Lately, I’ve been writing poems about places from my youth. Something a few weeks ago brought back the memories of the basketball court in the alley behind my house as a boy. I think I can partly blame poet, friend and blogger Brian Gilmore for this. (Check his blog, by the way, Chocolate City Review) Nonetheless, I got thinking about how much I loved playing basketball on that half-court. It was a kind of first love. A passion, to be sure. The court took up the width of a functioning alley in Pomona, California, about thirty miles east of Los Angeles. We sometimes had to stop to let a car pass. The hoop hung above my next-door neighbors’ garage door. The alley was wide enough for nearly a half court game. So three-on-three was it.
I probably began playing there when I could first shoot at a regulation height basket, eight or nine years old. I know I played there through high school and probably sometimes on trips home from college. When I was a boy, we had a ton of kids in our neighborhood, so finding enough kids for a three-on-three game was rarely a problem. Plus, we had a couple of lights back there so in the summer, we could play well into the night. Besides the regular games, I probably played a million games of “horse” back there too. I remember running, as fast as I could, down my own driveway toward the alley, when I heard someone bouncing a ball back there. What a joyful time.
I was an average to decent player in those days, a guard obviously, given that today on my best days, I’m 5-foot nine-inches tall. My advantage was stamina. As a runner, I didn’t tire on defense. And it’s on defense, I would argue, that games are won and lost. I had my favorite shot and spot, a simple jump shot from about 17-feet out, just off the right end of the free throw line. I practiced that shot a million times and was decently consistent from there.
As I think back, I learned to win and lose on that court. I learned how crucial attitude was. I learned how to take advantage of another’s arrogance. I learned to use my stamina. I also left a good bit of sweat on that court. I surely left more than enough blood and skin. My hands, knees, elbows, forearms still have marks the concrete alley left on me. Whether from diving for a loose ball or from being knocked on my behind, I gave that court my blood.
I dreamed of my favorite players on that court: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Jerry West, to name a few.
A memory I treasure is of my mom or dad coming to our back gate, which looked out at the court, and telling us, probably around 9pm that it was getting a little late. I’d ask them for 15 more minutes– just to finish the game. They always let us finish the game.
The photo above, by Tom Nachtrab, isn’t the garage of my youth, but it’s a sweet photograph I found searching “Alley Basketball.”
Here is a current draft of one of the Alley Ball poems.
Alley Ball: Free Throw
Blue stones in the concrete
wait, unblinking eyes, watching
to see if boy will do it right.
He lines up toe to an imagined
line from the basket to his
chest, a country where everyone
breathes like this. He places
his other foot to the left, natural
as water, as bread, and
he bounces. Not enough to
shift his balance but enough
to prove it. He owns this
earth of stone, smoothed
with the work of shoes,
spit, and the sweat of dreaming boys.
Boy focuses on the back
of the rim, like he was taught,
a disciple who believes
the master. He rises, holds
his eyes on the orange iron rim,
right hand loose behind the ball,
left hand guiding, like the patron
saint of geometry. His knees
bend just enough to be
humble before the defenseless
god who cannot look away
as the ball spins backward
and arcs skyward, according to his will.