|ESPN.com: The Saturday Game|
BY ERIC NEEL Photographs by Timothy Devine
Dave, who has played in The Saturday Game since 1971, says, "I can't imagine my life without it."
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played ball on my wedding day.
It was a closed game with friends who were in town for the festivities. We started at 8 in the morning, in a middle school gym in Kalona, Iowa. It was late June and steam-bath hot; guys were swigging Gatorade going up and down the floor, like runners hitting checkpoints in a marathon. I had a terrible day, short-arming everything on my way to an 0-for-8, I think, and was positively abused on the blocks by my old friend John. But still, it was beautiful. There was no place I'd rather have been. In fact, I was a little late to the ceremony after trying to squeeze in one more game that morning, and if you look closely, you can see I mucked up the pictures a bit with a fresh sweat line around my collar and a blotchy boiled pink in my cheeks.
This is the first thing I tell Dave, one of The Saturday Game originals, when we meet. The wedding day run is my most faithful gesture, my most devoted act. I offer it in tribute, and as a kind of shibboleth.
"Sounds like a near-perfect day to me," he says. "If only you'd hit some shots ..."
Dave knows a thing or two about faith and devotion. He's 65 years old, New York born and bred, and he has been playing in The Saturday Game, in the same grade-school gymnasium in New Rochelle, N.Y., just north of New York City, for 35 years. The Saturday Game began in 1971, and it's continued, from Labor Day to Memorial Day, every year since. Dozens of guys have played in that time, many for 20 years or more, and two of them for the entire run of the game.
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"A lot of guys moved in and out over the years, but a lot of us played for a long time," Dave says in a slightly hoarse Bronx accent. "Guys grew up and grew old in the game."
Sixty-five isn't young, but Dave still sports a baller's body: broad across the chest, upright, long in the leg. He's chief administrator of a Huntington's disease unit, but even in the halls of the hospital, he moves like a shooter, sliding into spots, never looking hurried.
In the beginning, The Saturday Game was Kuppy, Ripp and Bob Edlitz. (I give you the names as the guys give them to me, as handles; some with nicknames, some with first names, some with last names, and some with both.) Ripp knew Elliott, and Elliott brought in Danny and Dave. Kenny, who's still playing, has been there almost from the start, along with Billy and Schiff. And Richie Glover, too. Sid came in a few years later. The Commish came on board about 28 years ago, through Sid, and Matty arrived soon after that. It evolved the way these things do: You'd invite a friend from the neighborhood or the job, or maybe you'd play pickup with a guy somewhere else, appreciated the way he played and asked him to join in.
It was just a game in the early days, just ball, a little safe harbor at the end of the week. But over time, Saturday by Saturday, game by game, it became a way to live, rules to play by, truths discovered, a creed, a kind of religion. "We've all been enthralled by our experience in it," Kuppy says. "The game, how you play the game, the people you play with, that's who you are."
You Want 15, And Only 15
The Commish comes to the gym one Saturday in his first year, 1978, and there are only seven guys there. The Commish is not happy. "Are we playing, or are we not playing?" he thinks. "Because if we're playing, let's play, and if we're not, what are we doing here?" The Commish, 5-feet-5 worth of bedrock shoulders and drill-bit gaze, is not to be trifled with. He's gonna shape up the ship. He makes a list of names and numbers, and he works the phones all week to make sure they'll have 15 come the next Saturday. And every Saturday after that.
"Guys have grown up and grown old in this game."
"Sixteen's a mess," he says. "Fifteen is perfect; 10 on the floor and five waiting on winners." You want flow, you want to catch a blow between runs but not cool down, and you want everybody into it. Fifteen is what you want.
You can have a game without the list, but you cannot have The Saturday Game. The list is the shape and structure of the thing. The birth of the list is the moment when the game becomes an institution. The Saturday Game is not pickup, you see; it's plan, it's ritual, and a hallowed one at that. If you're on the list, you have a responsibility to lace up. If you're not on the list, you wait by the phone, high-tops on, hoping for the Commish to call and say, "We're short one this week."
A lot of the guys who play now once served time on the list. Jeff, the Commish's son, brought them in, one by one, over the years. "That call every week was make or break," says Amin, a 40-something regular with a bright, quick laugh who likes to roll off picks. "It was the difference between a good week and a bad week; it changed your whole outlook." Part of it is just the run, the sweat and bank shots leaching the workaday toxins from your system, but part of it is the belonging, too. Being in a closed game is like knowing the secret handshake; there's some blush of pride that comes with it, some keepsake buzz.
You don't wander into The Saturday Game. Walk-ups get turned away. Shorthand phrases and familiar tendencies are the coins of the realm. You know guys. Guys know you. "There's a comfort in it," Dave says. "You do something together, you're not talking about it maybe, but you're together in it." I know what he's getting at. Although it doesn't sound like much, it's kind of everything. It's why I risked the ire of my beloved and organized the wedding-day game. It's why the Commish sounds like the height of rationality when he tells me about the time he ran.
The Commish ran The Game from 1977 to 2005. Give him some space and he could nail his two-handed set shot from anywhere on the floor.
