Another wintry Sunday morning at seven. And in the bifurcated building of a century-old Catholic parish called St. Joseph’s, the faithful gather. On one side of the church wall, a few congregants beseech God as they join in the celebration of Mass. And on the other side, a few men beseech God as they join in games of basketball, their shouts of “Jesus Christ!” and “Goddammit!” rising above the wheezing of the close but unseen church organ.
I am among these middle-aged blasphemers, showing no emotion if I win, but full-throated in my profane analysis if I lose. Bowed and gasping after each game, I feel the mysterious tug on my basketball jersey that tells me I belong in one of the hardwood pews a few dozen yards away, squirming once again inside the Catholic Church of today. But for now at least, I find more comfort standing here, on a hardwood basketball court in an old gym, breathing in the stale, familiar air of the Catholic Youth Organization past.
For more than a decade, I have been playing in this informal Sunday morning game, which was established a few years earlier by a dozen men who cheekily called themselves the Apostles. With the promise of modest donations to the financially challenged parish, they were granted that most coveted and elusive item of our youth, the gymnasium key. For it is written on the walls of childhood: There is no greater waste than an unused basketball court.
I am drawn by the game’s invitation to extend my boyhood, if only for a while. So I rise before the sun and the bedroom radiator’s heat to gather my things, fumbling about for my gym bag, dropping my basketball, then my sneakers. As I tiptoe like Bigfoot toward the door, my wife calls from the bed to be careful. She’s up for good.
Soon I am driving along the deserted streets of a city-close suburb with some urban attitude, peering through the peephole I have shaved from the wafer of frost covering the windshield. Passing the front of the church, I come upon the dawn’s only other movement, a few older people walking gingerly toward the church’s castle-worthy doors, as though age has covered the steps before them with imperceptible ice. Pausing to let one of these faithful cross the street, slowly, I wonder whether the decades have revealed to them a divine presence most keenly felt at first light, when all else is still.
I slip past the church’s door in favor of a parking lot at the back of the building, facing the gymnasium door. Three or four other cars are idling in expectation, their bundled drivers hunched over steering wheels, seeking warmth from the overheated sports chat emanating from their radios. They look like silhouetted monks in cloistered cells of metal and glass, deep in mysterious meditation. I bow my head and join them as we wait for the arrival of one of the Keepers of the Code—an Apostle who has been entrusted with the combination to the lockbox, beside the door, that contains the key. Over the years, the ever-changing combinations have reflected our age and sports affiliations: 1-9-6-9, for the year the Mets won their first World Series, for example, or 5-6-1-7, for the combined jersey numbers of Lawrence Taylor and Keith Hernandez. Sometimes, though, past and present combinations commingle in the mind, leaving men to huddle in the cold like hapless burglars while waiting for the frozen-fingered deciphering of the head yegg.
Not that the gym is much warmer. In winter, the only benefits to playing inside are the lack of snow on the court and the brick protection against the shot-altering wind. We shuffle in and sit for a few minutes on the frigid floor, stifling private doubts about whether this game is behind us, summoning the body heat and energy to begin. We grunt, we curse, we joke about being able to see breath still redolent of last night’s beer. Then, as churchgoers on the other side of the wall stand to pray at the commencement of Mass, we stand to take jump shots with basketballs that, like us, nearly always need more air.
In many ways, the gymnasium represents every other old parish gym known to any veteran of CYO. Your gym may have had pillars planted in the middle of the court, or a low ceiling that thwarted rainbow jump shots, or sidelines so close to the glazed-brick wall as to deny the existence of out-of-bounds. But they were all united by certain constants: cramped space; poor heat; dappled light; sweat-infused air; coaches just home from work, still in their ties or uniform shirts, shouting out nicknames for pick-and-roll plays; parents, still in their winter coats, sitting in the battleship-gray folding chairs also used for bingo nights; and children in basketball uniforms bearing the names of their parishes, St. This and Our Lady of That, in colors that might or might not signal the ethnicity of their parish’s founders. Growing up, mine were green and gold, for the Irish. Let’s go, St. Cyril’s, St. Cyril’s, let’s go....
