A Sunday-afternoon player of a certain age says his farewell to basketball
By Mark Edmundson
December 1, 2005
In not too long, I’ll play my last game of basketball. I’m 53 now. Few people play past 40; not many at all reach 50 and still play. You’ll have an easier time finding diamonds in the parking lot than finding 60-year-olds going full court. Full-court basketball, observed the narrator of a novel I recently read, is like adultery: it’s a young man’s game. By no one’s count do I qualify as a young man. And yet …
I began playing ball regularly about 10 years ago. Someone invited me to a game made up of guys in their 40s who played every Sunday afternoon from two to four. Games like this proliferate where I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, as they do all over the country. Entrance to this particular game was, at the time, in high demand, and I had the good luck to find a sponsor, a local novelist, to bring me in. A novelist? Yes. But our game is mainly populated by shrinks. We’ve had—with the game running at full tilt—five therapists, along with a foreign-policy guy, a pediatrician, a religious-studies professor, a former New York City cop, an engineer, a builder, a lawyer, and various cruisers through and droppers-in.
The game is played indoors, full court, as I say, and with intensity. There are plenty of disputes, but almost never a screaming argument. It can be rough under the boards—at least one senior member of the game avoids entering the paint on principle—but you’ll never catch an elbow in the nose that’s conceivably intentional. It’s civilized but played to win. The games (we only play three now; it used to be four) go to 30 points, and after they’re over everyone usually shakes hands. Occasionally someone will smash the ball into the floor after an especially bad showing, or look up at the rafters and scream. But eventually he (sometimes it’s me, actually) calms down, plays the game film back in his head, and laughs.
What’s it like to play ball at 53? As everyone who watches the sport knows, the game’s been reinvented over the past three decades. From something resembling ballet, performed by players who were so thin and lithe you felt they were made of the finest porcelain, and who rarely collided, so as to prevent shattering, the pro game has, as the announcers never tire of repeating, “gotten physical.” The NBA is populated now with strapping players who muscle their way to the basket, snatch rebounds from the top of the glass, clear out their opponents, roar, and then rise again like rockets to jam the ball down. Play after play ends in a muscle-bound exclamation point. (The days of shrewd picks and rolls and backdoor cuts and sly passes—a sequence of clauses winding subtly toward the period—have receded.) What happens in pro ball trickles down to our game. So we smack and bounce around more than we probably should. Some of us go down low and grapple with our defenders until we look like a couple of underfed sumo wrestlers.
What happens in the street basketball games in Philly and New York percolates up to flavor the NBA. It’s impossible, it seems, to be called for traveling in the NBA if you fly high enough and explode with martial-arts flair. (Despite what the commentators say, tae kwan do and karate—film style, Jet Lee and Sonny Chiba style—probably feed basketball moves more than ballet and even popular dance.) The game now is rougher—and we are; the game is more high-flying and slick—we’re middle-aged white guys, and, with a couple of exceptions, we’re not.
What’s it like to play ball at 53? Well, I’m not 53, at least not on the basketball court. I’m 26 and 34 and 17 and 48 and, sad to say, I’m frequently what’s got to be well over 60. One of the secrets of age, I’ve learned, is this: you don’t become old or middle-aged all at once. You always have access to earlier times, prior ages, but at least in my case, the access isn’t voluntary. I go out onto the court, and it’s not until I’ve played for half an hour or so that I can figure it out. How old am I today? The way I felt beforehand is beside the point. I’ve stepped onto the court feeling like death and gone on to play with juice to spare.
Juice: that really is the word. A young guy, or one who’s feeling young, finds a force in excess of what he strictly needs. He’s got blessed superfluity and doesn’t have to husband his energy, doesn’t need to save. It’s like a dream. You look into your wallet and find two or three hundred dollars you didn’t expect. You spend it, you look inside again, and hey, there’s more. But sometimes you peer in, sure that you’ve got a last 20 to cover the check, but there isn’t a dollar to be found. I’ve played a lot of games on empty, knowing that I’m going to have to pay tomorrow for today’s deficit spending. I’ll walk like a cripple tomorrow simply for the right to fly a little—no, no, to barely get off the ground—today.
