Sports community: When we started playing, I forgot about the virus. It was absolutely exciting

The last time I played basketball was in mid-March. My teammates and I – I’ve played basketball every week with the same group of guys for over 10 years now – laughed about the coronavirus. We stopped shaking hands but we weren’t socially distanced. Some made “joke coughs” and there was a general feeling that this pandemic wasn’t going to affect us.

By the following week, basketball had stopped all around the world and we were all on Zoom calls wondering just what in the hell was happening. No one was laughing then.

Personally, I’ve never gone this long without playing since I was 10

Something that had been such an integral part of our lives – we depended on basketball for physical fitness and social connectedness – had disappeared. For months, there was only The Last Dance to satisfy our love of the game. But all the Michael Jordan documentary really did was remind us of how much we were missing basketball. Personally, I’ve never gone this long without playing since I was 10.

Without basketball and the gym, my physical fitness regimen descended into daily panicked, paranoid outdoor runs. I’d jog out feeling like everyone was staring at me, like I had the coronavirus. Then I’d do 100 push-ups! Soon those runs became shorter and less frequent, 100 push-ups turned into 20. I also started eating like a bear entering hibernation – a bear that also drinks lots of wine because nothing matters anymore.

I had to grapple with the idea that my basketball-playing days could be over

Though I have been playing basketball for over three decades, I’m not sure how many years I have left in me. I’ve got hip pain, shin pain, weak ankles, tennis elbow (ironically), shoulder impingement, a flat neck, ham foot, lopsided buttocks, “talking ear” and droopy knees. So I had to grapple with the idea that my basketball-playing days could be over. I would have to finally hang up the sneakers and shorts, the leggings and sweatbands, the knee braces, shin braces, goggles, extra-cushioned socks, high-performance underwear, pre-game robe, post-game beer helmet, dry-fit cummerbund, tuxedo shorts, sweat blazer and all the rest of it.

The reopening of gyms on 13 June helped, but I was never going to feel 100% until basketball came back. Then, on 1 July, community sport returned to New South Wales.

Community transmission of the virus was almost non-existent. It seemed like everyone who had Covid-19 was known and in quarantine. It was finally safe to play. We were going to figure out how to live with the virus, like a couple of roommates that hate each other – but no one’s giving up the apartment because of the incredible harbour views.

Then the call came. A full court, five-on-five basketball session had been organised for 12 July.

When I got to the venue and stepped on the court, it was clear what had been missing from our lives

There would be 15 of us, responsible adults who could be trusted not to have been to Victoria or a Trump rally recently.

But as much as I trusted this group of people, I still had a lot of anxiety about how this was going to go. Luckily, Basketball Australia had put forth a set of rules focused on “keeping the basketball family safe and healthy” while “aligning with state and federal government restrictions”.

Some of the rules were practical – don’t hang out with people who have Covid-19, provide your name and number for contact tracing, don’t show up sick, wash your hands before and after playing, avoid touching your face, don’t share water bottles, no showers or water fountain at the venue – and easy enough to comply with. I haven’t touched my face outside my home in months and I probably never will again.

A little less intuitive are the rules for official comps. For example: “Games should not be started with a jump ball. Instead toss a coin or use ‘rock, paper, scissor’ to determine which team will have first possession.”

Um … what?

I don’t mind rock, paper, scissor, but what do they think is going to be happening during this game? There’s going to be a lot of jumping around for a ball. In fact, that’s all you do. Run and jump with the ball.

Referees are being instructed to “only use the whistle when necessary”. “No long hard blows.” I’m all for that. No one likes a referee that’s blowing on his whistle all game. Let the people play! Unless I get fouled, of course, in which case I want those referees to blow on those whistles. Long and hard.

Spectators are limited to one per player, which is a real shame because I normally require an entourage of 30 to 40 people to watch me play my exquisite, jazz-like brand of slow, below the rim basketball.

But we were just playing casual ball on 12 July, which started like most days lately – with terrifying news. They were talking about clusters again. Clusters!

I hadn’t felt that good since before lockdown

When I got to the venue and stepped on the court, I was greeted by friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. There were elbow taps all around and a palpable excitement – it was clear what had been missing from our lives.

When we started playing, I forgot all about the coronavirus. It was absolutely thrilling. First of all, I didn’t get hurt. I had been terrified that the sudden physical exertion would result in a pulled hamstring, a yanked quadricep, a whipped shin, a tugged calf. But my body held up and I played OK – we all did. There was some joking around, some gentle gamesmanship, some basketball banter and just an incredible amount of fun.

Afterwards, I rode the kind of exhaustion high that only the mental and physical exertion of basketball provides. I hadn’t felt that good since before lockdown. And it was a beautiful day. There were more people out than usual, enjoying the sunshine and the easing restrictions. It felt like we were on our way to living a relatively normal life.

Since then, there have been more clusters. The premier doesn’t want us singing, dancing or mingling at large events. The precarious reality of the situation is that despite our productive initial efforts, Australia is constantly teetering on the precipice of lockdown and more restrictions, government-mandated or not.

So maybe whack-a-mole is our new normal – spotting clusters, ramping up testing and tracing, shutting down affected businesses. But can we live this way? Is this safe?

I don’t know, but it might be the best we can hope for given our current situation. A morning of carefree basketball has already turned into a distant memory; some fever dream of the pre-apocalypse and how things used to be.

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