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I was just there for basketball. Until I fell for one of my teammates.

I was just there for basketball. Until I fell for one of my teammates.
(Dan Zalkus / For The Times)

Our first interaction was brisk and routine, even obligatory. She was filling a vacant spot on my recreational pickup basketball team in a small gymnasium at a Westside park. We dutifully exchanged names and shook hands before the game without any fanfare.

I didn't feel any sparks. I didn't even notice anything in particular about her other than she was the only female player on the court. I suppose I admired that she didn't shy away from playing with the guys, a potentially tricky dynamic for players of both genders, but she wasn't on my mind the rest of the evening. The game came and went, the session ended shortly thereafter, and we didn't even say goodbye.

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For me, basketball and dating have never intersected. It's partly because I'm usually playing with other guys, but it's also because of how I view the sport. Basketball is my Zen zone, a sacred space away from the madness of the daily grind. Even though the games are inherently social events, I tend not to experience them that way. I'm in another world, focused entirely on the flow and the minutiae of the game, which the other players are simply helping to create.

A place for romance it is not.

The mood was different two nights later. An out-of-town friend and I had gone to a free outdoor concert at the Santa Monica Pier, and I'd already had a couple drinks when we arrived at a pub on Ocean Front Walk for another round. We sifted slowly through the throngs of people on our way toward the back patio, and we were approaching the bar when I spotted her.

"Weren't you at basketball on Tuesday?" I asked, acknowledging the slim probability of our second encounter.

It was an admittedly lame pickup line, but it wasn't even a pickup line. Although she had a warm energy and an easy smile, I really wasn't motivated by attraction. I was much more amused by the grand coincidence of running into her than interested in finding out where our conversation would lead.

We bonded immediately over our mutual love of basketball, rehashing in-game moments from the night at the park and delving into our histories on the hardwood. I played in high school and grew up watching Lakers games with my brothers; she was coached by her dad during her youth and played on a Division II team in college.

As we chatted, the physical beauty that her athletic wear veiled two nights earlier became apparent. Away from the basketball court, I found myself appreciating the streaks in her hair, the sparkle in her eyes, the softness of her skin. It probably helped that I wasn't busy wiping torrents of sweat off my forehead.

We exchanged numbers. She and her friend invited my friend and me to another bar on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, so the four of us shared a ride there. She and I enjoyed another drink before parting ways with a hug. I quickly kissed her cheek.

Over the next two weeks, we crossed paths intentionally. She joined my friends and me at a bar on Main Street in Santa Monica one night, then again at a bowling alley a few nights later. I met up with her and her friends for drinks in Venice, then again for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

Basketball was a recurring topic of discussion, but it was merely a foundation. We had both previously been engaged, we had both spent time working with kids and we were both eager to explore all that L.A. has to offer.

The foundation of our four-month relationship came full circle at the park exactly two weeks after we met. I already had tentative plans to see her the next night, and I smiled as I pulled into the parking lot. I couldn't help but think about how the framework of a first interaction so often affects the length and depth of a connection. I immediately felt lucky to have been given a second context, a second chance, a second shot.

Our communications remained limited and succinct on the court, in part because we were trying to blend in with the group and in part because we were both in basketball mode. I wasn't sure exactly how to act around her, but I knew I felt differently than I did the last time.

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We ended up on opposing teams. We took turns guarding each other in several different games, and there was a palpable intensity that I had never quite experienced before. Aside from a brief conversation between games, we hardly spoke the whole night.

But we shadowed each other around the floor for the better part of two hours, running and sweating and playing the sport we love.

I don't know if it was discernible to her or anyone else, but I wasn't in my usual zone.

My mind was on more than basketball.

Goodman is a local news and sports journalist at the Santa Monica Daily Press.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the dating scene in and around Los Angeles. We pay $300 a column. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.

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