Pandemic Playgrounds

For whom the ball tolls

Photograph by the author.

When the NBA shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, I began driving around New Orleans, where I teach English at Tulane, photographing the city’s basketball courts at night. I set off around midnight through the deserted streets, at first to familiar places and then to spots more obscure. I didn’t bring a ball; in those early days it felt illicit to even be outside, every surface a threat. Eventually, I found myself at the Carver playground next to River Road, the outdoor court I play at most often. I wasn’t supposed to be there, it was clear—the gate was locked and yellow tape was strung across the chain-link fence as though it was a crime scene. But someone had cut a hole in the fence nearby.

That my first expeditions into the pandemic landscape should involve basketball seemed appropriate, since basketball, specifically the NBA, had been more or less at the fault line separating the old normal from the new. The moment is etched vividly in my memory: The night of Wednesday, March 11, I turned on the television to watch the Pelicans play an away game against the Sacramento Kings. The Kings were on the floor warming up, but not the Pelicans.

My interest in the Pelicans this year had been a bit more professional than usual because of Zion Williamson. For the past six or so years I had been making forays into NBA world as a kind of credentialed amateur, wandering the back hallways and locker rooms, sorting for some valuable object that I assumed I would recognize when I found, and now and then writing essays about the NBA. Williamson’s arrival in New Orleans as the most hyped draft pick since LeBron James required no interpretation. I felt I should take a seat in the front row to see what there was to see. I had made a point of attending all the major milestones that I could. These included Media Day on September 30, 2019 and the traditional commencement of training camp at the Pelicans’ practice facility in Metairie, an October event at which, for the first time ever, there were no spaces in the parking lot; I attended Zion’s first preseason home game against the Utah Jazz on October 11, which capped off a stellar preseason performance, followed by the news that he would need surgery on his knee. I attended his re-unveiling at a practice the following January, for which journalists from all over the country had flown in, as though to confirm with their own eyes, for a span of fifteen minutes, that he was ambulatory and wearing shorts, and I was present for his first home game, when, his team trailing the San Antonio Spurs in the third quarter, he hit four three-point shots in a row to give the Pelicans a lead. The second shot provoked me to a murmur. By the fourth I was making strange, animal groaning sounds, the result of the conflicting impulses to remain professional and to scream with childish delight along with everyone else in the unfortunate but suddenly aptly named “Smoothie King Arena.”

The signature event of all of these encounters, however, took place at the beginning, at the practice facility. Amidst the loosely festive chaos of the day, with players and media members moving around the practice facility in a dazed, excited, first-day-of-school sort of mood, I pulled aside an assistant coach and inquired about the players in training camp without guaranteed contracts. NBA teams are now allowed to have up to twenty-two players in training camp, of whom only seventeen are guaranteed contracts, two of which are called “Two Way Contracts.” This means the player is paid below NBA scale and can be shuttled between the developmental G-league and the NBA for a certain number of games. It was merely an exaggerated version of the dynamic that exists in every NBA locker—and I guess every locker in professional sports, and beyond—in which someone making a million dollars a year, with no assurances about next year, sits beside a player banking forty million over a span of years, or a hundred million, and so on. I am always fascinated by the margins of the profession, out of some combination of empathy and voyeurism. Referring to the players out on the floor who are part of the team, now, but are a long shot to get a contract, I asked “What’s it like for guys like that?”

“You’re here, but you’re not here,” said the coach. He said it with the solemn deadpan of Chauncey Gardner in Being There uttering “in the spring there will be growth.” It was a kind of amulet I had carried through the season. Applicable to just about anything, really, it served as a kind of tag line for Williamson’s first season.

Zion Williamson’s season, and career, had been to date heavily inflected by a feeling of coitus interruptus—tantalizing glimpses of a prodigious talent interspersed by long stretches of injury, absence, frustration. But after his return in January the season, and Williamson’s season in particular, had taken a turn for the better.

