Do we get better with age? Or worse? Ask New York baby boomer Bob Brody and he won’t hesitate for a moment. His answer helps explain the title of this essay: The Real Reason I Still Play Basketball At Age 65.
You’re ten years old. A fifth grader in suburban New Jersey. Four-foot-eight, 70 pounds. And you’ve recently started playing basketball.
Over the next ten years, you’re almost always the worst player out there. That explains why you’re always picked last. You feel left out, useless, inferior.
At night, just before you go to sleep, you imagine yourself shooting the ball. In your dreams, you get the ball in the basket — swish! swish! swish! -– over and over again.
Why you play, why you care so much, you have no idea.
You’re 20 now. Five-foot-ten, 150 pounds. A sophomore in college in Boston. You take up cigarettes, a sure sign of maturity.
In the last two years, you’ve played basketball more than ever, practicing regularly. All you want out of life, if you leave aside a regular girlfriend and better grades and maybe a literary career, is to get better at basketball. To get good enough to hold your own.
The other players may know you’re there on the court, but show little evidence of caring. If you get the ball at all, it’s by default -– nobody else is open -– or a fluke. Your first impulse is always to shoot. If you score, you’ve registered your right to exist.
Welcome to age 30. You’re married now, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens.
You’ve quit cigarettes and gained almost 20 pounds, none of it muscle, courtesy of nightly vodka, a handy substitute for smoking.
You keep playing basketball though, and you’re pretty good now. It’s taken you more than 20 years to become a natural athlete.
You shoot first and think later. You borrow your logic from the compulsive gambler. If you’re making shots now, you’ll keep making your shots. But if you’re missing, you’re bound to start hitting soon.
You have yet another motive for persisting at basketball. Your three-year-old son, Michael, may someday want to play. You’d like to be able to show him how.
Say hello to 40. You and your wife now have a daughter too, and graduate to a two-bedroom apartment. You’ve quit vodka, melting back to 160 pounds.
You’re now about twice the age of the other players on the courts. Half your hair is gone, most likely with no intent to return. After playing, you tend to flop onto the sofa without the faintest wish to get up again.
You still think about yourself first out there. Your ego still requires more exercise than any other muscle you own. For the first time, you wonder how much longer you’ll go on playing.
You’re 50 years old now. Just saying that to yourself makes you feel the need to sit down for a spell.
You’re still playing basketball though, now almost three times older than most other players. Some kids call you mister or sir. You still have your moments.
Then again, age is ambushing you. Your vertical leap, never Olympian, now hovers in the single digits. Guys get around you more easily. You just had a hernia operation.
More and more, you ask yourself why you play. To stay healthy? Check. To keep your mood on an even keel? Check. To get out of your own head? Check. But sometimes you suspect you’re supposed to have a bigger reason.
Maybe it’s this: you previously considered the ball your personal property. But it actually belongs to everyone. And now you’re getting more generous with it. You pass it to kids who never get it, or to the rare outside shooter who might be better than you.
You’re 60 years old now. No, make that 65. Go ahead, hotshot, say something witty about that. Like how it feels to suffer a detached retina. Twice.
You pass the ball even more now. If the result is a teammate hitting his shot, it feels like you’ve scored together.
You’ve finally learned the hardest of lessons, to try selflessness on for size. You even make jokes out there about your age. About needing an oxygen mask or a paramedic or a ride back to the nursing home.
All this took you a long time, a really long time, because sometimes stuff does. Reaching this milestone, namely getting your head on straight, only took you more than half a century.
Now, at last, you know why you play. Because you get to be on a team.
Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, is author of the new memoir from which this piece was adapted, “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”