Someone, Kenny thinks it must have been him but can't really remember, brought a friend, an extra, to the gym one Saturday. No call to the Commish the night before to check on numbers, no warning at all. So there they are, loaded down, out of whack, trying to fit 16 pegs into 15 holes come game time. I get the story at Chef Ho's on Second Avenue, waiting on the hot and sour soup. It has been years, but the Commish, a little pink rising from his collar, smoothes out a wrinkle in the tablecloth like maybe a patch of flush white linen will erase the pain when he says, "I walked out." Jeff jumps in, laughing: "You didn't walk!" True enough. He ran. Out of the gym, down the hall, off the school grounds, and down the block. And down another block. And another. He kept running. He ran until the anger, the disgust, wound down, until he thought he could breathe again without wanting to spit or shout first. Thirteen miles he ran. Ran blindly. Ended up on some corner somewhere he'd never seen before. Panting and fuming.
"That's the Commish, right there," Kenny says, shaking his head in mock disbelief. Kenny's a lawyer, big-time firm in Manhattan. He has a scrapper's body, short and wiry. Keeps his face quiet, doesn't impress easily. And he's right about the Commish and the run: It's extreme, it's the act of a madman and we're all laughing about it when the soup comes. But I'll tell you what, it's the act of just the sort of madman you want on your club, in your game and on your side. The Commish had to give up playing last year -- he's 71 now, and his mobility ain't what it used to be -- but he speaks in the present tense when he looks at me straight, while the table's still cracking up, and whispers, "What do you want? I live and die for the game." I smile and nod; extremism in defense of The Saturday Game is no vice.
You Know A Man By His Game
Jeff, left, and John have played against each other since high school. Back in the day, Jeff could take him, but as they've gotten older, things have changed. "I'm in worse shape now," Jeff says. "But John wakes up at 4:30 every day to work out."
Kenny bleeds Blue Devils blue and suits up most Saturdays in a faded brown Cleveland Browns T, No. 32. He's a hustling go-to-spots guy, a ball hawk, a box-out boarder. Dave's a shooter, a deadeye, unblockable, southpaw Silk Wilkes; looks like he's putting his arms in the sleeves of a sport coat or scratching an itch on the back of his neck, but he hits it, and if you're smart, you hit him trailing on the break. Matty will tell you he doesn't have much game and never did, but even at 71, the same age as the Commish, he runs. Constantly. Slowly. And in circles, like you're the skinny-dipping prey and he's the menacing midnight shark. Offense or defense, it makes no difference -- Matty runs, and always with a devilish grin, like he can't believe he's out there, like he has discovered the secret of life. Jeff and John are the engines, pushing the ball up the floor. Jeff fancies the midrange outlet pass. John gets to the bucket on quick crossovers and sports a steady stream of in-game chatter. Amin floats the perimeter. Chip works the midrange. Seth owns the baseline. And young Omar, one of the 20-something "babies" in the game, part of a recent influx of players who aren't, as Dave says, "a bunch of old, white guys," is all over the floor, a slasher in the modern vein. Kuppy, his broad shoulders, and tree-trunk legs, used to set some shivering picks, the sort of picks you mark on the calendar -- "Remember that one you laid on Sid that one time, Kupp?" The sort of picks that echo down through the years so guys, sitting in their Manhattan offices in suits and ties, 14 floors up and 10 years removed from the contact, rub their shoulders and wince when they talk about them. And Schiff, Schiff's an artist, and a retired architect -- kind of looks like Pollock with the bald head and the sinewy hands -- and he could really play. Every phase of the game he had. He saw the floor. He had a feel for space and pace. He could shoot and dish. He was The Saturday Game's J-Kidd, the guy who made it flow, made everyone around him better.
Everybody plays a role. It's pieces of a puzzle, chips in a mosaic. And your game is your calling card. Some of the core guys know each other going back to high school or even before, but the general protocol is your first name and your game. "You go, you play, you pat a guy on the shoulder and say, 'See you next week'," Schiff says. "That's how you know guys."
Schiff, Kenny and Billy would drive up from the city together every Saturday. Schiff had to pick up his coffee and doughnut along the way. Kenny and Billy would have their encyclopedic reminiscences about the old Holiday Festival tournament at the Garden, or their debates about whether Clyde or the Pearl was more important to the '73 Knicks. On the way home, they'd write backstories, imaginary lives for guys in the game. The guy who wears the green shirt all the time -- Mike, right? -- he works in a hardware store; his specialty is grass seed, weed and feed stuff; he's a whiz with the lawns. And the one who made the last shot today, that friend of Jeff's, who has been playing for a few weeks now, he washes high-rise windows for a living; he's that guy you see outside your office on that rig, the one you figure must be crazy to be up so high in the wind like that. One guy has quintuplets at home. Another's an ice cream taster. And we can't be sure, but we're thinking maybe one of the crew is using the game as part of his CIA cover. "We had no clue," Kenny says. "But we had a lot of fun with it."
Omar, part of the game's young, new blood, drives by Kenny, right.
