This Feature Earned a Notable Mention in the 2015 Best American Sports Writing Anthology
By: Jon Finkel
The foul line we sprayed on the driveway had faded long ago. The white box on our clear backboard had likewise vanished, but amazingly, nobody knew when. The hoop itself, once a gleaming announcement to the neighborhood that the Finkel boys had moved into town, probably only measured about 9 feet, 10 inches or 9-11 by this time. Its pole listed ever-so-slightly forward, giving the backboard and rim the appearance of an old man with hunched shoulders, like a giant Larry King looming over the driveway.
We moved into the house itself when I was 14 and my brother was 10, at the dawn of the dawn of our athletic primes.
There’s no need to know my dad’s age, as the only pertinent information there, athletically speaking, is that he had tremendous eye-hand coordination.
At one point he had a gifted arm, but that arm was attached to a pair of legs better suited to a golf swing or a pool table stance or a bowling stride, all sports my father excelled in. When the foul line was visible on the ground, we used to joke that he couldn’t jump over it.
He did have a sneaky sky hook on his basketball resume that, long before we moved to New Jersey, he would break out in one-on-one games on our old hoop at our old house in Boston. If I remember correctly, that shot was unstoppable. Then again, I was 11.
For my part, I was above-average athletically but average on the basketball court in every way. Let’s just say that during the high school basketball season, I was captain of the swim team. Occasionally, I could catch fire and hit some fadeaways, but my best on-court trait then, as now, is that I hustled and rarely called fouls.
My brother, Craig, was and is, the best basketball talent in our family. He started on his high school team for three years and, other than occasionally having trouble finishing around the basket — something my cousin Brian and I never tire of bringing up — is identified in pick-up games as “someone who can play.” If you play a lot of pick-up hoops, you know that’s about as big a compliment that one group of dudes will say about another dude.
While Craig and I have played, by my estimate, about 486,000 games of one-on-one, we reserved most of the stationary games like H-O-R-S-E. and Around the World for the two of us and our dad. I think we each learned how to play H-O-R-S-E before we were old enough to even put the letters in the right order. By the time we could spell the game, my dad’s plan had paid off: We were basketball junkies.
On the night the legend of the driveway was born, more than ten years after we put in the hoop, and almost 20 years after we first picked up a basketball, we were three grown men, with college in our rear-view mirrors and new lives in new places awaiting us.
Somewhere around my sophomore year of high school, my brother and I developed a shooting range that our dad couldn’t match anymore. I’m not saying we were always accurate launching our 30-foot jumpers with one hand or off one foot, and I’m not saying my dad couldn’t knock down your average driveway three, but we hit enough shots from enough of a distance that when it came to H-O-R-S-E with our dad at that time, we might as well have been throwing down reverse windmills. (Which we would have done with no remorse, if we could).
So we invented rules about what we could and couldn’t do (spinning lefty layups where you touch the bottom of the backboard were out) and we played within the confines of a certain distance. Of course, we pushed that to its limits and there were too many vague areas about what was considered “cheating,” which made the games less appealing.
Around the World became more popular on our driveway at that time, but, since the three of us are all ultra-competitive and always wanted to make all 12 shots of Around the World in a row, we almost never stayed put after a miss, ‘chancing’ it nearly every time. This would either lead to really short games, where one of us, usually my dad or brother, made it all the way around the world, or endless games where nobody ever made it and we eventually just stopped.
Out of these two developments, the game ‘To 50’ was born.
To 50 was simple, could be played quickly, eliminated every age, size, speed or strength advantage, and boiled basketball down to its very essence (its stationary essence, anyway).
First person to hit 50 foul shots wins. That’s it.
We’d pick a random order to start and there were only three rules:
1) Shoot until you miss.
2) You get last ups if someone gets to 50 before your last turn.
3) First to 50 wins.
After creating this game, it became the staple on the driveway for the three of us and a rotating cast of friends.
On its face, we loved To 50 because the game was a great equalizer, it never took too long and you could play it after knocking back three cheeseburgers at dinner. The real reason, however, was because it gave us a chance to beat our dad fair and square. The reason this reason mattered so much is because my dad, in no uncertain terms, is a ridiculously, frustratingly, insanely good foul shooter. Also, he never let us win at anything, which I am grateful for.
