Every high tide deposited beer bottles, oil containers, fishing lines, shiny candy wrappers, and plastic bags onto the sloping shoreline of Jomtien Beach. At low tide I harvested the trash into sea-worn rice bags. Within a half-hour the sand was devoid of any human refuse and I smugly regarded the pristine strand with pride.
While tourists rolled their eyes in disgust at my ecological efforts, the Thais from the beach cafes congratulated my work without ever breaking caste. Such labor was beneath them and from under a parasol my girlfriend expressed her embarrassment by saying, “Tomorrow have plastic again. Every day have. You stop nothing.”
“Doesn’t matter. At least the beach is clean for now.”
Every day I expanded my patrol and the bending proved very therapeutic to my aging body.
My muscles ceased to creak and the aches vanished from my joints.
“Watch this.” I pressed my palms flat onto the sand.
“You only not hurt, because you stop play basketball.” Mam was unimpressed by my suppleness.
“I didn’t stop.” I shot baskets in the park by the elephant ranch near Sukhumvit at dusk,
“Yes, you stop.” Mam was less than half my age. Her belly was swollen with our son.
“No one plays basketball here.” Thais were mad about soccer and Man United.
The basketball courts at the schools were used for pick-up football games. Their backboards were warped by the tropical sun. Occasionally when I dribbled a basketball, the Thais waited for a show, except ball-handling had never been the mainstay of my game.
“You not play too.” Mam was right. I had not picked up a basketball in weeks.
Later when my cousin came out to visit, Mam asked, “He good playing basketball?”
Bish and I had played our last one-on-one game twenty years ago yet he answered without hesitation, “He’s the dirtiest player this side of Bill Laimbeer.”
The Detroit Piston was a legendary enforcer, but his name meant nothing to Mam.
“Sok-ka-phok?” She wrinkled her nose. "Dirty same not shower.”
"No, he plays foul." My cousin gestured violently with his elbow. “No, dirty same the Mafia.”
"Kow-jai. Gaan len sohk ga bprohk.
“I played defense tight.”
“In your shirt and then some.” Bish was not wrong. My fouls on the street courts had to be approaching the half-million mark. Despite this dubious record I loved basketball from even before I saw one.
In the 1950s I lived on a quiet street across the harbor from Portland, Maine. My brother, my best friend, and I spent summers playing baseball, chasing seagulls from the mudflats, and exploring the offshore islands in leaky rowboats. Autumn was dedicated to football and every winter my father constructed a hockey rink from two-by-tens, where we played hockey from the second we got home from school to the collective call to dinner from our mothers. We shouted back ‘five minutes’.
It was more like ten.
One night my older brother ran into the backyard and declared that he had seen a rattlesnake in the front yard. We hobbled into the house on the skates and Frunk called the State Police. The cops approached the suspected snake with drawn guns. The deadly reptile turned out to be the silhouette of a paper bag flapping in the wind.
During dinner we joked about the episode, however my six-year’s old mind filled the dark with snakes’ sibilant slither. Panic-stricken I ran into my parents’ room and leapt into the bed. “There’s snakes under my bed.”
“Maine doesn’t have snakes.” My father was exhausted by this fiasco.
“Frunk thought he saw one tonight.” If he believed snakes in the winter, then they might have slithered into the house. “Can’t I sleep with you?”
“You’re getting a little old for this," my father protested with closed eyes.
“He’s young.” My mother threw back the cover.
The disruptiveness of my nocturnal intrusion escaped me, until I was a little older.
The following day my father brought home two crystal radio sets shaped as rockets. They were made in Japan. My father was an electrical engineer with New England Bell and explained their workings, “You attached alligator clips to a metal object. The signal is transmitted to the antenna and you tuned the radio with a retractable space needle jutting from the nose of the rocket.”
“They aren’t going to get electrocuted, are they?” My mother’s fear was for our own good.
“There’s no electrical charge. The radios capture the airwaves. These are better than TV." TV reception is Maine was limited to three very snowy channels during the day. "You can hear the rest of the world with them.”
“Okay.” My mother didn't sound convinced and at bedtime I dressed in my Davy Crockett pajamas.
Before I could plant the earpiece, my mother ordered us to hand over the sets. My brother surrendered his and rolled over to sleep.
I needed any explanation.
"Because I said so." She held out her hand.
“But they don’t have any batteries.” I had read the flimsy instruction sheet. One side was in Japanese.
“At night they play things you shouldn’t hear,” she exhaled with adult exasperation.
“Things?” This cryptic comment reanimated my dozing brother.
As a devout supporter of Tailgunner Joe’s battle against the Reds my mother was deeply concerned about the subversion of the airwaves.
“There’s nothing on the radio in Maine that can hurt them.” My father came into the bedroom and contradicted my mother’s demand, “Let them listen to the radio. It’s a free country and the radio scares away the snakes.”
“You shouldn’t be telling them stories.” She gave him a withering glare.
“I just want a night’s sleep,” he whispered with a wink.
My mother begrudgingly returned my brother’s set and kissed us both.
“And don’t let the bedbugs bite,” my brother and I replied in unison.
