Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Very Final Four

I’ve been shooting a lot of baskets these days. Okay, “shooting baskets” would imply that the ball generally goes in the basket. More accurately, I’ve been shooting at a lot of baskets these days. Anyway, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which have made up a large share of my TV viewing of late, inspired me to revisit my own playing days (six action-packed weeks between January and March 1982).

I played “YBA” basketball that year, and as I recall, my speciality was taking the desperation half-court shot at the end of each half – largely because my percentage on these shots was around the same as for my lay-up attempts. After 7th grade, I decided that there were better uses of my spare time in the winter – though, strangely enough, my Dungeons and Dragons skills have been put to even less use than my basketball skills in the intervening years.

So I didn’t play much hoop (that’s what the kids are calling it, right?) for years. Then, one day my freshman year of college, a bunch of us decided to play a pick-up game. Unfortunately, it was around 11:30 pm and the campus gym was closed, so we went looking for an outdoor court with lights. Apparently, such a thing didn’t exist in Catonsville, Maryland in 1987, so we settled for one that was adjacent to a parking lot, so that we could illuminate it with our car headlights. It didn’t take long to figure out why the operators of Madison Square Garden don’t light the Knicks’ court with car headlights – they worked great if we wanted to see the ball while we were dribbling, but much less great if we wanted to, say, see the basket. After taking a couple of rebounds off my face, I hung up my Chuck Taylors again. Not that I ever owned Chuck Taylors. My basketball skills barely warranted Rip Taylors.

And so it was that, nearly two decades later, I started shooting baskets at my local health club. I’ve been working out early in the morning, partly because I actually feel better for the rest of the day, but mostly because there’s no one there to see my awful basketball skills. So I was taking a calculated risk by going to the gym on a Sunday afternoon, when – potentially – there might be other people there. People who had played basketball since Larry Bird retired.

Right off the bat I was in trouble. There was a volleyball league using half the court, so the basketball players (or hacks, as in my case) were limited to just two hoops. I shared one with a kid who seemed well on his way to the same success I enjoyed in my YBA playing days. After about 10 minutes of chasing down each other’s errant shots before they rolled into the volleyball game, he departed.

Enter “A.Z.”. An eighth-grader. Just as I was deciding whether I’d try to make one more shot before calling it a day, the kid walks up. “One-on-one?” he asks. I take off my headphones so I can tell if he’s seriously asking me to play one-on-one. He is. I look him over. 5’2”, maybe 5’3”. (I think: “At least he won’t dunk on me.”) He’s got the baggy basketball shorts, the Air Jordan t-shirt, and the basketball shoes straight out of a Marvin the Martian cartoon, shoes that cost more than my first car (a ’78 Ford Fairmont, eventually donated to the Allegheny County Vocational and Technical High School). I’m wearing nylon sweatpants and a t-shirt from my wife’s high school. I instantly imagined myself losing, 21-0, to this kid.

Reading this on my face, he says, “Up to 11.”

You fellow 36-year old guys in blogland know exactly what happened next.

“Yeah, okay,” I responded (“What the hell am I doing?” was what I was thinking.). “I get the ball first. I haven't played in, like, 10 years, I explained sheepishly.”

I’ll spare you the actual play-by-play, but if CBS’s Verne Lundquist was calling the game, he would have said I showed a lot of character and plenty of mental toughness. (Dick Vitale would have said something like, “You gotta play the game more than every seventeen years, BAY-BEEEE…”) I lost, 11-7, but considered each of my three baskets great moral victories. I hit a three-pointer, a fade-away jumpshot, and what a taller person could have called a “sky hook”, but which I’ll have to term a “ground hook”. And A.Z. (his actual name, so he told me) was pretty darn good. After he hit his winning shot, I gave him what I hoped seemed like a cool handslap/handshake, but which probably more resembled a 36-year old guy trying to seem cool. To his credit, he didn’t sound too incredibly patronizing when he said I was pretty good for some one who hadn’t practiced in 10 years.

Yeah, I knew it had actually been 18 years. But I figured we’d all be better off if he didn’t realize I’ve been this bad since before he was born.

Frankly, I can live without that kind of cheap irony in my life.

1 comment:

Carol Davidson said...

This is a delightful story. I love it.