|Game On! - Page 5|
Staying in the Game
The insights gleaned from my sporting life that have most illuminated my clinical practice concern dealing with decline and loss. During two decades as a medical family therapist, I've counseled hundreds of men with chronic and serious illnesses who were struggling to live with diminished abilities. The struggle to accept fate, age, and injury has long been part of my athletic experiences.
As a callow teenager, I sometimes played against thick-bodied, sharp-elbowed guys in their fifties, who, lacking the foot-speed to guard me, kneed me in the thigh or gave me forearm shivers to the ribs whenever I dribbled near them. To me, they were pathetic, if dangerous, old sluggards, better suited for bocce than basketball. I had neither love nor empathy for them. The more they'd hit me, the more I'd revel in driving past them to score and show them up.
Then, in my thirties, as my own knees began to creak, I got a different view of the aging male ballplayer while playing regularly in an unusual pickup game in a small-town, elementary-school gym. At the time I joined in, neighborhood players had been gathering on the stained, palely lit court two nights a week for more than 35 years. Some of those who'd originally started the game—guys not in their fifties but sixties, seventies, and eighties!—were still hoisting up hook shots beside teammates young enough to be their great-grandchildren. The game was more age-diverse than any I'd ever played in; a five-man team might have representatives from five different decades ranging from the twenties to the sixties. I'd throw a bounce pass with trepidation to a knobby-kneed, hollow-chested 70-year-old, barely able to propel his stooped body on his thin, varicose-veined legs, and then watch him fake a shot and dribble at a walking pace toward the basket. After making his layup, he'd slap hands with me as he labored back up court. On defense, he'd throw a well-aimed elbow at the man he was guarding and then bellow hoarsely in protest when called for a foul. I'd observe him and feel appalled by what time had done to him physically; he was a slowly moving shadow of a once-capable athlete, but his sheer nerve to will his body to play this game struck me as an inspiration.
More than a dozen years later, as my age has risen and the height of my jumps declined, I've taken my place in this gym's circle-of-hoops-life as one of the more senior players. Though I miss the old spring in my step and the eyesight to shoot as accurately as I once did, I still challenge all comers—19-year-old powerhouses like Lou, but also 40-year-olds who lack the legs or stomach to go near the basket and hug the court's perimeter—adjusting my game to their strengths and limitations. Occasionally, I'll play the role my father did on that long-ago Miami Beach day, of ushering young initiates into the game with easy passes under the basket. At other times, I'll tutor youth in the giving and receiving of sharp elbows. All the skills and athleticism I've lost over the years could be cause for overwhelming rue. Instead, I concentrate on achieving minor victories doing what I still can when I can—the crisp pass, the well-defended sequence, the perfectly banked jumper—to make some small difference in the game's outcome. I'm hoping to dribble out my days, taking my best shot at being the best man possible in whatever playing time I've been allotted.