SANTA ANA — The last hoop was just like thousands of others, a sweet little jumper by Louis, the guy with a quick first step and a tattoo on his arm.
As the ball dropped through the basket, the players sauntered off to the sidelines, dripping with sweat. Another Friday night basketball game was over, and it was time to go. But we lingered. A ritual that had endured for two decades was coming to an end; the downtown YMCA gym, where our weeknight pickup games had found a home for 20 years, had run out of money and was shutting down for good that night.
Nobody baked any cakes or made any speeches--there really wasn't much to say. If the thrice-weekly basketball games hadn't included a journalist for the past four years, the event wouldn't have even made the newspaper.
We stood around, shook hands and said farewell; a few players had brought cameras and snapped pictures. We acted as if we'd meet up again soon at another gym: "Where you gonna be playing now? Maybe I'll see you there."
Maybe, but I doubt we'll find a game as enduring, or appealing, as those half-court workouts at the Y.
The rules of our game were simple: first eight to show up split up into two teams of more or less equal strength, next four to walk in played the winners, and so on. While there are hundreds of pickup basketball games around Orange County, this one had two particular virtues: consistency and democracy.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday--years ago, Tuesdays and Thursdays as well--you could count on a game. And no one cared where you came from, as long as you could pass, dribble, shoot, rebound or play defense, or at least knew enough to stay out of the way.
While I was a relative newcomer, some of the other players have been around since the early 1970s.
"We've all gotten worse together," said Mike Meier, a 48 year-old concrete salesman from Santa Ana who grew up near the YMCA, went off to college and then Vietnam, and began playing in the evening games when he returned in 1971. "I've signed up for Racquetball World, but it won't compare. The caliber will be a lot better, but there will be more bodies, and I hate that . . . . This is more of a fellowship thing."
Meier left the area for about five years in the early 1980s to take a job in Northern California. When he came back, he found that little had changed.
"It was unbelievable," Meier said as we sat on the bench out of breath one night last week, waiting for our turn to get back in the game. "I came back and geez, the same guys were still here! It was as if I'd never left."
Until I asked him last week, I had no idea what Mike's last name was or what he did for a living--despite the fact that we've been bumping and shoving each other on a regular basis for the past few years.
What went on outside the gym's doors was nobody's else's business; first names were plenty, occupational titles unnecessary. Lawyers who drove up in gleaming German cars and wore handmade suits shared the court with guys who were lucky if they had a car that started--and, sometimes with YMCA residents just out of jail, or maybe trying to kick a habit.
We didn't always get along so well. We had our arguments, our shouting matches, even an exceedingly rare fight. But a foul, or a disputed call, was soon forgotten, and for two hours, the only thing you had to worry about was how to stop the other fellow's drive or corner jumper.
The sounds of squeaking high-tops on the deadened wood floor, the steady thump-thump-thump of the dribble, and shouts of "Switch!," "I've got him!" and "Foul!" quickly drowned out all thoughts of the workday left behind.
"This is my therapy, and it's a lot cheaper," said Stewart Suchman, a 48-year-old lawyer who lives in Laguna Hills. Suchman first came to the Y in 1971, when he started out with a downtown Santa Ana firm. The firm has since moved its offices to Newport Beach, and Suchman is the senior partner, but he has never left the dingy Y for the chrome-and-mirror fitness centers populated by his legal colleagues.
"The only reason I still come over here is because of the guys--it's certainly not for the facilities," Suchman said.
Years ago, the Y had a bustling fitness program. But as downtown Santa Ana deteriorated, the clientele stopped coming, and, except for the lunchtime rush by county and Civic Center employees, the gym was a pretty lonely place.
The basketball floor was worn and slippery to the point of being hazardous, and the gym's battered walls were dangerously close to the baskets--a thin mat attached to the wall offered some protection, but it was something to think about when driving to the hoop at top speed.
Up above, a short, oval, and usually abandoned track looked down on the basketball court. A faded sign from more optimistic times still offered this advice:
PASS ON WALL
STAY ON RAIL
Now that the Y has closed, Suchman says, he'll give Sports Club Irvine a try--more convenient to his home and business, and more modern.