My old-man basketball league ended Wednesday night, though a final night of drinking and reminiscing will soon follow. I went out in a blaze of glory, or as much as that’s possible for middle-aged men playing in an elementary school in upper Manhattan. The threes were falling, the fadeaway was Nowitzki-esque. It was a nice end to a difficult season, one that was first shortened because of various bureaucratic debacles involving the New York City school system. A few weeks into it my knees ached and after a doctor told me I was too fat and needed to learn stretching exercises, they started to improve a bit before falling apart again over the past month. Unnamed sources insisted I was considering hanging it up. Not true. Oh, sure, I’ll keep whining about aches and pains but retire? Nah.
That said, the reality is my best days are 20 years behind me and, with my 38th birthday a few weeks away, I’ll have to adjust my game, especially if the knees go. It happens to all of us–Kareem, Jordan, Magic, Nash, Fury. But what will it look like as the years pile up, the hair goes gray before it falls out and the instincts become as slow as the feet?
6-3, OVERWEIGHT, SLOW POST PLAYER
I can remember when I was younger playing against guys at the YMCA who’d been in school 15 or 20 years earlier. When I went against them they had become more ogre than guard, but when I’d talk to others about what these guys were like in the past, they’d talk about how tough they were on the perimeter. “He could shoot from anywhere.” “Good quickness.” But when I saw them? Forty pounds heavier. Never left the paint. Most common sound when they were on the court wasn’t the swish of the net but the wheezing from their lungs. Could hit little turnaround shots in the paint, had maybe developed a little jump hook shot that was surprisingly effective. Occasionally ventured outside but whenever they launched a shot from 20 feet their wife who’s watching from the small wooden stands shakes her head and remembers the man she fell in love with, not this pudgy atrocity jogging up and down a small court. His kids sob. Still, becoming this type of player would allow me to guard other tall, fat guys and depending on the league you’re in, those guys might not be any good. The chance to dominate, or at least look okay, still exists.
PERIMETER GUY, NEVER SHOOTS, BUT STILL GREAT PASSER
I’d be quite comfortable in this role and at times in my old man league I already fill it, especially as I work my way into the action and wait for my knees to warm up. Move the ball, swing it from side to side, find guys inside, hit a cutter, no-look dishes to 3-point shooters, take the occasional dribble to keep the defense honest but don’t go all crazy. It’s a role you’ve seen filled by the junior varsity basketball coach who’s two years removed from starring on a Division II team and is now playing occasionally with a group of 8th graders. He’s not going to look to score because he’d be like Wilt in 1962. Instead he’ll get everyone involved, even the chubby kid in glasses, and make sure the offense at least runs with some efficiency. Maybe once every three games he’ll take a 3-pointer — and sink it.
KNEE BRACES, BIG BULKY KNEE BRACES, CLINGING TO PAST GLORY
Maybe I simply forge on, trying to play the same game as always — hitting 3s, driving to the basket, posting up smaller players, making nice passes on the break or in the paint, everything the same as if I was 20 years old. To do this, though, I either resort to groundbreaking surgery that’s not available to the common man — or even in this country — or big knee braces, the types you’d see on the players back in the 1980s. I’ll have to arrive at the gym 20 minutes early just to get myself strapped into the damned things. They’ll go from my quad down to, say, my shin. I’ll give them a little knock before stepping out on the court, for good luck. I’ll call myself Robo Cop. A new player will see them and think I tore both ACLs at some point, not realizing it’s simply sore knees that have slowed me down. Out on the court I try to do everything I once did, only all my actions are slower. My fellow players, at least those who were old enough to watch or it just read columnists using it as a cliche, say I’m like Willie Mays with the Mets. I do fall down at least once a game but shake my head when someone offers a hand. No, I have to do this myself I think as I lift myself up off the ground, adjust the braces and yell, “Come on, check the ball! I’m fine!” On nights when the knees still feel fine I thrive. When they’re aching, and the braces aren’t doing any good at all, I’m hurting my team and eventually take myself out before the night is through. That night I go back home and watch DVDs of my high school games, a scotch in my hand and ice bags on my knees.
DIRTY, BITTER HAS-BEEN
The has-been part will certainly be true. But maybe I’ll adopt the first two words too. There’s nothing I hate more than dirty players in a pickup game — the guys who throw extra elbows, or take hard fouls on game point, or step under your foot on a jump shot — but maybe I become that guy as I become increasingly bitter about my weakened physical skills. I’ll shove a guy driving in from the baseline and then raise both my arms in a “That’s just basketball” type gesture and when the guy gets in my face I simply turn my back to them and walk away, a Laimbeer smirk plastered on my face. Upset that I can’t stay with any guards when I’m on defense, I resort to grabbing their shirt every time they pass or, in a weaker moment, simply tripping them. Accidentally, of course. When I guard someone in the post I plant elbows in the small of their back and when they turn and mouth off while the rest of the players stop and gawk, I simply say, “Come on, play the game.” I move on my screens, a little hip jutting out each time. When I go up for a block I come down with my arm with more force than needed and it occasionally clips someone in the nose. Accidentally, of course. Everyone hates me, hates playing with me, hates playing against me. But I’m oblivious, or I think they’re just upset that I still play the game hard, the way it used to be played. When I shatter my fibula on a freak play while jumping up for a rebound, no one visits me in the hospital or sends a card.
SUPER-INTENSE, CALL ME COACH
My physical skills won’t be the same but I try and make up for it verbally. I tell players “call out those screens!” “Move, move, move, come on!” “Knock it down, Jimmy!” I say when someone has an open shot. I put a great deal of intensity into my clapping when we make a nice play. On the rare occasion I actually play like I once did, I go around to all of my teammates and say, “And THAT’S how you play the game. Yeah! Yeah!”
JUST HAPPY TO BE THERE, ACCEPT MY LIMITATIONS
Big, goofy grin on my face as I try to just be one of the guys. Think Mark Madsen, with hopefully more accuracy on 3-pointers. I play the game the right way. I slap backs, hand out high-fives at an alarmingly high rate (does a well-executed bounce pass really deserve one?). At the end of the games I invite everyone over for some beers but actually use the word brewskies. Back in our basement, I compliment the guys on some of their plays from a few hours earlier. “Joe, that was a hell of a shot you hit to win that fourth game.” “Mark, where’d you learn to rebound like that, the Charles Oakley School for Caroms? Here have another Bud!”
Or maybe none of these. Maybe I do stay the same until I’m 60, like my uncle, with only a slight dropoff as my 70th birthday nears. A guy I play with told me Wednesday I could play effectively for 30 years — guarding guys in the post and hitting threes — if I would start doing lunges to help my knees. I’ll consider it. But just in case, I’m already scoping out old-school knee braces.