SportsIn courts divine
WDET interviews Bill Wylie-Kellermann about this story (MP3)
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The only record of Michael Jordan's that I've ever broken is the number of times I've come out of basketball retirement. About to turn 60, I'm yet again back at a weekly game running full court, at least till I feel a hamstring twinge and have the wisdom to step off for the night.
Years ago, when I thought my quit was for good, I ached with the loss. I fretted and fumed. My sweet wife Jeanie said, "You need a grieving ritual!" When I set out to write a poem, it turned into an essay, my life and times in the game.
I began to write just turning a basketball in my hands, worn and wonderful, and offering a prayer of sorts. Not for victory — I've never done that even when my coach would nod to me piously for a Cooley High School pre-game moment in the locker room. Then and there — I would ask only for our best, for safety, for teamwork, even for the other guys. But here the retirement prayer of my heart is for letting go, for putting aside this game with grace.
The ball with a life of its own, however, summons round memory.
My dad, also a Methodist pastor (you know, I think he played in seminary), always served churches that had gymnasiums, my private courts in the house of God, where hours alone (or with my three younger brothers) could yield an unconscious layup, those leaping steps I'd rehearse again on every passage through our living room archway.
Once on a visit, our cousins (not really ballplayers) brought a family movie camera. The gym (most everyone else at church called it the "All-Purpose Room") became a set. We edited stop-action on the fly to enact the impossible: full-court swishes, slam dunks from a step ladder, and magic passes with a reappearing ball. We fancied ourselves six-foot-eight. A Globetrotters dream. The footage, now a precious 8mm heirloom, never did justice to our imaginings.
I remember, even the smell of it, putting on my first real uniform. It was a Grand Rapids Burton Junior High treasure of gold and black, coarse and aged enough to hint of tradition. I remember watching the gym's dividing wall fold and draw back, like a curtain, on an honest full court with glass boards. I remember the pep band playing jazz as if it were a march, and the aroma of popcorn drifting from the bleachers.
A few years later, those stiff, white junior high cheers ("Do like the Navy does, sink it") gave way at Detroit's Cooley High to liquid and rhythmic ones, full of street soul and a crowd swinging in unison, background music for the run-and-gun dance. I graduated in 1967, and Cooley had a white majority, but there was dancin' in the street and music in the Detroit air, and then the rising smoke of the rebellion.
On the basketball court, my coach taught the fundamentals, the patterns of flow, as though they were waltz steps pasted to the floor. More help in an odd way was Abe Eliowitz, one of my football coaches (who still holds, beyond his dying day, a Big Ten punt record at Michigan). Off-season in the gym, Abe threw me soft, pinpoint football spirals that drew my fingertips a stretch further with each new throw. It was an over-the-shoulder skill made, among other things, for the fast-break game.
But I learned most from an older teammate, George Johnson. (The next year I made captain; Johnson was too "undisciplined," too quick to laugh, too rhythmic to his bones, to even be a starter.) He gave me a stutter-dribble crossover, demonstrated the quick first step, and a two-handed Cazzie Russell board-shot inside. When he showed up homeless, overweight and waxing incoherent 25 years later — a used-up, drug-treated Vietnam vet — I took him home to sleep on the couch, went upstairs and wept.
There were also opposing players, guards from other teams who I faced and knew almost as friends. During a scrimmage game with Southwestern, I knocked heads with Henderson, their point guard, as we dove together for a ball. Blood poured to the floor straight from my torn forehead like an open spigot. Examining me in the office, Southwestern's coach allowed that a couple butterflies of adhesive tape would hold the wound for healing, but my more cautious dad fetched me to our family physician who took one look and demurred. The doc called a plastic surgeon just then en route to a black tie affair, who met us in the emergency room at Detroit Sinai, rolled up his sleeves and put in 80 small stitches while wearing his tux.
Crosstown on the east side in those years, Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson held court in a league all their own — beginning a run straight to the state championship.
One time, at a game with Henry Ford High School, to coach's chagrin, I forgot my shoes and panicked. There I was, pacing the locker room, sockfoot till after the junior varsity game to borrow from one of them a pair of size 10-and-a-half All Stars, which were the canvas high tops of choice in those years. To this day, I have a recurrent anxiety dream about some game or other that begins without me while I search madly for my shoes. My other b-ball dream, of course, is playing in the "zone" — all my moves and shots clean, smooth and literally "unconscious." It's a sensation akin to a dream of flying.