Once the light went out, my brother fell asleep and I attached the alligator clips to the metal bed frame. The little rockets range expanded across the country at night.
The airwaves soared with voices from Montreal, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Wheeling, West Virginia. Their accents scared away the snakes. Music and radio shows could be heard between the squawks of static, until a hoarse man cried out, “And Cousy has the ball.”
I soon divined this broadcast was a basketball game at Boston Garden between the Seventy-Sixers and the Celtics.
Each play mattered to the excited announcer and the roar of the crowd was as bloodthirsty as the Romans in the Coliseum. I rooted for the Boston team, since my mother had been born in Jamaica Plains, but Bill Russell was not stopping the dreaded giant, Wilt. Luckily the Sixers were befuddled by the Jones boys and at breakfast I recounted the two brothers’ defense stopping the Philadelphia team.
“When did you fall asleep?” my father asked and I answered, “Around midnight.”
“Don’t tell your mother or the Jones Boys will have a curfew.”
That night I listened to every game.
Without touching a basketball.
In 1960 we moved to Boston. My father took us to the Garden. It didn’t matter that KC and Sam Jones weren’t brothers.
Seeing the game hooked me on basketball, despite my abysmal dribbling and my shooting. My skills didn’t improve in high school or college, yet my merciless ‘in your shorts’ defense allowed me to compete against much taller and more talented players.
In 1976 I left my teaching job at South Boston High school and moved to the East Village.
No one play basketball in the junkie b-ball courts on Avenue A and I crossed town to West 4th Street courts on Avenue of the Americas.
Truthfully I didn’t deserve to stand on that pint-sized court with its high-flying leapers, deadeye shooters, and dazzling dribblers, but the players recognized I didn’t give up on defense. This sacrifice allowed them to devote everything to offense.
One summer day a muscle-bound guard from Mott Haven drove toward the basket. I planted my feet and took the charge. He bounced off my shoulder and I passed the loose ball for my teammate’s easy lay-up. Before any congratulations were offered, the guard said, “Point don’t count.”
“Why not?” Incredible talent didn’t stop great players from calling shitty fouls.
“You charged me, Opie.” He pushed me.
“You ran into me like a drunk driver hitting a telephone pole.” His grudge against Andy of Mayberry’s son wasn’t shutting my mouth.
“You think you’re funny?” The laughter from the line-up of ‘next games’ ignited the guard.
I ducked his punch and wrestled him into a headlock. His elbow cracked my jaw and the blow loosened my tooth. We dropped to the ground.
Our respective teams separated us and I shouted over the shoulder of the forward, “That was your best shot? Damn, that was a real Twinkie.”
“I’ll show you a shot, Oppie.” He reached into his bag for a gun.
I fled the court.
When I returned to our East 10th Street apartment, my hillbilly girlfriend tended to my black eye.
“That’s it. No more basketball.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Like always.” She threw my old baloney-skinned Spaulding out the window.
Not wanting to get shot I obeyed her edict, until hearing the familiar thump of rubber on Avenue A, as a Puerto Rican teenager dribbled into Tompkins Square Park.
I went outside in my sneakers and asked, “Mind if I shoot around with you.”
“Not at all.” He bounce-passed the ball and I launched a high arcing shot, missing the backboard, hoop, and net.
“Shit, man, you better be good on defense.”
He retrieved the ball at the top of the key and flicked the ball into the netless hoop.
If he hadn’t been right, I might have been insulted.
“I can’t get my shot right.”
“A couple of hundred shots each day. You gotta improve. The name’s Izzy.”
Izzy was short, lean, and worked an early shift for the sanitation department. I was stocky and worked at a discotheque as a bouncer. We met every afternoon to play all-comers.
The picks I set in a two-on-two game created a bond between us. Izzy scored the points and I defended the hoop. Anyone big, anyone rough, anyone with weight, Izzy would say, “Stick ‘em.”
Before games opposing players dunked the ball for intimidation and Izzy warned them, “Don’t try that shit on the Rock during the game. Players have scored more points and others have more rebounds. No one has more fouls than the Rock.”
The dunker smirked, only to discover Izzy hadn’t been kidding.
Basketball became my refuge from the storm.
When my hillbilly girlfriend and I broke up over my infidelity, I treated the pain by shooting in the park. During the AIDS epidemic I shot baskets to forget my friends’ deaths. The only time my body and soul didn’t hurt was when I was playing ball.
The park was my gym, therapy, and social club. I met friends, we told stories, and shared future plans. Izzy and I played in any weather other than rain, sleet or snow.
There were a few other all-year players; Terri with the knot on his head, Carmelo with the sweet touch, Doug, the swing guard from Chicago, Jose, the mad Peruvian, Jim Thorne from Maine, the pure shooting Mark, crazy Hollywood with his fifty-foot swishing hook, JD’s devotion to winning, Big Ed with his sweet hook, Shannon’s swooping glide, Church Charles with his Walter Bibby perfection, Mouse with his slashing drives to the hoop, and they helped me win a few more games than losses and I played everywhere in the world.
