Half-Court at Midlife

What I’ve learned playing hoops with the same guys for 25 years.

The author, third from left, with the rest of his hoops crew. Photograph by Steve Boyle

Twenty-five years ago, I started an early-Sunday-morning half-court basketball game with a bunch of guys. Some I knew from work, some from growing up (or not growing up) together. We were all at that age — late 20s, early 30s — when it’s still unclear whether your work friends are your real friends, whether couples are in “first marriages” or only marriages, and whether a guy you like well enough off-court is someone to whom you can make the ultimate commitment: to play with, sweat with, fight with, win with, lose with and then whirlpool with him, until death, injury or a horseshit foul call do you part.

The game expanded to twice a week after a few years when we added a serious “hooky game” at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, using as an excuse that one of our players had lost his job and his outplacement service was near our gym and we needed to support him. Eventually a third game was added, at the same time on Fridays. Luckily, most of the players were either self-employed or high enough up on their company food chains that nobody could give them any crap — at least, not to their faces — about coming in early, working through lunch, and then disappearing for an hour and a half.

We chose these times because, generally, nobody else is playing at 8:15 Sunday morning or 2 p.m. on a weekday, so we could commandeer the far end of the court and keep the game completely invitational. We don’t let anyone we don’t know call “winners” or join the game, because we feel if we’re going to be hurt, we’d like it to be by someone we know. If people think we’re assholes for this — and I can assure you, they do — then at least we’re assholes for a higher cause.

This has meant turning down a lot of requests to join the game, including one from former NBA All Star Maurice Cheeks, when he was assistant coach for the Sixers and belonged to our gym: the Sporting Club at the Bellevue in Center City. When we explained it was a private game and anyone as good as he was would make it too weird, he not only understood; he was really nice about it. Not long after, he left town for a couple years to coach in Portland. When he returned to coach the Sixers, the first day he came back to the gym I saw him in the locker room. He walked up to me and said, “You guys still have that game?”

In its 25 years, the game has had a rotating core group of, at any given time, six to eight really active players and a colorful crew of others we invite to fill in. Collectively, we’ve been through the following: three ACL surgeries; one shoulder surgery; one hamstring surgery; several dozen other knee, ankle, elbow, wrist, finger, toe, jaw and eye injuries; the deaths of one of our players, two of our players’ siblings and nine of our players’ parents; six divorces; one birth during a game (actually, it was an hour before, and once the guy knew the baby was okay he asked his still-groggy wife if it was all right if he played; she later somehow forgave him); and countless other milestones and life-cycle events, a few of which were actually celebrated with courtside cakes, muffins and, once, a fruit plate.

Since we’re mostly in our 50s and 60s now (our oldest player, at 77, has basically retired from playing defense but can still embarrass you with a lot of ways to score), we’ve also been through the getting of, losing of and recovering from quite an array of interesting and occasionally well-paying jobs, one of which was ownership of a nearby restaurant where some of us hung out.

As life off the court becomes more complicated, what happens on the court becomes the antidote for — or at least a respite from — almost anything. You find yourself by losing yourself in the game. That’s true when you catch the ball and your body, almost unconsciously, pulls up for a tough shot and actually makes it. It’s also true when you get blindsided by a stunning chicken-wing pick from one or both of the guys we refer to as “the Bruise Brothers.”

Our game does have its moments of genuine basketball skill and laudable teamwork — and occasionally a burst of actual athleticism. It can, however, also easily devolve into a sort of three-on-Three-Stooges slapstick.

But whether you’re hitting a shot, absorbing a shot or both, nobody in your life understands just how much stress you’re under like the guy who guards you in a half-court game. In full-court basketball, you spend a lot of time running up and down the court on breakaways. The half-court game is more like life: There’s nowhere to hide, and every play you’re not in comes back to haunt you, and others.

