The trio of alliterative options in terms of pregame salutations always included handshakes, hugs and high fives. Wearing the de rigueur hoops gear of the times called for baggy shorts, pro or college team-themed t-shirts, and either Nike Air Jordan shoes or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird Converse Cons (choose your weapon as the advertising slogan proclaimed). The basketball players in our pickup games would “get some shots up” as NBA players like to say nowadays in preparation for the imminent competition.
The warmup musical accompaniment ranged from Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” to Gap Band’s “Party Train” on a beatbox.
The outlier of the group typically could be found at the other basket doing the Mikan Drill, form shooting or figure eight dribbling that would make Bob Cousy proud. He wore suede Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes, a t-shirt of either his high school or college alma maters (St. Mel in Chicago; Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama where he played hoops for both schools), and high, tight gym shorts reminiscent of cliched gym coaches with a whistle and chewing gum portrayed in the movies.
While the rest of us enjoyed kidding around, his face and body language expressed a tacit message of impatience. Let’s get on with the damn game was written all over him.
Incidentally, his choice for pump up music was strangely and hilariously “Phantom of the Opera,” which wafted out of his car each time he pulled into the Bishop Kenny High School gym’s parking lot in Jacksonville, Florida.
Here’s the thing though and pardon my French, but Le Fantôme de l’Opéra could play! Well before Ray Allen portrayed Jesus Shuttlesworth in “He Got Game” or Kyrie Irving balled out on the big screen as “Uncle Drew,” this guy served plenty of Hoops du Jour on behalf of bball vets. A real-life guardian of good basketball.
The rest of the players ranged in age from 18 to 25, but he was 48. Even though he landed in the older demographic of weekend warriors, age ain’t nothing but a number among ballplayers if you get buckets. For all his eccentricities around the court, the guys loved him.
I’ve seen plenty of middle-aged hoopsters who can still consistently make jumpshots sans defensive pressure. But this man was different: a multi-dimensional and genuinely quick player at a advanced age by hoops longevity standards. He could move, cut and create. He led fast breaks with alacrity, threw adept passes to teammates in their shooting pocket and boxed out embarrassed opponents with a significant height advantage. He accomplished these facets of the game with a modest 5-8, 150-pound build. Not exactly NBA pre-draft combine measurables.
Although he’s nowhere near the best player I’ve seen, he’s unequivocally the best teammate I’ve ever had.
And with all due respect to soccer fans, particularly of Brazilian persuasion who speak lovingly of their o jogo bonito, he believed basketball was the beautiful sport.
His love of the game was visceral.
The squeaking of sneakers created by friction from the hardwood, the mellifluous sound of a made basket swishing through nylon or chain, and the competitive chatter between players shouting out, “switch the screen” or “watch the backdoor” congealed into a symphony of sounds.
In terms of our relationship, he called me “Doc,” an acknowledgement of my admiration for Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers (even though he was a die-hard Boston Celtics fan).
He played point guard while I held down the 2-spot.
Regarding any hoops affirmation I needed, a pat on the fanny from him after a good play meant more to me than all the aforementioned greetings combined.
As the games eased into their natural ebb and flow, I heard comments about him like “old dude can ball” and “Damn Marty, where did you find this ringer.”
After we regularly defeated opponents physically superior to us, he would offer a sly grin my way and shout, “next!” After a generous swig of Gatorade, he talked more basketball with me during breaks. I particularly liked when he mentioned John Wooden-isms like “be quick, but don’t hurry” or “nothing will work unless you do.” Lessons applicable for basketball, and life.
We were friends off the court as well. We regularly attended mass at St. Edmund in Oak Park followed by breakfast at George’s restaurant across the street. Annual visits to Washington, D.C. became an annual tradition, and he always encouraged me to write.
Like most relationships (or frankly I’d like to think all of them), we weren’t devoid of disagreements or adversity. We had our issues. Some topics were as difficult to address as Virginia’s pack line defense or Syracuse’s 2-3 “amoeba” zone.
Thankfully, our dynamic always felt right oin the court. At the risk of channeling my inner Phil Jackson, the sacrosanct basketball bond between us fills me with pride and gratitude.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander wrote one of the best books (sports or otherwise) I’ve ever read, “Heaven is a Playground.” Fresh out of Northwestern University, Telander chronicled the summers he spent in 1973 and 1974 living the playground life with his subjects (young ballplayers) on the basketball courts of Foster Park in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
My mystery protagonist thought it was a great read, too. We also mutually assigned four stars to the 1979 hoops cult classic “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” which appropriately starred Julius Erving.
This column is about my dad, Martin Thomas Farmer. He passed away six days ago.
I thought about him a lot over the weekend. In his remembrance, I smiled and then I cried.