In last week's sunshine, I played basketball for the first time in ages - under the shadow, it should be said, of Trellick Tower. ("Beautiful building, isn't it?"I said to one of the boys. "Grim, more like," he answered.) Occasionally, one of the kids called out for the time. Nobody was wearing a watch. Nobody wanted to go in, though dinner was waiting, and a little dusk of anxiety had settled with the sun: it was getting cold. The joy of it struck me only as I was leaving, in the summer twilight, for my dinner. Lines of verse had come into my head, as they used to, in my playing days - to keep the mind busy and out of the way. I grew conscious of them only on my bike ride home: in city parks, the freelance fathers wander . . .
These refrains tended to grow out of the scene at hand. Once, during training camp in Slovakia, my foot broke through the toe of my basketball boot. For the rest of the tour, I had to play in mismatched shoes. This included my first professional game, against a team from Myjava: the whole town came out to watch, bought chocolate and cigarettes at a table outside the entrance, and smoked and ate and gossiped till it was over. "Woke up this morning," it was a line from Langston Hughes, "shoes mismated; Lordy mercy, I's frustrated." I came off the bench for five minutes, and was astounded: shipwrecked, almost, by the speed of play. I ran around breathlessly, missed a shot; ran around some more, and made one. As I sat down, the scene cleared again; and the terrible preceding flux froze into two moments: I was one for two. We lost.
A few months later, sick of the sport, I began bringing books into the locker room before each game. Though I denied it at the time, it was a little act of protest. Against what, I'm not sure: the sanctimony of athletes? The morality of sport which is founded on the fairly silly premise that games matter, test character, are scenes of virtue and courage? I played for Landshut, a small-town team in Bavaria. My last official match was against Freiburg for a place in the next round of the cup. By this point, I was on the bench, but injuries forced the coach to call on me at the end of a tight game.
We were down by one with a minute to go, and the point guard ran a play designed to get a shot in the corner for one of the wings. I was one of the wings. The ball came to me, and I did, as calmly as I ever have, just what I was supposed to do: bent my legs into the shot, followed through on the release, and watched it (the line was true) bounce off the inside of the rim and out. The moment had inspired me with a half-drop of adrenalin above the recommended dose. That's what I missed by. By the time I stepped out of the shower, a bit of Larkin was running through my head: "Watching the shied core/Striking the basket, skidding across the floor . . ." Larkin is, in his way, one of the great poets of basketball. On the six-hour journey back to Landshut, in the quiet of a losing bus, I had time to remember the rest of the poem: "Shows less and less of luck, and more and more/Of failure spreading back up the arm . . ." By the time we reached home, I had decided to quit. I prefer the kind of mistakes that can be edited.
I thought of these things last Saturday during the FA Cup final. Of the terror of sport - that a moment, presented in a heartbeat, can define a match, a year, a career, before anything like intention or courage can be brought to bear on it. The awful slipping sense one has, watching a nudged cup fall to the ground, before the hand can reach it: that is what losing feels like. Football might just be the cruellest of sports: the moments are so few, so rarely repeated, so easily snatched at.
Steven Gerrard, as he fought off cramps in the 90th minute, saw the ball coming to him and caught it perfectly. There was a divinity that shaped his end, and 30 yards later it was in the back of the net. Marlon Harewood, in the last minute of extra time, saw it and didn't. The ball dribbled off his ankle and out of bounds. In the after-vacancy, no doubt, he wondered at himself like a man betrayed.
Hunter Davies is away