Four Boston Basketball Stories

Brian Doyle

Chirping & Warbling

I have written here and there about the time when I played in a basketball league in Boston that was so tough that sometimes guys driving to the hole lost fingers, and one time a guy driving hard to the basket got hit so hard his right arm came off, but he was lefty and hit both free throws, but there are about one million other stories from that league, most of them true, like the guy who showed up at one game in a Bentley and then was a guest of the state of Massachusetts until the second round of the playoffs, and the guys who came to games riding on a huge garbage truck their point guard drove for work, and the guys whose girlfriends would deliberately take their sweaters off and stretch in an ostentatious manner at key moments of the game, and things like that, but one story I have never told you is the time not one but both referees were escorted from the court at halftime by plainclothes policemen, which was not something any of us had seen before, and which remains memorable, partly because the policemen were so obviously policemen beneath their shining suits.

Their suits actually glinted in the brilliant lights, and we started laughing and saying things like Are those suits made from linoleum, man? and Is that suit made from melted toys or what, Officer? and one policeman got really annoyed and stalked over to our bench all huffy and bristly, but that just made us start laughing harder because not only was his suit some kind of gleaming teal plastic fabric from Mars but his shoes actually, I kid you not, chirped and warbled whenever he took a step, which sent us into hysterics.

This was not going to end well at all, but the other cop, seeing his partner about to pop a gasket, hustled over to cool things down, but that was a mistake, because as soon as his attention was diverted from his prisoners they melted into the darkness beyond the sidelines. Our point guard, an alert and attentive guy, waited a while—we liked those refs, because they actually called fouls sometimes, and one of them had once called traveling on a guy on another team who used to pretty much take the bus when he drove to the basket—and then pointed this out to the second cop, while the first cop was demanding our identification cards and we were pretending to reach into our jockstraps for them. The second cop, realizing that the moment was lost, pulled his partner away, and they stalked back to their car, the first cop’s shoes singing like a bird. Now, I have heard new shoes squeak and creak, we all have, but I have to say I have never before or since heard shoes chirp and warble like that. Those were really amazing shoes.

Well, we thought we were up a creek for the second half, because this was not a league you could play games in without referees, it was a tough enough league with the refs calling fouls only when there was blood or an inarguable splinter of bone on the court, but just as we were about to call it a night the two referees slid back into the light, grinning, and one guy blew his whistle to start the second half.

If I was an honest man I would have to admit that the refs gave us the benefit of the doubt on close calls the rest of the way, but we would have won that game anyway, as the other team only had five guys and one of them was just back from getting a new spleen or eye or something, and anyway both teams were not as intense about the game as usual. Several times during a break in play a guy on one team or the other would chirp or warble and we would all lose it laughing for a moment before the game resumed.

Dangling & Cursing

And yet another story from the men’s basketball league in Boston where my friends and I played for years was the time a guy on the other team got stuck to the basket, which is not a sentence I have ever written before, and I have been writing sentences for fifty years, since I was five years old and writing sentences like my sister can smoke two cigarettes at the same time when mom and dad are out of the house, and my sister calls me words I never heard before and neither did dad he says, and my sister can beat me up with one hand, and other sentences like that, although my sister is now, no kidding, a nun in a monastery.

The guy was on the other team, this was the team which once arrived to a game all riding the point guard’s garbage truck, he drove the truck in the mornings and wasn’t supposed to use it other than on his garbage run, but his car died and the other guys had lost their licenses or something, and they roared up to the park in this huge clanking truck, I thought we were going to pee laughing, but they beat us that game, by eight points, because they were so peeved that we were laughing at their mode of transport, as our point guard said.

Anyway the second time we played them their rabbit small forward, a guy who could jump to the moon but not do anything particularly effective with the ball when he got there, drove the baseline and elevated for what he thought was going to be a shocking monster dunk which would be all the more shocking because he was skinny as a stick and you do not expect a guy who looks like he weighs about eighty pounds to be cramming the ball in traffic, but our center, who disliked anyone dunking in his lane, went up to block the shot, and a couple other of our guys went up with our center to keep him company, and the rabbit guy got twisted around somehow and lost the ball and got his wrist stuck in the steel net, so when everyone else came back down he stayed up there, dangling and cursing like a minister.

Our point guard, a terrific rebounder for his position, had slipped in and grabbed the rebound and was off to the races, and I had gone with him, thinking there might be free money in this for me, but just as we sailed past midcourt the whistle blew and the refs called the play dead because (a) there was a guy hanging from the other basket, (b) our center and the two guys who had gone up with him to contest the rabbit were bent over laughing so hard I thought they were going to barf, (c) the guys on the other team, the refs, and the few spectators were laughing so hard I thought they were going to barf, and finally (d) the rabbit guy was cursing so angrily and kicking so furiously at our guys laughing at him that we thought his head was going to fly off.

Eventually they got him down, someone found a ladder in a parks and recreation shed, and our point guard got a technical foul for pointing out that he would have had a free basket but someone blew a whistle for what someone knew was not actually a violation of the rules, nowhere in the rule book did it say it was against the law for a guy to get stuck in the basket and dangle there cursing and kicking, and there was no reason for someone to get all flustered and rattled and stop play, but the other ref called a technical on the guy who got stuck for “abuse of equipment,” which is also a phrase I have never written before, so everything evened out, and eventually we won by ten. We never did play those guys again, but to my mind we won the series by two points. It’s interesting to think that the series would be exactly tied if the rabbit guy had dunked, but the fact of the matter is that he did not.

