The Saturday Game

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."