My Basketball Obituary

Charlie Paikert's game — exemplified by hustle, hitting the open man and a good jump shot — has died. It was nearly 50 years old.

Full circle: Back in the backyard.

It was a good run.

My basketball career began in a backyard driveway in Syracuse, N.Y., in the mid-1960s and ended in a New York City public school this spring, nearly 50 years and three herniated discs later.

Officially, my career wasn't very distinguished. In high school, I was a substitute on my neighborhood parish's Catholic Youth Organization team, and I scored a grand total of two points on my college freshman basketball team.

But in backyards, outdoor courts and gymnasiums, it was great.

Although hardly a star, I hustled, looked to pass the ball to the open man and had a good jump shot, so I could score and was good enough to play in good games.

On the court, there was just the game. You're not — or shouldn't be, anyway — thinking about anything else. There's the flow of the game, the unpredictability, the need to react instantly to the man you're guarding, what your teammates are doing, the bounce of the ball.

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When everything is really clicking and you're "in the zone," it's like an out-of-body experience. That guy who just went up and popped that jumper from the corner that hit nothing but net? Oh yeah, that was me.

Man, I'm going to miss that.

Off the court, basketball gave me a passport to worlds that would have otherwise been closed off.

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In Syracuse, I was often the only white guy at the Mountainview playground. For a teenager whose schools had been nearly all white, it was a great feeling to be accepted there by the black guys. I made friends and learned things that you can't learn in books.

When I moved to New York, I lived in the East Village and the basketball courts at Tompkins Square Park faithfully mirrored the neighborhood's eclectic mix. I got to know the local Ukrainian, Hispanic, Asian and African-American players, as well as some of the old beatniks, like Marty, who loved basketball and hated capitalism with an equal passion.

Where else could I have had a sideline conversation about both the finer points of executing the pick-and-roll and Karl Marx' "Das Kapital"?

Thirty years ago, three of my friends and I started a Wednesday night game in the public school on West 48th Street so we could play year-round.

I loved knowing I was going to play basketball on Wednesday night. I loved the ritual of climbing up the long flight of stairs and hearing the faint sound of the bouncing balls get louder as I approached the top floor. Walking into the ancient gym, seeing old friends and new faces, wondering which ones would come back.

I loved playing: trying to get open, hitting some shots, making some good plays, trying to win, forgetting whatever was troubling me when I walked in the door, bullshitting after the game, and, as the years wore on and my peers drifted away, getting to know the younger guys, and seeing New York and the world through their eyes.

I loved going around the corner where the bartender knew us. The harder you played that night, the better the beers and the food tasted.

I'm really going to miss it.

Tags: memoirs

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