Jan 14, 2022, 05:55AM

Basketball Saved My Childhood

Whatever life’s difficulties, I can always shoot baskets.

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Bernard Wright was elegant. Standing 6' 3" with long arms, muscular legs and a carved physique, he glided over a basketball court. He had perfect balance, a text book jump shot and an unstoppable spin move. When he rose to dunk, he took off like a jet with a galvanic vertical leap culminating in a violent slam.

As a 10th grader at North Hollywood High, I watched Wright’s games as if he were an NBA star. Once, I played with him in a pickup game. Hoping to impress, I tried my best move, a crossover dribble, eluding my defender and cutting through the defense. As I released the ball toward the hoop, he grabbed the shot and came down with it in both hands. He walked off the court and deposited the ball into a metal trashcan.

“Take that garbage to the dumpster where it belongs,” he said.

Everyone erupted in laughter. I was embarrassed, but also excited. For one brief moment, Wright knew who I was.

Wright made all-city in 1978–79 and was recruited by colleges throughout the country. Then something happened after his senior year. I don’t know the details but it involved a botched robbery. Wright went to prison and his basketball dreams ended.

Basketball has always been a panacea for me. Whatever life’s difficulties, I can always shoot baskets. At 5' 9", I was too small for football and didn’t have the skill set for baseball. Basketball was different. I was quick, had decent dribbling skills and could shoot. I loved scoring but I enjoyed assisting teammates even more. I loved the subtleties of the game. Boxing out, setting screens, making the extra pass.

My childhood NBA role models were little guys like Gail Goodrich and Nate “Tiny” Archibald. My true basketball heroes were my friends, the people who taught me how to play. I learned to shoot at age nine. My teacher was Steve Fink, a teenager who lived in a two-story colonial house across the street. Every day after school, he shot 100 free throws and asked me to keep track of his percentage. On the day he reached 90 percent, he showed me his secret.

“Right hand beneath the ball at six o’clock, left hand on the side at nine. Right-hand pushes, left hand guides. Elbow at 90 degrees above your head. Extend your arm and snap your wrist downwards to create backspin. That’s how Jerry West does it.”

I spent hours perfecting my shot, learning the proper arc and point of release and the sweet spot for bank shots. I played H-O-R-S-E with other kids and dove into one-on-one contests.

The neighborhood competition was fierce. The best player was Craig Perlmuth. He was steady and unflappable with a dead-eye jumper and sturdy legs anchoring him to the ground. He was an immovable force on defense, the first player to intimidate me by his mere presence on the court. Craig went on to become point guard for Taft High School. He died tragically in 2004 when his car crashed down a steep mountainside in Topanga Canyon.

Kevin “Koosh” Kuechel was the purest shooter I’ve ever known. He was short with unlimited range like Steph Curry. Every time his shot swished through the hoop, players yelled “kooosh” as in “swooosh.” I tried guarding him, an impossible task given his constant movement and quick release. Kevin played junior varsity in high school and became a professional tennis coach.

Danny Gallagher was cocky and brash and liked to play one-on-one for money. Before games on his home court, he loosened the backboard bolts on the left side and tightened them on the right. This Auerbachian maneuver informed him where to shoot for optimal touch and where to maneuver opponents so their shots bounced off the rim. He confessed this scheme to me after becoming a born-again Christian. Last I heard, he was studying to become a minister.

My best friend growing up was Josh Richman. We shot hoop with a red-white-and-blue ABA ball on his driveway court until the streetlights came on. We then moved our games inside, playing nerf basketball on a bedroom hoop. On Monday nights we watched our favorite show The White Shadowwhere Coach Ken Reeves shepherded high school players through adolescent struggles like drugs, gangs and teenage pregnancy.

Growing up in the 1970s, we were unsupervised latchkey kids with little adult discipline. Parents had alternative views on child-rearing and many indulged in experimental drug use. Once, while playing ball with the son of a local film director, the boy’s mother screeched her black Rolls Royce onto our court. She jumped out of the car screaming, accusing her son of stealing her pot stash. He yelled back, dropping f-bombs and threatening to kill her. The fight ended when the boy smashed her windshield with a baseball bat.

My own parents fought like rabid wolves. Shooting baskets allowed me to escape the household tension and find an aura of peace. I played psychic games with myself, imagining if I didn’t make a 20-footer then my parents would die in a car crash. If I missed, I gave myself a second chance, elevating the threat to a plane crash involving my siblings. I think this made me a clutch shooter. Late-game pressure pales in comparison to sending your family to their death.

I learned you can glean someone’s core personality by watching the way he or she plays basketball. The ideal baller shows respect for teammates, opponents and the game itself. Braggarts and showoffs make horrible teammates. Basketball is about camaraderie and team spirit. When five players connect on the court, the experience is transcendent, like listening to beautiful music or communing with nature.

During high school, I played with a guy named George Feske. He was a great athlete and phenomenal scorer. But he was a ball hog. Playing with him was like playing with Kobe. He took most of the shots, never set screens and got angry when you didn’t pass him the ball. He sucked the joy out of basketball.

After high school, I stayed in touch with old friends by playing epic Saturday pickup games at Colfax Elementary School in North Hollywood. The hoop was only nine-feet high allowing us to dunk and exhibit athletic prowess as if we were a foot taller.

