If I believed in jinxes I wouldn’t type this until after Wednesday night.
But barring some type of incident tomorrow night, I’ll have another winter hoops season in the books and the worst injury I’ll have suffered is a bruised ego. Well, the blisters on the feet returned, the same way they have since I was 10 years old. Big, ugly, bloody things that cover half my feet. But no sprains or tears, no concussions or breaks. Bad lungs and heavy legs? I can live with those, even on the trips up the court when it seems like I won’t.
In less than a month I’ll turn 37 and there were weeks this season when I somehow felt 47. It was the weeks when I felt 27 that kept me coming back.
It was actually a tough year on the troops in our Hudson Heights hoops league. We lost one of the better players, a 50ish guy who plays like someone 20 years younger and projects a tough attitude that is anything but an act. That debt you owe your bookie because the Lakers failed to cover? George is the guy who will show up to collect. He’ll only bring his baseball bat if it’s your second offense. A lefty, George is adept at pulling up for 23-footers on the break or driving recklessly through the lane, bouncing off four guys, taking three steps and scoring two points. About halfway through the season, in a game that was tied at 6 with the winner needing seven and, no, you don’t have to win by two points, George cut for a pass in the lane. A defender ran him over and George crumpled to the ground, clutching his knee. I thought he bruised it, because it didn’t look like a twist or the typical way you see someone severely injure a knee. But that’s exactly what he did. Torn ACL. And following complications with his surgery, blood clots that landed him back in the hospital. It’s the nightmare of any over-the-hill hoopster who laces it up once a week for eight months. The fact the defender went unnecessarily hard on the play only made it worse.
Another player injured his hand and missed the final few months. One guy broke his nose, the blood polluting the floor and following him as he walked off the court and into a classroom in search of paper towels.
We lost guys who had played previous years but gained new players — good players. The new additions were talented, with one of them — a guard who possessed limitless endurance and a pull-up jumper that he seemed to hit 75 percent of the time — becoming the best player in our league.
The rest of the cast returned, familiar faces with familiar games. There’s the relentless offensive rebounder who reminds you of Rodman on the glass — and when he shoots. There’s the tireless grinder who spends his days as a writer and history professor and his Wednesday nights as a talented low-post player with a good outside shot. There are guys who are good passers and those who have one night left in the season to make their first one. Some weeks we had 16 players trying to get in on the four-on-four games and other weeks we only had six who engaged in marathon nights of three-on-three games.
And how did the local and national pundits judge my season? I picture the backpage headlines in the Post or Daily News:
FLAILING FURY (Opening night, struggling for air and to make a shot)
FURY FAILS AGAIN (self-explanatory)
NIGHT OF THE FURY! (I finally hit some jumpers, the crowd went crazy — in my head)
SOUND AND THE FURY (means nothing but all headline writers required to use the phrase at some point during my imaginary 20-year career)
BLIND FURY (perhaps on a night when I miss a wide-open teammate underneath the basket for what would have been the winning hoop)
For the first time during my time in the league, I found myself walking from the school to the A train and wondering if I wanted to return the following year or even the following week. I’d put on a couple of pounds and felt a little slower and a lot older. For several weeks I shot jumpers with the confidence Rajon Rondo must feel when he launches one of his hideous-looking creations from 16 feet. My fadeaway, a shot I’ve always relied on and one the papers routinely call Fury’s Faithful Fallaway, kept falling short. I got beat on defense.
Even my reverse dunks along the baseline failed to bring me joy.
As the season progressed my game managed to make the trip with me from my apartment to the small gym in Washington Heights. The new players brought a new level of competitiveness to the league, one I thoroughly enjoyed. The jumper came back and the three-pointers followed. My passes still found their mark, even if my teammates’ subsequent shots didn’t.
And, yes, I avoided injury.
Most importantly, the game remains fun. I retain my passion for it, the nights I didn’t want the games to end far outnumbering those when I didn’t want to return. Looking back I realize the doubts I had about continuing to play only came after games when I couldn’t hit a shot or couldn’t stop someone on defense. Funny how that works. I guess I’ve learned that as long as I don’t embarrass myself when I step onto the court it’s going to be a long time before I permanently step off of it. Maybe that’s not the right attitude. Perhaps I should stay out there as long as I’m physically capable of being out there.
But I’ve been keeping score on a court since I was 5 years old. It’s about being with the guys and enjoying the company and meeting new people who have become close friends, but it’s also about the competition.
In other words, my Achilles could die one day and I’d at least try to come back. But when the jumper goes, I’ll truly know it’s time to stay away.