Yet, "clueless" flights of fancy notwithstanding, The Saturday Game's also an intimate exercise. "It's the direct contact, the physical element," Schiff says. "The guy's right in front of you, he's trying to stop you, you're trying to do something to him. It's intense." And those confrontations run parallel to the game's collaborations. "You get familiar with the way guys move and how they react to situations. You know each other's games, and you know where to get the other guy the ball, and you have the experience of doing some good stuff together, some special stuff," Dave says. He says this last part, about "special stuff," with a short shrug and a curled lip, as if maybe he has said too much, as if he has put into words something better left unsaid. It's 5 in the afternoon, and we're in his office in the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, way up on Fifth Avenue. There's a security guard in the lobby; the office door is closed; and cabs and buses buzz by outside the window. No one can hear us. But still, there's something illicit about what he has said, about the inarticulate but universal hoop truth he has hinted at. Which is just this: The game is a high. Even the most unassuming run on the most unremarkable Saturday, when it's going right, when you're in synch with guys whose games you know, can bring about the sort of bliss most of us only wish we got from sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll.
I'm playing as a guest of the game one Saturday in March, and we're tied at six, game point, when a shot comes hard off the rim. John, probably the fittest guy in the bunch, the guy with a little rip on his frame, grabs the rebound and turns to run up court, and at the opposite free-throw line, he stops, feints right and flicks the ball to his left, hitting Jeff right in stride for the winning layup. It looks choreographed. It looks perfect. John watches the ball fall through the net, then spins on the ball of his left foot, pumps his fist and howls: "Au naturale, baby! Au naturale!"
And woe is he who kills that buzz. The Saturday Game has had its share of lawyers playing over the years, so there was always some debate, but the guys decided a long time ago that it would be an esprit de corps gig. The Commish set the lineups, mixing up the young and the old, the short and the tall, the got-game and the not-so-much. Games were to seven, call your own, play it straight. Keep disagreements short, handle them like the possession arrow: You get this one, we get the next one. And no smack. A brash guy, new to the game, hits a few shots over Bobby Edlitz, this was years ago now, and decides to tell him about it. He's chatting him up -- "I own you," "You got nothing" -- every time down, and when it's over, the Commish takes the guy aside and tells him it's over, privileges revoked, walking papers issued. "No ---holes, no bull----," Dave says. "That's the rule, that's always been the rule."
Life's too short. There are too many good runs to be had. Play the game right. "When I was first bringing guys in and adding guys to the list, I had to tell them what the game was like," Jeff remembers. "Not just that there were older players who'd been at it a long time, but that there's a standard, or a quality, I guess, and some guys I knew couldn't handle it." Jeff's not as intense as the Commish, a little quicker to smile, a little more willing to just see how things play out, but he has known from the get-go, as though he inherited it from Pop right along with a head of prematurely white hair, that the spirit of the game was a real thing, a thing to be respected and cherished. The first player he invited, in fact, was not his best friend but his best friend's brother. "His brother was more level-headed. He got what we were about," he says, laughing at the memory of having tweaked his buddy a bit.
How deeply ingrained is the code after all these years? Jeff remembers Chip, one of the guys he invited many years back, voluntarily suspending himself for two Saturdays after he laid a pick on Matty he knew was cheap. "Nobody had to say a word," Jeff says. "He just disappeared for two weeks and got himself together."
And it works the other way, too. If a man's a legit, fair-minded baller on the floor, if he makes the extra pass, owns up to touching the ball last as it flew out of bounds, and picks you up when you're down, then you know he's good people out in the world. Kuppy calls it a litmus test. One of the guys they played with for a while back in the '80s got snagged in a Giuliani insider-trading bust. He was a Goldman Sachs guy, escorted out of the building in cuffs, the whole deal. He was later exonerated. "I knew it was a bad rap all along," Kuppy says, with a quick clap of his hands. "There was no way. I played ball with him. I knew him. I knew he wouldn't do something like that. He was a ballplayer. That stuff they accused him of; that just wasn't his way." We hold these truths to be self-evident ... that's how he says it, simple, declarative, like it's an article of faith. If the world is full of what you don't know and can't be sure of, you can be sure he was a ballplayer.
That can't be true, of course. I know about subterranean pathologies and the survival-instinct virtues of suspicion; I've seen "Blue Velvet." But even if you know it's not enough, you gotta have something, some kind of measure. You gotta invest in something, gotta lean on something, gotta cloak yourself in some sort of cover against the coming of the chaos and the danger and the crap, don't you? And why not the game? Why not something with a collaborative heart, a democratic backbone and a good soul-cleansing sweat to boot? Why not something you've lived and done and known every Saturday for 10, 20, 30-odd years? Why not adopt it as a worldview? "It's not that I can't work with somebody or have a civil conversation with somebody who doesn't play ball," Dave says. "It's just that I'm not sure I can trust him ... I mean not all the way."
You Never Know
You get slightly different stories on Bobby Edlitz's last words.
Kenny thinks he said, "Oh s---." Sid remembers, "Oh, God." Schiff heard a drawn-out "Nooo." Dave doesn't think it was words at all, just some kind of eerie, deflated noise, "like 'oooooh.' "
Bobby had just come off the floor; his side had lost the last game. He was standing next to Dave. They were both breathing heavy, the way you do. They were looking out onto the court while the next game got rolling. They were talking some about the last run, or maybe they weren't -- Dave can't remember.