After high school, I recall the surprise delight at playing college intramurals. Without a coach on the sideline either looking on or crashing a clip board to the floor like doom's crack of judgment, I became less tentative. Without the anxious cringe of misstep, set freewheeling and loose, I got better.
LATER, AS a twentysomething seminarian in New York City in the early '70s, I ran the floor with a regular group of guys in the undercroft of Riverside Church. As I recall, they had another gym, one that showed more wear, accessible at street level for neighborhood kids. I confess — we never balked at the privilege of using the good court, which was past security, deep in the monastic silence below the sanctuary. There I learned a fast-break move, running straight at the defender, dropping my shoulder at the last second and slide-stepping on by to the left. The move stayed in my repertoire.
About this time, a buddy of my best friend, Bob Randels, was trying to make it in the New York dance scene. In a darkened gym on the lower west side, he had us walk him through several play patterns and moves. He taught a rank of dancers the distinctive lanky walk of Phil Jackson, who was then playing forward for the Knicks, (they were a stitch all ambling in unison) and choreographed a performance called "Pick and Roll." It was so lovely that he saw dance in the game.
Once, Randels and I walked onto a neighborhood playground in search of a pick-up game. Two young brothers (loose, lean and confident) sized us up: Sure, they'd give us a shot. Soon everything clicked inside and out: off-the-ball moves, picks and tips and fall-away jumpers. We were a sustained lopsided surprise. Thanking them and walking away, we overheard, "They old, but they good." We claimed it for a refrain.
ANOTHER BASKETBALL scene in my life is jail. I've landed there with some frequency, locally and around the country, for nonviolent direct action against militarism, nuclear weapons and on behalf of human rights. In county and city lockups, I've done 10-day, 30-day and even 60-day bits. Inside, basketball represents a certain freedom. Whether it's a skiddy linoleum floor indoors or a chain-link hoop in a wire-topped yard, the ball delights you like a bootlegged cup of real coffee or a visit from a friend. (Actually, I was once in a fancy modular Washington, D.C., lockup — in the early '80s — where a half-court hoop was permanently accessible to the unit's "commonroom." If there must be prisons — and I'm no fan of them — this is an architecture which ought to be more common for my money.) In old Macomb County, where we never left the rock (the iron-bound dorm unit for 15-20 prisoners), we made a "ball" of wadded socks and shot into a trashcan on the upper bunk. We worked up a sweat in what surely was a dangerously physical close-quarters game. Inside, basketball, especially my passing game, was often a quick ticket to acceptance. I was pleased to get tagged court nicknames such as "Detroit" or "Hands." Once, in the Oakland County Jail, I crossed the rock boss (a big dog prisoner) early on by intervening in a late-night sexual intimidation of a young kid. The boss began giving me the evil eye, and I cringed. Then in the yard we played opposite for one game — and thereafter he made certain we were teamed together. After my first baseline dish to him, all was forgiven.
INTO MY MIDDLE-AGED era, there was the Coach Gus Macker All World Three on Three Call Your Own Fouls Backyard Basketball Tournament in Lowell, Mich. My three younger brothers and I (usually with no more than one reunion practice, relying wholly on memory of hours of playing in years past) played in the early originals of that campy event, which eventually swelled to a 100,000-person extravaganza with well-organized local spinoffs and imitators. For us, these were nothing less than annual family reunions replete with grandparents, aunts and cousins decked in sunglasses, wielding lawn chairs and coolers of potato salad and Mountain Dew. Though we lacked the necessary killer instinct, if my brother Pauly hit from the perimeter and Stevie put the body on their big guy, we could shine and have a few of their quirky trophies to show for it.
One year, I equivocated about playing in a "Macker" tournament and my brothers lined up a replacement. When I second-guessed myself and tried to get back in, my successor, who declined to gracefully step aside, was upheld by my brothers to my utter astonishment. At 44 years old, my court career was liminal. Would this have been my last Macker? I cried. The tears released a flood of sibling history. I agonized over rivalry and exclusion and domination, wounds and wants and karmic reversals, self-doubt so deep I wondered if I was loved. Yikes, what freight this game may bear! It is the stuff of dreams, both dark and light.
A few years later, there was another time of tears. Home for Christmas, the brothers commandeered yet another church gym for after dinner, two on two. When Jimmy's knee, which had been through a round of surgery, locked on a rebound landing, he lay on the floor in agony. Fetching ice from the kitchen, the other three of us cried with him, partly in sympathy, but mainly because we knew we had just played all together for the last time in our lives. (In point of fact, during a season of weight-lifting and physical therapy, Jimmy started taking a few shots, entered on a few "easy" games, and before we knew it, in idiocy common to such passions, he made a comeback for one more Macker.)