And so on March 11, I turned on the TV in the distinctly retro mode of a dad who wanted some down time from family life and everything else. Just a fan curious to see if the Pelicans, with an activated Williamson finally getting enough minutes to play himself into shape, could build on their recent success. What I encountered was the usual pregame scenario of teams warming up in layup lines, minus one of the teams.

The TV announcers were struggling to explain the situation. The first game of that night’s double header, featuring the Jazz against the Oklahoma City Thunder, had already been called off. The NBA, along with other sports leagues, had announced plans to begin playing in front of empty arenas. Meanwhile, as the announcers spoke, game time was rapidly approaching, and only one of the teams was out on the court. While the Kings did layups, the Pelicans were absent, for unknown reasons. Here, but not here.

It turned out they were in the locker room processing the news that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the virus, and that one of the referees for that night’s game in Sacramento had worked the Utah–Toronto game two nights earlier. I don’t know how word got to the locker room, if it was Arron Nelson, the team’s chief medical officer, or the general Manager, David Griffin, or maybe one of the players. Whatever it was, the Pelicans did not come out to play.

Eventually, the public address announcer explained to the assembled crowd that the game had been called off. The camera panned across the stands where thousands of people who had just sat down now began to gather themselves. I saw a young girl burst into tears. The announcer implored everyone to go home and be safe, normally a banal enough remark, but there was a strain in his voice as he tried to layer a sense of normality over a highly abnormal situation.

A close read of those hours reveals a day in which numerous sports leagues started making plans to play games without fans. The Jazz–OKC game was postponed at 8:40 EST. Twenty-five minutes later, President Trump declared a European travel ban. Minutes later, Tom Hanks and his wife announced that they had tested positive for the virus. At 9:31 EST the NBA announced that the season was suspended. Yet an hour later, the Kings were warming up on the court; the game was like some Mars rover that keeps sending signals back to headquarters long after the mission is abandoned. Within twenty-four hours, pretty much all sense of normalcy in America was upended. What the NBA began, college basketball completed two days later when the NCAA tourney was cancelled.

At the time, watching it unfold in ungoverned real time, the cameras panned to Lonzo Ball of the Pelicans, who had ambled onto the court with members of the Pelicans staff. They each grabbed a ball off the rack. He stood a few feet from the basket and flicked up a shot, which missed. The assistant rebounded. He was surrounded, on the baseline, by quite a few other people—ball boys, court wipers, and so forth—who suddenly had something to do. Ball flicked up another shot, which bounced in. Then another, and another. The shots gradually became more assured, nothing but net. The camera cut away but the image was indelible: confronted with the strangeness of the situation, he retreated to the familiar gestures of repetition, routine, the consolations of seeing a ball go through the hoop; of letting go of something and then getting it back.

Those little flicked shots from six feet away were, in a sense, the last shots of the NBA season that were witnessed, live, by fans. I felt strangely proud of the NBA and of basketball. These nationally televised cancellations Wednesday night set the stage for the avalanche of cancellations in which all of society’s regularly scheduled programming was swept away. The next day the NCAA cancelled its tournament. High school sports followed. And shortly thereafter, all the rec centers, adult leagues, playgrounds of America began to shut down.

At least in theory. A week later I stood at the locked entrance to Carver Park with its crisscross of yellow tape giving it the feeling of a crime scene—or Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputians—and regarded the nearby hole in the fence. I had just become acquainted with the Italian word “Furbizia,” in a front page story in the New York Times, which described it as “the Italian word for the sort of cunning or cleverness typically channeled into getting around bureaucracy and inconvenient laws.”

This was the Italian era of the virus in America, when everyone watched compilation videos of Italians coping with the strange reality of lockdown by singing to each other and playing music from their balconies. My wife and I laughed at compilation videos of exasperated Italian mayors berating and exhorting their constituents to be safe and stay inside for the common good (“What is it with these incontinent dogs!”). We were trying to acclimate to the new reality by listening to the Italians tell us, in their actions and in some cases in direct address, not to make the mistake they had made in thinking that the pandemic was a problem that existed far away, while making the mistake of thinking that this was all a surreal and exotic phenomena that existed far away.

