Losing Their Game

Alan Eisenstock's last essay for the magazine was about umpiring a Little League game, with two on and two out in the final inning--and his son at bat. He is the co-author of "Inside the Meat Grinder" (St. Martin's Press)

They came up the driveway Sunday morning at 10: Phil, Richard, George, Larry, Joel P., Joel I., David, Brian, Tom, Seymour and Miles.

They came up the driveway as they had every Sunday for the past five years, laughing, groaning, gossiping, swinging a bag of bagels and dribbling a couple of basketballs.

But this Sunday, David was lugging a tripod and had a video camera concealed in his gym bag, and as I came out of my house and onto my deck, there was a hush, followed by strained or mumbled greetings. We slipped on wristbands and sliced bagels in silence. Nobody really knew what to say.


Because this was to be the very last basketball game at my house.

For years I’ve hosted a weekly game. It was a connection to my past, part of my memory of growing up in New England. I’d been raised with a basketball hoop attached to our garage at the end of our driveway, which was wide enough to hold a comfortable three-on-three game. In elementary school, my driveway replaced the schoolyard as the site of the neighborhood pickup game. In junior high, the game became fiercer, more competitive, the result of raging hormones and a desire to imitate our heroes: Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Jerry West. In high school, the pickup game became the neighborhood hangout. We didn’t have a finished basement or rec room, just the hoop.

We sat on my stoop between games and bitched about our teachers, trashed our less-worthy classmates and assessed the physical attributes of all the girls we knew, most of whom wanted nothing to do with us. It was OK. We were sitting in my driveway, where everyone knew your name.

The Sunday game was born out of conversations with a couple of guys I knew casually, but who would eventually become close friends. A basketball hoop was purchased, concrete was poured, a net was hung. I remember taking that first shot in my driveway and hearing the sweetest sound on earth--the ball singing through the nylon strings--SWISH!

The game was restricted. We outlawed the too young and the too competent. The cutoff age was 40. Anyone younger had to be at least 10 pounds overweight for each year under the cutoff. When we started, there was only one regular under 40, and he easily made the weight limit. He was a welcome addition, too, a psychiatrist who made pitchers of killer margaritas on Cinco de Mayo and regularly provided us with pens that had “Prozac” printed on the side.

Our second requirement was that your basketball skills had to be either on the wane or terminally dormant. No high school hotshots or playground legends were allowed. Former college players, even bench-warmers, were an automatic no. We’d heard about a guy who was lobbying to get into the game. He was 41, about 80 pounds overweight, but had played on a Princeton team that had reached the Sweet Sixteen. Sorry, pal. You’re T.G.F.O.G. Too Good For Our Game.

Not that we didn’t have talent. Richard, Tom, Seymour, Brian, Joel I. and especially David, our human highlight reel, could play, and well enough to make the rest of us look decent. To prove it, I asked a friend to videotape us in action.

Big mistake. It’s not that we were so bad. It’s that we were so slow. As I watched the tape, I said to my friend, “I think you have this on the wrong speed.”

“No,” she said, “that’s the right speed. Unfortunately.”

“Wow,” was all I could manage to say.

The game went on uninterrupted for five years. We played New Year’s Day, Easter morning and, of course, Father’s Day. Mother’s Day was trickier. We had to cut that game an hour short.

We survived aging. Seven of us turned 50. One of us turned 60. It didn’t slow us down. We couldn’t go much slower. Let’s go to the videotape.

We also survived injuries. David and Richard each blew out a knee and had arthroscopic surgeries, but came back only weeks later wearing black metal knee appliances worthy of RoboCop. I managed to inflict myself with something called adhesive capsulitis in both shoulders. This was a painful condition that wouldn’t allow me to raise my arms above my head. Playing basketball was out of the question. For nine months my Sunday mornings were spent spreading cream cheese on bagels and playing hide-and-seek with David’s kids. The guys, of course, were sympathetic.

“How ya doin’?” they’d ask each week.

“Terrible. I’m in tremendous pain. No way I can play.”

“That’s too bad. OK, who’s got the first game?”

