I was never a baller. I wanted to be one, though. The grace and fluidity with which truly great basketball players move is unparalleled in any other sport. I was jealous. I’m tall and used to be pretty thin, but I never had the grace the true athletic players seemed to have. Gravity appeared to have a stronger hold on me than it did my teammates and my opponents. Sure, I was able to dunk a ball for a period of time in my twenties and early thirties, but it was off one foot and more of a “rim grazer” than a true “flush.” It was the quintessential white man’s dunk. I also never quite solved how to dunk off the dribble, so attempting it in a game would result in a rim rejection or a travel. I didn’t survive on my athleticism, but I knew how to play, and I was mean. That being said, I could step into a pick-up game with players who were more athletic than I was and compete.
One of the most interesting pick-up games in which I played was in Birmingham, Alabama, about fifteen years ago. It took place in a minimum security prison on a trip with some people from my church. Were supposed to be “establishing relationships” or passing out salvation tracts or some other socially uncomfortable task in hopes of converting the lost and wayward. The first things I noticed, though, were the basketball courts. More specifically, the basketball court (singular). Technically, there were two surfaces, but the rim was torn down on one court and had been that way for a few years according to the inmates. The one functioning court, however, was overflowing with players.
Basketball courts are the great equalizer. You only need two people for a competitive matchup. There’s no net separating the opponents. There’s no equipment you need to guide the ball in the direction you wish it to go. It’s a competition that requires you to beat your opponent with grace and strength; with physicality and finesse. No matter your earning power, race, or social standing, if you have a ball and at least one other person, you can have true competition.
That afternoon in Birmingham the only thing that divided me from the other players was the fact that I was wearing a gray shirt and they were all wearing white, state-issued shirts. We played. We passed. We shot. We threw elbows. We cussed. We talked trash. And, at the end of our competition, we ate together in the cafeteria: macaroni and cheese with chunks of hot dog. A mutual respect was formed between those men and myself that afternoon. Basketball has a way of doing that—of evening out the odds between people.
Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve consistently played ball. I’ve played in leagues, tournaments, pick-up games, and any other form of basketball I could find (H.O.R.S.E., 21, Around the World). I’ve never had trouble finding a place to play because I knew people who also liked to play. But, as I’ve aged, my game has aged, too. Now, I find myself playing ball on Monday nights with men who are older than me and probably a little slower than me and who maybe don’t move as quickly as they used to move. There’s more of a jog than a sprint now. If I wanted some of that old style competition, where would I go? Jackson doesn’t have a lot of public basketball courts. In fact, there are only two.
In the past ten years, our city has invested in a multi-million dollar Sportsplex for baseball and softball and a 1.2 million-dollar tennis complex on the property of what was formerly Highland Green Golf Course. While tennis, baseball, and softball are excellent ways to exercise, they also cost money. Tennis racquets and balls can cost at least fifty dollars and that’s for a Walmart racquet and less-than-stellar tennis balls. Baseball and softball equipment are in a completely different stratosphere compared to tennis, not to mention the difficulty of finding eighteen people to play a “pick-up game”. Of course, both of these ventures were investments in hopes of making money and increasing tourism. Mayor Jerry Gist also pointed to the fact that tennis would “mean a higher quality of life for people, something to use in their leisure time.” While that’s true, most of our community doesn’t have access to equipment or, honestly, even a desire to play tennis. Something that would provide great exercise at an affordable price and also draw more interest from a younger demographic would be more public outdoor full basketball courts in Jackson.
The first Sunday in October, I drove through Muse Park to check out the courts there. They were full of players. Both courts had competitive games of five-on-five being played. There were another twenty or so players waiting on the side, just hanging out and talking. A few days later, on a weekday, I drove by the courts again to take some pictures, and there was a half-court game of four-on-four being played. When I told the players I was working on a story about public basketball courts in Jackson, one player quipped, “Or lack thereof.” Yes. That’s correct.
The only other full-size public outdoor court in Jackson is at Kate Campbell Robertson Memorial Park, which is east of town, toward the Beech Bluff community. When I went to look at the court, it didn’t seem as if much maintenance had been provided. The nets on the goals were torn and the line markings on the courts were faded to the point of nearly being invisible. There was no one playing there that day.
One sign of a thriving downtown is the amount of public spaces available for people to converse, spend leisure time, play sports, or simply be. Imagine a public area with three or four full basketball courts that were downtown and available to anyone who wanted to play. The only item they would need would be a ball. Police officers could build relationships with at-risk youth on the court. The LIFT and Grubb’s Grocery could promote healthy lifestyles through the courts in the downtown area. These courts could be an opportunity for health for people who can’t afford a gym membership or tennis equipment or simply just want a place to play basketball. Even if this downtown basketball court never comes to fruition, there is no doubt that our city needs more public options for a sport that a lot of youth and young adults play.
There are relationships and friendships I still have to this day because of sport. There are people that I hated while we were on the court but who I considered a great friend outside of the context of the game. There is an unspoken bond that is formed when you compete at a high level against another person for a period of time. And, years after that competition is over, there are still the stories and, more importantly, the relationship. In a time when our society is struggling for ways to understand each other, sometimes the best thing we can do is play.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Photography by Gabe Hart.