This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 2, 3013
I started playing basketball when I was 11-years-old. That’s more than half a century ago.
I still play, twice a week, but, more and more, there are times, when I stink to high heaven. My hook shot won’t fall. The guy I’m guarding gets around me with ease. I’m unable to dribble without getting the ball stolen out from under me.
George, a friend from high school and a teammate on the basketball team, died in August out in Seattle where he’d long lived. George had had hip problems in recent years, but, from what I knew, his health was fine. Then — bang! — he was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage.
I didn’t learn of George’s death until a month after it happened, and I had a particularly frustrating time on the court that night. I’d hoped that basketball would clear my head. Instead, I ran around the court, clumsily trying to do too much. This made my game even worse than it usually is.
Although George and I had email conversations every couple months or so, we last saw each other in 2010 when we spent some time on the basketball court where the younger us used to play.
It was a reunion of guys who had attended St. Jude Seminary, a high school outside of Momence, Il. We were all studying then to be priests with the Claretian religious order. A couple years after our class graduated in 1967, the Claretians eliminated the high school seminary, and the site became Good Shepherd Manor, a home for adult men with disabilities.
The sixties, a time of upheaval inside and outside the Catholic church, was not a good time to be in the seminary. About half of the Claretians in the eastern province, which included St. Jude, left the priesthood during that era. I can think of no one who became a priest out of the maybe 200 guys who were at the school during the four years George and I were there.
Actually, George left in the middle of senior year. I stuck it out for a total of nine years of schooling, but bailed out — that celibacy thing, you know — still four years short of ordination.
George had a nimble, inquisitive mind. A year ago, when I sent him a copy of an essay I had in the Tribune (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-12-28/opinion/ct-perspec-1228-life-20121228_1_twirl-car-seat-families) on watching little kids skip and twirl, he responded:
“It reminded me of the time in 1972 at The Basic School when I tried to convince a platoon of Marine second lieutenants to skip when we were running in formation. It seemed to me to be a perfect moment for something completely incongruous. I only got about half the platoon to join me.”
That was the kind of guy George was, trying to get a bunch of Marine officers to skip — and half succeeding.
We enjoyed the incongruous, George and I. I think George felt, as I do, that you get closer to the heart of life when you look at or engage in things that are odd or unbecoming or inappropriate. After all, those Marine officers in 1972 were all, like George, about 22 years old — not far removed from childhood when they would have skipped just because it was fun.
Maybe that’s why I keep going back onto the basketball court every Sunday and Monday. It’s certainly incongruous for someone my age to be dragging his carcass up and down the floor against guys who are 20 or 30 or even 40 years younger.
I’d like to say it keeps me feeling young. But it doesn’t.
It’s a constant reminder of the toll that age has taken, and will continue to take. I know how I used to fly down court on a fast break, and leap high for a rebound. I know how I had energy to burn, how I could pivot with ease and slash through the lane.
No more. I’ve had one knee replacement, and another is scheduled in a few months. I won’t list the many other ways in which my body has become ever more creaky.
Still, when I’m in a game, no matter how decrepit I feel, there’s always a chance to make a sharp pass or a jump shot from the corner or a block or a steal. I can’t do any of those things as often or with as much skill as I once could.
Yet, there are moments when I do something right on the court, and that’s a deeply satisfying feeling. Maybe more satisfying for me now than it was back then when I was younger.
Let me tell you, though.
I miss that younger me.
Patrick T. Reardon, the author of four books, once scored 33 points in a game for the St. Jude Black Knights.