One More Game

Growing up I used to play basketball in high school. I don’t mean to brag, but well, I was kind of a big deal. I’ll spare you the details as I’m not one of those guys living in the cold, fleeting glow of past glories 17 years after graduation. As part of my love for the game back then I did have a hoop set up in my parent’s driveway where I could practice year-round. The US Postal Service had nothing on me as I played in rain, sleet and snow from 7th grade through my senior year.

At that point in life I was much more competitive and the best times I had on that gravel stone basketball court were playing against my dad. He was a pretty good athlete in his day, but he got kicked off the team for stuffing some kid in a locker. He didn’t like the coach much anyway, or so the story goes. In any case he more than held his own against his young smart-mouthed son (like father like… you know the rest).

When I was in junior high, Dad would whip me soundly. He would spot me some points to keep me interested enough not to quit when the spread became insurmountable. The tide turned though, as I entered my freshman year as I started winning games on my own. By the time I became a junior, forget it. I left him in my dust, even spotting him the points eventually.

Over time, age and injury started to take their toll on Dad. Years of jumping out of planes in the Army and hoping off loading docs while carrying hundred pound bags of livestock feed wore down his knees like the elements crumbling the foundation of an old building. He wasn’t quite as fast anymore, and the day after our games he would hobble around like an amputee trying out a new set of prosthetic legs.

In my senior year, Dad wanted to play more games of “HORSE” than our usual games of “first one to 10 (points).” Of course in those games to 10, Dad started cheating more, throwing high elbows to get a rebound, tripping me when I blew past him, or stepping on my foot as I launched into a jump shot. I swear, the man had more dirty little tricks, and they would piss me off to no end. However when I did get angry, I played harder too, while taking a greater deal of satisfaction in when I would win despite his underhandedness.

What I didn’t realize until midway through my final season was how much tougher I had become on the court. I could aggressively channel my emotions into productive play which became essential when playing against teams from the larger cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I even incorporated a few of the those tricks too (when the situation warranted - like father, like… ya, you know the rest).

At that same time, I started to feel a little sorry for Dad. He loved playing against me, maybe even more than he loved coming to watch me in my games. To him, the two of us battling on the court was our time together where he taught and I learned. Most of what I picked up from my Dad was through example, but in basketball, the lessons were more direct. Taking all those cheap shots was his way of telling me life and people wouldn’t always treat me like an all-star, and I would have to overcome those circumstances despite the unfairness. With graduation not far off, those moments would be fewer and farther between.

I also knew that Dad liked the competition. He liked to push himself. If he could steal a game or even keep the score close, then that was an indication the strength of his youth still wasn’t beyond his grasp. But in time we started to play more games of HORSE, where you rely on stationary shooting rather than the fast-paced nature of games to 10. Games of HORSE gave my Dad a somewhat even playing field since he was a good outside shooter, Even still the reality of aging can be a patient fellow as it waits for us to acknowledge its presence on the sideline.

Still in the prime of my playing condition I obliged Dad in the games of HORSE, not out of pity, but because I didn’t want to let go of our time together. Soon, I would be gone; having enlisted in the Army, then there would be college and later family and job responsibilities. I knew the playbook that reality carried as it watched me fire off a long shot that the rules of the game dictated would erase the “E” I had unfortunately earned, thus keeping me alive in the game.

I vividly remember releasing ball, my finger tips springing downward causing a text-book backspin on the ball as it arced toward the rim. There was a sense of sadness that hit me as I watched my shot drain the bottom of the net. One day HORSE would be the only game we’ll both could play.

After leaving home, I played ball here and there, but never kept up with it. I didn’t see much point in expending energy in something that would get me nothing more than bragging rights amongst a bunch of 40 year olds with great jump shots and no life. As such on visits home when Dad would issue a challenge to a game of HORSE, I would blow him off with excuse like, “Not today, Dad, I have a headache.”

On my most recent trip to visit my parents, my Dad hobbled over to his chair, explaining how he was thinking about writing a short story about us playing basketball all those years ago. “I’d drive from work,” he said, “And there would be my boy shooting hoops, just waiting for me to get to home in time to get in a few games before dinner was ready.” He smiled, revealing a secret pinch of Copenhagen snuff protruding slightly from his lower lip and gums. “Hey, I got a brand-new basketball. Only been shot a few times. We should play tomorrow.”

I was still thinking about his desire to write a story. Not that he isn’t capable. At one point Dad wanted to be a teacher, and his short stint in college was with intention of studying World Literature. I wondered if it was his way of trying to relate to my fledgling career as a writer. “Ok, sure, but let’s just play PIG.” I know there are many professional athletes my age, but sadly with the shape I’m in a full game of HORSE seemed daunting.

The next day, I could hear Dad dribbling and shooting ball at the old backboard and rim. In our conversation the night before he told me he left the hoop up as a memorial to me and our days playing together. With that in mind I knew that to not answer his call from the court would be an insult, but I was actually looking forward to renewing the rivalry with all the same nostalgia evoked by the Celtics and Lakers who we used to watch together and who ironically played in this year’s NBA Finals.

Dad grinned as he passed the ball my way. It felt good to run my fingers over the seems, as they searched out that familiar feel, signaling the perfect grip needed to create snappy backspin when releasing the ball. I hadn’t taken a jump shot in I couldn’t remember when, but the motion my body made seemed as smooth and natural as my last days of high school. I could already feel a hint of satisfaction that comes with the expectation of the swishing sound I would soon hear. Bong! Rattle, Rattle! It was instead the perfect brick and Dad laughed as he grabbed the rebound.

This is going to be a long game of PIG, I thought. For the next thirty minutes, Dad and I dueled in the humid summer heat, shooting and mimicking each others’ successful buckets. My Dad half-hobbled, and half-ran as he chased down loose balls, smiling the whole time, but in the end, I prevailed 3 games to 1. I don’t think the score will matter much, however, as my father sits in his recliner later, nursing the pain in his knees and recalling our chance to play one more time. I can almost see him smiling in the knowledge he managed to keep age and reality waiting just a little bit longer.

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