I think that most men my age have some large-scale fiction that they weave against the passing of time. “I can still do this,” we say. “I can still do that.” It might be marathon running, or bike racing, or playing center field for the baseball team (not softball, damn it; softball is for old guys). The sacrifices that we’ll make to sustain this fiction are without end—we’ll diet, we’ll exercise, and, mostly, we’ll live with pains that would collapse a racehorse. Women, I suppose, tend to be artists who compose many, many small lies against the passage of time. They tint their hair, buff their nails, send an injection of Botox through, then another; they isolate the tummy, work the abs, go to yoga, meditate, row and run in shrewd moderation. Their approach is more subtle—a microwar. They understand that to put all your chips on one number—I can still climb, I can dive, sprint; I can still take the ball to the hole—risks total bankruptcy when the bad day comes, as it will, and you can no longer perform. But it’s not quite fair to call these activities “fictions,” not unless you have a higher regard for fiction than most people do. These gestures often show spirit, a stubborn will to fight back against time and to absorb the cost in pain. Take what you want, goes an old Bedouin saying, and then pay for it.
The guys I play with—who range from 40 to 55 or so—are good. A few of them were the quarterbacks on their high school football teams; almost all of them stood out at one sport or another. Some appear to be nearly bionic, nearly interminable men. They don’t get hurt; they float down the court with that fluid, slow-motion bounce that you see white-tailed deer do when the dog barks and scares them off the property. During time-outs, they go up and down on invisible pogo sticks to stay ready. When younger guys—sub-35s—show up to play, the best of the older players rise up like the phoenix, block shots, tip rebounds to themselves from the glass, ram the ball toward the hole. An older player can activate what I think of as an Oedipal leap in a 28-year-old defender, by gently gesturing with the ball and raising his eyebrows a little bit flirtatiously. The kid jumps through the roof of the gym and the old man slides past him for a lay-up—assuming it’s a day when he’s 36, not 70.
From the bench, our game looks slow, as though we’ve all taken our lessons from Larry Bird. But speedsters and slashers find that they can only do so much in the game. We’re steady guys, after all: most of us have been married at least 15 years; we have kids; we know that success comes from many sources, but not least from showing up regularly and doing what you’ve said you will. In later life, most good things happen very slowly; only the bad things tend to happen fast. Middle-aged guys play defense the way they fill out their tax forms—solidly, with a small cheat, a slight nudge or bump, maybe, here and there. On defense, there’s much to be said for keeping yourself between your man and the basket. There’s much to be said for getting a hand up and into his face. Defense requires concentration, being there in a sort of steady present: doing this at middle age is not half bad.
When I play at the University of Virginia gym with younger guys—which I do rarely now; they’ve gotten faster, it seems, quicker, stronger—I study the man I’ll cover in the next game. I’m a literary critic, after all: I try to give him a good close reading. If he can’t go to his left, I’ll overplay him a half-step right. If he’s missed three jumpers in a row, I’ll stand off him, in the paint, and wait until he scores. Mostly I look to see how vain he is. How much is he trying to win by giving his team what it needs from him, and how much is he trying to impress the little crowd of watchers, the cognoscenti clumped at one end of the court? If he’s vain—and ballplayers often are—he’ll likely be thrown by the fact that the old guy doesn’t find him worth covering up close.
Basketball is a game played with the mind, perhaps more than any other that runs at such high speed. This is especially true as you get older, but it should be true all of the time. There has been only a handful of players who can do everything the game demands—jump, shoot, dish, rebound, play defense. Maybe the only player who ever walked onto the basketball court without a single trace of weakness was Michael Jordan. A player who can do it all, or almost all, doesn’t have to interpret the game; everyone else does.