Then came that word or that noise, and then he was down. He wasn't big -- maybe 6-foot, 180 -- but he fell hard; a stagger and a thud, a sick, wrong sound. "Everybody stopped," Dave says. "We knew right away it was serious, that something had happened."
It was his heart. Someone called 911. Seth tried mouth-to-mouth. They circled around him, their own chests pounding, not sure what to do. They talked to him, told him to hold on.
The paramedics came and hurried him to the hospital, but he never regained consciousness.
Bobby was a core guy. He got the first gym permits way back when. He brought guys in, he boxed out, he hustled on D, he knew how to pass, and he loved to stick Dave, even though Dave was a better player. "He was a bulldog, very competitive, a terrific athlete, had great stamina," Schiff says. "He was the kind of guy who'd play on Saturday morning with us and then go out and play tennis or golf afterward." He was a stalwart. Then he was gone, like the flip of a switch.
Most Saturdays, the game breaks up and guys go their separate ways, back to their families and their routines. But the day Bobby died, they stayed together. After the hospital -- "massive heart attack ... he was dead by the time we got there," Kenny says -- they ended up at a neighborhood Friendly's, in one of those red vinyl booths around a big Formica tabletop, talking, not talking, eating, not eating and sitting there with the hurt, shoulder to shoulder. "We just didn't want to be alone with it," Dave says. "It was a terrible day, but it would have been even worse if we were alone."
At the funeral a few days later. Kuppy sat in the front row with his wife. "I'm not doing this again," she said. She looked him in the eye, then she turned her head and nodded in the direction of the casket. "I'm not doing this." Kuppy was 59 years old and had been playing in the game for 24 years. Thanks to the infusion of some of Jeff's buddies, the game had gotten a little younger and quicker while he and some of the other originals had gotten a little older and slower. It didn't take much for her to picture him in Bobby's place. She didn't care that he felt strong. She didn't care that he'd grown up hauling boxes and crates up the stairs from the storage basement below his father's Washington Heights grocery. She didn't care that even at 59 he was stronger than most of the guys he played with. "She was worried about the heart," Kuppy says. "And I didn't feel like I could just tell her not to worry; maybe I was pushing it." So he quit The Saturday Game. Eleven years ago. "I still feel I could run forever," he says, and makes a joke about maybe getting a note from his doctor to let him play again someday. He's halfway out of his office chair. The words come quickly. He has a barrel chest, his hands are strong, his legs are still solid. I believe him. "But I owed it to her and to our kids to stop; they were scared," he tells me. "It was the right decision." I believe that, too, but I know from the way he's shifting in his seat, and from the way his eyes come alive when he tells me he "loved the game, loved the way it was played, loved the way we played it," that it's an article of faith he must rehearse and repeat to observe, to believe it himself.
Kenny, one of The Saturday Game originals, was one of Billy's closest friends.
The Commish will tell you a lot of guys thought about giving it up after Bobby died. "We were shaken," he says. "We weren't sure we should keep the game going at all for a while." In the end, for most, the antidote to fear and sorrow was more ball. "I couldn't imagine not playing. I couldn't imagine getting up on a Saturday and not heading to the gym," Kenny says. "I finally felt like he didn't die because he was playing basketball; it could have happened playing tennis the next day, or doing anything. The thing is, you never know, you can't predict, boom, you might as well do what you enjoy doing. You might as well play."
It was different when Billy died a couple of years ago. They saw it coming for a while.
He began missing appointments, at work, at the dentist. One Saturday, Kenny and Schiff showed up at his house -- "I would pick him up every Saturday morning at quarter to 8," Kenny says -- and Billy never came out the front door. Finally, his wife came out and said she thought he was still sleeping. "That was the tip-off something was really wrong," Kenny says. "In 30 years, that had never happened." Tests revealed a malignant brain tumor.
Between operations, some of the guys from The Saturday Game would occasionally meet other days of the week for dinners with Billy. "In the beginning, I think it made a difference," Kenny says. "We had fun, talking about the game, remembering things that had happened years before." Kenny and Schiff hadn't expected to find one of the great friendships of their lives when they started playing ball with Billy (Schiff and Billy began playing when they were students at Cornell; Kenny met them both at a parks department gym in the late '60s, before the New Rochelle game began). But for the three of them, hoops was a bridge, from the court to the car rides together, and to dinners out, and ballgames, and phone calls, and eventually the weddings of each other's kids. "We became the best of friends," Kenny says. "Because we had basketball, and because that opened up other things for us."
They lost Mike, a friend of Jeff's, on 9/11. "He was a helluva player," Dave says. And that, in its way, is an obit unto itself, a summary statement, a testimony. There's no way to gauge the losses.
Schiff shows me a photograph of Billy he keeps pinned to the wall in his art studio. Billy's at a party, maybe, smiling broadly behind round wire-rim glasses, looking like no kind of ballplayer at all. "He would surprise you," Schiff says, with a proud chuckle. Kenny tells me about Billy's Bill Sharman set shot and a patented fake move, slipping the ball up and under the defender's armpit and laying it off the glass when the guy turned to look for the ball. "His fakes would drive new players crazy," he says, delighted, as if he has told me everything there is to know. The real measure of it, the sense of what it must have been like for them to watch him sink into sickness, the hint of what it must be like for them to live without him now, is that when I ask them about The Saturday Game at all, about what it has been and meant over the years, they bring up Billy and Bobby straightaway. Everyone who has played does.
