This might be a serious game and all, but there's no getting around it -- some big bellies are on the floor.
"Skins got too many fat guys," says one courtside critic, slumped on a bench at the downtown YMCA. "You've got big fat Jim and big fat Dave trying to do the scoop. Looks like you're carrying a baby out there, Dave. You can't get that baby out of the way, much less make the shot. Come on, skins. Can't win with so many fat guys out there!"
How true. But it's also true that some of these players have been coming to this gym for thirty years. Every weekday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., they bring their big bellies, blown ankles, blown knees and blown layups to the dingy court, where they battle players half their age.
"Damn man. Foul!"
"This ain't hack-a-Shaq!"
It ain't what it used to be, either. Not so long ago, Denver's premier hoopsters laced up their Jordans at the downtown Y. It wasn't uncommon to find a former Bronco posting up a former Nugget going baseline on a former University of Colorado player.
But a fee increase, competition from other gyms and Father Time put an end to that. "Now it's basically a bunch of old dudes who have been here since I was a kid," says one younger, slimmer player. "But it's a decent game."
"I'd give it a B," says another.
"More like a B minus," says a third.
If Jon Bowman, the Y's volunteer basketball activities director, has anything to say about it, though, the game is about to change. Bowman, who has a modest midsection of his own, recently launched a three-on-three Thursday game to lure leapers into the gym. With a quicker game (the first one to ten wins), a league structure (round robin) and balanced team competition (players are matched according to size), Bowman hopes to create an intense competition that lets players polish their moves and work up a sweat.
"You have to work harder," Bowman says. "You can't hang back like you do with five-on-five and watch the younger guys run the break."
He should know: Bowman has been a lunchtime regular for the past fifteen years. And at age 51, he's been known to hang himself back on occasion.
"We call him math-challenged," says one of his middle-aged comrades. "We never let him keep score. The man will argue about anything."
He'll also talk your ear off. Bowman will talk about the similarities between basketball and marriage: "Basketball players make the best wives because they know when to pass, when to set a pick and when to shoot." He'll talk about his most prized possession: "My pair of red, black and green Clyde Frazier Pumas." He'll talk about trash talk: "It's only a problem if you can't back it up." And he'll talk about his basketball jones.
"I grew up in gyms," he says. "Literally. I was a gym rat before there were gym rats. I remember being so short and shooting so many baskets that my neck hurt, because the rim was too high."
He also remembers traveling from gym to gym with his dad, Henry, an Illinois Hall of Fame referee who officiated everything from wheelchair hoops to the 1960 Olympics before becoming the first black referee in the Big Ten Athletic Conference. "If you wanted to spend time with him, you went to the games," Bowman recalls. "On the way home, we'd analyze the games to keep each other awake. It was like a post-game breakdown without the film."
Back home, Bowman acted out his own highlight reel for kids in the neighborhood. "Our first hoop was a square milk crate held on the lowest hook on the telephone pole," he says. "There was no backboard, either, so everything had to go in straight. It was one of those deals where you played around the obstacles."
Bowman played well enough to make his high school team, but he traded in his Converse All Stars for a pair of baseball cleats after a year. In college, basketball took a backseat to baseball, football and tennis, but he always made time for a pick-up game of 21.
"Everyone played basketball," he says. "You played other sports, but you still played hoops. No matter how fat you were, how tall you were, how fast or how slow, everyone played. Where I grew up, that's just the way it was."
It was also a tradition for Bowman and his buddies to attend the renowned Rucker tournaments in New York City, where hoops gods like Julius Erving first polished their moves. "Anyone who was anyone went to the Rucker," Bowman explains. "People used to watch those games literally hanging on the chain-link fence."
Even after Bowman settled down, married and had a son and daughter, he still got in some pick-up games. "I took them with me," he says of his kids. "And now they're big-time gym rats."
Bowman also coached his son's parochial-school basketball team to a city championship. He coached his daughter's teams to city, state and national championships. He even played in Denver's early three-on-three tournaments, where his teams won six titles.
"It's a constant battle deciding where to put trophies in our house," he says.
Which brings him to the big bellies at the Downtown Y. Every big city has a marquee game. In Los Angeles, it's Venice Beach; in Chicago, it's Navy Pier. But in Denver, it's not clear who holds court today.
For a time, it was the 20th Street Gym, where pro athletes jockeyed with boxers, weightlifters and inner-city blacktop artists every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. "That was hardcore," Bowman recalls. "The court was short, the floors were slick, and there were no windows. That was a bruiser game. You didn't want to come weak in there."
There was also the Glendale "Cage," a court enclosed in chain-link fence that saw its share of epic street games. "It was too small for five-on-five, so players squared off for four-on-four," Bowman remembers. "And as soon as you stepped inside, it was the real deal."
But when the Cage's novelty wore off and the 20th Street Gym underwent a lengthy remodeling, serious hoopsters again straggled down to the Y. And there, on a court as dull and yellow as a pair of used dentures, they found regulars like Big John and his old-school game of running one-handers and set shots; Spinning Tom and his whirlwind moves to the baseline; Boston Dave, who played basketball like he played hockey -- hard; and seventy-year-old Jack and his dead-on jump shots.
"If you left him open, he'd make them," says Bowman of Jack. "And that was embarrassing, getting faced up by a seventy-year-old man."
But even Jack couldn't keep up with the flood of younger, faster players. "Some days you'd go in there and even the regulars would get intimidated, because the game would be above the rim," Bowman remembers. But then the Y increased its fees, 20th Street reopened and the good players scattered.
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Now Bowman wants to get them back. With the Thursday three-on-three tournament that debuted last week and a $5 visitor fee on the weekends, he plans to generate a buzz on the streets loud enough to attract Denver's best ballers.
"I don't see why it can't," Bowman says. "This is one of the oldest gyms in Denver. Let's bring the tradition back."
If the first day of the tournament was any indication, it's on its way. Although the games were rough and ragged, with plenty of hacks, dropped passes and airballs, no one complained. Especially Bowman, whose team went 4-0, thanks to his outside J. "I went out to the driveway last night and went back to basics," he says. "Got my eyes adjusted."
Even if the Y doesn't regain its edge, Bowman will continue to hit the court with the regulars, big bellies and all. Although they can't hit the scoop shot like they used to, they can still run with the players who can. And when lunchtime rolls around, that's enough.