Here in Ann Arbor, it's a lot easier to get involved in pickup basketball at the gym. In New York, there's always 800 people waiting for a court, and they're either really tall and fast and skilled, or they'll elbow you in the nuts for a rebound. Here, you can usually find a good game, with regular-sized, courteous humans, and you don't have to wait long for it.
Yesterday I got to the gym and started shooting hoops. I love shooting hoops, because that's always where I've done my best thinking. I've been doing that since I was seven years old, at my grandparents' house across the street, just shooting and thinking. It's one of my favorite ways to spend Alone Time.
At the other basket, a bunch of younger guys were playing 3-0n-3. And I noticed that 1) they were each younger than I by probably 20 years, and 2) there were really terrible. They were chucking airballs, dribbling off their feet, colliding with each other unnecessarily. And calling ridiculous fouls. But they were playing, after all. They were active Americans who were not obesely waddling to the fridge and back, and for that they should be saluted.
A little while later, one of them had to leave, and another saw me at the other end of the court and asked me to fill in. And I told them No, because I didn't really feel like it. This is my Alone Time. I'm older than you, and this is what older people do. I'm gathering these things called "thoughts." Leave me alone.
I couldn't say that, of course, so I made up some lame excuse: I wasn't wearing my knee brace. Which is a total lie, because I've never needed a knee brace. And that might have been all there was to it, until he fired off the coup de grâce:
"C'mon, Pops. We need a sixth."
I stood there, processing what this little snot had just said to me, my toes curling in my shoes.
It was a good-natured Pops. But still: POPS.
Normally I don't rise to the bait that easily. But I had never been called "Pops" before. I mean, I know I'm aging, but I never knew it was that obvious to others. Besides, anybody of any age always feels younger than they are. I'm 46, but I still laugh at my kids' fart jokes. I perceive myself from the inside, where there isn't gray hair and jowls. It's a singular feeling to suddenly be reminded that yes, you are old, and other people see this about you immediately.
And then I thought, Well, they are terrible....
So I joined them. And on the first play, the ball was passed to me. And this same little shit that called me Pops backed away, defending against a pass to the other two guys. Left me WIDE open. I thought, Are you kidding me? Do you see me as that little of a threat to you?
So I took the shot and DRAINED IT.
Next play, I got the ball again. And this kid backed away again. So I smiled at him, took two steps back, behind the three-point line, and DRAINED IT again.
If life is just a sequence of moments, this was a moment to look back on and savor. The moment when I got the ball back for a third time, and saw that they'd switched defensive assignments and put the good kid on me. Pops. And he was in my face for the rest of the game. I played hard, and mostly OK, and we won. And it felt good to know that people can judge you and underestimate you, and I still have it in me to show them that looks can deceive.
It also helps soothe the pain of knowing that, 18 hours later, I'm reasonably certain I'll never lift my arms again.