This gym, this St. Joseph’s gym, in Maplewood, New Jersey, five miles from downtown Newark and fifteen from Manhattan, is all that and more. The parish was established in 1914, when a trolley ran between the mud fields on either side of Springfield Avenue, and peach trees outnumbered Catholics. The first pastor held the inaugural Mass in the third-floor attic of one of the sixteen member families. The first collection reaped seven dollars.
As the Newark suburbs grew, so did St. Joseph’s. The parish used a two-story house as its chapel and rectory until it scraped together enough money to build a small brick church, followed a few years later by a new school and auditorium, But the Depression and a ballooning congregation tempered the parish’s simple ambitions. By the late 1930s, the pastor had no choice but to convert the school auditorium into a church that could seat nine hundred—a humble circumstance that would remain for thirty years, until the parish could finally afford to build a new church and use the auditorium as a gym.
This means that we play our pick-up basketball games in a sacred space. We lace up our sneakers on what was once the altar. We rest against walls adorned with church iconography: the host and chalice; the haloed lamb; the IHS monogram of the name of Jesus Christ. We run back and forth past spots that once represented the Stations of the Cross. We jockey for position, jostle for rebounds, pat backs, throw elbows, curse, reassure, shout out the mid-game scores, 6–3, 4–2, 1–1, that will lose every whiff of urgency once one team scores a seventh basket—all in the very space where generations were baptized, married, eulogized, and sent to their final reward. I miss a layup where an out-of-work father might have prayed for a way to feed his family. I foul an opponent where a mother might have sought solace for the loss of a soldier-son in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam. I make a jump shot where I know that my wife received her First Holy Communion. Imagine all the silent seeking for that spiritual something beyond articulation that went on here, fulfilled and not, replaced now by middle-aged men trying, as we say, to get open.
Until very recently, we even played in the presence of a large crucifix that hung from two chains behind one of the baskets, above what had been the church altar and school stage. The crucifix has been removed, but there remains a discolored, basketball-size patch of plaster on the back wall, marking the spot where one of us, unhappy with his performance in a vital, all-important game to seven, rocketed a Spalding basketball in frustration. The moment seemed to slip free of life’s time clock as we watched the ball close in on the crucifix. That would be bad, very bad. We prayed Oh please God, not the crucifix. Now this off-white patch, just below where Christ’s left arm was once outstretched, has joined the other iconography as a symbol of something: the power of prayer, perhaps, or the closeness between the sacred and the profane. The closeness between the church, there, and us, here.
In the Sunday morning coldness of the gym, we hope, we need, to play. We aspire to games of four-on-four on this truncated court, but if we cannot muster the eight players necessary, six will suffice for half-court games of three-on-three. (Two-on-two has lost its charm over the many years, it seems—too strenuous, and too complicit in exposing one’s diminishing skills.) But sometimes we are only five, and I find myself staring out the gymnasium window, all but willing the appearance of a sixth player to drive up in his SUV. These moments of expected disappointment resurrect a childhood that seems to have been spent exactly this way: looking out a gym door or through a dugout’s chainlink trellis, praying for one more kid, just one more, to show up so that my team would not forfeit the game. As a child, I considered forfeiture to be a crime against the natural order. Now here I am again, feeling all that and more, especially the sense of losing the precious time left to jog, to jump, to shoot. To play.
A sixth arrives and is greeted with derisive hoots that are rightly interpreted as expressions of relief and joy. Not too long ago, we had an active roster that numbered two-dozen players, with as many as fourteen or fifteen men routinely showing up to play. Under the universally recognized code that allows winners to stay on the court, this meant that if you lost a game when fifteen had come to play, you might have to sit out two games—a gymnasium eternity—before being able to step onto the court again. Now, though, our numbers have dwindled to the point where we are commonly phone-texting laggards at 7:15 on a Sunday morning to fulfill their obligation: Drag your sorry ass out of bed and get down here.