Does he have a game? That’s the first thing you ask about a player. Does he have a repertoire of good things that he can do reliably? And—almost as important—does he have strategies for dealing with his weaknesses? Weaknesses have to be hidden or, better still, compensated for. One of the guys who plays in our game isn’t tall, isn’t fast, and claims to have lousy endurance (though I’ve never seen him sweat). But he’s got a game. He’s a superb shooter at a certain range, 10 to 12 feet, where it is probably the hardest to hit: most NBA players can’t do it consistently. The shot requires both precision and a very quick release—someone’s always coming at you. He knows how to get position under the boards. (Basketball is more like chess than many people imagine. Get your guys configured in the right way, and you’ll prosper.) He’s expert at detecting a slight lean to one side or the other, and when he does, he’s around you. Covering him, I’ve experimented with faking a lean—but, alas, you can’t really fake a lean without leaning.
The process of putting together a half-decent court presence from a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses is one of the most attractive parts of basketball. My own game, elementary and flawed as it is, is like a crude sculpture that I work on, not just when I practice (I don’t do much of that), but in my mind, when I’m carrying in the groceries, or driving my car nowhere in particular. My sculpture is more a rickrack Calder, a sort of jerry-built calliope, than a Michelangelo in luminous marble, but it’s no less engrossing to me for that. I spend some of my time imagining how I’ll get a little less predictable on the court. Next time I’ll throw a fake before I rise (a little) for a hook. The next time I get the ball three feet from the basket, I’ll forget about going straight up—I can’t jump the way I could, time to revise— and try a fadeaway shot.
On some fundamental level, basketball is a game for which, love it as I may, I have no real aptitude. I move too slowly; the signals from my brain take too many detours on the way to my legs and arms. But it’s a good thing for someone who makes his living as a teacher to submit himself to a discipline that doesn’t come naturally. It builds a sort of kindliness and tolerance for students who come with varying abilities—some with seemingly no aptitude at all. Without the genial frustrations of basketball, I’d be more likely to think that stamping my foot might be the best way to get someone who seems utterly unable to understand a word of a poem by Wordsworth to find its flow. Well, I might suggest instead to this student that he can learn to read “Tintern Abbey” a little the way I learned to shoot a hook. Break it down into small, small elements; go one piece at a time; trace all the micromovements. “Long live what I badly did at Clemson”: that’s James Dickey, thinking back to his “spindling explosions” as a running back in college.Well, long live what I do badly enough at basketball—humility, as the critic R. P. Blackmur liked to say, comes through submitting yourself to humiliation from time to time.
This process of imagining a physical act, doing it, then revising it, isn’t far removed from what a writer does. I like to think that the two activities, writing and playing ball, might feed each other. There’s no basketball weakness quite so severe that I can’t figure out a way to begin to compensate; no first draft so chaotic that the right kind of patient, smoothing hand can’t make something out of it. I once heard the novelist Bernard Malamud say that he found revision to be one of the most humanly ennobling things that a person could commit himself to. To be a good reviser, you need the ability to throw yourself out there and, possibly, to make a mess. You also need to put aside doubts and let your thoughts run. A lot of potential artists never become artists because they can’t bear to write rough drafts, and (surprise) they can’t write final drafts the first time through. After the initial burst, you need to be able to look clearly, in a way that’s both harsh and charitable, at what you’ve made.
Maybe what can be done to a page of writing, a canvas covered with a first layer of paint, a jump shot, can also be done to character. I sense that Malamud felt that by learning to revise his pages, he was also getting some practice in revising himself. He was learning to look at himself, to see flaws, to see areas for development, and to savor the strengths and the lusters (of which he seems to have had plenty). You might even say that art and sports have an ethics code in common: the ethics of revision. Some of the most engaging writers are people who seem to have come of age without a lot of verbal facility. Their sentences don’t glide. This has made them revisers, and had the effect of deepening their work. I’m fairly sure this was true of Malamud, but it was also true of Saul Bellow who, despite the amazing fluency of his final products, was a ferocious reviser, standing up over his drafting table, looking out at grimy, gray-stained Chicago, his muse, and giving it one more go. As writers struggle to make the sentences shine like silver or, under certain conditions, radiate the right dull glow, like iron does, they descend more deeply into character, plot, and meaning.
