I had never heard of basketball for men 45-and-over. It sounded like a contradiction in terms, like "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence." I thought, What in the world would men over 45 do with a basketball once they got it?
I had seen men that old deal with the game only once, several years ago at an old-timers' game held the day before the NBA All-Star Game in Indianapolis. It was gross. All my retired heroes were on the court at once, panting and sweating, grunting and dragging their Buddha bellies (a fan's designation, to be sure) up and down the court until the merciful timekeeper buzzed them off the floor. They looked like Wild Kingdom answering the question "Where do the hippos go in winter?" Thinking back on it now, I believe the median age on the floor was actually much younger than 45.
So what would mere mortals—amateur basketball junkies existing between their late 40's and Forest Lawn—do with the game if allowed to play? The question was important to me because I am a 50-year-old hoops junkie. It was prompted by an announcement that I read last year in the local community center's newspaper about a "Men"s Open Basketball League." Three hefty columns gave all the pertinent information. There would be a $35 fee for the season. Right underneath that article, in three scrimpy lines, was a notice for 45-AND-OVER BASKETBALL, SUNDAYS 9 TO 11, NO FEE.
No fee. No money. No shirts. No referees. No timekeepers. No scorekeepers. No teams. None of the things the Men's Open League had. Yeah, and no league—just "basketball," on Sunday mornings. Making a commitment to play was not easy for a man who eats precisely one half a banana, one cup of skim milk and three fourths of a cup of oatmeal for breakfast every day, just to avoid the chaos of morning decisions. But I was prepared to adjust. I needed to play bad.
Although I had played mostly intra-murals in my youth, I missed the roar of the crowd, the jostle of bodies, the contact, the sweat, the bite-squeak of gym shoes on hard lacquered floors, the picks and the rolls, the competitive edge—yes, the thrill of the game. Why I thought I would find this with men pushing 50, I don't know, but that should have been my first clue that I belonged with this group. My judgment was slipping.
These guys are not engaged in competitive activity. We guys are not engaged in competitive activity. What we are engaged in is hard to tell. But we talk about it every Sunday in the locker room. We come in to change and get started while the Men's Open League is coming off the court. We hear their bantering, "Nice shooting, Carl" and "Where the hell was our defense?" and "Boy, did you see Keith with that dunk at the half? He was airborne from outside of the foul line."
When we come in after our session, we talk about our prostates and hair restorers. I'm not sure whether this is due to short-term memory loss or because nothing really did transpire while we were out on the court. We come in and take off our jocks and wonder what we were protecting. In our group, which on a given Sunday can range from six to 10, everybody leaves on his warmup suit until we come back to the showers. We need that warmth to ensure circulation—all the way to the end. I was going to say until the fourth quarter, but I remembered we play until we have to give up the court—the games are seamless.
We use the same terms as the young men, but the words don't have the same meaning. For us, a fast break is an injury in the first two minutes. Our transition game is our walk from the locker room to the court. While circulation is one reason we leave on our warmup suits, another reason arose on our first Sunday. We decided that we would play shirts and skins as we had done as kids, so that we would know who was on which team. The skin team took off its shirts. The sight resembled a host of sagging Jell-O-like mountain ranges. Guys who didn't seem to have a bent toward aesthetics discovered that they did after all. That ended shirts and skins. Instead, we decided to tax our memories for team recognition.
We are a scruffy lot and like snowflakes—with the accent on snow—no two of us are alike. I think of Dan, for instance, as our leader, the focal point of what little cohesion we have. Dan is what's known as a gym rat. Dan is always at the gym. And he always wears the same clothes. They appear to have been made in the 1930s. Dan is in his 50's. His one nod to modernity is a sweat band and goggles. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn't own, and therefore plays without, a warmup suit, settling for shorts and a shirt instead. Dan's on-court comments are pretty much limited to "Over here!" and "Aw, rats!" The first phrase solicits a pass, the second punctuates a shot attempt. The frequency with which the phrases—uttered often and in pairs—occurred diminished as his teammates began to understand the pattern. Dan always has a knotted look, as though he thinks he may have left the stove on at home, or there's a stone in his shoe and he'll know what to do about it right after the game.
Roy. Roy is short and by far the best shot of the lot. He is also the baldest of the lot. I haven't determined if there's any correlation there, although at the proper angle in a well-lit room, he could blind a man of average height. Roy's enthusiasm is extreme by our standards but—as we have proved over many Sundays—not contagious. Of course, Roy makes at least 99% of his shots. He has perhaps keen eyesight, whereas the rest of us notice that our ardor for the game wanes as failing eyesight forces us to wait for reports of the outcome of our shots. Roy is hot.
Ed is not. But Ed doesn't care. I don't know where he was when the competitive genes were doled out or how he escaped being molded by American male myths, but Ed couldn't care less. Before and after games, he "strolls" up and down the court with a pipe, albeit unlighted, and talks and hums and encourages everybody. He looks as if he's playing the lead in Going My Way. Others of us stroll up and down the court as well—one of our rules is that you may not cross center court with the ball until all your teammates have crossed it. But none of us has the lilt in his step that Ed has, and no one has his "way to go, buddy" spirit. Ed cheers the guy who hits the basket that beats his team (when we keep score). Ed is the kind of guy who—without trying—reminds you that there's more to life than basketball, although while I'm playing I don't know what it might be.
On Sunday mornings in winter, basketball is my church. Joseph Campbell, the late educator, has reminded us that any religion works as long as we don't (or it doesn't) get stuck in its metaphors. I've been stuck in worse metaphors. Charlie is kind of stuck. He gets stuck opening his locker (he can't remember the combination). He gets stuck tying his shoelaces. Charlie is rather portly and when he gets down to floor level, it's the equivalent of a rain delay in baseball. We scream at him for taking so long, lecture him on the wonders of Velcro and then travel around him the next few trips up and down the court until he's up again.
He gets stuck when he shoots, too. Stuck to the floor. He uses a sort of jump shot with a lot of body motion. If you're not actually watching, you don't notice that his feet never leave the hardwood. Actually, Charlie isn't stuck, he just takes his time. He doesn't rush himself. He's at ease with himself. I think we all secretly envy him and would like to treat ourselves the way he treats himself. Like Ed, he smiles whether his shots go in or bounce out.
Back in the locker room Charlie is the one who powders Roy's head and says, "It's too bright on the court. Tone it down." Then Dan will say, "What was the score?" And Ed will say, "Ba-ba-baboo! Who knows?" And Dan will say, "Yeah, but who won?" And Roy will say, "I could use a Coke." And I will say, "I could use some Ben-Gay." And we shower and bewail our lack of hair, speed, vision and shot selection. Towel me off, dress me warmly. The steam rises off my head as I break into the cold morning air, leaving the gym and its metaphors. Leaving Charlie staring at his lock as if the right look will open it. Leaving Roy to his memories of knocking most all of them down and Ed to light his pipe. For these and all thy blessings, we give thanks. And oh yeah, Dan, "We all won."
Ed loosens up with his pipe.
Roy makes 99% of his shots.
I think of hoops as church.
Joe Wise is a free-lance writer who lives in Louisville.