Dave tells me he loves the game, tells me I'm going to hear that a lot the more I talk to the guys, tells me simple love of the game is a big part of the story of The Saturday Game. More than anything, he thinks, it's what has kept guys coming back.
I ask him what he means by love, not expecting much; it's kind of an impossible question, actually.
Dave tells me everything.
His brother was a mathematician, and he was supposed to be a mathematician too, because that's what his parents wanted. He was smart, but it wasn't his thing, and he eventually gave it up. He wondered, as we all do, if he'd disappointed them, if they approved of the things he did instead. He carried the wondering with him over the years, he says, sometimes feeling unsure of himself, sometimes feeling alone ... like any of us. He dropped in and out of college, suffered through the breakup of his first marriage, and struggled some to find a career, a relationship and a version of himself he felt at home in.
He has a kind of peace about him now. I know that because he's brave enough to be candid with me. I know it because there's nothing fancy in his delivery, no romance or hyperbole. He's telling it plain. He's speaking his truth.
Blows me away. Listening to him, I wonder whether I'll ever have such handle, such calm consciousness and understanding of my own twists and turns.
He tells me it's the product of heavy lifting, of a whole lot of introspection. But he tells me, too, how it's a function of the game. For as long as he can remember, ball has been the antidote to all the other stuff going on with him, whatever it was. From the very beginning, he felt he was expressing something in playing, tapping some core element of his character, some hidden-even-to-himself longing, some outrageous alien confidence. Ball isn't just an escape for him, it's wish fulfillment, it's life saving.
Ball makes him feel better about himself. Period. Without fail. You can't overestimate the value of a good run, he says. There's nothing like the way it burns the bad feeling out of you and replaces it with something good. The collaborative aspect is intoxicating, but Dave really revels in simply doing something well. He can pass and shoot, without hesitation. He has darting moves and a quick release. He can play. He could always play.
So this love isn't some casual or abstract affection. It isn't the way you feel about your favorite food or a special car. This is more akin to the feeling you have for your spouse and your children. This is ballast. This is the fabric.
"I tell you what it is," Dave says. "It's that I can't imagine my life without it. I can't imagine who I'd be or what I'd be like."
We're eating at Il Vagabondo on East 62nd Street, me and about 20 guys from The Saturday Game, past and present. Big long table in the back room, waiters in white shirts and aprons, antipasto to die for, and, I kid you not, a competitive bocce ball court downstairs. It's a set in a Scorsese picture. I'm sitting next to Amin, talking about Pitt Panthers hoops (Pittsburgh being his alma mater). The Commish is across from us, and he leans over our way, looking at me but pointing at Amin, and says, "Let me tell you a story about this guy." His delivery is entirely without affect, it's Walkenesque. Amin's arms fly into the air like he's riding a coaster on Coney Island, as he shouts, "Here we go! Again with this?! It was 20 years ago!"
Laughter erupts from the Commish's left. "God, I miss it! God, I miss the ball busting!" says Wittner, a longtime regular who hung it up last year, a guy so in love with the game and its roots he drives me out in the black of night to see the outdoor court, near the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, where a lot of the guys played growing up, just so I can soak up whatever silent secrets it holds.
It seems that on some Saturday in the past -- Amin says it's ancient history, the Commish remembers it like it was yesterday -- the team the two of them were playing on was locked in mortal combat with the opposition, the game tied 6-6 when Amin let fly from the top of the key ... and got nothing for his trouble, no iron, no backboard, no net, no nothing. The Commish tells me this without so much as a smirk. Amin is laughing and hollering, "Come on! What about the shots I hit that day?! What about all the shots I've hit in all the games since?!" The Commish is resolute. He wants me to know the kind of dodgy character I'm dealing with. He wants me to enter into any and all conversations about Pitt Panthers hoops with my eyes open. He wants me to understand this isn't all fun and games. Yes, it's true they had a guy named Little Jay who played in pants and long-sleeved shirts for a while. And yes, it's true Kenny sports what his school-days buddy Larry Brown once called "the worst shot I've ever seen." But still, the ball is legit. The ball is serious. This is a New York game, after all. There are standards.
Dave's a standard-bearer, too. Like a lot of guys, he played the parks as a kid. He and his Bronx buddies, Danny and Elliott, used to play bragging-rights games with the rich kids from Riverdale. Danny was a terrific player, went on to play freshman ball at NYU. Dave played college ball at Baruch (a division of CCNY) in the early '60s, and years worth of competitive pickup ball after that, and all the while he drained that funky shot. "It came naturally to me; you'd never choose to shoot the way I do, behind the head and from the left," he says. "But whatever it was, it was just what I did." Whatever it was, it worked; still does most days.
Mel, who played in The Saturday Game for years, takes me aside at Il Vagabondo and says, "Make sure you get this: I've seen a lot of ball in my day; I've seen top college ball at The Garden, I've seen all the great Knicks teams; and Dave has the greatest shot I've ever seen. Bar none. I'm serious." Dave's take on his game is more modest -- "I can't jump at all; I'm a middle-class Jewish kid from the Bronx!" -- but he figures he was just good enough to know what true greatness was. "It was very satisfying to me to play as well as I played," he says. "But to see someone like Elgin Baylor, or Earl Monroe, do what they did and to know, in my bones, how much better they were than I could ever be, that blew my mind."
It isn't a Rucker Park run, but The Saturday Game guys, then and now, aren't hacks -- they could always play. In the winter of '85, one of the guys in the game, a sports agent, got a few of the regulars hooked up in a weekly side game with players from the New York Mets. They played again for several weeks in 1986, just after the Mets won the Series. Howard Johnson played, Ron Darling, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Tim Teufel and Lee Mazzilli, too. "It was always us against them," Dave says. "Cone was very good, Strawberry was not nearly as good as he was supposed to be, but they were all friendly. It was fun, it was a competitive run, but nobody put on airs. If you didn't know who they were, it was just a bunch of guys playing some ball."
Although the present-day Knicks are a major exception -- don't get Dave and Big Jay (Little Jay's shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing doppelganger once upon a time) going on the ills of Starbury and Co. unless you have some time on your hands -- the New York teams, and the whole NYC hoops scene, have been a model for these guys. "It's a culture," Kenny says. "It's something you're born into." In addition to tales from their days in the parks and the gyms of the city, most every guy in the game has stories about waiting in line for tickets to the Garden. The 60-something guys saw Bill Bradley go heads-up with Cazzie Russell in 1965, and they wax poetic about the time Oscar Robertson dropped 56 on NYU back in the day. The 40-something guys, Jeff's crew, tell you about the times they witnessed Kenny Anderson's lights-out performances in high school and the great St. John's teams of the mid-'80s. And both groups revere the early-'70s Knickerbockers of Bradley, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier. Those Knicks are like an enduring zeitgeist unto themselves, like some sort of Jungian archetype burned into every New York baller's consciousness. "There was nothing better than those guys," Kenny says with the proper hushed homage. "The way they moved the ball, so unselfish, so crisp, and such shooters, all of them." And it's not that you could be those guys, or play as they did, it's that you couldn't shake the impulse to try, to aspire, to mimic in your own way their impossible ideal. Not if you lived in New York. Not if you played in The Saturday Game. "Everybody, no matter what level you're at individually, knows what it's about," Kenny says.
And it ain't about airballs at game point, that's for damn sure.
"I swear, I've had a lot of good games since then," Amin protests. "And I've never done it again!"
"Keep it that way," the Commish says, and this time he cracks a grin.