The game began in the fall of 1991 as a regular two-on-two match when I suddenly found myself working with two longtime friends at the same company — this magazine, actually. Our fourth player came from the most unlikely place: the very top of the magazine’s finance department. It’s one thing if your firm fields a softball team or even a basketball team where you all play together against others for a couple months. It’s quite another when four people who work together every day agree to play against each other, regularly, in various permutations.

The original four were me; Eliot, with whom I’d been playing ball since we were about 11 years old in our driveways — and who had recently become editor-in-chief and my boss; Loren, a college friend and fellow writer; and Rick, who literally controlled our budgets. That’s a lot of office politics to leave at the office — especially when the financial dude is one of those players who drive at you full-force expecting you’ll either flee or foul.

For the most part, we kept office disputes off the court and on-court disputes out of the office. But we quickly realized it would be wise to recruit a couple players who weren’t co-workers, and started looking for people who might fit in. They couldn’t be worse than us, but they also couldn’t be too much better or the game wouldn’t be as fun. We met Joe when his wife, one of our freelance writers, brought him to a party at the editor’s house. After parking, he picked up a basketball near the driveway hoop and sank a 15-footer. So we invited him to be our guest for a game. (You never just invite someone you don’t know to join a close-knit game like this; you have to have a couple hoop dates first.) We decided we liked him, and also picked up an old summer-camp friend to make six.

Joe had a sweet three-point shot and played surprisingly aggressive defense for a guy who ran an orchestra. (He did, however, struggle with wide-open layups.) He became a regular, and in fact, today he and I are the only ones left in the game from that original group. The other new guy played until he broke his pinkie in a game and his wife convinced him to switch to bike riding.

Everyone did some recruiting, and anyone we met who still played at “our age” was auditioned. I became “the commissioner” — which basically meant I was the instigator and overseer of the weeklong email process required to assure us by Saturday night that there would be six warm bodies on the court the next morning.

You learn a lot about people when you have to know where they’re going to be at 8:15 a.m. Sunday — and the reasons they give as late as half an hour before game-time for bailing at the last minute.

This weekly game went on for years, with a variety of players filling out the three-on-three or sometimes four-on-four contests. When someone got hurt — and we were reaching the age when doctors start offering the option of not bothering to get surgery on those meniscus tears — the game became the reason to rehab and get back into shape. When someone was having an obviously rough time in the world outside the gym, we tried to put him on a better team or give him a break on calls. When it was your birthday, you were always left wide open to make a game-winning shot.

And if something really bad happened, you realized that these guys, some of whom you barely knew except for an hour of sweaty passing, picking, fouling and scoring (college threes and twos to 25, winners out) on Sunday mornings, were more a part of your life than some of your best friends. When my dad died in 1997, I turned around during his funeral and saw an entire row of guys from the game who had taken off work and driven two hours to be there.

I recall this being the only thing that made me feel good that entire day. When my mother died in January, only a few hours passed before I got an email from my b-ball brothers saying they were taking care of all the food for the first night of shiva.

As we approached our 10th anniversary on the court, there had been a lot of turnovers, with people leaving the company and the city. But in many ways, this is when the game really morphed into something that could last for 25 years.

We decided to try adding the Wednesday-afternoon game, and a couple guys who occasionally joined us on Sundays said they could more easily commit to a weekday. One of them was another childhood friend of mine, Marty, a management consultant who had played with us sporadically on guest passes but decided to join the gym as a 40th birthday present to himself, to stay in shape and remain alive for his kids. Playing with him regularly was especially nostalgic because we had been on a team together in high school and really knew each other’s moves (as well as our on- and off-court vulnerabilities).

I suddenly found myself in charge of recruiting for two games a week via endless emails. Then we added the Friday-afternoon game, too. So we developed weekday and weekend regulars, and some guys, like Joe and me, who played all the games. My accountant and financial adviser, Alan, joined, along with a couple of his young associates. The guy whose wife gave birth before the Sunday game took a job in another city but introduced us to his replacement, George, a journalism professor who is 10 years younger than the rest of us and considerably more athletic, but willing to play at slightly less than full throttle for the camaraderie and joie de hoop.

