Monday, September 7, 2009

The Day The Air Came Out Of The Basketball

There is a city of light
Raised up in heaven, and the streets are bright
Glory to God, not by deeds or by might
There is a city of light.- Bob Dylan

I must admit I am a slave to my routines. I like to do certain things at certain times. I take comfort in my routines.

From my late 20's until my mid-30's, one of the routines I valued had to do with basketball. I knew that on Saturday & Sunday mornings, starting at about 11 am, there would be great half-court basketball games in my local school yard.

The reason why there were great games every weekend was a tribute to three men. These three men were a three -man half-court basketball team.

And what a team they were. Each was in their mid 30's to early 40's (I'm guessing). They weren't the fastest, or strongest guys I have played against. None were particularly tall.

But each recognized that the three of them together were better than any one of them on there own. As a result, they had perfect floor spacing. They moved the ball with precision. No over-dribbling. Each could shoot, and they could care less who scored. If you played off of them, they knocked down their jumpers. If you played up on them, they could get to the hoop. They knew every angle of the backboard, so each had a bank shot in their arsenal. They never took a break on defense, and instinctively helped each other on that end.

The word was out that you could get a good three man game on weekend mornings, and this particular three-man team was the reason why. As a result, a lot of good ball players would show up.

In short if I were to write a text book on how to play half court basketball, each page would reflect what this three-man team did each Saturday and Sunday. And they did it for years.

Now the older I got, the less tolerance I had for the game being played the wrong way. And that goes for my opponents as well. In fact, I found it a joy to play against school yard teams that played basketball the right way.

And these three guys personified all that was right in street basketball. Because these guys were so good together, I could not show up by myself and pick up 2 random players to challenge these guys. That was a sure losing proposition.

I had to bring my team. Which meant a combination of Terry, Kevin, CJ & Damon. By this time, we had been playing together for 20 years plus. Terry & Damon could fly, and gave us the athleticism we needed to compete, while being consummate teammates. CJ and Kevin were the heart & soul of everything worthwhile we would accomplish on a basketball court. They often took on bigger guys under the basket, and made the tough rebound and clutch basket.

What did I do? Well, let's just say that my teammates trusted me to make the right decisions with the basketball. And lets also say that I took that trust very seriously and did my best to honor that trust. (The truth is I loved it.)

Now what would happen when we would play this three- man team? Sometimes we would win, and sometimes we would lose, but no matter the outcome, Terry always reeked of Budweiser.

And this went on weekend after weekend, year after year. It became, like I said, part of my routine. I developed a great respect for this three -man team, and although I never developed a serious friendship with any of them, occasionally we would run into each other off the court, and it was always handshakes and hugs.

The truth was even though we were not friends in the conventional sense, we each helped fill a void in each others lives. That void was filled by competition, teamwork, sportsmanship & sweat.
Now they say routines, like old habits, die hard. But the end of this routine should have never occurred the way it did.

You see, one of the members of the brilliant three- man team was Dave Vera. Dave worked for Euro Brokers in the South Tower of World Trade Center and was murdered on September 11, 2001.

Dave Vera was survived by his then 18 year-old daughter, who had come to live with him two years earlier from Puerto Rico.

I remember seeing on TV a Euro Brokers employee saying that Dave survived the initial impact but went looking to help his colleagues. No surprise there. Dave Vera was a great teammate to his Euro Brokers colleagues as well.

I remember hearing about Dave's death. It had a big impact on me. Not because I knew him well. But because of how I knew him: running, jumping, passing, shooting and smiling. I never knew him to be anything other than active. It seemed inconceivable that a person could be so full of life, a person you play ball with him on a Saturday and Sunday, could be taken away on a Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

His daughter should be 26 now. Lets pray that she is well.

As for the routine of Saturday & Sunday morning games, that died with Dave. I knew instinctively that was gone forever, and I don't know if I have been down to the schoolyard at 11 in the morning in the last eight years.

However, I have been back to the schoolyard at other times , and I always think of the half court all the way on the 4th street side going down towards 4th avenue as the court where Dave Vera and his two teammates created a great half court team.

And that's how I will always remember Dave Vera.

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