Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Careers: A love affair, interrupted

In March, five days after my intramural team won the league title, I was playing pickup ball. I drove the lane, jumped, landed, and felt my left knee come apart. The pain was incredible and I knew that I was in serious trouble. My ACL was blown. I had surgery, followed by months of physical therapy.

I thought about retiring from basketball. I figured that I had had a good run of it, and I had reached the age (35) when most professionals begin practicing their color commentary. Now obviously I'm no professional, but I was left wondering whether I had reached hoops menopause.

Unsurprisingly (if you know me), I dismissed the possibility of retirement pretty quickly. I love basketball too much, and the months off just underscored how important the game is to my life. Retirement felt like an unwanted divorce. ("Baby please! We can work this out!") Within weeks I was doing dribbling drills in my garage. I couldn't wait to start physical therapy, rehabilitate my knee, and get back to playing. I would ride my bike to the park, sit in the grass near the basketball courts, and pretend to read a book while ogling the pickup games. The only thought in my head: "I need to get back out there."

Well, I'm back out there. I started playing a few weeks ago and told myself I'd take it slow, which I have, but not by choice. I'm taking it slow because I am slow. Amazingly, I'm ok with this. I'm just so happy to be playing again that I don't care about how good I am. My stamina is poor and my shooting can best be described as erratic, but my ballhandling is solid (drills in the garage) and my court vision is undiminished. Instead of trying to be mid-career Jason Kidd, I'm happy to be late-career Mark Jackson. I don't need to be an alpha dog anymore.

Priorities matter. Younger players often don't have fun unless they win. I have fun no matter what. Winning is important to me, but not at the expense of camaraderie, honor, and the sheer animal joy of playing. Winning is not what I have been missing. Glory is not what I have been missing. Basketball is what I have been missing. And here's the actual bottom line: you don't end a 20-year affair because your lover inadvertently gave you a boo-boo.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The emotional complexity of an intramural championship

So my team has won the intramural championship. Overall, it's great. We worked really hard, came together as a team, beat some excellent opponents, and truly had a blast during the season. The playoffs were challenging and exhilarating. As the number two seed, we cruised through the first couple of rounds, then faced an extremely tough team in the semifinal with one extraordinarily skilled playera former D1 shooting guard. Luckily, they had just played an exhausting quarterfinal, while we won ours with ease. (The semifinal was the second of two games on the same night.) Because they were tired and we were not, we pulled away in the second half and won by 20.

We had expected to play the number one seed in the final, but incredibly, they lost their semifinal game because they could only field five guys and basically ran out of gas. So we faced the twelve seed, the defending intramural champion and a team that was much better than their seeding would suggest. (Also, a team with a ridiculous name: "O U NO FO SHO.") The game was close throughout
both teams playing with real passionbut our best players went into high gear at the end and iced it. Afterwards, we got our championship t-shirts and had our picture taken for the website and a banner that will hang in the gym's fieldhouse. I should have been elated, and part of me was, but it was more complicated than that.

I had sat on the bench during the most crucial stretches of the final game so that our best five could play more minutes. This was the right thing to do, but after the game, I wondered if I should have felt bad about not contributing more. I definitely thought that I had done my part during the season, but at the same time, I think that the team could have won without me. Even though I was technically the captain (because I had filled out the registration form), I was also a replaceable part.

I've played on league teams where I was the best player, which I did not really like, but I've never played on a team where I was one of the worst. Intellectually, I was able to accept my reduced role, but when the buzzer sounded in the championship game, my animal ego stung more than I thought it would. As our team picture was being taken, I had a couple of dispiriting thoughts. First, how much longer can I play at this level? This season was tough on me, as I was constantly matching up with quicker, stronger players. Second, will I continue to be ok with being a role player? Will my role get smaller and smaller? How small will it have to get before I am not ok with it?

I have some time to think about these things, but next year, when I look up at our championship banner, I wonder if I will feel pride, guilt, or both.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Glory: Too old to celebrate?

Last night we were having a great pickup session at the university gym. I was on a team with some good players and we had won two games in a row. A couple of guys I had never seen before assembled a team to play next. They were both wearing shirts indicating that they had played college football, and they both looked like college football playersthick, strong, athletic. They also seemed kinda mean. They didn't interact with other players in the gym and exuded an air of ruthless, cutthroat competitiveness. Now I know that in America, we celebrate this attitude. "Kobe is an assassin." "MJ will rip your heart out and eat it." But the culture of pickup at our gym is one of intense but friendly competition. Most everyone plays to win, but it's a fairly close-knit group and there is a lot of mutual respect and admiration.

As we started to play, I immediately found myself hating the football players. They were really surly and griped about everything
fouls, traveling, out of boundsI think you know this type. They didn't appear to be having any fun. Unfortunately, I was guarding the "smaller" of the two and he was killing me. Three pointer in my eye. Surreal, hanging layup in traffic . . . and one. Ankle-breaking crossover leaving me in the dust. At one point, I fouled him and offered him possession. He grabbed the ball, shot me a nasty look, and walked away without saying a word. I was feeling really bad about myself (and absolutely despising him), but at the same time, my competitive instincts were kicking in. I did not want to lose to these guys. I knew that if we lost, I'd spend the whole night thinking about it, simmering in my frustration.

We play games to nine straight by ones and twos. I know that this is stupid, but it's part of the culture. I'd like to change the scoring system to twos and threes, but I think that math education has gotten so bad in this country that many people are incapable of counting in such large increments.

The score was 8-7 them (i.e., they could hit any basket to win but we needed a three-pointer). My man had scored five of their eight
. I had only scored once, although I had assisted on three or four other baskets. The ball was inbounded to me and I started racing up the court ahead of my teammates. Often I will do this to draw the attention of the defense, allowing a trailing teammate an open cut to the hoop, whereupon I will drop an easy dime. But this time I was intent on shooting. Not only did I want our team to win, I wanted my man to feel the sting of the loss most acutely. As I came across halfcourt the entire defense sagged back. Without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on a long three and drained it, winning the game.

I freaked out
in both triumph and relief. I turned and ran down the court, arms raised, yelling "WHAT?! WHAT?!" as if in disbelief. It felt amazing. I saw the guy I was guarding flop against the bleachers and throw a towel over his head. My teammates and I exchanged hi-fives as we strolled to the water fountain. At that moment, I felt that my night had been made, that I would sleep soundly replaying the sweet swish of that last shot in my dreams.

But soon after I started to feel bad. Had I acted in an unsportsmanlike manner? If the football players had won, I bet they would have walked off in smug silence, without explicitly rubbing our faces in it. The knowledge that they had beaten us would have been enough. Why did I feel the need to twist the knife? And aren't I too old to be hooting like a teenager? As the only faculty member who plays regularly, I should be trying to set a good example. To make it worse, two players on the other team were people that I really like
including the best female player in the gym. Do they think less of me because of my outburst? Clearly, it wasn't about them, but they had also endured the loss.

I think that one reason I felt so guilty about my actions is that they were deeply reflective of my insecurities about aging. As much as I have worked to accept the deterioration of my game, I still find it hard to lose to young, arrogant players. I guess I want them to know that they, too, will get old and that one day, there will be even younger players seeking to humiliate them. But with my friends, I'm frequently talking about those who play honorably and those who do not, and even though the initial adrenaline rush of that game-winner was awesome, in retrospect my post-shot behavior did not seem particularly honorable.