Heaven is a Playground — Saying goodbye to a good friend: The Downtown YMCA, San Diego

The final pilgrimage of the lunchtime ballers.
The final pilgrimage of the lunchtime ballers.
The final pilgrimage of the lunchtime ballers.

I imagine that when the lights went off, the Ghost of Pete Maravich came out to run ball-handling drills across the battered floorboards.

On Friday, Oct. 31, the Downtown YMCA of San Diego closed its doors for the final time. Where do all the old ballers go now? The guys with the pointed elbows, who represent the promise of full frontal locker room nudity after the game; what becomes of the aged, shirtless lawyer in the bandana who used his low center of gravity to throw hip-shot-box-outs, or the dude with the off-balance set shot always guzzling down Starbucks before playing? Do the hairy backed rage monsters and past their prime arguers find a new basketball playing community to call their own?

How could they? Many of them had been playing on this court since Hanson was a chart topper. Their eccentricities already accepted, perhaps even admired — If Jon the Weeble had slapped cross-eyed T in the face over a loose ball in any other basketball enclave he would have assuredly become the victim of an assault so vicious, only Jim Ross could narrate it. But at the Downtown Y, it was all part of the game.

Sure, there were better players — younger, and quicker — elsewhere, but why would I have ever wanted to play with them when I had the Downtown Y?

Opened in 1882, the gym, which shared the building with a café and hostel, had no frills, no new equipment, and at times no electricity. Smaller than a regulation court, and with a running track in the rafters taking away the possibility of corner threes, ambitious newbs often jacked shots up from Ray Allen territory, the ball ricocheting off of the track, followed by chants of “rookie” from court veterans.

At one time, there was a scoreboard, then a clock, and then in the end, games were timed by cell phone. Populated by a lot of lawyers, an ABA player, young transplants, and the unemployed, lunch-time games ignored the standard meritocracy, opting instead for a form of basketball socialism where winners couldn’t play more than two games in a row if guys were waiting — every game guaranteed an argument over what the score actually was.

The characters made this place special. There was Black Mo (presumably for Maurice), Indian Mo (presumably for Mohammed,) and Old Mo (Presumably for… Morris?). There was Jim the hack, with the surprisingly young wife, whose big Halloween joke was coming dressed as a referee; Cha, who reeked of menthol and was missing most of his front teeth. You liked everybody, but also kind of hated everyone simultaneously. Guys brought out the best of athletic competition in each other.

A summer league game at the Y.
A summer league game at the Y.

On my sixth day living in San Diego, I ventured into the Downtown Y for the first time. At the front desk I was asked “do you like playing basketball?” Although my answer was yes, truth was I was over it; the rejection, inadequacy, and the lineal haunting had alienated me from the game. Four months removed from graduation with money to burn and time to kill, I looked for basketball because it was familiar. What I found was a passion for something that had long been joyless.

Thank god for the Y. Lunchtime ball, Wednesday night run and Saturday morning pickup were my salvation between those hours when Anna was at work. The ten months I lived in San Diego between October 2012 and August 2013 could have been a deeply depressing time; instead it probably goes down as the best period of my entire life.

After the previous eight years, I needed a reprieve — time to gather myself, to re-group and heal. I found that on the basketball court, the place that had functioned for so long as my symbolic undoing.

When I moved back this May the Y was different. Financial strain led to increased prices, the Wednesday night and Saturday morning crew stopped coming and even the lunchtime bread and butter game saw decreased numbers. More work meant less basketball.

The lasting impact this community had on its members is obvious. Ballers came out in droves on Halloween to play one final time. Guys who hadn’t been around in months or in some cases years showed up; one dude flew in from Tennessee, some didn’t even come to play, opting instead to just be there one last time.

Maybe it’s that mid-20s wistfulness; you’re still so young but you feel an entirety of life changes in front of you — 21 is 25 and than 30 in a forty-yard-dash of life. Marriage, kids, spreadsheets, and death; how many of the older guys played their last pickup game that Friday?

We see our own mortality when places close: There will always be more basketball, until there isn’t.

The exterior of the Y.
The exterior of the Y.

Noah Perkins graduated magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 2012. He’s a philosopher, sociologist, explorer and world traveler who spends far too much of his time roaming cracked concrete courts and deadwood floorboards across the country. He also happens to be the younger brother of OBW creator Sam Perkins. Noah currently resides in San Diego, where he lives the life of “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, except instead of bowling, he plays far too much basketball. Follow him on Twitter at @TheRealPBPie3

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