I have squared against Chinese soldiers in Tibet, run full-court with heroin dealers in the mountains of the Golden Triangle, elbowed for position with French forwards in the dusty court inside the Parc de Luxembourg, fast-breaked barefoot with Filipino sailors in Penang, and faced baby gang-bangers in North Hollywood, but my home court was the three bent rims and buckled metal backboards of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.
Some of the kids from the Boy’s Club across the street reached the college ranks. Their names went up in lights. I remained a dim 40-watt light bulb.
Teammates groaned at blown lay-ups, unchallenged tap-ins missed from under the basket, and long bombs rattling out of the cylinder. My opponents’ laughter inspired frenzied heights of defense. Great scorers gave lessons in cradling the ball, and I spent hundreds of hours shooting baskets, hoping one day the mechanics might click, yet I remained a 20% shooter
My teammates never went to me in the clutch and even Izzy shunned me on the court.
One afternoon we had an insurmountable lead and Carmelo bounce-passed the ball to me. The ball struck my hand at an awkward angle and went out of bounds. Izzy pointed at my dislocated finger.
“You should go to the hospital.” Izzy was eying a rasta named Roberto to take my place.
The dreadlocked power forward had game.
I had popped knees, cracked ribs, shattered teeth, had my eyes blacked from elbows, twisted ankles, and torn ligaments from head to toe. So had the other players in the park.
“I can fix this myself.”
“Hey, that’s your hand you’re talking about.”
“It’s my left hand.” I didn’t use my little finger for eating pizza and tugged it into place with the crack. “Good as new. Our ball.”
“Your ball?” our opponents crowed vainly, since I had seniority on the court.
Carmelo inbounded the ball and I spun to pop the ball toward the basket, a move I had been practicing for years without any success. This time the ball glided through the rim.
Carmelo blinked with disbelief and glanced at my left hand.
My grip had been altered and I nodded for him to pass the ball.
The other team was familiar with my awful shooting and didn’t bother to dee up. I released my shot at the top of the key. The ball actually had spin on it and dropped through the basket.
“It’s your birthday,” declared Izzy.
“It’s the finger.” I held up the swollen pinkie.
I won every game that day and walked off the court a hero.
Next morning I ran into Richard at the court. The mailman was a solid 6-4 power forward with a deadly shot from behind the arc. My losing streak against him stretched over a decade. After he scored three unanswered points, I rebounded an errant bank shot and launched my shot. It sliced through the rim with a whish. His eyes slitted with suspicion.
“Luck was what that was.”
“A football coach once said success is 95% hard work and 5% luck.” Anyone would trade 50% of the hard work for another 5% of luck and I was one of them. I dribbled the ball from right to left. My ball-handling remained a disgrace.
“Stupid, dumb white boy luck.” Richard spread his arms. His wing span rivaled a condor.
“Luck it is then.” I entered a space/time warp of probability. Hooks fell, three-points rained, and lay-ups spun around the rim to drop in the hole.
“No, I broke my finger.” I flexed the crooked digit. There was a little pain. I challenged Richard to another game. “Best out of three.”
He lost two straight.
My longtime friend, Andy Kornfeld, had beaten me for over twenty years and mockingly berated my newfound skills. I defeated him effortlessly. My nickname went for ‘Brick’ to ‘Comeback’, although I had never been anyplace from where to comeback. Players discussed defending me. Their strategies were a waste of effort.
I was on fire.
The other players on the court called out my name like I was a MVP free agent and I didn’t fail them either.
I beat my old adversaries.
Not with an inside game.
I stepped farther and farther from the basket.
Day after day my thirty-game winning streak challenged UCLA's record under John Wooden, but the long hour sessions of basketball were tearing apart my body. My doctor witnessed me limping into a restaurant.
“You’re almost fifty. You have to give your body a rest.”
“I’ll be fine.” Pros get a day off. College players rest after a game. I couldn’t stop. I was invincible. I would live forever.
I would win win win.
The next day a college kid asked why I was playing at my age.
“Old man you should be in your wheelchair.”
“Wheelchair?” I beat him inside and outside, but on a crossover dribble God strummed my right knee. The shot fell for the win, as I dropped to the floor in agony.
The pain did not lessened, as Carmelo helped me limp home.
The next time out my knee buckled and I limped to my apartment, praying that tomorrow I might be the same man I had been a week ago, only a month passed and then two. My knee was too weak to handle the stress of a three-on-three. My doctor was pleased to not have to listen to my litany of injuries and suggested, “Take up golf.”
I decided to ink my name on an extended disabled list.
I had no other choice.
Not one day has passed that I don’t want to have the ball in my hands. I haven’t told anyone. Picking plastic off a beach has been a workout and I’ve been practicing my jump shot with plastic fishing buoys. My body’s suppleness improve day by day. My knees were flexible and my little finger remained crooked. New York was only 25 hours away by plane.
One day soon I’ll return to my home court. I’ll be greeted like a ghost from the dead. It will be the game of my life, because I have a basketball jones and the one place to scratch that itch was a daylong flight away over the North Pole, so start spreading the news, “I’m leaving today…..”