Yesterday a longtime friend showed up at a walk that I host in my hometown. Every Wednesday people from the community hike a three-mile loop on bike trails for health and fitness. His mom wanted to join the walk, so he decided it might be nice to accompany her and at the same time, catch up with me.
Our association crosses several boundaries in life. We both worked at the same newspaper at different times. Both of us love the arts. We also both played lots of basketball a few decades back.
Like many longtime athletes, my friend had a few injuries over the years. But it’s now age (we agreed) that keeps us from the courts. “I can’t play at the level I want to play,” he lamented. “So I don’t do it any more.”
He and I were both fond of open gym basketball. That’s where people show up, pick teams and play all day long if you can. When you lucked upon a good team, or were having a particularly good day on your own, the whole afternoon might be spent on the court until you lost.
Open gym was something of a lifestyle for my friend. We talked about how the different gyms ran their operations, but that wasn’t the depth of the conversation.
“I used to stay up thinking about how I played before I could get to sleep,” he told me. On that topic I could totally relate. Basketball is a game of feel as well as execution. There is an art to penetrating the lane and knowing how to dish off or take it all the way to the hoop. The rush of a good play could stick with you for hours.
My friend was a slashing type of player with great jumping ability. He was agile and lean, and quick enough to leave many a defender standing still. I can still see his aquiline face out there on the floor, sheened with sweat as the reddish hair on his head bore dark rims along the hairline. And his eyes focused like lasers as he interpreted the action on the floor.
Living the game
He was a good player, and he knew how to “live the game.” That means he appreciated the qualities in a good player and really reveled in a particularly good game of basketball. That often depended on the other players. I told him, “I could just about predict who was good and who wasn’t just by watching them walk out on the floor.”
“Oh yeah,” he grinned. “Absolutely.”
Perhaps we both loved the game too much? Or let it absorb a little too much of our time. “But it helped me figure out who I am,” he observed. “When you come out the other end, you kind of figure out what’s important and what’s not. We all go through that stuff at different rates. That figuring yourself out stuff.”
I shared a story about playing ball in a church gym one night. The quality of players was not that great, but there were a few decent shooters on the floor. At one point late in the game I dribbled toward the baseline and then cut toward the basket. There was no one under the hoop so I jumped from the line marking the foul lane and coasted under the basket. While in mid-air, I flicked the ball up toward the hoop and it kissed the glass and fell into the basket. Then I came down on the line at the other side of the lane.
“Walking!” someone called out after the play.
I stopped, and said, “What?”
“You walked,” the guy insisted. So I walked to the base of the lane and pointed to the line. “I jumped here,” I told him. Then I walked over to the other side of the lane. “And I landed about here. In between, I made the shot. That’s not walking.”
And then I ran down the floor and waited for play to begin again. Some of them stood there for a minute thinking that through. Then someone called out the score and we started playing again. The point was made. And the point counted.
Driving the lane
As my friend shared more insights about all those years of playing ball, we recalled another player who, like me, was both a basketball player and a runner. “He did too much of both for a while,” my friend said. “I told him you can’t train 100% in both sports. It’s okay to back off on one because you’re doing so much running already on the court.”
But I recall the look on that guy’s face when he showed up at a road race one time. He was supremely fit. It seemed as if running had consumed the other half of his brain from basketball. He was alive with the thrill of being an athlete in full throttle.
There’s only one phase of life when you can run and compete like that. The question we all have to ask ourselves is whether giving ourselves over to that obsession is healthy for us across the board. Should we instead have devoted more time to making money or getting into business? Not all of us are built that way. Not in the body. Not in the brain.
For some it truly is better, like a kid at recess, to burn off that energy because some part of your mind, both creative and athletic, needs the challenge of exercise to calm it at the core. Taking a basketball down the court and driving the lane to finish with an aggressive and artful flourish is the prescription.
So is bumping into other guys for an hour without apology. Sure, tempers eventually flare, a point my friend made with a bit of relish in his voice. “It’s gonna happen. Everyone has their limits in what they are willing to take.”
Sweeping the floor
I’ve met a few people in life who held a could-woulda-shoulda attitude about their sports careers. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called Glory Days that focuses on a guy recalling his youth playing sports.
Back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
But all he kept talking about was
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days
I always hated the third line because there’s no such thing as a “speedball” in pitching, but one must allow Bruce the creative license to construct the flow of lyrics. The overall point of the song was a lament about days gone by, not baseball terminology.
But “glory days” was not what my friend and I were talking about. Instead we were interpreting the intensity of having actually lived in the moment. To that end, he shared an interesting point about how so many people seem to miss the meaning of those moments in life.
“Think about the company CEO who says, ‘I may be the boss, but I still sweep the floor.’ But does he? Actually, he does it like a boss, not someone who has to do it or knows what it means to do it every day. That’s what’s wrong with this world,” my friend told me, and he gave me a shove with his hand on my shoulder for emphasis. It sent me stumbling into the grass, just like what happens in a basketball game when people are blocking each other out in the lane. I looked over at him and laughed. He was trying to share an insight on reality with me.
“There are so many people who think that because they know one thing well, they know all things well,” he told me. “And it’s just not true.”
God, I appreciated that honesty. I loved the fact that here was a guy who actually wanted to go below the surface of so much conversation in this world.
The depth of thought in our conversation was built around an appreciation for the sport of basketball, that when played properly, requires all sorts of skill and attention and yet, at the same time, can leave you dreaming and thinking about the world beyond at any moment, even in the moment.
Heights and peak experiences
We finished our walk together. On the way we’d stopped with his mom and her friend because I’d pointed out birds that were close to the path. This week was the height of spring migration. There were rose-breasted grosbeaks singing within feet of the trail. I stopped and played back their songs through my Sibley’s birding app. My friend has taken an interest in birds over the years. He lives in the original “nice” subdivision outside the town where we both attended high school. It is a wooded area and sits across the road from one of the largest wooded tracts in the park district.
So we thrilled to the sight of Eastern bluebirds, house wrens, palm warblers, Baltimore orioles, Blue-gray gnatcatchers and many other species. His mom and her friend paused on many occasions to take it all in.
When all was complete, one of the gals said something on the order of, “This has been one the best days I’ve had in a long time.
And I could not agree more. It is possible to appreciate the past and still be present in the moment. In fact, prior experiences can enrich the mind and keep alive some of the instincts and peak moments in life that make you appreciate some of the people in your life who shared those things.
With that attention, a sense of wonder can indeed return.