12. Keep playing

I have played a lot of sports but I have a particularly funny relationship with basketball. I’ve been in this relationship for quite sometime now. It was never love-at-first sight. It’s just something that has always been there, selflessly willing to lend a hand (and knock me down). The sport of basketball certainly doesn’t need me. If it did, this would probably be a different kind of blog. I have however enjoyed being able to rely on basketball. Many of my friendships have been forged on courts and pavement despite elbows to the face.

I can’t quite remember exactly when my parents installed a basketball rim on the side of our house in the driveway. I feel like I was around the age when “helping” meant no more than handing some screws to m Dad, so I was probably 7 or 8. The driveway wasn’t really the ideal space for a basketball court, but there wasn’t anywhere else to put a rim and backboard. It was only about 7 feet wide. The area down low, or “the paint” was flanked on one side by a brick wall and on the other, trash cans and a wooden fence. The court was plenty long, however three-point range was heavily guarded by a massive Blue Spruce tree that stood just a few feet south of the driveway and who’s long branches impeded anything but a line-drive anywhere past 20 feet. The north side of the court where the fence and trash cans ended was lined with small bushes and then a strip of grass. By jumping over the bushes, one could avoid being blocked the tree and attempt a three-pointer. They wonder why Americans always travel….?

googlemap of house
A recent look at the house I grew up in thanks to Google maps.

Hours, weeks, months were spent on that driveway and the driveways of other friends. I was tall. I still am tall. It is expected of tall people that they play basketball. Most of my friends were shorter than me. It didn’t matter though. I was far from dominant. One of my best friends growing up was a frustratingly gifted athlete and I was lucky enough to go head to head with him thousands of times. I rarely won, but I was good enough to make a game out of almost every match, which made inevitable loss all the more frustrating. I didn’t realize it at the time, but competing against someone who was so much better than me actually made me a better athlete. Thanks Brian.

By the time high school came around, I had played in a few leagues coached by friend’s Dads but I’d failed to develop any fundamentals, or at least the ones necessary for full-court, indoor basketball. In retrospect, I do wish that I’d had the courage to play in high school. My Mom made me go to try-outs for the first-year team. At 14-years of age I wasn’t nearly as developed as many of the other kids who were showing off how they could dunk. I could only touch the rim. I was too intimidated, so I stuck with what I knew; makeshift courts and summer evenings (and sometimes winter ones) with close friends.   There’s no doubt that I would have spent most games on the bench, but I do wonder how good of a player I could have been had I actually given team ball a shot in high school.

So much more than just a rim nailed to a tree.

There was another court up in the mountains at a day camp for kids. For me, this court will always carry so much sentimental importance. I grew up going to the camp as a kid and then grew up even more working at the camp. Every afternoon, the children would go back down to Denver and we’d have an hour or so between cleaning for the next day and dinner. That was mountain ball time. There was something about playing there in the mountains on a rim and backboard nailed to a tree, rocks and roots adding new dynamics to dribbling that made every game epic no matter who was playing. No matter how exhausted we were, we always played like it was our last game and didn’t stop until the sun faded through the pine trees.

I went to college at a D-3 school in Portland, Oregon where more people didn’t wear shoes at all than wore basketball shoes. Mostly just hippies running around in the forest. There was a basketball team despite an anti-sport atmosphere and they were actually pretty good. Again, I was drawn to the pick-up games and spent hours playing 21 outside on a court with no nets.

I never played organized basketball in the US. It’s rather ironic that I played more organized soccer in the US than basketball and then, once in Italy, I found basketball and not soccer. I had no idea how passionate the people in Siena, Italy were about basketball before I moved there. While the rest of Italy is toxically addicted to soccer, Siena’s children grow up playing basketball, memorizing NBA stats, and bleeding fundamentals.

