My Final Whistle

by August 26, 2010

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.