Ross Gay: Have I Even Told You Yet About the Courts I’ve Loved?

On the Unlikely Tenderness and Care of a Good Pick-Up Basketball Game

The very first would be the ones in the apartments where I grew up, where I have the firm memory of my father dunking while still wearing his Pizza Hut duds—my brother confirms this—, and where I marked spots (x’s with medical tape) to practice for the hot shot competition, shoveling snow from the court (cue little-kid-shoveling-snow-so-he-can-practice-basketball music) which, yeah whatever, Craig won. Sometimes at this court there were two hoops, sometimes one (a hoop can get pulled down by a big kid, you know? I have been that big kid. Who even knows what a big kid is anymore?), always it was crooked, often there were puddles, perpetually there were little craters in the asphalt which, if the game was serious, someone would probably take a little bit of that asphalt home in their palm or knee.

And then the courts—that’s overstatement, it was a hoop—at the public elementary school next to the apartments (where the court, the hoops, had been all the way ripped down by the big kids), where one night a couple kids from Bristol came by to play, and I probably had the very best shooting game of my life. In a 2 v. 2, 14 years old, in the dark as I recall, having a night like Klay Thompson would 30 years later, myself the sole verifier of the feat. (I kid you not, I dreamt of one of those guys a few weeks ago.) Also at that hoop, my buddy Chris and I, burst from our chrysalises into butterflies by a couple tabs of LSD (a piece), leapt until, I swear to you, we got first our wrists, then forearms, then our elbows above the rusty rims. Oh fuck it: we got our chins above the rusty rims. Butterflies blending into the Milky Way that night were we. Chimney swifts too.

And of course those courts at the Philadelphia Bible College up the road we would sneak into through a never-locked back door. Who doesn’t love a prohibited court, one you might get kicked out of? And if it has a wood floor and a roof, and soft rims to boot, good lord—you better kick me out. And Delaware, pinned in a flood plain between I-95 and Business Route 1, behind the Denny’s and car dealerships and pool hall and ice cream place where I actually might have cried once when they didn’t have any chocolate with peanut butter left (or that might have been my mom, though no vanilla with peanut butter would have been her tragedy), the court with the huge metal backboards where that oldhead Gerald (this well before the term oldhead, and Gerald was probably at least 20 years younger than I am now) could make bank shots from anywhere on the court. The sound something between a tympani and a slammed door. This was one of the many courts I have loved where for a few years at least I had to beg a brief pause in the game (as you know it is a kindness for a game to be paused for you) because I was vomiting once or twice a day for no discernible reason, at least to my folks who were neither therapy adjacent or mental health literate. I’m saying, the puking was an expression of what we might now call anxiety (or “nerves” in the olden days), which would return in the near future a bit less convoluted. As anxiety, etc., I mean.

Anyhow, I remember running off the court, one finger in the air to indicate “right back!”, finding a big sycamore to lean against, and bending over, getting ready to let loose. And I can remember at least once at that court Mike jogging behind me, and rubbing my back as I puked—wait; I think I remember him holding my locks up out of the slurry of chicken tenders and French fries and cheesesteak and gummy bears and salt and vinegar chips (my dad had class!), and rubbing my back—I do remember that!—while everyone else kind of gagged or looked away or took a couple shots or wondered what will it be like in the future to look at a phone in a moment like this or said hurry up dude or is he ok? Mike held my hair up and rubbed my back while I puked until I was done and jogged back, the other team’s little guard watching me get into the lane before yelling ball in! (Mike and I cried and cried over our Whoppers in the Penndel Burger King when he told me he was moving away.)

And Vets further up the road, where they had lights, and on good nights the parking lot would be full enough that the adjacent field became a parking lot. Where the games were good enough that when, one time, I broke my nose going for a rebound—someone’s elbow accidentally putting a hearty divot on the left side of what had been the bridge of my nose; did you all make a tee for kick-offs by kicking your heel against the ground? That’s what it looked like.—I couldn’t bring myself to leave, and stuck around for another couple hours (and had a less pleasant nose-fixing experience thanks to that, which I will tell you about another time). I remember one of the Wilson sisters, part of the Wilson family (all ballers, even Ma and Pa), can’t remember which one, ringers from the perimeter and slashers both, seeing my crooked nose and making a face that made me think uhoh.

A good court—maybe this is the definition of a good court—helps you witness the catalog, the encyclopedia, of tendernesses it is.

And the beautiful old gym where I went to college, which they replaced with an ugly new one. And the beautiful old gym where I went to grad school, which they replaced with an ugly new one (where I became kin with my brother Patrick, who claims to have ripped me—he described it very precisely, which any good liar knows you do to tell a convincing lie—as I was coming down left handed on a fast break, he poked it with his right and did a 360 dunk he remembers).

All the beautiful old courts I have known that they have replaced with shitty new ones. All the auxiliary gyms, all the courts under an overpass, that run in Pittsburgh in the big public school that got moved when they were redoing the floor to a beautiful gym at Carlow College (god I hope they didn’t ruin that gym with an upgrade). In my memory that gym is like a greenhouse. In my memory there are windows and nooks made of low bookshelves and beanbags and long pillows to lounge on reading or napping or stretching luxuriously when you’re waiting for your game. The very slight beautiful rank smell of gym and fabric. A Roman-style water fountain burbling very nice water. That gym in my memory is a Christopher Alexander situation if ever there was one.

