What A Mother Learned From A Game Of HORSE During The Pandemic

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During social distancing, reporter Judith Kogan and one of her sons, Matthew, played a game of HORSE. (Judith Kogan)
Reporter Judith Kogan and her son Matthew recently played a game of HORSE. (Judith Kogan)

One way to track the coronavirus timeline is by demand for goods and the difficulty of finding them. First it was hand sanitizer, then toilet paper, then yeast and flour, then hair dye.

Now, it’s near impossible to buy a portable basketball hoop. The kind you put in a driveway, pouring sand or water into the base for stability.

True confession here: This is no catastrophe for me. I’m 5-foot-1 and kind of a slug. Tiddlywinks is more my speed. But some years back, as the mother of three sports-obsessed teenage boys, I started shooting hoops with them in a confined concrete space just outside our backdoor. It was thrilling to connect in their zone.

Judith and her sons. (Courtesy Judith Kogan)
Judith and her sons, including Matthew (with the red curly hair). (Courtesy Judith Kogan)

One of those sons, Matthew, now a 30-year-old graphic designer in New York City, has come to quarantine with me in suburban Boston.

Back in New York, he plays basketball every single day.

"I work freelance. I work for myself, so I work alone all day," Matthew says. "So going for the 3 o'clock basketball game at the gym is my one reason to leave the house."

Matthew and I get along fine, but he’s going stir crazy. The house I moved to after my sons left home lacks a basketball hoop, and Matthew is in basketball withdrawal. So we consult the internet about purchasing a portable hoop.

Reasonable ones can be found where expected: Amazon, Target, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods. By reasonable, I mean $250 or $300. But there are zero available for pickup within 100 miles of Boston. There are places that will ship, but there’s always the caveat. It’ll ship in two months. The shipping cost is equal to the cost of the item itself.


"You can’t practice baseball alone. You can’t really practice soccer alone," Matthew says. "But you can just shoot jump shots all day long. And you can get that little endorphin rush every time you see the ball go through the nylon."

We are allowed to walk. And walk we do. One walk took Matthew to a shuttered school, where he noticed an open basketball hoop. It was either an invitation to play, or a setup for a sting operation.

"I’ve been feeling real antsy in quarantine, and I figured I’d take my chances," Matthew says.

The sound of the ball echoes within a hundred yards of the hoop. If anyone’s around, we’re toast.

"It might be a short-lived basketball session. Much-anticipated, though," Matthew says.

The ground is uneven and cracked — weeds here, mud there. The backboard is plywood that’s been painted white, bolted onto drainage pipes. And the hoop seems higher than 10 feet. Who cares? It’s all part of the charm.

I take a turn.

"Nothin’ but rim," Matthew says.

Matthew suggests we play a game of HORSE and reminds me how it goes. One person makes a shot. If successful, the other has to successfully make the same shot, or gets a letter. H-O-R-S-E. The first one to complete the shameful word loses.

Matthew goes first.

"Showing off with one hand!" I say.

I failed to take in the shot’s full difficulty.

"Left hand, too!" he says.

I don’t subscribe to notions about birth order, but Matthew is a middle child, feisty and competitive. But when I get a basket, he seems genuinely excited.

"Look at you!" he says.

"Ready for the NBA," I say.

Matthew makes hard shots I cannot replicate.

"You gotta put a lot of mustard on this one," he says.

I take the shot and miss.

"Needed more mustard," I say. "Needed the strong, grainy stuff."

"More mustard!" he says.

Matthew has to constantly remind me of the rules:

"You only get a letter when you miss a shot that I hit," he says.

"Got it," I say.

But I don’t. He’ll need to remind me over and over.

I set up and make the next shot.

He gets an H. I wonder if he’s humoring me.

"It was either an invitation to play, or a setup for sting operation."

Judith Kogan

Matthew announces my losing score more often than I think necessary. I realize that playing basketball, Matthew is now adult and child, mentor and competitor, fantasist and realist. It’s the zone where the contradictory aspects of his personality get integrated.

"I like that you shoot from the same spot every time," he says.

This is mom strategy, sticking with a winning formula. While I’m getting free passes here and there, somehow, his game has gone south.

"Oh, man. All right, H-O-R to H-O-R-S," he says.

"Whaddya think?" I say.

"It’s getting close," he says. "We’re in the fourth quarter."

"Are you scared?"

"I am!"

He calls a difficult shot: "All right. From here, no backboard."

He makes it.

"Oh, that was sweet," I say.

"All right. She has to hit this to stay alive," Matthew says.

No backboard? That’s too many challenges for me. I shoot.

And then, I’m a dead HORSE.

A Certainty During A Time Of Uncertainty

In a way, we were playing different games. Endorphins flooded both our systems, but for different reasons. He’s building on 25 years of balletic twisting, turning and strategizing to hear the swish of the ball in the nylon. I’m rockin’ dormant maternal hormones.

Nonetheless, we’ve both won. And we’ve evaded capture.

"All right, let’s get out of here before the feds come," Matthew says.

He shoots a basket.

"At the buzzer!" he says.

The shot misses.

"Ahh," he sighs.

In the pandemic, nothing is certain — no timelines, no retail availability. What does seem clear, however, is that at least one guy’s passion can accommodate his mother’s jump shot.

And that opens up unimagined doors of confinement.

Only A Game would like to remind you to always maintain proper social distancing. And please consult local guidelines before playing sports outside.

This segment aired on May 9, 2020.


Judith Kogan Reporter
Judith Kogan was a contributor to Here & Now.



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