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Railroad Tracks by Randy Snow

The distant sound of a train whistle conjured thoughts of the railroad tracks — the geographic divider that has forever symbolized racial separation not only in this town but in so many others around America. Almost like a discrimination decree, the “tracks” whisper, “Hey, cross this line and you are no longer with people like you. Better to stay apart.”

Basketball is a team sport that minimizes differences and places a premium on the utilization of group assets. Team success depends on the contributions of each individual. Dimensions like skin color or socio-economic undulations are de-emphasized because quite frankly, they have nothing to do with what it takes to win the game.

Near Gill Park there is a basketball court that is bathed at night by the lights that once illuminated city tennis courts. Almost every evening one can find a handful of young adults there playing basketball with a passion. They are there, all shapes and sizes, skin colors and yes, genders, having fun and willing to trade their pride for something much more valuable – self respect.

Each evening as darkness chases away the daylight, they drift in like exotic animals arriving at a Serengeti watering hole. There are slang greetings with casual fist-to-fist bumps, furtive yet conscientious eye contacts and affirmations that their days went as well as could be expected. Too young to share an older man’s need to stretch, they introduce themselves to the court with personalized struts and signature moves and shots, and then they play basketball. Each game is beautiful because at that moment there is no division, no winners or losers, everyone is equal. The losers never have to lament too long nor does the gloat of the winners last because at the park, as in life, there is always another game.

Unlike a township that must enforce its laws, on this court there’s no need for outside authority, no referee, because they play by a code, an unwritten law that guides the group. It’s an honor system where if a player feels he has been wronged he has the right to defend himself and ask for compensation, a free throw or ball out. The check and balance of the code is ideal because it’s the same individual currency they’re all there for, which is respect. No one abuses the legal system because if you do, you may lose your respect. This is the worst thing that could happen.

Now don’t be fooled, nirvana the court is not. Occasionally there is conflict, passionate arguments and sometimes meanness, which includes the usual trash talking and vociferous defenses. What up dog, you out of line, you crazy, not today dog, get that weak jelly out of here. But even with some of the confrontations that seem explosively abject, eventually the code prevails, division washes away and respect creeps back in.

Then, another lonely cry of a train whistle, but this time there is a need to embrace the code of the kids that play at Gill Park and tear up any lingering mental railroad tracks. With a little more tolerance and respect, we can continue to grow and work together. But to respect another, one must respect oneself — we cannot give away what we do not have.