He stood in the frame of my dorm room door at Fisher Hall, naked except for a towel around his waist. With a shaving kit in one hand, he was, I had to assume, on his way to the shower stalls. It was my first day at Notre Dame, and I was thoroughly confused. Ninety-three degrees and 93 percent humidity. Two thousand miles from home, in a place I knew I had to be but which I knew nothing about. I sat down on the end of the bed in my tiny single room to collect myself. Like many freshmen on their first day at college, I was scared to death. I really, really missed my mom.
He was so tall his head wasn’t visible until he leaned into my room and asked, with some force, “Hey, freshman, you got any extra shampoo!?”
This was my first conversation with anyone at Notre Dame. A good student from a mostly blue-collar high school in the Pacific Northwest, I hadn’t been east of Spokane before I hopped on a plane and headed to South Bend solo. This man in the doorway was the tallest, darkest, most muscular human being I’d ever seen in real life. He had to be at least 6-foot-9 minimum. An upperclassman.
I rummaged through my one bag of belongings and found a shampoo bottle, threw it to him and gave him an awkward smile. “Hey, man, on Saturday mornings, some of the fellas play hoops at The Rock,” he said. I think it was an invitation. Or maybe just a statement. What’s “The Rock”? I thought. He asked me my name, so I asked him his. “It’s Orlando. Orlando Woolridge. But the fella’s call me ‘O.’”
This is how hoops works for men. You sort of hear about a game through some encounter, maybe go to a popular court or just show up somewhere new and hope “some other guys” will arrive to get a game going. Men interact physically. They don’t dig deep. Hoops is social interaction at its highest level for many.
I wasn’t good enough to walk on at Notre Dame, let alone play with guys like Kelly Tripuka, Tracy Jackson, Woolridge and John Paxson. But there I was, a know-nothing freshman, filling in the 10th spot on Saturday mornings while most of my classmates were sleeping in or getting a head start on tailgating. I became, for a brief while, one of “the fellas.” Notre Dame started to feel like home.
Every day at 3 p.m. Rockne Memorial Gymnasium opened up for pick-up games. Every day at 3 p.m. I was there. In classes, at the corner bars, or just out on The Quad, it was the guys you played with—or against—in pick-up games at The Rock that you nodded to or acknowledged. These guys became your friends. They were your “fellas.”
One afternoon my junior year, I overheard two Alumni Hall guys at The Rock while we were stretching. “Hey, I guess that Hobie guy is looking to move into Alumni Hall. Let’s see if we can pull him in with us,” said the one with a 12-foot jump shot like nobody’s business. That’s how we knew each other. You described guys with phrases like “That-guy-who-goes-hard-to-the-hole,” “That-guy-with-a-soft-jumper” or “That-guy-with-the-good-crossover.” If you knew them well, you might use their nickname. As I listened more closely, I could tell these guys I’d been playing with or against for the past two years were willing to pull me in as their roommate largely because I had “a good first step.”
Settling into Seattle after college was a brand new start again. Following a productive and familiar pattern, I dropped into a local gym to see if there was a pick-up game.
“We got eight now, let’s shoot for teams,” I shouted to the guys warming up at the other basket. Soon, I was in a full-court game and realized that these guys were good. I thought I recognized one or two. In a few moments, I discovered I was holding my own in a pick-up game with a smattering of off-season college players and a few other transplants just like me. These guys became my fellas during my first days in Seattle. Seattle started to feel like home.
When I was in my early 30s, moving into suburbia to raise a family meant finding a new game. My brother, Shawn, a 1988 Notre Dame grad, and some other like-thinking fellas have been meeting for hoops ever since. It’s a time for us to detox from the business day, bang around with each other and sweat for a common cause. Not a meaningful cause. Just a common cause. Maybe that’s why it works. No one gets killed, no one changes the world, but five guys have to figure out how to put it together against five other guys and then just go home.
Every year since we graduated, my Alumni Hall fellas get together for a football game weekend in South Bend. It’s become our tradition, as it is for so many other Domers. Sometimes, we add a trip to an away game. This year, we gathered in Las Vegas to celebrate the upcoming marriage of the last bachelor in our group.
On day two, we woke up in our hotel rooms and said nothing to each other. In routine fashion, we all went to our bags. A half hour later we were driving around Las Vegas in our rented van looking for a hoop game. No plan. Just five guys driving around Vegas looking for an open court. It seemed so normal for us.
Half of the guys on this trip were the same ones who, two years before, were driving around the back road barrios of Cabo San Lucas in a similar rented van looking for a court that could handle a three-on-three game, while most self-respecting 40-something guys who have amassed two ankle blow-outs, one total hip replacement and three knee scopes amongst them would be on the third tee.
“Hey, isn’t that UNLV over there?” barked Dub as he groaned to put on a third layer of socks in the back seat.
The student volunteer at the gym check-in desk set his head phones down for a moment to look up at the five of us with deep bewilderment. “What are you guys doing here?” We were suited up for a hoop game, and he had to ask? I thought. “Aren’t you guys a little old to be playing hoops? You can’t play here. This is a student facility.”
We found a community center a few blocks away, paid the fee and walked in, passing the ball between our legs, knocking into each other, laughing.
I never thought about age stopping me from playing hoops. The student volunteer clearly saw the receding hairlines and graying hair and drew the conclusion that we were way out to pasture. But I don’t play to prove anything to myself. Or maybe I do. I’ve never really thought about it. I just play.
Next month, Dub’s getting married in L.A. I’ll probably pack the night before in a rush as I usually do. Between the fellas are 10 or 11 kids. We’re CEOs, surgeons, managing partners in law firms, investment banker types. Middle-age guys with middle-age responsibilities. So the bags are packed rather hastily after the last child is tucked in and the e-mails are cleared.
Somewhere during the wedding weekend, though, somebody will need to borrow a pair of socks. Maybe a tie or spare pair of shorts, too. But one thing’s for sure. No one will need to borrow hoop shoes. They’re the first thing that goes into the bag.
Tom Hoban resides in Everett, Washington. He is married with three children and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org