“Furbizia” rang in my head as I stared at the hole. Then I ducked through. I stood at center court like someone in an abandoned cathedral, an effect that was made more palpable by the fact that Carver Park, like many of the courts in New Orleans, is covered by a metal roof. I walked to the far basket and saw that the rim had been covered with plywood. I walked back to the near basket, where a pile of wood sat off to the side. Someone had climbed up and removed the impediment. I stood beneath this liberated hoop staring up at the orange rim in the darkness until a freight train passing right beside me honked. The sound was thunderous at close range. I jumped and looked towards the conductor, half expecting to see someone glaring at me for trespassing. I felt caught, exposed. But I saw no one, and I’ll never know if I that honk was a chastisement or if it was just another of the periodic blasts that drift mournfully over the uptown neighborhood throughout the nights.

“There’s no concept of social distancing while playing basketball,” Governor Cuomo remarked in those first days of the shutdown. But playing basketball is a difficult habit to break.  Perhaps in response to the kind of furbizia I had witnessed at Carver Park, the rims were removed altogether a few days later, as they were in all the parks in New Orleans, and in municipalities all over America. New Orleans removed 130 rims from backboards. My native New York City removed 2,100.

For a time, I consoled myself with jumping rope and pretending to enjoy jogging. Then, at home, I started using an app called Homecourt, which tracks your movements as you perform ball handling and agility drills. A voice exhorts you to go faster, keep up the good work.

One day I walked away from the phone mid-drill, and noticed that in my absence the voice kept offering the same encouragement, responding to a person who wasn’t there. I thought of the Raymond Carver story, “A Small Good Thing,” in which a couple who has lost their son in a tragic accident gets increasingly irate phone messages from a baker from whom they had commissioned a birthday cake that they never picked up.

I stopped using Homecourt and began going to my local, rimless playground at Laurel Street where I had existential workouts dribbling the ball up and down the court and taking shots aimed at the orange square painted onto the white metal backboard. The sound was that of a hollow gong. For whom the ball tolls.

In Uptown New Orleans there was no widespread cheering for medical works and first responders at 7 PM as had occurred nightly in New York. There was only one man who marched down Laurel Street with a ladle and a big pot on which he beat a distinctly New Orleans second-line rhythm. I would clap briefly and then resume my gonging shots, trying to work them into his rhythm.

Does playing basketball by yourself count as playing basketball?  For a while I enjoyed just getting into a physical rhythm, running and dribbling, pulling up from deep, but something important was missing, beyond just a rim for the ball to go through.

When summer came, we could not make our usual pilgrimage to New York City, where summer playground basketball was on tap through the afternoons and evenings. Instead, we rented a place in Kent, Connecticut. By chance, a court was down the street. It not only had rims but a meadow spreading out to the base of a mountain that rose behind the backboard. For the first time in three months, I could take shots on a rim.

I am always aware of the moment in the afternoon when the courts—in whatever city I am in—will begin to populate and playing pickup basketball becomes a possibility. There have been stretches of my life when I consult the clock with the same anxiety and anticipation of a middle schooler waiting for class to end.

On many evenings I would head to the court in the early evening grateful to get into a rhythm of dribbling and shooting at an actual basketball hoop. Sometimes I would keep it relatively brief, but now and then I would stay out until the sky turned purple behind the mountain. A few times I stayed until it was dark. It may have been more than a few, as my wife made several less than amused remarks about being a basketball widow. Moving into the summer house was, for me, the equivalent of a committed drinker moving next to an especially congenial bar.

One day in June I took shots with the son of a friend who lives in the area. We rebounded for each other but otherwise kept our distance. A week later, I took shots with his father, who was sufficiently paranoid about the virus that he insisted we each use our own ball; rebounding became a game unto itself, though not terribly enjoyable. In early July, the father consented to using one ball. And a week after that, when I drove to the basket, he raised his arm, a kabuki gesture of defense. We never progressed to actually guarding one another, but we were hardly observing social distance, either.

