Pick-up basketball packs up in Aspen
I picked Will Smith’s pocket.The actor was at midcourt and dribbled the ball across his body, right hand to left. That’s when I struck with a quick jab to knock the ball behind him. The momentum of the “I, Robot” star carried him forward, away from the ball. I scooped it up and passed to a teammate for a layup.It was borderline whether I illegally reached in, but Smith didn’t call a foul. After all, he’s a movie star making about $20 million per picture, whereas I’m a small-town hack.”Good rip, good rip,” he said to me quietly.”Thanks,” I replied brightly. Call it good Will hunting.That’s not to say he didn’t come back at me. Guarding Smith was similar to trying to stop, I’m guessing, an NFL fullback. His body is not the result of special effects: He is a big man. When Smith came barreling down the lane of the Aspen Club court, I bounced off him like I was paparazzi.Battling an A-list star in the post was probably my biggest pickup game highlight since I played on the same team as legendary Arizona Cardinals receiver Roy Green when I was 13.It’s rare for stars of such caliber to come out to the Aspen Club. Usually the biggest name we get is local TV personality Andrew Kole, who is considerably smaller and much easier to guard than Will Smith. Anyway, the time has come to pay homage to noon pickup basketball at 8,000 feet above sea level. The beloved noon program is ending March 16. But I’ll get to that a little later.For several years, a group of men, sometimes women, and once a dwarf, have laced up the high-tops and stepped onto the basement court in the east end club. The games attract a loyal following of perhaps eight to 10 players who come out every day, Monday through Thursday, from noon to 1 p.m. or so.The regulars know each other by first name. This allows us to alternately yell at and congratulate one another. We exchange names with newcomers (except Will Smith, whom we all recognized) and generally play friendly, but competitive games.
The games, like most pickup basketball, draw people of all ages and abilities. Kids under 12 or 13 are generally frowned upon, but older players, artificial hips and all, are welcome. The court at the Aspen Club is an anomaly. It’s three-quarters as long as a normal floor, which the older and/or out-of-shape players appreciate because we don’t have to run as much.Because of the smallish court, it’s generally four to a team, but when 15 or 20 people pack the gym, we go 5-on-5. This makes the game more difficult. The lane is crowded, there’s always a defender waiting to double-team and the games just get more chaotic.It is great when many show up, ensuring full-court battles. Unless you lose. If you are defeated when the gym is that packed, your team will wait two or three games to get back onto the court.The players on the losing squad must shoot free throws to see who plays in the next game. You make it, you’re in; miss, and your teammates sink their shots, you sit. If everyone on the losing team makes their free throws a couple of times in a row, the roulette is backed up to the 3-point line. (If everyone on the losing team misses their free throws, the team is occasionally heckled with, “How did you ever lose?” or “All right, layups.”) These shooting contests to get into the next game, either because everyone makes or misses their shots, can last several minutes. And players get antsy because they only have an hour to 90 minutes max. The games, especially when they’re close, often get intense. People make phantom foul calls – even occasional over-the-back calls – while others are called for questionable traveling violations. At one point, in order to settle arguments, an “official” basketball rules printout sat on the solitary bench next to the court. During a recent game, a real estate agent stole the ball from an older player (occupation unknown). The older guy responded by essentially tackling the agent, who rose and shoved his opponent. The elder raised his dukes in a bare-knuckle, John L. Sullivan pose. The fisticuffs were defused, but the agent literally took his ball and went home (or back to work). When I returned to the office a little later, I heard the agent’s name come across the police scanner. He wanted to report the senior citizen for a hard foul. Honestly.
