It started with a book.
The first novel I wrote, entitled Free Throw, was a story of high school romance, friendship, coming of age, and, above all else basketball. Not so coincidentally, I spent an inordinate amount of time in those high school years playing basketball. Particularly when the snow melted, the rain stopped, and the temperatures exceeded 40 degrees, I spent a portion of most every day playing pickup games in driveways around the neighborhood or shooting hoops on my own at the local park. And then there were the games with high school friends--anywhere from a small handful to a dozen or so guys who would play at courts all across Greater Utica.
Tim caught word of my book and I told him the basics of the story. Months passed and I finished that pivotal first draft. Around that time, Tim asked me what had ever happened to Hoop Squad?
I asked him what the hell he was talking about, and he explained that he was referencing my novel and that he was certain it had been called Hoop Squad, and despite my insistence, that I, as the author, knew the name of my own book, he persisted--about equal parts thinking he was right and busting my balls.
In the days that followed, Tim would greet me not with a hello or by saying my name, but by yelling, “Hoop Squad!” Before long, I stopped being annoyed and responded in kind. Words spread among my friends until there were a good ten to fifteen knuckleheads wandering the halls of the high school, yelling Hoop Squad at each other, not bothering to offer context to any of our bewildered classmates or the faculty.
Things grew progressively more esoteric when we established special events like “Put Up or Shut Up” and “The Gamester C Invitational,” thinly veiled mimicries of the WWF pay per view branding a number of us were infatuated with, in which, in addition to shooting around and playing pickup games, we developed a card of one-on-one basketball games with different stipulations for the winners and losers. I, for example, won a game that forced my opponent to afterward try eating an egg salad sandwich (ladies and gentlemen, the stakes were high). Depending on your perspective, matters reached either their peak or nadir when a couple of the guys repurposed an old weightlifting belt as a WWF-style championship strap, dubbing it the Hoop Squad Title. I was proud to be the first of two people to hold the title before we all outgrew it.
In retrospect, most everything about The Hoop Squad was juvenile, derivative, overthought, or over-structured. But then, I suppose every bit of that is part of why I loved my old crew so much.
The group has splintered. The message board died out, and I rarely see the old crew anymore--lucky if I can catch more than one of them at once on a trip back home. Some of the guys are married. Some of us moved far away, while others more or less stayed put. Taking everything into consideration, we probably have less in common now than ever, and it’s only natural we’d fall out of touch.
But as far as I’m concerned, the best friendships in the world aren’t bound by common geography, life circumstances, or interests so much as they are by a bond. As a six-foot-tall, hundred-twenty-pound nerd with bushy black hair and a tendency to mumble, I met a band of guys who accepted me as one of their own, and who I was proud to contribute to by cracking my jokes, shooting my awkward hook shot, and, I like to think, offering a shoulder to lean on when they needed it. And though I haven’t seen half the guys for the better part of a decade, I have the sense we’ll always be there for one another should the need arise. The cry of two simple words down a hallway may have receded from our daily lives, but I don’t expect it will ever leave any one of us entirely.