The pandemic has apparently ended my athletic career.
43-year-old star Vince Carter, remembers making the last shot of his covid19-shortened basketball career — a three-pointer from one of the greatest dunk artists — right before the NBA shut down in March.
Every athlete, whether a multimillionaire superstar or a weekend warrior (or mid-week warrior in my case), wants to go out on her own terms. I’m no different.
I don’t remember anything specific about my last game except that we — responsible middle-aged women including an ESL teacher and a pathologist — washed our hands with soap in the girl’s bathroom at the end of the game, at the middle school gym where we’d been playing basketball three Tuesdays a month for more than a decade.
It was March 10, 2020, the night of what was likely my last game.
Technically, I started playing basketball the summer before my freshman year, in our unfinished basement, practicing dribbling around the poles. Tired of being the butt of fat jokes in junior high school, I lost, I guesstimate, 40+ pounds, determined both to prove my sister wrong and to play sports.
My sister, 7 years my senior and Miss Popularity, told me that no matter how much weight I lost, I’d never get down to her size 3.
Only 5'4" in sneakers, I started on J.V. for three years, and rode the bench on varsity my senior year. A wicked corner jump shot (punctuated by a tongue wag way before MJ) and defense were my calling cards.
After a half-hearted stab at playing in college for a coach who believed point guards should never shoot, I focused on other sports: college tennis doubles, recreational floor hockey, and summer softball league (where, I’m still proud to say we improved from Bad News Bears to league champs over the course of three summers). After moving to Chicago, I picked up again with volleyball and basketball at the local Y.
I was one of two women playing full court basketball against men. Of necessity, I had to learn how to get off my shot against guys who were not only taller but inordinately dismayed at a “girl” scoring against them (this was the early 1980s, less than a decade after Title IX). My one small edge was dribbling right handed, but shooting left handed.
After moving to D.C., I didn’t play basketball for almost a decade. I joined a co-ed sports league and played floor hockey, volleyball, and flag football. But I missed basketball, and as much as the league tried to make rules to make sure women were involved, the men still tended to take over, violating the spirit if not the letter of the rules.
I tore my A.C.L. in a floor hockey game and spent nine months rehabbing from surgery. I left the area to study graphic design, and after returning, discovered an over-30 women’s pick-up game.
Around the same time, my Dad suggested that it was time to hang up my sneakers. By that time, I’d been hooping on and off since high school.
You might ask, why keep playing? Why not take up something safer for my age, like walking, or swimming? Besides those pursuits being as stimulating as watching paint dry, more important is what basketball has meant to me over the years: a coming-out milestone in high school, a source of camaraderie, and an ongoing process of self-improvement.
Basketball gave me hope: Hope that I could do better the next game, the next trip up the floor. And I did get better. Every decade I’ve played, I’ve gotten better. Better at dribbling, with my off hand or between my legs. Better at shooting. Better at anticipating a teammate’s moves and making a pass that puts them in the best position to shoot in motion. Better at setting screens — and working around them.
If I was shooting bricks one week, I could still make a great pass. And next week, there was anticipation of a different game, and a better shooting night. I looked forward to playing with specific women whose game I appreciated and who over time, I’d developed a sixth sense with. Some nights, an ideal mix of players sparked a high that lasted most of the week.
Two torn ACLs, one on each knee; passing 40 (and 50 and 60); bunion surgery; a hip replacement; an MCL sprain; a chip fracture in an ankle — none did me in.
An RNA strand 1/5,000 the width of a human hair did.
Thanks for reading. See another story about the emotional reverberations of pandemic life here.