Of course, my first experiences on Italian courts was, as usual, outside on a Saturday afternoon. The Italians played differently. 21 didn’t exist. It was full court or nothing. People called fouls. All the time. My wild style of basketball that was 80% hustle, 10% shooting, and 10% hard fouls was a stark contrast to that of the average person my age out on the court who had grown up in club organizations where fundamentals reigned and there were no brick walls, trees, or rocks.

jack 1
Good friendships made on the court

I was able to hang with most of the people who were out playing pick-up games and it wasn’t long before I was asked to play on a team. Nobody plays outside in the winter in Italy. When it gets cold, there’s a whole hidden world of amateur basketball that is really well-organized and way more competitive than one would expect. Sometimes it gets a little more competitive. My teammates love to relive the story of how when my parents came to one of our games on a visit to Italy, there was a bench-clearing brawl. Personally I’m usually far from the action when the fights break out, but I still come home with plenty of bruises from games. Our league is a testament to the Sienese love for the sport. Games are usually on weekdays, often starting at 10:00 at night. We practice once a week and we practice hard despite the fact that our lives will not be impacted at all by the results of games.

I spent my first season in the league with the worst team in the league. I didn’t know that many people so when I was asked to play for a team, I jumped at the occasion. We lost games by 50 points, and I fouled out many of those. There was no structure to our games. I on the other hand, was not like the Americans that everyone had seen on TV.  My style of mayhem came as somewhat of a disappointing surprise to those who expected the stereotype. Nonetheless, I was accepted and had a pretty good time.

The next year I would meet the guys from the Commandos Tigre (yep, that’s commander tigers…). I didn’t know it at the time, but many of them would become some of my best friends in Siena and I would end up playing 10 (and counting…) seasons with them. The Commandos Tigre is actually the fan club for the professional basketball team in Siena. If you didn’t know, Siena won the Italian league 7 years in a row. The commandos are

sguerri 2
One year we actually WON a tournament!

basically hooligans applied to basketball. They spend each game in the cheap seats behind the rim, standing and singing the ENTIRE game usually with their shirts off and often inebriated, ready to fight the opposing team’s fans (who were also standing, singing, and inebriated).

Our team has a reputation in the local amateur league for scrappiness and I felt like I fit right in with the group from the start. That said, I was way out of my comfort zone as far as playing in games was concerned for the first few years.   We actually run plays. For the first time ever, I had understood that there was more than just instinct and hustle to the game. I have to say that the amateur league in Siena has taught me how to actually play basketball as it was meant to be played. It took me forever to memorize plays and where I was supposed to be. Even now after years of playing with the same guys, when we add new plays, I’m usually running around, out of place for weeks before I’m able to commit anything to memory.

Now that we’re well into our 30’s and many in the league into their 40’s hustle has diminished as a resource and others rely on their fundamentals. I don’t have that many fundamentals to rely on. Or maybe my fundamentals are just different. I’m still able to make the occasional difficult shot because for 15 years the only shots that I’d ever taken were the impossible ones from under a tree or behind a fence.

This year my time on the court has taken a hit. Traveling back and forth from Amsterdam all the time is exhausting and I’m not able to make it to games and practice every week.

sguerri 1
In the US there are legendary coaches like Coach K.  In Siena there’s Ezio Cardaioli (link for wikipedia in Italian… you’ll have to translate it, but it’s worth a read).  For reasons that are still not clear to me, at the age of 80, Ezio decided to make us his final project.  I owe him credit for a shot that he helped me develop at 35 years old.  Grazie Ezio!

There was never any question whether I could still be a part of the team though, that at this point is like a family. For that I’m very grateful. Living in Siena while my wife and son are far away in Amsterdam I’ve learned how important it is to stay busy.

We practice on Tuesday nights starting at 9:30. As I write this. It’s Tuesday. It’s cold outside and I’ve already eaten dinner. I’m exhausted from work and the idea of getting my bag ready to go out and play basketball for 1 ½ hours makes me tired just thinking about it. I’ll do it though and I know that I’ll be glad that I did.

Basketball has always been around for me, like a good friend. I wonder where I’ll find it next?

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