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A Gift From the Basketball Gods

It’s Saturday night – actually, Sunday morning to be precise. 3 o’clock in the AM, and I can’t sleep. Peculiar, to say the least. I hadn’t had trouble falling asleep in recent weeks and in the worst cases I’d be out cold come 1 or 2. Tonight was different.

For reasons I can’t explain – a common theme of this story – I felt the need to go for a walk. This was abnormal, for as much as I love walks it’s not common for a person to do so at three in the morning. But I felt an urge. I think it was for the silence.

My first month as a college freshman has been… loud. Hectic, rather. Somehow I’ve been able to feel both stagnant and suffocated – the same daily routine with no time to just take a breath. Study, write, eat, sleep. Study, write, eat, sleep. Again and again. I think at some point last night I was so desperate to break the cycle, so badly in need of a moment of silence I couldn’t let myself fall asleep to continue the merry-go-round.

But what could I do? I haven’t been able to find solace in things that usually provide that for me. Writing about basketball? Usually it’s my escape, but with the fountain of season previews and roundtables I committed to writing/editing I couldn’t just let my thoughts spill – I had to meet deadlines and I couldn’t produce garbage. Watching basketball? Don’t have League Pass yet. Family or friends? The former are miles away from me and the latter are miles away from me. I don’t think I’ve made a friend in the time I’ve been here and even if I did I doubt they’d be awake at this hour. Playing basketball?

Well, basketball is a loud game. And the rec center here is damn near always packed and if I do find the time to play it’ll usually be in games, where sneakers squeak, players are yelling, grunting, directing teammates and today’s most popular songs are blasting from the loudspeaker. It’s just loud, and as much as I enjoy it I longed for the days where it would just be me, the ball and the hoop. Something so basic has come extremely rarely to me ever since I’ve moved into college. Maybe this was what I was looking for on this early morning in Long Island?

This seemed to be the case even if I didn’t know it. At first I was just looking for a place to sit, but it was cold outside and I just recovered from being sick so I had no interest in regressing to being stuck in bed with a tissue box lying beside me. I passed the football field, where the thought of trying to get onto the actual turf roamed through my head. Sadly, the gates were locked. I could have walked over to the outdoor basketball courts but I had no ball. I figured, if I truly find no place to enjoy the late-night isolation I’d just go and sit there. I passed the rec center, and in hopes of a miracle I tried the doors. Locked. So much for that.

I turned around, ready to either head to the outdoor courts or back to my dorm room when my eyes focused in on the sports complex. This was where my school’s division one basketball team would play their games, and the lights were on. There’s no point, I said to myself. The lights were on in the rec center too. It’ll be locked, and if it isn’t you’ll probably get in trouble just for being there. Just go home.

At this point, my mind was telling me walk back down past the football field and get into bed. But my legs did something entirely different. I wish I knew what to call this. It was, looking back at it, just flat out wacky. Approaching the two sets of three side-by-side doors, I noticed that the entrance to the basketball court was open and the lights were on in there, as well.

I tried the first door. Didn’t budge. Same result for the second.

I move over to the door all the way to the right. I pulled and it followed my hand. What was racing through my mind was pure shock, above all else. I continued to the next set. Tried the door directly in front of the one I just opened. I was in.

At this point I was questioning what I was even about to do. Get caught by an employee? Maybe a camera? Or a janitor that was waxing the court? Still, I moved towards the gymnasium. I peeked through the open door and there wasn’t a soul. I walked towards the basketball court, and boy was it a beauty. Perfect hardwood, simplistic but lovely design with the school’s team name and colors decaled on it. Now all I needed was a ball…

Surely enough, the equipment closet was just wide open for me to stroll in. The lights turned on automatically when sensing someone walking through the door. Didn’t take long for me to find the rack of basketballs sitting there – beckoning for me to come and snatch one up. And so I did.

At first, I was shaky about playing. Anyone in the building could hear the sound of the ball dribbling, so I began with a few standing layups with my coat still on. Eventually I realized, there was nobody home. I got down to my t-shirt and, at what was probably 3:30 in the morning, had the best time of my young college life.

I got to think a lot, with the only sounds being the thumping of the ball as it hit the floor, the clang as I bricked a shot or the chill-inducing swish as it laced the bottom of the net. I thought about life, my future, my friends, my goals and aspirations. I thought about my what my girlfriend’s reaction would be to my telling her this story and what my lie would be if someone walked in and found me.

I also got to not think, empty my mind, which was the best part. It took me back to my days in elementary school, when I first got into basketball to be in a world where the daily hell of my life of no friends, crappy grades and spending far too many hours in front of a TV screen instead of being alive wasn’t constantly swimming in my head.

I pretended to be Kyrie Irving, burying a three to beat the Raptors or slicing through the paint with acrobatic layups. I pretended to be Carmelo Anthony, launching a thirty foot bomb to beat Chicago (these never fell for me unfortunately) and replicating his signature one dribble, spin the opposite way move. I pretended to be Dirk and Kobe shooting their patented fadeaways, and Chris Paul softly dropping in floaters. I pretended to be Amar’e Stoudemire working on his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon (don’t ask), working on my hook shot, drop-steps and counter moves.

I couldn’t stop smiling. It was… beautiful.

I stayed longer than I should have. It was past 4 and my stomach began hurting, then my head. But I didn’t go. I wanted to soak it in. I walked up court making signals with my fingers pretending to call out a set like a real point guard would. I took on Shump’s third-person speech persona. “C’mon Verts, you gotta make that!” I quickly gave that up. I beat my chest like LeBron. I embraced the silence and made the world out of it. The court was my canvas and I painted the screaming fans and helpless defenders in my wake on it with my mind.

It was the stillness of the scene, the lack of competitors or Miley Cyrus songs booming or dirt flying in my eye and most importantly the lack of a million thoughts racing through my head that made what happened that night perfect. It was just me, the ball, the hoop, and that gorgeous court. Basketball at it’s core aspects, without the TV commercials, the opposing players swiping at your dibbles, the fancy shoes and your coach demanding you take better shots – just the ball, the player and the hoop – that’s when it is best appreciated. I haven’t had that much fun playing the game in a long time.

Eventually I decided to head home, feeling pretty ill. But the worst feeling was having to leave that place. It felt like I was getting a taste of what heaven would be like. I felt like I was leaving a perfect world, where I was invincible, where I didn’t have to worry or analyze or plan or work or stress. I finally fell asleep.

Conjuring up the fresh memories of that night, the one thing I’d make of it is that it was an experience. But, I feel like that descriptor wouldn’t do it justice. It was something I badly needed, something that ended up making my day and even month. It was a gift, from the basketball gods with my birthday just a couple of days away. I think it will end up being the best present I receive.

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