Over time, the game acquired a kind of mystique. To outsiders, like our wives, we were a fraternity with a special knock and a secret handshake. Wives of other friends, men uninvited to the game, insisted we were too old to play basketball and suggested more appropriate activities for our age and body types: poker, long, contemplative walks, a book club, ballroom dancing. Our wives, though, encouraged us to play. Hell, they practically kicked us out the door. They were convinced that the game was a necessary way for us to let off steam--and bond.

It’s a myth that men don’t bond. We just don’t happen to bond in public. When one of the guys experienced a severe financial downturn, it wasn’t discussed openly, emotionally. It was talked about quietly, one-on-one, between games. At the next Sunday game, each one of us approached him individually, again quietly, one-on-one between games, and offered him a loan, a gift, a lead on a new job, or if we didn’t have these to give, a sympathetic hand on the shoulder.

When another guy went through a nasty divorce followed by the expected depression, again, individually, we offered war stories for comic relief, lunch and dinner out, and tickets to see Jackie Mason. Men by nature are not talkers; we are fixers.

During the life span of the game, I got to know these guys well, in some ways too well. I know more than I could have ever dreamed about their personal hygiene. I know the size of their bladders, amounts of mucous they can expectorate at one time and the various noises they make during acts of exertion. I am intimate with each man’s perspiration pattern. I’ve also memorized each man’s patter, a kind of habitual chant, which over five years has become a kind of comfort, forever part of the lexicon of our friendship.

David (waving you toward the pick he’s setting): “Come on by!”

Joel (as his man fakes him out): “Stay with him!”

Tom (whether he has been or not): “Foul!”

Although we stopped playing at noon, the games never stopped there for me. The memory of the morning, the highlights, would stay with me for days. I would lie in bed each Sunday night and, as if watching my own private ESPN, I would relive the play of the week. It was usually something that took me by surprise, a play that I hadn’t remembered until that moment. It was rarely the open jumper that I’d become known for. It was a key pass, a tough rebound and, once or twice, a blocked shot. I replayed these in slow motion, too pumped up to go to sleep, the next game seeming too far away.

From now on, though, we will have to continue our Sunday game at a public park. My wife and I have sold our house. We’re scaling down, moving to a smaller home with a minuscule driveway. There is no deck, no room for a hoop. I will have my Sunday mornings back but I’ve lost my game. It’s a change, one we’ve wanted to make for a while, and while I believe change is good, I also know that change usually involves casualties. My game is one.

We choose sides for the final game. I’m not sure whether it’s a set-up, or whether I’m just on fire, but I score six straight hoops and my team wins 7-0. Just like Mike, I’m going out on top. I walk off my court with a swagger. I’m greeted by handshakes, backslaps, a couple of hugs. I know every moment of this game will be featured on tonight’s personal ESPN.

This Sunday, unlike all the other Sundays, I watch the basketball players walk down my driveway for the last time. The air is filled with a few last rants about mortgage rates and the ineptitude of the Dodgers, but soon their footsteps fade and their voices trail off. Car doors open, swing shut. Engines turn on, rev up, hum and roll out. The sounds echo and linger. Then, an eerie silence.

I stand riveted to my spot at the top of my driveway. An imaginary photograph album opens up in my mind’s eye. Moments that have mattered in this driveway come rushing forward: a kid’s birthday party, children squealing at lizards and reptiles crawling up their arms; my son and daughter playing backyard soccer and baseball; my friend Joey, the professional magician, performing in my garage; washing the car with my family, sloshing each other with soapsuds and jousting with hoses; shooting baskets with my wife, watching her hit 10 in a row, giddy as a little girl; rebounding my 78-year-old father’s two-handed set shots, while my mother watches from the deck, remembering when she saw him play in high school. The album closes. I hold it in my head, the end of an era.

I move off my spot and walk up to the deck. I begin to clean up the dozens of crushed paper cups and cream cheese stains on the redwood table. I wipe off the remains of the last game and I suddenly feel nothing but loss. A tear mixes with the sweat on my cheek; I hold back a sob.

I stand over the table and wipe it in circles, over and over, long after it’s clean.