Thursday, August 26th, 2010 at 5:22 pm  |  40 responses

My Final Whistle

Dealing with the struggles of age.

by Stuart Lutz

The smell of laminated gymnasium hardwood always returns me…to the hour we sprinters would play basketball after two hours of high school track practice, to the escape of hoops during college exams, to the weeknight leagues I played in while in my 20s and 30s. On this November night, I played in the over-35 league for the first time with 40 being only a few months distant.

I discovered basketball in 10th grade, during the high water mark of Magic and Bird. At that age, I was finally tall enough to play with others and strong enough to shoot from a distance. I saved my summer caddying salary, bought myself a hoop, and installed it on the side road next to my suburban boyhood home. I spent many teenage hours playing with buddies, or friends of friends, at my house and the local park.

I learned that my sprinter legs allowed me to slash to the basket faster than any of my friends, and I developed a fadeaway that was effective from 16 or 18 feet. And I loved doing the little things to help my team win – running down loose balls, chasing long rebounds, getting out on the break, setting picks for superior shooters, and volunteering to defend, with my boundless energy, the other team’s best guard or small forward. Yet when I played with my friends, the greatest thing one of us could do was not to score in a spectacular fashion (none of us could dunk), but to thread the perfect pass, a la Larry or Earvin.

The peak of my basketball career was when a friend and I entered our university’s 2-on-2 intramural tournament. On that glorious day, I would drive to the hoop and if I was not well defended, I would get an easy layup. If my man guarded me well, I would kick it out to Jon for his deadeye shooting. We kept advancing until we won the competition.

On this recent November evening, as the first fingers of winter encroach, I was in the local gym for the old guys’ league. I caught a pass at the foul line. I was guarded by a chubby 45-year-old and I noted that the center was off to the side, leaving a beautiful path to the red iron. Years ago, the defender would have been toast as I would have gone from stop to full speed in one step. But that was many miles of hoops ago. I put my old legs in first gear and barely got around the defender.

I got into second, but the higher gears were long gone. The lumbering center ambles over, swats my layup and knocks me on my butt. While 5-10 me is a lot slower now, the center, as sluggish as he is, remains 6-4. My physical advantage — the burst — is gone. And then I was sore for three days afterward. I have not played basketball since, save for throwing up a few shots in my backyard this summer. Perhaps that evening was my final whistle for hoops; I have a hard time dealing with the decay.

I miss basketball dearly. There is a competition void in my life that my new physical activities of endurance cycling and mountain hiking just cannot replace. There are mornings my alarm rings, or my young boy cries, and wakes me from a hoops dream. There, I am back on the court, running the break or finding the cutter. But I know it will never happen again.

Yet there still is a basketball future for me. My son, at his 18-month pediatrician visit, was 35 inches tall, almost off the charts. One day, I will teach him my old fadeaway and how to spot the open man cutting to the hoops. Then, a new generation will learn the greatest game ever created.

Stuart Lutz is a historian, author and retired hoopster living in Maplewood, NJ. His first book, The Last Leaf, was released earlier this year.

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  • Coney Islander

    Beautiful piece.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    I always hated playing basketball against track cats. You bastards had way more wind than the average recreational player.

  • drdunkenstein

    Just turned 40 myself. I’ve been contemplating retirement, mainly out of frustration of not being able to do what I used to do when I was younger. Hard to let that competitive spirit go when I’m playing against the younger guys, thinking I can still do the things I used to. But I do play with a lot of guys that are well into their mid 40s and some pushing over 50 and they do inspire me to keep going. I just don’t to to devolve into the “old guy” … last man picked sort of deal. Hard to swallow my pride and accept that role. Getting older is a b*tch ;-)

  • http://brimartin13@gmail.com Brion

    Wow great article. I can really relate as i just turned 40 and am dealing with the same reality. Its especially hard when some young dude who is not half the player i USED to be gets the best of me. So i have said goodbye to the hardwood and have started playing golf.

