Friday, August 08, 2008
Careers: Being old and new, part 2
Things are coming together basketball-wise here in Denver. I've found a pretty good Sunday afternoon run and I've also started to play a little at my new school's gym. The games there are good exercise and fairly fun, but they've definitely highlighted the fact that I am significantly older than most players on a college pickup court. Luckily, I look young and can pass for a student-type, but as we have said many times on this blog: it's not how old you look, it's how old you feel.
Yesterday I was at the school gym shooting free throws by myself when what appeared to be the entire women's basketball team rolled in. I wasn't sure what to do, so I asked one of the players if they were practicing. She said that they were just playing pickup and that I was welcome to join in. I ran with them for a couple of games, but pretty much stayed out of the way and kept quiet. The players were really nice, but I felt like I was intruding and I absolutely did not want to be the doofus who tried too hard to impress all the ladies. After a while, some regular joes—mostly college-aged—started to play on the next court over. I told the women I was chatting with on the sidelines that I was going to "go play with the civilians" and one of them replied "yes, you should." Very subtle.
Eventually, the civilian game got enough players for full court and we started to run. It was a decent game and I was one of the better players on the court, so feeling outclassed or out of place were not issues. But during (and between) games I noticed that the other players seemed to be taking the outcomes very seriously—often criticizing teammates for defensive lapses and poor shot selection. Losing players seemed to be genuinely upset as they sat and waited for next game.
Now that I'm an older player, it's easy for me to forget how important everything seems to younger guys, and how, so often, basketball outcomes stand in for their larger senses of self worth. I've played so much pickup ball in my life that every outcome—from the most devastating loss to the most unlikely victory—has happened to me a million times. Don't get me wrong, I'm competitive and I always play to win, but the disappointment of getting smushed on the court does not linger emotionally for me any more. I know that there will always be another game, and that all wins and losses eventually fade into obscurity. To me, what matters the most is one's reputation as a competitor and a sportsman.
After games, I would go and shake hands with every person on the other team, telling them that they played well (whether they had or not) and that the game was a lot of fun (whether it was or not). Many of the young guys actually seemed surprised by this—like you're not supposed to commiserate with the enemy or something, and that "fun" is not really what pickup ball is about. It reminded me of how much my perspective on recreational hoops has changed over the years, and that for younger guys, victory and personal performance seem far more important than camaraderie and sportsmanship.
So while I will continue to play at the school gym because it is close and convenient, I'd like to find a group of older players to run with. I may look young, but man, I feel old.