[FROM THE ARCHIVE: 2008]
There was a time, just a few glorious years, when I could almost dunk a volleyball. Sadly, the ability to dunk a volleyball was not one that translated into any actual benefits. I never quite reached the next step of actually being able to dunk a basketball -- a skill that would've earned points in basketball games and brought me untold personal glory.
This was in the salad days of my youth, in the first years of college. Back then, I would pace back from the basket and prepare to take off at a run from my left foot. I felt like I could float perpetually upwards, that I had no mass tying me to the earth, that the rules of gravity would wink at me and give me a brief, joyous pass.
It's now sixteen years later. It causes me pain to write that sentence. I can no longer nearly dunk a volleyball. I'm thrilled if I can glance the rim with my fingertips. My best basketball years, and my high-flying days of dreaming of graduating from the volleyball to a regulation-size basketball, are irrevocably behind me.
This truth is driven home in a particularly merciless and blatant manner every time I step onto the court in a pick-up game at the 24 Hour Fitness in Altadena. I was excited when Mrs. Octopus and I joined the gym a few weeks ago because it was a "Magic Sport" facility featuring a full-sized, wood-floor basketball court with six hoops. During our introductory tour of the gym, I noticed that the guys out on the court playing that day seemed significantly more skilled, athletic, much younger, and taller than me, but I didn't dwell on that too much at the time, believing that I was still young and able to play with anyone.
In the weeks since we joined, I've played pick-up every time Mrs. Octopus and I've been to the gym -- six or seven times now. As every fan of pick-up basketball knows (including our President-elect), the basic rules of pick-up are universal and observed: if you call "Next" before anyone else does, you have the next game, against the team that wins the current game. You can choose any four players to play on your team, including players from the team that loses the preceding game, though etiquette dictates that you should pick players who haven't yet played before you pick players from the losing team. This last rule of etiquette ensures that everyone who wants to play -- no matter how useless or pathetic-looking -- gets to play.
These ancient and long-honored rules of pick-up allow me to continue to play at an exalted pick-up forum such as the 24 Hour Fitness in Altadena. No one would otherwise be looking to add the 5' 9" Indian guy in his mid-thirties with the rubber outdoor Spalding ball and the blindingly white New Balance high tops to their team. But by calling "Next" as soon as I enter the gym, or, alternatively, waiting patiently on the sidelines until whoever has Next is obligated by the rules of decorum to pick me up, I always manage to find my way into a game.
The rules that mandate that I have an equal right to play do nothing to mandate my equality once on the court. I've reached the point in my basketball lifespan -- a day I never thought would actually arrive -- where I'm that old guy: eager to play, but unable to keep pace with the lightning quick teenagers, unable to leap with the twenty year-olds, and often reliant on craft, wile, and elbows. In a word, all about the box-out, the solid pick, and the hustle play. At the Altadena 24 Hour Fitness, I'm often the worst player on the court. The truth of this is regularly revealed to me in a ruthless basketball version of natural selection, where the opposing team quickly singles me out as the elderly, infirm prey, a slow, soft, tasty meal, just waiting to be blown by to the basket, to be dramatically blocked on a feeble drive, or to have the ball easily snatched away as I lamely try to cross half court. Opposing players yell out to their teammates "Take him!" or "Take that ball away!" They are only doing what is natural and proper.
I was never a great basketball player. The heights of my career were probably my two years playing on the JV team in high school -- and I never starred on that team. But my coach, a wonderful, generous, and incredibly hairy man who taught photography and drawing for decades in the Art Department, always said that I had a lot of "raw potential." And I always felt like I did. I was quick, I hustled, I was a "leaper." If only I worked on my left hand, developed a better passing game, honed a mid-range jump shot -- I could be really good. I would go to the gym and practice these things, long after high school, and after years of intramural ball in college, in the hopes of getting better -- in the hopes of being really good. Through high school, college, and as recently as this past summer, I would have a recurring dream, in which I'm finally able to float for longer than seems possible, neither rising nor falling, but gliding in the air toward the rim, almost at eye-level with the basket, two hands on the ball directly above the hoop.
I'm now at the stage where I may never be better, and may in fact only get worse, as I lose a step every year I creep closer to thirty-five, and then forty. I have no business on the court with guys who are throwing alley-oops to each other off the backboard. And it is in fact a perfect sign of my decline and autumnal basketball season that I'm writing about this. As the great New Yorker cartoon says, "Introspection is for losers." And that is where I am. I never became a great basketball player, just as I never became a great soccer player. That's simply not what I was capable of or meant for, and I can accept that. The mind's natural defenses will say never mind, you're better off anyway, athletes are idiots, you've got better, more important things in your life, sports are frivolous and pointless -- but I reject all of these ego-defenses. I can't think of any life that would be more joyful than one in which one earns one's living playing a sport that one both excels at and loves. This, I recognize, is the thought process that leads middle-aged fathers to place impossible expectations on their children to fulfill their own thwarted sports ambitions.
But this is all okay, and I can accept that not all of us were meant to succeed in every way. I believe I'm writing this in part for myself, as a reflection on this strange pivot point in life, and for those who may share my current plight of reaching the point where our basketball games won't be getting any better.
I'll likely continue to hobble out onto the court in Altadena. I'll expect to play, but I won't expect to win.