Doubled over, hands on knees and feeling jabs like white-hot needles pierce my chest; I suck in precious air like a Hoover Deluxe. A voice asks if I’m good.
“Sure. Fine. Let’s go,” I say, straightening up.
Only minutes ago I was shooting around casually in my corner of the outdoor basketball court, seeing if I could improve my consecutive free-throw record, when a super-skinny kid (think swizzle stick with limbs) approached me. “Up for a game?”
Why not? Usually I keep to myself. Sometimes I play one-on-one with my friends, but they are also firmly in their 30s and I like to think I am better than they are. Mostly we just play HORSE, that mildly competitive contest that even little school kids play. A real game would be a good challenge.
So I follow Swizzle to the far end of the adjacent court, toward two other guys who will complete our foursome. One is a pasty-skinned kid with a headband, and the other hulking, baby-faced kid reminds me of Lenny from “Of Mice and Men.” I estimate that all three are college freshmen, at least 20 years younger than I am.
First team to 11 wins.
Swizzle and I are on the same side, and from the moment I in-bound the ball to him it’s clear he’s a competitor. He sinks some buckets from the perimeter, but also manages to twist and turn his way inside to score as well. When he does pass it off to me I feel like he wants to give me a chance, and I’m terrified of letting him down, this utter stranger I just met.
I blow some easy shots, but manage to hit one or two under the rim. But it’s clear Swizzle is pulling the weight. Clearly, all these guys are energized, and I’m nowhere near used to the frantic pace as I struggle to keep up.
Lenny and Headband find a rhythm and keep the score close. On defense, I plant my feet and throw up my arms but Lenny only barrels into me with his bricklayer’s frame, knocking me a few feet back. I guard him again and we repeat the dance: he just keeps dribbling and shoving me back with his rear end, and I just keep shuffling backward with my useless arms stabbing the air, looking silly.
Though we are ahead 8-4, after a few more steamroll jobs on me Lenny banks in a few to make it 8-7. My breathing’s getting heavier and I double over for a second, battling not to show how out of shape I am. Swizzle nails a couple from the top of the key and pulls us to within one point of victory, but I miss three shots in a row with one rejected so thunderously by Lenny I thought the ball would explode. Then I have the ball promptly stolen from me twice and just like that the game’s tied at ten-all. Next point wins it.
A strange, unfamiliar dizziness overcomes me and I take a knee, focusing on a squashed bug on the court to keep from blacking out. I strain for air with the ragged breathing of an asthmatic walrus. (I have a quick vision of the kids rolling over my limp body in search of a medical alert necklace.)
At the start of the night, I felt I could still do anything. But it’s these kids dribbling circles around me (literally) that still have it all ahead of them: astronomy exams, graduate schools, rewarding careers, disappointing jobs, successful relationships, failed marriages, kids, mid-life crises, Nobel Prizes or what have you. So much of their life movies are yet unscripted, and I realize that’s what I resent more than anything.
After all, it’s hard for a man to admit there are things he can no longer pull off, whether it’s starting a career as a blue-mohawked rocker, picking up twenty-one-year-old co-eds at a college bar, or holding his own during in a physical contest with three lousy punks.
Suddenly I straighten up and signal I’m ready to continue. I’m not going down without a fight.
This is no longer four guys playing some insignificant pick-up game. It’s cassette players vs. iPods, Pac-Man vs. Lethal Judgment 4, Chuck Taylors vs. Whatever-$200-sneakers-the kids-wear-nowadays. And even my own teammate is the enemy here
After I receive the in-bound pass Headband keeps swatting at the ball, figuring he can slap it from my cement fingers again, but I dribble protectively. I spot Swizzle dancing around the perimeter before breaking free of Lenny then screaming for the ball. Apparently, this is too important a shot to be entrusted to the Old Guy.
But I reach into my limited arsenal and attempt a move I haven’t used since Ronald Reagan ruled the free world. I take a stutter step to my left, then swiftly execute a jerky pirouette back toward my right all while launching the ball in a sort of spinning, leaping hook shot. I invented it years ago to completely befuddle the defender.
And befuddle him it does here, as I let the shot go. Only thing is, I heave the thing at least fifteen feet higher than I have to. It flies out of my hand like a grenade soaring toward an enemy foxhole, then pauses in mid-air well above the backboard before beginning its downward arc directly over the basket and swishing straight through the net.
Everyone stands nailed to the court slack-mouthed and shell-shocked, not knowing if they had just witnessed a flawless secret weapon unleashed at the perfect moment or the luckiest fluke of a carnival shot since Dr. Naismith first nailed a peach basket to a gymnasium wall.
I offer up my knuckles to each player in what turns out to be some awkward fist bumping, muttering ‘good game’ with each tap, then pick up my Spalding and stride off the court, surprisingly rejuvenated for a man close to flopping down on the pavement only moments ago.
I know I’ll be out there again next week, happy enough to return to my solitary corner of the court shooting free throws, in competition only with myself.
As I swing open the chain link gate door it croaks its resistance and I shut it behind me with a metallic click.