Peter Lindholm: White men (from Vermont) also can’t jump
Editor’s note: Peter Lindholm takes over the space in the Independent this week usually occupied by his dad, Karl. He offers a reflection on playing basketball, pickup hoops, in Middlebury, Vt., and in Los Angeles, Calif., where he finds himself now.
I am 13 years old. My mom is out of town, a “Dad Week” for childcare. This means a few things: some yardwork (completed with an angelic attitude and absolutely no complaining,) pizza from Ramunto’s, and a sports movie plus ice cream to wrap up the day. All of this under the mantra — “don’t tell Mom.”
Tonight’s movie, my dad announces excitedly, is “White Men Can’t Jump,” a basketball movie starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
I’m pretty early in my basketball education. My mother dragged me by my ankles to try out for the team at MUMS, and, to my shock and distress, I made it. The love for the game came quickly, but the love and any discernable talent have yet to meet. I’m a benchwarmer, kind of a cross between Brian Scalabrine and Scott Pollard, if those two were both 5-feet-11 and fat.
It feels to me that there’s something not clicking in my body, some neurons that can’t get their act together on the court. In fact, forget the court. That’s how I feel in most places I go, and in most social interactions I’m in. And my classmates are not hesitant to tell me that they see it too.
The movie is eye-opening. Basketball is a game of movement, yes, but pickup basketball is about movement AND style, with no hierarchy in place to keep you on the bench. And, importantly for my school experience, it was a place where if someone said something nasty to you, you were SUPPOSED to say something back.
It’s the sport played in color, while baseball and football exist only in black and white. I was hooked, hanging on every F-bomb and dreaming of the day I would be throwing down alley oops and dating Rosie Perez.
I am 19 years old, I’ve graduated from Middlebury Union High School after a career that, while uninspiring statistically (although I would have benefitted from analytics, my per 36 minute stats were excellent) changed my life. The coveted “varsity athlete” status gave me some social clout, and the friends I’ve made on the team are the light of my life. I’ve fallen in love with the game more deeply than I’d thought possible, despite my meager playing time on the varsity team.
Luckily, I’ve found a “side-hustle” in the Middlebury College Noon Hoops game. The rosters are comprised of players ranging from me to professors as old as 65. Due to my youth, I’m often one of the more athletic players out there, which is. . . not normal for me.
However, I’m raw. The older guys in the game have been playing for longer than I’ve been alive — much — and it shows. I’m often a step behind, turning my head too late for a pass or getting cooked on defense.
Now out of high school and a freshman in college, I feel that same step behind in most things I do, and with most people I meet. Everyone seems to have attended a “How to Be Cool in College” panel at orientation that I missed (probably busy shooting hoops). I want basketball to be my escape, but too often it’s a microcosm.
It’s the last game of the day. Both teams are tired, but the “old guys” have trickled out, leaving a younger core. The game is played to 11, and the teams are tied at 10. I’ve been playing OK, not lighting anybody up by any means, but fitting in. My team forces a turnover, and we’re on the break. I get the ball on the wing, and upfake. My defender flies by me. I take one dribble, and hit a midrange jumper. Game. I walk off the court with my teammates, right in step.
I am 23 years old, and I am at the Venice Beach Courts, where I’d watched Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane clown chumps in “White Men Can’t Jump” all those years ago. I’m there with my friend James, and we’re fresh off of our archetypal “drive West,” new to Los Angeles. And we want to play.
We get into a pretty good 4-on-4 game at first, and I’m cooking. The game seems to be happening in slow motion. I have a block, a layup, a jump shot, and then a slick backdoor pass, earning some “ooo’s” from the small crowd assembled on the sidelines. Maybe this LA thing will work out after all.
Our game ends, and, feeling it, we challenge two slightly older guys shooting on the side to a game of 2-on-2.
We should have known by the look in their eyes. An “Oh yeah, really?” energy passed between them. Demolition isn’t the right word. The first play of the game, the guy I was guarding, 6-feet-3 and thick, knocked me on my butt with a screen. With me out of the way, his partner, a lightning quick guard, lofted an alley-oop for him to slam down with a profane yell, letting me know exactly what he thinks of my game. He doesn’t think highly of it.
The final score is 15-1, and it wasn’t really that close.
I am 25 years old in a month, and due to coronavirus, there is no basketball. Caution tape around courts, rims removed, NBA stars playing video games at their mansions.
It’s not just basketball that’s gone. It’s a sanctuary torn down, a community center boarded up, an old, reliable confidante moved away. For the first time since middle school, I’m being asked to find myself without a three-point line and a low post to use as a map.
But there’s an outdoor court two blocks from my house. I’ve got a ball, and if I go early enough in the morning, I can avoid other lost souls on the same journey. I can get a couple shots up, and see the ball go through the net, and look down to see that my feet are still, mercifully, on the ground.
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