It’s 1:15 a.m. Thursday morning and I’m on the Mott avenue/Far Rockaway train. I have slept maybe a total of two hours in the last three days. Last time I went to bed, it was still the weekend. I’m weak, I’m tired and I’m worried.
I’m worried because tomorrow is press day and I haven’t finished writing my column. Well, actually, I’ve written the column three times already and all three times it was completely absent of original thought.
I can’t seem to think of anything that makes me proud of athletics. I’m sure there’s a lot out there but there’s none of it in here, in my head.
I open my eyes and it’s suddenly Utica avenue. Apparently, I’ve fallen asleep. I dreamt of being ten again. I was at the PS 68 playground shooting hoops with a couple of guys from the neighborhood. The moment I woke up, I felt scared for not knowing where I was. The moment after that, I felt exhausted for knowing when I was. Where are the days of old, when I could eat half a pound of discount sugar-laced cereal and then run around like a dosed up monkey in a lab on the courts?
Those were truly the halcyon days of my youth, I think. Watching some early Saturday morning cartoons, doping myself with whatever milk-soaked sugary goodness I could find and then heading over to PS 68 or Farmer’s Oval for 12 hours of masochistic basketball epics. Being a 75 pound white kid wearing what probably amounted to 80 pound glasses, I was sure to get abused. Who cares, really? Me and a bunch of my little park friends would sit there in the park for probably twelve hours. From 10 in the morning until 10 at night we would run around on nothing but breakfast and park water.
There was a certain presence in the air. Call it the urban ghost. The urban ghost that was present in the bodegas, on the corners and in the nickel bags; the urban ghost that stared at us from every red and brown brick, threatening to trap us forever; the urban ghost that scared away police, politicians and hope; the urban ghost that served as a companion to the courts of man and the courts of basketball. It permeated the soul of the playground and the same way it disarmed the police and politicians, it disarmed the drug dealers and the local "affiliations."
Everyone left everything that meant anything to the outside anyone at the side- or baselines and brought nothing but their game to the court.
We fought. With the dusty asphalt powder rising to overtake the air in our lungs and the glare of the chemically distorted sun searing holes in the skin of our youth, we fought. As the five-o sedan rolled by and tried to intimidate us with their screaming sirens and their legion uniform, we fought. While the shattered lives on legs pushed their carts and the icy man screamed his offers and our parents slept, dreaming of a better life for us, we fought. It all came together in a screaming visual cacophony of the urban ghost and the budding futures and a scary world, and we fought.
Basketball meant everything. It filled us like a gas, completely and ultimately. We had no other concerns.
It probably sounds like heaven but it sure didn’t look like heaven. The parks were dusty, the rims were crooked and the urban ghost waited for us right outside the court.
That didn’t matter and, really, nothing mattered. It may seem foolish or quaint or just plain idiotic but I miss it.