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Essay: Finding basketball again at 31

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MUMBAI -- When the sweet thump of leather resonates on wood and echoes through the building, some distant zone of my muscle memory asserts itself.

It's December 2016, and suddenly, it feels like July 1997.

Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis has won Wimbledon and we are all teenagers alongside her. In my case, a bunch of girls in shorts and T-shirts dribbling on the craggy cement surfaces of what passes for a basketball court in a school building.

At the all-girls school I attended in Mumbai, India, until I was 16, the slot of 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. was precious, a sliver of magical time to quickly eat the midmorning snack before rushing down to play. The quadrangle was a multipurpose, open-air space, with rusty metallic hoops on two ends, line markings of different kinds, rods on one side for a badminton net.

Sometimes we played table tennis. Usually it was basketball. That half-hour slot was a small slice in a long day of school, but it was there. And basketball was an easy, pleasurable way to fill it.

In those midmorning games, the after-school team practices or the casual evening clashes at the buildings of friends with a half court and a hoop, we played with the energy and gusto of those for whom time was measured out one basket at a time. That was the '90s.

Now it's 10:30 in the morning 20 years later, time is freely available for playing and liable to stand still.

This is my first time joining this new all-women basketball group and the first time in many years that I am taking aim at a basket.

A bunch of girls in slick athletic wear are shooting hoops and fixing sweatbands ahead of our casual game this Sunday morning.

The top-floor, roofed-in space in a suburban school is one of the few places with a wooden court. "You will just feel the difference," one of the girls said. "And traveling for an hour each way just won't make a difference."

It is true, two hours is a long way to travel for an hour-and-a-half game on a Sunday morning. For several months I have avoided throwing my name in for the Sunday games because the distance is daunting.

"But it will be worth it," another girl said. I am about to find out if that is true.

I have never played on a professional-looking court like this one, where the netted matting hangs down from the hoop on both sides, there are a dozen basketballs to choose from and there is a gigantic fan whirring above. And the wood. So much wood.

We are able to use this court on a Sunday morning only because the school is shut, and one of the girls has special permission to play here. In fact, I can think of just a handful of publicly available courts. It is a reminder that to try to play a team sport as a woman in a space-starved city is a luxury.

As the group's members file in -- six of us this Sunday, four of whom I've never met before -- I feel a thrum of nervous anxiety. What if they are really good? What if I'm steamed off the court after years of being out of practice?

In Mumbai, aside from a few opportunities in the intervening years, basketball had become a nostalgic joy rather than a realistic exercise option. How to find people to play the game with? How to make sure there are enough? How to find the place to do so? It is one thing to play and practice a team sport professionally or semi-professionally, but what happens when you aren't a novice and want to play casually as a grown-up?

Right now I am standing in the middle of the answer to that question; under a hoop, ball in hand. I try to reacquaint myself with the feeling of the sphere, the height of the hoop, the bounding of the ball off the board. I try to remember the names of everyone I have been introduced to.

The women -- from different parts of the city -- are getting ready. A large steel vat of juice awaits on the side for later. Teams are made. Some rules revised. The ball is tossed into play.

I can't remember the score line that day. I can't remember how many points I scored. The two hours passed in a delightful daze of baskets shot, baskets lost, free throws taken, fouls committed, passes intercepted and friends made. Anxiety had alchemized into adrenaline. Honor was maintained. The years had fallen away. And I had found my people.

To casually play a team sport outside an institutional structure given clashing work schedules, long distances, paucity of spaces, is, I imagine, not that simple for most.

Now that I have found my El Dorado, I shall be back every Sunday morning with this bunch of new comrades on this new stomping ground. Returning to this tribe and this ritual will mean a two-hour journey and it will be only once a week. But it will be worth it. Basketball is both a weekend luxury and a thing of joy; a return to the future by way of the past.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist. She tweets from @BhavyaDore.