I like reading these writers; it makes me feel as if honest effort might actually pay. For similar reasons, I like to watch great athletes at the end of their careers, when they decide that they’re going to go at things in a new way, because their bodies won’t do what they did before. Bird and Doctor J. and even Magic got slyer and sometimes more humorous in their late phases. Doctor J. would pretend that he was going to sail off like a glider to the hoop, and the young guy on him got ready to jam the ball down his throat and school the old man. But the Doctor would cancel the house call, pull back, and pop a floater through the net. Michael kept trying to do what he’d always done and got sulkier and sulkier when things didn’t go as planned. He could probably have made himself into a player who got 15 assists a night and spent four more years as one of the premiere point guards in the league, but he had to have his 20 points.
Getting older is about substitution, self-revision, finding another way to get it done. As for myself, the basic stuff I have to work with is pretty resistant, something on the order of a brittle brown clay. I’ve got a hook shot (sometimes), I can rebound okay, but I’ve got no dribbling skill and a radically inconsistent outside shot. As a kid, I could hit 20-foot jumpers regularly— top of the key—though that was all I could do. I can’t quite believe that skill has been repossessed, so I often let fly when I shouldn’t. Still, I look on my ability to survive in our Sunday ballgames as an achievement of middle age. I’m better now than I was at 13, or 30, or even 50. I’m slower, maybe even a little weaker— there’s plenty to criticize. But from time to time I can show some court sense, make the right decision quickly, even if that means backing off and clearing out the lane for someone on my team to drive through, or passing the ball to let a better player take the last shot. Basketball, which can look like a game of raw instinct, is a game of second-splitting judgments.
But often I take the judgment bit too far. I over-think when I’m on the court. (Not a surprising vice for a college professor.) In basketball, as in life, I suppose, self-awareness is everything, but self-consciousness, getting the judging faculty too far into play, is a killer. Hitting the right balance between judgment and spontaneity is tough. A lot of gifted ballplayers are low on the self-awareness quotient—that makes them prima donnas on the court and selfish children off. They have no clue about how others see them. Yet, truth be told, such a player probably has more future in the sport than his equally talented, obsessively self-judging twin. What I’m looking for in the game is the chance to get loose, go on a roll, play by educated instinct. I tend to be better in the last game of the afternoon, when fatigue has worn the judging part down, and fused my mind with my tired, temporarily liberated body.
Of course, an inevitable part of playing the game is getting hurt. Then comes rehab. Rehabilitating an injury is one of the more onerous and depressing but also illuminating parts of playing a sport after nature has suggested that you hang it up. Rehab is a matter of figuring out the right thing to do—what physical therapy, what shots, what operation (sometimes), and then being patient. Patience: Buddhist teachers, great teachers of every sort in fact, seem to have all the time in the world. They’re never in a rush. (Oddly, when you’re talking to someone who’s not in a rush, you tend to come more quickly to the point.) There’s a nice story about a Buddhist monk who is visiting New York and is informed by his Western host that if they perform a complex subway-train switch at Grand Central, they’ll save 10 minutes. The two of them emerge from the underground in Central Park and Rinpoche sits down on a bench. “What’s up?” his host wants to know. “I thought we should enjoy the 10 minutes,” Rinpoche answers.
The best image for patience I’ve encountered comes from the Dalai Lama, who says, simply but tellingly, that we should think of
patience as a muscle. Like every muscle, it needs work to be strengthened. When someone tries your patience in the extreme, you can think of him as building strength for you. He’s offering you a visit to the gym, free of charge. And, the Dalai Lama continues, as you build patience, it will become easier, day by day, to be patient, just as a strong woman or man has an easier time pushing a piano across the room than a weakling does. So the long line at the movies that used to send you raving will become no big deal.
