Friday, July 10, 2015

The men of winter

January 1996

My small farming community has a long and cherished high school basketball tradition. A few years ago, a neighboring town started a "Nostalgia" tournament for former hardwood greats and pretty-goods. It has become both an annual winter curiosity and personal pilgrimage for many of us declining hoopsters. My son has charmingly named it "geezerball".

While the game has changed, our memories of it have not. This introduces some discouraging moments, requiring both physical and mental adjustments. The earliest cruel realization occurs during the maiden attempt at a lay-up. We stride to the basket like always, gather our considerable personages, and launch into a long-remembered flight toward the hoop. At this point, reality rudely intrudes on this fantasy. As we gaze upwards, the basket grows only slightly closer, and then, far before we are prepared, the flight stops, and unprepared legs and feet stumble to regain balance.  Jumping, we discover, doesn't take as long as it used to, since we make a markedly shorter journey. This also shows on rebounds, as the timing required to snatch a ball off the boards is still imprinted on a mind that has been sharpened and refined by time, whereas the leg muscles have been reconditioned for use with brake pedals and recliner footrests. I have watched fellow veterans leaping at rebounds four feet over their head and coming no closer than 3 feet 9 inches.  

This phenomenon, playing [way] below the rim, is initially incomprehensible. I finally understood when Jan pointed out that my problem would be the equivalent of me at 17 playing with a 35 lb. backpack - well, more accurately, a frontpack. It is amazing I ever leave the earth at all. I also subscribe to the theory that, inasmuch as gravity is the attraction of two bodies for each other, I would seem to have become immensely more attractive to the rest of the world.

However sobering this loss of an entire dimension is to us, we have found a way to compensate. All of the effort and energy expenditure formerly used to attain altitude is now turned to what we innocently refer to as the "Horizontal Game". Action under the basket in our games resembles a rugby scrum or a Tokyo rush hour subway. Imagine sumo-basketball and you get the idea.

There are a few pathetic advantages of age. Our width-enhanced bodies are much more effective setting screens than our former frames, best described as height and an Adam's apple. No one challenges you on a steal and breakaway basket since the odds of a successful conversion are only about 50-50 anyway, and it would involve running the entire length of the court.  Selecting court apparel is not difficult, since every type of uniform we wear provokes badly hidden smiles and snickering. Luckily, it is usually possible to find one other guy who looks dumpier than yourself.

Changed too is the concern of the players for injury. The cry or sight of a teammate or opponent going down with a hamstring, knee, or ankle injury is painful to us all. Running through every mind is the career adjustment each of us would have to make should the situation be reversed. The last words many of us hear as we leave for practice are not "Good luck", or "Go get 'em, tiger", but rather, "Try not to get hurt, dear". Above all, nobody takes a charge. The satisfaction of a good defensive play seems a small reward for the certain damage involved. Hitting the floor hard is no longer a trivial outcome. The only time we bounce well is when we run into each other.

Another not-so-subtle change involves the referees. Bearing in mind that yelling at the zebras at a high school game is the most aerobic winter activity many of us have had for years, the possible confrontations during geezerball are fraught with peril. We are no longer teenagers with an active, albeit deteriorating respect for grownups and officials. Nor are we safely confined to the spectator area. Nosirree - we're out here where we can get right in their faces, and usually have several years/pounds of moral advantage to our arguments, and absolutely no hesitation about airing our grievances. As a result, absolutely NO lip is allowed in this league. At the first sign of difficulty, players are hustled to the bench.  Above all, always keep in mind that the guy you are elbowing could be a land owner, loan officer or cop.   

As filled with absurdity as this exercise is, I still enjoy the effort. Once in a while, during a game or practice, I catch a glimpse of a past filled with astonishingly innocent joys, especially by today's standards. For a moment, we are not just a bunch of guys all named Dad. We are Athletes, caught up in the contest and the minute we are living, celebrating again the joy of being seventeen and indestructible. Best of all for me, after years of the solitary economic existence of self-employment, I am part of something larger than myself, able to do what only a team can do. This feeling comes too rarely to be ridiculed.

And it's not for thought of beribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote.
Play up!  Play up! And play the game!
- Brooke -

Besides, if you think we look silly, you should see the cheerleaders.

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