I grew up playing basketball in New York City. It’s referred to as the “mecca of basketball,” but since the Knicks haven’t won a championship since 1973, the term “meh”-ca would be more appropriate. The days of glory, when the late Willis Reed limped on the court in 1970 and faced off with the Bunyanesque Wilt Chamberlain, are long gone. Unlike Spike Lee, who is a fixture at Knick games, my devotion as a fan has sorely diminished, but my love of the game has not.
When I was a teenager, I spent hours on the courts near my apartment in the Bronx. There was fierce competition among friends sprinkled with trash talk, jammed fingers, elbows to the head, and occasional blood spilled from a wicked encounter with the asphalt.
I have been coming out east since the early 1970s. Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I finally bought a house, not too far from where, back in the ’50s, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner ignited the art world.
We were weekenders, but then the pandemic hit and we moved here full time. The pandemic changed everything. Life stopped. We lived in panic and isolation. It felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. Like many, I felt lost, in a fog, living in a state of suspended animation. I was desperate to find something to ground me and bring some joy.
Call me crazy, but I like interacting with a ball. One day I was driving by the Springs School and remembered there was a wall I could hit a tennis ball against. Not very satisfying, but it was something to get the blood flowing. I could practice my mediocre backhand. After about two visits to the wall, I was bored to death. I needed to find something else.
Across from the tennis courts I noticed a basketball court. My interest was piqued, and I headed over to it only to find that the hoop was covered by wood. Covid prevention. A reminder that sweaty bodies bumping up against each other could now prove fatal.
But the buzz of basketball had been activated. I started driving around East Hampton looking for a court I could play on, but everywhere I went the hoops were boarded up. I had been visited by my hoop dreams but they were boarded up like an old house.
I was talking about my frustration with a friend when she asked, “Why don’t you put up your own basketball hoop outside the house in the street?” I’m not sure why I didn’t think of that, but within a week I had a few masked friends come over and with the help of a YouTube video and much fumbling, we got it up.
I had an old basketball with barely any grip buried among the debris of my basement, but immediately started researching “best outdoor basketball.” I settled on the Spalding Zi/O. Searching for sneakers, I landed on a pair, red and black. I was ready to shake and bake.
As the days passed, I found myself looking forward to shooting some hoops. Slowly, the clunkers and clangers gave way to some swishes. As the rust wore off, I began to connect to a part of myself that had been recessed to a faraway place, away from the day-to-day stresses and responsibilities of adulthood. I began to lose myself in the joy of just being in my body and rekindling my relationship with my teenage self and a ball.
The only thing missing from the experience was music. So I put on my Bluetooth headphones and clicked on a song by the Temptations I used to listen to for inspiration. I recalled the lyrics as if it were yesterday: “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now.” With that, the transformation was complete.
For 30 minutes three or four times a week, it was the music, the ball, and me. No worries, except, of course, when I had to chase the ball into the woods and feared getting poison ivy.
As cars approached, I would stand to the side and wave them on. Sometimes they would acknowledge me with a thumbs-up or a flicker of headlights and even a little shout-out if they happened to see me make a shot before they passed.
I started getting bold and dribbling between my legs and behind my back. Every once in a while after a shot I would do a little dance or point my finger at an imaginary teammate acknowledging the sweetness of the shot. I even watched a MasterClass by Stephen Curry on the art of shooting a basketball. Turned out my form was pretty good, but I needed to raise my release point to prevent people from blocking my shots. Sort of a moot point in my world, since I was the only one on the court.
One day, I shimmied into the woods after an errant ball and had a staring match with a deer. It seemed to look at me as if it were saying, “Are you serious? You know what a fool you look like?”
“Yep,” I responded. I shrugged as if to say, “So what?” The shrug seemed to send the deer sprinting off.
Sometimes the best thing you can do in life is throw caution to the wind and just be a damn fool. So find the fool in you and every once in a while shed the weight of the world and lose yourself. It’s liberating.
And if you are ever in Springs, drop by for a game of HORSE. If you’re lucky, I’ll teach you the trick of shooting a hook shot.
Jerry Finkelstein is a clinical psychologist and the author of “Where Are Your (K)nots? Getting Unstuck in Your Life.”