If Only the Romans Had Played Basketball

Sunday afternoon in January,
and the YMCA is full of boys
drumming brown basketballs
against the shining floor
and launching them
in languorous arcs
at red-rimmed hoops.

The boys run, reach,
and leap,
throwing themselves skyward:
they rise like egrets
and land like yearlings,
long limbs circling round
to snag spinning balls
from their furrowed flight
like gods plucking planets
from among the stars;
no wonder the walls resound
with their shouted joy.

But if some see angels
in their strong, glad hearts,
others see soldiers —
the world wants its wars,
after all, and boys like these
burn better than any kindling.
Forge them in fire
so they’ll grow up fast;
like they say, no one sheds
the skin of childhood
without a little blood.

And can we imagine it otherwise?

Well, let’s try, just for larks:
Say the Romans had invented
basketball instead of ballistae,
layups instead of legions:
Troops of boys might have
marched to the beat of balls —
drumming, running, thundering
down the Via Aurelia
on their way to play Telamon,
Liguria, or Carthage.
Philosophers and priests
would craft a sacred geometry
from circles, arcs, and curves;
coaches would consult Vegetius
on fast breaks and double curls;
and the arenas might still stand,
not as ruins but as shrines,
shoeless tourists posing for pictures
upon the marbled courts.

If only the Romans had played
basketball, maybe the centuries
would have been kinder —
more balls and ballet,
fewer bullets and bombs;
and every boy laid in his grave
at a ripe old age:
a basketball in his hands,
his heart seeking the red rim,
then dropping into the sweet circle
with a gentle swish.

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