The noon games were started in the 1990s by county and city workers. They were played in the Red Brick building, said Scott Miller, an Aspen water attorney with an excellent post-up game. He started playing in the pickup matches in 1994.”The word sort of got out,” Miller said.While some disagreements over the years were memorable, the intermittent fights don’t stand out in his mind. In fact, it’s the opposite.”I’d say it’s pretty surprising, over the however-many years this has been going, that there’s been so few brawls,” he said.”For me, it’s the regularly scheduled workout. That’s the biggest thing that gets me out there doing something, when I might otherwise not do anything for exercise,” Miller said.But it’s more than that. “It’s the camaraderie and the playing of a sport,” he added, “which to me is the best way to get exercise.”Miller may have to mull other ways to exercise. Linda Schmehl, general manager of the Aspen Club, said the basketball program will end soon. “The city just doesn’t want to do it anymore and they’re not interested in talking to us. We’re really not interested in it, either,” she said.That was news to Tim Anderson, the city’s recreation director.”Oh, sure,” he said when asked if his department was ready to re-up the $5,000 contract. “The guys like using the gym up there.”We sure do.The recreation department has looked at alternatives to continue noon hoops after March 16. But the only comparable court is at Aspen High School, and administrators “cannot have adults and outside people coming to and from their facilities while kids are in school,” Anderson said. “So we run into issues there.”
One end of the Aspen Club court is hazardous: The loser’s end.In the past year, towels have become increasingly common in the lane and outside it to soak up multiple leaks in the court’s ceiling. “We have some roof-leak problems,” said Schmehl. She said the ceiling will be fixed “potentially.” But she then added, “Of course, yes, we’ll fix the roof.”To tell the truth, I have manipulated these circumstances. I have studied the locations of the semi-constant drips. I tend to post up in front of these leaks, forcing my defender to deal with the slippery surface.This is known as the home-field advantage.But, wet slippery floors aside, gymnastics are the main reason basketball games are at the Aspen Club. The gymnastics program attracted so many participants to the Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center that it overtook the basketball court, said recreation director Anderson.”Obviously there was a conflict there, so we looked around at alternatives for moving the basketball [program] and managed to strike a deal with the Aspen Club because they had a gym sitting there not being used,” he said. “We had a place to put basketball, and it generated a little additional money for [the Aspen Club].”Told about the noontime basketball program’s potential death knell, Mike Gerbaz, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the Roaring Fork Valley at the turn of the century, asked a simple question.”Why?” said the offensive-minded point guard who works for Mason & Morse. After learning of Schmehl’s comments he said, “Well, that sucks.”All right, the pickup basketball crowd is perhaps not the crème de la crème of the club’s patrons. We arrive at the gym in regular cars, on bikes or the cross-town shuttle – plebeian, Kurt Rambis-like transportation. We don’t have much clout with the Aspen Club’s brass.”I want to make it clear: I wouldn’t characterize a group of less than 10 people that pays significantly less than market rate to get into the Aspen Club a significant factor in any decision,” Schmehl said.The program was nearly ended a year ago. Miller at that time helped spearhead an effort to save the noon court sessions, and the city gave the club $5,000 to continue the games, apparently through March 15. Schmehl said that day will be the last of the noon pickup game. For $5 a day, anyway.Asked what she would tell the players whose lunchtime tradition is disappearing, Schmehl said she “would be more than thrilled to sell them a lunchtime membership.” Such a pass costs $80 a month and allows access to the club from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Two years ago, a monthly pass for noontime basketball cost $25. It later increased to $50: 10 visits at $5 apiece. Going to the $80 lunchtime deal will mean a 220 percent increase over 2004. Regular members pay $150 a month for a membership, but that is little comfort for most of the noon hoops crowd. “It’s probably going to knock out a lot of people,” Miller said. And that’s especially sad for those who will never be able to pick a Hollywood star’s pocket. I read a story a few months ago about how George Clooney has a passion for pickup hoops. One wonders how mobile he is after gaining that weight for “Syriana” and whether it would affect his outside shot. Such contemplation would factor into whether we guard him close or back off and let him shoot. Such study would take at least two games to seven. The hope is the Will Smiths, George Clooneys and Scott Millers come out to play at the Aspen Club over the next week and a half, before a high-country hoops tradition disappears for good.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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