Last spring, I coached a basketball team of third graders in a Costa Mesa boy's and girl's club. The league was well run, the games competitive and the experience both humbling and educational. We started out abysmally and ended decently, winning our last two games. I trust the kids learned something. I know I did. But the biggest lesson I learned came when the season was over.
At 66, I was 30 years older than any of the other coaches, who were mostly in their mid to late 20s--many of them tall, lithe, flat-bellied ex-jocks. The climactic event of the season was the coaches' game. I wanted to play, and when I told the strapping young man who ran the program, he said, "Sure, come on out. You can play on my team." He was jovial about it, and I'm not sure now whether he thought I really would.
But I did. I'm in good physical condition and play a lot of half-court basketball with my son-in-law and his 35-year-old friends. I wasn't trying to prove anything. I just wanted to play.
The league covered the grades from three to eight, and virtually all the coaches turned out, so there were 13 on each team. I realized as we were warming up that these men had been playing against each other in pick-up games all season, and this was no casual encounter. Both teams wanted to win. Badly.
I didn't fit well in that picture, of course. I looked like a liability. I'm 5 feet 10 with white hair and a substantial belly. Nobody's fantasy of a power forward. Or even a point guard. But I still have a few moves--something it didn't appear they were going to discover.
I found a place on the bench and watched the game. It was rough, lively and noisy. Lots of fast breaking and cute passing and taunts. Since our coach was playing, substitution was a haphazard process. At time-outs, he would point to people on the bench, and they would come in. His look never lingered on me. I understood why, but I was restless. I wanted action, and I knew I wouldn't embarrass myself or my team. Finally, one of the other players sitting on the bench beside me said, "Put yourself in."
I didn't like that idea a lot, and I thought about it for awhile. Then I did it. I checked in at the scorer's table, walked out on the court and pointed to one of the young jocks. He looked startled, then irritated, but he left. I was in.
To their everlasting credit, my teammates didn't keep the ball away from me. I handled it cleanly several times, then realized I wasn't being guarded very closely. The theory seemed to be, let the old guy shoot. So I did. It went swish, and a lot of heads turned. They let me play about three minutes before someone replaced me. I was doing OK, but it was a long way up and down that floor, and these guys weren't walking the ball.
I went in three more times with identical results. Each time, I scored. I picked off a couple of rebounds, got the ball inside with accurate passes, and played adequate defense. In the locker room at half time, a club member who was taping a play-by-play of the game to accompany a film that will probably be used to entertain the troops asked me my name and complimented me on my shot. When I came out of the game for the last time in the fourth quarter, my teammates slapped hands with me--their first recognition that I was involved.
After the game, I was presented an MVP award. It was a joke, but it also told me I'd found a measure of acceptance. They were still bemused, but respectfully so. That was fine with me. Driving home with my stepson, who played in the league and watched the game, I felt exhilarated. I wasn't sure why, and I didn't want to poke around in it then. I just enjoyed the feeling. But I have thought about it a lot since, and now I know why I felt so good that night.
I'd stuck it to one of the most debilitating stereotypes that older people have to deal with these days: that it is sensible and rational and part of the rhythms of life to withdraw when some chronological age arrives and let the young take over. It was done for us when we were young, and now we, in turn, must return the favor.
I've been worked over by this paradigm in a lot of different areas--and so have many of my friends, highly able people who have been forced into a spectator's role at the top of their skills. And have settled uneasily into that role with varying degrees of outrage.
That's where I was when I elbowed my way into that basketball game and began to re-think the whole process. I came to see that because of the simple fact of my age, if I'm going to get into the game--any game--I'm going to have to elbow my way in again and again, and not be afraid to take the shots when they are offered. That's going to require a certain amount of self-confidence and an ability to deal with rejection--sometimes from people less competent than I. But it's a strong place to come down, because it puts the control back in my hands.
We age individually just as we mature individually, and we demean ourselves if we accept across-the-board limitations without testing them in our own individual experience. I couldn't have run up and down that basketball court for 40 minutes, but I sure as hell could give a respectable account of myself for five or ten--and did.
So I'm not going to withdraw from the game on anyone else's terms. Only my own. I'll win some and lose some, but, by God, I'll be involved. I hope I'm invited to play in that coaches' game again next year--and the year after that. I've still got ten good minutes in me. Maybe more.