back to the Black Table

When I lived in St. Louis, my co-workers and I used to play basketball every Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. This was difficult, of course, considering I typically worked until midnight and then drank until they kicked me out. But I was devoted to our games. Not only was it the only way I knew to stay at least remotely in shape in the beer-battered, cheese-fried Midwest, but it also allowed me to see my normally staid, corporate colleagues under a brighter, more vivid light.

I’m a Midwestern kid, obviously, but in St. Louis, in these guys’ eyes, I was the weird long-haired freak who had just moved from Los Angeles and knew all these strange bands they’d never heard of (you know, like Nirvana). These are quality people, not hillbillies to


any extent, but St. Louis is a city built for isolation.

When you live in St. Louis, this world is a comfortable one, where you have a comfortable little house in the suburbs and you go to comfortable little Cardinals games and you settle into comfortable little roles with your comfortable little children and your comfortable little George Foreman grill. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; comfort is a luxury that should be exploited, and those who run from it are either reckless or just not yet old enough to know better. (I qualified in both categories.) My world, as a single guy living alone with a cat and nothing even resembling a long-term financial plan, was a foreign one, and even though they were always friendly and welcoming to me, I was certainly a peculiar anomaly, like someone trying to weld using a pogo stick.

But when we stepped on the basketball court, all was stripped away. Any preconceived notions of who a person was and what they stood for were obliterated come gametime. It didn’t matter that Kyle had a newborn baby, or that Ryan drank too much, or that Tom was carrying on a secret affair with a secretary in the office. All you knew, all you needed to know, was that Kyle always hustled for loose balls, Ryan would scream at himself when he missed a jump shot and Tom was always a little too quick to call "FOUL!" when someone harmlessly slapped him on the wrist.

You can learn so much about a guy just by playing basketball with him. You can’t hide your nature on the court. Some people are too competitive, some people are too lazy, some people are too selfish, some people are too quick to criticize in order to cover up their own mistakes. It all comes out when you’re playing basketball. It might seem to you hazardous to so broadly paint entire personalities from what is, essentially, a frivolous activity. You obviously haven’t played basketball in a while. Even choosing to not take the game seriously enough to reveal character traits is, in itself, revealing a character trait.

Basketball is a game, more than any other, that is a beautiful amalgam of the virtue of individual freelancing and the significance of teamwork. No other game allows one person the ability to dominate proceedings the way that basketball does, yet no other game puts such a premium on connecting with others toward a common goal. On the court, people reveal how they see themselves in life. That guy who refuses to ever pass the damned ball, choosing instead to chuck up 20-footers, the odds are very good that he will somehow manifest that property in his everyday goings-on. (He likely Google-searches his name. Often. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The one who concedes that he couldn’t hit a jumper if the basket was the size of a hula hoop and, accordingly, just attempts to play defense and set picks, he’s the type of guy you want to work with, the one who won’t blame you for screwing up the Fisher account just because you’re the one who happens to not be in the meeting.

You are accountable to yourself and your team when you are playing basketball, and if you don’t take that seriously, you likely don’t take much else seriously either. It is a common and misguided cliché to say that sports is a metaphor for life – I’ve yet to see a sporting event that has given me even the vaguest clue as to what women are actually thinking – but nothing comes closer to this than basketball. You cannot hide on the court.

So it was with much eager anticipation that I awaited my new job’s first post-work basketball game, scheduled for last Friday, which provided us with the best weather we’ve had in months. I enjoy my job, even when I struggle at it, because my co-workers are friendly, competent people, and I’m always learning something new, a vastly underrated virtue. But I hadn’t played basketball with them; in a way, it was almost like, until that happened, I wouldn’t really know them.

Only five people signed up, which was fine, considering we only have seven people on staff. (Let me tell you, America, these are lean journalistic times.) John, the art director; Matt, the managing editor; David, a senior editor; and Ross, a reporter like me. We sneaked out the side door at 3 p.m. after changing into our athletic gear, which, for one staffer, consisted of a T-shirt, jeans and loafers. There’s a court right across the street from the office, and we were met, strangely, by five Yugoslavian teenagers. They asked us if we were down for a game. We looked at their young, fit exteriors, and their legit Nike gear, and their skeptical look-at-these-old-farts expressions, and then we looked at our middle-aged paunches. "OK. But no full court."

And we were off. It was an educational experience all around. John, who, being an art director, is allowed enough quirkiness points to wear shorts around the office, was a smiling, jovial presence who picked everybody up when they were gasping for air and, most important, was a key low-post presence. Ross and David hadn’t played in a long time, but they both worked hard and even showed some surprising ballhandling skills. At work, Matt is a bulldog, the type of guy who busts his ass, challenges authority and will be the first person to remind you when you’ve screwed up, and why. It was thus not surprising when he ended up screaming at an opponent for calling a foul when the he barely touched the dude. What was most impressive, however, was the way we all stayed together. Essentially, all I know about these guys is what I see on an 8-to-6 basis. But somehow, we instinctively played off each other perfectly, always finding the open man and not berating each other for missing open layups, which happened often. They all played hard, and they played well. I had a larger respect for all of them.

And me? What kind of player am I? Well, I’m the best player on the team, obviously, and I just can’t understand why they wouldn’t pass me the ball. Oh, they’ll learn.


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