I am sixty-three years old, six foot eight. I used to be six nine and a half, but life has beaten me down. Over thirty years in EMS has flattened my spine to the point that some days I can barely feel my legs. I have no business being back on a basketball court, but I eagerly lace up my new Lou Williams’s size 14s, put on my Washingron Generals tank top and head to the park where I will play a pickup game with men half an even one third my age. I don’t have a lot going for me except my height. I am slow, not just in speed, but reaction time. The youngers have found they can attack me with jukes and jives and I am too slow to block their shots when they come at me, and if I go out to challenge their outside shots, they fake me and drive around me, rising to the rim before I even get turned back toward the basket. My balance has already caused me to fall once chasing a ball, scraping my knee, elbow and shoulder and nearly falling another time except for a helping hand of another player to grab me and stadey me. I can’t jump. Once I could dunk. Now while I stand and can hold onto the bottom of the net with both hands, I can’t jump high enough to touch the rim, while the diminutive point guard on the other team does pull ups on it. And while I may be in okay shape for sixty-three, I need to sub out frequently because I don’t have the lungs of a thirty-year old. But I am not completely without value. If I find the right spot I can hit a jumper. While slow, no one can block my hook shot and sometimes if I run the court on a fast break, while my defender slacks, I can get open for a pass with an easy layup.
That’s what I play for — to make the baskets. I try to tell my daughter of the joy I feel when the ball rips through the net. I know each basket I make could be my last. I could fall and break my hip. I could take an elbow to the chest and break my ribs, I could fracture my hand grabbing a rebound. I could die in any of a number of ways I have seen people die in my work as a paramedic.
I stopped playing basketball years ago because I did get injured. I broke a finger going up for a rebound, and while I worked through it, it was painful and I had to develop a new way of holding the IV catheter when I tried to cannulate a vein. Once, our company, which does standbys at the civic center was granted use of their court at noon one day. We played a game between company divisions in front of 16,000 empty seats. I scored twenty points, but took a headbutt to the chest in a scramble for a loose ball, which I believe may have cracked my sternum as I couldn’t sit up in bed for over a month without holding a pillow to my chest, and if I tried to do a pushup, I felt as if my chest would crack in two. I also dislocated my pinky diving over the courtside chairs trying to save a ball from going out of bounds. That was my last game for almost twenty years. I couldn’t risk getting hurt at basketball and missing extended time at work. I had a family to feed.
But taking my daughter to her basketball games and practices in recent years has rekindled the fire. It also helps that I have a desk job that provides most of my income with my street time now only 10 hours a week, I am no longer entirely dependent on my physical health to get my paycheck. While my daughter practices with her team inside the gym, I shoot alone on the outside playground. In the rain. Just like when I was a kid, I imagine myself in the NBA with the clock running down and the ball in my hands, and my teammates depending on me.
I should probably be doing something else with my time, like writing my next book or producing more blog posts or working on a work project or lifting weights, running, stretching or swimming, instead of dribbling a basketball, shooting 50 free throws and then 25 three point shots, but spending a good part of the time chasing after errant rebounds.
Sometimes my daughter will come out and shoot with me. We had a free throw contest the other day. First to 10. I missed my first shot, then she hit twelve in a row. My daughter is 13 and really good. Last Sunday, as the only 8th grader on a high school travel team, she knocked down three threes in just a few minutes time, where a year or so ago she could barely make the distance. “Dad,” she tells me. “I love the weekends because I get to play basketball.” She is talking about a game with officials on the floor of the Bristol Sports Armory and other local arenas where she and her older teammates will play against challenging teams, and win or lose, there will be moments of victory (as well as defeat), memorable moments of a great pass, a spin move to the hoop, or watching a three rip through the net.
I wonder what she will do when she grows up. I hope she will find work that will bring her as much happiness as basketball does. That’s why I have always loved being a paramedic. Sometimes on calls, it is just like playing sports before a crowd Pressures on, eyes are on you, you have to perform. You can’t let the pressure get to you. There is the same camaraderie with your crew or your partner as you had with your team. I try to teach my daughter that sports is about life lessons, things you can use in the real world, but sports, I am realizing it is also an end in itself, a pure joy. Sixty-three, slow, old, hard of hearing, tired, weak legs, a cough that rattles the earth itself, but I grab the rebound, I dribble to the corner, I turn and shoot. The ball arches through the air. It rips through the net.
I am alive.