Exhausted and freshly defeated, I was plunked down in the bleachers after a Wells, Maine, men’s league basketball game two winters ago, going through the usual highlight/lowlight postmortems with my teammates and taking inventory to make sure my fundamental extremities weren’t any less useful than they were at tip-off.
That second part tends to take a while. I was going through that routine when I noticed a player leak out of the layup line for the next game and head my way.
I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was. He’d been a standout guard at the local high school team a few years earlier and ran track in college. Now, he was a cheetah in a league with a few old lions.
His manner was relentlessly upbeat, like a naturally happy dude that had gulped down one cup of coffee too many. Remember the movie “Office Space”? He reminded me of the Chotchkie’s waiter who was way too enthusiastic about his job. I think he gets the finger from Jennifer Aniston’s character at some point.
The cheetah had a question. It was guileless and hurtful at once.
“Hey,” he said, “how old are you?”
The emphasis was on “are,’’ as if I’d shown up wearing George Mikan glasses or demanding to play with an ABA basketball.
My teammate Brad, a year older than me — I was 49 then — and at least a half-dozen years younger looking, couldn’t stifle his laugh. Still, he beat me to the answer. “He’s younger than me,’’ said Brad, who is a lanky 6 feet 8 inches and played Division 1 ball in the ‘80s.
“Pat’s older, too,’’ I said, pointing out a still-fit guard on the cheetah’s own team.
He said something, pleasantly I’m sure, and returned to the layup line. I do not recall what it was.
I was too busy realizing that I had become the old guy in the game.
My first vivid basketball memory is watching Jo Jo White star for the Celtics during one of those rare CBS nationally televised broadcasts in the late ‘70s, when the league was perceived as somewhere between coked-out and irrelevant.
The elegant guard became my first favorite player, a fine choice in retrospect, but his style didn’t translate to my own when I began playing. I was not stylish in any manner, even by ‘70s bowl-cut/Toughskins standards.
I recall Saturday morning arguments with my mother about why argyle socks were appropriate game-day attire in the third- and fourth-grade league at the YMCA. My pro-argyle stance too often prevailed.
I was 8 when I saw Jo Jo. I began loving the game then, I’ve loved it since, and has it ever loved me back. Basketball has made my life better at every stage and age, from those youth leagues, through junior high (even though I had to wear thick Kurt Rambis-style glasses), and right on through high school, when it was the salvation from my shyness.
I was not a great player, but I was good enough to be in the vicinity of many that were. Our team at Morse High School in Bath, Maine, won three straight state championships. We even had an autograph session at McDonald’s once. That’s when you know you’re big, when you’re scarfing down Chicken McNuggets while appeasing the people.
When we see each other all these years later, the conversation flows about those basketball days. No detail is forgotten. A few might be exaggerated. No story can be retold too much. It’s like that John Mellencamp song: When I think back about those days/All I can do is sit and smile …
Basketball doesn’t just make memories. It tears down walls. No one cares who you are, what you look like, or where you’re from as long as you’re fun to play with. I made my first friends at UMaine playing pickup ball. When I got my first job in Concord, N.H., I hooked on with a team in the best men’s league I’ve ever played in. Logistical circumstances nowadays too often keep me from playing in a longtime weekly game with media folks and locals in Dorchester. I’m bummed out every time I miss it.
I always told myself I’d keep playing until my body gave out. I was wrong. Turns out I’d keep playing even after assorted parts were well past their warranty. I used to have a decent floater in the lane. Now I have a floater in my eye. Four years ago, my retina in my right eye detached during a media availability before a Celtics-Cavaliers playoff game in Cleveland. It was like someone slowly pulled down a window shade until the room was dark. I stood there on the court and kept closing the eye to see how it would change after I opened it. I’m pretty sure Al Horford thought I was winking at him.
I’ve torn (but did not rupture) my left Achilles’; my orthopedist told me it looked like a coffee cup that had been shattered and glued back together. On the achier days, I walk down the stairs sideways because of a hip injury I suffered when I upfaked a defender and he landed on me with full weight, causing my hip to collapse like an accordion.
And get this one: Last summer, I blew out my right shoulder chucking a potato into the woods while I was grilling. Yes, that is the most Maine injury ever, and yes, everyone knows you’re supposed to warm up first before chucking a russet into the woods. I bet Dr. James Andrews tells his patients that all the time.
As the injuries and years (OK, and maybe the pounds too, shut up) have added up, the game around me has sped up. When I play now, in that small four-team league in Wells against that cheetah how-old-are-you? kid and his ilk, the ball ends up in my hands by accident, luck, or because my defender left to help on a more dangerous player.
The action buzzes around me, but I’m a bystander. It’s like standing on a city sidewalk and watching the traffic whiz by, except there are no stoplights or crosswalks in basketball. You’re on your own to get where you want to go, and the obstacles are everywhere. They’re all 6-3, quick, and unsympathetic.
That used to be me, except for the quick part, and I made up for that with sweet music from the Kevin McHale Songbook of Post Moves, notes every basketball player of the ‘80s knew. I used to wreck the old guy in the game, the one with the sharp elbows and slow feet, struggling to keep up.
Now this old guy has become the wreck. I know where to go and what to do, but my body is in no hurry to execute orders. Sometimes during the game, after some 20-something has blown past my sessile body for a layup and I didn’t even bother to jump, I’ll catch myself thinking, “I was pretty good at this once, I swear.” But I don’t say anything. No one would believe it. So I just lumber on, chasing the play, then turning around and chasing it the other way.
When I turned 50 late last year, I caught myself more often playing those little torturous math games in my mind. I’m the same age now as my dad was in 1990, and he’s almost 80, so how come 1990 doesn’t seem so long ago? That sort of thing. The cruel math of time passed conspired against me so much this season that in the middle of it I started thinking it could be my last.
I was next to useless on the court, my potato-chucking shoulder shrieking every time I hoisted up a perimeter shot. There were a few games in which I didn’t score. My teammates cheered a little too loudly when things did go right, a kind intention that revealed the pleasant surprise that I had found any success.
We won one game in the regular season. Tall Brad, older than me, got hurt. Our basketball potpourri of a roster got along well, though, and some shots fell in the playoffs. We won one game, and then another. It ended with a suspense-free loss in a game none of us knew was the championship until we saw our conqueror taking a team photo and being presented with the winning prize — a $20 gift card to a local bar. “Wait, this was the final?” one teammate said, watching the photo shoot. Then, after a beat: “Actually, it’s probably better I didn’t know.”
Confession: I didn’t know it was the final, either. Once I knew, I was proud we got there, on the edge of that small glory. We all were. We sat there in the achy but satisfying aftermath, talking over the game, reliving our improbable playoff run that went deeper than some of us realized. When we began to filter out, one by one, everyone thanked our point guard Nate for putting our squad together. Most vowed to be back again next year.
I was among them. I didn’t know it was the final game of the season. But I knew it wasn’t the last game for me.
I was 8 when I saw Jo Jo White on TV. I began to love the game then, I’ve loved it since, and it’s loved me back. Basketball has made my life better at every stage and age.
Even this one. I can’t do it well anymore. That’s so much better than trying to do without it.
I never did see the cheetah kid this year. Maybe he moved to a league more his speed. Maybe he just blew by me so fast that I missed him.
But if I had, I’d have supplied a better answer for his question of two years ago.
How old am I? Well, I’m younger than I look. But since you asked, pretty darn old, I guess.
But let me tell you, kid, I’d be so much older without basketball. Someday, sooner than you think, you’ll know this, too.