Friday, April 02, 2010

For Love and The Game

If you subscribe to Sports Illustrated, go find the March 15, 2010 edition and flip to the "Point After" column inside the back cover. This issue's column was written by Chris Ballard, the generation X basketball writer. Chris describes his father's love for the game of basketball. His father, approaching 71 years of age, continues to play regularly. It's a nice story about how age and declining skills aren't enough to kill the love of the game.

I thought about this as I took time off this week and headed to the park for a midday picnic with my 11-year old daughter who is on school vacation. We played a little 1 on 1 soccer, then played 1 on 1 basketball. Later we played "horse" in the driveway, as well as a variation of the game that she invented, complete with running commentary from an imaginary announcer. We followed that by taking turns shooting and defending penalty shots in the soccer goal in our front yard. (For the record, she always wins any soccer-related game, even though I honestly try to beat her; and I always win basketball-related games, except when I ease off and let her win.) There's nothing like playing sports with your children, and doing so brings back fond memories of throwing a ball in the yard with my own father, who was not particularly athletic but loved to play catch.

Ballard writes of a recent game with his father, one in which the old guy was defended loosely by some young athletic stud, and the old guy contributed several shots in the game, and eventually the game winner. I know the feeling. At my local health club I've grown into the "old, pudgy white guy" who the young guns don't believe can play. My assignment is often unspoken but I've learned that the young guys expect me to "guard the other team's worst player, if you get the ball pass it right away before you turn it over, and when I drive into traffic after having ignored 2 or 3 open guys, I may pass you the ball from some wild angle in mid-air, and if you catch it you're supposed to make it, and if I throw it out of bounds you're supposed to take the blame for being out of position."

The Saturday morning health club run has disintegrated into the sort of ridiculous facsimile of the game played at the local park, where guys get more exercise barking at each other than they do actually playing basketball. Often I'll be assigned to guard a much more skilled player while a young stud guards a corresponding old guy on the other team. You'd think this would lead to mismatches for my teammate, but no, it means he can be lazy and stay on the defensive end if he doesn't get the ball on a fast break, leaving his defender free to double team. The young guys typically don't recognize a screen and roll, they tend to believe 2 for 10 shooting from 3-point range allows them to have the green light anytime they're open (even moreso when they're well-covered), and they will outright freeze out a guy open on the wing in lieu of crazy drives into traffic where if a crazy shot doesn't fall they'll always call a foul. In these games, one takes pleasure in small successes, like pulling down a rebound and leading a fast break, or making an open jumper, or defending an attack without fouling... because one certainly won't see the results in the stats line!

Other times, I have the luxury of being considered a quality player. On a recent trip to Las Vegas I had the opportunity to play with my friend Mike at his weekly run. I enjoyed several games where I made my open shots, converted my drives and hit the open cutter several times, surprising the locals with my, shall we say, unusual moves. Several months ago I joined a few pickup games at a health club in Palo Alto, and on the first play my guy took me back door and scored an easy layup, snickering all the way. At the other end I took a pass at the top of the key, drove left looking for a cutter and when no one came I finished with a finger roll as my young opponent stood embarrassed that he couldn't defend my slow first step! I also made the game winner on a left-handed reverse layup against the opposing team's tallest defender after a switch, when he clearly didn't expect me to either drive the baseline or shoot the ball. A couple weeks ago I played in high-altitude Denver and while I played okay, my return to NJ was particularly fun as I was unstoppable on my Sunday morning pickup game at the health club. Working out in high altitude helps with one's conditioning for a few days. And on my Monday night run, in a league I help run, we maintain a particular vibe that allows everyone the opportunity to be a hero or a goat, and with few exceptions no one will be called out for making a bad play. Good thing too, or I'd be taken to task quite a bit!

When my kids see me travel a lot but still make time to suit up and play basketball a few times a week, and when they see me return home in a cheerful mood even after a miserable run with young studs who not only play poorly but exhibit poor sportsmanship, I hope they get the message that being able to play sports into middle age -- and hopefully beyond -- is a gift that one should cherish. Whether I'm playing at the park or in the driveway with my kids, or stuck on a squad of studs who won't feed me the ball, I'd much rather be playing a game I love than to be sitting home on the couch. Because sooner or later, that game you live for happens, when your shots drop, your drives are solid, your defense is sound, and your teammates look to pass you the ball. These days that happens pretty infrequently, but once in a while is enough to keep this baller going.