Ninety-nine percent of the time we challenged my dad to a game of To 50, the scene went like this:
My brother and I would be shooting around in the driveway, either just the two of us or with friends, while my dad, visible through the window in the house, would be sitting in his famous green La-Z-Boy watching the beginning of a Red Sox game or the end of a golf tournament or a Seinfeld episode. At some point, just before we were ready to head inside, one of us would go in and see if he wanted to play To 50.
At this point, my dad, or Big H, as we called him on the court, would get up and begin his schtick about how he hadn’t shot around in weeks, and how we were warmed up and young kids and how he was a little stiff from golfing or a long flight … but, yeah, sure, he’d play a quick game. Amazingly, this never got old.
His routine was so routine that many of our close friends at the time, Eddie or Brian, Chris or Matt, could do the same impression of him as my brother and me. All of them, also, were really good high school basketball players who couldn’t wait to take down my dad, if they could.
After a few minutes, my dad would appear in the garage and slip on a pair of well-worn Docksiders with no socks. That made what he was usually about to do more painful. He didn’t wear old Air Jordans or even a set of basic tennis shoes. His footwear of choice for shooting hoops was flat, no-frills boat shoes.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna do, guys,” he’d say. “I’ve been sitting on that recliner for a few hours and I haven’t touched a basketball in two weeks. You just want to embarrass an old man.”
He might throw another excuse or two in there, but it was all for show.
“You guys want me to start?” he’d then ask.
Depending on how we were feeling, we’d let him go first, or we’d make him wait to go last, like we were icing the kicker. Either way, it didn’t matter. Without taking a single dribble, he’d walk up to the foul line, set his feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, and start knocking down shot after shot with a gigantic grin on his face.
“Not one warm-up shot,” he’d say on his fifth or sixth or tenth shot in a row. “Just right from the recliner and boom, on a roll.”
Now, my brother and I and our friends were not just standing there, idly watching. One of the few wrinkles of To 50 was that you could pretty much do anything to distract the guy at the line short of touching him. Shouts were allowed. Random loud claps were encouraged — anything to break the shooter’s rhythm. My brother’s specialty was some sort of strange hex he’d put on the ball that took just long enough to be annoying. My specialty was passing the ball back after a make just a little off target, forcing the shooter to bend down to get it or even take a small step off the line.
None of this would matter to my dad. He would easily rattle off 15 or 20 shots at a clip. In the thousands of games we played during our 10-plus years in the house, I bet he averaged between four or five turns to hit fifty, with three turns not being too uncommon. I’m not saying he was Mark Price, but for our driveway in Bergen County, New Jersey, he was as close as we got.
My brother, who was also an excellent foul shooter, maybe won 25 percent of the games. For my part, I never won. Ever. My defeated streak in To 50 continues to this day. I am roughly 0 for 2,100 against my brother and my dad. I came close a few times, once, by deciding to dump every shot off the dead backboard, but a late 20-shot rally by my dad ended my dreams of victory.
The perfect game of To 50, as you can imagine, would be to hit 50 foul shots in a row on your first turn. That feat was our white whale, and it was something we all believed that we were capable of. Even me.
As for how close we’d gotten, I got into the twenties once or twice and my brother got well into the thirties a bunch of times. My dad could get into the 25 range with startling regularity on his first turn, but he usually missed his first shot somewhere around 30. He got to thirty five more times than I remember. Once a shooter hit 35 or so, all the foul shot distractions went by the wayside, almost like an entire dugout deciding not to talk to a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game.
Two summers before we moved, my dad got on a Larry Legend-esque tear, topping 40 twice in the span of a week. I was present for the first game, when he, uncharacteristically, hit only seven or eight shots on his first turn, only to come roaring back with a 42 or 43 shot performance on turn No. 2 to win it.
A week later, I wasn’t home, and my dad hit 44 straight while playing with my brother and one of our friends. When my brother told me, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that he didn’t get it. If someone was going to drain 50 straight, on my driveway, I had to be there. I took comfort in the fact that we had an endless amount of games left to play.
After that hot streak, neither my dad nor my brother got close to 40 again and the games became far less frequent. I graduated college and moved to Los Angeles and my brother was in school at Penn State. We were only home during decent weather for a week or so each summer. We played To 50 every night we could, using the time to catch up with each other. Still, it felt like we’d be playing on that driveway forever.
