Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997

Nothing's a greater social equalizer than pick-up basketball, found Jonathan Last, who packed up his hightops and his notebook and set off on a three-month, 48-state odyssey across "America's Courts."

O N    C A M P U S E S

Common Ground at Half Court
By Heather Byer (MA '96)
Illustration by Chris Burrell

On a muggy August night in the Coney Island projects, Jonathan Last '96 stared at a basketball court and thought the following things in the following order: What on earth could I have been thinking? What if I throw up? Boy, that guy's got a mean jumper.

But before Last, 22, could turn and run, one of the tough-looking African-American guys gathered around the court called over to him. He had a mouth full of gold teeth and only three fingers on his right hand. "You wanna play?" That was at 11 p.m. Three and a half hours later, the preppy white boy from Jersey was still playing and laughing and talking on the "dangerous" Coney Island courts. "This," Last remembers thinking, "sure beats med school."

The midnight hoops in Coney Island were among the first adventures on Last's 48-state, 95-day basketball odyssey. Shortly before his graduation from Hopkins last spring, he decided to indulge his passion for pick-up games by playing in every state in the continental United States.

Last's agenda was more serious than just improving his lay-ups. Although he never goes anywhere without a basketball and a pair of high-tops in the trunk of his car, he also never goes anywhere without his notebooks. A self-described political junkie with deeply held social concerns, Last decided he wanted to write a book about how Americans from different racial, ethnic, and regional backgrounds communicate with each other.

He believed that the way to find out what made the kid in Helena, Montana, tick, or what made the teenager from the Bronx laugh, was to find common ground, then probe from there. For Last, that common ground was, and always will be, basketball. So he named his project "America's Courts," convinced his high-school friend Ben Fischer (Syracuse '95) to join him, then hit the road.

Of course, Last had a little help with his decision when he didn't get into any of the 22 medical schools to which he'd applied (at a cost of $1,600). For a Hopkins biology major, this was the most apocalyptic scenario imaginable.

Rather than falling into a Generation-X malaise, Last decided to make his basketball and book-writing dreams come true. The tall, lanky, 20-something was earnest, but he wasn't stupid. This trip would cost money, and Last was already looking at a pile of student loans. Then the savvy idea came to him: sponsors. He began tenaciously knocking on doors. Fila, the European athletic footwear company that sponsors such basketball greats as Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons, was the first on board, with $1,000 and and all kinds of basketball gear. Pizza Hut followed as a secondary sponsor with free food in various cities.

With a population of 9,000, French Lick doesn't offer an awful lot to do, so pick-up games are frequent and can last until 3 a.m.
The Huck Finn wanna-bes set off from their hometown of Morristown, New Jersey, in Last's battered 1987 Dodge Caravelle on August 19. A few days after the Coney Island game, they cruised into the Midwest, making sure to stop in French Lick, Indiana, birthplace and current residence of Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. With a population of 9,000, French Lick doesn't offer an awful lot to do, so pick-up games are frequent and can last until 3 a.m. on any given night, Last discovered.

On the grassy half-court where they were playing, Last asked a local teenager what he liked to do for fun besides play basketball.

"Well, sometimes we'll go to the golf course and sneak up on the greenskeepers and scare the daylights out of 'em," the boy said with a grin.

What about girls? "We've known them all since we were little--who wants to date them? We'll just get married someday. Besides, you can't play basketball if you're dating." With that, the kid headed back to the game. Says Last with a chuckle, "Such is the wisdom of French Lick."

From Indiana the pair wound their way from the heartland through the mountains, arcing up to the Pacific Northwest, then down into California, which Last says was "by far the most bizarre state in the Union."

In San Francisco, Last played with a 55-year-old Socialist Party activist who was as fervent about his "zone" as he was about Marx.
In San Francisco, Last played basketball with a 55-year-old Socialist Party activist who was as fervent about his "zone" as he was about Marx. Further south, in Venice Beach, he got a little taste of Hollywood's influence when the man he was guarding called a time-out so he could show off his new publicity photos.

Two games later, another unusual time-out had to be called when a man in full cowboy regalia swaggered onto the court. Despite the California heat, the man sported dark blue jeans, a flannel shirt, a leather vest, gloves, boots, spurs, and of course, a cowboy hat, tilted at a rakish angle. "I'll play!" he yelled, drawing a lasso from out of nowhere and twirling it vigorously as he made a beeline for center court.

The other players just rolled their eyes, having been through this before. They coaxed "Cowboy Mike" off the court and resumed play, ignoring the threats of "I'll hog-tie you!" which he hurled at women coming out of the nearby public restroom.

As they began their trek home, Last and Fischer cruised through the desert, thinking of Old West movies and the excitement of Vegas. But when the duo did find some pick-up games in Nevada, they were nowhere near the dazzling lights of the casinos, but in the small desert suburbs that ringed the city. Last played mostly with Mexican-Americans, who were used to the puffs of dust that rose each time the ball hit the dry, sandy surface of the court.

"They weren't that good in terms of ability, but man, those kids knew the game," Last says. The Las Vegas hoopsters could recite the stats of every player in the NBA, were up on all the trades, and talked college ball as if they were coaches, Last recalls.

Wanting to make up some time, Last and Fischer hurried through the Southwest. There was a lengthy stretch where they drove over 500 miles each day, played basketball, then collapsed in their motel rooms. These long days were marked by some serious speeding on the highways. Once again it was basketball that saved them when they got nailed by a state trooper in Arizona.

The stern-faced officer clocked Last going 17 miles over the speed limit, but then grinned, and, staring at the logo emblazoned on the car, asked "So what's this with Fila?" Last told him about "America's Courts" and, wouldn't you know it, the officer was a huge basketball fan. He was fascinated with the project and kept them on the side of the road talking about it for a while. Then he wished them good luck and sent them off, never mentioning those dreaded words, "License and registration, please."

They continued southeast for several days, driving, eating, playing basketball and occasionally doing laundry, which, with the way they looked, was a lost cause. They plunged into the Deep South with gusto, knowing they were nearing the end of their journey.

From Mississippi they rumbled into Birmingham, Alabama, where Last found an outdoor court in the projects. Unlike the soaring, sinister, high-rise projects of New York City, these were duplexes, arranged in neat rows.

A young black man asked Last if he wanted to play. He said yes, and 10 other black men suddenly appeared and began to shoot hoops, choosing sides. Last and Fischer figured they'd have to wait for the next game, but they were beckoned over and placed on one of the teams. The group played only one game, then dispersed with very little talk.

A few of the guys lingered, so Last started a conversation. He soon learned that he and Fischer were the first white people these young men had ever seen at this playground, and that the group had been shooting for the "rights" to play with them.

"Yup, these are our new homeboys. That's John Stockton and Dan Majerle," one of the guys said, referring to the not- very-tall Caucasian guys who play with the Utah Jazz and the Washington Bullets, respectively. The comment drew muffled laughter and broke the ice. The group hung out for a while, asking tentative questions about one another's backgrounds and sharing a few jokes.

Last is back on familiar turf now. He recently moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job at The Weekly Standard and has already made a lot of progress on transforming his 151 single-spaced pages of notes into a manuscript.

He's just as optimistic about his future--and America's future-- as when he first began his journey last year.

"People get along better than we think, better than we're told," Last says. "There's a sense that America has lost its way, but I have an annoyingly cheery outlook about the country. I've had a lifelong love affair with basketball, but what I really have is a love affair with America. And this trip has only confirmed it."

Heather Byer is a 1996 master's graduate of The Writing Seminars.