For Tim Duncan and other old-timers, age is nothing but a number
In the fourth quarter on Monday, as the Spurs were putting the finishing touches on their four-game sweep of the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, 37-year-old Tim Duncan ran down the middle of the floor, caught a pass ahead of the field and went in for an easy two points. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy was stunned by this. "How could the oldest player on the floor," he said, "be the first man down the floor?"
Now, Van Gundy is an outstanding analyst, and it was a worthwhile observation, but from the amazement in his voice, you would have thought that the Grizzlies had been out-hustled by an old man with a walker and oxygen tank. The implication was that they must not be giving maximum effort if they let the elderly Duncan beat them to the basket.
I will admit that I get more sensitive to these age references as I get older myself -- old enough that these so-called Methuselahs are just kids to me. If Knicks guard Jason Kidd, 40, is ancient, that must make me downright prehistoric since I remember interviewing Kidd when he was a Bay Area high-school phenom with braces on his teeth. I look at the 43-year-old Mariano Rivera now making his farewell tour with the Yankees and see the twenty-something Mo who once told me he was pretty sure he could successfully make the transition from set-up man to closer during a spring training, oh, centuries ago.
So, I don't see these guys as old, and maybe the rest of us shouldn't either. Maybe it's time to stop talking and thinking about athletes in their mid-30s and (gasp) 40s as if they just escaped from bingo night at the senior citizens center.
Is it really so jaw-droppingly amazing that Duncan can still run the length of the court faster than some guys 10 years his junior? Should we really be so flabbergasted that Kobe Bryant was still doing Kobe Bryant things -- OK, before his torn Achilles -- at the ripe old age of 34? With today's advanced training techniques, expanded knowledge about proper nutrition and the ability to devote year-round attention to conditioning, it stands to reason that elite athletes would be able to continue performing at a high level for longer than ever before.
That's exactly what they're doing, yet we still get such a kick out of acting as if these guys are one birthday away from putting their dentures on the nightstand. Get ready for plenty of jokes about the Spurs' age (in addition to Duncan, Manu Ginobili is 35 and Tony Parker 31) during the NBA Finals. You'll hear that their pre-game meal has an early-bird special, that their biggest problem in the Finals is that the games are scheduled after their bedtime.
It has become almost obligatory to laugh and exaggerate about older players. The latest popular joke is to ridiculously overstate their ages -- as in "73-year-old Andy Pettitte" (he's 40) -- for comic effect. It's as if we've started to think that these players really are geezers, forgetting that 35 or 38 or 40 is still, in real-life terms, relatively young.
Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, these age references are meant as compliments, but they don't seem so positive when you think about what goes unsaid: "Isn't it remarkable that at 37, Kevin Garnett can still bang under the boards with the best of them [without breaking a hip?]" Or: "Derek Fisher, 38, keeps himself in such great condition [for a guy who seems older than your grandpa.]"
Generally speaking, NBA players seem to get the old-man treatment sooner than athletes in other sports. Quarterbacks seem particularly able to avoid the elderly label. The Celtics' Paul Pierce, 35, for instance, is perceived to be in the twilight of his career while another 35-year-old New England star, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, somehow seems to be ageless. In Denver, Nuggets point guard Andre Miller and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning are both 37, yet Miller gets tagged as Old Man River while Manning's age rarely seems to be an issue.
Maybe that's because we don't necessarily expect quarterbacks to be as athletic as players at other positions or in other sports. Whatever the reason, players like Brady are proof that we can appreciate an athlete without obsessing over his birthdate. It's time to make that more the rule than the exception. The fixation on age is getting old.