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Hanging Up the High Tops

My wife cheered the loudest when I announced my retirement from church-league basketball

In an event drenched with symbolism, my friend and I recently put together an adjustable basketball hoop in my driveway. Afterward, we were too exhausted to do anything but watch the kids shoot baskets.

At age 35, I am announcing my retirement from competitive sports. This is not about money, nor is it about pride (my athletic ability has produced neither). It's about finally exorcising the basic male need to be seen as a jock.

It's also about pain. I personally am opposed to pain, especially the kind caused by doing something that used to require no effort—like jogging the length of a gymnasium.

The applause you heard during the preceding announcement came from my wife. She's been worrying that I'd somehow be killed playing church-league basketball. Her fears might have been based on me coming home after games looking like I'd been dragged behind a tractor for two hours. This was the result of a training regimen that involved showing up for a game having experienced nothing remotely resembling exercise in the past week. So by the second quarter, I'd have been happy to be dragged around by a tractor because at least I wouldn't have had to move under my own power.

I suppose, sooner or later, all would-be athletes come to the realization that we're embarrassing ourselves in front of strangers and we really just need to go home and take up needlepoint. Still it's as difficult for the male ego to accept as it is for our wives to understand. I'm the same age as Michael Jordan, who even in retirement can whip anyone on the planet in one-on-one.

The great ones accept aging gracefully, bowing out before they are embarrassed by younger, faster, stronger players. (Of course, already having earned a bazillion dollars makes this decision a lot easier.) The clods, on the other hand, wait for a subtle sign that maybe it's time to pack it in. In my case, the sign was that my bones started breaking when I played basketball. During a low-speed game at a church picnic, I pivoted wrong, tumbled to the concrete and snapped my ankle—all without being so much as breathed on by another player.

"Maybe someone is telling you that you should give this up," my wife said in that I-told-you-so tone on the way to the doctor's office. With my ankle the size of a softball, I knew she was right. But I wasn't happy about admitting the ultimate defeat: failing to achieve sports greatness at any level.

Despite my 6' 5" height and reasonable amount of coordination, I never was what you'd call a star athlete. In fact, I warmed the bench for an incredibly mediocre high school basketball team. I suspect I made the team because I could dunk, which fired up the other players during warm-ups. One problem was that I weighed 170 pounds and could be pushed around by opposing cheerleaders.

The other was a certain, shall we say, flair for embarrassment. One time the coach put me into an overtime game to control an important tip-off. As I turned my head to decide where to tip the ball, the referee tossed it up (the ball, not my head). My feet never left the floor, and we ended up losing the game. Thereafter my high school nickname was Tip.

Later I turned to college intramurals and church leagues, hoping to gain that competitive edge that would lead to respectability. I wasn't bad for a few years, despite numerous ankle injuries. These required me to tape my ankles before playing, which in turn required me to shave my legs from mid-calf down. That's fine for basketball, but try going to the beach and seeing every mother pull her small children close as you walk by, the sun glaring off your pasty shins. Church-league glory had its price.

Then my wife and I had kids. Slowly, my athletic energy dwindled and my skills diminished. I still can beat my sons, ages 10 and 12, in driveway hoops. But I can't dunk anymore. And in the next few years, the boys will develop jump shots as I develop male-pattern baldness.

That's okay, handing the torch to your own kids. But it's time to stop being humiliated by guys who were still in diapers the first time I dunked a basketball. Guys with lots of free time who hang out at the gym practicing no-look passes while I am home grading papers, fixing toilets and picking Fruity Pebbles out of the family-room carpet. Not that I'm bitter.

I held on as long as I could. In fact, two equally 30-something friends and I entered several three-on-three tournaments in the past few years and were consistently humiliated by guys who actually had practiced together, the show-offs. Our record upon retirement remains unblemished by victory.

There was something nice, though, about having our wives come to cheer for their warriors. At game's end, they'd always be there to offer words of encouragement: "See, I told you it was time to give this up."

So that's it for me. No more competitive basketball, even though there's an ad in today's paper for a three-on-three tournament next month. Hey wait a minute! They have a 35-and-over division.

Nah. I kinda like having hair on my ankles again.

Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford, Illinois, with their three children.

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Aging; Marriage; Parenting
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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