Thirteen Fingers

I started playing basketball a few weeks ago — though my definition of “playing basketball” is probably a little loose.  After the first game, a lot of people might contest the idea that I was playing at all, but the evidence supports me:

– I was on a basketball court

– I was wearing a basketball uniform

– A basketball was present

So yeah, point Fenton.  Let me have it.  Christ knows I need whatever points I can get after that first re-entry to the game.

A friend asked me if I wanted to come along and play with a team he’d just joined in a Thursday night competition.  He emphasised how bad they were, how terrible, which frankly is what sold me on the idea.  I’d played before — at one time I played a lot — but I was under no illusion as to just how badly out of touch I was likely to be; and on that score, at least, I did not disappoint myself.  He said they were terrible, I said I was terrible, we laughed … it sounded like just my kind of sporting competition.

So I went along with him the following Thursday night, and as soon as we arrived I understood with a slowly building horror that he’d been downplaying the general quality of playing ability in the competition a lot more than I’d been downplaying my ability.  Very fit and skilled men dashed up and down the court with excellent ball control, solid accuracy and high aggression.

‘These guys are grade two,’ he said.

We were playing in grade three.  Thank God, I thought, but also, one grade below these guys is NOT far enough.

I was handed a uniform to change into, which was big enough for me and one other.  That might have been handy if I were one half of a basketball-playing set of Siamese twins, but I am not.  I am a tall lanky guy who looks clinically unwell in basketball gear approximately nine sizes too large.

As bad as the uniform was?  Least of my problems.

One of the regular guys asked me if I‘d played before.  I think he might have recognised the look of terror on my face from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.  I said I had, sure, and started counting on my fingers the years since I’d last played in a semi-social competition back in Sydney.  I counted off one hand, then I moved onto the second … and then it happened:

I ran out of fingers.

I stopped counting on the middle toe of my right foot.  I would have needed thirteen fingers to keep count with just my hands.  I had not played a game of basketball for thirteen years.  I had not even picked up a ball in just as long.  My time in London had been completely basketball-free, and I was about to step into a game with only a three minute warm-up to prepare me.  I am going to die, I thought.  Also: Man, I am really old!

I tried to lie to myself that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  The body remembers things, you know?  Sense memory.  Muscle memory.  Instinct.  These were the myths I tried to fortify myself with, but when my time came to get on the court they did not help me.  Not.  One.  Bit.  The ball felt like it had been generously slathered in K-Y Jelly.  My lungs were trying to leapfrog my heart and climb their way up my throat and out of my mouth.  Supposedly simple actions like catching and passing with a modest degree of accuracy?  You might as well have asked me to produce a ball from my arse and tomahawk dunk it from the free-throw line.  And dribbling? Please.  Anyone who witnessed those few attempts at basketball 101 probably thought I was suffering from some kind of palsy, or having a stroke.  Maybe both.  And then there was positional play.  Holy shit, I felt like I’d been invited to take part in a flash mob dance, but without any idea of the song, or the routine, or a sense of rhythm … any of it.

I really could have done with those thirteen fingers.  Maybe a few more passes would have stuck.

About fifteen minutes into this display of basketball heresy, something happened to my body.  Specifically, something happened to my left calf.

(For those who know me well: yes, I’m as surprised as you are.  I have calves.  Who knew?  I’d always assumed my shins were held in place my the most rudimentary of tendons, but apparently there’s some muscle in there too.)

It felt like I’d been stabbed in the leg from the inside.  I immediately switched to a hobble to accommodate the sudden pain, which was subtly different from the dying-man shamble I’d been affecting up to that point.  I hadn’t done anything spectacular to incur the injury; it went pop, like that.  Out of nowhere.  It wasn’t until after the game that I recognised it for what it was: My own body, appalled by my performance, was trying to take me out of the game.  Honestly, it’s true.  A couple of days after the game I could still walk around, which was a much better outcome than the time I’d actually pulled the muscle as a kid, which required crutches and took me out of all sport for two or three months.  No, this was more like an act of sabotage, a warning.  Just stop it, my body was saying to me.  It’s for your own good.  It’s for everyone’s good.

The advice I received from my new team-mates during the time-outs and period breaks amounted to: be an obstacle.  I had height, at least … I should use that.

I thought my injury might have taken me out for what was left of the season, but by the middle of the next week it became clear that this wasn’t a sport-ending injury — it was my body being old and grumpy.  I’d think about playing, and my leg would tighten and zap me with a flash of pain to say, you sure about that?

I played a second game the other night, and I resolved before I started that I would do what I had the best chance of succeeding at: I would be an obstacle.  I would be the biggest, best obstacle I could be.  And for the most part, that’s what I did.  Every now and then I’d depart slightly from the script, take a shot or try and drive, and each time my body would hit me with a warning jolt.  You sure about that? it whispered to me.  Next time it might not be the calf.  Next time it might be the Achilles.  And sure enough, at the back of my heel a sharp heat flared.

People say you should listen to your body.  Okay, I’m listening now.  But why is my body mostly arsehole?