Every Friday, I am privileged to take part in a ritual that I find both exhilarating and inspiring. It is an activity that has been practiced for generations, and it provides me with a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment. I must confess that I am not referring to immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh) before Shabbat, nor participation in my synagogue’s excellent Friday morning Gemara class.
Rather, my weekly inspiration is derived from an assemblage of solemn-faced men who gather every Friday after the morning minyan…to play basketball. The players, all Bet Shemesh residents, have various professions and interests. Over the years, we have had doctors, dentists, lawyers, industrial designers, technical writers, financial analysts, project managers, teachers, programmers, a PhD, rabbis, actuaries, and even a blogger. When we started the game 17 or 18 years ago, our hair was darker, our stomachs were flatter, and the pre-game conversations usually revolved around the fortunes of the Giants, Jets, Mets, and Yankees, with a word or two occasionally thrown in about the Cubs. If a player was absent one week, it was chalked up to a family obligation to attend a gan party for one’s son or daughter.
These days, while the pre-game discussion still focuses on the fortunes of those teams, many conversations have changed to more age-appropriate subjects, such as the minimum age by which one should have a colonoscopy, as well as the pros and cons of various weight-loss schemes. My own personal conversational strategy during a game is to speak to my opponent as we are running down the court about a variety of subjects — his summer vacation plans, where in the army his child is serving, or whom he will vote for in the next election, all of which may serve to distract him. These days, if a player is absent one week, the chances are that he has gone to visit a son at his army base, or has been coerced into attending a gan party for a grandchild.
The game itself, which is supposed to begin by 9:15, but rarely starts before 9:30, is a combination of a few spurts of some actual basketball activity, and several water breaks, in which the highlights of the week’s Tanach class are reviewed, the latest Israeli or American political blunder is rehashed, and occasionally, a rules review is provided by the one person among us who actually knows all of the rules of basketball.
The age of the players ranges from 30 at the low end to mid- and upper-50s at the higher end. Certainly, for those of us at the upper age level, if by the time the game ends at around 10:45, we can walk off the court under our own power, we consider it a victory, regardless of the final score.
I cannot wax nostalgic, and claim that in my youth I was more skilled. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good then, and I am no better than mediocre now. The combination of the game, the discussions, the occasional ‘trash talk’, and the thrill of surviving, keeps us coming back each week.
But what I find most inspirational about the nature of our Friday basketball game is its self-regulatory nature. Up and down the court we run, passing, shooting, and rebounding, until play stops, when a player yells, “Foul.” He missed his shot, and claims that he was fouled in the act of shooting. The defender may have pushed him, slapped him, or otherwise impeded his progress. Play is resumed, and the team that last had the ball continues. Or, a player may be bringing the basketball up court, dribbling the ball as he walks with the ball. Suddenly, another will yell out “Double Dribble.” The player with the ball has committed a violation, and the ball is turned over to the other team.
There is no referee, but if a player says that he was fouled, then he was fouled. There may be some grumbling, but the rule is, that when anyone calls a foul, or notes any other violation, all of the players must accept his decision. “Respect the call” is the popular expression. We may not always agree that what the player felt, or saw was what we felt, or saw, but nevertheless, if he called a foul, then a foul it is. Respect the call.
Our weekly basketball game is in a sense, a microcosm of society. There are limited resources — one ball and one court — a limited population –no more than 10 or 12 players in attendance — and we have to finish the game on time. When a player calls a foul, we have to accept his decision. If we didn’t, there would be anarchy, and the game could never be played to completion.
The fact that a group of competitive, sweaty men can manage to get along and not get bogged down in arguments is a sign of maturity, and even wisdom. The ability to respect, and even accept a point of view that may be different than our own is rarely encountered in today’s society, both in face to face contact, and certainly on social media. Over the past number of years, many a time I have been called for a foul, when I am certain that I touched nothing but the ball. Yet, a call is a call, and I have to respect it. One can’t help but think that the lesson of accepting the foul calls made by our peers and managing to get along for the greater good of the basketball game, may have made some small impact in our own lives outside the confines of the basketball court.
And so we continue in our weekly basketball adventures. We may be a step slower, and our shots may not be as accurate as they once were, but we still have the drive to succeed, and the desire to win the game. Are we always happy with the ‘calls’ made by others? Not always, but the respect that we have for the game, and for each other, makes the game far more enjoyable.
And that’s pretty inspiring for a Friday morning.