Tuesday, October 6, 2015         


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Ball, backboard, rim and net the only tools this artist needs

By Michael Tsai


He was trying to give the kid a break.

Three times in a row he'd burned the younger, faster, bouncier defender with a simple drop-step move he'd perfected before the kid was even a kick in the womb. Notice, he said, I always go right with that one. Bum shoulder and all. So, here's what you do.

But the dude's ears were too thick with youthful pride, and his mouth hadn't yet developed a muscle memory for restraint. They yapped, yapped some more, and eventually Thurlow threw down his ultimate put-up-or-shut-up: "Play you to a hundred."

Ron Thurlow, 49, isn't the hothead he was growing up in South Philly, but even with creaky knees, a hairline creeping toward the sun and accumulated scar tissue accounting for half his body weight, he has enough in his deep well of "Oh yeah?" to outlast just about anyone on a basketball court.

The game is sacred to Thurlow; its courts of play -- whether fissured asphalt or polished wood -- are consecrated ground. And while Thurlow's play has more than a touch of the profane, his ritual practice is fervent.

"Everything I do is to be able to play the ball," he says. "I won't give up my family or my soul, but I'd give up anything else just to play."

Thurlow didn't start hooping until he was 18 years old, but everything he had experienced to that point seemed fitting if unconventional preparation.

At age 7, when his abundant energy proved too much for his overcrowded house to contain, his parents got him a job delivering calf heads on his bicycle for the butcher's shop where his stepfather worked. He earned 25 cents for every half-day he put in, but it was the powerful legs and robust lung capacity he developed that proved most valuable once he took up basketball.

But holding your own on those South Philly courts took not just strength, but toughness. And Thurlow's childhood provided plenty of opportunity to develop that as well.

"At school I got into 10 or 12 fights every week," he says. "And that lasted 12 years."

Thurlow learned the game on no-blood-no-foul courts like that on 45th and Woodland -- a place "where white people fear to tread" -- and gained respect via the good-teammate skills of passing, rebounding and defending.

But while basketball always seemed to make sense, life off the court wasn't always so reassuring. There were times when money was so tight that Thurlow might have contemplated suicide -- "But I'm Roman Catholic, so I'd have to wait for someone else to come along and shoot me in the head" -- and times when the frustration of living among people who couldn't accept the happy life he had built with his wife, Cynthia, who is African-American, and son, Josh, seemed too much to choke down.

Again, basketball proved redemptive. It was at a Philadelphia 76ers game that the Thurlows won a trip to Hawaii. Their once-in-a-lifetime vacation left them enamored with the Aloha State, a place that soon became home.

"I was city-rat wired when I got here," Thurlow says. "But this place calmed me down. There's a spirit here like nothing I've felt before."

Eleven years later the couple lives in Aina Haina, Thurlow earning money trading currencies, Cynthia advancing on her dream of becoming a professional writer.

And still the rhythmic thump of the orange ball beats in Thurlow's chest. A few times a week, he hits the court at 24 Hour Fitness for an hour or two of pickup ball. He spends Monday and Thursday nights at the Holy Trinity Church gym, where he gets to be, in the most relative sense possible, "the kid" in a group of golden hoopsters.

Thurlow knows he can't play forever, but his body will falter long before his will. "I can't sing or draw or write -- the only place where I can express myself is on the basketball court. It's the only place where what my mind sees, my body can manifest. When I'm playing, I feel that perfect sense of grace. I feel like the sun is shining just for me."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.

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