by Stuart Lutz
It is the first night of the old fart league at the local junior high. My free-agent team consists of 13 men above 35 years old (in every league I have played, there are always at least a dozen men the first night, and by the final weeks of the season, there are only five or six, meaning there is little, if any, much-needed substitution). From the bench, I watch my teammates. One of the starters is a skinny guy with bright orange sneakers who once had some slick dribbling moves, but he executes them now in slow motion. Midway through the first half, he drops in a fine rainbow shot, and it is the only athletic move our team has all night. Another starter is an Abrams tank of a man; he has lifted weights for years and plays the obvious power forward position. A third starter dons geeky Kurt Rambis glasses and runs like Big Bird; he lacks all grace and, I notice, even a basic feel for the sport.
I eventually enter the game and get an assist, a couple of rebounds and no successful shots in my limited time. Whereas I used to be able to play for two or three hours when younger, a full-out 15 minutes of gametime really pushes my legs. During a time-out, I gaze to the bench and realize that the baker’s dozen of us are all mere shadows of yesterdays. For some of us, touching the rim was once easy, and for others, it was an array of inside moves. All gone with our Twenties.
But we all had that one day in our past…that magical afternoon or memorable evening when we had our greatest single day of hoops. This is my story. I am sure that you have a similar one.
When I was a boy, my athletic development was severely limited. It’s not that I didn’t want to be good at sports, but there were two major problems. First, I was the smallest one in my class, and thus, always the last one picked for recess teams. The other issue was my heavy leg braces (I was born with tight calf muscles that caused me to walk on my toes), which only came off for gym class. I played soccer in elementary school, but I wasn’t very good for the first few years.
This was a stark contrast to my boyhood friend Mike, who was a born athlete. He was a soccer star even in elementary school, and during high school, he was on several varsity teams, including soccer and tennis. He was a better baseball, basketball and football player than I for many years.
Eventually, my leg braces came off and I grew. In the last years that I played organized soccer, I made the All-Star team and was voted MVP of our championship team for our defensive shutout of the opponents. During adolescence, I started playing tennis, but I was never as good as Mike, who taught the sport at summer camps. I installed a hoop on the road outside of my home so I could practice. I played a lot of basketball outside of my house, after track practice, at the nearby park, and at the local JCC, where I competed with Mike, who was still better than me.
After high school graduation, Mike and I went to separate colleges, but we stayed in touch and saw each other over the summers. I played unending hoops in college and kept growing and improving my basketball skills. On the court, my favorite things to do were playing defense, passing, rebounding, and getting out on the break. To me, these were the contributions that led to the ultimate goal, winning so you could remain playing.
One summer day after our sophomore year of college, I called a bunch of my boyhood friends, including Mike, and we met at the local park to play basketball. I had a terrific afternoon with many assists, hard-nosed defense (or as much as I could get away with while playing with my close friends), some sweet fadeaways, and my new low post spin moves that I learned at college. On defense, I stole the ball and saw the lone defender, one of my friends, at midcourt. I ran toward him, smoothly dribbled behind my back without stopping, and had an easy layup. The entire afternoon was beautiful and my team won just about every game. It may have been my finest day of basketball ever, but my greatest single moment on the court came toward the end of the hot afternoon.
As we were walking toward our cars to go home, I heard Mike confide to another long-time friend and athletic competitor, “Damn, Stuart went off to college and he got gooood.” I was now as fine a hoopster as Mike. The moment he spoke that compliment was the greatest instant ever for me on the court. I had no idea then that I would anthologize it all these years later, or that it would be my apex.
All of the men playing with me in the old guys league have had a single time where we felt unstoppable; everything coalesced perfectly on the basketball court. A moment we will never—can never—repeat again. All of us, perhaps, except for the gawky dude in the Rambis specs.