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Breaking Into Gyms (to play ball)

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on October 18, 2011

Everyone must have a favorite story of when they broke into a gym to play. I did it hundreds of times. Let us know your best story!

Here’s one of mine:

When I was a kid, 10 or so years old, we lived about a 1/2 mile from Siena College, just outside Albany, NY. On Sunday mornings, starting around 6th or 7th grade, my brother Ed (2 years ahead of me in school) and I would walk (ostensibly) to church. We’d announce, “going to church”, open a window, throw out a ball, walk out the back door, circle around to where the ball was and off we’d go. Starting around this time, Gibbons Hall, Siena’s old gym (replete with bowling lanes in the basement) was our new place of worship. Mea culpa, mea culpa. (“In hoops we trust.”) Down the hill we’d dribble, over Fiddler’s Lane, across the parking lot to the backdoor at Gibbons Hall. That door was always open; the school laundry facilities were in there, some bowling balls, nothing that could be jeopardized by leaving it open. The moment of truth, however, came when we climbed the two flights of stairs to the gym door. Was it open? Usually yes; tragically, sometimes no. After a couple of Sunday mornings spent ballhandling an hour away (maxi culpa) in the parking lot, I got an idea. Next to the upstairs locked and bedeviling gym door was a flight of stairs that led to a balcony window “high above courtside“. Down below, at one end of the court was a stage (not unusual back in the day – I remember freshmen team games at Fordham at both LIU and Columbia that had stages, too). The Gibbons Hall stage had curtains, floor to gym ceiling, dark, velour. The curtains were within arms’ length reach of the balcony window. Out the window and over to the curtain would go little brother, me, shimmying down the fabric, soft-landing onto the stage and hustling over to the door where brother Ed would be pounding the ball on the floor, getting himself ready for our next, well-deserved game of one-on-one. (Sorry, Ed, but I was already kicking your butt!)


5 Responses to “Breaking Into Gyms (to play ball)”

  1. Arthur Russell said

    Hi, my name is Art. Sometimes I need a driveway. At the end of the narrow one on the side of the house in Brooklyn where I grew up, the concrete flared from ten feet wide to almost twenty at the garage door, and in that trapezoid, where the hose bib marked the foul line, and the drain cover waited to crazy your dribble, I learned what I knew about the game of basketball. I found, measured, cut and doubled up the plywood for the backboard that my father mounted on the dormer window above the electric garage door, and after the enamel white had dried, I bought and paid for the little can of orange paint and the roll of masking to make the shooter’s square above the rim. And then I had someplace to go before and again after dinner, to shoot baskets and let the world go dark, to have my mother switch the porch light on, and even Mrs. Eisenberg, the doctor’s wife, the porch light on her side. Because of the shape of that space, I had only rightly layups and only lefty hook shots. There was also a turnaround jumper available on the baseline from the irises that my mother had transplanted from my father’s mother’s garden in Glens Falls. And all of those foul shots from the hose bib. And that is the first rim I touched, and the place I dunked a tennis ball, and the locus of some of my best bloody noses.

    But then there was winter, and while Brooklyn has a milder climate than Boston, the snow comes often enough, and once or twice a year by dump truck delivery. Not too hard to broom it off, a lot of the time, but once, I remember, when there were three feet of snow down that alley, after I shoveled the walks and the porch, I cleared it all, down to the concrete from house to house, and piled it in the triangular flower bed to seven foot high (where it remained till May), and swept it and cleaned it, and then I played. And then the court was mine. The hard feel of the cold ball, the way it wouldn’t bounce right; my red fingers reaching into the banked snow to retrieve it, the ice crystals in the seams. The wool cap because my pained ears demanded it. The coat on the fence. The steam rising off my face. After that, the driveway was mine for life.

    My name is Art. Sometimes, I need a driveway.


  2. Stephen D. Bzomowski (nephew) said

    Among current and former basketball players, coaches, and high school friends, it was known at Kent Roosevelt High School that the middle door on the far side of the gym would burst open with a violent yank. Well known enough, that one wintery Saturday afternoon, a couple buddies and I snapped the frozen door open to find a few Roosevelt alumni playing a pick-up game. After being kicked/locked-out of the ‘Annex’ on Kent State’s campus, the ensuing pick-up game served as great cross-generational bonding and necessary cross-generational trash-talking.

    If you are continually denied access; locked doors, aggressive custodians, active alarms….and no wide open doors with a sign saying “Brand new gym this way” (as actually happened when my uncle, father, brother and I planned to connive our way into Guilderland High School’s new gym during a holiday gathering in the Albany area)….try the middle door on the far side.


  3. John Poplett said

    Our gym at tiny Marlboro college in tiny Marlboro, Vermont (the school that fellow perennial Lakeside camper Lloyd B. King and I attended) served double duty as an auditorium and a concert hall for the renowned Marlboro Music festival. I’m pretty sure I was aware at the time that the Music Festival had raised the money to start the school and that the school and all who attended were permanently in its debt.

    That didn’t stop me from despising them when year after year they would take down the hoops in the gym with reckless disregard for those who might like to play there on something other than an oboe. I think they had a misguided sense of aesthetics and probably played the “acoustics card” to justify the practice.

