80 year old Steve, our elder statesman, is the inspiration. Unlike the rest of us, he is not really a basketball player, but instead a retired local college math professor who manages to run up and down the court, hold his own on the low block, anticipate on defense, and find occasional range on his lunging strange-looking duck-billed set shot. When this shot goes awry, whether I'm on his team or not, I yell, “Get your legs into it, Steve!”
Steve scolds himself when he misses a shot or somebody scores on him. He expects to exceed. His pride is on the line. He does not think of himself as a doddering old codger grappling around on a wooden hoop court, but as a dependable team mate able to hold his own among a bunch of youngsters in their early and mid sixties and early seventies. I imagine that when Steve shaves in the morning he's willing to admit he's 80 years old, but when he hits the hoop court his old bones warm up and for an hour at least he's a young man, totally lost in the rhapsody of his weekly fix.
When Steve hits a winning shot there is a celebration among all participants. He has hit his share.
We all play at a gym in San Luis Obispo at noon on a week day. There's a group of about 12, but usually around 8 show up, and we run 4 on 4 on the small court divided by the full court. It is enough of a run The chief organizer besides Steve is Jeff, a sort of commissioner of games all week, and at 51 he is near impossible to guard, a shrimp in constant motion who can hit shots from anywhere and drive to the hoop. A gritty guy named Skip, approaching 70, usually inherited the task of chasing Jeff around until one evening while playing in the over 40 league he suffered an aortic aneurysm and, miraculously, his life was saved in a hospital a mile away that specialized in cardiac care.
Since his own brother died of the disease leading to the splitting of this artery, he was told by doctors to spend his long recovery contemplating hiking trails and the stationary bike. We forgot about Skip. Then one day he showed up and began beating on me under the hoop, and three weeks later he was chasing Jeff around.
There isn't one of us who isn't hurting or risking major injury or the dreaded unknown. Luckily, a deadly jump-shooting licensed physician of 62 years named Brian plays with us most of the time, unless he's away working with army vets suffering from PTSD. We've got a retired local political office holder from an Ivy league school who bangs under the boards and, with easily the highest IQ of the crew, needs to be told occasionally where to go and what to do so he doesn't commit something bone-headed hoop-wise.
There is a 62 year old, possibly the best player, who indeed played at the local college, and referred to as the “Good Del,” which means I am the “Bad Dell.” So be it. I issued both nick-names. The “Good Del,” possibly not as intellectually brilliant as our politician, (debatable) has an astronomical hoop IQ, and, though he possesses perhaps the most accomplished offensive repertoire of us all, takes fewer shots and prefers to pass and orchestrate. A bit of a walrus-like monster, weighing in at around 250, this bulk does not aid his wobbly knees, though he is capable of the well-timed burst, a sort of limping gait shared by nearly all of us.
Give me and the Good Del a team mate with half a brain, hustle, and the ability to move without the ball, and we are tough to beat, even if Jeff is terrorizing us with three pointers and one-man fast breaks.
Every body plays hard. Charlie (Vanilla Thunder), a 70 year old real estate tycoon, with a touchy back and knee and chronically swollen feet, tortures and punishes people under the hoop, banging and clawing and mauling, seemingly immune from his deserved counter mauling. Bill, a yoga participant and retired educator, has a creaky back, and his warm-up routine is tough to watch. Bill storms the boards. Bill chases Jeff until his bent-over-at-the-knees gasping looks dangerous and he takes himself to the bench or begs somebody else to chase Jeff. Sometimes I guard Steve so I can help with Jeff. So what I do is grab Jeff, block Jeff's path, push Jeff, and then run to Steve when Jeff passes him the ball, and if Steve is not quite open for his shot he passes back to Jeff, and I return to grab Jeff, possibly by the shirt...when I guard Jeff on my own, I soon suffer vertigo.
These games, because of the way we construct teams (fairly, evenly, not stacked), often come down to the last shot. During this frenzied time there is a lot of gasping and grasping and exhausted staggering about, as we play to 25. It is a time when a participant is so winded, when his ancient heart is beating so rapidly (like a hummingbird), when his repaired joints (knees, hips, ankles, shoulders) begin to bend and stretch and scream at the stupid person torturing them. One who sets a pick can be slammed into or shoved out of the way. A geezer lumbering to the basket for the winning lay-in can be purposely bludgeoned. Position under the basket can be fought for like a college wrestling match. A player with a slight opening for an outside shot can be lunged at wildly. It is as if winning a stupid basketball game among half crippled geriatrics is worth maiming or killing ourselves!
Afterwards, whoever wins shakes hands with team mates and opponents. We sit in puddles of sweat, faces reddened, chests heaving, joints throbbing. It is a glorious time, for we all seemed to have survived. This heroic suffering should be enough for any normal person, but no, another game is to be played, and the first one to stand is Steve. And there is no choice but to follow suit.
Everybody, despite their age, is at some level of advanced hoop condition. Once, Brian brought along a thirty year old relative—we wore him down into helpless depletion in one game and trash-talked him into continuing, crucifying his manhood.
Basketball is the most physically demanding game on earth because you are not just running, but jumping, pushing, leveraging strength, moving right and left and backward and forward in bursts according to who you are guarding or chasing or trying to get away from so you can find an open shot. In our games, this young mans balletic exercise of beauty is reduced to something ugly, almost a slow-motion desecration if we were not all so experienced at the game and thankful for it that we respect its traditional fundamentals and are slaves to playing it right.
Most important, it is in all our minds, as we go full bore ahead, that every game could be our last, that we could tear or rupture over-worked tendons, rip muscles, or find ourselves in the emergency room like Skip. But we play on, fearless geezers in retirement, finding, for an hour or two, golden moments of youth, the sound of a ball bouncing on the floor as we enter the gym inducing a flutter of child-like joy in our hearts.