My first basketball court was a smooth, square patch of concrete between the one-car garage and the rest of the dusty rock and gravel driveway that connected our house on the lake to the greater world. The white backboard was attached to the garage above the door, several feet above my head. Attached to the backboard was the focus of my attention: an orange ring and a net made of red, white, and blue nylon.
It’s possible that my dad spent time out there with me, showing me how to position my hands, bend my knees, thrust the ball into the air, and propel it toward the basket. My mom could have been talked into playing PIG or HORSE with me, a copycat game in which players move around the court trying to make baskets from the same locations. But I mostly remember the presence of my brother, Pete. He was four years older than I, and as my first coach, he taught me everything a little girl needed to know: which baseball cards were the most valuable, how to throw a spiral, how to catch a pop-fly, and, most importantly, how to shoot a free throw.
Free throws are the only shot you can take in a basketball game where there is no chance of someone getting in your way. It’s against the rules. That’s why it’s a “free” throw. You stand on a line 15 feet away from the hoop, the referee hands you the ball, and you throw it toward the basket. If you make it, your team gets one point. If you make it, sometimes you get the chance to take a second shot. Sometimes, if you miss the first shot, you don’t get a second shot. You usually get to shoot a free throw because someone from the other team has broken a rule. But why you are there doesn’t matter in the moment. You need to concentrate. For a few seconds, the rest of the action in the game is suspended, and it’s just you and the ball. You, ball, breath, and air.
My next basketball court was contained within the sweaty, steamy gymnasium at Washington Elementary School. My parents would drive me into town on Saturday mornings in the winter so I could participate in the chaos that is early elementary school community recreation basketball. Little girls were everywhere on the court, ignoring coaches and whistles with abandon. I was one of the taller girls, which helped when I actually got the ball and the chance to shoot. But I rarely got the ball. Those shorter, faster girls would put their heads down and charge the length of the court, dribbling furiously, never looking up from their hands to pass the ball to an open teammate standing near the basket.
I didn’t like the running back and forth. I didn’t care for the pushing and shoving, or the feeling of disappointment when my team lost. But I still liked feeling the weight of the ball in my hands. I liked bouncing the ball and hearing the smack of the rubber hitting the polished wood floor, a noise that sounded both solid and hollow at the same time. And I loved the feeling of standing on the free throw line, letting the ball go, and waiting. In the few seconds it took for the basketball to leave my hands and soar toward the net, anything was possible.
For a few seconds, it was just me, ball, breath, and air.
My favorite basketball court was the one in the driveway of the house my parents bought when they grew tired of driving my brother and me back and forth into town for activities like Saturday morning basketball. My family moved from the lake to a house in town, and our shorter driveway was entirely paved from the garage to the street. My dad put up a basketball hoop above the new garage door, and I discovered with delight that the line dividing the first two sections of concrete was perfectly placed for shooting free throws. I stayed out there for hours–on Saturday mornings, in the evenings after dinner, in every season but winter–perfecting my jump shot, practicing my lay-ups, and rewarding myself with free throws. And in March, in between the televised girls’ state basketball games, I would dash out to the driveway and take some shots until my fingers turned numb from the cold and I grew tired of chasing the ball into snow banks.
The skills I practiced at home helped earn me a starting spot on the school basketball team all through junior high, and the honor of being one of two tenth-graders asked to suit up with the varsity team. But I discovered that the pressure and the stakes ramped up in high school. It became harder to find those times in the game when I could tune it all out, when I could zoom in on what was important: me, the ball, my breath, the air.
The last basketball court I used with any regularity was the one at Jefferson Senior High School. Amid the crowd, I would spot my parents, sitting with the rest of the parents on backless wooden bleachers on the south side of the gymnasium. The school only opened both sides of the bleachers for the boys’ games. I did not like how the coach made us hold hands and pray out loud before each game—although goodness knows we needed the extra help when we played the team from Little Falls. I discovered, during my junior year, that it was a lot harder to make free throws when you’re sitting on the bench for most of the game. In those rare opportunities when I had the chance to stand at the free throw line, just me, with the ball, I couldn’t catch my breath. The air felt stifling, heavy with regret.
I gave up playing basketball after that year. I went to college in Iowa and worked for the school newspaper and wrote stories exposing the transgressions of the men’s basketball program. I married my college sweetheart, and we moved back to Minnesota and had three kids, one girl and two boys. For a time I tried to teach them to shoot baskets. Instead of putting a basketball hoop above our garage, we bought a freestanding basketball hoop and set it on our patio. It wasn’t a good spot for free throws or for taking any other shots. The kids often missed and quickly tired of chasing the ball all the way down the slope of our yard. We eventually put the basketball hoop out on the curb, and another family hauled it away.
I thought I was done with basketball courts. But they weren’t done with me.
The most unexpected basketball court came into my life last fall during a writing retreat in northern Wisconsin, more than 40 years after my first basketball lessons with my brother. I was thinking of my brother, in fact, as I took a walk outside in the sunny October afternoon, admiring the changing leaves. I was wondering how I could best help coach my brother through the rules of a new game he was learning, a high-stakes game known as divorce–how I could help him tune out the sadness, and disappointment, and focus on what was most important: his love for his four kids. That’s when I came upon a square patch of concrete and a basketball hoop, next to a children’s playground. In the grass, next to the court, was a pale orange basketball. It looked like a forlorn pumpkin. I paused, took off my jacket, and picked up the ball. I bounced it a few times. It needed more air. But it would do for my purposes. I began to shoot the ball from different spots on the court, as though playing PIG or HORSE with an imaginary companion. The movements felt comfortable and familiar. My body remembered. It seemed remarkable, yet so ordinary. I eyeballed the spot in the concrete where a free throw line would be. I stood before the imaginary line, spun the ball once, dribbled it twice.
I lifted the ball to my face. I took a breath. I released the ball into the air. And I felt—I felt free.