Many years ago I played on a basketball team in Boston. Men’s league, guys in their twenties, some of them very good ballplayers indeed. We had one of those guys. He had played college ball. Terrific athlete—he was also a world-class frisbee player, whose ultimate-frisbee team had actually, no kidding, won the first world title, in Sweden. Great hoop player, though: smooth and graceful and efficient and generous, a wonderful passer.
Among the little quirks in his game—and there were many, including the occasional wearing of Mardi Gras beads on the court—was this one: when we formed our layup line to warm up before a game, he liked to slap the backboard after the ball left his hand. The first few times he did this we laughed; then slowly and wordlessly, in the way of such things, we all began to do it, because it was funny and silly and annoyed the other teams, who thought we were showing off or somehow deriding them. We did it in winter league, in tiny hot gyms, and we did it in summer league, outdoors under the towering elms and oaks of the parks where we played. Sometimes we riffed on it, with extra beats, and sometimes one guy would slap the backboard hard enough to make it shake, and so throw off the next guy’s shot, and we would all snicker, and every other game or so the ref would mutter to our captain that if we did that in the game he would call a technical foul, and our captain would report this to us with high glee, and we would snicker again, and then the game would start.
Well, our guy with the beads got sick. Very sick. The kind of sick where your body slowly closes up shop and eventually you die when your heart and lungs give out. It was awful to watch. It’s awful enough to watch in anyone, but it’s really awful when an unreal athlete gets that kind of sick and that graceful smooth vessel in which he expressed his joy grinds to a halt and collapses. He could shoot with either hand, the only player I ever saw who could actually do that, although many a player has tried. He loved hitting ridiculous shots, and then turning to us and laughing aloud that such an insane shot had dropped right through the middle of the hoop. Sometimes one of those shots would ripple the net in such a way that it got caught on the rim and someone would have to jump up and pull it down again.
He died. Sure he did. No one comes back from being as sick as he was—not yet, although a lot of his friends still do fundraisers all these years later, to try to help the medical world invent a way for people to make a comeback from that kind of sickness. Someday maybe, but not yet.
But here’s the little thing I wanted to tell you. After he died a bunch of us were playing basketball one night, in one of the parks where we used to play summer-league ball. There were eight of us and we stretched and taped our ankles and chaffed and asked about wives and girlfriends and jobs and first kids, and then we were going to split up and play four-on-four, but as we ambled onto the court to warm up this little thing happened: We got back into our old layup line, and the first guy, our point guard, drove in for a layup, and slapped the backboard. The next guy slapped the board also and we all got the message and just for a few minutes that night eight guys drove for lazy layups and slapped the backboard, and then one guy slapped it so hard that the board shivered and the next guy’s layup squibbed away, and we all snickered, and then the game started. But I wanted to tell you about those few minutes, when we did that little thing that wasn’t little. I bet every one of us remembers those few minutes, too. There are many ways to pray.