While sitting in a Berkeley cafe trying to write something about Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals recently, this middle-aged guy sitting next to me and peering over my shoulder at my computer screen full of spreadsheets leaned over to ask a question that you might normally only use for speed dating (and even then, probably not as the icebreaker).
“What do you do?” he asked leaning over and grinning expectantly. “What’s your passion?”
As though that wasn’t ridiculous enough, I was already triply annoyed at this dude before he even asked the question. One, don’t look at my damn computer screen and comment. Two, while I was standing around and looking for an outlet to use, this clown was using up a seat near an outlet to surf the web on his fancy unplugged phone. Three, why are you even trying to have a discussion about major life questions when the only thing I know about you is that you lack fundamental coffee shop etiquette?
Dude was wrong as three left feet.
“Those are two entirely different questions,” I responded, turning back to my screen and trying to muster the frostiest tone possible, yet stupidly inviting a follow-up question.
And naturally the discussion led to basketball.
Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with any further details about the context of this bizarre encounter except to tell you that aside from finding out that this guy was a mathematician who had run a midnight basketball program for youth during the Clinton era and fell in love with the Golden State Warriors after moving to the Bay Area from Chicago during the Run TMC years, we didn’t have much in common…which is to say that he successfully managed to sucker me into a discussion about why basketball is such a great game and why he found it to be such an amazing tool with which to work with youth.
But of all of that, it was the discussion about playing pickup ball that ended up being most interesting, even as I was trying to shut this guy out.
What he loved about playing pickup ball – as opposed to playing in the more structured Rec League he was in with local firefighters – was that at its best it’s a totally organic interaction with other people in which you have to find a way to relate to total strangers in order to work toward a common goal. So with the midnight basketball program, he tried to leverage some of that (quite powerful) interaction on the court and teach the “at-risk” youth he was working with about the value of being aware of one’s relation to others in the process of trying to accomplish a goal that will be satisfying individually.
Seriously, we discussed all of that. Or rather I listened to him tell me.
“We just learn so much about not being selfish,” he noted, with a sort of glimmer in his eye that implied that he was at least as passionate about the game as I was, if not more.
He eventually told a story about a high school kid he had played with at Cal’s recreation center back in the 90’s who seemed to embody everything he loved about basketball. This kid stepped on the court and took over, seemingly having a total awareness of everything going on – where people were, anticipating where they would be, and being “two to three plays ahead” of everyone else, as the old cliche goes. The mere presence of this guy made everyone around him better than they even knew they could be.
In keeping with a narrative that sometimes seemed more like a caffeine-induced fantasy than reality, that player was a young Jason Kidd, just prior to entering Cal as a freshman and turning around an entire program.
Of course, this being Berkeley, all of that led to a discussion about how much he loves his wife and and the nature of finding love. I don’t have much to report on that – even if I wanted to – because my mind had already drifted back to Game 2 between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury.
Perhaps in an act of residual hostility despite the pleasant basketball conversation, I was rudely writing down ideas that later turned into posts about the Lynx as he continued to talk about life, basketball, and the nature of human interactions. The sum of what I was scribbling is pretty much in the earlier post about