"You're in the paint too long."
"No, I'm not. Don't think so."
"Yeah, you are. Fake him once, twice maybe, but if you don't lift him, throw it up or kick it out—but do something."
I'm sweating, sitting against the wire fence surrounding a minuscule patch of green by an apartment building entrance. I've already drained my Coke; my son Matt is still nursing his. We have just played two hours of hard basketball under a hot midday sun, on the courts we call Gansevoort Street, in New York City. There are four baskets for half-court and there's one typically undersized full court whose baskets have nets. Most of the time, we play half-court.
July 21, 1985
Matt thinks about his inside game, which is very good indeed. "I don't know, Dad. I don't think I'm in there that long. Besides, I could take the guy. That first game? Did you see the way I ran him baseline for the reverse?"
I remember. He smiles and slaps the ball into a fast riff of percussive dribbles.
This will be a summer of passages for Matt and me, not as father and son per se but as athletes who are father and son. I am 35, he is 15; I'm 6'3", 190 to his 5'10", 153. I'm going, he's coming.
We had a deal from the start. I would never hold back and let him beat me at anything. That way, when he did win, it would be for real. In chess, eight ball and straight pool, Ping-Pong and darts, he has had his wins. He's very close in tennis, less so in racquetball.
But hoops is the checkpoint that matters the most. It was my game. Once, for a white guy, I could sky. I can still jam it, on a good day. I know the rules and the nuances and urgent geometry of the game and so does Matt. We've seen Bird's Celtics 60 times in the past six years, and we've seen the Bulls in Chicago and the Knicks in New York and the Lakers in the Forum. We've seen the NIT and the Boston Shoot-out, and we've also seen the serious street players at West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village.
The players on West Fourth are too good. Even in my best days I would have been too slow and court-bound for the woofing high-fliers who gallivant above those full-court rims. So, for this first summer of ours together in New York, Gansevoort Street will be the setting for our crossing paths. There are lithe young city players who have a game. But there are also a lot of people like me, guys who had a game and still attempt to express it. If Matt's to succeed as a player, he'll have to shine at Gansevoort Street. If he's to beat me, it will be here.
On this day he shows how close he is. Our first game was against two well-muscled black guys who checked us out and agreed reluctantly to a two-on-two. The action is fast and physical. I'm tiring now, letting Matt start the play while I set up low, leaning hard against my man and mostly, when I get the ball, looking for Matt cutting to the hoop. I find him with some workmanlike passes, and that's when our opponents start getting impressed. Matt darts into the contact, waits for the double, and dishes behind his ear to his stumbling father for the bunny. Or he takes the pressure, lifts it away with a fake or a spin and drops a soft banker through the tangle of hunting arms and hands. He doesn't high-five or holler, just goes back to the top of the key for the start of the next point. His man starts muttering "nice shot" or "nice pass" or just "damn." The game is close but we win, barely hanging on. My legs quit on me in the heat, and my man is up and over, time and again, but too late. Matt admonishes me for letting up, but is careful to do it gently. After all, he knew me when I was a wolf on the court.
"You guys gotta play together a lot," says Matt's man in the next game. Two white guys—big but can't play. Fifteen-six, history. No rematch.
Next game, three-on-three. Actually, it will be three games. This is the good one. Everybody can play, but Matt, the only kid, is the horse. He has a stretch when he can't be stopped. Bink, bink, bink. He's scoring over a guy 6'4" and flashing for the ball to do it again. When the streak runs dry and he clangs a few, he begins looking for the pass and finds me and our other teammate a few easy hoops. For the third game of the set, someone on the other team says, "Let's switch, we'll take the kid." We agree. Most of the time Matt's guarded by someone else, but several times I have to take him on the switch. I check him a couple of times, but he leaves me flat-footed or zooms around me, winning our segment of the battle.
Our work schedules keep us from playing together as much as we would like. Matt goes down to Gansevoort Street every day anyway, and his own game will develop or stall whether I'm there or not. The regulars know him, and he doesn't sit on the sidelines.
It's funny, being a young father to a strapping teenaged son. For a few years, with Matt so near his game and me just past mine, we shared something close to our best game. No longer. Now there's nothing on the court I can teach him.
I reach for his Coke, take another swig and say, "You see my block on that guy? Surprised the hell out of him!"
Matt laughs. "Oh, yeah, that was awesome, Dad." He pauses then, looking at me, his laugh now a conspiratorial smile. "No, really, Dad. It was a good block."
I reach behind me, grabbing for the fence post to help pull myself up. "What're you going to do this afternoon?" I ask.
Matt springs lightly to his feet. I'm sure he doesn't do it on purpose.
"I don't know, Dad. You've gotta go to work now? Maybe I'll go back to the court, for a while. I played lousy that last game. Couldn't throw it in the ocean. And I know I could take that guy!"
He smiles and turns, bouncing the ball around his back and through his legs, heading for the court. Then he stops, looks back at me as though he has remembered something, and raises his can of Coke.
"You want the rest of this? I've had enough."