Not So Briefly On Aging, Arvydas Sabonis, And Being Sworn About
My wife and I took our children to the park. There was a newly poured concrete slab with a basketball hoop at one end. Nearby, a father and his son were eating sandwiches. On the table beside them was a basketball. “Can I borrow that for a few minutes?” I asked them, and the father agreed. I took slow jumpshots from my favorite places on the court, banking most of them in.
I can’t be more blunt about my love of basketball. But lately, frustratingly, it has been running headlong into what I can only assume is the grim reality of aging. Whereas I could once play daily for hours, I now need time off between games and can no longer imagine playing multiple days in a row. Walking up and down the stairs the night of and the day after playing is an often excruciating experience. And when I’m playing, I can feel what I described to a doctor once as something in my knees -- both of them -- shifting. Rather than be concerned, she just sort of nodded at me, as if to say, “What exactly were you expecting?” I feel like Louis C.K. did when he went to the doctor as a 40-year-old. I’m only 33.
In that I only ever played eight weeks of organized basketball I take genuine pride in acknowledging that I am a self-made player in essentially every respect. Whatever I can do out on a court is the result of time, repetition, and experience, including my trusted bankshot, a historical anachronism that all players now eschew. But with physical limitations now starting to affect my ability to perform in the way that I am accustomed to, I find myself having to change, almost as if I spent more than a decade learning how to play the game only so that I could then start to figure out what I was still capable of. I suppose that I am sad about this although only because I know that it isn’t coming back. I will never be the player that I was in my mid-20s and I miss that because I didn’t realize then the player that I was.
Now I find myself fascinated with aging athletes. This includes professionals like Steve Nash, once among the very best players in the NBA, now one robbed of his game by a body that seems determined to undermine him. His thoughtful and revealing episodes on ESPN’s Grantland show a man coming to grips with what is now almost gone. I watch with glee when the 38-years-old Tim Duncan -- arguably the greatest power forward the game has ever seen -- continues to keep putting up 16 points and 8 rebounds in the NBA Playoffs. And this interest extends beyond the court too. I was taken with the runner at the 4:17 mark of The Runners. He talks about getting slower every year but enduring.
“What’s that feel like, to get slower?” He’s asked by the interviewer as he keeps moving at a considerable clip.
“Terrible.” He says and pauses, still running, before adding, “But again, it’s just another challenge.”
As I get older and slowly lose access to the sorts of movement that once made me a more effective player, I’m can either adopt that same attitude or stop playing altogether. I’ve concluded for the time being that playing badly is better than not playing at all. That’s a hard conclusion though. Bad play is an exceptionally disappointing experience. I will cuss myself on the court and the people I’m playing with often say encouraging things. This has been a challenge forever for me, one that could used to be offset by understanding that I plenty of time to play better. Due to this worsening pain, I am not sure if continuing to wait for those better days makes sense.
The Other Dream Team
Arvydas Sabonis’s best days were behind him when he came to the United States to play professional basketball. He was 31 and largely robbed by injuries and rehabilitation that had stolen his legendary athleticism. His play in the NBA reflected that: 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists a game. Those aren’t the numbers of a player who is widely discussed as having shown the potential to be one of the league’s all-time greats. Sabonis was 7’3″ but moved like a much smaller player at a time when 7’3″ players did no such thing. We are accustomed now to Tim Duncans and Kevin Durants and Dirk Nowitzskis, huge players capable not only of grinding down low but of shooting from distance. This though is 2014. Sabonis had an embryonic version of the same sort of game at 7’3″ in the mid-1980s. Given the difficulty that Duncans, Durants, and Nowitzskis give modern defenses now, it is almost impossible to imagine them successfully defending something vaguely similar 25 years ago. George Karl’s appraisal of Sabonis’s game hints at Sabonis’s potential:
“People don’t understand that when he was younger, Sabonis was a perimeter player and he played facing the basket,” Karl said. “He was a very athletic player, but then he tore up his Achilles in both feet, and he got bigger and thicker and wound up being more of a power player with the Trail Blazers. And one of his biggest assets was his ability to pass the ball. He could score, too, but you could run your whole offense through him
It should be noted that hyperventilating about Sabonis’s NBA potential is a cottage industry for basketball fans and writers. There are no shortage of what-if articles, including this one, and this one, and this one. Those interested in Sabonis before the NBA hardly have enough available footage. Some of what there is makes it into The Other Dream Team, a profile of Lithuanian players who first played for the USSR -- including Sabonis, whose play against an ascendant David Robinson helped the USSR to upset the United States at the 1988 Seoul Olympics -- and who later represented a newly-free Lithuania in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The documentary captures retired players looking back on astounding careers. This was not necessarily because of their on-court achievement (although they had those too), but because of how unexpected they seemed to find the disparity of their youthful expectations with their memories of what really occurred. For Sabonis, who learned from a magazine article that he had been drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, even imagining a career in the NBA was too much. He has said that it never occurred to him that the USSR would allow him to leave.
