Nothing But Nets In praise of hanging twine

Twine Enthusiasts: D.C. parks officials don’t go for metal.
Darrow Montgomery

Let the record show: Your city wants its basketball rims to have nets.

“If we hear that a net is needed, we will have one sent out within 48 hours,” says John Stokes, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. “We know this is important.”

Sure is.

Few sporting thrills are as timeless as the onomatopoeic “swish!” of a basketball through a netted hoop. And since no other team game translates so well to playing alone, that thrill remains available to old loners, long after the skills and the will to run full court or commune sweatily with others are lost.

But to make that special, thrilling sound, the hoop has to have a net.

Perhaps the greatest bit of sports charity I’ve ever heard about in this town came from Michael Halberstam. He was a surgeon and D.C. bon vivant—and a basketball nut.

His brother David was the more acclaimed basketball nut in the Halberstam family, having written Breaks of the Game, a fab chronicle of the Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s.

But Michael, who was murdered by a burglar in his Georgetown home in 1980, found a more profound way to prove his love: He always kept a supply of basketball nets and a ladder in the trunk of his car, and whenever he’d pass a city playground with a netless hoop, he’d pull over and put one up.

As Halberstam understood, so much of the joy of shooting hoops comes from the net. On naked rims, every would-be swish makes the same sound as an airball. And, since it’s often visually hard to tell what you’ve witnessed, the effect is sort of like watching Jeopardy with the sound off so you can’t hear the answers: Even when you know you got it, you don’t know if you got it.

And, simply, you can’t shriek “Nothing but net!” if there ain’t one. (“Nothing but nothing!” does nothing for the soul.)

Basketball nets have been around almost as long as the game itself. James Naismith invented the game in 1891 in Springfield, Mass.

At first, players shot into peach crates that Naismith had hung at a height of 10 feet on the walls of his gym.

The height stayed the same, the wooden basket didn’t: Naismith had the foresight to know that “Nothing but crate!” would never bring shooters back to the court for more.

Hoops historians know that sometime before 1896, the inventor went with a metal rim and a rope net.

Naismith’s original nets, however, didn’t have a hole at the bottom for the basketball to fall through. That meant players had to stop the game after each made shot to dislodge the ball with a pole. But by the end of the 19th century, basketball nets came with escape holes cut in them.

And nobody’s come up with a better mousetrap than the twine.

There have been some attempts to replace the string, however.

“They used chains here when I was growing up,” says Howard Marshall, who says he spent most of his childhood on D.C. playgrounds and now runs the Petworth Rec Center.

Marshall keeps a metal net in his office to remind himself of the old days.

The metallic version does have some advantages over twine, especially in urban, high-hoop traffic settings. They are more durable and less susceptible to the elements or vandalism.

Some jurisdictions still do go with the metal. Not D.C., however.

“They won’t let us use them anymore because kids got their hands cut up,” says Marshall.

Good thing. The metal nets are nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as the rope. The shooter gets the same “Clang!” response from the chain net whether he or she’s bricked one off the rim or gotten nothing but chain. (Though, to be fair, Marv Albert could certainly work with “Nothing but chain!” if he had to.)

Marshall says he and other rec center directors have used other means to keep his rims in shape for shooters. Most D.C. parks now use reinforced rims that, while not as vandalism-proof as breakaway

rims, are much harder to bend than their vintage counterparts.

And for a time, Marshall says, he made his rims harder to reach, too.

“We raised the hoops here up, up to about 11 feet for a while a few years ago,” Marshall says.

The Petworth courts went back to regulation height last year, in time for an official ceremony when the courts at Marshall’s park were outfitted with a new surface and lighting.

“The mayor was going to be here for the opening,” Marshall says. “We had to put them back to make it look good.”

Marshall says Mayor Adrian Fenty has shown his support in ways other than just showing up for ceremonies. He confirmed Stokes’ contention that the city’s rec department really does care about nets these days: Petworth Rec received a fresh supply of replacement nets from the agency in June, even though all four of its rims were fully dressed.

Alas, not all of the city’s rims are in swish-friendly shape.

I’ve been taking stock of the state of hoops in the city in recent months, and, though my research has been wholly unscientific and concentrated in Northwest, I’ve found that courts controlled by the rec department are almost all netted.

Those on school playgrounds, however, are very likely to have no nets.

“We don’t have anything to do with the schools,” says Stokes.

Whoever’s in charge of the school courts has dropped the ball. I often drive by a school playground off Kansas and Missouri Avenues NW that has four backboards, three rims, and no nets.

The hoop closest to my house, at the Clark Elementary School playground in Petworth, was without a net for at least a year. But a few weeks ago, after the school had let out for the summer, I noticed that somebody had hung a red, white, and blue net there.

The Clark court, after a long period of being ignored by the locals, is being used again. And somewhere, Michael Halberstam must be smiling.

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Nets aren't the only thing missing at DC playgrounds.
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