Meanwhile, in New York City, they put the rims back. I went down for a day trip in mid-July, and walked onto my regular court at 76th Street in Riverside park at dusk to see not just rims, but brand new plexiglass backboards, rims bright orange and unbent, nets. There had been an upgrade underway at that playground for some time, and I assumed this was the finale. But I later saw these plexiglass backboards on other courts in the city, as though the courts themselves were now in aesthetic alignment with the many translucent glass towers going up around the city.

That first day back, I was wearing a mask and took some shots with another guy who was also wearing a mask. Most of the people at the other baskets, playing games, were not wearing masks. Those who had arrived with a mask would, after just a few minutes of playing, inevitably be wearing something closer to a chinstrap.

“Have you been coming out here a while?” I asked the guy I was shooting with. He was a lanky kid with fluid spins and hesitation moves that identified him as another basketball addict.

“This is my second day.”

“When do you think you will be ready?” I asked.

“Soon,” he said. It took a moment to realize he did not take my question as I intended—when do you think you will be willing to risk playing with other people?—but rather as a question about his conditioning.

At some point I saw a masked man jog by pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. He had managed to affix a giant rainbow-colored hula-hoop to the wheelchair that created a circumference of six feet around them both, with a tennis ball at each compass point. The masked woman, who I decided instantly was his mother, was frail. Her back hunched, her head bowed slightly on a slender neck, she nevertheless kept her face lifted so she could keep her eyes on the road ahead. I tried to infer, in this brief moment, whether the look in her eyes was one of excitement or terror, if this was a rare thrill, a chance to get out and see the world, or if she was enduring yet another cockamamie idea of her son that she had failed to talk him out of, and was scared out of her mind about the reckless speed at which her son, himself in a mask and old enough to have a head full of gray hair, was pushing her along in this mad contraption. I smiled a little and cried a little. Then I continued to shoot.

Back at the Field of Dreams court in Kent, my shooting sessions were almost always solitary. I revived the HomeCourt App, which recorded my shooting drills (you can elect to see only your makes on playback, or only your misses, or relive the whole thing. I wasn’t thrilled with the sight of this guy moving stifling and hosting shots, all of which reeked of desperation, even when they went in). But now and then I would arrive to find a crew of young guys out there, shooting around, playing games. There were about six of them and it was clear that they, too, were basketball cultists. I could hear it in their patter, see it in their moves. They had spent hours working on their crossover, their step-back. Some of them had pretty good jump shots. That they were all Asian, and on the short side, just made their passion for the game more evident. It made me privately proud that this sport I had been dragooned into as a kid, because I was tall, had become a kind of global asset, like a stock I had bought low and held. I remembered visiting Michael Kinsley in his Slate office on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, in 2000. He gave me a tour that included the outdoor basketball court, filled with Chinese software engineers involved in a clamorous game of full court. “The Chinese love basketball,” he remarked. Although it didn’t quite occur to me then, this was probably the first time the notion of basketball as a tech stock that goes up and up, is scalable on a global level, occurred to me.

When I spoke to Alex Wu, one of the guys running the Homecourt App, whose use exploded during the pandemic, he mentioned that the app’s founders had worked together at another startup in Hong Kong, and would go play basketball a few times a week on the court below their office. The guys playing in Redmond, circa 2000, were comical in their enthusiasm. The guys in Kent, twenty years later, were an altogether different matter: They trash-talked each other; they had moves, skills. They were not just dabbling, this wasn’t just exercise. I tried not to look at their games so as to avoid temptation.

At first, they shot at their hoop and I shot at mine. Other than a nod hello, there was no interaction. But after a couple of weeks, I started hearing some patter that seemed directed at me. As I was doing deep stretches I heard, “Oh, it’s the yoga stuff.” Except they didn’t say stuff.

Later, I heard something about Boban. It took me a moment to realize they were calling me Boban Marjanovic, the seven-foot-three center for the Dallas Mavericks with the elfin ears and shaggy hair.