Injury rehab is a great training ground of patience. I know: I’ve had tendonitis in both knees (it took a lot of yoga to begin to fix them), tennis elbow (much more common in dentists than in tennis players, and in my case best addressed by a syringe full of steroids), fiery Achilles’ tendons (find a frigid mountain spring and stick your feet in), bad sprains in almost every joint (wrap them tight and keep playing—when you miss a few weeks you double your risk of getting hurt), as well as plenty of non-sidelining injuries. About half the time the fingers on my left hand look like baby cigars. The finger that carries my wedding ring seems permanently enlarged from what was probably a break. Yoga has relieved almost all these things and made me less vulnerable to injuries of every sort, but I remember them pretty well. I had to wait them out.
Patience is the toughest of the modern virtues to acquire, I think, and every time I feel I’m making some progress, I find myself silently screaming at the driver beside me on the road for not detecting—through the use of his paranormal faculties—that I want to get over into his lane. The more we’re immersed in technology, in pushbutton culture, the more we want what we want Now. The high-tech ether we breathe can make us control junkies— people who’d be happy to jump down our own throats, in William S. Burroughs’s memorable image, to digest our dinners.
Many activities that we pursue with particular fervor are attempts to make time go away, to let us live in a pure present. We find pure now, or the illusion of it, in sports, shopping, doing certain kinds of work, watching movies, making love, what have you. The quest for this kind of soul-stabilizing immediacy is probably at an all-time cultural high, and this may be because more and more of us live uncertain, unscheduled lives. Capitalism allows for some very disjointed ways of being. Artists, computer all-stars, freelancing businessmen, athletes: few of them do nine to five. Such freedom can feel liberating, but it brings its own challenges. Into the gaps of inactivity, of empty time, comes anxiety, triggered by the specter of whatever it is you fear most. Then follows the need for lots of diverting hyperstimulants.
Patience is a matter of letting time be as extended duration, not trying to intensify it, so as to stop thinking about . . . well, whatever bad things we don’t want to think about, death being preeminent, I imagine, among them. In rehab, you experience time in exactly the opposite of the way you can on a basketball court, where time—the old god Chronos—recedes, and maybe even disappears, and the mortal weight, what Wordsworth called “the burthen of the mystery,” dissolves.
Coming back from an injury, you can best be quick by being deliberate. You can make haste slowly, as the Romans liked to say, a pretty good formula for conquering the world (and, as I’ve learned and need to relearn time after time, for teaching a good course or for writing a book). And so when I’m hurt, I resolve to stay off the court, and for long periods I can and do. I prescribe regimens of rest; I become patient and doctor at once. But then I walk by the gym and hear the sound of sneakers skidding and sliding, squealing on the gym floor. They’re like strange extraterrestrial creatures communicating with each other in their squeaky language. I wake up then, and whatever’s aching begins to feel much better, thank you, and I want to play.
I once resolved that for some period of time, I wasn’t sure how long it would be, I’d try to be without any ego on the court—play Buddhist ball. I’d do everything I could to make my team win. If that meant never shooting the ball and scooting around to play double-team defense, fine. What it most often meant was giving the other guys on my team all possible chances to score. Every basket, every blocked shot, every steal enhances a player’s quotient of energy. Players feed off success. Just so, a string of failures drains away your verve, your power to explode—and basketball is a game of explosions. It’s rare that there are actually five players full of confidence on the court, and that’s sometimes because teammates steal it from each other. A guy looks good, then better; he looks great. But that leaves out the other players, demoralizes them, and makes the team a loser.
In basketball, you compete against the other team, sure, but also, in a match of Proustian complexity, you compete with your teammates for the ball, for shooting chances, for the right to dribble up court. Every game, especially a game where the players know each other well and value each other’s opinion, is a negotiation about these matters. Push your own prerogatives too far, take too many shots out of your range, and you’ll quickly find yourself being ignored. Your teammates will deny you the ball to bring you into line. Though if they’re wise, they’ll only do it long enough to teach the lesson, not long enough to demoralize you. Watching pickup ball, you’ll frequently see teams where four players have decided to cut out one guy completely. They never pass to him, as open as he may be. If he can’t hit anything, that’s a necessary decision. But a team with only four functional players, against the opponent’s five, won’t keep the court for long.
