It’s 10:30 on a Friday morning during school vacation week at our local YMCA, and we are choosing up sides for a pickup game of basketball. Eighth-grader Dakota wants the teams divided by age — arrogant middle school kids taking on the “old guys.” I do the numbers: Four of us elders total 290 years. Collectively we’re older than our country. Weird. The four middle schoolers total barely 50 years.
For the record, we’ve tried this before and have concluded that the attention span of the typical middle school boy is about five minutes, after which the game deteriorates into displays of hot-dogging that leave us plus-70 guys nostalgic. So we grandpa hoopsters insist our teams be balanced between the young, representing speed, and the old, representing wisdom and finesse.
It is something of a miracle to find myself at age 72 back into regular pickup games. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago, I had imagined that by now I would be in a wheelchair. But despite the stiffness in my left arm, I discovered I could still dribble a basketball. Once my hands touch the ball and I smell the early-morning parquet floors, the curious mix of sweat and varnish, there is only the basket and the ball and the hand that knows just how much arch it takes to launch the ball through the net. Take that, Mr. Parkinson.
But it’s not easy finding enough geezers to play even a simple three-on-three half-court game. That’s where Dakota and Noah and Juwan come in, and why I find myself on a first-name basis with kids who don’t even shave yet. When I was their age, thousands of miles from this court, Saturday mornings were spent at my local Jewish Community Center, where I played one game after another until dusky shadows announced dinnertime. Now an hour of basketball is just about right.
Why do I love the game? Here’s a typical play: I get the ball at the free-throw line, my back to the basket, guarded by 6-foot-3-inch Frank. I fake to my left, spin to my right, twisting to bring the ball under Frank’s flailing arm in a textbook scoop shot that softly falls into the net and draws a foul.
“Nice shot, Bob.” Slap on the back. High-five. Fist bump. How many 70-plus guys get this treatment? Guys my age are more accustomed to “Aren’t you ready yet?” or “You missed a button.”
Our games are not for those intent on winning. We try to keep score, but we seem to forget as soon as the next basket swishes through the net. There’s also the problem of remembering who our teammates are. Ever since female basketball players proved themselves as good as men, “shirts versus skins” has gone the way of the two-handed underhand free throw. If we’re in three-on-three mode, we may change teams three times in an hour. This means Frank, who was guarding me a moment ago, is now a teammate. “Anyone know the score?” and “Whose team am I on?” are common points of discussion.
On the court, Noah, who has yet to hit his first growth spurt, wants to take the ball around me to the goal. He does some fancy through-the-legs dribbles, fakes one way, then he’s gone, soaring toward the basket in a jump so high my nose bleeds in sympathy. On the other hand, when my textbook hook shot from the top of the key swishes the net, well, that’s worth a high-five. “Awesome,” Noah says.
And so it goes. We are not the kind of group that drums and chants about being men. We’re some old guys surprised to find we can still play. No one complains, for we all realize somewhere in the depths of this whole catastrophe the final buzzer will one day sound. Until then, we play ball.
Bob Kalish is a writer in Maine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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