Old Man Basketball starts in about a month in northern Manhattan. Here’s a list of the words I’m thinking about tonight, about four weeks before I’ll return to the court with my friends:
Aware. Inherent risks. Exertion. Overheating, limb injuries. Permanent disability. Death.
When do we tip-off?
Before the league begins, our beloved, underpaid, hard-working commissioner sends out waiver forms we’re required to sign before the host school allows us to run, walk or crawl up and down the court. We sign it and promise that we’re “aware of the risks inherent in participation in sports” and that we have health insurance that will cover any injuries we suffer and that the school and the Department of Education is not responsible for torn ACL’s, sprained MCLs, ruptured Achilles’, concussions, turf toe, broken arms, shattered noses, swollen fingers, pulled groins, thigh contusions, bone bruises, hernias, chipped teeth, black eyes, hangnails or floor burns.
At 36 years old, this could finally be the year when I suffer one or all of those injuries. There’s always a chance I stay healthy for the next 24 years and I’m fortunate enough to still be playing hoops at 70, like my uncle. There’s a better chance one of these seasons will end with me rolling on the floor or in the emergency room while a doctor asks “Where does it hurt?” and my wife says, “I told you so.”
Back home in Janesville I spoke to a guy who’s six years older than me and starred on the high school basketball team when I served as a manager. He said he stopped playing hoops in 1996, although he played amateur baseball until just last year. I can’t picture giving up the game. I first picked up a basketball when I first started walking and don’t plan on putting one down until I’m unable to run. Football’s the most popular sport in the country and baseball’s the national pastime but hoops remains the game I’ve loved more than any other.
It’s the game I could spend two hours a day playing and 24 hours a day watching. Before our ragtag group of overweight, middle-aged lawyers, communications specialists, professors and mediators meet on a small court in a big school in Washington Heights, I’ll head to our local park to shoot some baskets by myself. I could stand there for hours shooting, just like I did when I was a kid at the Janesville city park. The ball feels at home in my hands, and the only thing that feels more natural is when I release it for a jumper. Hitting a bank shot from 15 feet fills me with a type of satisfaction that a real trip to my local bank rarely brings. I knock down some free throws and toss in some layups. Eventually these solo excursions in the fall and summer give way to full-court games in the winter.
Thirty years after I first watched him play with the Lakers, I still find myself trying to imitate Magic Johnson during our league games. A no-look pass here, a behind-the-back pass there, peppered in with the occasional coast-to-coast drive. For years I was a small-town kid trying to play like the best point guard ever and now I’m a middle-aged man doing the same thing. With any luck I’ll one day be an elderly gentleman trying the same passes.
I like to think my jump shot’s as good as it’s ever been, even if my legs and stamina aren’t. I like to think it – but it’s probably not true. I can’t dribble as well and my instincts have slowed. I’m fatter. Somehow even slower. Not as good going to my left. Lost a bit of my peripheral vision.
For players who get paid to play any of the above would be reason to retire. For those who do it out of love or because they have a sad need to try to re-create their high school and college basketball experiences, those things are simply accepted facts of life.
I play because I still love it and because I can still run. And I play because I dream. Eighteen years after my last high school game and 16 years after my last college contest, I still have nightly dreams that revolve around wins and losses from way back when. In some of them I star – sometimes I even dunk! – and in some of them I flail around or can’t find a shoe or forget my uniform or get benched by the coach or chewed out by my dad. If a dream involves me making a bunch of shots, I can’t wait to get out onto the court to see if I can turn the fantasy into reality. If the dream involves me failing, I can’t wait to get back to the court to make amends for a game that only existed inside my head.
The day I stop dreaming, maybe that will be the day I stop playing.
Or I’ll quit the day I rupture an Achilles.