Colfax regulars included George Geldin, a Kurt Rambis clone with his non-stop hustle and bulky goggles worn over thick-rim glasses. Tony Reed was master of the fundamentals with the best bank shot I’ve ever seen. Brian “Bubster” Brown was heavy but displayed an awkward grace like a walrus gliding over ice. Mike Magrisi was a superlative athlete who sprinted around the court as if instructed to keep moving or die.

The games attracted notable players from all over the San Fernando Valley. Jeff Dunlap played at UCLA with Reggie Miller before becoming a journeyman college coach. Adam Carolla, podcast legend, joined the games with his buddy Ray Oldhafer, both elevating trash talk to an art form. Kelly Rubin, a talented bassist, attended when not touring with the band Iron Butterfly. Sam Marvin was a Colfax regular before becoming founder and executive chef of the Los Angeles restaurant Bottega Louie.

The weekend gatherings became group therapy sessions as we all shared notes about post-school progress in the real world. The games also helped me quit smoking weed. Once, I got high before playing. I couldn’t make a shot and forgot how to dribble. I was unable to enter “the zone,” that mental state of flow where everything comes naturally. I quit marijuana, not because it made me a bad person but because it made me a bad basketball player.

At age 24, I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco where basketball introduced me to a new set of friends. My local court was Douglas Park in Noe Valley, a wind-ravaged location that made outside shooting impossible. This forced players to drive to the hoop. San Franciscans hated Angelenos. Every time I entered the lane, I was pummeled. The hazing ended after a guy head-butted me and knocked out my two front teeth. This led to another basketball inspired life lesson. The best way to procure a same-day dental appointment is to arrive with blood on your clothes.

I moved back to Los Angeles after the LA Riots. I sought out basketball games wherever I could find them. I played in parks-and-rec contests, three-on-three tournaments, six-foot-and-under leagues. I joined a screenwriters group that played on a private court behind the Chateau Marmont.

In the mid-1990s, I played pickup games at Venice Boardwalk. This was a mistake. Not only were the players on another level, they played angry. Some were out to hurt people. This happened to 18-year-old Kobe Bryant after he was drafted by the Lakers. He played in a Venice Beach pickup game and was intentionally undercut causing him to fall and break his wrist.

My Venice experience was even scarier. A heavily tattooed player on the opposing team took umbrage at a hard screen set by my teammate. The tattooed player ran off the court and retrieved a gun from his gym bag. He fired several shots in the air. Everyone hit the ground and stayed put until the man ran away. That was my last game on the boardwalk.

In my 40s, I joined a Jewish basketball league with some old Colfax buddies. One of my teammates was Mark Turenshine, who played with Wilt Chamberlain on the Philadelphia 76ers. Turenshine was a member of the 1972 Israeli Olympic Team bound for the Munich Olympics where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. In the final exhibition game before traveling, Turenshine broke his ankle forcing him to miss the Olympics. He believed this saved his life.

When I played with Turenshine, he was in his 60s. During one of our games he had a minor heart attack. League officials used a defibrillator to save his life. He took a month off and then returned for the playoffs. I asked him if he was worried about his health. “If you gotta go then what better way then by playing basketball.”

Several friends suffered basketball-related injuries. My old college roommate Steve ruptured both Achilles tendons. Another friend blew out his knee. A hoopster neighbor slammed into a metal basketball stanchion fracturing his cheekbone.

Ex-NBA player and TNT commentator Kenny Smith has a brilliant line about basketball. “You don’t play basketball to get in shape. You get in shape to play basketball.” As I hit my late-40s, this made sense. I’d once been the 20-year-old schooling the old guy. Suddenly, I was being schooled. I didn’t have the reflexes or stamina I once had. I was a step slow and always out of position. This caused me to take unnecessary risks on defense like reaching for steals. When you reach you’re off balance and bad things happen. I suffered sprained ankles, twisted knees and bloody noses from being bashed in the face.

As my skills diminished, the game lost its luster. I stopped playing pickup games and dropped out of league play. Other than the occasional pop-a-shot in a bar, I stopped shooting baskets. Basketball passed me by.

When Covid hit in 2020, I sequestered indoors watching Lebron and the Lakers win the NBA Championship in the bubble. This made me miss basketball. That’s when the idea of shooting baskets again took hold. I didn’t want to play in a game. Nor did I want to play “horse” or “21” or “around the world.” I just wanted to spend hours emulating favorite players from the past like Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper.

I rummaged through my closet and found my basketball. It was flat. I inflated it and drove to a park with two full-length courts. That’s when I saw one of the saddest images of the pandemic. The metal rims had been removed from the backboards. A sign on the locked gate read: “In accordance with LA County Department of Public Health restrictions this park remains closed.”

This hit me hard. I sat in my car staring at the naked backboard. I drifted back to childhood and saw myself shooting alone in my driveway. I remembered a scenario I played in my head. There’s four seconds on the clock. We’re down by one. The other team has the ball. I lunge for a steal knocking the ball loose. Three seconds. I grab the ball and sprint toward our basket. Two seconds. I pass half court and glance at the clock. One second. I launch a 30-foot heave just as the clock hits zero. I watch as the ball arcs high and the crowd goes crazy. Swoosh!


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