Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Basketbrawl: A Family Tradition

There won't be the annual Smith Family Basketbrawl this year. Didn't happen last year or the year before, either. Fact is, we're all too old, regardless of the excuse we use not to play any more.

We're in our 60s, those of us who've been involved the longest. Even the sons and nephews are in their 40s and have lost a few steps, when they can take the steps at all. Bad knees run among the Smiths.

But, oh, those glory days when one of us scored with a long, floating jumper from the top of the key,  stripped a dribble from that hotshot nephew Jason, reached out a hand to bulky nephew Nick who'd just planted us on the asphalt under the basket with a bump of his 260-pound hip. The games never had the finesse of even the roughest sort of street ball. They were junior high recess without hall monitors, anarchy in the 18th Century streets of Paris. They could be bloody, bruising and bone crunching, intimidating, humiliating, exhilarating and full of the kinds of high hand-smacks that were not yet the fashion.

My greatest pleasure always came in beating my older brother, Sandy, who was by far the best athlete in the group. It didn't happen often, but when it did, the result was a year of fist-pumping for me, even if I'd committed every basketball horror in the playbook in the process of bringing him down. Foul? What foul? No blood no foul! Yes, I see the blood, but I didn't do that!

It was left to the officious Jason to keep score and keep it he did, calling the score out after every shot, not after every basket, as was the norm. "Three to two, us," he'd yell after I'd put up a limping scoop shot that didn't come anywhere near the basket. I'd snatch the rebound that didn't rebound off anything and sling a pass at Jason's head. "Will you shut up!" I'd scream. All our discussions on these days ended with exclamation points. There were no periods, no commas and god forbid anybody should inject a semi-colon.

We never picked sides going into these wars. The Smith boys just separated into equal groups, as if anointed by god. One side would strip off its shirts because that's what you did, not because there would be any confusion about who was on who's side. Air temperature made no difference. The shirts came off.

Thanksgiving during these years was generally at my younger brother Paul's house. He always had the biggest house and it was always equipped with a high-end basketball goal and asphalt driveway, the kind that can skin an elbow to the bone with one slight slide along its length. Paul opened the garage doors so we didn't run into the wall at the end of a floating layup. There was a grassy bank on one side of the court--out of bounds--and a brick wall on the other side, the kind that led to concussions.

Mom was alive then and she'd never watch. She never came to our football games--the ones for the school--either because, as she said, "If I wanted to watch y'all get killed, I'd be doing the killing." Wives and girlfriends also avoided the mayhem. They were generally cooking, but I don't think they ever understood the appeal. And, no, I'm not going to explain it. It's that thing Harley riders say, "If you don't know why and blah, blah ..."

It's pleasant on Thanksgiving morning to think back on those basketball games, to recall Mom finally yelling, "Y'all get on in here and eat. You can play more later if you don't stuff yourselves." The whole deal's even more pleasant now, knowing I don't have to play any more of those damn games.


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