My opponent dribbled past half court with the fury of a crazed bull. He was about 6-foot-5, weighed 240 or so. His team was getting its ass kicked, and he was not happy about it. I positioned my 6-foot-1/2-inch, 195-pound frame just in front of the basket, directly in his path. I had two seconds to decide: OK, stand in there, let this guy bowl me over and draw the offensive foul or Don't be a fool, GET THE HELL OUT OF THE BULL'S WAY. I was six days shy of my 50th birthday, and we were winning by dozens of points. My teammates would not have objected had I chosen discretion over valor.
Like an idiot, I chose valor.
The bull never changed course. I turned slightly to absorb some of the blow, bounced off of him like a pinball and landed well out of bounds. I popped up quick-like, luckily no worse for the wear. The worst indignity? There was no foul call. The referee, as the cliché goes, swallowed his whistle. My valor had gone for naught. Guys on both benches laughed.
Such were the harrowing events of April 15 at my Thursday night over-30 basketball league on St. Pete Beach, where I'm a member of a 14-year team sponsored by the Sports Bar at Bay Pines.
It could've turned out not so funny. If I had landed wrong, my back might've gone out for, oh, the 237th time, and I would've walked stooped over for a week. I could've earned a fresh injury to go along with the plantar fasciitis in my right foot and tendinitis in my right knee.
But my lasting impression of the moment is not relief that I had escaped unharmed. It's that I had actually considered bailing out. Five years ago, it would never have entered my mind. You stand in there and take the charge, dammit, no questions asked. Truth be told, I've bailed out in similar situations over the last few years. My doctors and chiropractors and massage therapists say that's smart, that I need to "adapt my game" to my advanced age.
I say it sucks.
I'm over the hill, an old baller with a passion for the game that drastically outsizes my physical capabilities. I'd gladly play four times a week, but I've come to realize that my lower back condition (something that ends in "esis" that no one can seem to pronounce) allows me two at the most. I work out in the weight room three or four days out of seven and sometimes force myself onto the elliptical bike for some "cardio," but basically I do this to prolong my playing days.
If the end is not exactly near, it's at least imminent. I've never been a big fan of exercise. I like to play, and let the exercise part take care of itself. I'm dreading the time when I must resort strictly to a workout regimen to keep myself in decent shape.
There are other sports, yes. Tennis? I'd have to basically start from scratch. Golf? Too cerebral (oh, and I suck at it). Softball? With all due respect to you players out there, let's just say I wouldn't get the same juice from it. Triathlon? I can hear my back moan at the mention of the word. (Plus, I'm a lousy swimmer.) As a kid, with callous disregard for my later years, I got good at football, lacrosse and basketball. The first two are distant memories.
My plan is to keep hooping until pain trumps the fun. Hopefully that'll take awhile. In the meantime, I have to contend with my declining physical abilities, which bring their own set of problems.
Most of my teammates and opponents would tell you that I play very well — for 50. When I was 40, I played very well — period.
I used to be what old-schoolers call a "slasher," a guy quick with a dribble, who could get past his defender and take it to the rim. Now I tend to roam around the outside looking to catch a pass and shoot the 3-pointer. If the long jump-shots are clanking off the rim, though, it can make for a frustrating game. I was never what you'd call a defensive specialist, but I was competent. Now I generally match up with the worst player on the other team.
I would like to tell you that I have made these adjustments with quiet grace. Instead, they have caused me considerable angst and occasional torment. I've probably incurred more injuries in the last few years by being stubborn about it. I've been known to complain.
But lately I've been thinking enough, already. It's time to put my waning abilities into perspective, time to discover ways to enjoy the game in the context of being a half-century old.