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Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light

It was 1995 and my life had gotten kind of wacky.  

The company I was working for was headed toward bankruptcy. So instead of waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, I found a new job that fit my skill set well, but required constant travel from my home in St. Louis to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Jackson, Miss. and other points south.

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It was a fairly isolated existence, which some folks handle well, but not me, as I am basically a social creature at heart. Losing a collective work environment was definitely not the most healthy thing for my psyche.

And then out of the blue, I found the pickup basketball game at the Jewish Community Center on Schuetz Road.

I don’t even remember how, or if someone in particular told me (if you’re reading this and remember, let me know!).  But I found myself there Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays on as regular basis as I could muster amidst business travel, young kids and life.  

It was mostly guys, with a couple gals thrown in for good measure. Most had some sort of sports background, high school or intramural or the like. A bunch were fine athletes, others like me, not so much. 

There was Michael, who to his recollection was in on the start of the game five years before, he of the weird but highly effective overhead hook that no one could stop.  John, the former college football player who was tough as nails, whose brother, Steve, would join us years later and give us a taste of what their brotherly driveway games must’ve been like.

There was Lauren, the fiddle player from my orchestra whose finger I bent back pretty badly during an inadvertent collision (and there must be such a thing as karma, as the same later happened to me).  And Frank, who was older than all of us at the time, who never saw a long-range shot he didn’t like.  Fortunately for Frank, once in a while they actually fell in.

It became a constant for me through several jobs, divorce, relationships, kids growing up and, well, through all the changes life brings.  It was a way to be rooted, connected to time and a constancy that defied all the other strange and random events along the way.

Over the years, folks have come, folks have gone. Strange Jerry, who elbowed everyone to smithereens and had the social skills of a telephone pole. Jimmy, who had a shot he pulled so far back over his head that you couldn’t block it despite his less than formidable height, and whose favorite war cry before a game was, “Let’s get these #$%#%$” (sorry, there is NO part of that word I could repeat in a family-friendly newspaper; you’ll have to use your imagination). 

On and on the years went and a solid core was cultivated, then ebbed and flowed with life. Alan, Doug, Bob, Burt, Henry, Rob, Carmen, Jim, Ron, Daryl, all sorts of Joes, other Mikes, and so forth (sorry guys, couldn’t get you all in!).  Carmen left town to move east. John’s brother Steve got a job that limited his playing time.  My son Aaron joined us for a couple years but didn’t find the particular kind of competition to his liking; the group didn’t always bend to accommodate different folks, and his experience wasn’t a positive one.

And the years had their share of physical casualties as well.  Jimmy passed away a decade ago, at a heartsickenly young age. Frank and Bob later too, at later stages of their lives. 

Mostly in the early years we didn’t get together a lot outside the game, though some were already friends from other places.  Eventually some started golfing together, but by and large the camaraderie began and ended on the hardwood and in the locker room.  It was a very guy kinda thing, to have this game that was on one level so important to our lives, on the other somehow dissociated from the other parts of our existence.

One exception to that, sadly, was when someone was ill or had passed, as when Jimmy was facing death or after Bob died. We’d pay respects to their memory and we might have a dinner in their honor.  

So when our buddy Doug’s mom passed away recently, eight of us (almost a minyan) joined him at the graveside service to let him know that we cared.  I didn’t know his mom, had never met her. It didn’t matter; it was about being there for someone who, in maybe a peculiar way, had been part of something that has been a part of me for all these years.

It isn’t a family really, and yet, in some ways, it is. We know each others’ tendencies, what sets each of us off, what we each enjoy most.  We miss it desperately when we’re injured – and yes, we’ve all been injured, at one time or another – and we relish our return. 

I’m 57 now, and physically not the same as the 40-year-old who began playing back in ‘95.  Nor did I know that my crazy career quilt would bring me to the very campus that has engaged me in this marvelous game for so many years. 

But I still get the same enjoyment, the same satisfaction of being connected to something that I know is important for my physical and emotional well being. Something that I know will, when I can no longer continue, in its absence make my life a bit less sweet. And for that I give thanks to all the great friends I’ve made on the basketball court at the JCC.