  • drdunkenstein

    Brion, you are so right… how many times have i told a young dude… “i would have killed you when i was your age” …haha… at least that’s what I tell myself all the time.

  • LA Huey

    Very nice, Mr Lutz. I’m 26 and dread the day when I’m no longer the pogo stick with Energizer Bunny stamina.

  • http://www.twitter.com/gerardhimself Gerard Himself

    enjoyed reading that.

  • peter

    hahah I feel like i’m reading my future. Everything that he has done in the past is what I did, and now I’m in my 20′s playing in leagues (Intramural as well). This makes me not want to squander my youth

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Nice piece, Stuart. Thanks.

  • don

    great read!

  • Jon

    I hate nostalgia. But this is a really really good piece and I defintely feel for you. I’m 22 and suffered uncountable injuries to my left ankle. It hurts after 10-15 mins of play and can’t be healed. I feel like I’m 40 too lol.

  • http://www.springbored.net letsmotor

    great read, thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.walshsportsblog.com Kevin

    Great article. I will be hitting 30 soon and there are subtle changes creeping in. Lost an inch off my vertical, getting more bumps and bruises etc.
    Really enjoyed that piece.

  • Ken

    Great piece. TY

  • Ronald

    The thing is with playing basketball for a long period of time, you have to realize that it’s not a good exercise for you anymore. If you want to keep on playing basketball after your prime you must put in the work to play it (and to play it well). Your body adapts really well to the motions of basketball and therefore your body doesn’t get the “strain” it requires to push your stamina. I remember some elder friends of mine where their doctors advise them that if they wanted to keep on playing basketball past their late 30′s that they NEEDED to work their bodies on the side to keep on playing.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Eboy

    Age restriction is a mental thing on the basketball court. If you feel like you can’t compete with the younger cats, you won’t. I’m about a month away from 40 and trust me….I welcome playing younger cats….my years of knowledge of the game more than makes up for the fact that I may not be as fast or jump as high as I once did. Perception is a b*tch.

  • Jason

    Great piece.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Eboy is an old fart.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Eboy

    You ain’t much better.

  • Tommy Patron

    Great piece. Stark reality. Once retired from competitive sports, one must make the transition from external competition to finding competitiveness within oneself. It isn’t easy, especially since destroying your man in hoops on both ends is so gratifying. For me, I find motivation as I find fewer and fewer folks my age (36) that can f*ck with me on fitness level. Also, when in real shape, flying through the forested ravines of suburban Chicago feels like catching a dunk in traffic…

  • http://slamonline.com Kap

    Damn yall old…

  • Fat Lever

    Excellent piece. I’m 29 now and play pretty much once a week for about 2 hours. Back in my prime(19-22) I was running 4 times a week for about 3 hours each time. I definitely feel older, and the love for the game has diminished a little with all that’s going on in life in general, but got d@mn this is a beautiful game. The court is like a therapists couch for me, I’ll just go out and shoot when I’m stressed. Nothing better.

  • Stuart Lutz

    Thank you all for writing about my post. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who has to say goodbye to hoops, and it is not easy for me. I did a 25 mile bike ride yesterday, and I felt a pang of jealousy when I rode by some courts with young dudes playing there. For those of you who are young, enjoy basketball while you can. Thank you again for reading this and commenting on it.

  • http://www.oprah.com Doyouwantmore

    Awesome idea. I love it that SLAM actually addresses stuff like this, instead of just Lebron’s new tattoo or what kind of rims Jose Calderon has on his 2007 Ford Explorer. (BTW they’re Ford Explorer rims)

  • http://www.oprah.com Doyouwantmore

    STUART: Play anyway man! Where I live the only guys to play pick-up games with are fifteen years younger and on basketball scholarships, but it doesn’t matter. Join Big Brothers and take a couple 13-15 year olds out and school them once a week! That’s what I do. I still compete and get my shots up, but the kids learn some fundamentals and stay out of trouble for an afternoon.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    Great piece.

