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Not counting Congress, this is a town without performance artists. But something that sure looks like performance art plays itself out almost daily inside a chain-link cage at Stead Park in Dupont Circle.
That’s where Robert Triolo plays basketball by himself for hours at a time. He shoots mainly free throws and layups, and he shoots them in an unconventional manner, with either just his left or just his right hand.
He’s been going through his solo routine for a while now. He can tell you exactly how long, actually: “My first day was June 10, 2004.”
At the beginning, he came to Stead Park “about twice a week,” Triolo says. But lately, he shows up pretty much every day the weather’s tolerable and usually stays long enough to make thousands of baskets per session.
He can tell you exactly how many he’s made, actually: “239,890 right-handed field goals in my first 361 days of shooting; 89,401 right-handed foul shots.”
And so on.
Triolo knows all this because, along with a basketball, he always packs a pen and something to scribble on in the bags he carries to the park. He takes a timeout every few minutes to mark down another batch of stats. During a Saturday outing in March, Triolo scribbles his numbers in the margins of every page of an old crossword-puzzle magazine.
Each night, he transposes the day’s scribblings, along with a summary of the temperature and weather conditions while he was shooting, into a large binder.
He keeps the notebooks on a table in his small efficiency apartment several blocks from the park in Shaw, where he’s lived “since March 14, 1999.”
The record books allow inquisitors to read how many left-handed layups or right-handed foul shots Triolo made on any particular date. Or how many times he’s made any number of free throws consecutively.
“I’ve made seven foul shots in a row 714 times,” he says, pointing to lines on a page from his most recent notebook dedicated to such streaks. “Two hundred and thirteen times I’ve made 11 in a row. I’ve made 26 foul shots in a row 13 times. I once made 2,237 right-handed layups in a row.”
Triolo’s stat book also indicates that on his best day he shot 88 percent from the foul line. He says he’s shooting 80.6 percent from the line this year, which is much better than last year’s average. And he wants to get better.
“Maybe it is an obsession,” he says shyly.
Triolo, whose court attire of late has consisted of weathered work boots, pants held together by clothespins, and several layers of tops, insists there’s no intentional public performance component to his routine, which plays out in a particularly dense and highly trafficked area of P Street NW.
No, Triolo says—he turned Stead Park into his own personal shooting gallery only because his doctor told him that he needed to rein in his diabetes and that getting his weight under control would be the best way.
Now 62, Triolo has loved basketball since he was a kid growing up outside Philadelphia, where he got caught up in the fabled Big 5 college-hoops rivalries. But he never was much into playing team sports himself. His hoops career peaked in the eighth grade, when he was a second-team guard on the Holy Spirit School squad.
Yet no team sport goes solo as smoothly as basketball. So when the doctor ordered him to exercise, Triolo, who says he ended up living in D.C. “because of all the parks here,” decided to get back into the game. Stead has three hoops on a full court and a half court, and the full court often teems with teams. But Triolo shows up early enough—usually between 9 and 10 a.m.—to have the half court all to himself.
Exposure to the elements from all the court time has weathered his skin, but there’s no evidence of the big belly Triolo says he had before embarking on his shooting bender. And Triolo says the sessions have helped him with ailments other than his diabetes, too. Mental ones, he says, have plagued him his entire adult life, leaving him prone to anxiety and keeping him from ever putting his engineering degree to work or holding down any kind of steady job. Triolo says he gets by on federal disability checks.
But there’s an obvious discipline to his basketball regimen, both in the shooting and stats-keeping. And his routine gives him goals. A renovation of Stead Park, slated to be completed by next year, calls for Triolo’s home court to be turned into a garden. But since practice never really will make perfect, he thinks his general desire “to keep getting better” at shooting a basketball will keep him getting out early and heading to a hoop even after his current stage is grassed over. Triolo also hopes to top his best day from the free-throw line: “On January 20, 2006, I made 51 free throws in a row.”
But the old record won’t fall right away. The weathermen are calling for wind, sleet, and rain on Tuesday, and Triolo won’t be launching any free throws or layups in such inclemency. If the forecasters are correct, he says, he’ll get his exercise instead by walking to the Southeast Neighborhood Library, which is located “2.94 miles from my apartment.”
“I don’t want to shoot with gloves on,” he says. “That would ruin my average.”—Dave McKenna