the game can't stopTitle: The Real Reason I Like Shooting Alone
Author: Liam Day
Category: Nonfiction

I don’t remember when I started playing basketball. My father was a coach. My apprenticeship was no more or less ordinary than that of any child who follows in his father’s footsteps. I played in school, for two injury-riddled years in college, and a cup of coffee overseas after graduation. I continued playing for a while thereafter in men’s leagues, but soon grew tired of it.
There’s a gym in my office building, with a full-length basketball court – old, worn, lubricious – where, after five, if no one is using it, I go shoot by myself to work out the knots in rusty muscles and the tension that comes with being part of a large professional bureaucracy.
There are any number of reasons why I prefer solitude on the basketball court. Maybe I’ve matured and no longer feel I need to lock horns with other males to determine who is stronger, faster, has a better jump shot. It could be I’m afraid to compete because I’m not as good as I once was. Or just maybe those I’d play with in a pick up game won’t be as good as the players I played with at the levels of competition I achieved as a younger man.
The last reason may seem like a cop out, but it isn’t. There are activities in life everyone thinks they can do and basketball is one. Part of the reason is the sport’s simplicity. Basketball, as its name indicates, requires but a basket and a ball. No sticks, bats, gloves, masks, pads, clubs or helmets. It is matched in the beauty of its simplicity only by soccer. It is why so many people, who would never dream they could line up as a quarterback in the shotgun and read two-deep coverage, believe they can step onto a basketball floor and execute a pick and roll.
Like anything, though, simple or otherwise, the pick and roll takes hundreds of hours of practice to perfect. And that is to say nothing of the back screen, flare screen, down screen, shallow cut, or back door cut. It is presumptuous to believe you can casually step onto a basketball court and execute these moves with precision. Yet, every day, all over the world, armchair heroes attempt it. As someone who spent hours by himself in gyms in winter and on hot blacktop in summer, I admit to being slightly piqued, my frustration heightened by the fact that, as I get older and my skills wane, I can no longer demonstrate the benefits of long hours of practice by schooling the armchair heroes who would challenge me, an indication, perhaps, my competitive drive has yet to abandon me completely.
Of course, shooting by myself after work has everything to do with still-smoldering competitive fires. It’s about keeping skills sharp so I don’t have to be afraid to compete against younger, stronger, faster players. Part of me still longs for the chance to play at the level I once did and an even more delusional part believes I still can.
A lot of players hang on too long and, occasionally, we find the old mark. And to do something well you’ve done your entire life, even one time out of ten, keeps you coming back. The German word for it is funktionslust — pleasure taken in doing what one does best.
I’ve done many things as an adult. I’ve taught, I’ve written, I’ve acted, I’ve run political campaigns, and raised money for and managed non-profit organizations. None has ever given me the satisfaction of shooting a basketball. Teaching came close. Writing’s satisfactions are delayed; the process of editing and submitting a work can drag on for weeks, if not months and years. Political campaigns are too hectic to be conscious of whether you are happy in the moment. And managing an organization sometimes seems like it requires little more than receiving and sending e-mails.
Acting was fun, but I was not versed enough in the craft to take any pleasure in doing it well. Whether I nailed or muffed a scene was all the same because I had no awareness of what it took to be successful. Conversely, I know the moment a basketball leaves my hand whether it will go in and, if doesn’t, I know why — my balance was off, my follow-through flat.
Jump shooters have sweet spots. When you feel yourself perfectly balanced. Straight up and down. The follow-through smooth and high, the arm extended, wrist snapped. The sound of the ball touching nothing but the net.
To do it once, you want to do it again. But, then, you never want to leave on a miss. And so the cycle begins: shoot until you achieve perfection, then until you lose it, and again until you regain it.
The cycle draws out — ten minutes, twenty, a half-hour. In letting it I am in a small way stealing back a piece of my youth. Neither youthful glory nor youthful vigor, but, rather, youthful abandon. Stealing back to a time when time had no meaning, spread like blacktop, to play on if you would for as long as you would, when the future lay like a pair of train tracks stretching to the horizon.
And, finally, here’s the real reason I like shooting alone. It’s not maturity or fear or impatience with others, and it’s only partially a matter of funktionslust. Those tracks now stretch in opposite directions, back as well as forward, to life’s dawn as well as to its sunset and, before I carry on, I’d like to catch a last glimpse of the early morning’s garnet sky. On those evenings I spend in a windowless gym, in the flickering light of badly wired bulbs hanging in metal shades, past, present and future converge, time slows to a crawl and I’m in no rush to get home for dinner.

Liam Day was born and raised in Boston, MA and attended Harvard College. After graduation, he spent a year playing and coaching basketball in Northern Ireland. Upon returning to the States, he earned an M.A. at the Bread Loaf School of English in 2004 and is now Director of the Boston Area Health Education Center. His work has appeared in New Beginnings, Slow Trains, Apt, Annalemma, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald.