Various schoolyard cliques have become stereotypes for a reason. Most schools have their jocks, their plastics, their disenchanted emos and their wallflowers. There is one group, though, who are far less celebrated by Hollywood or recognised by their peers and teachers.
At most high schools across Australia, there is a small group of boys who inhabit an asphalt basketball court at recess and lunchtime. They are a relatively quiet collection of misfits: rarely the greatest students, and yet certainly not misbehaving tyrants.
For a bunch of guys who rarely keep score, there is a relatively nerdy – if not downright persnickety – approach to the rules as they engage in the sport. Disagreements over rare violations can carry on long after the bell has ended play, with cases for the affirmative and negative taken up and loud, obscene rebuttals made on vital topics such as what defines a foot violation. Often, a player who earns some cash on the weekend by refereeing the games of superior teenage players attempts to pull rank in such a debate. This is often received about as well as when any teenager attempts to pull rank over their peers, but such a response won’t dissuade the same guy from responding the same way the following week when a debate over the intricacies of the three-seconds rule is well underway.
Despite this approach, there is a genuine, beautifully childlike freedom within their games. While almost all of their peers have removed themselves from such carefree exercise, this group aren’t nearly as concerned by serious, competitive sport or issues of self-image brought upon by worries of potential failure. They still maintain purity in their sense of play.
The more elite basketballers at their school almost never engage with this group. Ironically, there are far more frivolous things for those kids to enjoy at lunchtime than concerning themselves with their crossover or their jump shot. As adults, these junior stars will look back fondly at their time playing basketball and remember it as one of the greatest ways in which they were able to develop, maintain and enjoy adolescent camaraderie and friendship. While they are teenagers, though, the game doesn’t feature in what they regard to be their true leisure time. For the moment, sport is too important a way for them to separate themselves – this time, from others who aren’t engaged with basketball at the same competitive level.
Regardless, the play continues easily, better served by the lack of any more competitive presence or players frustrated as they try to master technique and style. Lay-ups are often missed, but making an uncontested 15-footer can be a feat worthy of an uninhibited, two-fisted air-bound celebration.
Watching these kids play reminds one of just how unnatural some athletic movements actually are. To see a teenager who is still growing into his body attempt to arc a ball through the air in imitation of the greatest proponents of the jump shot only serves to emphasise just how many different joints of the body are involved in the one act. And yet, it also proves that a ball can actually be flung through a basket in endless ways with any number of a shooter’s joints not matching the diagram in the Textbook of Graceful Basketball.
Of course, the bell rarely calls a halt to the game as if it’s a definitively final siren. Instead, no-one breaks stride until either (1) the teacher on duty has walked into the middle of the play, or (2) the first of the players decides that they will be noticeably late to class if they don’t cease playing. The latter often leads to a brief moment of 3-on-3 or 2-on-2 if those remaining know that their next teacher won’t be concerned or will be late to class themselves.
Throughout their breaks, these boys exhibit as pure a love of a game as can be seen anywhere in Australia. Some allow themselves to be enveloped by the sport, falling over themselves in search of every scrap of NBA news they can find, however a great number of them wouldn’t know if Kevin Durant was a basketballer or a footballer, a musician or a politician.
Every lunchtime, the troubles and seriousness of the world can wait. For that short time each day, at least, this group of misfits are just kids who still allow themselves to revel in the joy of playing a game. Together.