In the past two days, I got two emails from old friends I used to shoot hoops with.
Charlie, who just turned 60, told me all about his nightmare month, which began with a visit to the ER because of an excruciating pain in his leg. An MRI revealed three herniated discs and spinal stenosis. He has started physical therapy and the prognosis is good, but his b-ball days are over.
Bill, in his mid-60s, complained about nerve compression caused by a lower-back ortho-type of thing that also causes severe leg pain. He said he's had several knee injuries of varying severity and it's been years since he last played ball.
I go to an acupuncturist once a week because my lower back and hamstrings hurt like hell after I play tennis (and also because I live in L.A.). I haven't played basketball since I was in my late forties and my then-13-year-old son Zach kicked my ass one-on-one.
Charlie, Bill and I played in the same pickup game on Wednesday nights for more years than I can remember (jeez, we started before there was even email!). Charlie's game was vintage Bill Bradley, combining exceptional court sense with perpetual motion. My friend Bill was a long-range bomber with the sweetest bank shot this side of Sam Jones. And I too liked to gun from the outside, which I always got shit for because I was usually the tallest guy on the court, earning the ignominious nickname "Laimbeer."
As we got older, the Wednesday night roster began to change. Guys moved away, had families or just plain hung up their sneakers, but the three of us soldiered on. We became known as "the old guys."
I was the first to bail, thanks to that kid of mine. Bill called it quits some years later, and Charlie was the last man standing, playing with guys half his age until just a few months ago, when he went down for the count.
I don't think any of us ever envisioned actually being old guys. We were too busy living our lives and the old guys were our fathers and you know where this is going, but we didn't stop to think about it back then. As long as we could still run and gun, we remained young bloods — albeit many steps slower and balding.
In fact, I don't think it ever occurred to me that there would be a day when I no longer played basketball. I started playing with my mom when I was five years old and later thought I'd just continue as the old guy, gracefully loping up and down the court with the sort of Willis Reed dignity that went out around the same time the Knicks won their last championship. Of course, it didn't play out that way.
I think that's why I love tennis so much. I know I can play (barring any major injury — I'm looking at you, God!) until I'm really an old man.
As it happens, I was playing just the other night and realized that I was the youngest guy on the court. It felt kinda nice to be the young gun again — until those old dudes kicked my ass.