I wanted to be able to fly, but had to content myself with running the floor. My ankles and knees hurt. I dreamed of having bat-wings and gliding toward the hoop like Harry Potter in Quidditch, dropping the orange sphere through the orange hoop. It was five-on-five in a dismal gym. I had been a great high school athlete, but I was now on the brink of old age.
The guy I guarded was going on 73, didn’t run, and never got back on defense. He trundled like an overweight penguin.
Under the basket lurked a bear-like man. He was 28. Grizzled and stout, he swiped his paws at airmen who attempted to penetrate the paint. Just outside the first perimeter was a giraffe-like man. A few hippos in their early 20s moved through the oasis, hoping to catch the lighter animals by surprise.
I looped in an arc pass to the bear for an easy lay-in. I hit one of the storks on the perimeter who popped in the ball.
Assists are not limelight plays. To learn to playbasketball at my age (58) is ridiculous. My shots would sometimes get all nothing, or at best would bobble around the rim before going in.
“The assassin!” The penguin called me sneeringly. He had been a college star and still had surprising shots and good feints.
In the empty gym I could nail 3-pointers. I could hit hook shots and execute lay-ups. In actual games I was blocked, or had the ball stripped, as players in their mid-20s took advantage of my 58-year-old body’s slowness and my relative inexperience as a new player. What else could I do?
I practiced until there was one spot on the floor from which I could hit. It was about 20 ft. out to the left of the key. I could hit from there with about 40% reliability. Other than that, I had nothing. I had no speed to speak of, and I could not dribble, and every seventy-something could block my shot.
I got the ball in my favorite spot and shot. The ball looped around the rim and flew up. The bear got it and slammed it home. I told myself it was an assist, but it really wasn’t. The bear had cleaned up my mess. I told myself that the improbable consolation of playing at all at my age was still something, but I couldn’t get used to my status. When I was a kid I was usually picked first or second in any line-up, and was the MVP of my high school soccer team, and we had been league champs.
So it was that one night we were up 6-5, playing to seven. One of the giants had all our points. He was not the giraffe, or the bear, or one of the storks. He was tall as a giraffe, but with the brute strength of a bear. He had a name for me. “Jerk.”
When my opponent scored, he said, “That’s your man, Jerk!”
At least I had a name.
The opposing team closed down on him and poked and swatted at the ball as he tried for the seventh point. At that point, I took off running and swept straight for the basket, at which point I turned left and got all the way out to the three-point line and turned. I was wide open. My defender had gotten caught up defending the versatile giant under the basket. To my amazement, the giraffe-bear sent the ball back to the point guard, a stout banker, who threw a line drive into my hands.
As I set up for the shot, he yelled, “Money!”I released the ball from my fingertips. To the utter amazement of everyone present, the ball executed a gorgeous arc and hit all net. Fives were slapped, and this time I was the hero. The adulation lasted for all of three seconds.
At home, I sat before the television watching the giants of the NBA with my feet in a bucket of ice, as my teen daughters and sons ran circles around me attending to their homework, and dinner, and making dates on their cellphones. I tried to tell them of my success, but I was peripheral. I was now an older guy who had run his course, and could at best be cute. My Maltese dog, Elliot, sat on my lap, and said, “Woof!” He was cute, too, but he didn’t know, as it was all he had ever been. He had not been demoted.
What faced me wasn’t the applause that greeted Harry Potter at Hogwarts, or LeBron James in Cleveland, and it was not ten thousand fans waving my name on a placard at a political rally. I had a shot, though, at making a bucket in a dismal gym. Was it enough? My wife was still beautiful. I could still run, improbably. I still had a regular job. Getting used to my ancillary role was going to take some getting used to, but it’s possible to play a smaller role. I was no longer Odysseus. I was not Achilles. I was one of the thousands who fell before the walls of Troy without record in Homer. I was one of Romeo’s uncles that wasn’t named in the text. I was an older soldier who had participated in Napoleon’s army. Like most older people, I was increasingly irrelevant, but it freed me for secret joys. I had made a shot. I had won a game. In the bathroom mirror, I pretended to be one of the younger players. I laughed harder than ever, mostly by myself, but sometimes with my wife, or with one of our kids. I was extremely kind to the dog. He was getting older, too.
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