Even now, The Saturday Game doesn't exist independent of those who died in it; it's a living memorial. Every time Kenny or any of the other regulars laces up, it's an act of memory, a chance to feel the sting of losing those guys and at the same time to pay tribute to them. The game echoes with memory and the bittersweet richness of loss and love. There's no shortcut to that kind of thing. You can't anticipate it or design it. You never know it's there until it's there. You make your way to it game by game. Over time. Schiff hasn't played since his legs gave out six years ago, at age 60, and he swears he doesn't reflect on the game, but in the same breath, with Billy's picture on the wall five feet from where he sits, he says, "These were your guys, you know. These were guys you spent a major portion of your life with."
You Can't Overestimate The Value Of A Good Run
Dave tells me he loves the game, tells me I'm going to hear that a lot the more I talk to the guys, tells me simple love of the game is a big part of the story of The Saturday Game. More than anything, he thinks, it's what has kept guys coming back.
Dave, left, is just about to call for help-D on Jeff.
I ask him what he means by love, not expecting much; it's kind of an impossible question, actually.
Dave tells me everything.
His brother was a mathematician, and he was supposed to be a mathematician too, because that's what his parents wanted. He was smart, but it wasn't his thing, and he eventually gave it up. He wondered, as we all do, if he'd disappointed them, if they approved of the things he did instead. He carried the wondering with him over the years, he says, sometimes feeling unsure of himself, sometimes feeling alone ... like any of us. He dropped in and out of college, suffered through the breakup of his first marriage, and struggled some to find a career, a relationship and a version of himself he felt at home in.
He has a kind of peace about him now. I know that because he's brave enough to be candid with me. I know it because there's nothing fancy in his delivery, no romance or hyperbole. He's telling it plain. He's speaking his truth.
Blows me away. Listening to him, I wonder whether I'll ever have such handle, such calm consciousness and understanding of my own twists and turns.
He tells me it's the product of heavy lifting, of a whole lot of introspection. But he tells me, too, how it's a function of the game. For as long as he can remember, ball has been the antidote to all the other stuff going on with him, whatever it was. From the very beginning, he felt he was expressing something in playing, tapping some core element of his character, some hidden-even-to-himself longing, some outrageous alien confidence. Ball isn't just an escape for him, it's wish fulfillment, it's life saving.
Ball makes him feel better about himself. Period. Without fail. You can't overestimate the value of a good run, he says. There's nothing like the way it burns the bad feeling out of you and replaces it with something good. The collaborative aspect is intoxicating, but Dave really revels in simply doing something well. He can pass and shoot, without hesitation. He has darting moves and a quick release. He can play. He could always play.
So this love isn't some casual or abstract affection. It isn't the way you feel about your favorite food or a special car. This is more akin to the feeling you have for your spouse and your children. This is ballast. This is the fabric.
"I tell you what it is," Dave says. "It's that I can't imagine my life without it. I can't imagine who I'd be or what I'd be like."
You Don't Shoot An Airball At Game Point
We're eating at Il Vagabondo on East 62nd Street, me and about 20 guys from The Saturday Game, past and present. Big long table in the back room, waiters in white shirts and aprons, antipasto to die for, and, I kid you not, a competitive bocce ball court downstairs. It's a set in a Scorsese picture. I'm sitting next to Amin, talking about Pitt Panthers hoops (Pittsburgh being his alma mater). The Commish is across from us, and he leans over our way, looking at me but pointing at Amin, and says, "Let me tell you a story about this guy." His delivery is entirely without affect, it's Walkenesque. Amin's arms fly into the air like he's riding a coaster on Coney Island, as he shouts, "Here we go! Again with this?! It was 20 years ago!"
Laughter erupts from the Commish's left. "God, I miss it! God, I miss the ball busting!" says Wittner, a longtime regular who hung it up last year, a guy so in love with the game and its roots he drives me out in the black of night to see the outdoor court, near the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, where a lot of the guys played growing up, just so I can soak up whatever silent secrets it holds.
As Amin takes it to the hole, please note the Jordanesque tongue-wag. It's his signature, his secret edge.
It seems that on some Saturday in the past -- Amin says it's ancient history, the Commish remembers it like it was yesterday -- the team the two of them were playing on was locked in mortal combat with the opposition, the game tied 6-6 when Amin let fly from the top of the key ... and got nothing for his trouble, no iron, no backboard, no net, no nothing. The Commish tells me this without so much as a smirk. Amin is laughing and hollering, "Come on! What about the shots I hit that day?! What about all the shots I've hit in all the games since?!" The Commish is resolute. He wants me to know the kind of dodgy character I'm dealing with. He wants me to enter into any and all conversations about Pitt Panthers hoops with my eyes open. He wants me to understand this isn't all fun and games. Yes, it's true they had a guy named Little Jay who played in pants and long-sleeved shirts for a while. And yes, it's true Kenny sports what his school-days buddy Larry Brown once called "the worst shot I've ever seen." But still, the ball is legit. The ball is serious. This is a New York game, after all. There are standards.
