I had never heard of basketball for men 45-and-over. It sounded like a contradiction in terms, like "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence." I thought, What in the world would men over 45 do with a basketball once they got it?
I had seen men that old deal with the game only once, several years ago at an old-timers' game held the day before the NBA All-Star Game in Indianapolis. It was gross. All my retired heroes were on the court at once, panting and sweating, grunting and dragging their Buddha bellies (a fan's designation, to be sure) up and down the court until the merciful timekeeper buzzed them off the floor. They looked like Wild Kingdom answering the question "Where do the hippos go in winter?" Thinking back on it now, I believe the median age on the floor was actually much younger than 45.
So what would mere mortals—amateur basketball junkies existing between their late 40's and Forest Lawn—do with the game if allowed to play? The question was important to me because I am a 50-year-old hoops junkie. It was prompted by an announcement that I read last year in the local community center's newspaper about a "Men"s Open Basketball League." Three hefty columns gave all the pertinent information. There would be a $35 fee for the season. Right underneath that article, in three scrimpy lines, was a notice for 45-AND-OVER BASKETBALL, SUNDAYS 9 TO 11, NO FEE.
No fee. No money. No shirts. No referees. No timekeepers. No scorekeepers. No teams. None of the things the Men's Open League had. Yeah, and no league—just "basketball," on Sunday mornings. Making a commitment to play was not easy for a man who eats precisely one half a banana, one cup of skim milk and three fourths of a cup of oatmeal for breakfast every day, just to avoid the chaos of morning decisions. But I was prepared to adjust. I needed to play bad.
Although I had played mostly intra-murals in my youth, I missed the roar of the crowd, the jostle of bodies, the contact, the sweat, the bite-squeak of gym shoes on hard lacquered floors, the picks and the rolls, the competitive edge—yes, the thrill of the game. Why I thought I would find this with men pushing 50, I don't know, but that should have been my first clue that I belonged with this group. My judgment was slipping.
These guys are not engaged in competitive activity. We guys are not engaged in competitive activity. What we are engaged in is hard to tell. But we talk about it every Sunday in the locker room. We come in to change and get started while the Men's Open League is coming off the court. We hear their bantering, "Nice shooting, Carl" and "Where the hell was our defense?" and "Boy, did you see Keith with that dunk at the half? He was airborne from outside of the foul line."
When we come in after our session, we talk about our prostates and hair restorers. I'm not sure whether this is due to short-term memory loss or because nothing really did transpire while we were out on the court. We come in and take off our jocks and wonder what we were protecting. In our group, which on a given Sunday can range from six to 10, everybody leaves on his warmup suit until we come back to the showers. We need that warmth to ensure circulation—all the way to the end. I was going to say until the fourth quarter, but I remembered we play until we have to give up the court—the games are seamless.
We use the same terms as the young men, but the words don't have the same meaning. For us, a fast break is an injury in the first two minutes. Our transition game is our walk from the locker room to the court. While circulation is one reason we leave on our warmup suits, another reason arose on our first Sunday. We decided that we would play shirts and skins as we had done as kids, so that we would know who was on which team. The skin team took off its shirts. The sight resembled a host of sagging Jell-O-like mountain ranges. Guys who didn't seem to have a bent toward aesthetics discovered that they did after all. That ended shirts and skins. Instead, we decided to tax our memories for team recognition.
We are a scruffy lot and like snowflakes—with the accent on snow—no two of us are alike. I think of Dan, for instance, as our leader, the focal point of what little cohesion we have. Dan is what's known as a gym rat. Dan is always at the gym. And he always wears the same clothes. They appear to have been made in the 1930s. Dan is in his 50's. His one nod to modernity is a sweat band and goggles. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn't own, and therefore plays without, a warmup suit, settling for shorts and a shirt instead. Dan's on-court comments are pretty much limited to "Over here!" and "Aw, rats!" The first phrase solicits a pass, the second punctuates a shot attempt. The frequency with which the phrases—uttered often and in pairs—occurred diminished as his teammates began to understand the pattern. Dan always has a knotted look, as though he thinks he may have left the stove on at home, or there's a stone in his shoe and he'll know what to do about it right after the game.
Roy. Roy is short and by far the best shot of the lot. He is also the baldest of the lot. I haven't determined if there's any correlation there, although at the proper angle in a well-lit room, he could blind a man of average height. Roy's enthusiasm is extreme by our standards but—as we have proved over many Sundays—not contagious. Of course, Roy makes at least 99% of his shots. He has perhaps keen eyesight, whereas the rest of us notice that our ardor for the game wanes as failing eyesight forces us to wait for reports of the outcome of our shots. Roy is hot.