Credit: Andrea Bauer

I hadn’t touched a basketball in two years, but it was a nice night last week when my friend Matthew proposed playing, so I decided to dust off my old high-tops—literally—and return to the Loyola Park court, at Touhy and the lake.

You never know what to expect in a pickup game. The last time we’d played, the opposing team was led by a brick wall of a man who smelled like whiskey, fouled hard, and made jokes about getting his gun and shooting anyone who beat him. We won anyway, and our big friend went back to drinking peacefully on a park bench.

Unfortunately, our opponents this time were sober. Their best player was a quiet, baby-faced power forward who dunked on the fast breaks. And there were a lot of those, despite exhortations to get back on defense by one of our most enthusiastic teammates, who himself mostly stayed planted at half court. We lost 16 to 10. I was proud it wasn’t worse.

As we headed to the sidelines, the next challengers stepped up: four white dudes, three of them in yarmulkes, along with an undersized black kid they’d enlisted.

Most of the guys who play pickup at this court are black, with a few white boys like Matthew and me jumping in every so often. There aren’t too many guys in yarmulkes.

I secretly dismissed the new challengers as chumps, especially after one of them, on their first trip down the court, lumbered toward the basket and heaved up a shot off the side of the backboard. The baby-faced forward seized the rebound and tossed it to the other end, where a teammate jammed it home.

Two dozen teens had gathered at courtside, most of them apparently Jewish—a couple of them told us they’d come from a camp in Skokie and the challengers were their counselors. The boys were keen observers of the game.


“We suck.”

“This could be ugly.”

But it wasn’t ugly for long. The big, lumbering player—the kids called him Shrek—managed to drive to the hoop again, this time finishing with an easy layup.

And after that, he couldn’t miss—he scored on slashes to the basket, turnaround jumpers over defenders, and rebound put-backs.

“It’s the blacks versus the Jews,” said one of the Jewish boys, and even though both teams were integrated, it seemed about right—the crowd swelled to about 70, with the black kids on one side and the Jewish kids on the other rooting on their squads.

The teams traded baskets and the lead. The pace quickened. The shouts from the sideline grew louder and tenser.

Finally, with the score tied at 15, the baby-faced power forward got a pass well beyond the three-point line and, without hesitation, took a shot. The ball sailed toward the hoop in a beautiful arc, rattled around the rim, and dropped in.

There was a stunned, silent moment, as if no one could believe the game was over. Then everyone started cheering, for both teams. —Mick Dumke

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