And we picked up three attorneys — Lou, Mort, and yet another George, friends of friends who couldn’t be more different in their practices or the way they play. Yet each brings such utter reckless abandon and disregard for human life on defense that I suspect their clients must be very satisfied, and their opponents very happy for strong judges and bailiffs.

These three have sons who grew up seeing their dads play basketball with friends, which I think would be a cool experience. And when the sons were 16 or 17, they started being dragged out of bed on Sunday mornings if we needed a player. They still occasionally show up if they’re home visiting and weren’t out partying too much the night before.

Over the next 15 years, this newly expanded corps of half-court hoopsters created its own traditions. We started spending 10 or 15 minutes together after every game in the club’s stainless steel whirlpool, which dramatically expanded the social relationships between the players. In fact, when players get hurt, they’ll do their rehab at game time just so they can be there to whirl with the guys afterward. It’s become so ritualized that we always sit in the same places in the whirlpool. And I never cease to be amazed at the depth and breadth of what can be shared in this bubbling confessional.

If we find ourselves with an uneven number of players, we sometimes pick up a guy from the other end of the court. If he and his game seem compatible, he might start being invited more and become a regular. One such pickup is our 77-year-old, Christ, a former jazz-club owner who’s the good-natured butt of an astonishing array of old-age and “ballzheimer’s” jokes. Another is Zack, a compliance officer for daycare facilities who has a deadly fast-release three-pointer and a banging post-up presence that’s possibly more bruising than our original Bruise Brothers.

Our game is great fun, but it isn’t always pretty — especially when cascades of confrontations about questionable foul calls, often by me, push players to their brink. Usually someone apologizes in time, but sometimes we’re sorry too late. Just as couples should never go to bed angry, half-court hoopsters should never leave the court pissed. But I’ve seen it happen. Every once in a while, a player will storm off and quit for a few games. There was once a stretch when two guys were so angry at each other that we couldn’t decide which was riskier — putting them on opposite teams, where they might end up guarding each other, or putting them on the same team.

These are the kinds of subtleties I’ll often text about with Joe, who acts as co-commissioner. We’re both freelancers and consultants now, so the game has become one of our main connections with the world of working in offices. He travels more than I do, and I’m astonished how often he’ll set up a meeting across the country at some crazy hour or take a red-eye flight home just to make a game.

Court time takes its toll. I now play every game with six of my fingers taped — all the ones that have been stowed badly enough that I need support — and both of my knees in black compression sleeves. I also wear prescription goggles thanks to the time Christ scratched my cornea. I’ve had cortisone injections in both knees and have injured my lower legs so many times that I’m resigned to enduring what Louis C.K. refers to as “incurable shitty ankle.”

But most days, I can still catch and shoot a 10-footer if I’m open, and sometimes I get streaky shooting threes. My defense has always sucked, and now that I’m older and thicker, it’s worse — although being overweight does have its advantages when you set a pick, because it’s almost a pick and a half even if you don’t move.

And though most of us are well past the age when any normal, rational grown-up is playing hoops, I keep reminding myself that our oldest player has nearly 20 years on me. So we all may one day be celebrating this game’s 30th and even 35th anniversaries.

We’ve had some great celebrations. When Eliot turned 40, he arranged for us to play at the Palestra — the hallowed basketball court at our alma mater, Penn — for a special away game. When Joe turned 60 recently, he set up birthday half-court games at the Wells Fargo Center before a Sixers practice.

Both were great fun and excellent photo ops. But when I get to 60, and it’s coming for me soon, it’ll be strictly a home-court event. Maybe we’ll have a courtside breakfast buffet afterward. We’ll eat on the same long pleather bench where we sit between games, catching what’s left of our breath, checking our cell phones, and needling each other with the same old riffs and recycled trash talk, which has become music to our slowly failing ears.

Published in the July 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.