We bumped into each other at a recent University of Tulsa football game. Although it had been at least six years and his name was a blank, the scouting report scrolled through my head instantly.
“Strong rebounder, tenacious defender, takes it hard to the hoop. Average J. What the heck’s his name?”
It was obvious he was going through a similar internal checklist. He did, however, remember my name after a moment, and then turned to his wife and said “meet one of the real Y ballers.”
Music to my ears.
Alas, such impromptu meetings of the fraternity of downtown YMCA noon basketball players will soon be a thing of the past. The creaky, drafty edifice, which opened its doors at Sixth Street and Denver Avenue in 1952, will shut down at the end of 2009 or very early in 2010. A new facility will open at Fifth Street and Main Street in the Mayo Building for those interested in keeping fit, but it will not have a pool or racquetball courts or, most regrettably, a basketball court.
It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.
Downtown Y ball has been a part of my life since I moved to Tulsa in 1987 to work for the Tulsa Tribune. The Trib disappeared in 1992, but I’ve managed to find my way back downtown usually three days a week ever since. When I heave my 51-year-old bones out of my chair at 11:40, my co-workers know I’m not heading to lunch.
The routine itself is a comfort. Julian (there are no last names at the Y) is waiting to take your card and hand out a lock and towels. Find a locker, get changed and head up the stairs to the court, where that day’s competition has gathered. Doctors, lawyers, preachers, politicians, musicians, brick layers (literally). Millionaires and the homeless, once you strip to your shorts and T-shirt, it’s an egalitarian utopia.
Well, not really. Your place in society carries no weight, but your abilities to shoot, rebound, pass and defend certainly do. Everyone gets to play at the Y, but the better players play more as they are picked first.
So while Bill LaFortune or Rob Nigh might be waiting his turn on the bench in years past, a talent like Antonio Reed or — our Y favorite whenever he graced us with his presence — Wayman Tisdale would be a certain pick.
Last names are not part of the Y vernacular. If there are three players named Steve that day and you are picking teams, you might say,
“I’ll take Steve.”
“Okay, I’ve got long-arm Steve.”
“Fine, I’ve got Chuck.”
“Which Chuck, red head or old Chuck?”
The only time first names are not used is if you’ve earned the coveted Y nickname of “Ice.” I guess it’s time to break the bad news to all the previous Y “Ice Men,” but the name doesn’t mean you are cool; it means your shooting touch is perpetually frozen.
What a cast of characters have paraded through. You might make a defensive switch from Doc, a 6-foot-5-inch reggae god with 6-foot-3-inch dreadlocks flying, to Preacher Jim, a 5-foot-9-inch televangelist with a passion for Kentucky basketball matched only by his determination to shoot on every possession, forgetting all his pulpit lessons of sharing and spreading the wealth. And the arguments, oh my. Get six lawyers on the court and try to determine whose ball it is!
Some things at the old Y are constants: no cold water in the summer, no heat in the gym in the winter, air conditioner breaks constantly, court not mopped and you can glide on it like Dorothy Hamill. Once in a while, something actually changes. It took 15 years or so, but the leaky roof was finally repaired to where water would not puddle on the court every time it rained.
As the Y has slowly evolved, so has the nature of the noon game. When I first joined in the late 1980s, there were more than 30 players on a daily basis, forcing the use of smaller cross courts. With 10 large bodies jousting in such a confined space, games were extremely physical. With the walls looming only inches from the baseline, you drove to the hoop only after carefully considering who was on the other team and what mood they were in.
An example. We were all pleased one day to see Jack Davis, the man mountain, flatten his son Chip as he drove the lane. That assured us that the similar treatment we had received for years was nothing personal. Jack epitomized those days -— knock you down, then help you up with a smile.
Things lightened up a bit in the early 1990s when the games began to go full court and we added our own set of “Y Rules” designed to keep the games moving and arguments to a minimum. All held balls go to the offense. Any ball that touches a foot is a kick. Six-minute games if more than six people are waiting. Stuff like that.
Still, at the end of each day, you give thanks if you are able to return to work in one piece. I’ve gone back with bruised ribs, a fractured foot, stitches above my eye, sprained ankles, dislocated fingers and other assorted ailments, yet I’ve always made it back. And after a few days of not playing, I begin to get antsy. I miss my friends, the game and the camaraderie. I could replace the exercise somehow, but I could never replace the exhilaration and — increasingly, as the body is unable to do what the mind commands — the frustration of the game.
Somehow, I’ve outlasted all but two of the folks playing when I joined, and I will give you their full names. Bruce Wilbanks has been playing since the fall of 1981 and Richard Bales since 1984. Both have made it through despite knee operations and the other ravages of time. Our slogan: “We’re older, but we’re slower.” And to the younger folks, “Don’t try to drive past us if we can possibly get a knee or elbow in your way.”
We have morphed into the same 50-plus guys we used to complain about 20 years ago.
And now the three of us are about to outlast the Y itself.
Oh, well. As my friend Paul and I like to say, “Father Time is telling us our candle has burned low.” Like me, Paul is another grizzled veteran of 51, and he is still going strong, despite injuries to his knee, back and shoulder. The tennis courts and golf course beckon.
Then again, I hear the United Methodist Church downtown has a nice court and only charges a couple of bucks to play at noon.
Note: All current and former noon warriors are encouraged to attend the Farewell to Downtown Y Hoops party Dec. 11 from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the gym.
Ken MacLeod is publisher of South Central Golf magazine, the official publication of the South Central Section of the PGA of America.