Stalking & Muttering

I thought I was finished telling stories about my Boston basketball league that was so stuffed with funny stories that it was like the stands were packed with stories waiting to be told, but I realize I never explained the actual roster of my team, so let’s start with our power forward, the guy with a chest big enough to land an airplane on, the same guy who once started a fistfight with the other team’s power forward before the game began, a remarkable phrase, well, this guy would, once or twice a game, rip down a rebound, often with one huge hand, and rather than toss the ball to our terrific point guard, or to the shooting guard who had played college ball and was the only truly ambidextrous player I ever saw, or to the wholly undisciplined and unpredictable small forward, he would take off like a loose truck down the court by himself, dribbling behind his back whether there were defenders near him or not, and he would roar toward the basket at full speed like a bearded aircraft carrier, and egregiously miss the layup, which every one of us knew was going to happen, which is why three of us trailed after him like hungry hounds, knowing there were free points if we hustled.

Our center, however, a tall talented con man named Stick, would never run with us on this play, for murky reasons; he claimed he just liked watching it unfold again and again, exactly the same way every time, as a rare case of something stable and trustworthy in a sea of tumult and confusion, but we thought he was just taking a breather to rest his shooting arm, which got so much use it would be smoking by the end of the game, and he would stick it in a bucket of ice, which is why everyone called him Stick.

Our shooting guard, the guy who had played college ball and could shoot and pass with either hand, was even better at ultimate frisbee, and had been on a team that won the world championship, in Sweden, partly because to freak out the other team he had led his team onto the field naked as jaybirds except for face paint and Mardi Gras beads, and ever after he wore a skein of bright Mardi Gras beads, even when he played basketball, which was a remarkable sight to see, a guy about six foot three wearing green Mardi Gras beads while hitting a lefty hook shot from the top of the key, which he actually did once, to win a playoff game, after which he sprinted around the court laughing, his beads flapping and skittering, a sweet sight.

Our point guard, a guy who never made a single mistake that I can remember, was the kind of guy who would cruise until something annoyed him, at which point he would morph into a grim genius, but we all knew this, and if he was stuck in cruise control and we needed the high-octane version we would deliberately annoy him somehow, usually with a stupid turnover, and his grim face would drop down like a mask, and he would go smoothly bonkers for a while. It got so that during his bonker runs we would all just attack the boards to get him the ball and then just sit back and watch him at work. He wasn’t a big guy, so other teams underestimated him until one of these blistering runs, after which they would call time-out and stalk to the sidelines muttering the greatest compliment you can get in basketball: who’s got that guy?

We had other guys on that team, like our backup point guard who ran into the woods to pee once at halftime and didn’t come back for three games, and our backup small forward, who was about seven inches taller than me but wholly uninterested in rebounding, for religious reasons, he said, and our backup power forward, who was very interested in rebounding but couldn’t score if you locked him in a gym alone for a week, and some other guys, but there’s no more room for them here at the bottom of the page.

Soaring & Sailing

I’ll tell you one more story about my basketball league in Boston, the league where one time our referees were escorted from the court at halftime by two plainclothes policemen in shiny suits, and another time a brawl broke out before the game because our power forward, a guy with a chest big enough to land an airplane on, took exception to a remark from the other team’s power forward as we were warming up, and decked him, and there was a ruckus, and both teams were hit with ten technical fouls each before the game even began, so that a parade of guys went to the foul line at each end before the opening whistle, which is yet another sentence I have never written before. Our point guard, a bright guy, objected to the refs that it was not metaphysically possible to score points before the game officially started, for which argument he earned a technical foul, the refs being all pissy for some reason, but the other team’s guy missed that shot.

Anyway this last story I wanted to tell you is about the court itself. Our summer league that year was played in a lovely little park filled with pine trees on the west side of the city, and for some reason the city, usually content to let its basketball and tennis courts molder for centuries, had actually refinished and repainted the court for the first time since the Pilgrims played on it in the seventeenth century, and there were glorious new powerful night lights that we heard were from construction of a new prison in which the contractor was caught doubling every order, and there were gleaming new steel nets, which were steel because even the city conceded that hanging nylon nets was essentially begging for theft.

This court was on a gentle little rise in the park, and was brilliantly lit in such a way that the darkness began exactly three feet past the sidelines and baselines, so that you could see a guy standing out of bounds to throw the ball in, but you couldn’t see spectators, few as they were, nor could you see your teammates sprawled on the huge logs that served as benches for players. Guys subbing in for other guys during breaks in play would pop out of the darkness as suddenly as if they were coming from the dark wing of a stage, and guys subbing out would step off the court and vanish as thoroughly as if they had never been born. It was the most amazing thing. I remember many times when the ball would be flying out of bounds and a guy, usually our power forward, who loved diving for loose balls for some reason, I think because he was a big guy and liked to be briefly aloft and weightless, would soar after it like a huge bearded heron, if there was a heron with a chest big enough to land a plane on, and for an instant you would see his huge sneakers hanging in the air, about waist-high, although this was not a sight you wanted to linger over, because he was terrific at whipping the ball back over his shoulder at the speed of light, and if you stood there gaping at the odd sight of huge sneakers floating in the air against the velvet dark you would be treated to a basketball in the face at about a hundred miles an hour.

That’s all I wanted to tell you, really; how the court that summer was so invitingly and lushly green, and the white lines were so brilliantly and densely white, and the steel nets shone like silver chains, and guys popped out of the dark like lanky grinning magic tricks, and guys stepped off the court while making lewd and scurrilous remarks and vanished as utterly as if they had never been born, although you could hear their voices, amused and muttering, in the pines. And here and there, two or three times a game usually, a guy with a chest big enough to land a plane on would go soaring and sailing into the dark, leaping off the court and vanishing absolutely, except for a split second when you could see his sneakers hanging in the air like planets. That’s all I wanted to tell you, just that.

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