The Saturday Game

You've Got A Game, Too

Richie Glover's at the far end of the table at Il Vagabondo, leaning slightly against an aged photomural -- an in-good-company shot of hat-wearing, mustachioed men who used to frequent the restaurant for the bocce and the veal parmigiana, a group that mirrors our own tonight in spirit if not costume. Richie's teasing Kuppy about the way he played defense: "It was more touch football than basketball," he says with a wink.

Next to him, Sid and Schiff are telling Kuppy's son Teddy about who it was that found the Ward School gym in the first place and about the places they played around the city before the game became The Saturday Game.

In addition to his Hall of Fame achievements on the diamond, Sandy Koufax's résumé includes a stint as Dave's summer camp counselor, center in the back row. "He's a recurring character in my dreams," Dave says. "I think I've always identified with him."

Across the table, Matty's sipping on a drink and the Commish is whispering something to him that makes him laugh.

Next to them, Wittner, Amin and Kenny are measuring J.J. Redick for a draft-day suit and tie, assessing the way his jump-shot game will, or will not, translate to the big stage.

Up a bit from that group, John, who Jeff says is in the best shape of anyone in the game, is talking with Chip and Mel about a weekday morning game he has been playing in, "just to stay sharp for you guys!"

And across from them, Dave's showing Seth a photograph taken of him and his cabinmates in summer camp once upon a time. The young Dave cuts a handsome figure, no doubt, but the real interest in the picture is the guy behind him, the cabin counselor, who is none other than Sandy Koufax.

And so it goes, for three hours, between bites and courses. Guys move up and down the table to connect and reconnect. There is much hugging and hand shaking, reminiscing, and not a lick of shoptalk. The room is full of lawyers, financial advisers, agents, teachers and hospital administrators, but those labels don't stick here. The connections and recognitions are deeper than that.

At some point, Dave comes to me and says -- and we've had this conversation a few times before -- "I still don't understand why you want to write about us. We tell you our stories, you meet us, you play with us, but what does it all add up to?"

I look out over the table, straining to hear someone retell the mating elephants story, catching a bit of Wittner remembering the time the Commish took him to the parking lot outside the gym and showed him all the expensive cars of his running mates, then pointed to Wittner's beater and said, "That's why I'm cutting you some slack on paying up for the court permit," and I think the Commish must be insane. Looking at these guys, I think: 35 years' worth of ball and the dozens of charming, quirky rituals that come with it. Looking at these guys, knowing each other they way they do, belonging together the way they do, come hell or high water, across time and distance. How do I not write about it?

"The game means something to us, sure; it's our game," Dave says. "But I don't see why it would be interesting to anyone else. Everyone's got a game."

"Sometimes you wanna go . . . where everybody knows your name." Dinner at Il Vagabando was like a scene out of "Cheers," only with much better antipasto. The guys get together once or twice a year for dinner, mainly so The Commish can go over the "no-airball-at-game-point" rule with Amin.

We're taking a group picture at the end of the night, and the Commish tells me to hand the camera off to a guy at the next table and get in the shot. I'm hesitant at first: This is their crew, their night. But you don't say "no" to the Commish, and as I kneel down in front of the group and smile, I feel him reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. It sounds corny, but I do feel like one of them in that moment. And it hits me just then that Dave's right, that everyone does have a game, and that I'm also here because we used to hold weekend three-on-three tournaments, complete with burgers on the grill and drinks in the cooler, in my Long Beach, Calif., backyard, and because I was in a regular Sunday morning run at the Field House in Iowa City, Iowa, when I was in grad school, and because I know a group of guys who lace up every weekend at a high school gym in Coronado, Calif., and because I know there are guys all over this great land of ours who get up and play at 6 a.m., before the workday, two, maybe three, days a week. How do I not write about it?

The difference between The Saturday Game guys and the rest of us is a matter of degree. What they have, the connection they share to the game, to each other, isn't magical; it's just hard-won. Which is, of course, its magic. I'm sitting there at Il Vagabondo, twisting the stem of a wineglass, watching the guys talk, and I identify with them, but I envy them even more.

I'm not in a game now; my guys are scattered to the wind, busy, whatever, who knows ... life has gotten in the way.

I try to explain this to Dave. He recalls our first conversation.

"You can write about us if you think there's something to say," he says. "But what you really ought to do is find a gym, and start calling the wedding-day guys."