I like Boban as a person and a player. In February 2019, when he was playing with the Philadelphia 76ers in New Orleans, I watched Boban crash down onto the court clutching his knee. Everyone on the 76ers’ bench jumped to their feet, somber and concerned. Something about the scale and nature of his body makes many of his movements seem like German expressionist theater, epic. He had been having a great game, which leant an extra poignancy to the injury.

Two teammates pulled him to his feet and helped him off the court. They were each tall men but Boban towered over them. They lead him off the court and towards the tunnel to the locker room, which is where I was standing. His long arms stretched over their shoulders, the giant red sneaker of his injured leg held gingerly in the air. He hopped along with their support, but once inside the dark tunnel he let go of his teammates and began hopping unassisted down the hallway towards the locker room on one foot. Boban’s journey, down the relative darkness and solitude of the tunnel, looked like something out of a fairy tale. His enormity, the red sneakers, his pointed ears, it felt allegorical somehow, mythic.

Like many extremely tall players—Tacko Fall, Gheorghe Mureșan—Boban has been turned into a kind of benign pet, a fetish, someone whose humanity and kindness is endlessly crowed about as though charm, like body warmth, is not expected to travel to such extremities. I feel warmly towards Boban. I like Boban. But I don’t want to be called Boban. For two decades I have been called Dirk, as in Nowitzki, when hitting shots while playing playground basketball.  Boban felt like a downgrade.  Their remarks were the sort of trash talk that would have normally been a prelude to playing a game. Now the game had to be virtual.

On my next visit to the court in Kent, I was alone. And yet I found myself working out particularly hard, a kind of dialogue unfurling in my head. “Boban?” it began. “I’ll give you some Boban buckets.”

I did some moves in the post, my back to the basket. I’m six-foot-five and a half and played basketball at Vassar, during which I came off the bench for part of all four seasons, a perennial underachiever, which is why, I think, I am now someone who practices basketball as though preparing for some redemption. This feeling of retort is something basketball brings out in its players. It’s probably the one thing that connects the lowest level players to Michael Jordan. As The Last Dance, a major event in the pandemic’s early weeks, illustrated, Jordan’s need to play in response to a slight was such that he would go so far to invent them, when necessary. (His most animated moment in the whole ten hours may have been when listening to Gary Payton claim, twenty years after the fact, that he had slowed Jordan down in the finals. Like the dog at the end of Lampedusa’s, The Leopard, falling through the air and regaining its form, Jordan seemed briefly to return to peak form in his expression of bemusement and contempt, the way his ire seemed to energize him.)

After my imaginary session of abusing my Asian friends in the post, I went to the perimeter and said, “But then you might get Tobias Harris!” Harris was Boban’s all-star caliber teammate in Philadelphia and his good friend. I started jacking threes, then driving the hoop. “You might get Tobias Harris raining buckets on you!”

I didn’t actually enunciate these words. And I don’t often think about, let alone pretend to be, Boban Marjanovic or Tobias Harris. But I had been insulted, somehow, and was now getting my chance at payback. Pickup basketball isn’t just a childish activity. It is a portal to a world of childish feelings of dread and humiliation, and also the sense of triumphing over them, or at least learning not to be paralyzed by them. It was this belligerent friction that had been missing during all the basketball I had played during the pandemic. This inner monologue was, I thought, as close to playing in a real game as I was willing to get in the summer of 2020.

The Kent idyll came to an end in mid-August. Instead of heading straight back to New Orleans, we were able to spend a couple of weeks staying at a friend’s empty apartment in Manhattan and rendezvous with my mother on park benches. My childhood basketball court was nearby. I went to see it on the first day.

Over the years, I have witnessed a noticeable decline in the number of people playing pickup basketball in my most-frequented New York playgrounds. Video games, gentrification, and the general professionalization of childhood sports were the culprits—I’d argued this in print—but the sense that the people you were most likely to find on any given afternoon were in their thirties, forties, or older, was irrefutable. Or so I thought.

