On Sunday mornings I play basketball on a court up a hill not far from where I live. It’s a walk away and the path up takes me through a park and, more often than not, past an old timer sitting on a motorised wheelchair.
It’s late spring at least but he is dressed in layers of clothing, rubber boots and a wooly hat above his cornflake face and big grey beard.
Parked with his back to the park, facing south to the hills of Surrey, he looks for all the world like a retired skipper gone to seed waiting for his ship to come back in. The hills are his ocean swell, the white clouds his tugs and frigates and the parakeets and pigeons fleeting by his gulls and terns, chasing the sea breeze.
On the arm of his electric chair is a radio, tuned into something out of my earshot, the shipping forecast perhaps or trade news from the tropics.
Whatever it is he’s doing, we exchange a smile and a how you doing?
The park is in part of the city that’s neither central nor quite suburban and the court sits at its peak, at the end of three tennis courts. Through its high, linked fence, past the trees and down to the invisible river you can see the city towers grabbing at the clouds.
There isn’t a huge amount of money up here, although things are changing in that respect. A café opened last summer, selling milky coffee and cloudy lemonade, and the park is popular with new families — the dads wearing street-smart trainers and the mums, too.
Any council money goes on trying to soften the blow for the hidden and the lost, so the court has seen better days. But the backboards are sound, the rims unbuckled, the court’s bounce true enough and the markings a little faded but still fit for playing. Sometimes it’s necessary to fix up the nets if the ties get worn through from winter winds and rain.
The way the court is placed means one end is better than the other. At the good end, the sun doesn’t blind you as you turn to set for a jump shot and there are fewer fallen twigs and branches to make mischief with your footing.
It’s a lovely spot. The parakeets dart and clack across the skies and because it’s up high, there’s generally a shifting breeze to keep you cool. Dogs set their excited pace against firm-jawed joggers doing their laps of the summit as toddlers further their wobbly experiments under parental eyes and muscles young and old are tested on the outdoor gym. When the sun is kind and the ball leaves your hand just so, it’s pretty much paradise on earth. Miss a couple of weeks and it feels like exile.
Coming to the court, I recognise who’s playing before I see their faces. Roshan, the Christian from India, has the fastest hands and feet, while Aussie Ben has an easy grace that disguises a fierce competitive spirit.
Uggy and Mario, the Eastern Europeans, come as a pair – the first deadly with the three-pointers, the other a strong lad who fights like a demon under the boards.
Damian the south Londoner has shorts on the point of falling down but plays with a fluidity that’s close to dance and Leo the Greek can sink a hook shot without troubling the rim.
Oscar is Oscar – unpredictable and always at full throttle. They’re a rag-tag bunch from all over the shop and they all have between 10 and 15 years on me.
If we’re lucky, the unofficial mascot will be sitting outside the fence. He or she is a black-and-white collie who bobs and weaves his head in time with the ball, following it with the keen-eyed gaze of a head coach, a fallen player reincarnated as a dog for some past misdemeanor, placed in the karmic sin bin until he has seen out his time.
My days of leaping straight in without fear nor favour have gone, so I have to warm up first – carry out the rigmarole, make the downpayment before taking out the joy – call it what you will, it amounts to the fact that it doesn’t comes for free.
Jogging, bending, stretching done, it’s time to pick teams – the first three to score a free-throw form one, the remainder the other.
The game itself is a giddy mix of brain and brawn, impetuosity and consideration, innocence and experience.
From the outside it appears to have as much order as flotsam and jetsam being tossed in the surf. To be inside it is to embrace a form of chaos and plunge unthinking into the swell.
But there is an order, you just need the eyes to see it.
There will be bursts of individual exuberance, of a great dashing onwards into the busy, wild and unknowable, where sometimes a way to a lay-up or fade-away jumper will present itself beyond all odds. When this happens, it’s like seeing someone save a rambling anecdote with a knockout punchline.
Alternatively, a team will work as one in an unscripted choreography, the ball darting from one pair of hands to another in a common purpose. If you get a bunch of this lot playing together they’re unbeatable, running rings round all-comers, winning easy by working together. Brain basketball. Beautiful.
We all have our habit, our personality. We might not be slaves to it, we might kick against the pricks, but you can only reimagine your game so much.
My best hope is to work with someone who knows my game and I there’s. The days of going flying headlong and headstrong are behind me now. It’s my back – and knees, if I’m honest – but mainly it’s because I’ve played a lot of games and the numbers don’t add up that way. This isn’t like ancient Greece or Rome, or if it is, the gods can be busy so you’re best to play to your own strengths, as if the fates are against you.
The session normally lasts a couple of hours, in which time we’ve all been heroes. Then it’s low-fives and thanks for the game, a nod to the collie and off everyone drifts, back to their lives.
I will walk off buzzing and windswept, a little younger now, back past the old timer, who’s still looking out to sea with his radio on, waiting for news.