Directly above the nation's most important tribunal is another type of court, where victors emerge not with five votes and a majority opinion but with 21 points and a margin of at least two. Yes, on the fifth and top floor of the glorious, neoclassical edifice on First Street NE is a basketball court. A pair of plexiglass backboards (wood until 1984) hang from the ceiling, which is just 14 feet and four inches above the playing surface, a pristine hardwood installed during a 2015 renovation. At roughly 78 feet long and 37 feet wide, the court is smaller than the regulation 94-by-50 feet, with walls hugging the sidelines and the eagle of the Supreme Court seal spreading its wings across midcourt. Near the entrance a sign warns: PLAYING BASKETBALL AND WEIGHT LIFTING ARE PROHIBITED WHILE THE COURT IS IN SESSION.
If the gym seems an afterthought, that's because it was: The building's architect, Cass Gilbert, designed the room for storage. At an unknown point in the 1940s—the building opened in 1935—an unknown person transformed it into a gym. According to the 1965 book Equal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court in American Life, Cass Gilbert Jr. suggested the makeover, but the Supreme Court curator's office hasn't verified that account. Early on, Justice Hugo Black used the room as a makeshift tennis court, but basketball has become the house game. Security guards, cafeteria workers, clerks, librarians and the occasional justice head upstairs for ragged games of pickup. The original floor was concrete and unforgiving, the room cramped and the ceiling far too low—but that has only added to the quirky charm of what's known as the Highest Court in the Land.
As a clerk Tilleman was thrilled to have easy access to hoops. He started playing regularly with his fellow clerks and others, even though the low ceiling neutralized his long-range shooting. But more than anything, he wanted to run with Thomas. For months he badgered the justice to no avail.
Finally, in April, Thomas agreed to a game with his clerks, who included future Fox News host Laura Ingraham (of "shut up and dribble" fame). They were thrilled, especially after the justice showed he could ball. Thomas, who joined the Court in 1991, was 44 at the time, and Tilleman was struck by the skill of the most junior member. But after a half hour of hooping Thomas grabbed his left leg and fell to the ground, writhing on the floor. This is not happening, Tilleman thought in horror.
Thomas had torn an Achilles tendon. He underwent surgery, and the following week he was hobbling around the building on crutches. As the term came to an end, Thomas and Tilleman had a picture taken together. The justice told the photographer to make it a full body shot, so that it would include his walking cast.
"Karl," he whispered to his clerk with a smile, "I want you to remember for the rest of your life what you did to me." Tilleman, now a partner at a law firm in Phoenix, has the portrait hanging in his office, above his computer—next to a picture of himself being guarded by Michael Jordan.
Friday, July 27, 2018
The Highest Court in the Land
That's the title to this very fun piece in Sports Illustrated about the basketball court above the courtroom in the Supreme Court. Here's a cool story from the article: