It had been a week since I’d found the Zone in a game up at the La Jolla Y, and at my age you don’t get that fix often. Now it was still in my arms, as if they twitched to hold a ball, bring it up off the one- or two-dribble at the wing, and fire it down that long groove of air that led to the basket. In the Zone, defenders came at me in slow motion, their fingertips waving beneath my palm as I let go at the apex of a jump shot. Let it rain!
So it rained. And on one lonely night, at at 45, 6-8, white, 230 pounds and holding, with no one watching but a teenage timekeeper, it rained again on the parched hardwood of my personal addiction. On a floor in a decent league where at least half the guys played in college 10 to 20 or more years ago, and a few in the pros, I nailed down 17 field goals, whole clumps of them in a row, in an old man’s pantomime of Rick Barry back at the San Francisco Civic, except then I was 17 and watching from the sopping, stinking air of the balcony. We could see the stretch marks in Nate Thurmond’s bunched shoulders, and we rose from our seats when Al Attles made one of his nightly leaps over the rows of spectators sitting courtside in folding chairs. Ohhh, man! Did you see that? Did you see that?
The Zone in La Jolla, 28 years after those worshipful nights at the Civic, was ruined at game’s end by adrenaline-fueled stupidity, when I goal-tended a teammate’s shot from the deep corner. Cutting in from the opposite side, I tried to cuff-dunk the ball as it came off the rim, but too soon. Zebra arms waved it away with the same motion baseball umpires use to indicate “safe,” except in our game it means basket interference. We lost by one. I walked off the court with a clear vision of the ball bouncing off the back rim. His shot was coming out, wasn’t it?
That night, home to a dark house, kids and wife asleep, I showered in the spare bathroom in order not to wake anyone up. It was almost 11:00 p.m. Our game hadn’t started until 9:45. I knew I’d be awake until 1:00 a.m. or later, channel surfing for a college game, even though I’m not all that interested in watching.
I play. I don’t like to watch. I play a contact team sport long after my days of organized sports are over. The coaches are gone. The scholarships. The Big Game nerves when I walked on the same court with Bob Lanier, George Trapp, John Gianelli, or Sidney Wicks and actually had to guard these people. The recruiting bullshit. All that’s left is the game, but that’s all I ever wanted in the first place.
You don’t give up basketball. It gives up on you. The ball, your willing servant, disappears on the dribble, stolen again by someone with younger legs, quicker hands. The rim grows smaller. Tighter. Players talk about a Lid On It. Rims have lids, like filmy trap doors that open less and less often. The knees ratchet down as if they were aging tools left out in the rain, and your Achilles tightens into a hard, inflexible rope ready to let loose with one of those sickening pops you can hear all over the gym.
One day it occurs to you that you’ve been playing the game at least two, maybe as much as five times a week since you were about ten. Today the kids start even earlier. There is no offseason. It means that I’ve played more than 4000 games where someone’s been sucking on a whistle, maybe another few thousand where we call our own. Is it too much? That night, after one of my best games in years I began to think so; and it was, for me, the ultimate admission of mortality. I sat in the dark, feeling the chill set in after super-heating my body for an hour, ready to answer my wife when she awakened and sleepily asked, “Who won?” It would be a good night to let go. End of year. Played great. Lit It Up. I also knew that the next time I played I might score only six or eight points. It seemed to happen a lot lately. But we had lost. I can’t quit on a loss.
Getting rid of the pain, however, might be worth it.
There is a morning after for basketball players of any age. The first trip to the bathroom is a slow one, crippled. You pull yourself off the toilet with the shower curtain, towel rack, or sink edge, because your knees hurt. Hurt bad. Like Earl Woolridge said to me on the phone, “My wife, she don’t like me to play no more. But I get me some WD-40 on these knees, and we’II run sometime.”
By mid-morning you’re oiled, feeling looser. The thought comes back. Maybe a game on the way home from work. Drop by the Pillbox and see who’s there. Hell, why wait until after work? Maybe sneak out of work around 11:15, tell the receptionist Big Meeting, Won’t Be Back Until Two Or So, and see who’s runnin’ at the downtown Y at noon on what is probably the oldest floor in the county! The Y is an echoing box where you can’t shoot from some spots because a banked oval running track overhangs the corners. Players sometimes call out “Rookie!” when a new player’s shot hits the ceiling.
Of course, it’s not good that you always seem to come back from your Working Lunches with a red face and damp hair, not good at all. But maybe you were just hustling down the sidewalk like you do sometimes, feeling the spring when you take the curb. You got it. Push off the left foot a little, bring the right in. Balance.