Not home games or away games, but homeless games

By Eric Albury |

How often do you pass a clothes-tattered homeless man and wonder about anything else but how he ended up on the streets or how he gets his food every day? Do you ever wonder about something more human to the rest of us? Perhaps his athletic abilities?

Until just a week ago, I would have to admit I hadn’t either.

On a Monday afternoon I decided that I needed to work on my basketball shooting form and accuracy. I put on my shorts, changed my shirt, laced up my Nikes and was on my way to Flagler Gymnasium. But then I thought to myself: What a beautiful day. Why am I going inside to play basketball?

So I changed course, and made my way to the outdoor courts a few blocks away.

Strangely, the courts were completely deserted. This was in no way a bad thing. I was here to practice, not to play. I get nervous when people watch me practice anyway. This would be a good day.

But I had no idea what was in store for me at the courts.

After about an hour of taking various jump shots, from the free throw line to mid-range jumpers and a few threes, I noticed a man who seemed to be a little older than me sitting on the low fence, watching me. He had cracked Aviator sunglasses, a torn polo shirt, shorts that he seemed to have trouble keeping on his waist and some tattered flip-flops.

I ignored him for a little while, but his awkward attention became too much for me to shrug off. I invited him to play with me because I figured this would be better than having his stare boring through me. He smiled, stood up and started walking towards me.

The wind must have shifted or something at that moment. That’s when I knew that my assumption about him was right. It was undeniable. He smelled like trash.

The man was homeless.

We played for about 45 minutes, just playing “21” and shooting around. We rarely spoke, except for the occasional “good shot” or asking each other what the score was. But talking didn’t matter; we were just playing the game.

It wasn’t too often that he made a shot, partly because he could barely keep his shorts on, literally.

“Hey man, want me to run home and grab you a belt?” I poked at him. But he only laughed at himself, just having a grand old time playing basketball with a college student.

Granted, he was terrible, but I walked away feeling great, and not because I beat him. And honestly, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that I feel that he felt great, too. Somebody paid attention to him and even played basketball with him. How many times do you hear about something like that?

Most people are freaked out when I tell this story. “Weren’t you scared?” “Did he ask for money?” “Why would you play basketball with a homeless guy?” are some of the questions I get. To me, these questions are stereotypical, close-minded and prejudiced. The homeless are no different than you and me. Humans.

Maybe this homeless guy was looking for a little acceptance, something more than a handout or sympathy. Just a regular man, looking to play a little basketball and make a friend.

By no means am I a homeless activist, but I have been utterly floored by others’ inhumane views of those less fortunate. I see no reason to treat them any differently than anyone else.

Yes, some are in this situation because of their own mistakes. But how can you know that for sure? Hasn’t everyone made mistakes in the past? Yet we don’t want to be perceived as different or lesser than others. Therefore, we are in no position to place individuals into classes.

I’m just as guilty as everyone else sometimes, but I really feel that my view of people – at least the homeless – has been completely changed. Even though I don’t know this guy’s story, I feel like I know him a whole lot better than the majority of other people he comes in contact with. He didn’t ask for handouts. He just wanted a friendly game, someone to keep him company. Everybody deserves at least that, no matter what their situation.

After we played, he thanked me and asked if I came there often. I said yes and hoped to see him at the court again sometime. He smiled and walked away, pulling up his shorts every few steps along the way.

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