“Hey, Jim. Where’ve you been hiding? In your man cave? Are there really worms down there?” my friend Francis said to me yesterday morning as I walked into the gym where I play basketball every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, God- and semi-twanged Achilles tendons-willing.
“Hey, man. How you doing?” I said, ruffling the little man’s bright red hair like always. “Yep, I was hiding in my man cave with my guitars, books, records, dog and lots of mud, dirt and worms. You got a man cave, Francis? Get on that, dude.”
Francis is the 3-year-old son of a friend of mine whose nanny, Jon Gelperin, has been bringing him to our twice-weekly hoops game since the kid was barely able to crawl. We’ve all hung on the sidelines with him as he’s grown up and as Jon — a big music fan and great graceful greyhound of a basketball player — gets his run in.
Most of us are in our 40s and 50s and we’ve all got kids or nephews of our own, so we instinctively know how to entertain Francis, goof around with him, and keep him occupied, and we do so mainly because we love the little guy and because he’s a joy to be around. Not to mention a sponge: One day this winter when I came into the gym after a week’s lay-off, Chris Voligny, a huge rebounding machine with a feathery shooting touch said, “Hey Jim, where’ve you been hiding?”
Francis lit up and seized on it — “Where’ve you been hiding?” — so I told him about how I hide in my basement with all my cool stuff, and now every time I see him he wants to know more. Yesterday when I told him a man cave is sort of like an underground tree fort or Iron Man’s lair with big mud puddles you can jump around in anytime you want, his big blue eyes trailed up the gym walls and out the ceiling.
Last month, Jon invited us all out for burgers and beers after our Thursday game. “As his oldest and oldest friends,” wrote Jon to the group email-invite, “Francis would like to celebrate his birthday with you.” And so we did, a bunch of middle-aged guys playing hooky from the real world and taking a four-hour lunch to pay tribute to our buddy Francis on a beautiful sunny afternoon on the patio of a burger joint a couple blocks away from the gym, where the sweetness of it all was lost on exactly no one.
After lunch, cake, and presents, we gathered for a group photo, which to me captures all the good stuff about sports: camaraderie, fellowship, and a promise of war stories, like the one I picked up a couple weeks before Francis’s birthday.
At this point, guys in our game have been retiring at a fairly steady pace. Aches and pains and real injuries are the ultimate killer, but in the end diminishing skills make the game less fun to play and will lead a man to finally hang up his high tops, never to feel the thrill of a buried three-pointer or the joy of a spine-crushing pick again. So one day last month when I threw what was meant to be a length-of-the-floor inbounds pass to a fast-breaking teammate but hooked badly and went ridiculously out of bounds, the place got quiet, like the game itself had been disrespected and the basketball gods were telling me to give it up.
I hung my head and got back on defense. We don’t take the game too seriously, but I was pissed at myself. This was a new low. The fact is that this was the worst pass of my life in a life filled with bad passes; an embarrassing come-to-Jesus moment that had me questioning my place on the court and knowing my chances to make up for such a blemish in the box score of my mind might never present itself.
Twenty minutes later, in the last game of the day, Chris hit me with a pass on the baseline. Without hesitation and without a single debilitating thought about my previous heinous turnover, I flicked a perfect behind-the-back bounce pass to a guy cutting through the lane for a lay-up to appreciative oohs and aahs from teammates and opponents alike.
It was the best pass of my life. As I headed back down court, it occurred to me that in basketball as in life, you can get the best and worst of yourself, sometimes within the same hour, so you might as well keep playing. And if you’ve got Francis waiting around for you afterward to ask you why hula hoops are round and why your name is Jim and why cats and dogs have four feet and people only have two, all the better.