The code to open the gym door didn't work. One recent evening, the temperature sat above 80 degrees and the group outside in gym shorts couldn't get into the suburban high school for its weekly pickup basketball game. Try again next week?
"We don't give up — there's an open court somewhere,'' one of the guys said after the group had audibled toward driving down the street to an outdoor court.
You don't keep a pickup game going since 1982 — the year the 76ers acquired Moses Malone, if you're counting in hoop terms — just to give up at the first locked door. As it happened, someone drove by, knew the code, recognized the players, and saved them the trouble of moving on. The usual suspects filed in, part of a changing cast of characters that includes several '82 originals and several of their own offspring. This night, the ages ranged from 29 to 61.
"For us old guys, the key is to not stop playing,'' said Chris Thomas, the 61-year-old. "Once you stop, you're done."
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Over the years, they've run this game at St. Joseph's Prep, Shipley, Haverford College, and the Palestra, and have been at their current spot for some years. (Where is it? That's need-to-know.) Pickup runs are hardly unique to Philadelphia, but this area specializes in them. If there's an available court, there's a group ready to play on it. Rich Blasetti, an attorney, looked around the gym at these men he sees every week: "There may be nobody here that ever left the five-county area."
They take vacations. They just come back. The game this night included three or four attorneys, a couple of school administrators, a finance guy, an EPA employee, a mailman, a high school hoops coach. For years, the game was followed by an equally fierce Quizzo competition at a local establishment where they more than held their own. Some relationships go back further. Blasetti and Phil Regan first met in elementary school at 32nd and Allegheny.
Look at the action and it has an everyman feel. The beauty of this game may be personified in Larry Ward's jump shot. Ward has four limbs, but as he shoots none of them seem interested in the same goal. His left leg is already thinking about heading back on defense. His guide hand is guiding something other than the basketball. His shooting hand surrounds the ball before pushing it away.
It finds the net. And then again, and again.
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"They call it a shot put,'' Ward said during a break when asked about his finely honed approach. "Most people don't think it's going up. Usually, it's going in."
(The shot-putter does need a little room, another of the guys mentioned. Ward's not shooting that thing too often off the dribble.)
As soon as a game starts, the razzing is accompanied by stories from across the decades. Like the time Brad, an original player, went down in a heap 15 or 20 years ago, but they had only 10 guys, so the other nine persuaded him to keep going. Brad limped along until he went down again.
"The first time was his meniscus,'' said Blasetti. "The second time was his ACL."
"No, the first was his ACL, then the MCL,'' said Geoff Deasey. "Which allowed him to go up and down the court straight. He played another 15 minutes and he went down."
After the surgeries, this gamer for the ages retired and stayed retired. (For the record, they say they get insurance for the game, collecting each year.)
Another long-timer saw his multiple weekly pickup games start to affect his marriage. "He left us for a month based on that situation,'' a regular mentioned. The fanatic was out there this night. (No marital update available.)
If the younger guys can keep at it the longest, Alex Lessin, one of the 20-somethings, will also tell you how much they've learned about the game from the old guys: how to move without the ball, or set a proper screen. Lessin's own father, Jeff, dropped in a couple of early jumpers to give his team a lead. The 57-year-old's form has held up since his Lower Merion High days.
One of the veterans sitting out a game said, "What's the biggest difference between 1982 and 2018? Legs."
Before the game, I'd asked Deasey, an original player, if they went full or half court.
"Full court,'' said Deasey, whose own 29-year-old son, Bob, gets to feel forever young playing in this game. "We're not disabled yet — fully disabled. We're just slow."
As for the makeup of the game, Deasey said, "One of the things we are proud of as a group, we've had ex-Division I players, II and III, and we've had guys who've legitimately never been on a basketball court. The qualifications are you walk in, somebody said you're a friend."
And if you turn out to be a bit of a jerk, maybe you fall off the email chain that John Eringis sends out every week to keep everyone updated. Younger guys migrated in, played a hard game, full of fastbreaking off every rebound, one pass is plenty before a shot, fouls rarely called. Legit hoops, just not this game.
"We've all got accustomed to call your own [fouls] — there's no dishonor in that,'' Deasey said. "That caused a little bit of a stir. You'll find that age changes your perspective on the value of that."
The more aggressive guys started their own game. Peace was restored. And when the action these days starts to lag, they all count on game vet Mark "Katzy" Howlin to get them to focus on where the whole thing is usually headed.
"Let's go, boys,'' Katzy called out, as he does every game. "The beers don't drink themselves."