Richie (played 1971-1997) was the best player The Saturday Game ever had. "He could do everything," Kuppy says. "And he was the toughest guy I ever knew on the court."
Richie Glover was a standard-bearer, a neighborhood legend coming up in Washington Heights. He played in the old citywide all-star game (players from Manhattan and the Bronx against guys from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island) at Madison Square Garden when he was in high school. Best ballplayer in The Saturday Game, even after he'd gotten older and put on a few. Big guy -- "like a rock," Schiff says -- but quick on his feet. Could go left or right, could hit the J, knew how to defend, work the angles. Total package. Wittner remembers him, years past his prime, sitting on the courtside bench at the outdoor court up near Fort Tryon Park, reading his newspaper and smoking a pipe. "He looked like he was just a guy in the park," he says. "He'd have that paper up high so you couldn't see his face; the smoke from his pipe would kind of float up above his head." And then, after a while, somebody would be down one and somebody who knew him would say, "Hey, mister, wanna play?" and the other side would think it was about to rack up a couple of easy wins. "And Richie would just use them up," Wittner says. "They never had any idea what hit them."
Dave's a standard-bearer, too. Like a lot of guys, he played the parks as a kid. He and his Bronx buddies, Danny and Elliott, used to play bragging-rights games with the rich kids from Riverdale. Danny was a terrific player, went on to play freshman ball at NYU. Dave played college ball at Baruch (a division of CCNY) in the early '60s, and years worth of competitive pickup ball after that, and all the while he drained that funky shot. "It came naturally to me; you'd never choose to shoot the way I do, behind the head and from the left," he says. "But whatever it was, it was just what I did." Whatever it was, it worked; still does most days.
Mel (played 1973-1982) was a shooter. "He could make 100 foul shots in a row," Dave remembers.
Mel, who played in The Saturday Game for years, takes me aside at Il Vagabondo and says, "Make sure you get this: I've seen a lot of ball in my day; I've seen top college ball at The Garden, I've seen all the great Knicks teams; and Dave has the greatest shot I've ever seen. Bar none. I'm serious." Dave's take on his game is more modest -- "I can't jump at all; I'm a middle-class Jewish kid from the Bronx!" -- but he figures he was just good enough to know what true greatness was. "It was very satisfying to me to play as well as I played," he says. "But to see someone like Elgin Baylor, or Earl Monroe, do what they did and to know, in my bones, how much better they were than I could ever be, that blew my mind."
It isn't a Rucker Park run, but The Saturday Game guys, then and now, aren't hacks -- they could always play. In the winter of '85, one of the guys in the game, a sports agent, got a few of the regulars hooked up in a weekly side game with players from the New York Mets. They played again for several weeks in 1986, just after the Mets won the Series. Howard Johnson played, Ron Darling, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Tim Teufel and Lee Mazzilli, too. "It was always us against them," Dave says. "Cone was very good, Strawberry was not nearly as good as he was supposed to be, but they were all friendly. It was fun, it was a competitive run, but nobody put on airs. If you didn't know who they were, it was just a bunch of guys playing some ball."
Although the present-day Knicks are a major exception -- don't get Dave and Big Jay (Little Jay's shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing doppelganger once upon a time) going on the ills of Starbury and Co. unless you have some time on your hands -- the New York teams, and the whole NYC hoops scene, have been a model for these guys. "It's a culture," Kenny says. "It's something you're born into." In addition to tales from their days in the parks and the gyms of the city, most every guy in the game has stories about waiting in line for tickets to the Garden. The 60-something guys saw Bill Bradley go heads-up with Cazzie Russell in 1965, and they wax poetic about the time Oscar Robertson dropped 56 on NYU back in the day. The 40-something guys, Jeff's crew, tell you about the times they witnessed Kenny Anderson's lights-out performances in high school and the great St. John's teams of the mid-'80s. And both groups revere the early-'70s Knickerbockers of Bradley, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier. Those Knicks are like an enduring zeitgeist unto themselves, like some sort of Jungian archetype burned into every New York baller's consciousness. "There was nothing better than those guys," Kenny says with the proper hushed homage. "The way they moved the ball, so unselfish, so crisp, and such shooters, all of them." And it's not that you could be those guys, or play as they did, it's that you couldn't shake the impulse to try, to aspire, to mimic in your own way their impossible ideal. Not if you lived in New York. Not if you played in The Saturday Game. "Everybody, no matter what level you're at individually, knows what it's about," Kenny says.
And it ain't about airballs at game point, that's for damn sure.
"I swear, I've had a lot of good games since then," Amin protests. "And I've never done it again!"
"Keep it that way," the Commish says, and this time he cracks a grin.
You Get A Two-For-One Deal With Me, Sweetheart
Richie Glover goes hard to the basket, and Kuppy slides over to cover him. The ball goes up -- they collide, arms entangled, sweat mingling, groans and gasps raised as one voice -- and they go down. Kuppy, somehow, ends up on top of Richie, belly to belly, cheek to cheek. Formidable bellies. Sweaty cheeks. After the thunder of the fall, the room is quiet. Is either guy hurt? Is one of them pissed? Obviously concerned, Billy says, "Look, it's two elephants mating!" Everyone cracks up, including the elephants.
