As my son Finn walked from the concourse of Barclays Center into the arena itself last Friday night, his first ever glimpse of an NBA basketball court made his eyes widen and his mouth drop open. Slightly dazed by the primary colours of the spectacle, he stood there, transfixed, taking in the view.
When we turned to walk up the steps to our reasonably-priced, half-decent seats, an alert usher intercepted us. She had seen the wonder break across his 11-year-old face and, with a knowing wink, nudged us in the opposite direction, down the stairway towards the floor itself where a couple of Brooklyn Nets were shooting around 75 minutes before tip-off.
Suddenly, we found ourselves temporarily billeted in the most expensive location in the house, mere yards away from the great James Harden as The Beard worked through his repertoire of shots. Finn took a seat next to his 79-year-old grandfather, the man from whom he has inherited his hoop genes.
Once his homework is done, he dribbles the ball the four houses to his grandparents whose driveway hoop is his church, his crucible, his playground
For the next half an hour, the two unlikely confreres were in deep conflab about the action playing out in front of them. Like a couple of birddogging scouts swapping notes about prospects, admiring shooting form, assessing quickness of release and scrutinising footwork. Near enough seven decades between them, the basketball world remains their enduring bond.
Grandpa grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts after the war, a couple of towns over from where enterprising James Naismith first nailed a peach basket to the wall of the YMCA gym in Springfield and begat the sport. He learned the game shooting into a hoop hammered into a tree in his backyard. All extant sepia-tinted photographs of a playing career that took him to the old Boston Garden as a high schooler capture him wearing Converse high-tops accompanied by what would today be considered vaguely obscene short shorts. And are an endless source of mockery.
He is four years older than the NBA, the league which has changed so immeasurably in his lifetime that Djay Jung was dropping bangers from his booth in the centre of the court, sound-tracking the entire warm-up. This bemused the grandfather as much as it delighted his grandson, a precocious pre-teen who spends far too much time in the foul-mouthed space where hip-hop and basketball collide. Witness the boy’s excitement when he recognised “We Paid” by Lil Baby featuring 42 Dugg (his exact words not mine), an excuse to shout-whisper the story of how Harden once allegedly missed Houston Rockets’ training to attend Lil Baby’s birthday party.
A strange type of knowledge to possess, information both useless and forensic, truly the preserve of the anorak. The kid is definitely that. A child so obsessed that he talks the financial intricacies of the NBA’s labyrinthine salary cap rules with the understanding of somebody who might make it as an actuary if his basketball dreams don’t pan out. His everyday speech comes peppered with sporting cliches gleaned direct from commentary and analysis and a deep read of Bill Simmons’ doorstopper The Book of Basketball.
The moment he traipses down the stairs in the morning he reaches for the iPad to get up to date with the final scores of the previous night’s games. Then, like some pre-pubescent American version of James Alexander Gordon’s classified check of the Saturday soccer, he offers everybody in earshot, whether we like it or not, a run-through of the results. It’s not unusual to be accosted when getting dressed for work and force-fed footage of some must-see dunk while hopping around with only one leg in my trousers.
There’s an after-school ritual too. Once his homework is done, he dribbles the ball four houses down to his grandparents whose driveway hoop is his church, his crucible, his playground. On days when the temperature allows, his grandfather joins him there and revels in his every trick and basket. Sometimes, if his troublesome shoulder co-operates, they will play a keenly-contested game of HORSE before repairing inside to watch whatever NBA game Grandpa has DVRed from the previous night, the pair of them picking it apart like an unlikely, multi-generational Statler and Waldorf.
Wearing the number 7 Durant shirt that he got last Christmas, Finn was stunned into silence
This is why it was so important to Finn that they should attend his first NBA game together. The tickets for the Brooklyn Nets were bought two months ago as a birthday present but the excruciating wait was made worthwhile the moment Kevin Durant emerged from the tunnel, all six foot 10 of him. He loped into view with the kind of insouciant grace that reminded me of Maurice Fitzgerald in civilian clothes, ambling across UCC campus in the early 90s, an O’Neill’s ball in the palm of one hand, an extension of his being.
Wearing the number 7 Durant shirt that he got last Christmas, Finn was stunned into silence, awestruck by proximity to his hero unfurling swoosh after swoosh. Right there. Right in front of us. Eventually, we retreated to our own seats and watched the same man stick a casual 30 on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a narrow win, the match almost a let-down after so intimately witnessing him earlier fine-tuning his greatness.
On the drive home, slightly delirious, Finn began a play-by-play account of the game we’d all just attended. Mercifully, the voice fell silent somewhere down the Long Island Expressway, his head slumped against the door sleeping. No more talk of Harden and Lil Baby. Still very much our basketball baby.
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