    I did what I believe any mechanically inclined, hoop loving youth would do: climbed up on a ladder, methodically unscrewed each and every lag bolt that held the backboard in place, doused each bolt in super glue and screwed them back in.

    Nobody was arrested and yes the statute of limitations has run its course.


  4. Sam Johnston said

    Hi, my name is Sam and sometimes I need a gym. This particular time I was a rookie coach for my kids YMCA rec. team. Some volunteer happy soccer Mom had found out that I played basketball and signed me up to coach a bunch of 7 year olds, my son and her son included. Overall, I guess it didn’t seem like too bad an idea, except that practices would really cut into my best nights for pickup games. A second minor problem was that I was the rookie coach, and (being the lowest on the gym space totem pole) the YMCA did not have gym space for my team to practice!

    The next best option was the gym at the elementary school that most of the kids attended. The school was a public school, but was an ‘alternative’ school, with a Native American focus. I was never really too sure if it was a good idea to send our kids to a school where there were no report cards or letter grades, just end of semester descriptive essays. But the teachers seemed sincere, and the school was just a few blocks away.

    So, I filled out the forms (lots of forms), and made an appointment to see The Principle. The Principle was very polite, and although he agreed that the school district had approved my request, he could not let me use the gym! Apparently, in the past a radical religious group had applied for and been granted the use of a classroom during the evenings and had had several unpleasant conflicts with school staff. From that time on, the governing body of the school had banned any religious group from using school facilities. The governing body included the Principle, PTA members, teachers, staff, school founders, and a representative of a local Native American Tribe.

    After some pleading and more going over permissions and more forms, the Principle finally agreed that nothing could prevent me from making a personal appeal at the next meeting of the school governing body, but he didn’t think it would do any good. The next meeting was only a few days away, so I organized all my forms and permissions, and wrote up an outline to present my case.

    I arrived early to the classroom where the meeting was to be held, but all the tables and chairs had been pushed aside to make space for a large rug in the center of the room. The attendees filtered in and sat down on the rug cross-legged in a large circle. Slowly it dawned on me that this was what my kids had described to me as a ‘talking circle’. It was a Native American way of airing concerns within a group. I took a place around the circle and waited for my turn. The meeting was controlled by way of an ornately carved ‘talking stick’.

    The stick was passed to each person in turn (always counter clockwise), and if they had anything to say, talked until they were talked out. No one else was allowed to speak until the stick was passed to them. Since I had taken a seat just to the right of where the stick started, I had to listen to every other person before I could speak. Some of the people around the circle had concerns about facilities (new coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge, tiles loose in the boys bathroom, etc.), some had news of school grant applications, some had complaints, and some just seemed to shoot the breeze. All of this took about two hours. Finally it was my turn. As sometimes happens in a game, I forgot everything I had planned. Like on a 3-on-2 fast break, when I know I should pull up at the top of the key to make the defense commit, so I can pass to the open cutter; instead I just blow on ahead and try to score with two defenders all over me. When I finally got the stick, I simply said “I want to use the gym Tuesdays and Thursdays for my 7 yr old YMCA basketball team.” Around the circle, I saw mostly blank stares and mildly curious looks, so I just passed the stick along.

    In these talking circles, the stick can, and usually does go around the circle more than once. So it started its journey around the group again. This time fewer people had anything to say, and to my surprise nobody mentioned the gym – until the stick got to the Tribal representative. She merely said “As long as anybody can play on the team it’s OK with me…” and she passed the stick along. When it came to me I said only “Thank You”. The meeting broke up shortly after that, and although I wasn’t really sure if I had been given permission or not, the next night was a practice night, and I told the custodian that I did have official approval, and he let us in. I didn’t actually receive formal permission until well into the season.
    Later it occurred to me that I probably could have just told the custodian I already had permission and he would have opened the gym to let us practice, but at the time, I was just a rookie coach.


  5. When I was living in Haiti we had very few options that weren’t hand-made approximations of a ring up in the air, with or without a wobbly tin backboard. As missionaries, we’d get a half-day off on Mondays, and hoopsters would gather from far and wide to the capital Port-au-Prince to get in a little American hoops (kicking around an inflated condom in the dust just didn’t address the homesickness very well). We’d regularly meet at an outdoor court with some local players lined up to play against the “Mormons”. The rims were a little low, but it made us feel good to be able to dunk a volleyball. The smell of diesel fumes and Champagne Cola still takes me back.

    Later when stationed In downtown Port-au-Prince, I found a huge, apparently abandoned facility. Wandered about I found it happened to have a full-size court with two working rims, not a bit bent out of shape. After a little sweeping of dust from the cement floor, we had a remarkably crack-free surface on which to fast break our legs wobbly. This became our new meeting place and we started getting guys (and girls) coming in from opposite ends of the country to get their hoops fix on.

    One week, upon finding the front doors closed up tight, we climbed up over the tin roofs of the first and second floors to reach an open window on the third. We climbed in over some guy sleeping in a cot (given room, most likely, in exchange for keeping an eye on the window).

    Eventually the place was opened up for use by a local school, and some of the guys decided to insult the new custodian of the bright, shiny, new padlocks (where a subtle bribe would have been more effective), leaving us nowhere to play that day. We eventually found the right authorities to ask permission, but it was a heck of a lot more fun sneaking in on Monday Mornings.


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