Even for those familiar with the story of Lithuana’s 1992 Olympic team -- famous for, among other things, wearing (absolutely hideous) uniforms donated by the Grateful Dead -- the documentary offers both the comfort of traditional underdog story and the sort additional details that make its consumption worth any basketball fan’s time. This includes Sabonis, who even in 1992 was already losing what it was that had informed those that spoke in hushed whispers about his potential.
When he finally arrived in the NBA, he was in his early 30s and he played basketball like the hugely talented but hugely limited player that he was. He had no more explosive athleticism. Of his constant foot pain, he once remarked that he would only be concerned about it if he could not feel it anymore, as that might be evidence that he had died. The Portland Trailblazers general manager Bob Whitsitt was famous for saying that Sabonis would have qualified for a handicapped parking permit based on his x-rays alone.
Even a hobbled Sabonis was able to occasionally feed on his opposition. Throughout this video there are highlights of Sabonis carving up similarly sized players unfamiliar with the notion of seven-footers dribbling to the hoop or sweeping across the lane or shooting from range. Even the announcers get in on the act, flummoxed seeing a seven-footer head-faking his defender and then driving around him for the easy layup. It is easy to watch those cherry-picked plays with a wistful interest of what might of been.
But there’s plenty to take from what was. Although more immobile than he once was, Sabonis maximized his contributions in the limited time he found himself on the floor. Those statistics I mentioned earlier -- 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists -- came in a little less than 25 minutes per game. He averaged just barely more than half-a-game’s worth of minutes per night and put up those numbers. He was hugely effective in the limited minutes that he could play.
My Wednesday Night
Although almost everything about Sabonis piques my interest, it is that last part that holds my attention now. How exactly did he make what was left work? I look to someone like Sabonis because he continued to grind the game out even after his body stopped letting him give the game his all. This is what all players eventually face. Steve Nash above? That runner from the documentary? There is no escaping the passage of time. There is only holding it off for as long as possible.
My basketball season generally ends every spring at roughly this time. My weekly game shuts down for the summer because the middle school gym where we play it shuts down too. Pickup games at the local rec center are few and far between and complicated now more than ever by the three children and one wife who quite understandably prefer me to be at home. I’m then left with a long summer without the game.
I’ve spent the last few weeks cramming in what games I could, including an hour at the gym on Wednesday’s when my daughter was at a nearby percussion music. I’ll leave the house with her a few minutes early, drop her off, then speed over to the rec center in a desperate attempt to maximize what time I’ve got. This means no warm-ups, no stretching, no nothing. Just hope for a game and jump in when there’s an opening. This has meant woefully inept performances, including one several days before Wednesday’s in which I missed all but two shots that I took. My performance was positively Starks-ian in its ineptitude, and with every miss came that much more concern about the next shot, and with that much more concern came the next inevitable miss. These weren’t difficult or contested shots. I wasn’t trying to do something I couldn’t. I can still get open. I just couldn’t make anything.
That Monday night was a 4-on-4 full-court game. It had to happen that way because there were only eight guys. Wednesday night’s game was full-court 5-on-5. It was painfully obvious from the get go that everybody else on the court was more athletic than me. Even the 22-year-olds in knee-braces were faster and stronger and most importantly, more confident. When I was there age, I worked with a guy who had played college basketball. He had a real game. When I played basketball with him, I never did more than I was able to. I took open shots when if they were available, I did whatever I could to keep my guy from scoring, and if I grabbed a few rebounds, so much the better. As I got that fundamentals down, I often found myself trying to do more than I could, either because it was expected or because it felt possible. Sometimes, it was, but these days, there is really no reason for me to try doing anything more than I was doing when I was 22. It’s easy to forget that against lesser competition. It is remarkably easy to remember that against nine superior players.
So that’s what I did, up and down the court, focusing on my guy defensively and setting screens offensively. This freed me up for what would have been open look had I not been in search of the next pick. The guy defending me found me so boring that he started drifting and when he did, I could get to my two favorite positions: left and right of the basket at about 45 degrees. From there, I can get a good look at an easy bankshot. I took and made two of them when the opportunity presented itself, and then I accidentally cut lower than I meant to, closer to the baseline than to my preferred spot, so that the only part of the backboard I could shoot at was its very top corner. It is a tough but possible shot and I was open when our point guard found me. I shot it automatically. It fell in.
“He banked that?” my defender said, incredulous.
“All day.” I heard. “That guy will do that to you all day if you let him.”
I limped back up the court. The game went on and I got one more good shot, this time after cutting underneath the basket, somewhere I hadn’t ventured and that my then interested defender hadn’t seen me go before, putting in a left-handed turnaround before my defender had recovered. The game ended and we waited for the next game.
“How’d that motherfucker bank it from there. FROM THERE!” my defender was saying, looking at the spot on the floor and up at the narrow slice of visible glass. “There’s nothing up there to aim at.”
“I don’t know. But he’ll does that all the time.”
I knew that wasn’t true. I knew then that I hurting already. I knew that keeping up with these players was taking more out of me than it was taking out of them. Frankly, I was relieved that I had to go get my daughter shortly. But I wasn’t going to let my defender know that. I was just going to let him keep swearing about me.