IT’S BECOME A RITUAL…
At 6:50 AM most weekdays, I get up, put on my USC sweatshirt and basketball shorts, drink a glass of water, grab my basketball, and head over to the park to shoot some hoops.
The park at which I play is — like Los Angeles in general — very Asian and very Jewish.
At the entrance, there’s a statue commemorating the life of “Haym Solomon,” a Polish Jew active in the Revolutionary War. Fun Fact: not only did Haym Solomon have the most stereotypically-Jewish name of all time, but his contribution to the war efforts was as a financial broker.
There’s also a Holocaust Memorial at the North end of the park that’s been under construction since I moved to this area, but no one seems to be working on it anymore; it just sits there half-finished behind chain link fences. I don’t know if people will ever forget the Holocaust, but they forgot to finish its memorial. Whenever they choose to complete it, it will be right across from the basketball courts and the athletic center — because nothing gets you fired up about physical fitness like the most heinous crimes of all time perpetrated against history’s worst athletes.
But although it’s all Jew outside, it’s all Asian within.
The Asian population is always out, playing soccer or baseball, feeding the birds or doing tai chi. Note that I mentioned before that I only play basketball on weekdays; on weekends, some kind of Asian youth club absolutely swarms the courts at sunrise. Watching them play reminds me of an ultimate Frisbee tournament at summer camp some years back; much like the automobile industry, my team of big, tall Americans lost in the finals to a group of small but efficient Asians.
My decision to wake up at 6:50 AM is no accident. Most people get to the courts at 7:30 or 8:15. Waking up at 6:50, I arrive by 7:15 and stake out the court at the Southeast corner. It gives me a solid hour before three older black guys arrive, set up lawn chairs on the court facing my basket, talk about their glory days, and then just start playing whether or not I’m there.
This really happens.
There are four usable hoops at the park — two on Mondays, when they run the sprinklers and flood half the court; it’s been going on for some time now and no one’s told the city that asphalt doesn’t need watering.
However many hoops are available, I take one, and a kindred spirit of mine occupies the other, a guy with glasses and the physical build I had in 8th grade but all the sporting skill I never developed. I once heard a construction worker yell over at him, “Hey, man, are you ever going to miss?” Nope. He puts in the time, though. Always there before I am — even in the winter, when 7:15 was around sunrise — and always drenched in sweat by the time I arrive. It’s remarkable. Every time. He looks like he just finished showering with his clothes on.
Usually we have the courts to ourselves. Except on a handful of occasions. This was one of those occasions.
I have a limited range of basketball skills which I’m slowly honing to perfection. The free throw, for example, is useless in street ball because no one calls fouls yet I shoot 100 of them to warm up. Halfway through my hundred, a homeless man on a bicycle rode onto the court. He set his bike against the Holocaust Memorial chain link fence and shambled over in my direction. I kept one eye on him as I made my shots. “46, 47, 48…”
At 49, he was standing three feet away from me with a crazed look in his eye.
My view of the world is both fatalistic and optimistic. The thought that kept racing through my mind was that if I was killed by a homeless guy in the park that early in the morning, they might be able to squeeze my obituary into the LA Times midday edition instead of waiting ’til the following day. Somehow, that seemed better.
He smiled. He had at least one gold tooth. “Good,” I thought. “At least he won’t steal my teeth; his are more expensive.”
Other thoughts kept coming. He kept staring. Someone had to say something. Finally, I did:
“Hey. What’s goin’ on?”
I tried to be as non-threatening as possible — unlike someone I knew — and maybe he’d follow suit. He did; he smiled again and mumbled something. I said, “What?” Again, smiling and the mumbling. “What?”
“Do you want to shoot?”
“Oh. Sure. But let’s go over there.”
I pointed toward another court, because the one I was standing on had been hit by sprinklers the night before and was partly underwater.
He took off his sweatshirt and threw it on his bicycle. He was wearing an undershirt, heavy jeans, and boots. He seemed fairly athletic. He said something about wanting to play a quick game “before I gotta go to the social security office,” then motioned for me to pass him the ball.
The proper shooting motion (as taught by “Pistol” Pete Maravich) is to cradle the ball in the dominant shooting hand, use the other hand to steady, then extend into what he calls “the gun barrel” position (of course). This guy, by contrast, seemed to hold the ball between the backs of both hands, then flip it up and out in a scissor motion. Somehow it went in every time.
“How are you doing that?” I asked.
“I dunno. Just gettin’ the ball in the basket.”
He flashed another gold-toothed smile and made another shot that seemed like an optical illusion. I figured this had to be one of those magical homeless people I’d read so much about.
After ten minutes, he suggested a game of “21.” The rules are different for every person I’ve played with yet. Here are his…
One player shoots from the three point line for three points. If he makes it, he shoots again. If he misses, whoever grabs the rebound gets a chance to shoot for two. A shot made provides a trip to the three point line. The goal is to reach 21 points exactly, and the final shot must always be from the three point line.
I took him up on the offer, assuming that he’d win easily (and then murder me). But he had made one fatal, tactical error: he wore jeans.
I don’t know why a homeless person in Los Angeles would wear jeans and not shorts; not only do shorts keep your legs cooler, you’re able to discretely dispose of your waste when you inevitably crap in your pants. But he chose to wear jeans, and boots, and soon he was spent.
I took most of my shots from the three point line while he stood underneath the basket, and I still got most of my own rebounds. That is to say that I missed almost everything but it didn’t matter. On the few times I made a shot, he’d say, “You’re good under pressure. I’m not. That’s my problem.” I wanted to cheer him up by telling him how just surviving on the streets day-to-day proves he’s good under pressure, but I kept my mouth shut.
When he got the ball, he’d dribble outside the arc and then ask to take a breather. He didn’t seem to appreciate that I kept playing defense. Me in my shorts.
The game dragged on and on because neither of us were making shots. Around 8:15 AM, those three black guys who always start playing on whatever court I’m playing on showed up. They began to watch us.
I knew we didn’t have long.
Right after that, I made a shot, went to the line, and sunk a three to win. I could’ve made the sports aspect of the story more compelling, but it was what it was: a sloppily-played game between a twenty-something non-athlete and a homeless guy on a Tuesday morning in a public park.
I shook his hand and thanked him. He told me he’d be out there from time to time and maybe we’d play again. Months later, he hasn’t — and we haven’t — but I’ll never forget him, whatever the hell his name was. That guy.