Over Easy: On eventually taking (and making) your shot


For the Valley News

Published: 03-31-2023 5:15 PM

On a recent night as we watched the NCAA basketball tournament, I blurted out to myself and the universe, “Now why didn’t I play college ball?”

It was an ironic lament, about the road not taken, the ball not dribbled.

My wife, Dede, lowered her knitting needles and simply said, “Ummm.”

You’d think I’d asked something ridiculous like:

■Is it too late to try to become an astronaut?

■Do you think People magazine will ever nominate me for Sexiest Man Alive?

■Did the New Yorker call to recruit me as a writer, or was that the subscription department?

Sometimes a non-answer tells you all you need to know. But I kept at it. “I think they held it against me that I didn’t play on the high school varsity.”

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“Hmmm,” she replied.

My spouse is a good judge of many things, but not my basketball prowess. She wasn’t there where it all began, playing 1-on-1 against my younger brother in our narrow driveway, where you might bump into dented, jagged aluminum siding on the right and a cinderblock wall on the left. The stucco coating raked exposed skin.

Because my brother was prone to walking off in a huff, I had to let him stay close when we were playing to 11, one point per basket. I could take my foot off the gas at around 9-9. Crunch time was everything.

That driveway didn’t prepare me for high school greatness. I made the junior varsity in my junior year, scored 14 points in a breakout game (against Mediocre Valley High) and averaged only 2 points for the season. I think the coach forgot I was on the team.

I sat out my senior year looking for other opportunities. The varsity coach never asked me about it.

Of course, no colleges called. Without a vertical jump to speak of, I relied on my SAT verbal score for admission. I was fine with that. As a Journalism/English major, there were no early workouts or long bus rides. I did get my name in print, but only atop stories I wrote for the local weekly, about cranky school boards and leaky sewer lines.

Is this a sad tale of what-might-have-been? Not really, what followed were more than two decades of pickup basketball, often involving newspaper colleagues. Playing against folks I knew and liked (mostly), I gradually got — there is no other word for it — better. Few celebrate the climb from below average to average, but I did.

There were days — rare, admittedly — when it seemed I made every shot. Where does that come from? Is there a transcendent state in which you forget how average you really are?

Apparently yes. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology, also known for having a name impossible to spell, called it “flow.” It’s when you are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It feels good, even exhilarating. As humble as my basketball career was, I got a taste of it.

But reality must be served. After age 35 we started chuckling at ourselves, our new clumsiness, the nagging threat of injury, the way we said “oof’’ when we reached down to pick up a loose ball.

We embraced our decline, and a hint of something more. As an existential philosopher and power forward, I sensed that eventually you come up against Team Mortality, and your jump shot won’t save you.

On the lighter side, sports are games, and games are meant to be fun. They were. But there’s another level, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

While watching high school basketball in the Upper Valley, I admire the tenacious defense that turns contests into grinding affairs led by barking coaches who direct the players like so many chess pieces. I don’t love it, though.

I wonder if players would be happier in a looser, freer, run-and-gun style. Would there be more joy if the score was 91-87 rather than 42-40?

I kind of think so, but that’s the view from the bench.

After the tipoff, many college coaches look like control-aholics who haven’t slept in a week. If they weren’t earning more than the entire English Department, you might think they were the kind of guy who stands by the side of the road and yells at cars.

Their NCAA tournament is magnificent, but while I enjoy the early upsets, I usually lose interest by the finals.

Is winning everything, really? Who am I to say? There are no banners for old athletes like me, just malleable memories. A quote in a Valley News story years ago about a town baseball team says it all: “The older we get, the better we were.”

I have found that to be true.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.