Where has everyone gone? A few men have moved away, gotten divorced, taken jobs in other states. But the rest, it seems, have surrendered to age, injury, and fatigue. That white-haired guy with the short-and-sweet jumper? Bad feet. That former high-school star who could nail three-pointers with effortless flicks of his wrist? Bad back. That bull of a defender who would yank on knee braces like protective armor? One Sunday he did not show up, and never came back. We took his absence as a kind of death.
On the other side of the wall, the other ritual continues, the call-and-response between priest and congregation, the offertory, the exchange of signs of peace. And we are doing the same. The call-and-response between teammates: the urgent “Pick left” and “You got him.” The offertory: “Ball’s in.” And the peaceful exchange at the end of every game, when we shake or slap hands—though, in truth, hard fouls and sneaky picks have nearly led to fisticuffs in this former house of prayer.
In the snap of a finger, or the throw of an elbow, we can revert instantly to hot-blooded boyishness. Decades of adult experience melt away, considerations of families and jobs evaporate, and what matters, what really, really matters, is that this forty-five-year-old clown admit that he touched the ball last before it went out of bounds. But just at the brink of true violence, something stops us. Call it maturity. Better yet, call it fear of having to tell your wife and employer that you have a broken nose because an opponent in a meaningless pick-up game knocked the ball out of bounds and just wouldn’t admit it.
So far at least, we have averted true violence, and have ended all our games with exchanges of peace, if occasionally with eyes averted. The same, I suspect, is happening in church.
Those of us who return, Sunday after Sunday, cannot fathom not playing basketball. We are in our forties and early fifties now, and the game has partly defined us since we were of First Holy Communion age, in CYO games, in high school games, in college intramural games, in over-thirty-league games, in hundreds and hundreds of pick-up games wherever we have lived, and in countless private moments of shooting baskets alone, in almost prayerful reverie. Placing our fingertips along the ball’s seam. Creating the proper rotation. Offering it up. Missing. Offering it up again. Thinking about parents and proms and girls and school finals and jobs and a girl—a woman—and marriage and home and children, keep them safe, and parents, and the dead, and offering it up. Again.
A decade ago, when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, I took comfort in this form of meditation, just as I had as a boy. Instead of requesting the affections of a girl, or an economic improvement in our challenged household, or the fading of the ghosts that seemed to haunt my father—always with an attempt to seal the deal by hitting ten consecutive foul shots—I prayed to be healed. Please, God, please, I would whisper, then release the spinning ball with chemo-numbed fingers. One. Two. Three, please God.
How, then, can we simply—stop? How can I? We ask this even though we know that those who are no longer with us asked themselves the same question. They were just as loyal to the game. We know this as we stretch on the cold, hardwood floor, talking about meniscus woes and floating cartilage and knees and hips and backs that are shouting Enough, already. The inevitability, never considered before, is very much with us now, so we talk past it, discussing the Knicks and the Nets, the Giants and the Jets, the Yankees and the Mets, the athletic accomplishments of our children who, to our mind, do not appreciate as dearly as we do the availability of an open gym. Then we stand, still stiff but calling ourselves loose, the hinged movement of our knees sounding like shifting sand—and we choose sides.
Another game ends, and disorientation sets in. I am catching my breath in space so familiar to me—an old Catholic school gym, once used as a church—and yet, now, so foreign. The parochial school at St. Joseph’s has closed, and the building is being rented to a small charter school. The convent has been sold for condominium use. The throngs of parishioners have thinned. The priest scandals and the tone-deaf response to them, the changes in the liturgical wording, the scale-back of Vatican II reforms, the insistence on a celibate patriarchy—all these have left me wondering where I’m supposed to be on the court. Where is my position? In basketball terms, I feel as if I’ve lost my man.
But I keep seeking communion. Like those older congregants on the other side of the church wall, I dutifully attend an early-morning Sunday service that nourishes me in ways that others might not understand. For now at least, when some of my friends rush out the door to make the nine o’clock Mass, I stay behind, looking for one more game, looking to get open.