On my first visit, the courts were packed. The players were mostly young but not completely. There is evidence of a kind of erosion of conviction in some of the players, whose masks are chinstraps, or like little hankies tied around their necks. Mostly, there are no masks. Part of the court’s revamp was a new fitness area in the corner, parallel bars, a chin-up station, and so forth. I got in the habit of jogging down with a Zabar’s bag in which there was a basketball, a jump rope and a stretchy elastic band, thinking: “But why do you have to jog to the basketball court to do your workout if you’re not going to play basketball? Isn’t this a form of self-torture? Aren’t you just waiting for the moment that you capitulate?

I held on, though, only taking out my ball when there was an opportunity to shoot around alone. Then I came back to New Orleans. I made the concession to my local Crossfit gym, a barn with industrial fans all over the place. I joined Crossfit nearly a decade ago for the purpose of keeping myself intact enough to play basketball; without the weights, I felt, my body would crumble to dust.

On my way home I passed the Carver playground. What I saw was so strange I pulled over and got out of the car to get a better look. The court, which on most evenings would have just a smattering of players, was not merely crowded, it was teeming. I got out of my car and walked closer. Big, adult players were at it. Some of them seemed to be very good. A guy was sitting on the playground jungle gym next to a woman and a stroller with a little baby in it.

“Is this some sort of league, or camp?” I said. “Some organization?”

He said no, just people hooping. Actually, I don’t know what he said. It was loud and he seemed not that excited to see me. I took a few more steps towards the court and watched the game. All this basketball talent, all of it Black.

I had been living in New Orleans for twelve years, and when I arrived the pickup basketball culture seemed so anemic that I spent the first eight or so years playing in indoor courts at Tulane and the JCC. These were frigid oases in which to collect one’s thoughts in the heat; sometimes the games were very good; there was a fairly diverse group who played there, all in all. But I felt sad, when I finally started to play outdoors, that I hadn’t done it sooner. Playing ball on playgrounds made me feel closer to the city. It felt like I was missing out on a whole dimension of urban life that I was at last getting a taste of. Some of this was the degree to which I was interacting with young Black guys that I otherwise didn’t speak too that often. It was not so much how they did or didn’t talk to me; it was the proximity with which I observed them talking to each other. The physical talent was there, but so was the goofiness of their youth, and also a kind of polite softness to their manner, even gentleness. If this was too superficial to count as real engagement or opportunity for empathy, it nevertheless expanded my sense of the city.

Watching the crowded scene at Carver Park, I felt the adrenaline of fear, it would have been ridiculous to walk onto the court in normal times, except I could do it, I had done it many times before, walk up and ask who had next, wait my turn. My height solved some degree of the problem but just some. What you learned on the playground was how to insert the physical fact of yourself, make your presence known. Everyone always disdains all the arguing in playground basketball, the free-floating animosity, but sometimes this was the best part, when you stand there yelling “respect the call!” or “I had next!” over and over. I felt this pull now. Basketball was almost an excuse for the occasion for conflict. But the pandemic, the pandemic was not over, and everyone around me was at the least twenty years younger than me.

I watched this basketball bacchanal unfolding under the Carver Park shed, standing in my baggy basketball shorts and fake Latrell Sprewell jersey like some large, white, Mars Blackmun, staring. I always wear basketball clothes to Crossfit as if to say, this is just a means to an end. I saw a big guy spin through a crowded lane and send up a floater that dropped in. The scene was frightening on many levels.

At some point over the summer, I started mulling over a work of fiction I would write based on John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist spends his life moving itinerantly from one basketball court to another. He would start in his own city, branch out to others in his state, travel the country, the world—a pickup basketball smorgasbord, a do-or-die situation each time he walked onto a new court. Cheever’s story, as I remembered it, centered on a guy who lives in an affluent suburb in which everyone has a pool. One Sunday afternoon while drinking off his hangover at a neighbor’s mid-day pool party, he looks around and has the epiphany that he can get home by cutting across a series of back yards, jumping in a pool in each one. Swim his way home. The story’s mood was lost, allegorical, a bit sad. But also attractive in that glimmering, silvery, Cheever way.

