worry about was how to stop the other fellow’s drive or corner jumper.

The sounds of squeaking high-tops on the deadened wood floor, the steady thump-thump-thump of the dribble, and shouts of “Switch!,” “I’ve got him!” and “Foul!” quickly drowned out all thoughts of the workday left behind.

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“This is my therapy, and it’s a lot cheaper,” said Stewart Suchman, a 48-year-old lawyer who lives in Laguna Hills. Suchman first came to the Y in 1971, when he started out with a downtown Santa Ana firm. The firm has since moved its offices to Newport Beach, and Suchman is the senior partner, but he has never left the dingy Y for the chrome-and-mirror fitness centers populated by his legal colleagues.

“The only reason I still come over here is because of the guys--it’s certainly not for the facilities,” Suchman said.

Years ago, the Y had a bustling fitness program. But as downtown Santa Ana deteriorated, the clientele stopped coming, and, except for the lunchtime rush by county and Civic Center employees, the gym was a pretty lonely place.

The basketball floor was worn and slippery to the point of being hazardous, and the gym’s battered walls were dangerously close to the baskets--a thin mat attached to the wall offered some protection, but it was something to think about when driving to the hoop at top speed.

Up above, a short, oval, and usually abandoned track looked down on the basketball court. A faded sign from more optimistic times still offered this advice:

PASS ON WALL

SLOWER RUNNERS

STAY ON RAIL

Now that the Y has closed, Suchman says, he’ll give Sports Club Irvine a try--more convenient to his home and business, and more modern.

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“It’s Yuppiedom at its finest,” Suchman said. “They’ve got valet parking, a barbershop . . . . And everyone will probably play the ‘don’t shoot, let me’ game.”

Not that Suchman has ever been shy about shooting. His 25 to 30 foot bombs were as predictable a part of the weeknight games as late dinners. But they went in often enough to keep us from complaining.

Suchman is one of a few players who took to wearing protective eye-goggles after hearing of a particularly gruesome incident a few years back. Legend has it that during one of the daily lunchtime games, one of the players had his eyeball accidentally poked out.

“The lunch crowd was always different,” Suchman said. “It just wasn’t as nice.”

For Danny Romero, the Y’s final day evoked memories of joy, and of personal tragedy.

“I came here about 15 years ago, to learn how to swim,” said Romero, a 43-year-old native of Mazatlan, Mexico. “I heard the ball bouncing upstairs, and I went up to see what was going on.”

Romero, and his brother, Santa Ana realtor Louis Romero--he of the tattoo and jump shot--had been regulars ever since.

“You see that kid over there?” said the well-muscled Romero, pointing to a 7- or 8-year-old dribbling a ball in a corner of the gym. “That’s how big my son was when I started bringing him here. He loved this place so much.”

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Romero’s son, Danny Jr., grew to be an outstanding athlete, and often played with his father and uncle in the evening games, easily out-jumping and out-shooting the rest of us.

About two years ago, at the age of 21, he was killed in a car accident.

Several players from the game attended the funeral.

“It’s still hard for me to talk about it,” his father said.

While Danny Jr. had reminded us what it was like to be young again, John Reeves of Diamond Bar showed us that you’re never too old.

Reeves, whose bald pate and thin frame got bounced around as much as anyone else’s, turned 70 last year. He rarely missed a game, and, while time has slowed him down a bit, he still has a pretty good shot and isn’t afraid to hack an opponent across the arms to stop an easy basket if he has to.

He says he’ll be looking for another game this week, just like the rest of us.

As we walked off the court last Friday night following Louis’ final hoop, one player made a halfhearted appeal to postpone our destiny.

“Hey, you guys wanna run it one more time?” yelled Rod.

But it was 10 after 7, time to go.

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