And that was it. I was in the fifth grade, and our team had just been eliminated from the 4th — 5th grade playoffs in Princeton's local basketball league. With my duffle bag hanging heavily from my shoulder and my feet dragging across the floor of Dillon Gym, I followed my mom outside. At least, when you lose in youth sports — you get the consolation prize of a play date with your friends.
As we approached the front of the gym, however, a riveting playoff game in the 6th — 7th grade league was still going on. A very tall (as far as twelve-year olds go), 5’11” kid was standing at the foul line. His team was down by three at the end of the first overtime, but he had just been fouled on a missed buzzer beater three-point shot, leaving him with a chance to send the game into another overtime. This was the kind of stuff that basketball dreams were made of.
With the same expressionless, but focused, stare you might find on Tim Duncan, this kid took one dribble, a short breath, and sunk his first shot with ease. Some of the kids watching smiled and looked around at their friends, nodding to one another. The second shot was a little slower. Two or three dribbles. A deep breath. He shoots. Rim. A couple bounces. Everyone holds their breath. Two for two.
A few more people had gathered around by this point. Tim Duncan stood there, sizing up the basket for a long moment. Another breath. His final dribble. His hands slid into a shooting grip. The final free throw of a second chance. Swish. Everyone went wild — their cheers echoing through the expanse of good old Dillon gym.
The Dillon Youth Basketball League gave me, and the friends I grew up with, some truly phenomenal memories in this place. We would try all kinds of moves in Dillon; One-on-One Matchups for Hail Mary Threes, Coast to Coast Drives, Reverse Lay Ups — if you can name it, we did it all. Any and every kind of “crazy shot" has been attempted (although perhaps not fully completed) during the Saturday morning games for kids between 5th and 9th grade, coached and managed by Princeton University student coaches.
At Dillon, kids were allowed to play basketball the way they wanted to — which was boldly. The atmosphere was so energetic and entertaining, that we often weren't overcome with a bad case of the nerves — the fear of failure — that can plague youth tournaments when the environment is too serious. As I recall, we would still practice as a team and work on our skills, but the undergraduate coaches would give us kids just enough freedom to really spread our wings and shine (or at least believe that we could). It was here in this place, in Dillon Gym, where I grew to really like basketball and where I first met a lot of other kids living in Princeton.
As I got older, the significance of this space changed for me. When I was in high school, the YMCA in Princeton closed down temporarily for repairs and they struck a deal with the University so that their members could play at Dillon. Sometimes I’d join pick-up games with football players, but I was pretty obnoxious and competitive and probably bugged them more than I enjoyed playing the game. I would often times look over at the pick-up games played by college students, who seemed to have the same passion for basketball, the same creativity in their play, as we did when we were kids playing in the Saturday league at the gym.
Now that I go to school here, Dillon has become a safe haven. When problem sets and papers feel like a weight on my shoulder — I can shrug that feeling off for thirty minutes by heading over to Dillon to catch a pick-up game.
I've realized that it's not just 12-year-old kids or college students who come to Dillon, but also professors, graduate students, faculty, and anyone who understands that there is something truly magical about the daring, competitive, unadulterated love for the game.