By Mordechai Schmutter
Recently, our shul organized a game of shul basketball. (“Shul basketball” is like real basketball, except that the players spend half the time hunched over and panting.) Although “organized” is a very strong word. There was a notice that went out that on motzaei Shabbos all the men were invited to come play basketball in the yeshiva’s gym, and there would be pizza afterward, so we could put on any weight that we accidentally lost playing basketball. This was a nice change, because most of our shul events, in general, involve sitting. Some also involve eating. Whereas this one involved running around and getting some exercise. And eating.
I was never good at basketball, even back when I used to play. And by “used to play,” I mean once or twice back in high school. But the shul notice urged everyone to come, so that, in their words, “we will all be embarrassed together.” And as a humor writer, that was the selling point for me. I was very excited, because usually, I’m just embarrassed by myself. But now I figured that I’d finally waited everyone out, and everyone would finally be as bad as me, baruch Hashem. But it turns out they have a ways to go.
The gist, though, was that everyone should come, because no one cares if you’re bad. It’s not like we’re playing against another shul. And as far as being embarrassed, it’s not like the people on the sidelines are sitting there watching the bad guys. The eye naturally catches motion, and to be honest, the bad guys aren’t really moving around all that much. The thing in motion is the ball, which never ends up near them. So it’s not embarrassing to play. But if everyone’s bad, then you’re all embarrassed together, because the ball spends most of the time on the floor, rolling away, with everyone refusing to chase it, and there’s really nothing else to watch.
So I showed up, hoping that everyone would be equally bad, as advertised, and boy was I disappointed. Sure, everyone was older. They did stretches before the game, which I don’t remember anyone doing in high school, and they all showed up in their Tishah B’Av shoes, and everyone was afraid of what would break if they hung from the rim. But we weren’t at the age, apparently, where anyone collapsed on the floor. The doctors among us suggested that we have a series of five-point games so that everyone would get a chance. To sit on the sidelines, I mean. We started off playing full court, but then at some point we stopped, because in a full-court game, you have to run all the way across the gym at the beginning of every play, and by the time you get where you’re going, you really don’t care anymore. So at some point we said, “Why do we have to run all the way across the court—the long way—when there’s a perfectly good hoop right over here?” So we played half-court. If guys our age would play soccer, there would be one set of goalposts. With two goalies in it, elbowing each other.
But it didn’t occur to me that even if everyone wasn’t what they used to be, they had at least, at some point, known the rules of the game. Whereas I never really learned the rules. I always kind of floundered around and waited for my teammates to yell at me to do something, and then I’d attempt to do it, unsuccessfully.
I had totally forgotten that I didn’t know the rules. It only occurred to me on motzaei Shabbos when I got on the court, and right before the game started, someone on my team turned to me and said, “Okay, you take Zucker.” And I said, “Wait. Take him where?” But before I could get the question out, everyone was already running off toward the other side of the court. It took me a minute to remember what it meant to “take” someone. I’m yelling after them, “Wait! Does Zucker know I’m taking him? Should we maybe clear it with him?” But no one answered. So I ran over to Zucker, and I tackled him.
No, I’m just kidding. I do know a little bit about basketball. I’ve been on the sidelines. I know you’re supposed to bounce the ball and get it in the basket, and I know that if you yell something like “Foul!” or “Double dribble!” everyone will stop playing and start yelling at each other. I also know about something called traveling, which I think is when you run across the court the long way. In our game, we did a lot of traveling. I almost said Tefillas HaDerech.
But I was hazy on the rest of the rules. For instance, I was wondering—this guy that I’m supposed to be taking, am I supposed to be in front of him, or behind him? He seemed to keep changing his mind. None of this came naturally to me. For example, my parents always had raised me with the norms of social interaction, which is that you never stand in someone’s way, lean over him, or put your elbow in his face, and when you bump into someone, you say, “Sorry” or “Excuse me.” But for half of the game, you have to block someone who obviously doesn’t want you there, just because everyone on your team wants you to be there, even though it’s not their faces you’re in. So I spent the entire game saying, “Excuse me.”
People don’t really say “Excuse me” a lot in basketball. There is a lot of yelling, though. Because apparently, when someone on your team has the ball, you’re supposed to yell, “Here!” Like you’re calling a dog.
“Here! Give me the ball!”
“I know. You’re on my team. We talked about this at the beginning. If I’m stuck, I’ll give you the ball. You didn’t even say ‘please’!”
I don’t ever ask for the ball. That way, if a teammate does pass it to me and I miss, it’s more his fault than mine. I didn’t ask for it. And if I would ask for it, I’d feel obligated to make sure he understood this up front. I’d say, “Here I am! Could you, um, could you please pass the ball, unless maybe there’s someone else to pass it to, in which case, by all means. But don’t expect me to do anything real with it other than either miss the hoop entirely, or pass it right back to you in a blind panic.”
I played three games on motzaei Shabbos, and my team won all three. One thing about sports is that as bad as I am, my team always wins. Despite me. I think somehow everyone steps up their game to compensate. The exact same thing happened in camp. I spent most of the summer sitting on the sidelines and writing letters to my family about how much fun I was having in camp, and at the end of the summer, “my league” came in first place. It’s like when your wife is sick, and you’re suddenly better at changing diapers.
I did feel bad, though, about my skill level. Before every game, I told my teammates, “I’m really bad.” I said, “Don’t pick me. I don’t mind, as long as you tell my wife I played. I’ll just sit here and write her a letter.”
“Ha ha!” they said. Because whenever I open my mouth these days, people just assume I’m kidding.
So I decided that before the next time we play, which seems like it’s going to happen again from the way people were talking afterward (“We should (huff huff) play again in five years! (Huff huff)”) I decided that I should at least read the rules. Which is kind of like learning how to drive by reading the driver’s manual. But I figure that way I’ll at least have some idea of what to do, I’ll be a slightly better player, or at least make some of my own decisions, and my teammates will relax a little, and the other team will at least have a chance. I just want to keep things fair. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.