The Saturday Game

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."