Lunchtime game passes into obsession
For me it’s basketball. Again. I hadn’t played regularly like I am now in about 20 years. It’s just a couple of days a week of noon pickup games, nudging toward more regular appearances at the gym on Tuesday nights when the legs allow. I can even force myself to go on runs, dreaming of the fastbreaks I might yet join more regularly, the jumpshots I might make if I’m in just a little better shape, if that tire around my middle shrinks just a bit more.
My father-in-law lives on two golf courses, with fairway homes in South Bend, Ind., and near Orlanda, Fla. Yep, a snowbird. Until recently, it’s been golf just about every day for him.
My father and his father, who died before I was born, raced sailboats. My dad was absolutely nuts for it, and very good at it. He’s one of those with a sixth sense for the sport. On the boats he raced and in windy, wavy Hawaii, believe me, it’s good sport. I liked it all right, too, but preferred surfing. Besides, I have an unfortunate tendency toward seasickness in the open ocean.
Until now I skipped more lightly over my pursuits outside work. Through high school I wound up specializing in basketball, my one ticket to a varsity team and actually playing. Too skinny for football, and a no-arm no-hit baseball prospect, my quickness somehow meshed with the game of basketball. And in those days I could even shoot.
Soon as I graduated from South Pasadena High School, in suburban Los Angeles, I was on a plane to Hawaii. Basketball was pretty much done for a couple of years, in favor of new sports, sailing – a family tradition – and surfing. Eventually, though, I tapped into the pickup games at the University of Hawaii gym. But that was just one more thing to do, though fun because I was still half good at it.
Later, in off-seasons from wildland firefighting out of Santa Barbara, I found the games at whatever school I attended for winter or at the Y in SB if I stayed in town. But I was still much more into surfing than hoops, and each was in perspective, just a game. Half the year I didn’t really have time for either, anyway.
I obsessed over bartending in Hawaii (drinking age was 18 then), obsessed over firefighting in the eight seasons I did that, and still obsess over my job now – much to my wife’s discontent at times. So I guess the seed was always there.
It started about a year and a half ago. I noticed that snowboarding, once I had more of the hang of it, wasn’t giving me enough of a workout and I had to play hooky from work for too long. The spare tire was only growing and I needed something to make me sweat, huff and puff. Then I heard about noon ball Wednesdays and Fridays at Eagle Valley Middle School.
Funny, as a broken-down geezer – I wear knee braces (both knees are bad even with surgery on each) and endure a litany of hamstring strains and leg muscle pulls – the game became more interesting. What I can or can’t do seems to change every time I play. My advantages in my youth are pretty much gone. I can’t out-quick other players like before, and while way back when there seemed to be an even chance wherever I played of being the dominant player or one of the dominant players, now I’m a last pick, a role guy. And I don’t mind a bit.
When I was young, my day on the court would hinge on how well I shot. I believed completely I could beat anyone to the basket driving, or stepping back and hitting the outside shot. Now I get as much or more satisfaction with a good pass or a screen that sets a shooter free. Funny what age does. Especially when the shot pretty much disappeared somewhere in the fog of those 20 years away.
The last vestige of youth comes on defense, where it started for me. I made my teams as a pesky little scrapper on defense, always the runt. A coach once had me cover the other team’s center because he thought I was the only one with a chance of slowing the guy down. The fellows I play ball with now will chuckle to know I fouled out of that game in the third quarter. But we had the lead to that point.
I still battle on defense, and have to watch my temper. The courts where I played growing up provided rougher games than the touch fouls called now, and something inside seems to want to revert to those proving grounds as a little squirt fighting for his place.
For whatever reason, these pickup games now take on the qualities of sailing for my dad and golfing for my father-in-law. I chatter to keep my mood light – as it should be – and plan before the game how I will play today, depending on the legs and what I did right or wrong last time out.
I’m skinnier than I’ve been in two decades, and in the best shape of my office career life. More significantly, and this may come with age, the sort of zen that pickup basketball has taken on mentally keeps burnout at work more at bay and home life happier.
And where I puzzled at my elders’ strange obsession with silly games, I understand them better now. As with so much in life, paradox and irony play large roles.
With less skill, I get more from the game. To become a better adult, I’ve returned to a slice of childhood. High in the outdoors apex of the universe, I find my sea level, my perspective, inside a gym.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at firstname.lastname@example.org