The experience was so painful and disillusioning I thought I’d never be able to write about it, but in three intervening years there’s been enough healing that I can finally reveal I tried a modest comeback in basketball. I never envisioned actually playing the game well, or really even playing at all. Competing in basketball against vigorous opposition demands a trim body, lively legs, cardiovascular endurance, court awareness, and great intensity. And recapturing any part of those ancient qualities would’ve required more time and physical and emotional commitment than I could give.
My task was going to be much simpler: I merely had to prepare myself for a cameo role before my old high school’s annual alumni-varsity charity game. There was modest demand for my appearance. A number of former classmates promised donations to the school fund if I’d go out and, while unguarded – I insisted – shoot some jumpers and free throws. Even this unthreatening public display unnerved me, but when I tried to back out several electronic pledges arrived with a reminder: “It’s for the kids.”
Part of the determination to shove me out there resulted from my having used the alumni-wide email system to offer other 1952 babies five bucks for every basket and 20 for each cheerleader they danced with. I noted those exertions shouldn’t faze them since they only weighed about 300 pounds. Some of the now-distinguished lads were unamused, though I did eventually emphasize that few of them moved the scales as much as I, who’ve long carried 50 pounds more than my prep playing weight and 30 beyond my prime.
As the essential event loomed a mere three weeks ahead and 300 miles away, I had to respond, and raced in my groaning 1990 Honda Civic to a sporting goods store to buy white high top basketball shoes and a glowing light brown ball. The shoes looked good caressed by my blue Dockers, and, dribbling, I shuffled side to side while explaining my task to a saleswoman born at least 15 years after my 1970 high school graduation. I didn’t need to make any other purchases since I already owned and regularly used gym shorts for such mundane and athletically-insufficient pursuits as calisthenics and labored semi-running on the treadmill. Since I work weekday mornings as well as Monday through Thursday nights, I’d only be available for outdoor workouts three evenings on two consecutive weekends. I didn’t consider going to a gym because I knew I get trounced there.
There was a less painful way. I’d break in across the street with the kids always outside playing on a portable basket. I was more than moderately concerned about the transition from waving-as-I-pass neighbor to much-older-than-their-parents fellow hoopster. What would they think? On a Friday evening I pressed the garage door opener and, shirtless in blue gym shorts and white socks and shoes, dribbled down my driveway and onto the rough asphalt of the street.
“Hi, can I shoot around with you?” I asked three youngsters.
“Sure,” they said.
“You guys are getting better all the time. You play for your school’s team?”
“We don’t have a team for fifth-graders,” said Darryl, the boy who lived across the street.
Without even taking a lay-up, I went straight up – perhaps three inches – for my once-dependable jump shot. This one fell about two feet short and three wide. The kids glanced at each other.
“I haven’t shot in at least 10 years. I averaged 20 points a game my senior year.”
They didn’t say anything but were doubtless impressed as my air balls got a little closer to iron each time and ultimately I began battering the rim with shots more like line drives than jumpers. I even made a couple but still felt earthbound, as if impeded by a weight vest. Actually, I was wearing a fleshy vest around the middle.
“Let’s play,” said a boy from down the street.
“Well, I was just planning to shoot around.” And I explained why.
“Okay,” I had to say.
Darryl and I teamed against the other two. Determined to instantly assert myself, I dribbled hard to my left, stopped quickly, and cast an 18-foot jumper that about dented the metal backboard. At least shots like that are recipes for long rebounds, and this one I lunged for and grabbed, knocking my largest opponent aside with a foul I was already too desperate to call on myself, and went straight for the basket and, instead of putting the ball softly on the board, fired a shot that bashed the bottom of the rim, hit me in the face, and caromed out of bounds.
“Do you have asthma?” Darryl asked.
“Of course not. Why?”
“The way you’re breathing.”
We rapidly fell behind 5-0 in a game to fifteen goals counting by one. The big kid on the other team was almost as beefy as I was, albeit a foot shorter, and had a good touch on set shots he arched very high.
“Why is a pudgy guy 5-foot-1 getting set shots on you?” one might ask, and every coach would.
The physical part of the answer has already been suggested, and for a long time I felt almost as if I’d never been on a basketball court. Eventually a modicum of court sense returned and we caught them at 12 all and I prayed I wasn’t going to lose to a couple of 11-year olds. At this point I could hear the pathological breathing my teammate had commented on and felt the consequences of every sip and puff I’d taken many years before. I wanted to quit. Why was I doing this? I couldn’t quit. I wasn’t going to. I knew what to do. After every shot I charged the boards and got lots of rebounds, more than half offensive. I remember them most because every time I tried to put the ball back up my legs felt leaden and almost every shot underneath slammed into the bottom of the rim and either bounced back into my hands or out of bounds.
Owing primarily to my height and 100-pound weight advantage, we won, narrowly, by the required two-goal margin. I agreed to another game, played almost as poorly in another victory, and hobbled up my driveway and inside to clean a squalling blister on each heel. My legs were already aching and next morning I struggled to climb out of bed. That would be all for this weekend. I’d be better prepared next time.
The following Friday I bandaged and taped both heels, pushed the garage door opener, and ran out to join two of the fifth graders and three pretty big and mature looking guys. Not wanting any surprises, I asked, “What grade are you in?”
“You on the basketball team?”
“No, we all play baseball.”
When I confess I was relieved not to have to go against even junior high school players, I feel not ashamed but a universe removed from those vigorous days in the 1970’s when I’d go to Sacramento State and other places around town, looking for good competition.
“Don’t you guys have that rim set too high?” I commented.
“Ten feet,” said Darryl.
“It’s a helluva lot higher than last week.”
“Yeah, just nine feet then.”
A pipsqueak hoop had overpowered me a week before, and now 10 feet looked like 11. People who regularly play basketball will note even an inch variance.
This game I teamed with the fifth graders. We fell behind 8-0, and I knew we were going to lose unless (in a conscientious way) I applied my heft to kids 70 pounds lighter and sealed off the boards. At the foot-higher target, however, I began shoving two, three, four, even five shots in a row straight into the underside of a rim I’d once challenged but that now might as well have been on the moon. I’d understood I wouldn’t be good but hadn’t imagined a debacle. Though our team won three games, you don’t really win when you poorly play a game you’d once been dedicated to.
The following weekend I drove from Bakersfield to suburban Sacramento and eased into the parking lot of my old high school, still the only place I’ve run out of gasoline. I was of course thankful not to be competing. Even though a couple of guys almost 60 had played well (and would again in subsequent alumni games), I was content in the cafeteria, eating hot dogs and hamburgers and not worrying about the outcome of a game and the possibility of playing poorly and embarrassing myself.
Over in the gym everything looked like my old home except the three point line, which is less than 20 feet in high school. Shots that distance used to go down like free throws. Now they seemed like across-the-river efforts, and almost everything I shot was short until I moved into the 15-foot range. My legs felt pretty good, since I didn’t have to play defense or elude opponents to get my shots, and I nailed some jumpers then walked up into the stands where I shook hands with my 80-year old former coach and sat back and watched vigorous young men run up and down the court, trying to convince myself I could still do it if I really wanted.
Notes: This story was originally posted in 2007.