PUMPING IRONY: Me and Nat Hickey

For the joy of basketball.

On wintry Saturday mornings in my youth, I would line up with neighbor kids outside the gym at my grade school, waiting for one of the local teens to let us in for a couple hours of slightly supervised basketball chaos. We’d practice dribbling and passing and shooting layups and then finish up with a free-for-all game designed to put all those drills into practice but typically ended up with guys dribbling around mindlessly before hoisting up prayers that, if they were answered, rattled around the rim and dropped through. It was great.

Ever since that time, now more than a half-century gone, I’ve been entranced whenever I stepped out onto a basketball court. It’s just something about the clean lines, the squeaky hardwood, and the orange-rimmed hoops that invites me to revisit those days when I could reliably bury that mid-range jumper under duress.

I was recalling those emotions Tuesday, when I spent a pleasant hour shooting hoops at a big gym in the western suburbs where you don’t have to wait outside for somebody to let you in. The court here is clean and wide, with glass backboards and rims that aren’t bent, and the basketballs aren’t all slippery and worn, like the ones I grew up with. But on this weekday afternoon it’s full of kids, burning off nervous energy. At one end of the court, six burly guys sweat and grunt their way through some primitive form of dribble-shoot-rebound-repeat. At the other, a collection of giggling high school girls in green-and-white jerseys run through some drills.

There are, thankfully, four other hoops and backboards on the sidewalls, so there’s enough room for me to work on my shot. Slow and gradual at first, just a gentle rising from the floor and a flick of the wrist. Then more active, chasing down an errant shot and dribbling quickly (relatively) to my left before a quick (relatively) stop and, pushing hard off the floor and releasing the ball in a gentle arc toward the hoop. Swish. This is OK, I’m thinking. The knee is holding up, my shots are falling. I’m feeling like I’m maybe 50 again.

Later, I look this up out of curiosity:

The oldest player ever to get on the court in a professional basketball game was Nat Hickey, and he was two days shy of his 46th birthday. Hickey was the coach of the Providence Steamrollers and on January 28, 1948, he put himself into a game. He missed all six of his shots and committed five personal fouls.

Hickey was 14 years younger than I am.

I’m not thinking about competing at even the level of 1948 pre-NBA basketball, when two-hand set shots ruled and the game was more horizontal than vertical. And, frankly, the chances are that a couple of the guys I’ll be going up against in a couple of weeks will actually be older than me. Still, a day after my pretty moderate workout, my knees are tweaky, my quads are aching and even my ankles are sore. It occurs to me, briefly, that this could qualify as craziness.

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