I play basketball. Not professionally or anything. Or semi-pro. Really not even of the organized variety. Usually the games I participate in involve my brother Matt and I playing one on one, hoisting shots at the rim until one of us reaches twenty points, is seriously injured, or both. To say the least, our games are not a study in NBA level skills.
Actually I’m exaggerating a little. Lately we’ve been playing so much that both of us have gotten pretty good. Since last spring, we’ve averaged at least 3 to 4 hours per week on the court. The two of us have played so many times over the years, and know each other’s game so well, that it sometimes takes up to 45 minutes to play to twenty. Due to all the exercise, I’m in pretty good shape.
At least that’s what I thought until Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesdays are one of our regular days to play. Most of the time we play at Memorial Park, which is only a few blocks from my house. More often than not, we are the only ones on the court. But this past Wednesday, a group showed up and began shooting at the goal opposite ours. Eventually one of the guys approached and asked if we wanted to play a game.
At first I considered declining. After all, Matt and I were in the middle of a game of one on one. But after thinking about it for a bit, I changed my mind. Why shouldn’t we join in with them? I’d been playing pretty well of late, and felt good about my current physical fitness. Certainly I could hold my own. I might even be able to show out a little. No sweat!
I would later come to regret this thought. Oh, there was sweat. So much sweat. Not to mention the coughing, wheezing, and gagging.
It all began to come unraveled right after we agreed to join in. We chose teams, introduced ourselves, and got ready to play. Just as we were about to inbound the ball, one of the guys on the other team spoke up:
“Why don’t we play full court?”
Full court! Was he crazy? I immediately began to have doubts about my decision to play. For the first time, I really looked at the people we’d be playing with and against. Including Matt and I, there were eight participants in the game: six early twenty-somethings and us. Considering the fact that even Matt is eight years my junior, you can see where this is heading.
I was okay until about midway through the first game. At about the time the opposing team hit a jump shot to move ahead 10-8, I began to sense the presence of the wall I was about to hit. A couple of trips up and down the court and I began to get a stitch in my side. Another couple and the stitch became a cramp. Yet another two and I began to fear that my heart would explode right out of my chest. The last thing I’d ever feel would be the back of my head bouncing off of the three-point line as the world went dark.
The instant the game was over (the other team won, but that goes without saying), I was bent over, hands on my knees, gasping like a chain smoker who’d foolishly tried to run the Peachtree Road Race. No matter how deeply I inhaled, I couldn’t manage to get enough air into my lungs. I staggered to the water fountain and gulped approximately enough water to fill an above ground swimming pool before collapsing onto a bench.
I sat there, head pounding, a metallic taste in my mouth. I’d been a fool to try to keep up with people barely over half my age. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths until I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to die. When I finally felt a little better, I stood up and prepared myself for the walk back to my car. Just as I reached for my bag, one of the guys we’d been playing against spoke up:
“Ready to play another one?”
I nearly laughed out loud! Another one? No chance! Under absolutely no circumstances was I going to go back out there and suffer a massive heart attack. I would tell him and everyone else so too! I walked toward him, opened my mouth, and said…
An hour later I was sitting on the front steps of my house and trying to convince myself that I’d be able to walk the next day. Every inch of my body hurt. Even so, I’d played better in the second game, mostly due to a switch to half court. I’d even managed to score a couple of baskets.
Finally, when I felt relatively steady, I went inside and crawled into the shower. As the hot water ran over my aching body, I remembered the old days; when I could just go out and play without worrying about tomorrow. Those days are gone, but the competitive spirit that leads me to take the court will never be.
As long as I’m able (and probably even after I’m not), I’ll be putting it all on the line. So if you see me out there, giving it my all, stop and watch for a minute or two. If you have the time, I’d appreciate it if you’d cheer me on a little, or at least keep the defibrillator close at hand.