A couple courts in Jersey City. The White Eagle, now that was a gem. Terry Dehere shot eleven three pointers in my face there, until my buddy said, Dude, don’t let him shoot! He’s Terry Dehere! And the one down 9th that you had to kick the broken glass from. And that one in Hoboken on Washington and Park I think. In a big public park, which is usually a good thing. The tight end for the Giants at the time used to get in over there. And that one in Hartford, the courts were a little shiny for my taste, but the runs were good, also in a big public park. Once during some loud debate over a call, some bullshit walk, some bullshit foul, someone said, “Shhh, there’s white people around.” As DuBois more or less says, white people can’t wait to take your rims down.

And so, so many courts in Philadelphia. Palumbo, just up from Sarcone’s, a couple blocks from the fig tree (it’s growing back!) where that little girl who I did not know spotted me from across the gym, set up shop behind me with her sort-of-ruthless comb (to be fair, I was the one let it get so knotty), and put my hair in the prettiest braids they have ever been in while I was watching the game before ours. And Seger court, beloved Seger, where I think I started understanding a court as a site of care, ball as a practice of care, a kind of constant practice at working it out—(which a ref always fucks up; as does, so often, a coach)—which is the point of the game, you know, working it out. You know, together. That’s the flight. That’s the beauty. The quick eye contact—a kind of touch—between you and the guard whose name you do not yet know. The big man, whose name you do not yet know, seeing your eyes touch, sliding into a high backscreen to free you up for an oop. A baby who stumbled on the court whisked quickly off by a kid waiting for next. Dude’s knee buckled and three people immediately put hands on him. Banging on doors and dragging the youngsters out of bed to the court. Bringing water to share. An old timer taking a kid to the side, teaching her how to use her hands in the post. Two bruisers in the key who keep touching each other, leaning on each other, holding each other, while there’s a loooooonnnnnnng dispute over a call. Show me that Jamal Crawford dance move, would you? Hold my ball till tomorrow, I gotta get to work. Man, just keep it. You ok? You good, baby? You alright? Love you. The whole very busy court paused as a father takes his son and another boy, both of them taller than him, who just got into a quick scuffle, outside the court to work it out. The forty-two times he touched those children while talking. The seventeen they touched him. A good court—maybe this is the definition of a good court—helps you witness the catalog, the encyclopedia, of tendernesses it is.

“Shhh, there’s white people around.” As DuBois more or less says, white people can’t wait to take your rims down.

Which leads me to the court I’m playing on now, a more solitary affair, but a beauty still, tucked into a neighborhood not too far from a coffee joint, up a hill, playground nearby, a couple picnic tables I think, and a bike path running next to it. They unbroke my heart by taking the COVID bars off the rims a few weeks back. Like many a perfect court, this one’s too small—with a running start you could jump from one three point line to the other—but too small makes it sweet, a touch jenky, nice for the full-court one on one, two dribbles and you’re in range. One end has a soft rim and the other an obstinate double rim. It’s got a side in the sun and a side in the shade. Which means sometimes a side with puddles and a side without. A side with a drop-off that will tweak your ankle, and a side with an edge smooth as sorbet. (Nothing about this court, I am happy to report, is “smooth as sorbet.”)

On that same side there is a big beautiful tree just low enough to bat away corner threes (not that I would ever shoot one), unless you shoot a line drive (not recommended). A few big soft pines nearby whisper when you make a good move. Or dribble off your foot. There is a simple bench beneath one of them. At one end of the court a loose ball rolls down into a playground and then the street (good for those quick sprints to keep it from escaping), at one end into a little mown field. On one side it rolls beneath a picket fence into someone’s yard, on one side it rolls into a thicket of honeysuckle, redbud seedlings, that creamily fragrant climber I just learned is a clematis, poison ivy, and autumn olive, which is one of my very favorite berries. Autumn olives are sweet, especially the longer they are on the bush, and they are among the most beautiful flourishes in the kingdom. I don’t mean the kingdom. Fuck the kingdom. I mean earth. Little silver speckles on the bright red fruit subtled into shimmering the leaves.

The last time I played here I didn’t want to leave. I kind of couldn’t bring myself to. In my head I was kind of begging my friend, my partner in ball, who is no longer here, (don’t worry, he’s alive), to stick around, to stretch the game out. C’mon man. Five more points combined and we’re done. Now five more. Ok, two more possessions a piece. Two more. C’mon. Let’s stay a little longer, don’t you think? Let’s just keep going. Up and back. Your knees ok? The hammy’s good? Ankle? C’mon, let’s hang around. A couple more shots. Your ball. A couple berries. Clematis in the breeze. Have some of my water. C’mon, my ball. We don’t have to be anywhere, do we? We don’t have to leave anytime soon? Pack up and leave, do we? This must be the sweetest court in all of Indiana. In all of southern Indiana. In southern Indiana. Autumn olive and clematis and a rim soft as bathwater. Should we stay a little longer? Out here? We don’t have to leave do we? Anytime soon? Do we now, need to leave? Is it time now to leave?

Do we need to leave.

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be holding

Be Holding by Ross Gay is available via University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ross Gay
Ross Gay
Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University and is the author of the poetry collections Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (with Aimee Nezhukumatathil), River (with Rose Wehrenberg), Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and the essay collection The Book of Delights. His latest book is Be Holding.





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