Playing Buddhist ball, my team often won—or at least that’s how I remember it. But by playing that way, I was robbing myself of some of the game’s intensity. I was refusing to take chances, making a free-flowing activity into a more predictable one, and I was also boring myself slowly comatose. I gave it up at last and began missing my 25-foot jumpers from the top of the key again.
All of the guys that I play with on Sunday are white. Black players have taken part but, for various reasons, haven’t stayed around. Basketball, like football, is a black man’s game, at least in America. Whoever did or didn’t hang a peach basket from a pole to start basketball on its way, black people have invented the game as we know it. There’s a story I ran into once that crystallizes this fact. It’s in Bill Russell’s autobiography, Second Wind, one of the two or three best books about sports I’ve read. (At one point Russell observes that his life has been dominated by two strong impulses, the desire to be utterly self-sufficient and alone, and the desire to be touched. From such candor, much good can come and does.) The story is about a couple of basketball teams, playing against each other somewhere deep in 1950s North America: one team is all white, the other has black players on it and plays what was then called Negro basketball.
The coach of the white team told his players never, never under any conditions, to shoot this newfangled thing, the jump shot. They were men of the two-handed push. They stood square on the floor, and launched the ball from a slight squat, fingers of both hands turned inward and pointed at their noses. They flung it up with real force, as though the thing were a medicine ball. They played the backboard. The black players swatted the two-hand squat shots out of the air, as if they were swatting big drunken flies. With their own jumpers, rising up and up, they scored at will. The white players begged the coach to set them free, let them shoot the J, but no dice. The final score: 144 to 41. Russell being Russell—that is, a very persistent man who could admire a very stubborn one—seems to have held that white coach not only in some derision, but in mild esteem, too. The point of the story, though, is that black players have been the innovators; they’ve extemporized slam dunks and behind-the-back passes and amazing blocks. They’ve made basketball into a story about their prowess and their culture.
My grandfather, born at the turn of the 20th century, remembered games with scores like 10 to 6. He played in a few of them. (He also claimed to remember days when third graders could spell every word in Webster’s Dictionary: “They could out-spell you easy, Bub.”) Basketball in my grandfather’s day was a ferocious defensive struggle, closer to rugby, probably, than to basketball as it is now.
Today’s game has been compared to jazz, another African-American innovation, and not without reason. The dribble provides the syncopation. When you have the ball, it’s your turn to solo. You display your virtuosity. You do what you can do. Your teammates step off and provide an audience, or they get in position to bail you out when you hit the wrong note. What matters is the solo, what matters is the performance. Stanley Crouch, the jazz writer, says that a well-functioning jazz band is something like an ideal democracy. It’s ideal because individuality never gets sacrificed to the group. You’re made better, more than you were, by virtue of having a lot of equals around you, egging you on, cheering for you, but also ready to take your place if you falter.
Ball now is about putting points on the board. The scorer is king. In general, you can’t get college players to play intense defense, unless, it seems, you coach at Duke, because defense takes energy, and if you’re depleted, you can’t score. High-scoring, contemporary basketball is about excess, superfluity. It’s an orgy of quick, small victories—every basket is a triumph of repartee in an edgy exchange. It evokes a life where you have to turn things your way, to win, quickly and often. (Every game is an interpretation of life.) And to this, there’s a certain desperation, as well as a loopy optimism. There’s a too-muchness to the game. It’s as though people born poor, scrimping and hustling all the time, needed a game where the wealth of success was constant. People who love soccer, where a single goal is often enough to win a game, are attuned to trial and failure on a large scale and to seismic shifts of fortune that are hard to reverse. Soccer, maybe, is a game fit for cultures where people know how much they’ve been made by history. Things change slowly, but when they do change, it’s often irreversible.
A basketball court is one of the few places in American society where, in general, blacks are in charge. They set the terms for whites, not the other way around. They tend to be the stronger players; they tend to have it their way. When whites step on the court, they sometimes try to talk in a semi-black style, a tribute to the rulers. But it’s a tribute that can go only so far— if a white guy sounds too black, it’s like bringing a supremely expensive birthday present to a party for someone he barely knows.
