It may be officially the first week of autumn, but nobody bothered to tell the weatherman in La Paz. High 100°, low 75°, the low humidity the only saving grace. Most days I get up at about six, when it’s only 75-80°, drive down to the beach and go for a swim, lie in the sun for a bit, another battle with the surf, then back to the hacienda to towel off, pull on the lightest cotton clothes I can find, then sit past noon in the shade of Pepito’s cafe, banging back espresso and reading the local papers, working on my Spanish.
From one until five-ish, its back to the hammock, reading Marquez, Malcolm Lowry or Hemingway in the shade under the ceiling fan, sipping at a gin and tonic or three. Nights are bad. Drinking all night in the local cantina is a tempting way to pass the time, but it’s proven bad for my health, so most nights I turn up back at Pepito’s again until closing time. Then, it’s back to the hammock, trying to read by candle-light, as I can’t take the bugs that the electric lights draw. Sleep comes hard. It’s sticky, the air is still, and my dreams are usually bad.
Last night, I woke up to the distant but familiar hollow booming of a basketball on concrete. I’d heard it before at night, and passed it off, but tonight there was something haunting about it. I got up, and stood at my front door. The night was still except for distant pounding of the ball, faint, high-pitched, excited voices back and forth barely audible beneath.
I pulled on a shirt, went down the stairs and followed the sound. Through back streets, down alleys, losing the trail and finding it again. Finally, in the schoolyard of an old church, I saw it. A rusty iron pole holding a crooked and dented metal backboard and netless rim. There was a full moon, and in the yellow half-light a loose gang of teenagers chased the ball up and down the cracked concrete halfcourt.
It was magical. Here in a back alley of a backwater of a backwater, Dr. Naismith’s game still lived. Limbs cut and jumped, the ball bounced and flew and (occasionally) found the rim, voices cried out in excitement, anger and joy. I stood in the dark of a nearby building, rapt, holding my breath. My eyes were damp. It was so simple and so right.
There was one little kid, couldn’t have been five feet tall, who was tearing up the court. They weren’t really playing positions, but he was the main ball handler for his team. He had a decent crossover, could shoot with either hand, and had a wicked reverse layup. His fade-away jumper was lethal from within ten feet. The other kids varied from adequate to awful, and there was one big kid who clogged the middle and fouled everyone, and could dunk on what looked like an eight or nine-foot rim. Raw but teachable. A tall, lanky kid seemed to know post-up basics and a nascent hook shot. But the little guard was poetry. The other team’s only option was to lay a body on him, but he was so quick, half the time they’d end up on the concrete watching him blow by.
I sat in the shadow of the building for maybe an hour, until they broke up, drenched in sweat and still talking trash in Spanish. The little guard picked up his stuff and was starting to leave. I stood up and took a few steps toward the court.
“¿Cómo te llamas?” I called out.
He stopped in his tracks and stared at me suspiciously.
He nodded, and left in a hurry. “Miguel!” he shouted, as he turned the corner.
The next day, I spent many hours trying to find anyone who sold sporting goods in La Paz, finally tracking down a guy who could order a pair of new backboards and rims, and install them.
Next, a visit to the rector of the church. A big donation greased the wheels, and before I knew it, I’d also paid for resurfacing the court, new outdoor lighting. A little more smooth talking from the padre and I’d paid for the same upgrades for five other churches in La Paz, and agreed to coach in their after-school league. Hadn’t felt this excited since my first kid was born. I went to the nearest internet cafe and emailed Phil to see if he could send me Tex’s footwork, passing and spacing drills.
Before I knew it, my super-secret iPhone was ringing—the one who’s number, I thought, was only known to my wife, kids and parents. It was Phil calling from Montana.
“What do you want with Tex’s drills?” he asked without so much as a how-do-you-do.
I explained about the kids down here.
“These are the keys to the fucking kingdom. I find these drills in the hands of Jimmy Buss or Mike Brown, and it’s your head.”
“Phil,” I told him, “I’m a thousand miles away from there in more ways than one. And I haven’t felt this good in years.”
“Really?” Suddenly he sounded interested.
“Yeah. These are just kids playing basketball with a rubber ball and a tin backboard. Just for the joy of the game. No money, no fame, no bullshit. Just basketball.”
Phil sighed. “Okay,” he said at last, “Give me your address and I’ll FedEx them.”
Four days later, who do I see while sitting at Pepito’s, but Phil himself, rolling down the street on his Harley, covered in so much dust and road grime he looks like rode in from a spaghetti western.
“FedEx didn’t have a listing for ‘the flophouse behind the bordello off the plaza with the broken fountain,’ so I had to bring them myself,” he explains sarcastically as he pulls off his helmet and goggles, and shakes off pounds of road dirt.
The locals were just getting used to my skinny 6’9″ ass knocking around town. Now with Phil at 6’8″ sporting an “Ancient of Days” beard, we looked like a pair of exiled and down-on-their-luck Norse beserkers, itching for a fight we know we’re too old to win.
“So, where’s this little league of yours?” Phil asks, scanning the plaza.
“This evening,” I say, “about sundown, when it starts to cool off a little.”
“Excellent,” he says. “Let’s have a beer.”
I nod to Pepito, holding up two fingers. “You know, this dry hot climate’s good for old, arthritic farts like you,” I tell him.
He smirks. “And the mañana pace is tonic for Type-A middle-aged burnouts like you,” he replies.