- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Old pickup basketball players never die; some don't even bother to fade away.

This twist on a memorable line from Gen.Douglas MacArthur's address to Congress in 1951 is rich in hyperbole. It goes with the territory, whether the venue is a gym or asphalt playground.

The desire to compete, even in a loosely structured manner, is addictive.

Michael Jordan called it an "itch" in announcing his second comeback from retirement before last season. Some journalists at the time peered into their old psychology books from college and termed Jordan's "itch" a midlife crisis. If so, there is an awful lot of that going around, judging by the number of weeknight jocks determined to ignore their various states of physical decline.

Corporate America, predictably enough, has tapped into this market and made it almost fashionable for the has-beens and never-weres to play the role of conquering athlete. The proliferation of national 3-on-3 tournaments is in part an accommodation to the creaky knees and expanding waistlines of the participants. There perhaps is no greater athletic utility for a marginal 6-foot, 250-pound sort than a 3-on-3 tournament, where standing fixed in the three-second lane is a badge of honor.

Not that these functions are limited to mini-sumo types or those with graying pates. All comers, young and old, male and female, are encouraged to take part in the game's urban ethos, however sanitized it may be under corporate America's umbrella.

A certain romantic subtext stokes the undertaking, starting with the original romantic, the late Pete Axthelm, who established the literary genre in "The City Game." He captured both the waste and artistry of the playground game in his 1970 book, which still resonates.

Jason Williams is but a playground artist dressed up in an NBA uniform, a glorified halftime show performer who has more stupid dribbling tricks than brain cells. His is the Harlem Globetrotters' version of the game, which is entertaining so long as the parties are not bound to keep score.

The playground game is often stuck between the two needs: the need of players to be validated by a final score and their need to perform a maneuver that distinguishes them from the crowd. This tug of war, if viewed from a distance, provides an appealing undercurrent.

The playground game comes with a chip on its shoulder and a pathological craving to stay on the court. Arguing is acceptable, almost mandatory, along with more persuasive means of communication.

One of the best punches ever thrown in basketball, the NBA included, was delivered by a then-scribe, now dressed up on TV, against another scribe during a pickup game at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. It was one blow, a right hook that dispatched the victim to the floor, a bloody mess, and invigorated the proceedings. To the fallen one's credit, despite the stitches and glass jaw, he was able to write through the hurt the rest of the NBA Finals.

Fortunately, the excess is usually restricted to four-letter words and nose-to-nose posturing, the playground equivalent of a dog marking a fire hydrant. It is a subcultural thing. You wouldn't understand.

The weeknight warriors feed off the release and illusion, while hoping not to tweak a knee or twist an ankle. They just can't stay away, no matter the internal warnings, and it is hardly about the exercise. Please. That line does not even work with a spouse.

A recent blown-out ankle at the gym left the person in agonizing pain, one result of a misplaced bone trying to break through the skin. The injury a few months before that one involved a fortysomething player who merely planted himself in the low post before crumbling to the floor with a torn patella tendon.

It is at these times that the cautionary words of Bill Bradley come to mind. To a query a few years ago, the ex-member of the Knicks' championship teams said he no longer played on occasion out of respect to the Achilles' tendon. Tearing one would not be pleasant.

Yet lesser players than Bradley, and just as old, in all shapes and sizes, report each day and night to the gyms and playgrounds in the region, forever in search of that basketball high, that next game, that next test.

Sometimes they are rewarded. Sometimes it all comes together, right there in a nondescript place, when the passion is just right, when the competitive balance is just so, when the parts make a kind of sweet music, and the game, a nothing game, comes down to the last basket in their favor.

That is the psychic food that sustains the ever-increasing throng of pickup basketball players.


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