You Want My Ball?

by

10/13/2005

Bedford Ave. & S. 2nd St. ny ny 11211

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

9/3/05 7:51 PM

Whenever I feel melancholy I like to find the nearest basketball court and play until I sweat and my knees buckle. I have kept up this habit for about three years, during which I have lived in five neighborhoods, playing in about as many courts. I played on a strip of black tar in Bushwick that lay among a mass of factories and smelled of sulfur. I played on a court tucked into a corner of McCarren Park in Greenpoint that offered a splendid view of the dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church. I played in a schoolyard in Park Slope, where I often heard the jibe, “Big for nothing.”

Street basketball is not like golf or squash; the game offers little camaraderie. Teams are formed and disbanded as quickly as it takes to finish a cocktail. Your typical streetballer is a narcissist: when he sinks a shot, often he is the only one to applaud. But when he misses, nearly everybody jeers.

My new apartment, in South Williamsburg, has a kitchen that overlooks a resplendent backyard, a welter of leafy stalks and purple flower clusters. Today, looking away from my work, I noticed three or four small green-breasted birds assaulting the flowers. Hummingbirds. Surprised that the neighborhood would serve up such a gaudy display of nature, I watched for a while, and then returned to my writing.

Later, I went out to get something to eat, creaking down a stairwell that smelled of burnt coffee. When I came back the stairwell smelled of garlic and shrimp. I read sixty pages of “The Leopard.” By that time, my apartment smelled of barbeque smoke wafting up from the backyard.

Melancholy is often a product of luxury, of underused muscles and overindulged senses. The lushness of reading, writing, bird-watching, and fine-food-smelling was weighing on me. I knew I had to go outside and run around on concrete, strain my muscles, crash into other bodies.

My ball, which I had bought on the street in Morningside Heights for five dollars, is slick from overuse, but I carried it to the nearest court. There was a half-court game in progress. I took two shots at the available hoop, missing twice. A small boy with brown skin and an oversized T-shirt appeared before me. He wanted to know if he could have the ball “for a few minutes.” For what? I asked. “I want to play with my friend,” he said.

Mildly insulted, I demurred. “You can shoot around with me if you like,” I said. I took a shot, and another boy, maybe thirteen, grabbed the rebound. He suggested we play a game called Utah. I agreed, and proceeded to chase him about half-heartedly, imposing on myself the rule that I fake him out before shooting, instead of just shooting over him, as I could so easily have done without even jumping. I won, and began to walk away from the court, when I heard a high-pitched shout, “Hey kid!”

It was the small boy, the one who had asked for my ball. What a rude kid. During my game with the older boy, he had issued a stream of complaints and importunities: “I didn’t get to shoot,” “Let me shoot,” “I wanna shoot.” But when the ball did unexpectedly carom into his hands, he did not shoot. He dribbled, forcefully and unproductively, booming the ball against the ground as if to compensate for his small voice and stature.

Now he said, “Let me play with the ball.”

“You want my ball?” I asked.

He nodded. “I’ll keep it here,” he said. “I promise. I swear to God.”

On the basketball court people often become obstacles. Muscle-bound men prevent you from driving to the basket, and small boys needle and complain and run around your legs and prevent you from losing yourself in the erratic rhythm of a ball clanging off a rim.

But now I saw the boy as just that, a boy, dressed either for fashion or thrift in a T-shirt that was too big for him.

“Where is your ball?” I said.

“Tomorrow,” he said, without hesitation. “I’m getting one tomorrow.”

“I need this ball back,” I said. “I’ve lost too many balls. If I give it to you, I need you to give it back to me tomorrow.”

“I will,” he said. “I promise.”

“What’s your name?”

“Mohammed.”

“Here Mohammed, I’m trusting you.” I held out the ball. “When will you bring it back to me?”

He placed both hands on the ball.

“Tomorrow.”

“What time tomorrow.”

“Four o’clock.”

“Okay. Four o’clock tomorrow.”

I let go of the ball, but not before insisting, absurdly, that we shake hands. He offered a limp hand and then grabbed the ball and dribbled violently toward the hoop. I walked back home, wondering whether I would see the boy tomorrow, and whether I had patronized him, and if not, what it meant that I had given him something to hold, to bounce, to hoist into the air, something he had wanted badly enough to beg for but would have to give up in less than a day, lest he do wrong and break a promise.

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