I belong to that generation— and I think there are several—who fell under the Cheever spell in the years after what I now understand was his great revival—the publication of his collected stories. The big red book with the C. I liked the stories, but it was the elegant prose, and the slightly haughty tone and milieu, a world of gentry fallen, down but not entirely out—that was part of the attraction. Then, a decade after I first read in him in the early ’80s in my high school American Studies class (the teacher, at the culmination, played Warren Zevon’s “Lawyer’s Guns and Money,” as a final word on American culture), I was shocked, along with many others, to read Cheever’s journals. The headlines involve his bisexuality, his rutting in public bathrooms, his contempt for the people, the men, he was rutting with. But also shocking was how thin the veneer of his hauteur was, how anxious he was about it. It changed things, in a way deepened him as a writer. Some people said it was his best work. It certainly made for some interesting juxtapositions: I always loved his short story, “Reunion,” about a son’s meeting with his father for the first time in years. But the reunion is never consummated, the father somehow forestalls any actual conversation by constantly switching restaurants until it’s time for him to leave. It begins, vividly, in Grand Central Station; the son’s longing for his father seemed poignant to me, and seemed to echo the majestic interior of that space. In the journals, Cheever writes of the Men’s room in Grand Central Station, “One could, with a touch, break the laws of the city and the natural world, expose the useless burdens of guilt and remorse, and make some claim for man’s wayward and cataclysmic nature. And for a moment the natural world seems a dark burden of expensive shoes, and garters that bind, tiresome parties and dull loves, commuting trains, coy advertisements, and hard liquor.” Then he takes his son swimming.

I eventually decided that it was, at least in part, the outrageous act of repression and fakery in Cheever’s fiction that was part of his appeal.

The Swimmer adaptation lingered in my thoughts—would I call it “The Baller?”—long enough that I decided that I ought to reread the original for the purpose of orientation. Also, it had been made into a cheesy film starring Burt Lancaster, and an image of a melodramatic and shirtless Lancaster looking distraught was intruding into my thoughts and killing the mood.

I reread “The Swimmer,” and it was, for the most part, as I remembered it, but more caustic and much darker. Toward the end of his marathon day of swimming, the sky has darkened to night. The narrator seems to be losing his grip in ways that resonated pleasantly with the exhaustion I would feel at the end of long sessions of playing basketball, the exhaustion that I was, in a way, playing toward. The narrator breaks down in tears. “He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water,” Cheever writes. The whole story felt a bit creaky and overdetermined in its foreboding, but fundamentally familiar, at least until I got to the end: the narrator arrives home to discover that it is locked. At first he is confused, wonders why the “stupid cook or the stupid maid” would have done such a thing as lock the house, and then recalls that it has been sometime since they employed a cook or maid. “He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in the empty windows, saw that the place was empty.”

I felt a chill when I read those lines, partly as a natural effect of the story, but also because of the fact that I had elided this aspect of the story in my memory. I had decided that the story reflected on me in some way, a grown man spending hours on the court, while conveniently forgetting the indictment of this behavior, and the plausible consequences of being a person who, like someone disappearing into bar, or just a bottle, refuses to deal. Like walking into a bar, or jumping in a pool, playing basketball presents you with an immediate reality that requires your attention. While you are in one place, you don’t have to be in another, even if that other place is your actual life.

I stood at Carver Park debating the ethics of joining the game. The pandemic wasn’t over, but it felt a little over, even in New Orleans, the one city in America that had seen two spikes—the first alongside New York, the second one along with the rest of the non-mask-wearing South. If the impetus for playing was to be fearless and take chances, then why not be fearless now, here? How was the risk of getting the virus in any way different from the risk of getting hurt, in the course of the game or otherwise, when you played pickup basketball?

When you speak of taking risks, the key is the agency implicit in “taking.” The virus, I have decided, for now, is too arbitrary, its ubiquity the result of too much cynicism, to allow for that sense of pleasure. I stood there in the cotton candy dusk, staring at the throng with wide eyes, the questions running through my head, and then I walked away.

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