  • tavoris

    great piece…my 32-year-old knees are getting creaky as well

  • eugene

    Im 21 and entering the peak of my game, I love do give it old guys that still wanna compete and talk a little trash. Having said that those guys inspire me, and motivate me to get as good as I can get now so that it takes that much longer for my skills to deminish. Because once they do Ill be the proud teary eyed father watchin my kid run cats and remeniscing about “back in my day”.

  • kousinkar

    This is one of the best pieces I have seen from SLAM in a while. Keep it up.

  • Harlem_World

    Basketball is balance. What I couldn’t do when I was younger (play with smarts, play with no wasted motion), I can do now. What I could do when I was younger (dunk from the post, blow by my man at will from the perimeter) I can’t do now. However, with age comes veteran savvy. I still get younger guys all the time, just on smarts, knowing how to get my shot or draw the foul. The best piece of advice for all the aging ball players who want to keep balling at a competitive level – Don’t play basketball to get in shape – GET IN SHAPE to play basketball. You’ll enjoy it so much more. You might not be able to dunk or be as quick as you were, but you’ll definitely have the wind and enough quickness to get your shot off and be strong enough to put that body on a young guy and show him knowledge reigns supreme!

    Like Eboy said, SO much is in the mind. If you think you’re done – you’re done. I’m going to be killing guys well into my 50′s so I have another 20 years or so to go…

    Life without basketball?

    No thanks.

  • The Philosopher

    Great piece.
    SLAM is still the G.O.A.T.

  • http://twitter.com/smileyoufckers Bryan

    My dad is 51, and 5’11 and dominates dudes on the inside. Rebounds, putbacks, hustle plays. He can’t dunk anymore but he still gets down. He plays in a tennis league and just destroyed some 16- 20 years olds. It’s all a mindset. I have an old mindset. I’m 26 and I feel like I can’t compete with people my own age haha.

  • asmaticasiatic2

    Great read, I’m at the crossroads of my “bball career” at age 32 and a year removed from ACL surgery. I’ve been able to play somewhat effective but am wondering if my athleticism and first step are gone for good and am stuck trying to shoot threes and pull up jumpers…

  • Ngoie

    Eboy sounds like Karl Malone ;)

  • Russ M

    I’m 51 and still play regularly.But getting your ass busted by cats who would not have been good enough to step on the same court as me 25 yrs ago is not easy. Just told a young boy last week that every time I step on the court I’m battling my body just as much as I’m battling my opponent. Dealing with aches & pains has become just as much of my daily existance as brushing my teeth.

  • total scrotal implosion

    When I lived in lawrence ks, I played foor four hours at least 3 times a week. Just hours of good runs until my legs cramped up. There was one old guy, about 55, bengay, braces, slow motion, he had one of wettest shots ive ever seen. He hit more tough shots in dudes faces than kobe. It was incredible.

  • TR

    I’m 29, and I wonder what happened. Played the last game I cared about when I was about 20, then moved around a bit for eduation and work, and could never really stick with a team.
    Man, I miss the huddle at the start of the game. I miss knowing I’d get the jump ball every damn time. I miss tearing down rebounds and tipping in shots. Miss throwing down and getting the opposing crowd hyped during warmups. F”ck, I even miss missing free throws half of the time. My name is TR, and I miss the feeling that the court was where I really shine. Time happened. Damn.

  • total scrotal implosion

    Tr, youre 29, still plenty of time to get back on the court

  • Frenzal

    It does get sad when u realize that the physical ain’t there any more but I’ve learned that smarts come with age and u realize coaching and tutoring is the nxt step good piece. Damn u track cats :)

  • Stuart Lutz

    I do not think the loss of basketball ability is due to conditioning. I biked 3,000 mile in 2008, 1,500 miles last year, and just did 40 miles in the 95 degree heat today. I am in shape. It is that the body’s explosive, fast-twitch muscle starts to die around 30, and *nothing* will bring it back. Face it, a 20 year old, obese couch potato would naturally have more fast-twitch muscle than 40 year old me. If you don’t believe me, ask the supremely conditioned MJ and Lance why they were not a great as they were in their 30s, as when in their 20s.