Most games are run by alpha males and the sort of alpha male who does the running determines the sort of game it’s going to be. The alpha is usually the best player on the court, but not always. Even now when Magic Johnson steps onto a court, he runs things through a combination of brains and spirit and ability, no matter who else is there. Different games bring forth different alphas. The guys at one of the courts at the University of Virginia sometimes seem as though they’ve been condemned to be there. It appears that they’re serving out a prison sentence: 10 years at hard basketball. They once played for the joy of it, no doubt, but over time they’ve discovered that if they don’t play, if they don’t exert themselves in just this way, then the pressures will build and build and they won’t be able to sit without twitching, talk without screaming. The alpha at the UVA gym was for a long time a vinegary guy, who behaved like a hired overseer. His play was joyless. He was smug, ceremonial, and condescending. He never smiled. But he was shot through with some kind of hyper-masculine force that made him an inevitable figure of authority on the court. He had more iron in his constitution than anyone else. When he called a foul, it stuck. When he said the ball was out of bounds, it was.
The guys at the University of Virginia gym seem to derive one solid satisfaction from their game. Here things go unsentimentally. No one gets a free pass for race, gender, sexuality, wealth, lineage, connections, or good looks. There is no handicapping whatsoever. If you don’t meet the standards of the game, you’ll be driven, sometimes gently, sometimes not, away from the court. You won’t ever get the ball; you’ll be the object of jagged derision. You’ll get chosen last or not at all. Winner keeps the court; if you lose, you sit for a long time. No one, needless to say, likes losing all that much, so almost everyone tries to load his team with talent. In a subtly handicapped culture like ours, it’s probably a relief for some people to have a place to go where the quotient of sentimentality is a little akin to what it was on the floor of the Roman Colosseum.
The alpha on the court is often a barking bull sea lion who keeps everyone in line; or if he’s shrewd, he’s vinegary and tough, like the UVA guy, and he exerts control through subtler arts of intimidation. The alpha player in our Sunday game is something special. Or was. Sad to say, he’s all but gone.
Mack can now play once every month or two, no more than that. He’s got no cartilage left in one knee—when he runs, bone scrapes on bone. But it’s fair to say that he’s still in some sense at the heart of the game. Mack’s got movie-star good looks: if he went to Hollywood and the camera liked him, he’d be a fresh incarnation of Cary Grant. Mack would play characters who are charming, generous, gifted, and without guile—which is about the way he actually is. Mack was a high school all-sports star. He was recruited by dozens of colleges and ended up at Dartmouth, where he soon blew out his knee and became . . . became a charming pre–Wall Street econ major? No, he majored in art history. As I came to see, beauty is Mack’s true game.
He once said, and in time I came to believe him, that he’d rather lose beautifully than win ugly, at least in a pickup game. By this he meant that he’d prefer to have lots of exquisite plays, lots of give and goes, picks and rolls to the baskets, behind-the-back passes, sharp cuts to the hoop (“pass and cut” was his favorite on-court mantra) than board crashing and high-elbow hooks. In the days when I first joined the game, Mack could pull back and wash away a 10-point lead to win a game pretty much when he wanted to. But for the most part, he didn’t. What he liked was to make other people look good. Get half a step on your guy, slide behind his back to the basket, and Mack would get you the ball. He seemed constantly on the lookout for moments when you got out of your standard game and tried to do something that you hadn’t tried before. When I was learning a hook shot, he never missed a chance to feed me the ball in the post. You felt that Mack wasn’t only developing his own game: in his mind he seemed to have ideas about where everyone was and how each of them might improve a little, surprise themselves, do something that they could remember. Mack taught us how to play for the lovely moment or two in a game when you do something that’s graceful and sweet and a great surprise to you and to your tired body.
After you play with Mack for a while, you see that the art history major makes a lot of sense. He’s more visually alert than anyone else on the court—cut and he’ll see it. Relax on defense, show it in the slackness of your face, and he’ll fly around you. (He’ll fly around you anyway.) He can probably close his eyes and tell you the color of the jersey everyone on the court is wearing.
