Where playing is like praying

The great Dan Barry of the New York Times captures something mysterious and nostalgic in this essay about playing basketball on a Sunday morning in a chilly Catholic school gym.  Turns out, it’s a lot like church:

Bowed and gasping after each game, I feel the mysterious tug on my basketball jersey that tells me I belong in one of the hardwood pews a few dozen yards away, squirming once again inside the Catholic Church of today. But for now at least, I find more comfort standing here, on a hardwood basketball court in an old gym, breathing in the stale, familiar air of the Catholic Youth Organization past.

For more than a decade, I have been playing in this informal Sunday morning game, which was established a few years earlier by a dozen men who cheekily called themselves the Apostles. With the promise of modest donations to the financially challenged parish, they were granted that most coveted and elusive item of our youth, the gymnasium key.

For it is written on the walls of childhood: there is no greater waste than an unused basketball court.

I am drawn by the game’s invitation to extend my boyhood, if only for a while. So I rise before the sun and the bedroom radiator’s heat to gather my things, fumbling about for my gym bag, dropping my basketball, then my sneakers. As I tiptoe like Bigfoot toward the door, my wife calls from the bed to be careful. She’s up for good.

Soon I am driving along the deserted streets of a city-close suburb with some urban attitude, peering through the peephole I have shaved from the wafer of frost covering the windshield. Passing the front of the church, I come upon the dawn’s only other movement, a few older people walking gingerly toward the church’s castle-worthy doors, as though age has covered the steps before them with imperceptible ice.

Pausing to let one of these faithful cross the street, slowly, I wonder whether the decades have revealed to them a divine presence most keenly felt at first light, when all else is still. I slip past the church’s door in favor of a parking lot at the back of the building, facing the gymnasium door. Three or four other cars are idling in expectation, their bundled drivers hunched over steering wheels, seeking warmth from the overheated sports chat emanating from their radios. They look like silhouetted monks in cloistered cells of metal and glass, deep in mysterious meditation. I bow my head and join them as we wait for the arrival of one of the Keepers of the Code — an Apostle who has been entrusted with the combination to the lockbox, beside the door, that contains the key.

Read the whole thing. It’s potent and poignant, and more than a little bittersweet.

  • Jake

    Ah yes, the gymnasium key!

    I was a Catholic high school administrator. One night at 3 AM I got a call from the alarm company. I woke my police officer son and the two of us discovered a pick-up game in progress in the gym. A recent grad had the golden key — but not the alarm code.

    At 3:30 AM he did not have the key, either. And there was no donation.

  • naturgesetz

    Somewhere on the third page, the thought entered my mind: here we see the true value of CYO basketball — it gets middle-aged men playing sports instead of attending Mass. So I was pleasantly surprised to find at the end that some of them actually do go to Mass after their games. Even the author knows that he should be among them. We can only hope that eventually he will respond to the grace that calls him to join his fellow Catholics at the Supper of the Lamb.


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