One time, I lay on the floor writhing in pain. A rambunctious rebound had landed a finger in my eye. I was a rushing mix of emotions — anger and fear — though honestly I'm not sure if I was more worried that I would lose the sight of my left eye or that the injury would end my career prematurely. It did pre-empt a trip to California. I was to fly out the next day to help lead an event at a fancy coastal retreat house, but the doctors put the nix on because of the pressure changes of altitude. The force had not only traumatized the eyeball, but broken the tiny muscle that closes my iris. My reading is affected to this day, and I invariably wear shades outdoors. Though I walked around displacing anger for weeks, I finally had to make peace with the breaks of the game. For a while I added goggles to my equipment bag and probably played with an even more reckless abandon.
I think on a history of wounds and devices: Ordinary ones like scrapes and floor burns and huge blisters we used to thread with a needle dipped in alcohol. After the 80-stitch plastic surgery, I wore a hockey helmet for the remainder of the season. Prone to ankle sprains as I grew older, I learned the value of pre-game stretching and a plastic air cast in my shoe became standard equipment. Coming back from the first orthoscopic knee surgery, I was fitted with a brace of space-age metal and Velcro. I came to feel like robo-guard buckling up my armor for battle. In the end, surgery to the other knee punctuated my career with another period (well, a coma as you'll see). It seemed as if I was facing a choice between squeezing out maybe six more months on the court (no small consideration) or being able to take long walks with my wife Jeanie when we grew old (no real choice when it came down to it — but not so easy nonetheless). When she crossed over to God three years ago, it broke my heart. And here I am, recklessly, back on the court.
When I stop playing basketball, I miss it too much. It's not like the commodified and hyped affection engendered by NBA or Final Four commercials. In fact, sometimes I could barely watch televised games for the ache that's called up. I yearn for that Zen dance, moving and countermoving in community. (My most frustrating days on the court were not so much when I'm missing shots as when I can't feel the flow, or, worse, when there's no flow to find.) In that regard, I was never really a smart player, because there was a level of thinking I just let go. I'd even lose track of the score — nearly everything was in the movement. I know it engaged a different part of my brain because often I'd step off the floor having organized an essay or thought through a sermon, almost without realizing.
Every time I quit, I so miss that dance. And I miss my partners.
Think about it: a standing weekly game in Detroit for as long as I can remember. That's a form of community. First, late night at Detroit Central Methodist where a group of law students (some with college ball experience) traded security duty for a sprawling apartment adjacent to the fourth-floor gym. Then at the Western YMCA (now boarded up), where you had to break into the game ("Can I run with ya?") and then hope to hold the court. Thereafter, for eight years or more at Messiah Episcopal's crackerbox half-court where repair of the hoop from the strain of street-slam-jammers could be a weekly ritual with Jimmy Sweeney hoisted aloft, tools in hand. Now at Spirit of Hope Church on Martin King and Trumbull. Such a circle of friends with whom I would be so frequently and share so much in our aftergame cups. Beloved memory and the stuff of dreams ...
So I wrote it all down for the sake of my heart, for honoring, for evocation, for purge. And this is it, more or less. I hold the ball again. Naming a few names in what goes round as intercession of sorts:
My Dad, and the gift of hands, Jimmy, Stevie, Pauly;
Hondorp, McLean, Scott, Tim, Brian, Eric, Randy;
George, Johnny, Regie, Jeff, Frank, Greg, Doug, Bill, Walter, Danny, Vernon, Gerald and Oliver;
Bill, Don, Tom, Dale and Tom;
Randels, Jack, John, Doug, Martin, Steve;
Mel, James, Johnny Moore, Dee, Cadillac, John, Joe Green;
The Rock Boss (whose name I can't recall) and Joseph (who everyone else called Indian);
Brothers Bill and Bob, Paul V.O. and the law crew;
Artie, John, Ched, Jack, Judy, Bob, Jim, Dan, J.R., Joe;
Glen, Jimmy, Jerry, Richard, Tasso, Erik, George, Sam, Herb, Tom.
Now, AO, Mahdi, Wally, Cisco, Phil, Danny, John, Jim, Shawn, Jean Claude, Matt, Jonathan, Christine, Tom, Jared, Jeff
More than I can name ...
To you all, thanks and common love. —Bill
Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a nonviolent community activist, a sometime writer and a United Methodist pastor serving St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Southwest Detroit. One of his books, Seasons of Faith and Conscience, has just been republished with a new introduction (see wipfandstock.com for more info). Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.