Four years ago, on a sunny Friday morning, I met Lamar at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights. It was the park I mostly frequented when I went to play alone. (I spent the weekends playing with my friends at another park in the neighborhood.) I was in the middle of playing one-on-one with a teenage kid when Lamar and his cousin showed up.
It was a 90-degree day, and Lamar’s cousin was an exceedingly rotund individual, so instead of playing a game of two-on-two we decided a game of 21 would suffice. (The game of 21 is a game of every man for himself. First player to score 21 points and hit a three-point shot wins. Rules vary in different neighborhoods.)
Lamar was a bit taller than I was and extremely athletic. It was the first time I had ever played with or against him, and he was good — real good. Still, I could tell he didn’t play very often. My suspicions were confirmed later when we discovered we both lived near the park. I had never seen him playing or hanging out at Highbridge before, which was strange because he lived across the street. And most kids who lived across from the park always paid a visit.
President Obama once said you can tell a lot about a person’s characteristics and how they treat others based on how they play sports — sports reveal who a person truly is. Lamar was a friendly guy with a sense of humor. He was a fierce competitor, but he was fair. He played hard defense but if he fouled you, and you didn’t call ball, he would insist that you get the ball back. There weren’t any signs of gratuitous displays of superiority. He maintained a great balance of humility and ego. If he scored on you he’d give you a look that said, “I got you,” which was neither mean-spirited nor intimidating. If he got scored on, he’d give you your props on a good play.
We played about two or three games of 21 before the heat got the best of us. I remember giving daps to everyone, especially Lamar. As I gathered my stuff, I watched him and his cousin walking out of the park. I knew that if I saw him playing ball again it would be an anomaly, and I hoped that if I did see him I’d be there to play with him.
Once the weekend passed, I woke up on an early Monday morning to go play ball for a few hours. As I was approaching the park I noticed at the corner of my right eye a collection of posters with writing on them. I turned my head to look and I saw that it was a candle vigil. I initially kept walking, but then I stopped to walk back.
I skimmed through some lyrics written on one of the posters from “Lost One” by Jay Z, an ode to the people we’ve lost in our lives. It was followed by the inscription, R.I.P. Lamar. I saw the guy I had played against, smiling back at me, in a photo that was taped on one of the posters.
I knew Lamar for all of 90 minutes. Collectively, the words exchanged within the game might have amounted to a 10-minute conversation, and yet it felt like a ten year friendship. I didn’t know much about Lamar, except that we were the same age and we both lived in the neighborhood. After I spent some time reading the messages on the posters, I learned that many people loved and cared about him, and that he was a father.
Two years ago, I was in Highbridge packing my stuff up after playing a game. Before I left, I looked up and I saw Lamar’s cousin under the same court we played on two years earlier. I noticed that he was surrounded by a couple of kids. Sensing that one of them may have been Lamar’s child, a smile swept across my face.
At the time, I couldn’t grasp any profound significance to any of this. Truthfully, I still can’t. But I guess you can say that each day is a game, and each day we wake up to play. With age and perspective you may realize that life is seasonal — a finite amount of time in the vastness of the Great Mystery. There are only so many games one can play, making it possible for any game (or any day) to be your last. And so I leave the ball courts now with a greater appreciation for life.