That's The Saturday Game.
Some shots are just shots. Some shots are events. A Matty jumper, in the clear, is somewhere on the order of a solar eclipse, or a humble statement from Stephon Marbury; it just doesn't happen that often. At the end of every Saturday, Dave asks Matty how he did for the week. "He's always something like 1-for-1 or 0-for-0," Dave says. "If Matty gets two shots off that's a big, big week."
Seth, a 40-something, sets a mid-key pick and holds it, waiting for Matty, a 70-something, to come rolling around from right to left, with a clear path to the bucket. Matty isn't one to create on offense, but if you get him the ball in space, and let him launch his favorite little left-hand hook shot, you get two rewards: the points, and the beaming smile on his face. Matty tracks his made baskets week by week: "1-for-1, that's a great week for me," he says. Seth and the others track them, too. "If you can get Mattie a bucket, that's huge," he says.
That's The Saturday Game.
You ask Chip, the "hothead," the guy who had to suspend himself once upon a time, to recall a favorite memory from all the years he has played and, without skipping a beat, he says, "Every time I've run the pick-and-roll out there with my son. I can't even tell you what that feels like. It's an honor is what it is."
That's The Saturday Game.
Matty and the Commish go way back, to grade school. "They're like an old married couple," Schiff says. One tall, one short. One thin, one stout. Joined at the hip. So, anyway, when the Commish and his wife buy a new house years ago, after living outside New York for a short while, the Commish gives Matty a key. "I didn't even think about it," he says. He also didn't think to tell his wife. So Saturday morning comes, early, maybe a little before 8, and Matty heads over to the new house and lets himself in. It's game day; it's time to go. He walks in the front door, strolls through the living room, down the hall and to the bedroom. He opens the door, walks in and says, "It's Saturday, let's go!" The Commish and his wife are still in bed. She looks at Matty; she looks at the Commish; she looks, shall we say, incredulous. The Commish gets up out of bed, turns to her and says, "You get a two-for-one deal with me, sweetheart."
Matty (played 1983-present): "I have no game. I can't play. Truly. But I do love it."
And that, my friends, that moment when you wouldn't want to lay odds on who would get to keep his or her key if push came to shove, that moment when history is a passkey, for life, that's The Saturday Game.
You Reach A Point ...
"I didn't know how bad I was getting until we started to bring our sons into it," Schiff says, reaching out with both hands to rub his knees a bit. "When you play against people your same age, you and the guy guarding you or going against you are getting worse, getting slower, at the same pace. But when the next generation came ... then you knew how horrible you were."
The downside of playing in a game for years is the inevitable physical decline each guy goes through. "My legs just aren't moving like they used to," Dave says. You imagine yourself into spots you can't reach; you take shots only the younger you could pull off. There's a troubling, persistent dissonance. Socially, the game's everything it always was, but physically, it's ebbing from you. And you find yourself getting angry -- not just the run-of-the-mill "I had a bad shooting day" frustration, but a real seething thing, like you're failing yourself, like something's failing you. There's a pride that comes from still being out there at 55, 65, 70 and a tremendous boost when you prove you can still hold your own -- "I hit five straight shots the other day," Dave says, "and man, I needed a game like that, just to know I still had something to do out there" -- but some part of every week on the court means reckoning with loss.
"It would have been better if I'd never really had any game at all," Schiff says. "But there was a time I could play, and feel good about what I was doing, and then you reach a point where that's just not true anymore, and the whole game changes." And that's before we get to the nagging injuries, and the way they linger longer the older you get ...
So a lot of guys stepped away. Only Dave, Kenny and Matty are left from the old-school crew. But there have been infusions over the years. Jeff and his gang -- Chip, Seth, Amin, John and his brother James -- are the "new" blood, 20-year vets with "only" 40-odd years on their biological clocks. And after them, there's a new "new" gang: Omar and his brother, plus some others looking to get in should spots open up. It's not the same tight ship it once was; there's the occasional day when they have 16 or more. "I'm a little uncomfortable bossing people around like my father did," Jeff says, laughing. "But most of his rules are still basically how we run the game." And with the mix that has been brewing these past several years, there come different satisfactions. For the over-the-hill gang, it's the pleasure of surprising themselves and their younger, quicker opponents -- Kenny keeps a mental list of blocked shots he tallies on the young turks. For the guys in their prime and the kids coming up, it has been the chance to temper their ball-above-all instincts in the interest of the relationships they've built. "The game's matured me," Jeff says. "When I was younger, I was really, really competitive, and in The Saturday Game, I learned how to play hard but still know the guy I was guarding was a friend."
Maybe John (played 1990-present) will one day pass The Saturday Game along to Kristen.