Mack’s basketball high aestheticism has a price. In general, he’s a charitable player and tends to blame himself for foul-ups. But when someone mars a thing of beauty, missing one of his behind-the-back passes not from ineptitude, but from laziness, from not paying attention, it’s like a dauber painting a streak across the face of a masterpiece. He sounds like Oscar Wilde, dejected by a bad performance of The Ideal Husband, where the actors have fallen asleep on the boards. Then come the epigrams—which can leave his teammates covered with verbal darts, St. Sebastian style. But this is the exception and not the rule. The usual from Mack is an almost astonishing good humor and—a quality rare among middle-aged men—what appears to be a pure joy in being alive.
“I want it; I want it; I want it,” say The Who. Then comes the kicker: “You can’t have it.” That’s often the anthem for middle age. Aristotle said that the basic feeling of existence is a sense of mild irritation. If this is true, and it may be, then Mack is an exception: his default setting is high good humor. He’s grateful to be; he feels lucky to breathe.
So basketball, with Mack, was a world of remarkably good humor, good humor with a range. It’s basketball protocol to let your teammates know when they’re likely to be picked off, blocked by an opposing player from the blind side. But when there are no picks in evidence, you can call that, too. “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” one guy said. “Is this a basketball game or a Beckett play?” someone else wanted to know.
Not long ago someone told a joke at the game, an actual stand-up, got-it-from-elsewhere joke, that ran this way. A beautiful woman walks up to a guy, oh-about-our-age, in a bar. She smiles and says, “For $500 I’ll do anything, absolutely anything.” Our man contemplates. He hasn’t had a chance like this in a long time. He ponders some more. Finally, he knows exactly what he’d like. “Fine,” he says, “paint my kitchen.” Everyone laughs the laugh of guys who are in most cases happily domestic in their lives, if not fully domesticated. Yeah, that’s what we’ve come to, but happily, willingly, more or less.
It’s tough now for males to talk about things they do together without coating it all in a dense bubble wrap of irony. Guys playing ball are nostalgists, trying to sink back to primal horde behavior; at least that’s the current myth. But guardians of virtue would be surprised at how little talk there is on Sunday afternoon from two to four that they’d feel compelled to contest. What we have at the very bottom, I think, is an intense sense of gratitude for still being in the game. We’re thankful even if, for some of us, there’s no one, no force, no great prime mover, to thank for having a chance to immerse ourselves, for a brief time, in this often beautiful, frustrating, improvised art.
Why play at 53? To pretend, I suppose, that the warm days will never cease, the autumn breeze will keep blowing, and we’ll never end. Our sons are beginning to play in the game now, though my own oldest boy, who is 16, hasn’t taken the step yet. His jaw is still too close to elbow height. So maybe the game will live beyond us, but in a sense we’ll still be there, alive in the elastic, fresh bodies of our sons and maybe a few daughters. But all of us in the game probably feel on some level that we’ll play forever. What is there that you can’t rehab? Surely you can bring a knee back, an elbow. Maybe you can rehab a whole body from the grave of the sofa and the pillows and the chips and beer.
Why do I play? To tell the vitalizing lie, I suppose, about keeping on keeping on, to flirt a little with intimations of immortality. But when I really ponder the question, what comes to mind is an isolated moment. The ball comes floating in and I catch it cleanly (surprise); I take it into the post, tip a shoulder to raise my defender, then go up myself high, high, as high as five decades and too much zinfandel and steak cooked rare allow. As I rise, I arc the ball in my right hand, up along the length of my body, then with a wrist pivot, bring it overhead, so I’m a single straight line, a needle taking a stitch in the air. Softly, I send the ball off the tips of my fingers. No backboard, no rim, no bounce at all: for once it flows softly through the hoop and makes a kissing sound inside the net. It’s perfection, this moment, or as close to it as I’m ever going to come. The shot shines in my mind, cool and diamond sharp. One time, I’ve managed to do something absolutely right. Will I ever, ever be able to do anything like it again?
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.
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