January 28th, 2020
I've cited a saying before about death in ancient Mexican culture and I'm probably already in danger of tiring it out, but just think it's so relevant in some ways and plain bad-ass in other ways, so I'll go there again...
In ancient Mexican culture, they say that one dies three times...
The first, when they first realise their own mortality.
The second, when they're finally put to the earth.
The third is the last time their name is spoken...
January 28th 2020, to me, is step one. In an athletic sense, anyways...
Playing a competitive game of basketball, with old teammates from more successful times past, seeing if we've still got some juice. I still feel I do. I'm 33, almost 34 and in my 'other brain' where basketball is a different type of physics and reason, logic and all else is bent. Throughout my life, my internal compass with age was always in relativity to basketball age. As a child, I remember reading that a basketball player's apex was between ages 28-32, when the physical and mental peaks supposedly intersected. So oldness, or youngness to me was essentially bound by this reference point. I was 33 - technically outside of the apex but since Michael Jordan was once still winning MVP's and championships till 35, Steve Nash was still a wily fox at 39 years old in the NBA, Roger Federer could still win a slam at 37, internally I never really felt the stigma of being "too old for this shit", or any shit to that matter. I felt that I could still do things, be athletic, be effective, still have the juice. My subconscious 'basketball-age' compass had me as not over the hill yet, which was all that mattered.
Yes, the maths and physics are bent.
As a quite fit and 'look-after-my-body' type, I had probably good reason to believe in scrambling the numerical age-decay correlate. I never really feel that old. Sometimes not as quick as once was, but I never am winded, cramped or so sore that I can't move. The physicality is well within me, I feel, and my game is wily and physical. Not gifted with the tallness of preferred prototypes, I cherish my mind the most out there but my physical integrity is also excellent. Offensively, I dart around using movement and my surprising stamina, quickness, agility and general willingness to never stop as my advantage. I roam in dangerous spaces, free others, I cut, come off screens, set screens, flare, spot up, roll, dive, flare out again and just keep myself (and trying to keep everyone else) in motion to lull the other team into defensive lapses so our older legs can help ourselves to easier opportunities. Defensively, I try to use smarts and footwork to cut off angles, collapse space and suffocate options, stay in front and use my body with every ounce of legality to bend opponents play out of shape - veteran tricking I call it. As much as I'd learnt a trick or two as I'd gotten older, I never really felt I had to truly lean on them that much to make up for dwindling physicality. I honestly felt as strong, fit and able as I ever have...
When I think back to the evening, sometimes I almost feel bemoaned to my "fart in a bottle" fervor in play. Maybe I just was too 'up and about', so to speak. Too much movement, too frantic at times, caring too much. I'm not a spud. I know the game and the dynamics of the game - I'm not a reckless player who has no feel of what are and aren't "basketball plays". Those are the things you'll find playing at lower levels, or against footballers - tunnelling, crashing packs, taking out knees and shirtfronting. Usually accidental, they're either misdemeanors of the uninitiated that don't have a sense of the basketball laws of time and space, or just natural flows from a different game that wreaks unpredictable chaos in this one. Alas, I'm a hooper - I know the flow out there which makes me self-analyse even more sometimes.
"Is it possible that I was trying too hard?"
"If I was just less fit, less mobile and more limited, how might all this look now?"
"Should I just have been a tad more stagnant, like the others?"
The play was a frustrating offensive set - stagnant, hesitant and motionless. We'd been in the game, if not winning it most of the night against a younger bunch, which always lifts the tempo and the "give a shit" factor a bit, for us anyways... not that old stagers like us would admit it either. It was a hot evening, and basketball stadiums aren't the most ventilated places, so it was the kind of environment that could make an arctic seal perspire, particularly down the stretch which is where we were at. Add to this the fact that sweat droplets can turn patches of the basketball hardwood into invisible ice hockey rinks, and with me frenetically trying to generate an offensive flow of off-ball movement, it was a precarious situation in hindsight.
I'm frustrated that nobody will move, cut, down-screen, up-screen, flare or anything with me. So I'm only working harder to make it happen, like trying to send the message to my pals by my intense movement that if we simply move together, something will generate out of the stillness - easy basketball. From memory, the ball is stranded at the top beyond the 3 line. I down-screen on the wing to open up my teammate to receive - which he either doesn't read or is just too tired to reciprocate - and he doesn't burst off my screen for a dangerous catch. The defense can cover this action as you'd barely call it action.
The ball is still stranded up top.
Frustrated, I immediately call him back for a down-screen and I cut back up the wing towards him - hard - to curl off a, now, very high screen just to get a catch, to get the ball and defense moving at least a little bit. This curl was high enough and in such a low-traffic area that any sweaty oil spills on the floor around these parts are less noticed. Maybe if I just didn't care so much about my notions of "correct basketball" I'd have just let this play wither and die as a less palatable stagnant possession, rather than unknowingly cutting hard toward that invisible wet patch for another crack.
In a short series called "The Finish Line", a documentary about Steve Nash and his last playing years with the Lakers, they document his rehabilitation from serious back problems as a 40 year old point guard in the NBA. A poignant moment for me within that documentary series was him talking candidly about the end of a career for an athlete, when skill diminishes, injury takes it's toll and essentially the thing that you've done your entire life to that point, the thing that made you special, was gone. He describes it
"It's like there's been a death... It'll never be the same again"
I still remember first watching it. The realism of an athlete speaking honestly about the prospect of losing the gift that gave you identity, I remember it. I remember seeing it shared by a teammate - an elite player by many's standards, but more relevantly, a fellow hooper sharing "a good watch" about a hero basketballer conveying his greatest fears - the greatest fears that we too all felt in our quiet moments, that we too were trying to outpace just like Steve Nash. The day that it's taken away. I remember it.
When my body slammed onto the court beneath me, and my buckled knee slid back into it's proper position thanks to the frictionless combination of sweat and hardwood, leaving me on the floor on my ass and frustrated. I see the "that looks serious" faces of the other players, coaches and umpires around me as the game comes to a stop. I realise what my knee just did and how this pertains to what knees should not ordinarily do.
I remember it again...