Two years later, my dad announced that he and my mom were selling the house and moving to Florida the summer after Craig graduated college.
My brother and I were both home for the last week in the house and at the end of the packing and the planning and the goodbyes, we found ourselves, the three of us, standing in the driveway, with just a ball and our old hoop.
We each sensed the moment leading up to our last game of To 50; not our last game ever, to be sure, but our last game in the house where we grew up, where the three of us grew together.
Secretly, I know we were all thinking the same thing, “I have to win the last game we ever play here.”
We decided to go in order of oldest to youngest, so my dad, as he’d done a million times before, stepped up to the foul line and got to work.
He knocked down his first ten in the course of our usual conversation, with nobody really paying attention. When he hit 20, my brother and I shared a look, but that was all. He continued to hex the ball and I, as I had always done, threw the ball at my dad’s feet and rolled it to him to make him bend down to get it.
When his 30th basket went into the hoop, I remember thinking, “What if tonight, on the last night, he does it?” Of course, I didn’t say this out loud, but from my brother’s expression, I could tell he was thinking the same thing.
33. 34. 35.
My dad, usually chatty throughout his runs, must have sensed that something was going on because he wanted the ball as soon as it went through the net. And by this time, that’s all the ball was hitting. No rim. No backboard. Every single shot dropped dead center into the net.
36. 37. 38. 39. 40.
At 40, my brother and I pretty much shut up. The only sounds were the ball bouncing and swishing and us rebounding and passing. We both stared at our dad, who was simultaneously in a zone and fighting a grin on his face.
41. 42. 43. 44. 45.
I’d like to say that I remembered exactly what I was feeling as his 45th straight shot went in, but the truth is, I kind of blanked out for a minute after 40. I was nervous for my dad — and for us. This was as close to an otherworldly experience as I’d ever had.
It was almost 8 p.m. The moving van was coming in 12 hours to take every single childhood memory out of this house in boxes. There was a 100 percent chance the three of us would never stand together under this hoop ever again. And yet, here was our dad, slaying our driveway dragon in his last opportunity.
I don’t remember basket 46 or 47 at all … But I remember 48. Basket number 48 nipped the front rim, shot over the back rim, caromed off the backboard, dinged the right side of the rim again and, with a bounce that hung in the air longer than an NBA playoff series, sank into the net.
It was as if the sound of the ball hitting the rim woke the three of us up from a trance. To that point, there had been no drama. My dad was a machine and hitting 50 in a row was inevitable.
Now, he stood just two baskets from the greatest, most clutch sports performance we’d ever witnessed.
“Two more,” Craig said.
“Two more,” I said.
“Give me the ball,” Big H said.
No hesitation. No nerves.
When my dad hit 50, none of us were sure what to do. We’d never been here before. At first, my dad raised his arms, and we raised our arms. Then my brother chimed in.
“I could hit 51 on my turn,” he said. “You gotta keep going.”
As improbable as it would have been, having both of them hit 50 on back to back turns, he was right. Just in case, my dad had to keep shooting.
“Fine,” he said.
51. 52. 53. 54.
At 54, my dad finally couldn’t fight his grin anymore and he let it fly, and we smiled too. We all realized the same thing at the same time: Right now, Big H was playing with house money. He had already passed 50. The pressure was off.
Numbers 54 through 60 were filled with laughter and a whole lot of talk about how amazing this whole evening was.
Numbers 60-65 were filled with talk of getting to 100.
Then, on number 68, the ball hit the back rim about a quarter-inch too high and bounced out over the front of the rim … and sank to the driveway.
It was the first miss we’d since in about 15 minutes.
My dad stood on the foul line, blinking, slowly realizing he was mortal once again. My brother and I let the ball bounce. 67 in a row.
On our last night in the house.
“That was like The Natural,” I said. “But real.”
“Oh my God,” my brother said.
“Wow,” my dad said.
As per the rules, my brother and I got to take our turns. I wanted more than anything to go on a final run and at least put up a memorable performance in my last game, even in the shadow of what we had just witnessed. I think I made four in a row. Maybe five. Craig, for his part, managed to hit 15 or 16 before missing. He doesn’t even remember.
And why should he?
In the final game of To 50 in our childhood home, our performances were mere undercards to the main event: the night the legend of the driveway was born.
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