Life at the Buzzer

There are few forums that showcase age more acutely, or brutally, than sport

| September-October 2011

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    Gérard Dubois /

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When I was 12 and falling in love with NBA basketball, its most exciting players were 10 to 15 years older than me. Then five. Then they were my peers. Now players my age are described as “seasoned” or “washed up.” During a Phoenix Suns game I attended in 2008, as former all-star Grant Hill came off the court, a fan heckled, “Sit down, Grant, you’re too old.” Laughing, the then-36-year-old collapsed onto the bench and replied, “I know.”

I’m only 33, not a professional athlete, and despite some brief adolescent delusions, I never had a shot at being one. But if I share anything with NBA players my age, it’s an increasing awareness of my own obsolescence. For the past five years or so, I’ve felt myself steadily drifting from the center of culture—and by “culture,” I mean youth culture. Each year I get a little more obscure, a little farther away.

There are few forums that showcase age more acutely, or brutally, than sport. Unlike, say, an actor’s, an athlete’s career rarely enters its twilight with dignity, and there’s little hope of a comeback—even Michael Jordan’s 2001 return was a disappointment (and cut short due to injury). Athletes don’t just get older, they degenerate; each year, they’re a little slower, a little creakier in the knees, and, eventually, they’re forced to retire at an age when the rest of us are hitting our professional stride. Meanwhile, every season a new crop of rookies arrives with all of youth’s bravado, itching to usurp the older generation and claim supremacy.

While the athlete’s decline is common to all sports, in basket­ball—as opposed to hockey or football—the players’ faces are visible; they fail as people, not just human-shaped machines. Baseball, with its rigid, isolated positioning, lacks the communalism of hoops, and a full-sized soccer field is almost 10,000 square feet—twice the size of an NBA court. Professional basketball, which provides a stage for the personalities of its stars as much as for the game itself, engenders a type of engagement unique to sports: intimacy.

This brings me to two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady, who, with his woe-is-me eyes and weight-of-the-world slouch, has always been one of the game’s saddest athletes. And by “saddest” I don’t mean tragic, like Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe or even Nancy Kerrigan, but that T-Mac exudes a brand of melancholy that borders on pathos. While that draws me to him now, it isn’t what I liked about him when he came into the league, straight out of high school, in 1997. Back then he was only a teenager, and he was electrifying.

I won’t detail T-Mac’s achievements, which are multiple and various and often astounding. Instead I’ll focus on his most indelible moment: On December 9, 2004, with his Houston Rockets down 10 and under a minute remaining, T-Mac single-handedly defeated the San Antonio Spurs with 13 points in the final 33 seconds of the fourth quarter. (I defy you, reader, to match that feat even on an empty court, without a metric ton of defenders trying to stop you.) It was a rate of almost 25 points per minute, or—imagining he could maintain this pace for the full 48—1,200 points over an entire game. Fanciful math aside, it was a performance as astonishing as any, by any individual athlete, in any sport, ever.

steve eatenson
9/7/2011 10:22:14 AM

As we age, priorities change. Young people are physically more flexible than the old. Mature people, while physically less flexible, become mentally more flexible if they have gained wisdom on their journey. A wise person no longer sees points scored or physical attributes as desirable or important. As one comes closer to inevitable end of life as we know it, simple acts and gentle behavior dusted with compassion, acceptance and love become the things that deserve mention, that is, if one has become wise.

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