And it's not just friends, it's fathers and sons. Three of Kuppy's boys have played in The Saturday Game. Schiff's son played. Kenny's, too. Dave's son, John, plays now. Chip's son comes out when he can. And Jeff keeps the Commish's seat warm, of course. Nat, a high school hoops coach, and one of a handful of black players in the game these days, brings his daughters sometimes, just to show the guys how it's done. "The game's evolved," he says. "We're a more diverse group than we used to be." Beyond the arc of any of the individual lives in the game, the game has a life of its own. It's not a point so much as a continuum -- it has generations, it has eras, it has a past and a future. Bobby's death, Schiff's failed ankles, they have counterpoints in whatever move Jeff put on Omar this week, in whatever baby hook Matty managed down low. "While it was happening for me, I never said, 'My God, this is something special,' " Kuppy says. "But looking back, and seeing it still go on now, I appreciate it. It's clear to me we've been a part of something."
Maybe that's what keeps Kenny, Dave and Matty suiting up. In addition to their love of the game, and thanks to bodies that -- knock on wood -- have hung on a little longer than some, maybe it's the simple sense of being caught up in something bigger than themselves, something that commands them in some quiet, steady way. "I don't know how to say it," Kenny tells me. "It just is. It's like you have to do it. It goes without saying. It's the game."
You've Got A Game, Too
Richie Glover's at the far end of the table at Il Vagabondo, leaning slightly against an aged photomural -- an in-good-company shot of hat-wearing, mustachioed men who used to frequent the restaurant for the bocce and the veal parmigiana, a group that mirrors our own tonight in spirit if not costume. Richie's teasing Kuppy about the way he played defense: "It was more touch football than basketball," he says with a wink.
Next to him, Sid and Schiff are telling Kuppy's son Teddy about who it was that found the Ward School gym in the first place and about the places they played around the city before the game became The Saturday Game.
In addition to his Hall of Fame achievements on the diamond, Sandy Koufax's résumé includes a stint as Dave's summer camp counselor, center in the back row. "He's a recurring character in my dreams," Dave says. "I think I've always identified with him."
Across the table, Matty's sipping on a drink and the Commish is whispering something to him that makes him laugh.
Next to them, Wittner, Amin and Kenny are measuring J.J. Redick for a draft-day suit and tie, assessing the way his jump-shot game will, or will not, translate to the big stage.
Up a bit from that group, John, who Jeff says is in the best shape of anyone in the game, is talking with Chip and Mel about a weekday morning game he has been playing in, "just to stay sharp for you guys!"
And across from them, Dave's showing Seth a photograph taken of him and his cabinmates in summer camp once upon a time. The young Dave cuts a handsome figure, no doubt, but the real interest in the picture is the guy behind him, the cabin counselor, who is none other than Sandy Koufax.
And so it goes, for three hours, between bites and courses. Guys move up and down the table to connect and reconnect. There is much hugging and hand shaking, reminiscing, and not a lick of shoptalk. The room is full of lawyers, financial advisers, agents, teachers and hospital administrators, but those labels don't stick here. The connections and recognitions are deeper than that.
At some point, Dave comes to me and says -- and we've had this conversation a few times before -- "I still don't understand why you want to write about us. We tell you our stories, you meet us, you play with us, but what does it all add up to?"
I look out over the table, straining to hear someone retell the mating elephants story, catching a bit of Wittner remembering the time the Commish took him to the parking lot outside the gym and showed him all the expensive cars of his running mates, then pointed to Wittner's beater and said, "That's why I'm cutting you some slack on paying up for the court permit," and I think the Commish must be insane. Looking at these guys, I think: 35 years' worth of ball and the dozens of charming, quirky rituals that come with it. Looking at these guys, knowing each other they way they do, belonging together the way they do, come hell or high water, across time and distance. How do I not write about it?
"The game means something to us, sure; it's our game," Dave says. "But I don't see why it would be interesting to anyone else. Everyone's got a game."
"Sometimes you wanna go . . . where everybody knows your name." Dinner at Il Vagabando was like a scene out of "Cheers," only with much better antipasto. The guys get together once or twice a year for dinner, mainly so The Commish can go over the "no-airball-at-game-point" rule with Amin.
We're taking a group picture at the end of the night, and the Commish tells me to hand the camera off to a guy at the next table and get in the shot. I'm hesitant at first: This is their crew, their night. But you don't say "no" to the Commish, and as I kneel down in front of the group and smile, I feel him reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. It sounds corny, but I do feel like one of them in that moment. And it hits me just then that Dave's right, that everyone does have a game, and that I'm also here because we used to hold weekend three-on-three tournaments, complete with burgers on the grill and drinks in the cooler, in my Long Beach, Calif., backyard, and because I was in a regular Sunday morning run at the Field House in Iowa City, Iowa, when I was in grad school, and because I know a group of guys who lace up every weekend at a high school gym in Coronado, Calif., and because I know there are guys all over this great land of ours who get up and play at 6 a.m., before the workday, two, maybe three, days a week. How do I not write about it?
The difference between The Saturday Game guys and the rest of us is a matter of degree. What they have, the connection they share to the game, to each other, isn't magical; it's just hard-won. Which is, of course, its magic. I'm sitting there at Il Vagabondo, twisting the stem of a wineglass, watching the guys talk, and I identify with them, but I envy them even more.
I'm not in a game now; my guys are scattered to the wind, busy, whatever, who knows ... life has gotten in the way.
I try to explain this to Dave. He recalls our first conversation.
"You can write about us if you think there's something to say," he says. "But what you really ought to do is find a gym, and start calling the wedding-day guys."