Sunday, February 26, 2006

Notes on the little gym where we occasionally play basketball

For four years, I've been playing basketball in Williamsburg at a little gym called SETT - short for The Settlement House. It's truly a little gym – the managers describe it as 3/5ths of a short full court. Its primary function is as an after-school space for kids in the neighborhood. Upon arriving at the gym on one of the two nights we played a week, we had to spend a few minutes cleaning up the chairs spread around the rubber floor and stuffing everything onto the stage at the back of the gym.

You can’t argue with the price. It’s 60 dollars for two hours – no matter how many people show up. And it hasn’t changed in four years. Services or products that do not arbitrarily raise prices with each year’s passing are few and far between and deserve tribute.

One day I walked into S.Cono's pizzeria on Ainslie and Graham sweaty, in shorts and holding a basketball. Anthony - the son in the family that owned the pizza place, who'd I only sporadically talked to up to that point - asked me if my friends and I wanted to join him and his friends at a gym where they played on Sunday mornings. Hell yeah, I said.

The gym has gone through many changes over the four years we've been there. Originally blessed with the dustiest wood floor this side of some dusty wood floor you know, it made a summertime transition to rubber mats as flooring. Traction increased but so did the volume of almost certainly toxic white powder in my lungs. Some kind of cement or construction byproduct would mushroom out from the mats when yanked out of place.

There is very poor lighting. Little fat funnels – your standard gym light – hang down from the ceiling. Of the 8 there, 2 – 6 are working at any time. The result is often a warmly lit 2/3 of our 3/5ths gym. Swathed in shadow, the stage side of the gym gets a little light from behind the backboard but generally forces you to go on something closer to instinct than aim. This does not always yield satisfactory shooting percentages.

Two giant heaters flank the ceiling, pointing down to the floor. They glare orange-hot when we play in the winter and will nicely roast the gym. As you run by the point of heat-impact, you step through the furnace-type blast with molasses/sauna level intensity. We tend to sweat a lot in the summer when the heating takes it upon itself to supplement New York’s already hot temperatures.

The ceilings. Oh man, the ceilings. You haven’t played real basketball until you’ve modified your naturally-arcing shot to avoid colliding with the unusually low ceilings. Our rules dictated that if the ball scraped the ceiling, it was considered out-of-bounds. This rule is also applied to the pipes that hang even lower than the ceiling on the right elbow of the non-stage-side rim. I am renowned for my ability to hit those pipes WAY more than actually seems possible.

As we leave this winter behind, we find ourselves kicked out of the little gym, displaced by more afterschool programs. We may end up back in the little gym next year when low temperatures and darkness force us to seek alternatives to the outdoor playgrounds where we play the majority of our basketball. But it seems more likely we’ll never return. I’ll miss the walls with limited padding that surround the court. I’ll miss the pit-bull that barks when you open the side-door, wanting so badly to get past its fence and at our throats. I’ll miss my first-ever sprained ankle that occurred the very last night I played at the little gym. It’s better now but feels like an appropriate and romantic finish to my Settlement House era. Like Ted Williams hitting a homerun in his last at-bat except more painful and awkward and unfulfilling.