Sports

Alone With a Basketball, a Hoop, and Covid

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This is about basketball, not about Covid. Or maybe it’s about basketball in the time of Covid. Or maybe I’m just not thinking clearly.

Miss.

These are my thoughts as I shoot a red-white-and-blue basketball at a backyard hoop, on a January day cold enough to deaden its bounce.

Miss. Hit. Hit.

Me against Covid. One on one.

Miss.

On New Year’s Day morning, with 2022 still a blank slate of hope and just two bites into a slice of coffee cake, I was solemnly confronted by my family with the results of a rapid test I had taken 15 minutes before. Masks dropped over faces like hanged men.

Within another 15 minutes I was being rushed out the door, suitcase hastily packed with enough clothes to last through spring. My loved ones called from a distance that I had to leave immediately, but, hey, happy New Year.

My father-in-law had recently died at 94, and his house, less than a mile from our own, was empty. Rather than trying to make our garage more homey — knickknacks on the paint cans, a throw rug over the snow blower — I moved into the childhood home of my wife, Mary, to live alone amid 60 years of memories.

Her father had taught drama and directed plays at a local high school for more than 30 years; he was beloved. In his final days, while asleep in a hospital bed set up in the dining room, he would raise and move his left hand, as if once again writing on a blackboard.

Miss.

The bed is gone and the dining room table is back, but this is temporary. Mary and her siblings have been preparing the house for sale, a task now interrupted by a new and quarantined boarder.

Mary stops by daily to deliver food, standing so far from me that we should use semaphore flags. My daughters text me heartwarming photographs from my distant home, across town.

I pace about the house in the unpleasant company of myself, noticing as if for the first time the various curios — those Comedy and Tragedy figurines on the mantel — and sidestepping the packing boxes and memories.

The birthday celebrations and the Christmas dinners and the morning bacon and the evening highballs and the many characters who played their roles on this living room stage, then went away.

Miss.

I remember again the morning of our wedding 31 years ago, when Mary’s brothers and I played no-fouling-the-groom basketball in the backyard. The hoop, in fact, is still up, beckoning.

And that is why I am out here, bundled up in a couple of sweatshirts, flicking red-white-and-blue jump shots in the finger-tingling cold. The only heat comes from the embarrassment of my first few jump shots — so off that the lifeless, errant ball keeps rolling under a parked car.

Miss. Miss. Hit.

Here we go.

Basketball, when played alone, is meditation. Other people find their inner balance through counseling or running or yoga or tending to tomatoes and cucumbers in the garden. I find it with basketball. Just me, a ball, a hoop.

And, now, Covid.

Hit.

Fully vaccinated and boosted, I am among the fortunate to be experiencing minor symptoms, which in my case include waves of sheepishness. Amid so much Covid-related suffering, I am loath to imply that my health has been at significant risk; it would be like making a cameo in a classic horror film’s bad sequel.

Still: coughing, congestion, absence of family.

Miss.

I have used basketball therapy since childhood. As a teenage goof, shooting baskets while trying to summon the nerve to ask a girl to the junior prom. (I just couldn’t let that red-blazer-plaid-pants combo go to waste.) As an adult, shooting baskets while trying to do a pick-and-roll against cancer. (I blamed all missed shots on chemo-induced neuropathy.)

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know


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The U.S. Covid response. President Biden announced that the U.S. government would deploy military personnel to help overwhelmed hospitals and buy 500 million more tests for distribution to Americans, doubling its previous purchase. Americans will be able to order free rapid tests online beginning Jan. 19.

Around the world. Some European countries have changed their approach to the virus to more closely align with how they handle the flu. Public health experts say the shift might be premature. In China, virus outbreaks and Omicron’s arrival weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics underscored the challenges of holding the Games while sticking to a “zero Covid” policy.

Staying safe. Worried about spreading Covid? Keep yourself and others safe by following some basic guidance on when to test, which mask to pick and how to use at-home virus tests. Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus.

What develops is an athletic form of reflection that veers from the mundane to the spiritual and back again. Sometimes the shooting is mindless; the muscle memory of tens of thousands of jump shots takes over. And sometimes it is mindful, as the contemplative, even prayerful, synthesizes with the competitive: If I hit 10 in a row, she’ll say yes. If I hit 10 in a row, I will survive.

Now, as I shoot the ball, my hands numb with the cold, my nose beginning to run, I feel the awesome weight of this tragicomic moment — a weight beyond the minor travails of some mope who’s isolated from his family for a few days.

Will this virus and its ever-expanding bench of variants ever leave us? Will the smiles behind our masks ever be seen again? Will we ever smile again?

I think about the people close to me who lost their lives to this pandemic, as well as those who weren’t properly mourned in death: so many. I think about my wife and daughters, a mile and a world away.

And so what else can I do but play a solitary game of Around the World?

Fingertips on the seams, I raise the ball over my Covid defender and let it fly, watching the red-white-and-blue blur arc toward the hoop.

My mind drifts. Back to that no-fouling-the-groom basketball game long ago; back even further, to the early years of our courtship in upstate New York.

Hit. Miss. Cough. Miss.

What was the name of that tavern we used to go to when Mary lived in Wellsville?

Miss. Hit. Hit.

Better Days?

That’s it. Better Days.

And the hope of another jump shot goes pinwheeling through the air.

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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